From the 1960s onwards, Bob Dylan didn’t only delve into politics and social issues with his lyrics, he proved that you could sell millions of records by doing exactly that. In the coming weeks, we’ll look at the many artists who were either overtly taking note, or later benefitted from the path that he put in place. From Bruce Springsteen to The Clash, Public Enemy to Rage Against the Machine, even John Lennon and Frank Zappa, the music world is full of artists who were able to look to Dylan for a guiding light, and we’ll examine them all in depth.
But let’s fast-forward to today for a week. Because, as has been said many times, we might be living in the most politically divisive times in recent history. These days, the left and right are no longer being viewed as two valid belief systems/lifestyles that exist in the same space. The right view the left as people determined to take rights away (the second amendment, etc.) while allowing a flood of immigrants into the country unchecked. They see the left (incorrectly) as “unAmerican.” Meanwhile, we on the left see the right as gun-toting racists and homophobes, pro-lifers who are hypocritically pro-death penalty. Old white people who are terrified of movements such #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, because equality feels like oppression to the privileged. How the hell are we supposed to live in peace?
Those looking to the man himself will be disappointed. As far as we can tell, Dylan has kept his opinions about Donald Trump to himself and, while that’s mildly disappointing, we should remind ourselves that it shouldn’t be left to a 77 year old folkie to fight the status quo for the young people of today. He worked hard enough decades ago.
With all of that in mind, the question we really need to ask is, who is the Bob Dylan of today? Who are the musicians willing to stand up and be counted at a time when we need it most? Who can we count on to provide a voice for the voiceless? Fortunately there are many contemporary artists and groups who are fighting the good fight and tackling numerous issues, both with their music and also in the form of activism and philanthropy. One of those is Anti-Flag.
In March of 2016, talking to this writer for the Westword alt-weekly, Anti-Flag frontman and founding member Justin Sane said of the Republican presidential candidates, “It’s like they live on a different planet. Their ideas are so backward and Draconian. They’re so out of touch with mainstream America, I don’t possibly see how any of the Republicans could get elected president.”
DOH! Sane jinxed it. Even while he, to be fair, echoed what many of us thought at the time. Meanwhile, Sane thought that Bernie Sanders was an exciting, refreshing candidate. “It’s interesting to see topics that Sanders is speaking about are now very mainstream issues, in the Democratic Party, at least. I think that a big part of that has to do with artists such as ourselves who have been putting these ideas out into society. It’s really exciting and interesting to see how art can have an impact on society.”
All of that is consistent with the politics of a band which, as the name suggests, has never been afraid to speak their collective mind while ruffling a few feathers. Their support for organizations including (but not exclusive to) Amnesty International, PETA, Democracy Now! and Greenpeace extends to those groups having booths at Anti-Flag gigs. Meanwhile, the song lyrics leave little to the imagination.
“You’ve gotta die, gotta die, gotta die for your government?
Die for your country? That’s shit!
There’s a Gulf War vet, dying a slow, cold death
And the government says, ‘We don’t know the source of his sickness.’
But don’t believe what they say, because your government is lying
They’ve done it before and don’t you know they’ll do it again.”
– “You’ve Got To Die For the Government”
Of course, Anti-Flag are far from the only punk band to delve into the world of politics. Even the poppiest of pop-punk bands have dipped their toes in (see Green Day’s American Idiot). But there are also plenty more bands that have made politics the focus of their attention. One such group is the SP’s, formed in Atlanta and based in Los Angeles.
“This current climate is the worst of my life,” band member Steve Albertson told this writer recently. “George Bush started wars that are going on even now. But now we have this goofball who’s letting people be pieces-of-shit Nazis. I have these far-left political leanings, but with everything that happened with Trump, my optimism with people has diminished. I used to believe in the best in people, and now people feel like it’s OK to be shitty to people. I just hate it.”
Get Better Records
Get Better Records, an independent label out of Philadelphia, has the slogan: “For the queers by the queers — no sexist, racist, transphobic, homophobic, apologist bullshit will be tolerated,” on their website.
“I originally started it because other labels would just ignore me and not write me back about stuff I was doing, so I decided to do it myself,” label founder Alex Licktenhour told this writer. “I set up my own label and we started releasing local bands, originally in New Hampshire. As I was discovering my own gender identity, I morphed the label to be targeted towards that, because that is what’s very important to me. I wanted to give other people who maybe didn’t have space elsewhere, space here where it was more inclusive than what was happening at the time.”
Carrying on the great work done by the likes of L7, Babes In Toyland, and Hole during the ’90s riot grrrl movement, not to mention first wave punks such as Alice Bag and Patti Smith, Get Better bands including Potty Mouth make it their business to speak out against sexism, homophobia, transphobia and any other injustices.
Prophets of Rage
Naturally, there are plenty of artists within the world of hip-hop who are equally adept at making their voices heard. One of the world’s greatest lyricists, Chuck D of Public Enemy, joined forces with the politically motivated musicians of Rage Against the Machine to form the Prophets of Rage, and those guys have been raging on tour for a couple of years now. But there are also contemporary acts such as Kendrick Lamar, Princess Nokia, and JPEGMAFIA, who will not be silenced.
We’ve only scratched the surface and in the coming weeks and months we’ll fall further down this rabbit hole. But it’s already clear that we’re not without our gloriously outspoken talent.