The Sound of British Complaint
This year marks the centenary of Woody Guthrie’s birthday causing much reminiscence for the protest songs of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. Along with this nostalgic flashback, many have been quick to assume that the once noble flame of the popular “Protest Song” in Britain has been silently extinguished.
Where have all the protest singers of the past gone? And what has subsequently taken their place if any still exist? These singer-songwriters performed at a point in time where popular music was on a perhaps more local “community” scale, creating with their music a sound able to galvanise and reflect contemporary concerns. Yet in our more globalised climate to the 80’s scale, is possible to find within modern popular music any noise of protest?
British protest music at its best is remembered as a time when Elvis Costello articulated the dark implications of Britain’s thriving ship building industry amid the Falklands war. When The Clash, the Sex Pistols, and numerous others unflinchingly depicted the desperation of dead-end, inner city life under Thatcherism. And in the ‘60s’ where voices of open-armed cries for peace, love and an end to all war flooded the music market. In contrast, we can often see the already saturated charts filled with so-called ‘landfill indie’ and mechanical club-pop, while politicised genres such as contemporary punk and heavy metal (to name but two) remain very much outside of the mainstream.
But is the protest song really dead? Or have our demands for it changed, wanting popular music to be something away from social issues and act as an escapist distraction rather than reminder of what’s wrong with the world? The nature of the contemporary musical mainstream has changed. Much of the music industry seems to largely engineer hollow, disposable, and fabricated pop music in which song-writing is made in order to create commercially viable, harmless, and often club-ready anthems. There is little place for anti-establishment verse or social commentary in modern chart music.
Another change is the battle lines between the major political parties. They are far less clear than in the ‘70s and ‘80s when previous generation of mainstream protest music was being written and disseminated, making modern song-writing less able to speak from distinct political perspectives.
Social class may also have something to do with any absence of protest music as record numbers of privately educated musicians seem to be ascending to mass popularity. Today’s chart is proliferated with Jessie Ware, Florence Welch, Jack Penate, and Pixie Geldof, all of whom attended South London’s prestigious Alleyn’s school, where a year’s education costs £14,601. Maybe musicians are less likely to speak out against the system if they have massively benefited from it?
Yet we can still read modern popular music as political. Take Psy’s internationally viral ‘Gangnam Style’ –referring to Korean Gangnam District of Seoul and from which has stemmed much political activism. For example, the North Korean government paroded the song mocking the South Korean ruling, along with Ai Wei Wei who can be seen dancing with a pair of handcuffs as a symbol of his arrest by Chinese authorities. ‘Gangnam Style’ now acts as a symbol for freedom of expression- a song further politicized in recognition by UN Secretary-General’s Ban Ki-Moon as a “force for world peace.”
Most important in the changing terrain of protest songs however, has been the influence of hip-hop. Hip-hop as social commentary has a long tradition, with key American artists like Public Enemy, KRS One, and Nas vocalising issues of race, police brutality, and social injustice in America, and more recently grime and UK hip-hop artists such as Ms. Dynamite, Braintax, and (early) Dizzee Rascal commenting on their socio-political surroundings in the UK. And even more recently, a perceived duty to politically inform the public has been sensed by rappers throughout Africa, from the Y’en a Marre movement in Senegal, to the Egyptian rap collective Revolution, to the hip-hop pressure group Plus Jamais Ca in Mali. And the unfolding of a new generation of ‘conscious’ rappers has also been taking place at the heart of British political activism.
Developing around central figures Lowkey and Logic, an underground of politicised, anti-capitalist rappers has begun to catalyse recent political frustration, reflecting the protest musicians of old. At protest marches against the rise in tuition fees, in aid of the Palestinian struggle for freedom, and against cuts to public spending, Lowkey has been a key speaker and performer. His is an educational brand of political commentary in the vein of America’s “Immortal Technique”, and who, along with other ‘conscious rappers’ such as Mix Righteous and English Frank, has formed a activist collective named ‘The Peoples’ Army’; holding free workshops and talks on matters ranging from social justice to imperialism.
The rise of rap as a format for protest music does not easily accommodate the expectations of older generations regarding the use for protest music – you cannot for example sing along to rap music, as it is an inherently skilled activity whose flow transforms with different lyricists. However, cross-over rapper Plan B is aiming to change this. His self-transformation and the release of his explosive single ‘iLL Manors’ this year mark the first mainstream/cross-over protest song in a generation – the single rose to # 6 in the charts – and it marks the beginning of a multi-media long-term project by Plan B to address issues of poverty, class, and media corruption from the platform of festival main-stages, FM radio, and mass popularity. Ex-Sheffield radical lyricist The Ruby Kid is one of many to acknowledge the significance this could have for mainstream protest music.
British protest music may not be what it was- but neither is the political scenery in which it sings from. There is ever increasing political consciousness, invention, and activism to rally behind in hip-hop, and every chance it will achieve mass appeal.
By Sam Parkin and Isla Badenoch