You must have seen the shocking and amazing This is America from Childish Gambino/Donald Glover by now. If you haven’t, then go watch it, watch it again a second-time, then come back to this. I’ll wait…
…bloody good, isn’t it?!
As soon as it appeared on YouTube it stunned people in their millions, currently sitting at over 160m views after just two weeks. This is America is a stark 180º by Glover from the kind of introspective self-aware poppy hip-hop that helped make his name (aside from his star-turn in Community); all moody trap beats and cynical statements belying the horrors unfolding around him in the video.
In the days following the video release, Twitter was awash with analysis, breakdowns, and personal interpretations of Gambino’s video, pointing out the subtle (and not-so-subtle) references to Jim Crow-era America, the Charleston church massacre, the four horsemen of the apocalypse and everything in between. It was the first time for a few years that an artistic political statement had made such a massive impact, reigniting debates and reminding people of battles that were still to be fought, while others questioned Glover’s motives and whether some of his metaphors were in the best of taste.
What is it about music that makes it such a great conduit for political discourse? Here we take a look at some other notable protest songs from history, some you’ll have heard, and some you may have not.
Dead Kennedys – We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now (1981)
San Francisco punk troublemakers Dead Kennedys used their platform to voice their disgust and dis-satisfaction with ‘80s America from the very beginning of their controversial career. They memorably attacked Democratic Governor of California Jerry Brown and his ‘suede denim secret police’ on the blistering California Über Alles on their debut Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables.
It’s the spiritual successor We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now from the In God We Trust, Inc. album that’s a much stronger statement, attacking the newly-inaugurated Ronald Reagan. Starting as a lounge jazz number with subtle digs at Richard Nixon, it slips into venomous hardcore punk with frontman Jello Biafra comparing Reagan’s ideals to the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis, amongst others. Don’t hold me responsible if you smash up your living room while listening to this.
Dixie Chicks – Not Ready to Make Nice (2005)
Part political protest, part statement of intent. Dixie Chicks released Not Ready to Make Nice in 2005, hot on the heels of their inflammatory comments about George Bush in the wake of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It’s safe to say they rubbed just a few people up the wrong way.
The country rock trio received numerous death threats and were almost ostracised completely from the country music world. With a large portion of their core demographic being white American Republicans, it was a ballsy move to publicly denounce the president. Not Ready to Make Nice ended up becoming Dixie Chicks’ biggest single to date, a fiery declaration of pride and a staunch defence of their views and actions, scooping accolades and awards left right and centre.
Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (1971)
The title-track off of Gaye’s magnum opus, What’s Going On was the soul legend’s dismay at police brutality and the disharmony in Vietnam War-era America. A notable shift compared to the optimistic ballads which formed the basis of Gaye’s career, the singer stated after the 1965 Watts riots of Los Angeles that “with the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?”
A smooth soul ballad, What’s Going On finds Gaye crooning – seemingly on the verge of tears – taking on the persona of a returning Vietnam veteran, shattered by the violence overseas and the violent state of America that he has come home to. Regarded by critics and fans alike as one of the greatest songs ever recorded, What’s Going On is truly timeless, speaking both to the power of the composition, and the unfortunate continued relevancy of it in 21st century America.
Pussy Riot – Mother of God, Put Putin Away (2012)
The notorious Russian punk-protest collective made global headlines following their arrest and imprisonment in 2012 after a guerrilla performance in a Moscow Russian Orthodox Church. Indicted on charges of ‘hooliganism, motivated by religious hatred’ the plight of Pussy Riot caught the imagination of millions, with ‘FREE PUSSY RIOT’ emblazoned on t shirts, social media posts, and daubed on walls and buildings the world over.
An attack against Vladimir Putin, the Russian Orthodox Church itself, and a plea to the Virgin Mary to become a feminist, Mother of God, Put Putin Away is a call-to-arms for pissed off under-valued women striving to smash the patriarchy no matter where they are. Get a balaclava and a slingshot for any little girls you know and show this to them, it could change their lives. In fact, why not go and see them at the Byline Festival?
Black Eyed Peas – Street Livin’ (2018)
Now hang on, bear with me here. Yes, those Black Eyed Peas. That gang of happy upstarts who just love a party, the Black Eyed Peas of I Gotta Feeling fame, will.i.am and the lads. Although, those familiar with the fourtet’s previous incarnation as a conscious hip-hop trio in the mid-‘90s will not be surprised to see their name here.
Back to a three-piece (after the departure of Fergie) the Black Eyed Peas re-emerged earlier this year with Street Livin’. A pissed off jam about the continuing police brutality suffered by American POC at the hands of white police, Street Livin’ is also a plea for black America to stop supporting the narrative written for them by white America for the past 200 years. Set to a sombre muted trumpet and sampled hi-hats, Street Livin’ is a startling return to form which unfortunately went largely un-noticed. I can’t wait to hear the follow-up.