The Political History of Music

Osamede Egharevba, ‘18

In a society that does not value the truth, individuals become prey to insidious regimes. The general public has become too concerned with political correctness to an extreme extent; we have developed an intolerance for opposing views and fail to recognize that diversity is crucial to functioning society. A society that doesn’t value the truth lives sub-standardly. Political correctness tries to gloss over the truth but, the truth is something that needs no embellishment. Music is a force that is often prey to political correctness, but in past times music has challenged this culture.Music plays a significant role in the political climate of our nation.

Upon listening to a former speaker address the democratic nature of jazz; my fire for music and politics burned greater. I became interested in exploring the relationship between music and politics. There is a revolutionary aspect of music that is overlooked. I am intrigued by the idea that melodies and lyrics can be aggressive propaganda. Every note, every chord, every two-part melody, can be a store of political capital. I further this interest by examining current events and the legitimate consequences music has on our socio-political culture. “O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.” Music is constant, yet we inhabit a world that is subject to change. Music reflects the times we are in. The national anthem used to be a symbol of freedom and hope, but has transformed into an emblem of racism and injustice. The lyrics of the anthem have not changed, nor has the melody, but as politics has transformed, as has the meaning of the song. I am specifically interested in exploring the political history of music and understanding its historical impact on the political climate of nations.

Historically, music has been an influential force and motivation for change; we see this in the context of the national anthem. The song in the past has been a strong uniting force; in a merely practical way, it reinforced national loyalty and it became ritualistic. In part, the anthem became an emblem of patriotism and national pride. This song has been the target of criticism in the face of conflicting and polarizing times.

In today’s politically correct culture, I wondered whether this vocal anxiety has had legitimate political consequences. Upon interviewing three faculty members, I came to two different conclusions. I interviewed Dr. Matthews and Mr. Garces-Kiley. I began each interview with a series of six questions. The first being, “How do you think music affects politics?” The second asking “It it is music or the musician who is most influential?” Next, I asked “What do you think about the national anthem and the current political conflicts surrounding the Star Spangled Banner?” Following this, I asked “How do you think Donald Trump’s presidency has impacted music and the national anthem?” The fifth question was, “Do you think politics has impacted hip hop, and has hip hop impacted politics? If so how?” Lastly, I concluded with the question, “How do you think the relationship between music and politics has changed from the past to present?” I asked the same questions across the board for consistency.

Dr. Matthews teaches a range of classes centered around global and national history, philosophy, and religion. I was interested in how Dr. Matthews’ perspective would be shaped by his knowledge of philosophy and the relationship between this study and politics.

Osamede: How do you think music affects politics?

Dr. Matthews: Every political movement needs a rallying cry. Every political rally always has a soundtrack. Songs are essential to creating a shared common identity. For instance, Martin Luther King’s movement was enforced by the song “We Shall Overcome.” There are various anti-war songs about the drafting of men throughout the Vietnam war that contributed to making this war the last that enforced a military draft. Ronald Reagan used “Born in the USA” to aid his presidential campaign. It is also important to note that this can have adverse efFects. The then Republican presidential candidate did not truly understand that the song was fundamentally a critique of the U.S.A.”

Osamede: Thank you, in your opinion, is it music or the musician who is most influential?

Dr. Matthews: The music itself is influential. The music is what speaks to our souls and our shared imagination. The music has to be there; the artist is just the medium.

Osamede: Do you think politics has impacted hip hop, and has hip hop impacted politics? If so how?

Dr. Matthews: In high school I used to listen to artists like Sugar Hill. In these times,  hip hop was protest music. Gil Scott-Heron was the first person to really rap (in the late 60’s). He created songs like “Whittie on the moon” and “The revolution will not be televised.” This was the beginning of a movement. Hip hop, like rock and roll has sold its soul to money and fame. This undercut the power of music to be used as protest. How can you protest when you make millions of dollars? When you start making millions of dollars it becomes hard to lead a protest. Politics is driven by the elites and the elites are “old white men” to whom hip hop means nothing. In this way hip hop has had no impact on them.

Osamede: Okay, this is my last question, How do you think the relationship between music and politics has changed from the past to present?

Dr. Matthews: Music now, is a business. In the 50’s and 60’s, there was still a connection to the church in music. Music had a connection to the ultimate value system. Music has lost that connection. “Guns, bitches, and bling” is not a recipe for social revolution.

One thing that stuck out to me in this interview was the point that the music is more influential than the musician. In my opinion, the musician is as important, if not more so important that the music itself. There are many artists who generate good songs that are powerful and political, much like the song quoted in the beginning of this piece, but these songs are not popular because the artists are not widely known. It is interesting to explore the relationship between the music and the musician and the idea that the musician holds as much power than the music itself. I wonder what implication this has on the discussion of the political nature of music. In this case, is it the music that is political, or is it the musician?

Mr. Garces-Kiley has a background in poetry and literature and teaches a wide range of classes revolving around these topics. I was interested in seeing how Dr. Garces-Kiley’s background in poetry would shape his interpretation of the topic.

Osamede: How do you think music affects politics?

Mr. Garces-Kiley: Oftentimes, musicians directly speak about politics and address issues such as war and conflict, but there lies the question of whether these artists actually make a difference. Personally, I think there is value in what music does to our feelings; it makes us reflect on the real world. Art however, does not need to be tied to a certain political cause for it to be powerful. An example of this is the artist Jimi Hendrix. In his rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, by changing the melodic form of the anthem he enacted a political commentary. You do not have to directly reference an issue to reflect it. I think hip hop is powerful in this same way; young people of color are able to have a voice. In this way, mere representation can be quite political.

Osamede: Thank you, in your opinion, is it music or the musician who is most influential?

Mr. Garces-Kiley: I’m not sure that I see a difference. The musician has a different kind of power and influence. The art itself is moving. For example, Beyonce brought an issue to the American forefront by dressing as a black panther. This, however is her as a celebrity and not as an artist.

Osamede: Okay, this is my last question, How do you think the relationship between music and politics has changed from the past to present?

Mr. Garces-Kiley: Currently in rap, certain people and demographics are represented more. There are alot more black artists who can be gay, dress oddly and be who they are. There was a singer named Tori Amos, who spoke about being raped and pulled back the “veil,” in a very unapologetic way. I am not sure that she would stick out nowadays. Women and the portrayal of female empowerment in the media has drastically changed. Artists don’t feel a burden of having to be political. This might be a good thing. There isn’t so much pressure to have to be political. There is more of a willingness for music to become stranger. You listen to Migos and think, “what?”- but that’s the point!

One point that definitely stuck out to me was the idea that there is no burden to be political. I was interested in exploring how this could truly be a positive thing. In further exploring this idea, I found that in my life I am more susceptive to being moved by songs that are explicitly political. This may be due to the culture that teaches us to be “spoon fed” instead of implicitly exploring the deeper political meaning of a song.

Music is a force of political power. Songs that do not explicitly state ideas may still be political. Nonetheless, songs with explicit political commentary should be examined with great value. In conclusion, I challenge you to listen to the lyrics you sing. Is “Man’s not hot” simply satire, or is it a commentary on rap culture and the decline of music? The music we listen to, has an impact on how we understand and respond to politics.          

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