What can protest songs actually achieve? As 2016 staggers to a close, the answer might feel like: not much. Marquee names, from Bruce Springsteen to Katy Perry to Jay Z, stumped for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Dozens more mocked Donald Trump onstage or demanded that he drop their songs from his rally playlists. On Election Day, pop stars like Rihanna, Miley Cyrus and Madonna were vocally #WithHer. For all that, the only artists celebrating on Nov. 9 were Ted Nugent and Azealia Banks.
The job of protest songs, and art in general, is not to “win,” but to bond and console when night closes in. When times are good, only the ideologically committed write protest music; other artists join in only when there is both a carrot and stick. The stick is a political situation — a war, a crisis, a divisive leader — that makes speaking out feel like a gut impulse and a civic duty.
At the start of the year, that was the series of killings that fueled Black Lives Matter. Frank Ocean sang on his song “Nikes,” “RIP Trayvon, a n—a look just like me.” Meanwhile, the caught-on-camera killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and Laquan McDonald drew fire from artists like Miguel, Vic Mensa and T.I., whose “War Zone” video skewered the All Lives Matter backlash by having white actors re-enact the deaths of black men. White artists displayed solidarity: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “White Privilege II” was intensely sincere, and Lady Gaga recorded a song, “Angel Down,” about Trayvon Martin.
The carrot is a game-changing artist — a Bob Dylan, a Clash, a Public Enemy — who makes protest music seem exciting and achievable. That was Kendrick Lamar, whose 2015 masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly translated his personal anxieties into a panoramic statement about race in America and inspired other artists to speak candidly. Solange’s A Seat at the Table was glued together by spoken-word reflections on blackness.
On Freetown Sound, Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes wove the voices of author Ta-Nehisi Coates and Black Lives Matter protesters into a dense tapestry, which Hynes dedicated to “everyone told they’re not black enough, too black, too queer, not queer the right way.”
The impact of To Pimp a Butterfly’s braiding of the personal and political could also be felt on such albums as Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book and Anderson .Paak’s Malibu. The movement and the music merged most powerfully and publicly in February, when Beyoncé led a phalanx of beret-wearing dancers onto the field at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., to perform “Formation” at the Super Bowl halftime show. This theatrical coup brought the Black Panthers into the song’s orbit just as the song’s video had evoked Hurricane Katrina, and it turned out to be an aperitif for Lemonade’s cinematic ruminations on black womanhood.
While most protest songs go unnoticed at the heart of the culture, Beyoncé’s radicalism was impossible to ignore; inevitably, Lamar guested on Lemonade’s rousing, confrontational “Freedom.” Hip-hop’s activist spirit was further galvanized by the brutal presidential election campaign. While Killer Mike was reborn as a Bernie Sanders-boosting commentator and Pusha T received a shout-out from Clinton on Twitter after stumping for her campaign, other rappers performed a collective U-turn on the subject of Trump.
After years of name-dropping him as an aspirational figure, the mogul who majored in bling and braggadocio — “Take over the world when I’m on my Donald Trump shit,” Mac Miller innocently rapped on his 2011 single “Donald Trump” — MCs reassessed him as a clear and present danger, none more bluntly than YG on the fist-swinging “FDT (F– Donald Trump).”
Warhorses Chuck D, Tom Morello and B-Real teamed for a supergroup, Prophets of Rage, and headed to Cleveland for the Republican National Convention; Green Day chanted “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist U.S.A.” during a post-election American Music Awards performance.
There was no shortage of pressing issues to energize artists: Neil Young honored Dakota Access Pipeline protesters on Peace Trail, and M.I.A. banged the drum for refugees on AIM. Against Me! performed in North Carolina as a protest against the state’s transphobic bathroom law, refusing to cancel its Durham show because, as the group’s transgender leader Laura Jane Grace put it, “Visibility is more important than ever.”
More tellingly, artists with no track record of political engagement were moved to respond to 2016’s dire upheavals. Bastille railed against right-wing demagogues on “The Currents” and was one of several British groups, including Chvrches and The 1975, that denounced the reactionary populism that produced Brexit. “It’s rare these days for musicians to speak out, in their music or their interviews, about their opinions,” said Bastille’s Dan Smith in a November interview.
“As this year has progressed, though, it can seem borderline impossible not to talk about politics.” In 2017, the Trump administration looks likely to be an unprecedented catalyst for protest, as the wave of white nationalism that he has ridden to the White House directly threatens the rights and safety of many artists and their fans. Indeed, it has already begun: A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, written during Trump’s toxic campaign, contains a fistful of eloquent resistance songs. “Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways/So all you bad folks, you must go,” goes their song “We the People…,” which Tribe performed on Saturday Night Live four days after the election. On Drive-By Truckers’ American Band, released in late September, the liberal Southerners focused on the racism, jingoism, gun worship and Lost Cause nostalgia of Trump country.
“It didn’t really occur to us that [American Band] would remain timely after the first week of November,” says co-frontman Patterson Hood. “I’m kind of disappointed that it has a new shelf life.” It would not be surprising if Trump inspired more musical fury than Nixon, Reagan or both Bushes put together. Whether these songs will have any practical effect is debatable, but also not the point. They will be emotionally necessary.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 17 issue of Billboard.