Incite And Sound

The new grass-roots political music

“What people don’t understand is, is any song can be a political soundtrack”. Sitting in the wintry grey outside a Euston Station café, Brixton-born rapper Genesis Elijah, fresh from a performance at the Occupy London Stock Exchange camp outside St. Paul’s, is talking about the persistence of political music, in the face of veterans of ’60s, ’70s and ’80s protest songs wondering why things aren’t like they were when they were young. The difference between the hippies’ singalongs of Bob Dylan’s ‘Times They Are A-Changin’ and today, is that people choose their own soundtracks, and that they’re not necessarily heard by everyone.

2011 has been an extraordinary year, with riots, revolutions and rebellions across the entire globe – and no end in sight to the ‘permacrisis’: the rolling back-to-back political and economic emergencies. Even our Twitter-friendly ADD brains have had to do somersaults to keep up: from the eruption of British youth and student protests last winter, to WikiLeaks, to the Arab Spring, to the 500,000 strong trade union rally of 26th March, to Libya, to Internet hacking group Anonymous, to the downfall of the News Of The World and ‘hackgate’, to the riots in August, to the continuing Eurozone crisis, to the Occupy movement in Britain and the US, to the fall of Gaddafi and Berlusconi, and so on.

With subject matter like this, who needs songs about love, drugs and dancing, many have asked. The answer to this is firstly and most importantly: everyone does – all the time, and they always will. But the absence of songs in the charts talking about our extraordinary times is undeniable, and has vexed some of the gatekeepers of popular music during 2011. Journalists and aging musicians have asked repeatedly in places like the NME and The Guardian, ‘Where has the protest music gone?’ It’s not something they thought to ask in the previous ten years, but in any case the answer is it’s been here all along, right under our noses. It’s just changed. Take the first wave of student protests last year.

As the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government sold out their election promises last December – and the education of an entire generation – by cancelling EMA and tripling tuition fees, school and university students of all ages, classes and races danced, raged and moshed outside the House of Commons to everything from Aphex Twin to old school jungle to The Smiths. On the most popular sound-system that day, teenage ravers selected dancehall from Jamaica (Elephant Man’s ‘Bun Bad Mind’, Vybz Kartel’s ‘Ramping Shop’), chart pop from the US (Rihanna’s ‘Rude Boy’, 50 Cent ‘Just A Lil Bit’), global club hits (Sean Paul – ‘Like Glue’, Major Lazer – ‘Pon Di Floor’), and from London, road rap and grime: Tempz’s ‘Next Hype’, JME’s ‘Serious’, and most emphatically of all, Lethal Bizzle’s ‘Pow!’.

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Lethal Bizzle ‘Pow!’

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In the coming days, these peer-to-peer protests (spread in unprecedented fashion via Twitter, Facebook and SMS) acquired the zeitgeist propaganda to match it: one video montage of the student protests mixed protesters’ videos with clips taken from Sky News and the BBC, and paired this agit-prop with Tempz’s ‘Next Hype’. It’s a stunning combination, in one simple move converting Tempz’s comically detailed catalogue of violence against a non-specific foe into a politicised assault on the state, the government, the police, and even the symbolically smashed glass at the Tories’ Millbank HQ. Tempz’s specific vocal attack became directed, in the voices of the disenfranchised generation singing along, against anyone or anything standing in their way.

“It’s not about the [lyrical] content, it’s about the energy and aura,” Tempz told Clash. “The persona I portray gives a voice to those who use it as a way of expression.” The song had played in the courtyard of Millbank during the invasion of the Tory HQ, as protestors punched the air and pogoed, arms round each other’s shoulders. It played again in a kettle in Trafalgar Square, during another school student protest: this time, the speaker-on-a-trolley was wheeled up against a line of riot police, as if it were a military band, accompanied by teenagers half-dancing, half-walking, half-marching, thrusting arms in the air with each of ‘Next Hype’s shouted punchlines (“SMASH!” … “CLEAR!” … “KICK!”).

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Tempz ‘ Next Hype’

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The idea that 2011’s protest music might not sound like Bob Dylan came up again when Rinse FM’s leading dancehall reggae DJ collective The Heatwave responded on their radio show with a series of Jamaican rebel songs which they – like the student protesters – had repurposed for what was going on around them. “This one’s going out to Nick Clegg and David Cameron,” they said introducing Busy Signal’s ‘Bigger Heads’, going on to dedicate Warrior King’s anthem ‘Education Is The Key’ to “everyone who thinks education is just about preparing for the job market”. YT’s ‘Mr Politician’ and Busy Signal’s ‘Government Gone Luu’, a polemic against corrupt Jamaican MPs and their punishing tax rises, were turned by The Heatwave into anthems for the direct action group UK Uncut, who have been targeting Britain’s super-rich tax evaders: “Send it out to Philip Green, Top Shop boss man, you know his taxes aren’t rising – they’re nice, comfortable. He owes about 125 million quid mate! Tell you what, if he owed me that money I’d be going round to his house,” MC Benjamin D chuckled, then clarified, “not in a violent way, just to say, ‘Bruv, what’s happening? Where’s that 125 million pounds you owe me?’” Politics is in the ear of the beholder.

What the aging punk generation can’t get their heads around is the possibility that political music might exist in forms they don’t listen to, or haven’t bothered to investigate. The August riots saw an incredible musical response from the grass-roots of British rap music; just searching for ‘UK riots freestyle’ on YouTube is proof of that. Chuck D famously said hip-hop was the “black CNN”, a way of documenting real life when white-dominated mainstream media wasn’t interested: if you add emancipatory citizen media like YouTube and Twitter to the equation, anyone can create their own DIY narrative using words, pictures, videos – and of course, songs. Who needs the industry anymore? Within three days of the riots starting, with Britain’s cities literally still burning, there were five or six strong rap and grime tunes up on YouTube documenting the unrest, ranging from outright condemnation of the riots, to attempts to explain the causes (poverty, boredom, exasperation with police harassment), to some extraordinarily full-on expressions of sympathy.

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2Kolderz ‘They Will Not Control Us’

The track by 2Kolderz ‘They Will Not Control Us’, uploaded on YouTube a mere three days after the start of the riots, described in ferocious terms the level of anger with the political class, addressing David Cameron personally: “Was it you who was travelling on London transport the day that the bombs went off? / How about you go and pay rent to the landlord, earn shit money doing a labouring job? / We’re living like shit in this country, while you sit with your feet up living nice and comfy”. If you hate the government, the conclusion in 2011 is not to join an opposition party, wait patiently for the next election, and hope for the best – we’ve come too far for that now: politics no longer means what happens in the House of Commons.

A quasi-anarchist pox on all their houses, is the message coming from the grime and rap scene, as ‘They Will Not Control Us’ sums up in its chorus: “We know what the problem is, the people acknowledge this: stand up to the politics!” For Genesis Elijah, rap and grime is intrinsically political music, whatever it says: “It’s all hip-hop at the end of the day – and the spirit of hip-hop is always going to be ‘fight the power’”. So why do so few of his peers make the kind of rap music that Public Enemy made? Especially those, like Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal, Tinie Tempah and Wretch 32, who have now crossed over into the mainstream? As always, it’s down to individual choice – it’s no one musician’s responsibility to write a political song. But Elijah has some theories about the seemingly apolitical stances of his peers. “We’re the Farenheit 9/11 generation – we’ve grown up in an era of total scepticism and suspicion of the authorities, with no faith in governments to do good things.”

As one of the few MCs who does consistently write political songs, he seems both disappointed but understanding of this scepticism – it’s not apathy, it’s just contempt for the political process. And for him, the rebellious spirit of rap is always in the background, even when all the overt political content is stripped out: “the essence of most mainstream hip-hop songs is smoking, drinking, and wasting money – and those are the three things you’re told not to do as a young person. Hip-hop these days says ‘we’re a law unto ourselves, we police ourselves’. It’s a cowboy mentality – we run things for ourselves – and it transcends culture, everyone has that mentality to a certain degree, but hip-hop expresses that freedom best of all.”

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Genesis Elijah ‘UK Riots’

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Elijah’s ‘UK Riots’ freestyle was the stand-out verdict on the August explosion, an a cappella written, recorded and uploaded immediately, it attacked the police, the government and the looters with equal measure. Delivered with sadness and anger, key lines like “We used to riot for a cause / Now we riot just because” and “Real rebels fight the power / Not the powerless” stick in the mind more than any liberal media hand-wringing. “There’s no part of society that can say it’s blameless,” he tells Clash, reflecting on the riots three months on. “That was not what rioting is supposed to be – [Black Panther] Huey P used to say ‘rioting is the last resort’, and when it happens for a political reason, when it’s for a cause…” he tails off, sadly. “But there was none of that. If we were burning down banks then whatever, but it was small businesses, and homes: you’re hurting innocent people.”

Elijah was born in Brixton in 1981, the same year as the seismic riots that took place there and in Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds and beyond. Those riots, generally regarded as race riots, took place against a backdrop of endemic persecution of the black community by the police and in wider society, but they did eventually achieve change. They are, Elijah says, “part of his psyche”. There’s a big difference though: “they were directed at something”.

He also agrees that harsh sentencing is not going to do anything to stop the current crisis. In this climate, with the government’s drastic cuts continuing to hit the poor and the young the hardest, more riots are entirely likely (as Tottenham youth workers and sociology academics keep warning the government). “What are we scared of?” asks Elijah. “The sentences aren’t going to make any difference. We’ve never been scared of prison, we’ve never been scared of dying. So what else is there to stop this? It’s a product of the current system.”

The punk-and-’80s-worshipping generation now owning the music industry’s mainstream voices haven’t realised they are as irrelevant to today’s youth struggles as the hippies were in the punk era. “No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones, in 1977”, a fresh-faced Joe Strummer once sang, sick of having his predecessors rammed down his throat, determined that The Clash had something different to say, in a new way. Thirty-four years later, in another crisis moment affecting the young people of Britain, the NME responded by ignoring the student protests for nine months, and then putting The Clash on the cover. Billy Bragg – a legend in many respects – seems to write an article almost every week for a national newspaper pontificating about where all the protest music has gone. He and his generation are not interested in answering the question, they just want to ask it over and over again.

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Grace Petrie – Emily Davison Blues

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For Grace Petrie, a young singer-songwriter with a great line in both overtly and subtly political music, the difference the mainstream and the underground is clear. “It’s true there’s a massive void in the mainstream music industry in terms of people writing songs with a social conscience, but it’s not at all accurate, as so many articles have said this year, that there are no protest songs anymore.” We’re pretty sick of those articles now, Clash says. “Not as sick as I am!” she laughs.

“When so much is being taken away from us, there’s bound to be political art in response, and just because that art hasn’t made it to the Top Ten, it doesn’t mean you can say there’s no political art left. The truth is we live in a totally different age to the time The Jam and The Clash did, we live in a different country, the music industry is totally different; political music in 2011 is grass-roots, it’s self-released, it’s self-promoted, it’s on the Internet, and the media have the duty to find it.”

She listened to a lot of Bob Dylan, The Jam, The Clash and Billy Bragg in her teenage years, and her songs ring out with the passion of her influences. “I’ve grown up to be a folk artist, so obviously acoustic music is my magnetic north,” she says, and as angry as she gets, it’s not necessarily about shouting the loudest. “Get Cape Wear Cape Fly were a really big influence on me because they taught me that you can write a song that might be quite quiet and quite tender, but can still be political. Protest songs can be quiet as well,” she reflects.

“I think that’s the challenge if you’re trying to write music with any kind of political conscience. It’s not to get people at demonstrations singing your songs, because that’s not exactly difficult: the challenge is to get the attention of people who wouldn’t think to go on a demonstration in the first place.” She points to a lot of The Jam songs that inspired her: “Songs like ‘Saturday’s Kids’ and ‘That’s Entertainment’ don’t contain specific political dialogue, or technical jargon about British party politics, they talk about everyday life, which disengaged young people felt empowered by.” She’s already writing the modern-day equivalents. Songs like ‘Inspector Morse’, ostensibly a tender love song, builds to a perfect rallying cry for a maligned generation: “Be strong, be resilient, be young, be fucking brilliant.”

Political music in 2011 has been on the margins, rather than in the charts, which is certainly a shame. It’s possible that major label artists are over-protected by their controversy-averse publicists, record labels and management these days, but it’s very difficult to prove. They might just not care – in a way, it doesn’t matter like it would have done in the 1970s or ’80s: we can all access political music, or indeed any music at all, from any place in the world or point in history, just as long as we have an Internet connection.

In a way, it’s just about trends. Dorian Lynskey, author of a history of protest songs called 33 Revolutions Per Minute, said when interviewed earlier this year that he thinks pop singers have just got out of the habit. In the 1980s it was just the done thing to write an angsty song about how much you hated Margaret Thatcher, or world hunger, or nuclear war, or apartheid, so everyone did it – even bands that knew absolutely nothing about politics, and wrote terrible political songs. Even in the Internet age, bands follow fashion, and there’s every chance that one big anti-government hit next year will start a snowball effect. But either way, for god’s sake don’t say there’s no political music in 2011. Joe Strummer would be rolling in his grave to hear you say that.

Words by Dan Hancox

This feature appears in the latest issue of Clash magazine. Read more about the issue HERE.

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