Nobody reading this needs to be told that we’re living in fractured times. The country has been split in two, pretty much since the current president’s electoral campaign began. The UK is in a similar state thanks to Brexit. Countries as far-apart as France, Australia, and Brazil have seen a startling rise in extreme right wing politicians entering the mainstream. It’s all a big fucking mess.
Naturally, where there is discourse, public figures will stand up and speak out against it. Musicians will talk about it and they’ll write music about it. Actors will voice their concerns. A worrying trend of late is for those actions to be met with resistance and ridicule, particularly online. Robert de Niro will criticize Trump and the responding comments will be, “I pay you to act for me, not talk politics. Dance money dance.”
This, of course, is bullshit. Public figures have a responsibility to speak out, especially against injustice when they see it. But the idea that musicians in particular should be quiet and play their songs is beyond nonsensical. Because social issues, politics; these are things that drive musicians and always have. That’s why we wanted to introduce this new column, to highlight the many areas where music and politics have intersected.
There’s a lot of road ahead of us to be travelled. Because essentially, music has dealt with politics and social issues since there ever was music. As has all art. The greatest bagpipe tunes ever written, such as “Flowers of the Forest”, were about the Scots at war. Hair-raising songs about the young men of Scotland being defeated by the English. We will look into the history of various national anthems and how they came to be chosen (from a patriotic perspective) while also diving into the admirable world of protest music.
Of course, if we’re going to talk about social issues and the early intersection, then we have to look at religion. All over the world, societies were shaped by religion and a strong belief in god(s) led to a need to sing or chant to them. In ancient Egypt it was believed the cow-horned goddess Bat created music. In Greek mythology Pan had his pipes. But the pure act of worship, joyous or otherwise, was often accompanied with music.
When you consider the fact that many countries, including China, Japan, and Egypt, operated as theocracies for a long time (Iran, among others, still does), then it soon becomes clear that religious music and political music have been one and the same at many points in history.
Since humans have been worshipping deities, music has been involved. Whether that be simple chanting, the inclusion of drums, or more elaborate hymns and prayers. Nowadays with Christianity prayers tend to be spoken and hymns sung, but with Islam prayers are sung and often boomed out in the streets.
Of course, the use of music in religion at the point where worship meets politics raises its own problems. In some cases (not all, but some), the religion and the associated music is being used to control the people. It might sometimes sound joyous but there is an underlying theme there—to keep citizens in line. The idea that: This is the music that you should be singing, at strict designated times, because this is what god and your leaders want.
We recently attended a screening of How They Got Over: Gospel Quartets and the Road to Rock and Roll at the Grammy Museum, a film directed by Robert Clem that explores gospel from about 1865 (the end of the civil war and slavery) onwards. In the film, we see the very best of what gospel music offers—unadulterated, passionate joy and, importantly, hope. The voices, the power, is mindblowing.
But we’re also reminded that all religious music is dogmatic. The gospel scene, particularly when radio popularized the music from the 1920s onwards, looked with frowning eyes on secular music, whether that be blues and bluegrass or, later rock and roll and R&B. When Sam Cooke left his gospel band The Soul Stirrers to play secular music and then tried to rejoin down the line, it was made clear to him that he was not welcome.
That mindset seems illogical and self-defeating today, but we must hold judgement and allow for context. The horror of slavery was raw and fresh in the minds of many who held American gospel dear in the early days. Culturally, gospel was something that you just didn’t turn your back on.
Spiritual songs such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Steal Away (To Jesus)” had been sung by slaves to coordinate work and attempt to keep spirits up, while songs were used to pass coded messages about the slave masters.
So culturally, spiritual/gospel music wasn’t simply about worship when it started to be broadcast into American homes in the roaring ’20s. It was also about survival. About a necessary means of holding onto hope in the face of unconscionable evil. Therefore, it makes complete sense that it would be considered so precious.
It’s worth noting, of course, that singers who turned to secular music didn’t necessarily spend the remainder of their careers writing vapid lyrics. There are many examples of soul, bluegrass, etc. musicians commenting on social and political issues. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On is just one example that we’ll explore in depth in future columns.
Essentially though, an exploration of the point where music and social issues meet had to begin with religion. It might not be the sexiest topic but it was a vital kicking off point. Music is an important ingredient to religion, and religion has played such a huge role in world events for better and (probably more often) for worse. So many wars are justified using religion. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia. Religion has been behind so much of it, and sadly, there’s always a soundtrack.