There is a longstanding argument amongst music critics as to whether the protest song is dead, or whether the idea of music as a political statement is seeing a revival.
And in a similar vein, whilst some are calling for more political commentary from artists, others would prefer musos step away from the political buffet.
But we need change!
A number of artists came under fire for rallying around politicians during the recent US election campaigns, as audiences preferred their concerts without a side order of propaganda.
Music is a weapon. For many artists, there is a platform to spread a positive message to thousands and spark change for good. These 4 are carrying the torch.
But the fact remains that musicians hold a particularly unique position within our world, as direct mouthpieces to the ears and minds of the populace; most especially in recent years, as the advent of the digital world has meant that their words can reach a global audience.
That same digitisation has also opened up the world at large to scrutiny, and now more than ever, there is no excuse for ignorance to the issues that affect our world. So with that in mind, we’ve picked out some artists making real statements with their music; artists who refuse to be silenced by the media or those who disagree with what they have to say.
The debut release under her moniker Anohni, Hopelessness is not, however the first release by Antony Hegarty. And it is certainly not her first foray into political statement. Anohni has long been an advocate for queer identity and culture throughout her career, a future feminist, eco-warrior and a trans woman.
Her 2009 album, The Crying Light, with Antony & The Johnsons was an unprecedented viewpoint drawing parallels between queer identity, politics and the green movement.
This year’s Hopelessness however, is one of the most direct protest records produced in quite some time. Elegant and needle sharp, the album mourns the encroaching human capitalism into our natural world, and indigenous peoples.
Calling out the potential horrors of climate change in 4 Degrees, Anohni muses upon the image of mankind as a cancer in its, seemingly, meaningless destruction.
There is a brutal lack of metaphor across Anohni’s lyrics, she makes a dark and direct address to President Obama – a death march litany of disappointment. Highlighting the suffering of the victims of war with tracks like Drone Bomb Me and Crisis, she begs the question “Crisis, If I killed your father / With a drone bomb / How would you feel?”.
Hopelessness is also just one aspect of Anohni’s commentary, which reaches beyond her record releases. Having already penned a damning essay regarding her exclusion from performing at the Academy Awards, she is one of few artists to draw upon the links between capitalism, a collapsing American Dream, the green movement and queer rights.
Involved in a number of causes, Anohni spent the last week trekking across 180km of Western Australia’s desert as part of a protest against uranium mines. She joined the Martu people who’s lands are threatened by the prospect of the mines.
I think it is fair to say that the proportion of artists using their creativity to really make any sort of statement – political or otherwise – is not overwhelming. Maybe that feels like a disappointing statement, but not every artist has something to genuinely say, and not every musician is willing to stick their head above the parapet, as it were. But for Sydney four piece, Dispossessed, those two facts go hand in hand.
Comprised of varying backgrounds (Aboriginal, Filipino and Ghanaian), Dispossessed shed light on their own, very real experience of indigenous communities who have struggled against the oppression of their cultures.
The band’s incredibly strong connection to the historical and ongoing problems faced by these people drives them to take on those who will undoubtedly try to silence them.
Their lyrics such as: “sick of time again just seeing four white people on stage singing about fuck all” seem fuelled by the pain they felt and still feel about the plasticine world of media. Dispossessed formed after meeting at an Occupation march.
Unsurprisingly, the band have been targeted for their beliefs both online and at live shows, facing shitty audiences and even shittier trolls. As direct as a punch to the gut, and about as unapologetic, Dispossessed are not out to make friends. But for that self same reason, they will be heard.
Choosing metal as the outlet for their message, Dispossessed’s music spans the various subgenres of black, death and power metal, along with elements of punk and even shoe gaze. Weaving lyrics of varying languages into their songs, guitarist Birrugan Dunn-Velasco oftentimes sings in the traditional Gumbaynggirr, the language of his father’s community in Nymboida, NSW.
Having released their debut album, Insurgency, this year, Dispossessed have seen a huge amount of positivity alongside the standard haters.
Themes of racism, hatred against white supremacy and colonialism are at the forefront of their writing. At the heart of their music lies the real anger and sadness felt by those affected by their plight. Their message is far reaching, extending beyond Australia to a global discussion of race.
Outside of their music, they are just as confrontational regarding these issues. Fuck the parapet, Dispossessed have jumped the walls and are leading the charge.
Conflict in the Middle East is more than just a sad, and despairingly long, chapter in recent history. As the crisis in Syria continues, the prospect of thousands of refugees entering Europe sparked huge division. That deadly combination of fear-mongering and ignorance saw populations band together in protest against those escaping from unimaginable horrors.
However, in turn, these events have also seen great generosity and moving demonstrations of welcome from Europe. Fittingly, UK artist Kindness (aka Adam Bainbridge) has joined his voice with those hoping to raise awareness and change attitudes towards refugees.
As part of the charity compilation, The Long Road, Kindness contributed his song A Retelling. The project connects artists directly with refugees, forging a personal relationship so that those musicians can put the refugees’ stories to music. Bainbridge met with Ayman, who had escaped Syria to start a new life in the UK.
Ayman’s story begins with the first wave of pro-democracy protests that happened in Syria in 2011. Believing it to be his obligation to be present and to document the uprisings, Ayman and his friends became targets for the government and the police.
Bainbridge makes the point that simply picking up a digital camera “can be as provocative as any weapon”. And it was this simple act that meant that Ayman eventually fled Damascus, fearing for his life like so many Syrians. A Retelling examines the mixed emotions that accompanied his escape; an inability to process the idea that he had reached safety and relief tempered with fear for family left behind.
At first, Ayman arrived in Glasgow while his wife and two baby boys remained in Syria. Now reunited, the song touches on how Ayman’s sons will have no memory of their home country.
As less than half of ‘Generation Z’ identity as entirely heterosexual, and 56% of them say that they, or someone they know, identifies as gender neutral, it is clear that gender identity is no longer as straight forward as society once made it.
But, even just four years ago, the concept of transgender or transsexual was not up for open discussion. Especially not in the sweaty macho world of punk rock. It was within this “glorified boys club” that Against Me!’s Tommy Gabel decided to come out publicly as transitioning.
Now known as Laura Jane Grace, she still fronts the legendary hardcore band. Against Me! have a long history of social commentary across their career, often with veiled references to Gabel’s struggles with his gender identity long before his transition.
As perceptions of gender begin to shift so drastically, ruling bodies have been called upon to incorporate our evolving culture into the laws of our society. Not always an easy battle, particularly in the more conservative areas of the USA.
Many states, including North Carolina, refuse to amend discriminatory anti-trans bathroom legislation, and as such have been boycotted by a number of musicians. Bruce Springsteen, Ringo Starr and Pearl Jam all cancelled shows in North Carolina recently, as a way of protesting these laws. However, Against Me! decided to turn their concerts into their own acts of protest.
Sharing an open essay, which was published in New York Magazine, Laura Jane Grace explained why she wanted to play these shows. Pointing out that by cancelling shows, Against Me! wouldn’t exactly affect the state’s revenue (unlike Springsteen or Pearl Jam). Also, that for those trans residents of North Carolina, they don’t get an option to boycott their state, even if they face discrimination.
The essay describes Grace’s fears and worries, and also outlines exactly why unisex bathrooms are so important for members of the trans community. Ironically, looking out for a Starbucks, with a guaranteed facility, and this from the woman who once “wrote a song about throwing bricks through Starbucks’s windows”.
She also speaks about how punk rock provided an outlet for her gender dysphoria before she transitioned, and her concern for young trans people who are denied the comfort of a supportive community by discriminatory laws.
Blaming the North Carolina bill on a lack of education and ignorance, Grace points out that the law focuses “on trans women specifically, and the argument is predicated on the idea of transgender people being mentally ill, or pedophiles, or sexual predators, which is just absurd.”
Believing that putting herself out there is a more effective way of fighting than simply retreating, Grace felt strongly that by cancelling shows, the only people who would be affected would be fans. By boycotting those states, she would only be discriminating further against those who are already isolated.
While you’re here, check out our piece on Aussie musicians who are also artists.