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Responsibility of musicians in bringing about social change

By on 09/02/2017

Music pervades every part of society, it breaks boundaries, backgrounds and brings them together. It transcends language and is an industry so important to our lives that it’s worth more than the pharmaceutical industry. Music has the power to be weld as a tool to bring people together and to educate


What role can musicians play in social change?

Recently I had been thinking a lot recently about the role that musicians have in education and social justice and forms the basis of this piece. We are currently living in the most turbulent times of the last 40 years. The planet is dying. Pollution and climate change are out of control. Racism, war and fascism are on the rise and have almost become accepted norms. The doomsday clock is at its closest to midnight that its been in many years and possibility of a global catastrophe is high


Music and musicians have played a key role in social change in the past across the globe. The Vietnam protests, the civil rights movements, the free jazz movement, events like Live 8 and more recently the Arab Spring. Fast-forward to today are musicians playing their part to counter these turbulent times?


Trump has just been inaugurated into office and with that has come extreme levels of division and racism that has not been seen in many years. I’m sat in front of the computer and the video from musicians I’m seeing shared the most in my timeline is a video of Migos on Power 106 rapping from the ‘Llama Llama Red Pyjama’ nursery rhyme over the Big Bad and Bogie beat. This is no diss on Migos specifically (well not yet), but it did make me question what were musicians doing in these turbulent times.


Mos Def

The real impetus for this article was being in the Kentish Forum for the retirement show of Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def.

The show had been cancelled from the previous one 3 months ago over immigration issues. There was much excitement over the rescheduling of this show which many thought would never happen.


Mos Def was the definition of socially aware rapper. He’s a known activist who has in the past been arrested for the performance of his anti Bush Hurricane Katrina Protest song and has been very outspoken about police brutality. Of all his acts of activism he is best known in 2013 for subjecting himself to a Guantanamo Bay style torture force-feeding used on hunger strikers based on the account of the detainees. In this harrowing video he is force fed in a tube as he struggles, screams and strains and cannot complete the procedure


Considering all Mos Def has done and his views I thought that during this concert he would say something on the current state of the world. Especially on the week that Donald Trump essentially wants to legalise torture – I couldn’t have been so wrong!!!!


I stood through the entire concert. There wasn’t a single mention about the current state of the world as he mumbled through his tracks on his so-called retirement day and it really pissed me off. I felt like it was a derogation of duty as a musician and social activist


Stay woke

In the year where the most used new term (and the Oxford Dictionary word of the year) is to “stay woke” many musicians aren’t

stay woke


Deriving from “stay awake,” to stay woke is to keep informed of the shit storm going on around you in times of turmoil and conflict, specifically on occasions when the media is being heavily filtered- such as the events in Ferguson Missouri in August 2014 ~ Urban Dictionary

Is it a case that artists throughout the years have been lacking in being “woke” to the issues around them? Far from it. Musicians across many genres have been involved in social movements for many years. Here are some examples


The Arab Spring

The 2010 Arab Spring that started in Tunisia & Egypt and spread across the Arab world was fuelled by rap music


el general

El General’s track “Rais Labled” which means “President of the Country” called out President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali for not paying attention to the Tunisian youth



This track and others from him led to thousands taking to the streets in both Tunisia and Egypt and led to a whole new generation of artists to use music as a form of protest across the Arab world


The Vietnam War

Rock & roll and folk music gave birth to much of the protest music of the 60s against the Vietnam War. Folk and rock singers appeared at anti-war protests


Artists like Bob Dylan released tracks like with God on Our Side that questioned the justification for war

The protests ramped up in the late sixties with groups like Jefferson Airplane and the growth of Woodstock where much of the anti war movement attended and American flags were burned


Punk Rock

The punk rock movement of the late 70s and early 80s was the anti establishment anarchistic movement of its time


Bands like the Sex Pistols and The Clash used controversial lyrics to attack the establishment and many social problems of the time

The Sex Pistols track “God Save The Queen” ended up being banned by the BBC for anti-royalism


poly styrene

Inspired by the Sex Pistols the black British punk feminist Poly Styrene formed the band X-Ray Spex with their feminist rally call for liberation “Oh Bondage Up Yours”


Although the track was meant to be more anti capitalist than feminist – as well being part of the riot movement at the time it also became a feminist anthem and inspired the movement of feminist punk rock that is strong today


Blues and Jazz

Jazz and blues is the most significant musical genre used to tell the story of political and social messages of African Americans from the freedom of slavery.


The blues originated in the plantations of 19th Century. They were used to tell the stories and struggles of the slavery at the time. Deeply intertwined into the blues and grew out of it was jazz.


Billie Holiday’s track Strange Fruit in 1934 spoke of southern racism and the lynching of African Americans

In the track she speaks of the southern trees bearing strange fruit, blood on the leaves, black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.


Jazz also became synonymous with the civil rights movement of the 60s. Artists such as John Coltrane, Nina Simone and Charles Mingus used the music to spread the message of social injustice in black America


Mingus was best known for the track Fables of Faubus. The track speaks of the injustice of the Little Rock Nine. The Arkansas governor Faubus used the National Guard to prevent nine black students from attending school. Colombia Records originally removed the lyrics and it was released as an instrumental because they saw the track as too incendiary. It was later released in full on the Candid label

John Coltrane played a series of benefit concerts to support Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. He shared many of the views of Malcolm X and incorporated his themes into his music. Coltrane’s track Alabama was written in response to the 16th Streets Baptist Church bombing by the KKK in 1963 that killed four girls


Hip-hop & Rap

Hip-hop encompasses more than music it is a lifestyle and social movement. Although much of it has been commercialised, exploited and monetised especially with much of the “mumble rap” we see today, it was built on carving an identity for the black community


Considered as many as the first hip-hop anthem that aimed to bring about social change and to show the truth about the struggle of the inner city, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five released The Message in 1982. Described by Public Enemy’s Chuck D The Message “was the first dominant rap group with the most dominant MC saying something that meant something”

The Message moved away from the party lifestyle of many rap songs of the time and exposed the harsh reality of life in the New York inner city. It opened the gates for other artists of the later years like NWA & Public Enemy to use hip-hop to for what Chuck D describes as “CNN for black people”


Sticking with Chuck D, the anthem Fight The Power by Public Enemy was a mobilisation of the civil rights movement for the black youth of America

The track reached number one in the rap and hip-hop charts and is used in protest movements through to today


In the early 90s KRS-One collaborated with Professor Zizwe in the creation of Human Education Again Lies (H.E.A.L). The movement’s central aim was rescue humanity from what he called Common Sense Deficiency Syndrome. They healed minds of people by providing true facts and help build reasoning skills needed for human behaviour rather than focusing on the sleep techniques of memorisation. This was done through music and literature. The proceeds of all the music financed the distribution of millions of free educational books to the youth worldwide. The movement’s title track Heal Yourself featured KRS-One, LL Cool J, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Run-DMC and Kid Kapri.


The track promoted education, female empowerment, black power, harmony, and black history. It’s a rallying call for the youth


In October 1995 the Million Man March – the gathering of African American men in Washington DC with the aim of uniting the black men, to encourage them to make firmer commitments to family values and community uplift. It was estimated that 1.1 million black men attended the march.

Tied heavily to the march was promotion by the hip-hop community. To commemorate the march an album was released called One Million Strong. It featured many of hip-hop’s biggest artists at the time including Wu-Tang, Snoop Dogg, Dr Dre, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony as well one of the few collaborations between Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G


In 1996 the hip-hop community came together to put together the album America Is Dying Slowly. A backronym for AIDS the album set out to reach the African American community through hip-hop music to educate them about HIV/AIDS.

The title track from the album by The Wu-Tang Clan got tremendous airplay on Hip Hop and Rap radio stations and functioned as one of the most effective public service announcements ever created during the AIDS crisis. The MTV live show was the last live performance of the entire original Wu-Tang Clan together


Musicians of the past have done much for social change but its not all good now

As we’ve seen from these examples the links between music and social change run deep. This is why it was such a surprise that Mos Def said nothing on what is supposedly his last ever show – what did he have to loose? Did he care? Was it his duty to say anything on this same week that Trump essentially legalised torture?

How is it that my timeline in terms of musicians is full of Migos rapping a nursery rhyme on the week Trump came into The Whitehouse. Now I say I wasn’t going to diss Migos but they are representative of artists that do worse. They lead to social divide. They showed blatant homophobia recently when asked in an interview about the artist iLoveMakonnen revealing he is gay. Collectively Migos said, and I quote “we ain’t saying its nothing wrong with gays” but that “he first came out talking about trapping and selling molly doing all that!!!”. They are talking like the two are somehow mutually exclusive – have you not seen Moonlight? Probably not. I’m not one for the glorification of trapping and much of mumble rap, but irrespective Migos’ comments are dangerous and incendiary especially as they are the hottest band out there right now with such a wide audience

Then there’s Lil Wayne who in November in an interview with Nightline. He’s previously been known for saying that he thinks racism doesn’t exist based on the fact that most of his fans are white. When asked about Black Lives Matter he had the following to say

Davis: What’s your thought on Black Lives Matter?

Lil Wayne: What is it? What do you mean?

Davis: The idea that there’s this movement called Black Lives Matter thinking that the rest of America didn’t understand that—that black lives matter.

Lil Wayne: That just sounds weird, I don’t know, that you put a name on it. It’s not a name, it’s not ‘whatever, whatever,’ it’s somebody got shot by a policeman for a fucked up reason… I am a young black rich motherfucker. If that don’t let you know that America understand that matter these days, I don’t know what it is.  [Points at cameraman] That man white, he’s filming me: I’m a nigga. I don’t know what you mean, man. Don’t come at me with that dumb ass shit, ma’am. My life matter. [Looks at camera] Especially to my bitches.

Davis: Do you feel, though, connected to…

Lil Wayne: I don’t feel connected to a damn thing that ain’t got nothin’ to do with me. If you do, you crazy as shit. You. Not the camera, you. Feeling connected to something that ain’t got nothing to do with you. If it ain’t got nothin’ to do with me, I ain’t connected to it.


To say that he is not connected to the community because he is now a rich black man is madness. It’s this sort of separation from much of your core audience which you originally came from which is counter productive


Kanye West who was at the time considered to be one of the most woke rappers out there for calling out George Bush for not caring about black people in the wake of Hurricane Katrina during a segment for hurricane relief in 2005



Fast-forward to 2016 Kanye in a recent rant at a concert he claimed he didn’t vote but if he did it would have been for Trump to the dismay of his fans. He then appears at Trump Tower posing with him in a photo op. He has since deleted his tweets of support for Trump and is reported to be suffering from amnesia following his mental breakdown.


But there is some good….

Prior to his running for president Donald Trump’s name was synonymous with getting rich within hip-hop. Artists like Nas, Raekwon, Ludacris, Cypress Hill, Yung Thug, Diddy and Kendrick Lamar to name a few used his name as an aspiration of getting money like Trump. Now it’s quite a different story


Looking over the years using the informative Rap Stats website which tracks the number of uses of terms within rap lyrics we can see that the use of Trump’s name has gone up significantly and is no longer synonymous with wealth

rap stats donald trump

Since his running for president and his extreme policies many rappers are now are speaking out against Trump in their raps rather than wanting to emulate him. Examples are A$AP Ty, Chance The Rapper, Rick Ross, as well as YG for his anthem “Fuck Donald Trump”

Artists like Run The Jewels for many years have been outspoken about social issues, been involved in politics and have progressive way before the days of Trump in the White House. Run The Jewel’s Killer Mike at one time introduced Bernie Sanders at a rally asking people to Feel The Bern

The rapper and political activist Immortal Technique bases much of his lyrical content around politics, institutional racism, and is a huge proponent of the Occupy Movement.

immortal technique

Immortal Technique is not only known for being outspoken in his lyrics but also in his interviews – against both Republicans and Democrats alike when their policies have adversely affected society

On the 16th June last year on the day that MP Jo Cox was murdered in what can only be described as an act or terrorism I attended a Public Enemy gig at London’s O2 arena. During the performance they stopped the show for a moment of silence for her. It was dedicated to not only her life but as a rebuttal to acts of terrorism


Staying on the subject of Public Enemy, Chuck D recently formed the super group The Prophets of Rage together with B. Real from Cypress Hill, Rage Against The Machines Zack De La Rocha as well as members of Audioslave. Named after a Public Enemy track of the same name the band call themselves an “elite task force of revolutionary musicians determined to confront this mountain of election year bullshit”. They performed counter protest performances to the Republican national convention and have a tour coming this year called “Make The World Rage Again”

The hip-hop punk hybrid Ho99o9 have no issues showing their outrage at police brutality, racism, and government oppression in this preview of the title track from their forthcoming album The United States of Horror. These themes will also form the basis of the forthcoming album


On the 7th February on his London tour Drake called out Donald Trump – yet Mos Def cannot say a word

These examples of direct action within music are what the world needs now more than ever. Some artists are active a little on social media but not within their tracks themselves. There is a disconnect out their with some major artists and their music. Is it a case that they are somehow locked down by their record companies from doing so? Its possible, but then you could ask the same of the major free jazz artists of the 60’s who were able to speak out issues of race despite being on predominantly white owned record labels


Now I’m not saying that all artists should be out there burning flags like Ho99o9 but we should be doing more than just saying #blacklivesmatter on twitter. Artists need to utilise to power and influence they have to create a wider discourse both within and outside of music in enact social change


In the run up to the Obama administration there was so much rallying from hip-hop artists especially to their fans to get out there and vote. This has been lost to a degree in the run up to the 2016 presidential elections


Music has so much importance in politics and this should be utilised. This has been shown by the furore over which artists were going to perform at Trump’s inauguration. In an act of defiance when invited to perform Rebecca Ferguson said she would perform only on the condition that she would be able to sing Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit (as mentioned in the jazz section). Rebecca said on Twitter it is a “song that speaks to all the disregarded and downtrodden black people in the United States”


Pussy Riot, the all female Russian protest punk band came to fame in 2012 when they staged a guerrilla performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in protest against Putin’s links with the Orthodox Church and their opposition of LGBT rights. Three of their members were arrested for hooliganism and served time in prison

In their more recent work, Pussy Riot’s Make America Great Again is a protest song to Trump running for presidency and its implications

In Make America Great Again they imagined a world where Trump was elected and asked the American people to “let other people in, listen to your women, stop killing black children, make America great again”


Lady Gaga performance Woody Gurthrie’s – The Land is Your Land” at the Superbowl half time show in protest of Trump was deemed as too subtle for many. The track had previously been adopted by many in anti-Trump protests. It was originally written at time where Guthrie was paying rent to Trump’s father. It was so subtle that extreme right-wingers like The Blaze’s Tomi Lahren actually thanked Lady Gaga for not getting political at the Super Bowl halftime show. If this isn’t a sign that artists need to take a more direct approach then I don’t know what is. I don’t want to take away from what Lady Gaga has done in the past as she is actually one of the most forward thinking pop artists of our time when it comes to enacting social change. Her anthem Born This Way is a pro-LGBT & self acceptance track with lyrics like “No matter gay, straight, or bi / lesbian, transgendered life / I’m on the right track baby / I was born to survive”


Staying on the topic of Super Bowl performances Beyonce bodied the Super Bowl last year with her political statement dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement and the Black Panther Party just before the release of her Formation video and tour.

beyonce superbowl

The performance and the Formation video and her album put Black America and the Black Lives Matter movement in full view and lead to so much discussion across America and the world about black America that still reigns today


What more can artist do to enact social change?

Inspired in many ways by the blind eye Mos Def showed at his concert this piece started with the statement –

Music pervades every part of society, it breaks boundaries, backgrounds and brings them together. It transcends language and is an industry so important to our lives that it’s worth more than the pharmaceutical industry. Music has the power to be weld as a tool to bring people together and to educate


We looked at artists of the past using the power that they wield to bring about social change across a range of musical genres as well as touching on some of the artists of today who are wielding that same power and in some cases doing the opposite.


Music taps into that part of our emotions that gives us a deep connection not only with the artist but to others. It’s a deep level of communication on an emotional level that should be utilised. Artistic responsibility is something that in my opinion is not something that is considered by many of the popular artists of today and is definitely not a consideration of many studio executives of today. We live in the age of mass media and many of the artists and bands of today are manufactured and faceless with a short shelf life. In addition there are percentiles more artists today that previously in this mass media age. In this information age it is easier for an artist if they so wished to reach their audience. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Snapchat, Instagram and other social media platforms are at the fingertips of all artists and their audiences like never before. As an artist you can choose beyond the financial gains to either work at great ease towards making this planet a better place to live or the opposite.


In these turbulent times what can we as artists do in this complex world to help society? Is there an manifesto for artists for what they can do to bring about change?


Herbie Hancock & Wayne Shorter’s open letter to artists

Herbie Hancock & Wayne Shorter together over the past 40 years have won a combined 25 Grammys. They are amongst the world’s most influential artists

herbie hancock and wayne shorter

In the wake of tragedies of San Bernardino, the attack at the Bataclan and the Syria conflict in 2015 together they penned an open letter to the new generation of musical artists to be “vehicles for the construction of peace”. Written over a year ago – it serves as a guide for artists of how to utilise the power that they wield for the power of good:


To the Next Generation of Artists,


We find ourselves in turbulent and unpredictable times.


From the horror at the Bataclan, to the upheaval in Syria and the senseless bloodshed in San Bernardino, we live in a time of great confusion and pain. As an artist, creator and dreamer of this world, we ask you not to be discouraged by what you see but to use your own lives, and by extension your art, as vehicles for the construction of peace.


While it’s true that the issues facing the world are complex, the answer to peace is simple; it begins with you. You don’t have to be living in a third world country or working for an NGO to make a difference. Each of us has a unique mission. We are all pieces in a giant, fluid puzzle, where the smallest of actions by one puzzle piece profoundly affects each of the others. You matter, your actions matter, your art matters.


We’d like to be clear that while this letter is written with an artistic audience in mind, these thoughts transcend professional boundaries and apply to all people, regardless of profession.


We are not alone. We do not exist alone and we cannot create alone. What this world needs is a humanistic awakening of the desire to raise one’s life condition to a place where our actions are rooted in altruism and compassion. You cannot hide behind a profession or instrument; you have to be human. Focus your energy on becoming the best human you can be. Focus on developing empathy and compassion. Through the process you’ll tap into a wealth of inspiration rooted in the complexity and curiosity of what it means to simply exist on this planet. Music is but a drop in the ocean of life.


The world needs new pathways. Don’t allow yourself to be hijacked by common rhetoric, or false beliefs and illusions about how life should be lived. It’s up to you to be the pioneers. Whether through the exploration of new sounds, rhythms, and harmonies or unexpected collaborations, processes and experiences, we encourage you to dispel repetition in all of its negative forms and consequences. Strive to create new actions both musically and with the pathway of your life. Never conform.


The unknown necessitates a moment-to-moment improvisation or creative process that is unparalleled in potential and fulfillment. There is no dress rehearsal for life because life, itself, is the real rehearsal. Every relationship, obstacle, interaction, etc. is a rehearsal for the next adventure in life. Everything is connected. Everything builds. Nothing is ever wasted. This type of thinking requires courage. Be courageous and do not lose your sense of exhilaration and reverence for this wonderful world around you.


We have this idea of failure, but it’s not real; it’s an illusion. There is no such thing as failure. What you perceive as failure is really a new opportunity, a new hand of cards, or a new canvas to create upon. In life there are unlimited opportunities. The words, “success” and “failure”, themselves, are nothing more than labels. Every moment is an opportunity. You, as a human being, have no limits; therefore infinite possibilities exist in any circumstance.


The world needs more one-on-one interaction among people of diverse origins with a greater emphasis on art, culture and education. Our differences are what we have in common. We can work to create an open and continuous plane where all types of people can exchange ideas, resources, thoughtfulness and kindness. We need to be connecting with one another, learning about one another, and experiencing life with one another. We can never have peace if we cannot understand the pain in each other’s hearts. The more we interact, the more we will come to realize that our humanity transcends all differences.


Art in any form is a medium for dialogue, which is a powerful tool. It is time for the music world to produce sound stories that ignite dialogue about the mystery of us. When we say the mystery of us, we’re talking about reflecting and challenging the fears, which prevent us from discovering our unlimited access to the courage inherent in us all. Yes, you are enough. Yes, you matter. Yes, you should keep going.

Arrogance can develop within artists, either from artists who believe that their status makes them more important, or those whose association with a creative field entitles them to some sort of superiority. Beware of ego; creativity cannot flow when only the ego is served.


The medical field has an organization called Doctors Without Borders. This lofty effort can serve as a model for transcending the limitations and strategies of old business formulas which are designed to perpetuate old systems in the guise of new ones. We’re speaking directly to a system that’s in place, a system that conditions consumers to purchase only the products that are dictated to be deemed marketable, a system where money is only the means to an end. The music business is a fraction of the business of life. Living with creative integrity can bring forth benefits never imagined.


Your elders can help you. They are a source of wealth in the form of wisdom. They have weathered storms and endured the same heartbreaks; let their struggles be the light that shines the way in the darkness. Don’t waste time repeating their mistakes. Instead, take what they’ve done and catapult you towards building a progressively better world for the progeny to come.


As we accumulate years, parts of our imagination tend to dull. Whether from sadness, prolonged struggle, or social conditioning, somewhere along the way people forget how to tap into the inherent magic that exists within our minds. Don’t let that part of your imagination fade away. Look up at the stars and imagine what it would be like to be an astronaut or a pilot. Imagine exploring the pyramids or Machu Picchu. Imagine flying like a bird or crashing through a wall like Superman. Imagine running with dinosaurs or swimming like mer-creatures. All that exists is a product of someone’s imagination; treasure and nurture yours and you’ll always find yourself on the precipice of discovery.


How does any of this lend to the creation of a peaceful society you ask? It begins with a cause. Your causes create the effects that shape your future and the future of all those around you. Be the leaders in the movie of your life. You are the director, producer, and actor. Be bold and tirelessly compassionate as you dance through the voyage that is this lifetime.



whats next?

This is a great point to conclude. All artists across the globe are different, no matter if you’re part of a string quartet or a punk rocker, or video director or sculpture you reach your audience on a deep and emotional level deeper than any other speaker, journalist or politician. With great power comes great responsibility (to quote the Spiderman comic).


We as artists should utilise this power and to become “vehicles for the construction of peace” like Herbie Hancock & Wayne Shorter poignantly put it.


No matter what issue you choose to back please use your power and influence to help make this world a better place for us all

Peace and love