By author John Street

“Ever since the late summer 2011, the veteran pop politician Billy Bragg has been busy extolling young musicians to engage more with politics. And from YouTube raps against the NHS reforms to the sounds of the Occupy movement music has scattered political thoughts and images. And that’s just the UK.

Look to Tunisia and to Tahrir Square in Cairo, and you see music and musicians leading the uprising or choreographing the occupation of public space. While in Syria President Assad suppresses musical expression in his desperate attempt to cling to power.

Whatever else is happening, music still dances to a political beat. Protest music, as Dan Hancox pointed out in Clash 69, hasn’t either disappeared or been reborn. It never went away. But as we celebrate, there are two cautionary thoughts. We have seen the prosecution of Julius Mulema of the ANC in South Africa for singing the song ‘Kill The Boer’. Music can also be a source of hate speech. What we also saw in 2011 is the potency of quiet, the absence of song. Californian students, reacting to the pepper spraying of one of their colleagues, stood in absolute stillness as their college Chancellor, Linda Katehi, passed by them. One of the year’s most powerful protests was silent.

For those who care about politics, then one obvious point may also be about what is happening to music more broadly. Point one: X Factor may be in terminal decline, but its poisonous legacy will survive longer. In such a world, Adele assumes a new role, a breakwater against the tide, more valuable in her way than an army of protest singers. The concentration of power in the music industry - and for all the talk of a new media revolution, it is still hugely important. And the musical oligarchs may matter more to the rhythm of our lives than all those political songs.”  

John Street teaches politics at the University of East Anglia and is the author of Music And Politics.

Read more predictions in Clash's Social Forecast for 2012.

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