The other day I came across a jazz/brass band performance of Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing in the name of”, and I found myself pondering the popularity of a group like Rage Against The Machine; contrasting their success against what it is their music is actually about. I am not one to suggest that Western society is devoid of protest music, although in my view there is far too little of it. That said, it seems to me that voices of reason and logic are often drown out.
Noam Chomsky has written extensively about inequality and capitalism, been named the world’s most quoted living author, has over 100 books to his name, and yet I have never seen him on television. I’ve rarely seen him interviewed in a popular publication. It is this paradox that leads me to wonder if there is some feedback mechanism within popular culture that tends to keep intelligent voices at the periphery, a mechanism that tends to silence those who speak overtly about inequality and the need for structural justice.
My curiosity leads me to three questions.
- Of the music that is popular and falls into the ‘protest’ category, how much of it is directed at a very specific issue or person (e.g. George W. Bush), and doesn’t seek to address the nebulous concept of inequality or structural violence?
- Of either type of music, how much of it is “academic” in the sense that the listener is actually informed or asked to understand and to think?
- Does it benefit an artist to “bury the lead”? Is reaching a larger audience worth being non-specific?
My initial feeling is that the majority of protest music is against some specific event itself. This seems to make sense to me, as it’s easier to rally supporters against war or famine than it is against something more vague such as classism. That isn’t to say that music that speaks about a particular war can’t speak to classism, and later I will present a song that does just this, but it’s rare. I think the best thing to do here is to try and assemble a comprehensive list of popular “protest music” and assign some sort of rating to each piece of music. This sounds like a lot of work, however, and it’s not really what I want to do (I am not all that interested in analyzing music, especially that ranging from REM to Bob Dylan to The Beatles, so perhaps this is a task best left to someone else). I will analyze just a few pieces to give an example of what I mean, however.
The late 60s saw Buffalo Springfield, and the mid 80s Genesis’ “Land of confusion” (look for Qadaffi at 1:53). I think both of these songs fall into approximately the same category of protest. On a scale of 1-to-10 (with 10 being purely against structural violence, and 1 being purely against a particular event or person) I think they both deserve around a six. If we look at the lyrics of both songs we can see they are each general protest songs with overtones that speak to “what is happening in society.” Both speak to the nature of the ‘machine’ that is society and the wrongdoings perpetrated in its name. Neither one particular sets off some internal buzzer about structural violence, however. I like both songs, but neither gets me fired up about injustice. I think, at least for me, they both rest in the realm of “meaningful commentary” on society. Alongside them I can lump a whole variety of other individual works: from U2 to Lennon.
Bob Marley might get special acknowledgment for his continuing messages against inequality, particularly his song “War“, with its lyrics, “Until the philosophy which holds one race superior, and another inferior, is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned, everywhere is war. That until there are no longer first class and second class citizens of any nation. Until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes: everywhere is war. That until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all, without regard to race: this a war.”
The oldest structural violence protest song of which I am aware is Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, which was originally published as a poem by a Bronx high school teacher. Holiday had to convince Columbia Records to allow her to record outside of her contract in order to publish the song (as Columbia wasn’t willing to publish it). In 1999 Time magazine named it the “song of the century.”
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
This is a song that was inspired by a specific event (the 1930 lynching of two men in Indiana), but speaks to the greater absurdity of racial injustice in American society. “Strange Fruit” is a song that truly moves me.
In contemporary popular culture I can think of only two non-hip-hop groups that write songs as powerful as Strange Fruit. I specifically exclude hip-hop, for the moment, as we will address it later. Rage Against The Machine and System Of A Down are probably the two most politically charged ‘platinum’ groups in contemporary culture. RATM, in fact, has their politics in their name. Tom Morello, guitarist for RATM, says the machine “can be anything from, like, the uh, police on the Streets of Los Angeles, who can pull motorists from their cars and beat them to a pulp and get away with it, to the overall, uh, international state capitalist machinery that tries to make you just a mindless cog and to have no— to not think critically and never to confront the system and just to kind of behave and look forward to the weekend and the next six-pack of beer.”
RATM’s “People of the sun” not only contains the lyrics below, but the video for the song holds a surfeit of anti-capitalist and pro-Zapatista imagery. The video opens with a title plate, “In 1994 the Zapatista army rose up demanding an end to the US backed PRI Mexican dictatorship,” and shows a dead indigenous woman in a morgue, blood running down her arm, illuminated with the words “trickle down,” — a clear allusion to US financial policy. The song speaks to the plight of the peoples of Chiapas, Mexico.
Chiapas is the poorest state in Mexico, historically exploited and oppressed, and in the early 1990s a rebel movement gathered to seek redress of their grievances. RATM’s advocacy may be the most mainstream support this rebel army, the EZLN, has received to date (which is tragic, as their plight is both real and just — I’ll review their leader’s book sometime in the near future).
Never forget that the whip snapped your back,
your spine cracked for tobacco,
Oh i’m the Marlboro Man
Our past blasting on through the verses,
Brigades of taxi cabs rollin’ broadway like hearses
Troops strippin’ zoots, shots of red mist,
Sailors blood on the deck, come sister, resist
The new era of terror, check this photo lens,
The city of angels does the ethnic cleanse
Heads bobbin’ to the funk out ya speaker, on the one Maya, Mexica
That vulture came to try and steal ya name
But now you found a gun — you’re history, this is for the people of the sun
It is simply not possible to explain how much this song moves me, or how difficult it would be to even begin to do justice to Rage Against The Machine’s catalog of structural violence protest songs. Virtually every song this band produces is an epic work of culturally-aware protest against inequality. “Wake Up” speaks to oppression of protest movements, with lyrics like, “Departments of police, the judges, the feds. Networks at work, keepin’ people calm. You know they went after King, when he spoke out on Vietnam. He turned the power to the have-nots, and then came the shot.” Just a few other songs: Sleep Now In The Fire, Guerrilla Radio, Bombtrack (a song about The Shining Path in Peru), Killing In The Name, Take The Power Back, Fistful Of Steel, Vietnow, Revolver, No Shelter, and so on. Perhaps it’s best just to link to their full discography.
The only other guitar-driven platinum-selling group that even compares to RATM (in my mind, at least), is System of a Down (SoaD). Like RATM, SoaD’s work also analyzes a variety of problems rooted in social inequalities. Off their second album (which I listened to on ‘loop’ for a large portion of 2002) come several brilliant works. “Toxicity” examines (in my interpretation) capitalism, drug company profits, the incidence of depression in the United States, and drug patents. Several times throughout the song the lead singer, Serj Tankian, wails, “Now what, do you own the world? How do you own disorder?”
System of a Down’s “Deer Dance” examines government reaction to non-violent protest,
Circumventing circuses, Lamenting in protest
To visible police presence sponsored fear
Batallions of riot police, With rubber bullet kisses
Baton courtesy, Service with a smile
Beyond the staples center you can see America
With it’s tired poor avenging disgrace
Peaceful loving youth against the brutality
…of plastic existence
Two stanzas later comes a reference to Howard Zinn, “a political call the fall guy accord, we can’t afford to be neutral on a moving train.”
System of a Down’s “Prison Song” addresses the industrial prison complex in the United States. The song uses repetition throughout, so I have trimmed the lyrics below for space (video with full lyrics here)
Following the rights movements, You clamped down with your iron fists,
Drugs became conveniently available for all the kids,
Nearly 2 million Americans are incarcerated in the prison system,
They’re trying to build a prison, (for you and me to live in), Another prison system.
Minor drug offenders fill your prisons, You don’t even flinch
All our taxes paying for your wars, Against the new non-rich,
The percentage of Americans in the prison system, has doubled since 1985
They’re trying to build a prison, For you and me, you and me.
All research and successful drug policy shows, That treatment should be increased,
And law enforcement decreased, While abolishing mandatory minimum sentences,
Utilizing drugs to pay for secret wars around the world,
Drugs are now your global policy, Now you police the globe,
Drug money is used to rig elections, And train brutal corporate-sponsored dictators around the world.
Lastly, I’d also like to mention SoaD’s BYOB (generally believed to stand for “bring your own bombs”) off their latest album, which amongst many other things, contains lyrics asking the question, “Why don’t presidents fight the war? Why do they always send the poor?”
System of a Down and Rage Against The Machine are at the zenith of their narrow genre for a few reasons. Firstly, because inequality is a theme that runs throughout their music. It’s great when otherwise decent pop artists can take a moment and write a song about ‘something important’ like inequality, but it’s much better when artists make inequality a central theme of their work.
Secondly, both these groups manage to speak to both nebulous concepts and to specific issues. RATM finds it just as easy to address racism and its role in police violence (in “Killing In The Name Of”) as it does to advocate for peasants struggling for equality in Mexico and Peru. SoaD uses “Prison Song” to speak to the specific numbers of Americans in the US prison system (now approaching 3 million), this system’s rate of growth, as well as the possibility that “they” are trying to build a prison “for you and me to live in”, invoking ideas of classism within American society. (Sidenote: there is a very promising book that just came out called The New Jim Crow, I hope to buy a copy in a few months when it’s in paperback — for now you can see Michelle Alexander giving a talk about her book, she comes on about 2 minutes in)
Thirdly, not only have these bands done everything I’ve just mentioned, but somehow they managed to become extremely successful in the process. SoaD, to some degree, relies on subtle obfuscation, with Serj alternating between ‘sing-songing’ and roaring, and I suspect a large percentage of their listeners just like the sound of their music and don’t think much about the politics behind it (if they are even aware). RATM is a little more “in your face” with their work, but in the same way I suspect many of their listeners just enjoy the music and don’t particularly know all that much about the issues at hand.
A police officer I know who lives in the southern United States has mentioned to me that he is listening to a lot of RATM lately. I asked him about what he thinks of the band, and specifically of songs like “Killing in the name of” which speak out against police and state capitalist violence. He replied, “I listen to them a lot and they make sense. I have not found any lyrics I disagree with. Well, in ‘killing in the name of’ [it] says ‘some, not all cops’ so I have to agree.” I asked him about the line from that song, “You justify those that died by wearing the badge, they’re the chosen whites,” to see how he would feel that applies to him. He replied, “I doubt they don’t want any police or any government. Because then what do you do about wife beaters and child molesters? Mob rule? I think they are smarter than that. But, then again at what time period are the lyrics to be from? 1950’s? Yes I would agree with them.” So there is a good side here, which is that everyday people, even those who are part of the machinations of oppression, might be open to protest music and might think about how they fit into that context.
The problem, however, is that it’s hard to turn the lens on yourself. This officer can agree that police oppression was a problem in the 1950s, that just being a policeman in the 1950s was a tacit acceptance of the violence done by police, or done with the assent of police. As Tim Wise has pointed out, virtually everyone can agree now that the 1960s were a racially oppressive period. The problem is that blacks were saying it was oppressive at the time, and whites said by large measure that blacks had equal opportunity. We again find ourselves in this situation, where whites think those of color enjoy equal opportunity, and those of color beg to differ. And Wise’s point is that the policeman of the 2060s will look back and say “well of course, if these lyrics apply to the early 2000s then I agree with what they are saying.” I don’t think these lyrics are about the 1950s — I think they are about the present, and even though they were written in 1992 they apply just as much today as they did 20 years ago.
So that brings us to my third and final question: does it benefit the artist to ‘bury the lead’? If your music becomes popular, and the message is a little harder to receive, is that better than being forthright and languishing in obscurity? I suspect that being poetic about one’s message is partially how one becomes popular. Pop culture tends to abhor complication or facts that make us question ourselves — the masses have been groomed to like their ideas nice and simple, with clear messages of right and wrong, good and bad, and unfortunately this tendency inures against a dialogue on structural violence, since structural inequalities are often vague, complex, and implicate us all as complicit to some degree.
Is that it? Just two groups? Well, sort of. Two guitar-driven groups. When I started plumbing my brain for music groups that write about structural violence, I realized that it seemed hip hop artists had some unfair advantage. To be a hip hop artist is almost necessarily to rap about inequality. To be a rock or metal musician, or especially a pop musician, isn’t. I think the answer here is that most hip hop artists are persons of color. And despite their “metal” genre classification so are RATM and SoaD, for that matter. And therein may lie the answer.
I think there are probably a lot of people making music about structural violence, but many of them are doing it in obscurity. Our society is one of privilege, a place where people of color, people of lower socioeconomic status, people who experience and know structural violence in an intuitive and firsthand way, don’t often get ahead. If we open the list to included hip hop, it’s hard for me to know where to start: Mos Def, Saul Williams, Dead Prez, Tupac, the list goes on. Of course, again, wildly successful artists generally can’t concern themselves with this sort of subject — Will Smith makes his money singing about “gettin’ jiggy with it,’ not about structural violence. So even amongst hip hop artists, of which there are many who rap about oppression, I find it difficult to name any exceedingly well known artists that make inequality a tenet of their work. The closest I can get is Tupac, who at times wrote brilliantly about inequality,
Cops give a damn about a negro, pull the trigger, kill a nigger, he’s a hero. Give the crack to the kids, who the hell cares? One less hungry mouth on the welfare. First ship ’em dope & let ’em deal, the brothers; give ’em guns, step back, watch ’em kill each other. It’s time to fight back that’s what Huey said, two shots in the dark now Huey’s dead. I got love for my brother, but we can never go nowhere unless we share with each other. We gotta start makin’ changes: learn to see me as a brother instead of two distant strangers; and that’s how it’s supposed to be … It ain’t a secret, don’t conceal the fact: the penitentiary’s packed, and it’s filled with blacks … And still I see no changes, can’t a brother get a little peace. It’s war on the streets, and the war in the Middle East. Instead of war on poverty, they got a war on drugs, so the police can bother me.
Mos Def is one of the most poignant poets and hip hop artists of our time, which is probably why you won’t hear him on the radio. A quick sampling from Mos Def’s “Mathematics”
When the average minimum wage is $5.15, you best believe you gotta find a new grind to get cream
The white unemployment rate, is nearly more than triple for black, so frontliners got they gun in your back
Bubblin’ crack, jewel theft and robbery to combat poverty, and end up in the global jail economy
Stiffer stipulations attached to each sentence, budget cutbacks but increased police presence
And even if you get out of prison still livin’, join the other five million under state supervision
This is business, no faces just lines and statistics, from your phone, your zip code, to S-S-I digits
The system break man child and women into figures, two columns for who is, and who ain’t niggers
“Hip hop is lying on the side of the road, half dead to itself,” says Saul Williams in Telegram. Not only does Saul write about injustice, but he also writes passionately about the need of hip hop to address injustice. Dead Prez, too, does a great job of addressing the chasm between what hip hop should be and what it often is. I’ve only once heard their track “hip hop” on the radio, and the line “I’m down for runnin’ up on them crackers in they city hall” was censored — we can hear the n-word on the radio, but apparently ‘cracker’ is going a bit far. The video for this track is informative, laced with propaganda-style title cards along the lines of: our time is now / without a people’s army the people have nothing / their system isn’t working / the dollar before the people / gotta eat, welfare ain’t working, everyday is a struggle / we are at war, think outside the box / common sense is self defense / be sincere, organize / no peace without justice / stick together, no surrender / to be a warrior you must train / together the ants will conquer the elephant / let’s get free … this is rhetoric for a revolution.
With song titles like: Propaganda; Police State; Know Your Enemy; The Game Of Life; it’s not hard to see that inequality (and action against it) is a central theme of Dead Prez’ work. The apex of DP’s advocacy to fight against the system is, in my view, “Hell Yeah“, a track where they systematically explain how to obtain a fake ID from the DMV, procure credit cards in the names of others, purchase merchandise with those cards, return the merchandise for cash, become eligible for food stamps as a means of obtaining slave reparations, and then finally they compare stealing from a cash register to being a politician. UPDATE: I just came across a recent Russia Today interview with M-1 from Dead Prez, it’s worth a look.
So where are we now? Structural violence is a complicated topic, one not easily mass marketed. Those who best understand structural violence are not easily mass marketed either. I think one commonality between rock and hip hop is that they both arose as subcultural protest art; rock in the 60s and hiphop in the 80s. Saul Williams, Dead Prez, and many others make it clear they feel hip hop artists — in the words of Saul Williams — “have walked too far from the source and are emitting a lesser frequency.” Structural violence doesn’t sell, and as each art form becomes more and more commercialized, perhaps that explains the dearth of contemporary popular protest artists.
Rage Against The Machine may not have put out an album in 10 years. Dead Prez may not get much radio play. But here and there their words are reaching the youth of tomorrow, bringing to light the stories of those who almost universally struggle in obscurity. As Zinn says, we can’t afford to be neutral on a moving train.