Could the incoming Trump administration spur a renaissance of socially relevant music? We asked five musicians who are known for their political songs and/or for having come up in a more musically activist era to give us their thoughts on whether we’re due for a return to politically-minded music… or whether that ship has sailed, regardless of who’s in power.
COMMON The rapper followed up his Oscar-winning song for Ava DuVernay’s previous movie, Selma, with “Letter to the Free,” a number for her new documentary, 13th, about minority incarceration rates being “the new Jim Crow.” He even included a line referring to the president-elect -- “Shot me with your ray-gun/And now you want to Trump me.” He’s waxing hopeful about a renaissance in the arts.
“When I say ‘Shot me with your ray-gun and now you want to Trump me’ [in the new song], I was actually prepared to say ‘They tried to Trump me,’ in the past tense, with the hope and belief that that lyric would be passé… This is one of the strangest times I’ve had in my life, to be honest, or in our lives. Because I feel it for all of us. For someone to feed that fear and feed that monster of hate, ah, man, it’s painful. But I’ve been getting some reminders about just keeping the faith, keeping the positive energy and thoughts, and knowing our country has been through some things that have been this trying before. We just got reminded how divided it is at this point, and though we’ve progressed in some beautiful ways, we still have some ways to go in other areas. I’m still a believer. I still believe we’ve got a real bright future. We’ve just got to go through this process. Frederick Douglass said: Without struggle there is no progress. Our progress is ahead of us right now. Look, I’m not inhuman. I woke up heavy the next morning [after the election]. But I’m just keeping my prayers in and believing that things are going to be better.
“Plus, I do think it’s going to inspire a whole wave of awareness music, because it already started. We have artists that I have known, like Pusha T, who would rap about a lot of drug stuff, and man, he was out on the campaign with Tim Kaine, doing songs and speaking. There are people coming from different backgrounds who you usually wouldn’t even think would speak about sociopolitical things that have come out saying things. And the [historical] music we celebrate, whether it’s Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, and Nina Simone, or John Coltrane, for that matter, let those [adversarial] times generate some of the best music ever. I don’t want us to go through any pain, but if we are in this place, the art will provide us with a comfort and a light to look towards. This time is going to create some of the greatest music we’ve ever seen.”
PATTERSON HOOD of DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS The founder and co-leader of Drive-by Truckers has never shied away from social and political commentary, particularly as it relates to his native South, though he recently moved to Oregon. His group’s latest album, American Band, has a photo of the flag at half-mast on the cover, an indication of the unhappy tone that pervades songs with subjects ranging from mass shootings to misplaced Confederate pride.
“I was surprised there wasn’t more people speaking out before the election, honestly I really expected that there would be a lot more bands kind of doing what our band did on this than there were. So I don’t know what’ll happen. There’s certainly no shortage in hip-hop, and even in pop, African-American musicians have been way outspoken. Rock n' roll isn’t real healthy. When the pop stars are the ones leading the artistic political statements of the day, then I don’t know where rock n' roll’s head is at. It ain’t dead, because there are still people doing great stuff.
“You’ve got to have thick skin, because they will come after you, just like they did the Dixie Chicks. But I didn’t get into this line of work to sit on the sidelines and keep my mouth shut and to shut up and sing. I’m pretty unhappy about it, and I’m too old to mope. We had a couple of guys actually in California that held up a sign taking issue with our Black Lives Matter sign that we had on stage, but other than that there’s been no pushback in person. We just played in Charleston, which was our first time to play there since the massacre, and we opened with ‘Guns of Umpqua’ [a song that addresses the shootings and takes issue with the NRA], like ‘Let’s get this out there right now.’ The reaction back from the crowd was very powerful in a cathartic way. That’s what created this kind of music in the first place when I was a kid falling in love with it in elementary school and starting my record collection. Those people kept me from feeling alone and like a total weirdo that didn’t fit in…
“I’m encouraged by A Tribe Called Quest. I thought they were incredible on Saturday Night Live; that was moving on multiple levels. The Beyoncé record, and for her to do what she did with her Super Bowl show, of all things, which is the most mainstream event imaginable -- for her to make a political statement with that was pretty inspiring… Hopefully there’ll be a lot of great music that will come out of all this crap, but we’ll see. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I look forward to a point where I can process [the election] enough to write about it. I would like to write about how I feel, bur right now I haven’t even been able to do that.”
ERIN McKEOWN McKeown has addressed a variety of social issues over the course of her 13 recordings, most recently with “The Queer Gospel” on her new EP, According to Us. She also wrote the music and lyrics for a new musical themed around “illegals” facing the threat of deportation, Miss You Like Hell, now having its premiere run at the La Jolla Playhouse.
“Trump is an easy, albeit worthy, target for our rage and activism. And there's nothing like an unlikeable, dangerous leader to give artists a common focus. So, yes, there will surely be an uptick of political music. But for myself, I want to make sure that that easy target doesn’t distract me from the work that has always been there: using my position as a white queer person to advocate for others who are marginalized by the forces that produced Trump and allowed him to flourish.”
JOHN DOE As the co-founder of X, Doe considers himself fairly apolitical compared to his partner, Exene Cervenka, though he’s deeply concerned about climate change. His jaundiced view of politics in music comes partly from coming out of a scene in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s where, in his view, the most topical songs were rarely the best.
“I don’t know. Everybody lit their hair on fire when Reagan got elected. And he did some damage -- he busted unions, which started the decline of the middle class. But we survived. I do think that some people will make good art, given adversity. Fighting against something is great! I love to see people in the streets. But to anybody who’s thinking about a political song, I would urge them not to use his name -- he who shall not be named. Don’t put ‘Trump’ in your song. Because all the punk-rock bands that put ‘Reagan’ in their song, it immediately timed out. Conflict is important, but I’m more interested in things that are timeless.”
BILLY BRAGG No one has been more identified with political music in the U.K. for the last 33 years than Bragg, who is currently on tour with American Joe Henry to promote their album Shine a Light. He offered his thoughts on whether America could experience a musical movement like the one that swept him up as a punk-enthralled kid in London in the late ‘70s.
“It depends what sort of music you’re talking about. If you’re talking about young white boys with guitars, it’s long overdue for them to get political again, long overdue. But I don’t think you can accuse African American musicians of not being political. You only have to look at Beyoncé at the Super Bowl to know they’ve been representing. And it’s the same in the UK. I think the music with the most edge in the U.K. is grime music, talking about things that are really happening.
“One of my theories about why there isn’t so much political pop from young guitar bands anymore is that music has lost its vanguard role in youth culture. In the 20th century, if you wanted to know what your generation was thinking, you would listen to music and read the music press, because it was the only medium available to young people. When I was 19 and felt angry, I had to learn to play guitar, write songs, and do gigs; that was the only opportunity to have my voice heard. Now if you’re 19 and you’re angry, you can do everything from stir up a Twitter-storm to make a film and edit it on your iPhone. So music no longer has that role that has everybody’s attention. In the 20th century music was our social media. So when you’ve grown up in a culture where you respond immediately on social media, the idea of thinking a bit about it and trying to couch it in a way that reflects the debate or makes a unifying comment on what’s going on, in the way that music did in the second half of the 20th century -- I think that takes probably a bit too much time for some people.
“But what music still has is the ability to bring people together for a common cause and make them feel as if they’re not alone. The night of Brexit, I was at Glastonbury playing a headline set at the left field, and that audience was so charged when I came on stage, they made the noise that I usually make when I go off. It’s because they were really angry about what happened, and they wanted somewhere to come and shout about it, and to feel that they were not the only person who felt this frustration. We were all trying to make sense of it in real time, and I had the opportunity to be the lightning rod. We felt it the night after the [American] election at the gig Joe Henry and I did in normally sleepy little Canterbury.
“I think the responses to Trump are still predominantly going to come from musicians from the 20th century, if you’re looking for guys with guitars and singer/songwriters and people like that. And looking at the demographics of Trump’s support, maybe that’s not a bad thing. Because it looks like young people voted predominantly for Hillary. It’s really Springsteen’s audience that we need to be talking to!
“In a divided country like mine or yours, emotional solidarity is going to be very important. I think that’s the most music can do, really -- it can give you a sense you’re not alone. If a young generation of kids playing guitars comes through and it’s like the ‘60s, brilliant. But even if they don’t, music still has that power to make you feel solidarity with people you’ve never met before. I know that in 1978 I was working in an office with a bunch of guys who were casually racist, and I never said anything. I went to the first Rock Against Racism concert and there were 100,000 kids just like me there. It was not the Clash that gave me the courage of my convictions; it was being in that audience and not feeling on my own, but knowing that my generation were actually going to define themselves in opposition to discrimination of any kind. Maybe that’s what Trump will galvanize: a movement that has the idea of social solidarity right at the front.