[19 July 2007]
In the summer of 1989, I was 13-years-old, still living in the blissful naiveté of youth. Although Public Enemy had already been around for a couple of years, nothing could’ve prepared me for the sonic onslaught that was “Fight the Power”. This was righteous black rage at its finest, music to stimulate the brain and the ass muscles. Even without Chuck D’s booming, authoritative voice, the backing track sounded like a riot in progress—James Brown guitars here, a squealing solo from Branford Marsalis there, even a couple of quotes thrown in from new-jack trio Guy. The lyrics were merely the icing on the Molotov cocktail. “Cause I’m black and I’m proud! I’m ready / I’m hyped cause I’m amped!” D. declares. “Fight the Power” was not only the musical spark that lit my consciousness, it was also the prophetic soundtrack for a sweltering, uncomfortable summer in which Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (which used this song as its theme) packed theaters and a young black kid named Yusuf Hawkins was killed by a mob of Italian teens in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood. The incident intensified racial tension, and provoked a protest march led by Al Sharpton, which nearly incited a riot akin to that depicted in Lee’s film.
The first time I heard “Lost Woman Song”, I was sitting in the small cinderblock confines of my college dorm room at an all-women’s college in Boston. It was 1995, shortly after 25-year-old Shannon Lowney, a receptionist at an abortion clinic, was shot two blocks from my quaint and grassy campus by 22-year-old John Salvi. DiFranco’s song is both a protest for a woman’s right to choose and a protest to the protestors that inhibited those rights in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. In the song DiFranco discusses the abortion as a “casualty” she endured— “a relatively easy casualty”, an almost prophetic designation as violence against abortion clinics skyrocketed to a bloody climax on the eve of 1995. Difranco’s sparse music is populated by lyrics that continually rise in angry enforcements of her rights and fall with the sad realization that sometimes anger doesn’t get you all the way there. The self-questioning runs like an undertow, threatening to pull her under as she stands alone, and clearly paints a picture of what most artists only create impressions of. The song stands not only as an assertion of her right to “exercise [her] freedom of choice”, but also as a manifest expression of her right to make her choice without external judgment.
Body Count’s “Cop Killer” stood at the center of one of the most notorious censorship debates in recent history. While the band had been performing the song live throughout 1991 and officially released the track in March 1992, the controversy of “Cop Killer” is directly linked to the events in Los Angeles during the spring of that year, when the streets of South Central Los Angeles exploded in fury after a jury acquitted the police officers who had publicly beaten Rodney King. Body Count’s explosive song, which seemed to celebrate the idea of murdering police officers, was accused of, quite literally, fanning the fires in Los Angeles at the time. Almost immediately, an extensive campaign across the country was initiated to force Sire’s parent company Warner Bros. to remove the song from the band’s album: Police associations condemned the song, Vice President Dan Quayle declared the song obscene, and President George Bush publicly denounced any record company that would release such a product. Within two weeks, more than 1,500 stores across the United States had pulled the album from their shelves. Before the record label had a chance to officially respond, Ice-T, the leader of Body Count, called a press conference to announce that he had personally decided to remove the song from all future copies of the album. Soon after, the group was dropped from Warner Records’ roster. In less than two months, a song originally intended to protest the controversial behavior of the Los Angeles Police Department developed further into a worldwide debate that forced the public to consider the true boundaries of artistic freedom and freedom of speech in contemporary society. While the group continued to perform “Cop Killer” live, the song remains deleted from copies of Body Count’s debut release for sale today.
In three minutes of noisy distorted mess, Sonic Youth delivers a brutal, potent track about the degradation of women in a song voiced by bassist Kim Gordon that moves from the personal to a wider cultural narrative of use and abuse. A wall of filthy noise accompanies Gordon’s lyric, relating the tale of a young office worker subjected to sexual harassment and eventually rape at the hands of her boss. The tale is not without revenge and retribution, as the young woman tells all to the press, via Gordon at her most indignant. In the song’s trancelike second half, Gordon lists off women’s names against a backdrop of brutal distortion: “Paulina, Catherine, Vendela, Naomi.” The names continue going by—each one more mesmerizing—as Gordon names every model featured in the 1992 swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated, abused in a different way. The song deals with some complicated “swimsuit issues”, not least the role the media plays in presenting women as both victims and commodities. Sonic Youth reminds us that protest songs don’t have to include acoustic guitars and twee harmonica melodies stuck in 1965. They don’t even have to be about war. Not with guns, anyway.
The musical landscape of 1993 was diverse. Not only had Seattle-tinged apathy arrived and pop-metal’s death knell sounded, but gangsta rap appeared in its earliest incarnation, ushering in the beginnings of the materialistic Culture of Bling that would become a hip-hop staple. Amid the melting pot of commingled materialism and apathy, Tupac Shakur released a song that brought a hard dose of ghetto reality from the streets to the mainstream with “Keep Ya Head Up”. While hip-hop as a genre was maligned as being misogynistic, “Keep Ya Head Up” was positive and uplifting. Simultaneously addressing issues of race, poverty, and sexism, Tupac cautioned listeners not to treat women with disrespect, linking that behavior to the underprivileged condition of blacks in America as a whole. Part of the song’s beauty lies in its stark realism. Much of “Keep Ya Head Up” offers a contemplative Shakur wondering why “We got money for wars / But can’t feed the poor” and “Why we take from our women / Why we rape our women / Do we hate our women?” In spite of the bleak situation, the song offers hope in the face of adversity to get past life’s obstacles. The song’s chorus, centered around a sample of the Five Stairsteps’ “Ooh, Child”, says it all: “Things are gonna get easier… / Things’ll get brighter.”
Tom Joad was the hero of John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath. He was portrayed by Henry Fonda in John Ford’s film adaptation, and he was the subject of Woody Guthrie’s “Tom Joad”. Tom departs each version telling his aged mother as he runs off to escape the police that she can find him wherever people are oppressed. Springsteen, like Guthrie, echoes “Joe Hill”, and makes Joad’s exit lines more explicitly political: “Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free / Look in their eyes, Mom, you’ll see me.” “The Ghost of Tom Joad” implies that the ‘90s are much like the ‘30s: “Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge / Shelter line stretchin’ ‘round the corner / Welcome to the new world order.” The last line is an ironic invocation of American triumphalism at the end of the Cold War. The chorus picks up on another symbol of American optimism, one that Springsteen himself has often celebrated: “The highway is alive tonight / But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes.” The tune is spare, but it is mournful and emotionally powerful, unlike the more distanced songs on Nebraska. Mourning is appropriate since Tom Joad is now a ghost and it is unclear whether the struggle he represents is alive or dead.
—David R. Shumway
This limited-edition single from Wales’ greatest living rock band didn’t get much radio play (“Warning!” reads its advisory sticker, “This track contains the word ****! 50 times!”), but it still managed to climb to number 22 on the UK charts. The offending word comes from the song’s main hook, a sample of Steely Dan’s “Showbiz Kids”—“You know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else”—and is repeated, ad infinitum, throughout the slam-dunk glaze of the mesmerizing chorus. It’s a brainwashing and desensitizing refrain, but then, that’s the point. The song’s cloudy verses find modern-day listlessness the byproduct of manipulative governments: “Now there’s nothing much to do / But sit and rot in front of televisions” because “Out of focus ideology / Keep the masses from majority.” The consequence is a cycle of human ruin: the common man don’t give a fuck, because the Man don’t give a fuck about the common man, and so on. In concert, the band ups the political ante, incorporating a loop of comedian Bill Hicks (“All governments are liars and murderers”) with footage of Lenin, Bush, and Blair. Eccentric footballer Robin Friday, who ended his career with Cardiff City, graced the original single’s cover, flicking a derisive bird at an opposing keeper; inside the single, the band hailed a man who refused to let the bastards get him down: “This record is dedicated to the memory of Robin Friday… and his stand against the ‘Man’.”
The 1999 shooting of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo by three New York City police officers remains a polarizing event in this country’s ongoing struggle with racial prejudice. The erroneous killing (via 41 “unintentional” bullets) was the galvanizing force behind the Hip Hop for Respect EP, organized by Mos Def and Talib Kweli. “A Tree Never Grown” distinguishes itself among the other more-star-studded songs because of its two-pronged approach. The verses (from nine different MCs) range from angry reactions to the actual event to meditations on the larger relationship between black citizens and the powers that be. In contrast, Mos Def’s softly sung chorus looks beyond politics to the heartbreaking truths of an unnecessary death, a reminder that beneath all the vitriol is an issue that transcends skin color. Some might say this startling twist on “We Are the World”-style collaborations suffers from too many voices, but that’s what makes it so relevant—in the shooting’s aftermath, the country was ablaze with opinions, making the right response difficult to pin down. For all its faults, the song (and, really, the whole EP) demonstrates why hip-hop is such an important social platform, translating honest reactions from the street to wax while filtering as little as possible along the way.
The fighting spirit of the ‘60s and ‘70s of his youth has gone flat like a can of beer left in the sun; one swig of that and all he tastes is bitter. Now, Steve Earle is the demographic of Michael Moore’s Sicko, but Earle beat Moore by a few years with this song: “Yeah, I know, that sucks - that your HMO ain’t doin’ what you thought it would do / But everybody’s gotta die sometime and we can’t save everybody that’s the best that we can do.” This song is for the hanging by their calloused fingers working class, and the clinging precariously to their status quo middle-class. They’ve filed their complaints and they’re getting fed up with being told to put up and shut up. Sung with a rocky voice pounded by a torrent of booze, corroded by smoke, and choked raw from the sight of seeing a man die, few can sing anger and disappointment as well as Earle. He’s a good, hard spirit worn by troubles but worn rough, not smooth. This song is coarse, bittersweet poetry, made of barbed words that pierce and anchor to those getting’ older bones that are only warming up—with the help of a Tennessee whiskey, or a California Cabernet—for another fight.
Protest music should never be quiet or understated. It should be a loud, proud denunciation, which is exactly what Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst offers in the short but succinct “When the President Talks to God”. The track is straightforward and unashamedly to the point. For an artist with a reputation for hiding meaning behind prose and elegiac phrasing, Oberst brings out an unexpected fire with his words, spitting syllables like ammunition, as he takes one of the most blatantly powerful anti-Bush stances seen in modern indie music. The lyrics confront the war in Iraq, the place of religion in warfare and parliament, and the general disintegration of American society, right before the eyes of its leaders: “When the President talks to God / Do they drink near beer and go play golf / While they pick which countries to invade / Which Muslim souls can still be saved?” Oberst sings in his trademark off-key warble. Freedom of speech is integral, pivotal, and never taken for granted. Oberst exercises his democratic right, stating in the clearest terms heard exactly what he thinks of his elected leader. Each word is loaded with accusation, and Oberst shoots to kill.
You could argue that everything past the opening two or three seconds of “B.Y.O.B.” is superfluous. Remove all that follows the startling introduction and you’re left with an a cappella assault on the part of lead guitarist Daron Malakian that says more with seven words than many protest songs say in their entirety: “Why do they always send the poor?” Not the most obvious way to begin a song that’s an extended war-as-party metaphor (“Everybody’s going to the party, have a real good time / Dancing in the desert, blowing up the sunshine”), but it certainly gets your attention. For all its seductive hostility, however, this opening salvo loses some of its conviction simply because it’s a question rather than a statement of fact. Happily, another accusation comes later that, while also phrased as a question, nonetheless has all the conviction you could ask of a protest song: “It’s party time: And where the fuck are you? Where! The fuck! Are you!” Not only might it sway your vote or your stance on the war, but it could also conceivably cause you to wreck your car.
Recorded in the field at Sembakounya refugee camp in Guinea, where Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars were exiled as a result of the civil war in their country from 1991 to 2002, “Living Like a Refugee” draws on West African folk traditions to protest the plight of the refugee. Leader Reuben M. Koroma articulates the philosophy behind the band’s efforts: “I just take all the problems, the suffering of the people and make a song of it.” Using worn-out, secondhand instruments acquired with the help of a Canadian refugee aid organization, the band does just that. Their words express the hardships of living like a refugee, but their music embodies the hope so desperately sought for by those suffering abject conditions in a strange land. The chorus, sung in unison by the band’s vocalists, acknowledges the injustice of the refugees’ situation and provides one example of how solidarity might make change. As testament to its efforts, the band created a sense of community among its fellow refugees, inspiring filmmakers Banker White and Zach Niles to produce a documentary, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. Since the film’s release, the band has received international acclaim and its music has been praised for its ability to generate healing and raise awareness of the negative effects of neocolonialism and globalization. While the album Living Like a Refugee presents the members’ own experiences in Guinea, the album is dedicated “to all the innocent people living as refugees throughout the world and to all the organizations and individuals who work tirelessly on their behalf”.
Righteous anger… Natalie Maines has it in spades and for good reason. A few simple words of humorous protest over the impending war in Iraq embroiled her and the Dixie Chicks in ongoing controversy and death threats. The Chicks, the best-selling female group of all-time, were in London on 10 March 2003, performing at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. In front of a friendly crowd of British lefties and following the massive February anti-war protests in London, Maines felt compelled to distance herself as both an American and a Texan from the perception that all Americans supported the war and that George W. Bush was emblematic of all Texans. “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” The crowd at Shepherd’s Bush cheered.
Back in the States, the ensuing hullabaloo changed both their lives and music forever and had the happy side effect of turning them into great artists. Always superlative musicians, now they had an edge and purpose like never before. Taking the Long Way is a resplendent pop and country album (the best of 2006 by a mile), their most fully realized work to date, and “Not Ready to Make Nice” is its crowning jewel. The song’s lyrical and musical defiance—check out those rising crescendos as Maines hits the final chorus—mark it as perhaps the most memorable musical protest surrounding the Iraq war. Not confronting the war directly, but vehemently advocating freedom of speech while lambasting people that “write me a letter/ Sayin’ that I better shut up and sing/ Or my life will be over,” the Dixie Chicks created a modern masterpiece.