We live in odd times, and I don’t just mean the fact that Capcom forgot that Arcade mode is an important facet of a fighting game; I mean the fact that athletes, entertainers and musicians specifically are being told by the world at large that their opinions don’t matter and that they’re inherently wrong for using their platforms or craft as a means to share their opinions and stances on the state of things. Recently, rapper and walking controversy bomb Eminem made headlines with his freestyle during the BET Hip Hop Awards, where he made no bones about how he feels about the current President of the United States, prompting two equally tone-deaf kind of takes. The first comes from well-intentioned folks like Keith Olbermann, who had this to say after watching:
After 27 years of doubts about rap I am now an @Eminem fan.
This is a strange one, because it essentially ignores rap’s long history of political statements, which Olbermann was heartily reminded of in the replies to his tweet. The second is of the “so foolish it’s mind-numbing” variety: the idea that statements like Eminem’s have no place in music and that he, along with all other entertainers should stick exclusively to entertaining and not allow any of their personal beliefs to spill over into that. That school of thought is poisonous for a number of reasons, particularly, because entertainers, be they musicians or comedians or athletes, are people first and in the case of the former two, every single thing they do is personal. Musicians have been using their art to express their beliefs for as long as it’s been a profession, people just haven’t paid attention to that.
If you’re looking for an example of this exact phenomenon, you don’t have to look too much further than Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 single “Born in the U.S.A.”, a song that couldn’t be more misunderstood if it tried. It’s a scathing, sarcastic take on the American public’s treatment of veterans after the Vietnam War, wrapped up in a catchy tune with the title repeated in the chorus, making listeners mistakenly believe the song to be a patriotic anthem when it couldn’t be any further from that. The track went on being misunderstood for so long that acts like Rascal Flatts would end up covering it in earnest as the anthem it is perceived by some to be at live performances, effectively missing the point.
Going back to rap, and Olbermann’s line of thinking, the genre has a long history of politically charged tracks and a firm present in it. Modern rappers like Kendrick Lamar, whose 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly is political from it’s cover art to it’s content, and duo Run the Jewels, comprised of rap veterans Killer Mike and El-P are the newest incarnation of a legacy established in the 1980s and ’90s by acts like N.W.A, Public Enemy and Rage Against The Machine. RATM in particular are so heavily political in their songs that their activism has it’s own wikipedia page and it’s almost scary that a whole new generation of teenagers get to grow up in a similar environment to the one that bred such tracks as “Killing in the Name” and “Testify”. It’s bizarre for sentiments like Olbermann’s to even crop up, let alone as often as they do. Especially considering that acts like Rage still exist, as lead vocalist Zack De La Rocha’s rhymes on race were prominently featured on Run The Jewels 2‘s scorching track “Close Your Eyes(And Count to F–k):
I’m a fellow with melanin, suspect of a felony
Rip like Rakim Allah, feds is checkin’ my melody
Yes aggressively testin’ with bunk stretches and penalties
Dump cases when facing to cop pleas when we seizing the pump
With reason to dump on you global grand dragons
Still piling fast bucks, Afghani toe-taggin’
He comes back again on the final track of Run The Jewels 3, “A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters”, tag teaming with the duo for a six-minute shredder about what it truly means to be free to the three of them, pulling no punches along the way.
As for modern acts outside of rap, the rebellious political statements echo from all around, even in places you wouldn’t expect. Sure, bands like Green Day have never shied away from making their feelings on such things as the war in Iraq known, but even more “safe” groups like Fall Out Boy have made a point of sharing their views in their music and in the accompanying videos. The music video for the final single from their 2007 album, Infinity on High, “I’m Like A Lawyer With the Way I’m Always Trying to Get You Off (Me & You)” features a love story between two Ugandan children, and a message about the child soldier epidemic in the region. In addition to this, the band has confirmed that the track “You’re Crashing, But You’re No Wave”, from the same album, was inspired by the trial of Fred Hampton, Jr., and is a take on the way that money and power can and do affect the dynamics of court cases in the United States. On their most recent album, 2015’s American Beauty/American Psycho, the single “Uma Thurman” is accompanied by a music video, in which the band and their intern for the day write the phrase “Article 1, Section 36.03”, the clause in the Alabama state Constitution that allows for the ban against same-sex marriage, on the side of a truck, and then run it over with a tank.
Music, like all art, is about the expression of self and about the artist’s feelings. The same way musicians can use their art to talk about love or sadness, they can use them to talk about political issues, because those issues are important to them and at the end of the day, the music they make is ultimately for themselves. You just happen to enjoy it.
Then again, maybe I’m overanalyzing things.