Music as a form of expression has been an extremely powerful tool in communicating political issues, throughout history.
From the emergence of blues amongst slaves in the deep south of the USA during the 1860s to Billie Holiday’s song ‘Strange Fruit’ in the 1930s, and its stand against racism, every decade has seen music accompany political activism.
Bob Dylan, John Lennon and the peace movement, and the emergence of feminism in mainstream rock through Janis Joplin in the 1960’s. The anti-system punk rock bands from the Sex Pistols to Siouxie and the Banshees in the 70s. Mainstream acts such as U2 getting social and environmentally aware or the Indigenous Australia Treaty movement supported by Yothu Yindi during the 1980s. Grunge and underground electro bands protesting war in the middle east and the emergence of the Riot Grrrl feminist punk movement during the 1990s. Folk, hip hop, rock and blues artists from Pussy Riot to Public Enemy increasingly voicing concerns about racism, the growing elite, oppression, climate change and sexism during the 2000s. More recently the climate youth movement has rallied behind Xiuhtezcatl Martinez’s hip hop. And the list, and the movement goes on and on.
The oppression, environmental destruction, racism, sexism and violence remains just as, if not more prevalent in the world we live in today. The diversity of musicians associating themselves with political activism, and a backlog of tracks increase and become the soundtrack of the lives of those of us who want to ask the tough questions. Music to accompany us, to help us feel that we are not alone when it comes to questioning the system.
Politically motivated music has been a huge influence in my own life, as I’ve ventured into environmental and political activism, and for this Launch edition of The RAG here’s my top 10 favourite political activist artists and tracks:
Formed in 1976, rose to punk stardom in the UK at the height of the first wave of the punk movement and continued to release albums into the 1980s. I discovered The Clash some-time in the late 1980s as a 15-year-old aspiring punk band bass player. Through songs such as ‘White Riot’, ‘Know Your Rights’ and a raft or other politically motivated songs The Clash opened a doorway for me to think about racism, oppression and questionable government actions, and to go into combat with rock. The Clash inspired me at a young age to actively question government decisions with intelligence and without fear.
As I ventured further into punk music during my late teens, the Dead Kennedys became a huge influence on me, and was a perfect complement to my teenage angst. The lyrics of Jello Biafra mostly focused on politics associated with the USA, but also global issues related to war and poverty, racism and extreme right wing politics (eg: ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’). The Dead Kennedys are perhaps one of the most iconic punk bands to emerge from the US during the 1980s. Whilst the music is perhaps a bit too fast and furious for many, the lyrical content from songs such as ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ and ‘Chemical Warfare’ get you thinking about a range of issues concerning the US governments’ questionable engagement in international policy. Issues still relevant to this day.
One of the world’s largest mainstream rock bands often associated with political activism. Their music during the 1970s especially the album ‘Animals’ and ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, with the iconic ‘The Wall’, Pink Floyd have spread the message of concern about greed, corporate elitism and the oppression related to conformity for decades. Roger Waters continues with his activism in a big way to this day. I attended a recent concert in Hamburg, where he was taking constant digs at Donald Trump as the band played ‘Pigs (3 different ones)’ with a massive fat pig floating around the room, as well as other symbolism related to the political struggles in the US, projecting the slogan ‘RESIST’ throughout the concert. Power to Roger Waters!
A nice electro guitar based act out of Bristol in the UK. Their activism has been consistent and impressive, mostly focused on anti-war, anti-nuclearisation, and they even went as far as helping to fund a legal challenge to stop the US led invasion of Iraq in the 90s. More recently Massive Attack have supported the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement, and are currently looking into the impact of the music industry on the climate and environment. Their most recent release during 2020 is an beautifully created audio visual EP – ‘Eutopia’, a three part audiovisual experience which mixes music with messages related to: climate change; universal basic income and the wealth tax.
More along the lines of hippy / chilled / folk artist from Australia, Xavier Rudd writes some fantastic music, placing emphasis on environmental and human rights related issues. As someone with indigenous heritage, he writes a lot about Indigenous Australian land rights and human rights concerns with songs like ‘Follow the Sun’ and ‘Messages’. Well worth checking out live and spending some time listening to all of his albums. Xavier Rudd is a strong supporter of the Sea Shepherds, the Lock the Gate Alliance to keep coal in the ground, and has spoken out on several occasions against the opening up of the remote and untouched Kimberly region of Australia to gas mining.
I confess, I only know 1 Superman is Dead (SID) song, but boy has it made an impact on me. SID is an Indonesian band originating from Bali. I’ve become aware of them as a result of now living in Indonesia for several years and kicking around with a few activists here. Their iconic anthem Sunset di Tanah Anarki (Sunset in the Land of Anarchy) was released in 2013 and is about the struggle of environmental activism in places like Indonesia, where activists risk their lives and lose their lives. The song is written as a tribute to an indonesian human rights and anti-corruption activist murdered on a Garuda Airlines flight between Singapore and Amsterdam in 2004 – Munir Thalib. Sunset di Tanah Anarki has become an anthem amongst the environmental and human rights movement in Indonesia, which has an incredibly strong link with music. Unfortunately as at the date of this publication the SID drummer Jerinx is in prison in Bali for voicing an opinion on twitter related to the government’s handling of Covid.
It’s hard not to acknowledge that Midnight Oil is simply a great Aussie rock band. Midnight Oil were a major influence during the 1980s at the height of the aboriginal land rights movement and very significant progress happening within Australia concerning the environment, including some of the largest environmental cases ever fought and won in the country. The nuclear industry was also trying to ramp up in Australia at the time. Their hit song ‘Beds are Burning’ talks of white Australia paying the rent to the indigenous population and giving their land back. A great cover was done by Patti Smith in 2018. ‘When the Generals Talk’ digs at political leaders and ‘Put Down that Weapon’ is an anti nuclear, anti war anthem. Midnight Oil front man, Peter Garrett has been a strong supporter of the Australian Conservation Foundation and even went into politics and became the Minister for the Environment at one point. It seems he later decided it was perhaps better to stick with music. A lesson may be in that for all of us.
I’m bundling the two because, let’s face it, the best political songs from the Beatles were written by John Lennon, including ‘Revolution’, ‘All You Need is Love’, and ‘Come Together’, although we can give ‘Taxman’ to Paul. John Lennon obviously then went on to his own solo career producing one of the most successful songs ever known, in ‘Imagine’ and other politically motivated songs as he embraced the peace and love movement, such as ‘Give Peace a Chance’. My very first cassette tape as a young 8 or 9 year old was the White Album, where I would thoroughly enjoy pressing play on my tape recorder and singing along to the lyrics: “You say you want a revolution, well, you know. We all wanna change the world”. I didn’t understand back then. Not much has changed. I still want that.
Bowie took political songs to another level. Often not as obvious as many other artists, and lyrics like poetry that need to be heard a few times to be understood, especially in the music he wrote during the 1970s. One could say he took his usual highly creative approach to getting the message across, and on some different and important issues too. Bowie was a strong advocate for the LGBTQ movement, he performed for large fund-raising events such as Live Aid, and drew attention to struggles of aboriginal Australia through his video for ‘Let’s Dance’. He actively supported the fall of the Berlin Wall, including through the song ‘Heroes’, and frequently questioned consumerism and the American way of life through songs like ‘Fashion’ and ‘I’m Afraid of Americans’.
A lesser known, and perhaps not quite such an obvious choice, but a huge personal fave. Tumbleweed is an Aussie rock band that have been playing around pubs and festivals in Australia since the 1990s. Long hair stoner rock, with music to make you take a good look inside yourself and think. Profound lyrics, and buzzy guitar. One song in particular which really gave environmentalism a primary primary focus is ‘Drop in the Ocean’, which has been a source of inspiration to me over the years, and has become an ode to the late great Jay Curley, their bass player. The Weed, as they’re known amongst fans, have their moral compass pointing in the right direction for improved environmental protection and human rights. Check em out!
So that’s my top 10 when it comes to political activism and music. A range of different bands but mostly in the rock genre because that’s been my thing. This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are so many more that could be added across different environmental and rights based movements, not to mention across different countries. Music subcultures accompany underground movements around the world, many of which may never see the light of day, or experience fame, but they’re out there in the garages and small venues, and they have an impact that should not be underestimated.
It would be difficult to find a genuine musician or band that doesn’t have some political view, but unfortunately too many become a bit caught up in trying to make sure that the image is not tarnished by taking a political approach. Perhaps this is unfortunate in a world with so many problems, where we need our artists to speak up, and who is louder than a rock band, a pop act or a hip-hop musician on stage with all that amplification.
Perhaps in an environment such as the one we find ourselves, with a climate, biodiversity, health and economic crises, and a world increasingly controlled by a small elite percentage of the population with little care for the rest of us, more artists could be encouraged to speak out politically and add their influential voices to the movements that are working so hard. As Bob Marley sang, artists and musicians such as himself may be “the small ax, that could cut down the big tree”.