01/23/2015 12:42 EST | Updated 03/25/2015 05:59 EDT

Mainstream Music Isn't Political Like it Used to Be

Instead of expecting socially relevant music or artistic works from mainstream artists, it is high time for us to give our support to cultural workers or artists whose songs and other productions are the voice of the voiceless.

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It should not come as a big surprise that the recent massacre of Nigerians in the town of Baga and surrounding communities has received very little media coverage from the international press or reaction from world leaders. It was not until two weeks after over 200 young girls were kidnapped that the Bring Back our Girls campaign garnered any mainstream media attention. The terrorist attack in the city of Maiduguri killed 19 people in Nigeria just three days after the Charlie Hebdo-related killings in France has received even less news coverage in spite of an outcry against terrorism and its victims in North America and Europe.

Clearly, world leaders and the international media community continue to remind us that the lives of African people are undeserving of air time and their lives are simply not valued. However, rather than becoming fixated on the question of why one of the bloodiest massacres in the millennium have received such little attention from global leaders and mainstream media, perhaps we ought to turn our question to the lack of visibility that popular music artists have played in all of this. After all, like political leaders, popular musical artists are public figures and they are the ones who many of us often look up to as role models.

Indeed, music has served as a major vehicle in raising social consciousness among the masses. Early jazz and blues singers used their music to highlight the poverty, poor housing conditions and unemployment in the American ghettos. With the limited technology available, their messages were mainly within the confines of major U.S. cities. The sixties however ushered in a wave of musical artists who had greater opportunity to use their music to contribute to social activism and to effect change globally.

For instance, in the early sixties much of Bob Dylan's lyrics spoke directly to poverty, racism and anti-war sentiments which appeared on his well-known album "The Freewheeling' Bob Dylan." Protest themes were also commonly heard in the music of Gil Scott Heron with his popular The Revolution Will Not be Televisedand many other songs. Curtis Mayfield was a cultural worker who filled his songs with socially relevant content as evidenced by the album The Very Best of Curtis Mayfield. The all-women a cappella group Sweet Honey in The Rock was a symbol of the arts being used as a weapon of struggle. Its songElla's Song captures that spirit of resistance.

The 1960s and 1970s marked a significant era where music became an instrumental tool for Black musical artists to begin to call attention to oppressive social systems that denied Africans their human rights and to rally for global solidarity against colonialism, imperialism and racism. Celebrated reggae singers such as Bob Marley and Peter Tosh used their music persistently to not only sing about the domestic issues afflicting their native country Jamaica, but their music resonate with political struggles within the African diaspora. It was through the lyrical content from such artists that some parts of the world became exposed for the first time to the cruelty of apartheid and equally the suffering and exploitation of Africans at the hands of the imperial powers. Many other artists in different genres were also expressing their solidarity with the imprisoned Mandela at the time as well as singing about the residues of colonialism on the continent.

In the 1980s reggae music from other parts of the world joined in to use the said genre to protest against social injustices worldwide. The Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) singer Alpha Blondy's song Apartheid Nazism, called for U.S. intervention to end the segregation in South Africa. And Nigerian singer Fela Kuti used the Afro beats from his native Nigeria to address troubling issues in his country. In 1977, Fela and the Afrika '70 released the albumZombie, a derisive attack on Nigerian soldiers and the military regime. Fela used the zombie as a metaphor to personify the repressive methods of the Nigerian military. The song angered Nigerian

government and it almost cost him his life.

Hip hop music emerging from the 1980s resounded similar political messages to its listeners aimed at the U.S. government. Popular hip hop acts such Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy, and A Tribe Call Quest candidly spoke against police brutality in inner city communities of America as well as bringing awareness to other forms of institutionalized racism. And like earlier musical artists, they also used the media (appearing on talk shows, documentaries etc.) as an outlet to openly express their "radical" political views.

A more international challenge for social activism came from the music of Peruvian born hip hop artist Immortal Technique in the early 2000, whose lyrics addressed global class struggle, imperialism and structural violence meted against racialized people globally.

Sadly, there seems to be a current trend of silence on political and social issues as the mainstream artists in popular musical genres tend to be less concerned with sending out politically conscious music and are more caught up in fulfilling a capitalist agenda of getting rich quick and or distorting the intended purpose of the music. Alternatively, many of us as consumers of popular music choose to settle for trendy hashtags sported by high profile celebrity every so often when a selected and suitable news item gets the attention of mainstream media and the global community.

One can perhaps understand Harry Belafonte's sharp criticism and frustration of Jay Z for failing to exercise his social responsibility as a high profile celebrity. Belafonte has been one of the earlier musical artists to produce political conscious lyrics such as "The Banana Boat Song (Day 'O) " and he has remained actively involved in social movements.

This is not to say that all songs must be political in nature and we cannot listen to music for enjoyment. However, music over the years have helped immensely to draw our attention to pressing social issues and it is not naïve to expect many of these popular musical artists to use their music to increase social awareness around the forgotten lives of racialized people and other socially dominated groups.

Within a globalized and technological world where information is so easily disseminated and accessible, music still remains a powerful tool to inform the masses and to powerfully support political and social change. The call for a socially engaged art, especially in the United States, would be incomplete without referencing the Black Arts Movement and its shining example of artistic expressions that are committed to social liberation and self-determination.

Instead of expecting socially relevant music or artistic works from mainstream artists, it is high time for us to give our support to cultural workers or artists whose songs and other productions are the voice of the voiceless.

However, mainstream artists will reflect the political needs and interests of the people when we have mass movements with organizations that are organizing the people for social change. It is not coincidental that the music of the 1960s and 1970s reflected emancipatory sensibilities. We need to build mass movements today to advance the interests of the oppressed at home and abroad.


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