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05 July 2015

The Dysfunctional marriage of music and politics

Posted by: Hannah Cunningham, Politics Student at the University of Manchester


Contemporary initiatives in the UK and USA which encourage political participation through music are flawed in that they have a tendency to either harbour broad appeal or focus on a range of issues, but not both. A particular problem is that, though it is unsurprising in a general election year for the UK and in the run-up to the US primary elections, many of these political organisations and initiatives areplacing all of their emphasis on getting young people to register to vote and turn out on election day rather than facilitating long-term political engagement through music. Additionally, in order to assess their effectiveness we should ask whether the presence of musicians on the platform is instrumentally valuable in that they are there to draw crowds, or whether their value lies inconnecting with their listenership on a more personal level which politicians can’t, and so can foster an appropriate environment for honest political discussion. Considering these factors would assist us in designing a platform which could engage with the entire political spectrum on a range of issues.

Those UK initiatives which appeal to a range of political motivations but are focussed on single issues include such vote-centric groups, for example Bite The Ballot. They run a campaign geared toward millennials through videos featuring young musicians like Eliza Doolittle and Tinie Tempah which encourage classroom- or friendship group-based learning. There are also single-issue groups like Love Music Hate Racism, a kind of modern-day reincarnation of Rock Against Racism of the 1970s. LMHRassists young people in holding their own political music events, where they spread the anti-fascist message. While this message can be accessed by a broad group of people from the far left to the moderate right, racism is the only issue that is explicitly addressed by the initiative.

There are also UK initiatives which do address a range of issues, but which limit themselves to specific areas of the political spectrum or can’t access a mainstream platform for other reasons. These initiatives take place predominantly on the left and far left and tend to be led by individual bands or artists who want to share the stage with their personal politics. For example, at the beginning of this year Paloma Faith brought left-wing columnist and political activist Owen Jones on tour with her to give speeches promoting the Socialist message as a support act. Another example is Enter Shikari, who use social media to spread messages from the Zeitgeist Movement against economic corruption and unsustainable living, and also allow them to canvass at their gigs.

In the US the stand-out organisation which uses music to promote political engagement is Rock The Vote. RTV has an incredible number of supporters from the music world, including the recently-famous, like Ariana Grande. The music video for ‘Stop!’ by supporters of the organisation Against Me! also serves as a promotional video for the organisation, as well as a self-parody by lil’ Jon of his song ‘Turn Down for What’, featuring celebrity stars revealing what they will be ‘#turningout’ for. RTV has, however, facedcriticism for pushing a left-wing agenda because of the emphasis on issues like marriage equality and reproductive rights in its promotional videos and its staff’s links with the Democratic Party. It is also very similar to the UK’s Bite The Ballot in that it is very focussed on getting young people out to vote with less stress on long-term political engagement.

Another US organisation which addresses a broad range of issues but is not politically neutral(and nor does it claim to be) is the Hip-hop Caucus run by the director of a number of voting campaigns by big names from the hip-hop world (P. Diddy, Russell Simmons and Jay-Z). The Caucus adopts a left-wing stance on causes such as sustainability, war, Guantánamo Bay, and racial profiling by the police. Its campaigns have been backed by and feature hip-hop/r ‘n’ b artists Drake and B.o.B.

Their extreme-right counterparts in the UK and US (at least) tend to be single-issue, and almost exclusively consist of neo-Nazi bands or groups of bands whose focus is on their own supposed racial supremacy. Examples of these groups are Blood and Honour in the UK, who still organise gigs but do so mostly in secret, and Project Schoolyard in the US who distributed sampler albums of neo-Nazi tracks in schools in 2004 and 2008. It could be noteworthy that there are few, if any, contemporary right-wing initiatives which are multi-issue.

The problems I have identified with UK and US organisations so far are that they struggle to create a platform which both adopts a non-partisan, politically neutral stance, and so is accessible to those who hold a range of political views and which addresses a range of political and social issues.

These problems are countered by the European ‘Yo!Fest, an annual festival put on by the European Youth Forum which features talks by a young MEP, a debate on the future of jobs and development in Europe and music from European bands.

Yo!Fest’ brings up in itself, however, a number of other problems for engagement with young people across Europe. It is difficult to design an event which will have broad appeal across the range of youth cultures in Europe. Different bands will have different relevance and resonance in different countries. The function of music being used for political message in this way is, then, called into question; it seems as though the value of musicians can be instrumental in that they attract people who might not otherwise be drawn to politics. This builds on a general trend, particularly among young people, to be more keenly interested in music than politics. Their value can also be intrinsic in that music, and by extension the messages it carries, reach people on a more personal level than many politicians do. Although in ‘Yo!Fest’, the intrinsic value of musicians for the political cause may well still hold, this matters much less if musicians can’t fulfil their instrumental purpose of drawing the crowds. This is more of a problem with events (i.e. festivals) than it would be for a platform for political discussion since events are typically so much more restricted in the number of musicians they can feature.

In designing any kind of platform through which to engage with Millennials in the long term, we should be careful to focus on a broad range of issues and not to alienate areas of the political spectrum. As well as this, questions would need to be asked about whether the presence of musicians in such an area serves an instrumental or intrinsic purpose; whether they were there toextend the reach of political messages to those who might otherwise not be interested, as is the case with many campaigns run by Rock The Vote, or whether it is their ability to connect on a personal level with their listeners through music which will engage the Millennials.