Should Musicians Make Stronger Political Statements? Be Careful What You Wish For
Last week, as protesters streamed through the streets of Midtown Manhattan, rapper Azealia Banks tweeted the below message:
Banks is a loudmouth on Twitter and she's baited Iggy Azalea before, but here she makes a startling point and raises a good question: Should artists speak out on big, important social issues just because they can? Even if you don't have anything to say? For Banks, the personal is political. But should we be pushing Azalea to speak out, when she probably doesn't have anything to say in the first place?
After all, it's pretty easy to tell when a political statement doesn't come from the heart. The most egregious of recent offenders are Band Aid 30 -- this year, Bob Geldof led the likes Ed Sheeran, One Direction and, of course, Bono, as they sang, yet again, 'Do They Know It's Christmas?,' this time mad-libbing in Ebola victims in West Africa. Listen to this song and see what bad can come from some celebrities saying whatever's on their mind with regard to geopolitical strife, or international health crises, or racial injustice.
We all would have been better off if Geldof, and Bono, and whoever else, just held their tongues, instead of patronizingly asking if Sierra Leoneans or Guineans know whether or not it's Christmas.
Band Aid 30 do more damage than good by proclaiming: "Buy the song; stop the virus" -- as if it were so easy. They describe "West Africa" (most of which isn't infected with Ebola, by the way) as "A world of dread and fear / Where a kiss of love can kill you and there’s death in every tear” -- as if it's some Dantean wasteland, rather than a place where real people live; as if they're fighting some kind of pestilence instead of facing a real public health crisis. We all would have been better off if Geldof, and Bono, and whoever else, just held their tongues, instead of patronizingly asking if Sierra Leoneans or Guineans, not even 10-percent of whom are Christian, know whether or not it's Christmas.
Earlier this year, Bruce Springsteen finally officially released 'American Skin (41 Shots),' the song he originally wrote about the NYPD's gunning down of unarmed Bronx 23-year-old Amadou Diallo in 1999. Springsteen recycled the song for his 2012 tour and dedicated it to Trayvon Martin. Presciently, Springsteen finally released the studio version this year, before unrest flared up around the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. "You can get killed just for living in your American skin," Springsteen sings repeatedly, over a slowly marching beat. The song derives its power from the rage that bubbles just below the surface.
And yet you can be sure that if anyone disrupts the social order with a song this year, it won't be Bruce Springsteen. It's hard to believe many of the protesters who laid down inside New York's city hall on Monday had 'American Skin' on their iPods; more likely, their relationship to Springsteen consists of hearing 'Born In the USA' overplayed and diluted on the radio, or remembering a dusty copy of 'Greetings From Asbury Park' in their parents' vinyl bin. Despite his most worthy efforts, Springsteen is past his rabble-rousing prime.
The most moving and powerful political statement this year has come from, of all places, the Wu-Tang Clan. On Dec. 5, only two weeks after protests overran the streets of Ferguson and amid the unrest in New York, the group released their video for 'A Better Tomorrow,' a collection of footage taken from the streets of both cities. The power of Wu-Tang's statement came from its authenticity. It's full of scenes created by and featuring the people on the ground, raising signs, laying down in the street, and taking matters into their own hands. But we don't have much confidence that we'll see Method Man at a protest in Times Square. Indeed, this is unfamiliar territory for Wu-Tang, and the message of the song itself is a little unclear at times -- Masta Killa preaching "Religion will not bring us satisfaction / Without action" and then, oddly, throwing in "I'm G-O-D, to infinity."
Instead of relying on old or current heroes to wise up to the state of the world, we're better off keeping a look out for the next Bob Dylan or Public Enemy -- those artists who blasted past the barricades with personal statements that were also political statements, like "I just want you to know / I can see through your masks" or "Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps." It feels good to see Azealia Banks calling out Iggy Azalea for being hollow and disconnected from the struggle -- after all, Banks is a talented and creative rapper who just dropped a searching, sprawling record, and Azalea is manufactured and safe, a Walmart version of Banks, more palatable to the mainstream because of her Barbie-like looks and her whiteness.
But throwing barbs on Twitter only gets you so far. Instead, it's young, fierce, opinionated artists like Banks who have the real opportunity to rally the angry multitudes behind a powerful message.