As a time of significant change, the late 1960’s gave rise to the familiar sight of hippies and protests, as a counter-culture movement awakened that aimed to fuse the mainstream with public consciousness. While, in those days, politics and art were often so intertwined that it was hard to separate the artist from their cause, the times of the revolutionary artist have all but disappeared, without anyone seeming to have substantially mourned the loss.
In a time when political discourse has taken to the backburner in the music scene, it can be hard to remember whose tunes sprung directly from the roots of their political vision and really took the public consciousness by storm. Many bands have more than mastered their command of bar chords or the hook for the next summer hit, but others have tasked their music with a more pressing purpose, raising the awareness of fans and their innate sense of justice along with it.
Public Enemy may have developed a reputation for many of their own perceived prejudices, but they changed the landscape for hip-hop and brought many issues facing black Americans to the forefront, while Pete Seeger, whose recent passing reignited his legacy, remained an impassioned activist and musician from the 1950’s up until the end of his life. While the following bands and musicians had a conscience that politicized the mainstream for a time, they also leave behind the hope that there are more like them to rise again in the future, to command the attention of the public once again and mobilize a sense of rebellion.
Formed in Olympia, Washington in 1989 by Kathleen Hanna, Billy Karren, Kathi Wilcox and Tobi Vail, Bikini Kill is one of few bands that sprung directly out of their larger political concerns. With lead singer Hanna an impassioned poet and Vail the writer of a feminist zine Jigsaw, the band was started in the hopes of addressing many of the issues facing women that had long been a point of contention for its members.
Though the fast, ragged style of many of Bikini Kill’s songs have fallen away from familiarity, the political questions asked by Hanna and the band kick-started a girl-style revolution, bringing issues like sexism, insecurity and sexual abuse to the forefront of the music scene, with Hanna making girls at the front of the stage a staple of many of their shows. While Bikini Kill disbanded in 1997, they’re all but solely responsible for giving birth to the Riot Grrrl movement’s prominence in the early 1990’s and persist as feminist rock icons that have not been followed by a female group so boldly political since.
Nowadays, the band might be more familiarly known for the on-screen antics of hype man Flavor Flav, but for a period of time, Public Enemy was one of the most politically charged bands on the hip-hop landscape. Started in 1982 and consisting of Chuck D, Flavor Flav, DJ Lord, Khari Wynn and Professor Griff, the group came to the forefront of the scene on albums like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988) and Fear of a Black Planet (1990). With an eclectic music style that utilized elements of rhythm and blues, rap and hip hop, Public Enemy hit the mainstream with lyrics that focused in on issues facing the black community in the United States, from the white domination of the media to the continued existence of racism as was expressed in songs like “Burn Hollywood Burn” and “Brothers Gonna Work it Out”.
While the band was often accused of the perpetuation of a different set of stereotypes, including anti-Semitic and homophobic lyrics and statements, their consciousness raising has made them heroes in the world of hip hop and they became the 4th hip-hop band inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on December 11, 2012.
Born on May 3, 1919, Pete Seeger’s recent death on January 27, 2014 at the age of 94 reignited his legacy as one of music’s most prolific and political artists. While Seeger gained prominence for songs like “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, it was the 1940’s band The Weavers that gave Seeger his name, and launched him into a life of political protest after they were listed as a Communist Group during the McCarthy Era.
Instead of disappearing from the limelight after The Weavers broke up in 1968, Seeger became a solo folk artist who sung and protested for the causes of civil rights, environmental responsibility and nuclear disarmament, turning himself into an icon for the 1960’s counter culture that was burgeoning. Along with many other activist folksingers of the time, Seeger was also responsible for the automatic era anthem “We Shall Overcome”, which was released in 1963. Passionate until the end of his life, Seeger marched with Occupy Wall Street on October 21, 2011 and performed at Farm Aid on September 21, 2013, and today retains his legacy as a folk musician who was a champion for many human rights issues of the times.
Rage Against the Machine
Formed in 1991, American band Rage Against the Machine (RATM) came out of the gate running with their self-titled debut released in 1992. Comprised of Zack de la Rocha, Tim Commerford, Tom Morello and Brad Wilk, the metal-rap style that the band quickly made their signature came along with a political platform that their lyrics rarely diverged from.
Broaching issues that ranged from the foreign policy of the United States government to the imprisonment of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Rage Against the Machine viewed their music as a channel through which they could reach and ignite the masses, participating in numerous political protests and even shutting down the NYSE, the center of capitalist culture, for a few minutes while filming their video for “Sleep Now in the Fire”. While the band received criticism for their major label affiliation and use of mainstream channels, they became one of few dissenting voices to hit popular culture hard. Though frontman de la Rocha left the band in 2000 and RATM is currently on hiatus, they are among the most political of bands in recent years to push themselves into the forefront.
Formed in 1976 in London, England, The Clash is one of the most seminal bands to come out of the late 1970’s punk explosion that overthrew Britain’s music scene. Consisting of Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Nicky Headon and briefly featuring Terry Chimes, The Clash appeared with their timely blend of reggae, rock and funk on their eponymously named 1977 release. While it was 1979’s London Calling that vaulted the band to international acclaim, it was the The Clash’s unique approach of uniting punk and the political that changed the course of music, and gave punk more gravity for the masses.
The Clash, often seen as planting themselves firmly on the left, took issue with the power structures of the day and their lyrics broached problems as commonplace as low-paying jobs and discontentment with the status quo to the larger world issues of foreign policy and government secrecy. While the band’s final album, Cut the Crap (1985), sealed the nail for one of punk’s most potent bands, The Clash represent a high-water mark for the power of music to go well beyond the personal and mobilize the masses into fighting for, and rebelling against, the powers that be.