As we were putting the finishing touches to this issue I ducked out for a couple of hours. It wasn’t to eat Falafel King or catch some rays — although those were both welcome bonuses — I was headed to the #EndAusterityNow march.
I saw many faces from the local music scene, some obvious, some less so, and the link between art and activism seemed clearer than ever as we stood in the near-summer sun. But as I found myself impulsively tweeting to the eleven thousand Bristol Live followers instead of my own meager smattering, I felt a twinge of conflict. To quote Carrie Bradshaw, “I got to thinking”. What is the role of music in politics?
Catching up with Dan Lane from leftfield faves Goan Dogs, I donned my 1930s ‘Press’ hat and asked for his two cents. “Music and protest have always been intrinsically linked,” he told me. “Both are led by passion and personal experience, and both can evoke strong feelings. We’re proud that Bristol is standing up to be heard”. It’s certainly true that music permeates, amongst other things, our politics. The work of artists like Billy Bragg can travel from the Miners’ Strikes of the 1980s, deep into our collective consciousness, and be spat back out by top-dweller Ed Miliband on Desert Island Discs a decade later. Public Enemy’s ‘Fight The Power’ is one of history’s many great Civil Rights Movement anthems, known best for its (premeditated) appearance in Spike Lee’s 1989 film ‘Do the Right Thing’, which examined race relations in a frank and human way. Did a song politicise the youth? It did, at the very least, answer a call.
Perhaps the most sincere form of political art comes from those not looking to start a movement at all. The Jesuits’ Arthur Jay may reckon so: “Music can have a part to play in politics, but I don’t necessarily believe musicians have a responsibility to become activists. Bob Dylan was both criticised and placed on a pedestal; by the movements, press and government of his time and beyond. All he did was write some songs about things he cared about, he didn’t ask to become an instrument for social or political change.”
But whether intended or not, there’s something to this music thing. Historically, artists have been targeted alongside political opponents by dictators and rebellions alike. During Chile’s Operation Condor-owing Civil War, folk singer Víctor Jara was tactically interned by the Nixon-backed military. Despite beatings, he continued to write and perform from within the camp, becoming a source of strength for the many unfortunates before he was promptly done away with. If music is not a pillar of political power, why do they fear it so? James Stockhausen [Scarlet Rascal, The Kitchenettes] put it to me well: “Whilst mainstream politics has become the art of lying, good music will always be about some form of truth.”
Protest music can however, at times, point to something of a disconnect. As the gentleman to my left blasted out Rage Against The Machine, I wondered whether his understanding of the issues at hand went deeper than platitudes like ‘take the power back’. Scene mainstay Robin Stuart [The Naturals, Giant Swan] had a similar thought. “The song choice struck me as appropriate only in so far as that this man’s understanding of ‘protest music’, or whatever you want to call it, can be perfectly encapsulated by playing songs with that message.” Indeed the truth does resist simplicity, and perhaps such inadvertently redacted battle cries do more harm than good. “I feel like politics within music is just as corrupt as the politics we were protesting on Wednesday 13th,” says Robin.
So should we give our hearts and rest then and listen to our patiently waiting heads? Well, no. Feeling, I believe, is not the opposite of thinking. It’s the spark you need to act on the things you know to be true. It’s what makes people translate their thoughts into actions. So if you’re a musician, why not write a political song and pass it on? “They don’t care about what we’re doing here, this might not even make the mainstream press. It’s everyone here’s responsibility to share what we’ve seen today,” said one of the more eloquent MCs on the day. Hopefully I am doing my part here.
I must admit that the march itself was impressive. Not only was it sizeable but, where it was organised simply by seven sixth form girls, the ‘we can’ message was inarguable. And with even local Police congratulating them on their success, maybe we really are ‘all in this together’. Sometimes change comes from within the system, other times from outside it; both are valid and, dare I say, our duty to participate in — not just voting periodically.
Where Karl Marx may have cemented economics at the heart of politics for both the left and right, it is perhaps more accurate (and productive) that it orbit the human spirit; our experiences, relationships and dreams. And when you look at it that way, for better or worse, music and politics will forever be entwined. Just make sure you’re listening carefully.