“An artist’s duty, as far I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” These are the seminal words of Nina Simone, a musical legend and civil rights activist whose lyrical discussions of race, violence and oppression are as famous as her extraordinary voice.
Political turmoil has always inspired artists to speak out; punk was a radical reaction to Thatcher’s reign, hip-hop has always been deeply rooted in politics and Billie Holliday’s "Strange Fruit" was voted the song of the 20th century by TIME. Making music as entertainment is vital. Making music that inspires real change, however, is even more vital.
Read on as we take a look into branded activism, #Wokepop and the problems that come when brands and artists combining commercial and social ambitions.
The last few years have seen a revival, in sorts, of ‘protest music.’ A slew of high-profile musicians have created musical responses to an increasingly chaotic world; Kendrick Lamar rapped about racial oppression and police brutality in front of a burning car at the Grammys; ANOHNI created a hit single around the theme of drone warfare; Solange crafted an entire opus, A Seat At The Table, whose themes ranged from self-care and racial profiling to the politics of black hair. It’s also impossible to forget Lemonade, a blazing audio-visual narrative which celebrates black womanhood, crafts alternate representation and rallies against institutional racism.
This brings us to 2017, a year of global uncertainty, rising hate crime and, of course, Donald Trump. Things aren’t great. Various celebrities last year hit the campaign trail, speaking out in support of Hillary Clinton and urging their fans to support the Democrats via social media. #ImWithHer became an international trend – stars and brands that were typically apolitical suddenly felt compelled to speak out. Now, as we enter the first full year of Trump’s reign, it looks likely that the worlds of politics and pop music will become more intertwined than ever.
Consequentially, activism has never been more on-trend. Designers are becoming increasingly, and questionably, political, whereas the world of big-brand advertising is quickly becoming – to put things lightly – an absolute shitshow. Pepsi set the ball rolling, implying that police brutality could be solved by nothing more than a supermodel, a smile and, of course, a reasonably-priced light refreshment. Heineken then presented their take, which sent the message that trans women should simply sit down and engage with transphobes over (of course) a beer.
This sponsored utopian world is irresponsible at best – the reality is that, when trans women do come out, they run the risk of being beaten, verbally abused or even murdered, a fact proven by the unprecedented homicide rates against trans women of color in particular (which are sketchy at best, given that many trans women can’t afford to correct their gender identity on legal documents).
Meanwhile, the conversation in the context of pop music has been dominated by one woman: Katy Perry. Last year, she quietly changed her Twitter bio to: ‘Artist. Activist. Conscious.’ Because what’s the point of being #woke if you can’t tell people, right? Many were quick to point out that Perry hasn’t exactly got the best track record – "I Kissed a Girl" presented some fairly questionable implications about bisexuality, whereas "Ur So Gay" was literally an entire song about shaming effeminate men.
She’s also been accused of cultural appropriation on more than one occasion – so far, so good. Still, she has a strong track record when it comes to charitable donations, and it is, of course, possible for people to unlearn old ways of thinking and become more socially aware, so many were willing to give her a chance.
Her first large-scale statement came in the form of "Chained to the Rhythm," a ska-infused bop which encouraged us all to “dance, dance, dance to the distortion.” She later went on to perform the track at the Brits alongside giant inflatable versions of Donald Trump and Theresa May, attracting positive reviews and heralding a shiny new era of “purposeful pop”.
Even the accompanying video posited a candy-colored dystopia which lifted (extremely) heavily from Black Mirror, whereas a recent Vogue interview saw her describe her journey to political consciousness: “I’ve seen behind the curtain and I can’t go back. I used to be the queen of innuendo, everything done with a wink. Now I want to be the queen of subtext – which is a cousin to innuendo, but it’s got more purpose.” Note that Perry’s follow-up single, "Bon Appétit," was a comparatively non-woke collaboration with Migos, who were recently accused of homophobia.
The incorporation of meaningful messages into pop music is no bad thing. Artists should feel able to commentate on today’s cultural climate without fear, and use their platform to reach their fans. However, when behemoth record labels, streaming revenue and sales come into play, things get trickier. After all, the music industry relies on trends, an artist’s public image and strong marketing – when an artist like Perry prefaces every interview with a statement on how ‘conscious’ she is, it comes across as contrived, even disingenuous.
It’s no secret that artists change between albums – the likes of Madonna and Lady Gaga are revered for their chameleonic ability to shift between various genres and sounds. Sometimes, however, these shifts need to be questioned, particularly when they lift from other cultures or treat political consciousness as a temporary trend. A recent example comes courtesy of Miley Cyrus, who stated in a Billboard interview that her new album would be a radical departure from 2013’s hugely successful Bangerz. That particular era saw Cyrus borrow heavily from black culture and saw her credited with the popularization of twerking, a dance which had been an essential fixture of bounce music for decades before.
Bounce legend Big Freedia spoke out on this – although she prefaced her statement by saying that the unprecedented attention which came via Cyrus was welcome, the star didn’t exactly credit her references. “I’ve been transforming twerking for the last three years around the world,” said Freedia. “For her to just come out of the blue and just start twerking, a lot of people are very offended by it, especially in New Orleans.”
Now, Cyrus says she no longer listens to hip-hop – a comment which caused huge online controversy, which she then responded to. Oh, and she also wants to incorporate political messages into her new music, which she says will be less a case of “preaching to the choir” and will, instead, be toned-down and seemingly more mainstream. Although Cyrus’ justification is arguably valid, it still exemplifies the problem – artists often dip in and out of topics between albums, temporarily adopting certain personas when it suits them.
With the increasing likelihood of more stars tapping into the growing trend of ‘purposeful pop’, it is important to analyse what we see and hear. Are these messages genuine, or are they nothing more than a clunky marketing tactic being used to generate sales? Political statements are, of course, divisive – with this in mind, how revolutionary can mainstream pop truly be if still sells?
This isn’t to say that pop music can’t make meaningful statements. It can. But, in a world where activism is being neatly packaged, stamped and sold by corporations with questionable backgrounds and stars with questionable opinions, the importance of consumers remaining ‘conscious’ and wary of PR tactics can not be underestimated.
For more analysis, we ask whether it's time to stop blaming hip-hop for violent behavior.