It seems pretty safe to assume that the Guardian’s Jonathan Luxmoore and Christine Ellis didn’t watch the Super Bowl. If they’d seen Beyoncé’s Black Panther backup dancers, how could they write the screed they published Monday, “Not talkin’ bout a revolution: where are all the protest songs?”? If the piece is to be believed, there is no real protest music being made right now — not in the world of the folk they hold dear, nor in rock or punk or even hip-hop. Luxmoore and Ellis survey the musical landscape and conclude music and politics are no longer friends.
They are, of course, completely wrong. Political music today is thriving, and folk music no longer requires a guitar. This persistence comes thanks in large part to the internet, which, unsurprisingly, Luxmoore and Ellis make clear they dislike (their argument, hardly original, hinges on social media turning young would-be activists into Facebook slaves). It’s true that some aspects of social media — namely “hashtag activism” that results in little offline action — may have dulled traditional forms of protest, but the internet has made political music much more accessible. Luxmoore and Ellis’s romanticized version of the 1960s music industry fails to mention the chilling effect the major-label system had on musicians who didn’t fit a certain mold. Not so today, where all you need to create and distribute music is a computer and a Wi-Fi hookup. To say that’s a good thing for political music is an understatement.
For one thing, Luxmoore and Ellis’s cross-eyed nostalgia trip longs for a time before the music video, a form that has vastly expanded the reach of protest songs. Images have the power to shock in a way chords and lyrics alone don’t. They travel farther, too. At press time, Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, which features white police officers surrendering to a young black boy and a lingering shot of “Stop Shooting Us” scrawled in red spray paint, has been watched 29 million times on YouTube. When Beyoncé performed the song at the Super Bowl, 115.5 million people watched live as those backup-dancing Panthers assembled into a giant X (as in Malcolm) on the nation’s most hallowed sports field. (That YouTube clip has gone on to garner nearly 5 million more views in online replay.) The reaction was immediate: Naturally, the spectacle baffled Fox News commentators; the overt Black Lives Matter moment led Saturday Night Live to lampoon white America’s terror at a coming white-people-specific apocalypse; and the incident wounded the NYPD deeply enough that they might boycott Beyoncé’s world tour when it comes to New York. If that doesn’t count as impact, I can’t tell you what would.
You don’t need a glossy video to make great protest music, though — something with which Luxmoore and Ellis surely must agree. Queer people and feminists have taken to raw DIY punk to pen some of the most potent protest songs in recent times. Downtown Boys, the Providence, Rhode Island, punk band, are radical leftist feminists: They titled their debut album Full Communism. Songs by G.L.O.S.S., an Olympia-based hardcore punk outfit fronted by trans singer Sadie Smith — their name stands for “Girls Living Outside of Society’s Shit” — address society’s widespread transphobia by detailing graphic fantasies of retribution and escape.
Other contemporary artists are radical for merely existing as publicly as they insist on doing. In 2014, Laura Jane Grace, the singer of established punk act Against Me!, came out as transgender. On her band’s next album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, she poignantly — and aggressively; these are punk songs, after all — described decades of self-harm and unease. The hip-hop underground has also seen the rise of queer and gender-nonconforming hip-hop artists, from Mykki Blanco to Cakes da Killa, both of whom challenge decades of assumptions about the relationship between masculinity and rap.
Despite Black Lives Matter and anti-racism protests holding headline space for years, Luxmoore and Ellis have the gall to claim that mainstream hip-hop has been “depoliticized,” an assessment that is patently false. The examples of mainstream artists whose lyrics or videos reference the struggle are too numerous to mention, but Flying Lotus, Vince Staples, and Kendrick Lamar have all contributed, and Lamar’s black-solidarity song “Alright” spontaneously became a literal protest anthem at an action in Cleveland last year. These rappers’ assessments of the situation are nuanced. The video for Run the Jewels’ explosive “Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck)” is a moving portrayal of a drawn-out physical confrontation between a white cop and black man, which only ends when both are too exhausted to keep fighting. Killer Mike, one half of Run the Jewels, is one of the most uncompromising political rappers working today (a 2012 track detailing the hypocrisy of the Reagan administration ended with “I’ll leave you with four words: I’m glad Reagan dead”). Even outside his music he’s a well-known activist in Atlanta, and he’s become a campaign surrogate for Bernie Sanders.
Some modern protest music directly criticizes the technology that Luxmoore and Ellis bemoan, although not for the same reasons as the authors. EMA’s “Satellites,” off 2014’s The Future’s Void, warned of creeping government surveillance (she wrote it before Edward Snowden’s revelations), while Holly Herndon’s electronic collages, chockablock with glitchy beats and robotic product descriptions, reflect the ugly reality of our hyper-commodified, late-capitalist society. Like EMA, her videos have dealt explicitly with NSA surveillance. Both of these women regularly address the fact that the internet, the medium through which they elect to make their art, often denies women the freedom it claims to promise everyone.
Even using the authors’ preferred metric of traditional folk music, their argument still buckles under scrutiny. Hurray for the Riff Raff’s 2014 track “The Body Electric,” which both decried and connected the epidemics of campus rape and racist police violence, landed at No. 1 on American Songwriter’s year-end list. There are few stronger endorsements from the folk establishment. The only conclusion is that Luxmoore and Ellis never heard this song, because it is the definition of the type of protest music for which they’re searching. On second thought, it wasn’t made by a white guy (they uphold Dylan, Nelson, and Bragg as their archetypes), so maybe that’s why it doesn’t count.
It’s clear that Luxmoore and Ellis, however misguided, truly love the music they discuss in their article. And we’re all guilty, to some degree, of lamenting that the best of any art form is already behind us. Fortunately, in the case of protest music, it’s just not true. Populist music is, and by its very definition always will be, an evolving form. The images and songs may change, but their goal is always to transform our culture and end oppression. We’re living amid an incredibly exciting intersection of art, technology, and social justice. It’d be a real shame for these writers — and anyone else who shares their fears — to miss out.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 24, 2016