Music and Social Action in the 21st Century

By Josh Schuback

Musicians have platforms to make political statements that uniquely position and privilege them: touring gives musicians major access to the public in various areas; behemoth music festivals like Coachella and Governor’s Ball have had attendances nearing 200,000; YouTube and streaming services also reach massive audiences, helping artists get their music out like never before. A Taylor Swift music video can reach 2 billion views, and Drake’s music on Spotify has cleared 1 billion streams, numbers most elected officials can only dream of. When a musician has something to say, someone will hear it. In a time when an artist and their audience have never been more connected, it is up to musicians and fans to do more and put words (and lyrics) to action.

Great art emerges from difficult times. Specifically, music can act as the voice of the people, providing a strong and clear message that represents an entire movement. To see this in action, look back to the Civil Rights Movement during the mid 20th century. During this time songs like Sam Cooke’s, “A Change is Gonna Come” came to embody the movement from which they rose. The song was, and still is, an anthem of its time, capturing the essence and spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, and giving a voice to the oppressed.

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When talking about this time period there is one name that is hard to avoid: Bob Dylan. Dylan emerged from the Greenwich Village music scene in the 1960s and achieved major commercial success with his highly political second studio album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Although he once said, “I’ve never written a political song…songs can’t save the world,” much of his music was inextricably linked to social movements of the 1960s and 70s, and deliberately so. Perhaps this mention was just an offhand remark or meant to be ironic, but Dylan even facetiously claiming his music to be apolitical represents the power of political music. Cloaked in the appeal of “apolitical,” a song like “Blowin’ in the Wind” with its pleasant, Americana fingerstyle guitar, contained enough potency to become another anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. Songs like Dylan’s lured fans in with their sound, only revealing their true political charge after further listens. Dylan sings against war (“How many times must a cannon ball fly?”) and against the oppression of black people in America (“Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist / Before they’re allowed to be free”). For such a short and sonically bittersweet song, Dylan manages to say a lot.

Crafting a political song is only half the battle. If no one listened to Dylan’s music it would have no purpose. It is the fans that give music its social power. “Blowin’ in the Wind” became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement because the people who marched and protested sang and played the song. While a musician and their music can be a catalyst for change, change will only happen when fans take it upon themselves to put their favorite artists’ messages into action. The music of Dylan, Cooke, and others gave people a common voice in their fight for justice, and in turn those people gave the music its power and unique place in history. This relationship between artist, art and audience is essential to the link between music and politics.

Bringing this idea to the 21st century, has the role of the fan changed? Not really. It is still fans who determine the success and impact of any musician. What has changed is how fans listen to music. Fifty years later music has become much more accessible in a way that defies geography. What this has meant for the industry at large is that fans place less stock in the artists to whom they listen. Instead of having to buy an entire album in order to listen to an artist, someone can easily stream one song. The average fan puts less money, time, and thought into their music choices.

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So how can artists with a distinct political message better reach their fans? The easiest way is to do more than just sing. Musicians can donate time and money to the causes they hold dear. They can play charity shows, talk to government leaders, and get involved with organizations that help solve socio-economic issues. Few do this better than Chance the Rapper. At his 24th birthday party he raised over $100,000 to donate to SocialWorks, a nonprofit that helps to empower youth through education and civic engagement. He has been an integral part of President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper program, and he recently donated one million dollars to help fund Chicago public schools. Chance has taken on the challenge to do more. Being a political musician no longer means just making political music. It requires a level of engagement that not every artist wants to, or can, attain.

The other side of this is the audience. With the ability to skip songs and such a vast collection of music available thanks to streaming, it has become easy to judge songs and artists quickly. It is vital that fans stay more engaged in their favorite musicians. Pay attention to what they are saying and doing outside of their lyrics. One artist who requires some more in-depth attention is Pusha T. The rapper is known as one-half of the rap duo The Clipse, and as the president of the GOOD Music record label. But he was also a major advocate for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential Election. Not only did Pusha T support Clinton, he actively helped with voter outreach and registration efforts in his home state of Virginia. According to Pusha T, he supported Clinton for her changed position on criminal justice reform, an issue of personal importance to the rapper who has seen lives ruined by harsh sentences.

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Without the support of their fans, artists like Chance and Pusha T would not be able to accomplish anything. It is fans who empower these artists not only financially by buying tickets and music, but also by acting on the change those musicians encourage. It is important that when people see something they disagree with, whether it be in politics or music, they speak out against it. In the same vein, it is vital that those same people support the artists and causes that are of importance. In a sense, fans should “vote with their wallet” for artists they feel are contributing to the national conversation in ways they see as productive. It is the fans – both as audiences and as voters – who hold the power to create real change.

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