Updated: Jan 13, 2022
Music has undeniably changed infinitely throughout the years, but it has always been an essential part of human culture. The subjects that have been voiced by music spread from sacred, ancient religions to “I just broke up with my girlfriend and now I’m sad.” This variety is what makes music so interesting; it shows its ability to express any emotion, any thought, any story. During the civil rights movement, singers like Nina Simone and Harry Belafonte were prominent in their using music and making art to voice the need for equal rights.
Recently though, fans of music have for the most part started listening to songs that focus predominantly on breakups and romance. That is not to say that these subjects should not be covered or listened to, but many are acknowledging only this side of musical culture, and it would be undeniably better for people to listen to a bit more of a variety. There are many problems in the world right now, and these are being addressed in modern music. Many singers have spoken out and/or devoted many of their songs to social and political justice--and this is what more people need to be listening to.
An example of one of these singers is up-and-coming artist Jordan Edward Benjamin, known professionally as grandson (lowercased on purpose). His music is a combination of rock, hip-hop, and alternative, with fusions of instrumental and electronic beats. He focuses majorly on modern problems like addiction, mental illness, and social and political injustice. According to his Spotify biography, he has received co-signs from big names like Tom Morello and Bernie Sanders, and has (as of now) about 6,800,000 monthly listeners, a number which is growing by the day.
As an example, in his song 6:00, he writes about violence and police brutality;
Yesterday, I turned on the TV
I saw another man down
He was screaming
He can’t breathe no more
He held his hands high
But then he got struck down
I don’t think I need to explain this, because it speaks for itself. Grandson is speaking out about one of the immense amounts of problems that we see commonly on the news nowadays. The words “he can’t breathe” seem like a callback to the murder of George Floyd, although this song came out in 2016. And yet this still strengthens the song, making it perhaps even more relevant than when it came out.
Another of his songs, Blood // Water, his most-listened, reflects as well the truth about violence being a part of American society; American culture, even. He sings:
Beg me for mercy
Admit you were toxic
You poisoned me just for
Another dollar in your pocket
Now I am the violence
I am the sickness
Won’t accept your silence
Beg me for forgiveness
The price of your greed
Is your son and your daughter
This, as well, is a clear commentary on society. It has strong “now look what you’ve done” energy, and asks any listener to reflect on the greed and corruption of our community; this society is rich in avarice and we have to do something about it.
So many in our aristocracy are willing to hurt others for their own benefit, and this song (the shown verse specifically) expresses the impending revenge on those who have wronged so many.
The history of social justice in our music
The civil rights movement has been one of the most--if not the most--well-known movement in the fight for social justice. Voices like that of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, and so many more (an article by ABC News expands on a large multitude of leaders and their roles in the civil rights movement) have led our country through one of the most relevant time periods in our history. In his opening address at the Berlin Jazz Festival, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of music (jazz specifically) and its importance in delivering messages: “Jazz speaks for life. The blues tell the story of life's difficulties--and, if you think for a moment, you realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.”
More on this address, as well as a list of civil rights songs, can be found in an article by Nick Morrison for NPR.
The amount of singers who have sung out against social injustices is immense, and yet, as stated before, the focus is starting to turn away from them. We do not need to stop making songs about romance and breakups, we just need to acknowledge and listen to the music created for a more relevant (for lack of a better word) purpose.
Whether it’s Tracy Chapman’s Talkin’ Bout a Revolution or Little Simz’s Venom, there will always be songs out there that speak the truth, and live not only as a form of entertainment but as a platform to fight for justice and gender, racial, sexuality, and religious equality.
Modern singers embracing truth
Some popular singers today, whose music may predominantly focus on romance and/or breakups, have sung pieces about justice and equality as ways to announce their stances on many subjects. Taylor Swift’s (fairly) recent song You Need to Calm Down is a strong support of LGBTQ+ rights, with one of the lyrics being:
‘Cause shade never made anybody less gay so
Another popular song that goes along similar lines is Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, covering even more bases of equality, boldly and honestly.
Rage Against the Machine has been known forever as a rage band, and not just because of their title. Head-bangers like Killing in the Name and Bulls on Parade about police brutality among many others have spoken out aggressively and strongly about problems in our society for sixteen years, and though they did stop multiple times in the past they are currently together and performing.
The Chicks (formerly known as the Dixie Chicks) changed their name in wake of the murder of George Floyd and the recent BLM movement. They’ve stood up against injustice and tyranny throughout their career, calling out former president George Bush and receiving death threats as a result. Their music, including their newest album Gaslighter and famous song Not Ready to Make Nice has been a large part of their activism. They’ve been known for their honesty, boldness and courage to speak out about their political stances, using their music as a platform for their voice.
It would be impossible to list all of the singers and songs that have things to do with social justice and activism. There are songs in nearly every--if not every--genre that are representative of these issues, so there should be no reason for you not to give one or two a listen.
Music is power
Whether it’s grandson or Lady Gaga, so many artists are willing to use their music to make a difference in the world and to stand up and fight for what is right. So, next time you open Spotify, I urge you to listen to a Nina Simone song or put grandson on shuffle. You never know what may inspire you.
A list of civil rights songs can be found here.