By Giorgina McKay | @ggmckay11
Childish Gambino’s new single ‘This is America’ was released earlier this month.
Not even two weeks later and the much-talked about song has earned the singer—also known as Donald Glover—his first number one hit, garnering 78,000 downloads.
‘This is America’ calls out systematic racism and the gun violence epidemic in America, as well as the way Americans deflect from real-world problems through pop culture.
But the politically-charged song is not the first of its kind, it stands as a cog in a larger machine.
Politics and music have gone hand-in-hand for centuries.
Artists over the years have actively used music to inspire cultural or political change among people, and to unite them to reflect or take action against a greater threat.
As Vox explains, these songs “usually fall under two major categories: politically charged, topical songs taking issue with the government, or culturally focused songs aimed at injustices facing marginalized groups”.
Using music to address or tackle real-world issues is not a popular tactic among the mainstream artists of our generation, but it has been previously.
One of the most prominent songs to come out of the political music movement is Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ released in 1939.
Drawing inspiration from a poem by Abel Meeropol, Holiday’s song depicts the African-American lynchings that occurred in the South, with ‘strange fruit’ being a metaphor for the hanged bodies.
The controversial tune was the first of its kind to bring political musical into the mainstream music realm.
Before that, political music had only been used as a form of propaganda, but as music journalist Dorian Lynskey wrote in his book 33 Revolutions Per Minute, ‘Strange Fruit’ proved that it could be an art form.
Additionally, unlike other political songs before it, ‘Strange Fruit’ wasn’t a call to arms, but rather a reflection on the country.
Whether it was received with love or hate, the song still had an impact, which is something that can be said about most political music.
Take Rage Against the Machine’s 1992 single ‘Killing in the Name’ for example.
The dubbed ‘anti-establishment’ and ‘anti-authoritarian’ track was unsurprisingly banned from radio stations and other live broadcasts for its crude lyrics.
However, despite the lack of mainstream acceptance at the time, the song is said to have been linked to the 1992 Los Angeles race riots, following the acquittal of four police officers accused of assaulting Rodney King.
‘Killing in the Name’ is just one of many examples of how political music, despite its reception, can have a significant influence and impact on its audience.
If history has proven the political music movement to be successful in its endeavours, why aren’t more artists of the current generation jumping on board?
It all comes down to popularity, image and records.
Most mainstream political songs of the current generation do not usually top the charts like ‘This is America’.
This is due to the fact that it is much easier to sell records if both sides of American politics are not adverse to the song.
For example, in 2017, despite the warm reception Katy Perry’s ‘Chained to the Rhythm’ (about the wilful ignorance the entertainment-industrial complex encourages) and Kanye West’s ‘Ye vs. the People’ (about his support of Trump) received from audiences, they were ultimately overshadowed by other singles like Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’ and Justin Bieber’s ‘Despacito’.
The last political song by a mainstream artist to reach number one was Lady Gaga’s 2011 LGBTQIA+ anthem ‘Born This Way’.
Released at the height of the same-sex marriage debate in America, the song charted worldwide.
The following year, researchers found that there was a higher percentage of Americans who supported same-sex marriage than those who opposed it, for the first time ever.
But because there are less artists producing political music than in the past, it does not mean there should not be more trying to lead the way, especially given the current political climate.
‘This is America’ is a prime example of how political music has the potential for greater success as America continues to experience the effects of a Trump presidency and watch on as war in the Middle East and North Korea rages on.
The song has started an important conversation through highlighting the problems most Americans like or try to ignore.
Political music is needed now more than ever to educate and empower people, as well as inspire them to create change through discussion and action.
In the future more artists will be less afraid to have a voice, and in turn, see more songs like ‘This is America’ come to the forefront of the music landscape.
If not to unite the people for a greater cause, but to at least be the voice for someone who does not have the platform to do so themselves.
Image Courtesy: IndieWire