The Year in Preview: ‘P’ Is for ‘Political’

It's not only punks and rockers who are making politically charged music.

Looking ahead to 2017, SF Weekly explored several topics about trends we (might) expect in the year to come. Read the other stories, about the banning of cellphones at concerts, the future of fast-casual restaurants in S.F., and the feasibility of time travel.

Since the beginning, music has been a tool for expressing political dissent and disagreements. In the ’60s and ’70s, it was rockers like Buffalo Springfield, Frank Zappa, David Bowie, James Taylor, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young who were pissed about the Vietnam War or fed up with Richard Nixon, that led the trend. Punks got the itch when Ronald Reagan took the reins, with bands like the Ramones, Dead Kennedys, and Subhumans penning songs with titles such as “Fucked Up Ronnie,” “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now,” and “Land of Confusion.”

When Clinton took over, 2Pac and the Outlawz funneled their unhappiness with the president’s failure to improve conditions for Black Americans into the song “Letter to the President,” and only a year after that, Outkast protested the 1998 Iraq bombings with “Bombs Over Baghdad.”

And now, especially in this last year with everything that has been going on — namely, Trump getting elected, police brutality, and the Black Lives Matter movement — a slew of new artists, many of whom you’d never expect, have dipped their toes into political songwriting.

Beyoncé — because, of course, she would be — was the first to take action, dropping “Formation” and performing a Black Panthers-inspired dance routine at the Super Bowl, all in the same 24 hours. Vociferous condemnations of police brutality and ruminations about racism took center stage in albums by Kendrick Lamar, Solange, Blood Orange, and Chance the Rapper. October London released a moving, tell-it-like-it-is ballad called “Black Man in America,” and even White artists like Macklemore and Lady Gaga wrote songs that touched upon our current racially charged climate. Terrorism took center stage in the alternative-country band Drive-by Truckers’ “Guns of Umpqua,” and on Dec. 16, the rapper T.I. unveiled Us or Else: Letter to the System, a follow-up to his six-song EP of the same name condemning police brutality and mass incarceration.

In the Bay Area alone, previously apolitical rappers, like J. Stalin and Mistah F.A.B., got in on the trend and released music detailing the unease of being Black and around cops and the swiftness with which a life could be lost.

During the election, protest songs proliferated, most notably YG and Nipsey Hussle’s “Fuck Donald Trump,” which was so incendiary that the Secret Service intervened and forced the emcees to omit and change certain lyrics before it could be released on YG’s album Still Brazy. Some artists, like the art-pop singer ANOHNI even went so far as to dedicate an entire record to wondering what life would be like if Trump and other evil politicians continued to hold power. She even has a song called “Drone Bomb Me” on the appropriately titled Hopelessness.

And now that Trump has been chosen as president, expect a deluge of even more politically motivated songs clogging the radio waves, detailing not only the atrocities that Trump will commit, but that everyone else in his Cabinet or in the Republican-dominated House and Senate will help to bring about.

It’s nice to see artists of every stripe trying out new things and using their celebrity as a platform. It’s just a shame it couldn’t be under different conditions.

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