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EDITORIAL : Article : Voices of Political Music  

  Voices of Political Music : Women: the delicate chords delivering a political message
Submitted by Lady red label
(September 21, 2011)

Ultimately, music is a message to the masses, and has the potential to have an unprecedented impact in terms of reach and influence. Without wanting to sound like an old bag, which I often feel like when I listen to 'popular' music at present, I find that what is left of a meaningful message in music is tiptoeing underground. As a DJ I try hard to excuse myself from being a member of the old hipster class by default. However, speaking to the general public and my peers, it does seem I'm not alone and it has all but disappeared in the mainstream. Finding lyrical meaning in the music industry today, even at a time when political strife is the order of the day, means scratching the perfectly polished and robotic surface of the music industry, and going a little deeper and darker underground.

"If lyrics sold, and truth be told, I'd be just and rich and famous as Jay-Z.." Talib Kweli.

Political journal 'The New Statesmen' compiled their list of the top 20 political songs last year, and it's there you see that there isn't a single track included from the last 20 years. There you have it, more proof that it's not just me the grumpy old bag. It's also worth noticing that there are a mere 2 female musicians featured on this list.

So, something appears to have changed in recent times. Relate this to other eras such as the 60's and 70's of our parents and you'll find that political messages had their roots firmly planted in mainstream music. Many genres, such as punk, reggae and hip-hop were of course built out of rebellion of the youth against the system. These genres were about breaking the moulds and boundaries placed upon them by society.

It's no surprise then to find that women have had their hand placed firmly on the steering wheel of these revolutionary roles, ever since the political message in music was being cooked up. Jazz legends such as Nina Simone and Billy Holiday were among the first as they sang about the tension and brutality of a racially segregated USA prior to the Civil Rights movement.

Around the same time in other genres, female artists such as Joni Mitchell took their ideals from the fast emerging global feminist movement, and the general essence of peace and love, as well as the growing environmental concern of the time.

One lady that stands out for having delivered a really strong politico-musical dialogue of this period is Miriam Makeba. A new documentary previewed and critically acclaimed at the Tribeca film festival this year, charts the epic and glamorous story of her life. She was most known for her fight against apartheid, and using her fame to encourage widespread, international opposition to it. After testifying against apartheid at the UN in 1963, her position was clear and Miriam was almost immediately exiled from her homeland. The more vocal she became about her opposition to apartheid the more she was censored and pushed aside by the music industry itself, while all at the same time being of great interest to the world's media. Her later marriage to Black Panther Party head Stokely Carmichael in 1968 caused her to be ostracised even further from the music industry, and her record deals and tour dates were cancelled.

From this point on politics only seemed to be addressed by women in music, from certain angles and with certain themes that were clearly commercial music industry approved.

Other artists pushed the feminist or girl power agenda with a whole series of groups that came about in the 80's and 90's that pushed the female agenda forward. As hip-hop grew and the politicized message rung loud and clear of course the women had to have their say as well. We saw artists such as Salt 'N' Pepa, MC Lyte and Queen Latifah who came through in the 80's with a message of black women defining their genre of feminism, initially sporting a more masculine look so as not to be defined by their sexuality. This was echoed in rock and alternative genres with a range of girl groups such as Riot Grrrl, and Elastica who had the 90's androgyny down, some, like Hole, with a touch of femininity.

This approach morphed somewhat with solo artists like Lil Kim, Foxy Brown and Charlie Baltimore pushing the female MC's agenda even further forward. They took a stance that meant female empowerment could be used and encouraged alongside female sexuality.

"We're talking notions of sexual consciousness, sexual politics in her rhymes, how she deals with societies based on male domination..and societies based on rigid gender categories and constructs." Lil Kim

Then along came Lauryn Hill, who blew them all out of the water with her intelligent poetic brand of activism that was delivered through a reggae-filtered lens of peace, love and unity. Her message was never to be transmitted too far for too long as she rapidly descended into obscurity. Some say a period of darkness that was created by the industry itself because of her unwillingness to comply with the industry's agenda. She wasn't fitting neatly into any of the boxes, and was too strong, talented, politically aware and resistant to be pushed into one and have the lid nailed firmly on, as a lot of female artists are obliged to if they want to stay at the top of their game.

"I got moxie, I'm so damn cocky, industry tried to block me like cops and paparazzi.." Lauryn Hill

I think the most recent female artist with activist gusto has to be M.I.A. She took her talent for everything creative and pushed it to depict her own form of realism by exploring social and political subject matter, in her music and other art forms. She also managed to reach the mainstream despite her lyrical content that often spoke of immigration issues, guerilla warfare and many other political issues. The indirectness and metaphor used of some of her lyrics alongside her sometimes satirical and nonchalant delivery perhaps helped her to pull it off. Or perhaps her political family or connections could have had a hand in her continued success? Who can say without speculation or assumption. Regardless, we have to give props to her for trying to put it out there. Look forward to seeing how her music will progress in future and to see whether or not she continues to deliver a message or if she buckles under the pressure of conformity.

So it does seem that the political message is a paradox with the music industry. It can be there, but only if presented in a certain way. It rarely reaches the top and we hardly see it being transmitted by women.

The New Statesmen's top 20 Political Songs

Al Jazeera's Fabulous Picture show reviews the movie of Miriam Makeba's life 'Mama Africa'

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