Spirit of protest

From main­stream pop and rock to hip hop, elec­tro and even coun­try mu­sic, hot-but­ton is­sues have evolved.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - MU­SIC - By ROBERT MACPHER­SON

PETE Seeger. Folk mu­sic leg­end. Born in New York on May 3, 1919. Died Mon­day in the same city at the age of 94. Sur­vived by protest songs of all kinds, in all gen­res.

From main­stream pop and rock to hip hop, elec­tro and even coun­try mu­sic, song­writ­ers and per­form­ers are as en­gaged as they were in Seeger’s hey­day, even if the hot­but­ton is­sues have evolved.

“It’s a myth that protest mu­sic has dis­ap­peared,” said Alexan­der Shashko, who teaches the re­la­tion­ship be­tween race, pol­i­tics and pop­u­lar cul­ture at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin in Madi­son.

“Run through the list of the big­gest stars in the world, from Bey­once to Bruce Spring­steen to Lorde, and ar­tic­u­lat­ing so­cial change is a sig­nif­i­cant part of their mu­sic,” he told AFP.

Dubbed “Amer­ica’s tun­ing fork” by poet Carl Sand­burg, the ban­joplayer left be­hind folk clas­sics like If I Had a Ham­mer and We Shall Over­come.

Many will as­so­ciate him with the 1960s, a decade of pro­found so­cial and po­lit­i­cal change, when young Amer­i­cans took to the streets to con­demn the Viet­nam war and de­mand civil rights for all races.

To­day’s song­writ­ers and per­form­ers have other is­sues on their minds, as demon­strated at the Grammy awards in Los An­ge­les last Sun­day where 33 cou­ples – both gay and straight – ex­changed wed­ding vows.

Mack­le­more and Ryan Lewis, win­ners of four Gram­mys, per­formed their an­them Same Love, which served as the theme song of the gay mar­riage cam­paign in the rap duo’s home state of Wash­ing­ton.

Sara Bareilles, 34, and Hunter Hayes, 22, separately ad­dressed bul­ly­ing with pi­ano ren­di­tions of Brave and In­vis­i­ble re­spec­tively.

New Zealand’s Lorde, 17, mocked gra­tu­itous celebrity bling with Roy­als, the Grammy-win­ner for best song.

And there was Kacey Mus­graves, who bested the likes of Tay­lor Swift to win the best coun­try al­bum Grammy for Same Trailer Dif­fer­ent Park, which depicts gritty ru­ral Amer­ica in a way Seeger would have in­stantly recog­nised.

“A protest song asks the ques­tions that some might think shouldn’t be asked,” said Val Haller, whose Val­sList.com blog “helps busy adults keep up with new mu­sic”.

“It does not have to be harsh, an­gry or pushy. Rather, it can be an in­stru­ment to cre­ate a sense of com­mu­nity around a thought.”

Case in point: Ed Sheeran, 22, a gin­ger-haired Bri­tish singer-song­writer with a sweet de­meanour who toured North Amer­ica with Swift last year. Teenage girls make up his global fan base, but his bal­lads cast an un­com­fort­able harsh light on home­less­ness, drugs and pros­ti­tu­tion.

At Na­tional Pub­lic Ra­dio (NPR), mu­sic critic Ann Pow­ers cited Bruce Spring­steen as a prime ex­am­ple of a big-name rock star who can sell out sta­dium gigs while tack­ling po­lit­i­cal themes.

The 64-year-old paid trib­ute to Seeger in a 2006 al­bum We Shall Over­come: The Seeger Ses­sions, but he em­braced protest years be­fore, not least with his 1984 hit Born In The USA, an ode to the work­ing man in dark spir­i­tual cri­sis.

His lat­est stu­dio al­bum High Hopes, re­leased ear­lier this month, in­cludes Amer­i­can Skin (41 Shots), about the po­lice killing of a young African im­mi­grant in 1999 that won Spring­steen no friends among New York’s Finest.

Among younger per­form­ers, Pow­ers is ex­cited by Hur­ray for the Riff Raff, a coun­try-folk band out of New Or­leans, Louisiana fronted by Alynda Lee Se­garra, 27, a one-time street busker and train-hop­ping hobo whose song top­ics in­clude sex­ual as­sault.

“I def­i­nitely think that po­lit­i­cal mu­sic is not as vis­i­ble or as cen­tralised as it used to be – and I think that has to do with how mu­sic in gen­eral is no longer vis­i­ble or cen­tralised as it used to be – and that’s be­cause of the In­ter­net,” she said.

Hip hop has been po­lit­i­cally en­gaged since its in­cep­tion and the days of The Mes­sage, Grand­mas­ter Flash and the Fu­ri­ous Five’s 1982 rap tour of run-down New York pub­lic hous­ing projects.

At last year’s MTV Video Mu­sic Awards, Kanye West, 36, in­voked the le­gacy of slav­ery with Blood On The Leaves against a back­drop of dark im­ages pro­vided by Steve McQueen, di­rec­tor of the Os­carnom­i­nated 12 Years A Slave.

As for the old school folk scene, the spirit of protest thrives with such artists as Andy Co­hen and Joe Jencks, said Stephen Winick of the Amer­i­can Folk­life Cen­ter at the Li­brary of Congress in Wash­ing­ton.

The cen­tre is an im­por­tant repos­i­tory of Amer­ica’s folk mu­sic her­itage – and Seeger was ac­tive in its work since the 1930s.

“Protest mu­sic re­ally does con­tinue to be strong, and you can say there hasn’t been any lull at all,” Winick told AFP.

“Just be­cause it’s not a sin­gle per­son with a gui­tar or banjo doesn’t mean it’s not protest mu­sic.” – AFP

Fight­ing the good

fight: bruce Spring­steen is a prime ex­am­ple of a big-name rock star who can sell out sta­dium gigs while tack­ling po­lit­i­cal


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