2015 was arguably the year of music as political protest. The fact that there are still people out on the streets in some parts of the U.S. chanting “We gon’ be alright” in solidarity with the victims of police brutality is a testament to the power of music to enact social change. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” has become an anthem for the anti-police movement in the United States in large part because it speaks to the universal. In a world of global terrorism, growing concerns about climate change, and systematic racial violence against minorities and people of color, we need music to express those fears and to stand in solidarity against them. Perhaps this is one reason why albums such as Run the Jewels’ RTJ2, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, and J. Cole’s 2014 Forrest Hills Drive became so popular in 2015—all albums released at the end of last year that seem to anticipate the radical formal experimentation and political message taken up by Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and the slew of popular “gangsta” rap albums in 2015 that include Joey Bada$$’s B4.DA.$$$, Dr. Dre’s Compton, and Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06.
However, the politicization of music in 2015 extends further to white artists and bands such as the brilliantly-named The War on Drugs, whose highly acclaimed 2014 album Lost in the Dream reached a wider audience this year with its nostalgic 70s-rock sound that has experienced a revival in the last few years with artists like Kurt Vile, Tame Impala, Mac DeMarco, and the Eagles of Death Metal—who gained notoriety in the last few weeks as they were the band playing when the Bataclan was stormed by terrorists that killed more than 120 people in Paris last month. The 70s-rock revival movement that has gained wider popularity in the last year is arguably a result of a desire for peace and reconciliation in the wake of some of the events of recent years that mirrors the sense of a dream of peace that was alive in the 1970s as a result of the Vietnam War, the anti-war movement in the U.S., and other events that shaped the 60s and 70s and the politically-charged music that we tend to associate with those decades.
The expression of political popular music is something that extends to today, as well, with the rise of electronic music and the female auteur, such as M.I.A., the Sri-Lankan born daughter of a political activist who blends Eastern and Western influences in her work. Earlier this week, she dropped a brand new song called “Borders,” which critiques the Western response to the Syrian refugee crisis and has been talked about by Pitchfork in an article called “How M.I.A. Is a Lifeline in Times of Terror.” Revisiting her earlier music, it is worth noting that although political themes underpin much of her work, M.I.A. has never been this overtly political before. In the video for “Borders,” she travels on boats with refugees and poses on barbed wire fences and atop CCTV cameras, while dropping lines like “Borders / What’s up with that?” and “Politics / What’s up with that?”
M.I.A represents pop’s politicization in recent years and can be compared with other women artists making bold statements about pop this year, such as Grimes, Bjork, and FKA twigs.
Bjork is perhaps the most political of the three in her activism for the environment and recent call for global action to save Iceland’s highlands. Artists like David Bowie, Damon Albarn, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Phil Selway, and Flea of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers are now urging world leaders to reach a deal on climate change at the current UN conference in Paris. Last week, Thom Yorke and Flea played Yorke’s “Atoms for Peace” on “Le Grand Journal,” where they also sat down to talk about climate change and politics. This weekend, Yorke, Flea, Patti Smith and more played at the Pathway to Paris concert at Le Trianon. The world’s music leaders are urging people to pressure their governments and ensure that the politicians reach some kind of meaningful agreement at the Paris conference, and are leading a political revival of music as a result. However, their messages all seem to be ones of peace and resolution and can only serve to unify people. In the words of Kendrick Lamar, we gon’ be alright.