Music as an Act of Resistance

With the shortlist for this year’s Mercury Music Prize being more politicised than ever, Toni Stephenson takes a look at how politics and music have become increasingly intertwined over recent years.

Since the shortlisted twelve albums for this year’s Mercury Music Prize were announced in the summer, critics and commentators alike have been hailing the 2019 finalists as the most political in the prestigious award’s 27 year history. Previous recipients of the award for best album released in the United Kingdom by a British or Irish act have been rather apolitical; artists often opted for themes of love, religion and emotion to inspire their song writing. 

This year, however, the themes in each album are much more explicit and relevant to current affairs. The awards evening saw rapper Dave take home the prize for his album Psychodrama which explores the tough socio-political conditions faced by today’s British black communities. Other nominations included Anna Calvi’s Hunter which explores gender roles, Foals’ Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost which tackles the climate crisis and mental health and Little Simz’s Grey Area which touches on attitudes to female success. So is it true that popular music has become more politicised over the last few years? 

There is no doubt that political frustration is at an all-time high for many of our lifetimes. We appear to be living in a period of Brexit purgatory and increasing populism. Political discourse seems increasingly divisive and whether musicians and artists are using their music to tackle this head on or to satirically vent their frustrations, the politics of race, class, identity and climate have definitely infiltrated their way into this year’s top albums. Whilst last year’s winners, Wolf Alice, were recognised for their soft indie melodies and mix of angelic and heavy vocals, this year’s entire shortlist appears to make a statement of protest.

Of course, music has always had a close relationship with politics. Entire genres such as hip-hop, jazz and blues have developed from repressive socio-economic and political situations. The punk movement was born in the 1970s out of anti-authoritarianism and full rejection of conservative values. Blues developed as a movement in the US as a result of the harsh oppression and segregation imposed upon African-American communities. So there is most certainly a correlation between turbulent, repressive political atmospheres and the creation of protest music.

The last few years has overseen a huge shift in the discourse of politics from the usual trials and tribulations of democracy to what seems like a complete overhaul of everything we’re familiar with and absolutely no signs of consensus anytime soon. Some music commentators have claimed this has created a resigned attitude of pessimism decline in protest songs but the Mercury Prize shortlist shows us quite the opposite. There is no resignation in people, young and old, taking to the streets to protest the state visit of a misogynist ‘leader of the free world’ and the inaction of governments and corporations to protect the earth’s fragile ecosystems. Today’s protest culture is one that is spreading and consequently appreciates and recognises the artists who are using their platforms to help out.

IDLES’ punk-inspired album Joy as an Act of Resistance takes on attitudes towards toxic masculinity, societal pressures and immigration. Their song Danny Nedelko seeks to explain and challenge these, “Fear leads to panic, panic leads to pain, pain leads to anger, anger leads to hate.” Whilst sections of Slowthai’s album Nothing Great about Britain is reminiscent of the anti-establishmentarianism of the 1970s as he ends the titular song with the words “I will treat you with the utmost respect only if you respect me a little bit Elizabeth,” before cursing the Queen.

Greta Thunberg – Image by Getty Images

The severity of current political issues is creating a new wave of music as an act of resistance and the only explanation of their recent success is that they contain messages that a growing number of people relate to. Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Climate strikes, for example, have gained a huge following so it is not surprising that pop artists such as The 1975 and Billie Eilish are referencing the climate crisis and threat of environmental degradation. Music comes from passion, whether this be a positive or negative take, and the fact that artists are being credited for their politicised statements through their music surely means these issues are more serious now than we have seen in the last few decades.

Header Image by Pooneh Ghana