Afrikan people have always blurred the lines between art and politics.
In fact, culturally speaking, as far as Afrikans are concerned it would be true to say that the existence of a line between the two would be a rare absurdity. From Medu Neter (Misnomered “hieroglyphics”) to traditional textiles, from ancient griots to Black Power poets, Afrikans have always created art that speaks directly to the reality, hopes and visions of ourselves as a people and the society in which we live.
Focusing on music, the dichotomy between art & politics only seems to exist when Black artistry accedes to the demands of the Euro-American music industry. In this environment, ‘appealing’ to a mainstream audience, (that is usually not Black), takes precedence over preserving the essence of Afrikan creative endeavors. The lines between success and failure have been heavily defined in this context, creating a scenario in which the Afrikan artist must choose between maintaining cultural integrity and pursuing ‘professional’ ascendancy.
When considered properly, however, politics and art are never in truth separate. If art is defined as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination”, what a people choose to ‘express’ is in one way or another reflection of their lives, social ideals and political standing. The only question is whether the link is understood on a conscious or sub-conscious level.
One example of this is the extent to which Black people in the UK own ‘British’ as their identity. It was once normal for Black people born in the UK to identify themselves with the culture that governed their homes, be it ‘Nigerian’, ‘Jamaican’ or even simply ‘Black’. Being ‘British’ seemed to be an insignificant idea confined to the possession of a red passport. It has been reported that over 70% of Black youth identify with being British today. Interestingly this has coincided with Black music in the UK going from underground hype to a mainstream prominence. Now Black artists wave the Union Jack & St Georges Flag (symbols that used to be associated with the NF and BNP) with pride. Considering the link between identity & political assertiveness, the question must be asked; is this a coincidence?
The 70’s & 80’s were defined by political activism right across the Black world. Independence in Afrika, Rastafari in Jamaica and Black Power in the USA gave birth to the likes of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Bob Marley, Miriam Makeba & Curtis Mayfield. This had a profound impact on the 1st generation of Afrikans born in the UK, who saw the flourishing of bands such as Steel Pulse, Osibisa and Soul II Soul from among themselves. These bands carried the distinct musical styles of their home nations and applied it to their present circumstance as an expression of a distinct Black Identity.
Dub Poets became arguably the most explicit ‘political’ voice of the era. In “Sonny’s Letter”, for example, Linton Kwesi Johnson gives prophetic voice to what happened in 1976 and 1981 when thousands of Black youth fought back against police brutality.
The sound systems also came to the fore, laying the foundation for the MCs of today. On sounds such as Coxson and Saxon, artists waxed lyrical on all subjects from ancient Afrikan History to the injustices of Apartheid in South Afrika. Whatever else Black music represented it was clear that “consciousness” and “political awareness” were high on the agenda. In the song “Ram Jam Capitalism”, Saxon MC Papa Levi famously took a shot at prominent British Reggae DJ David Rodigan for the assumed power he had in deciding which artists did and did not get played.
It was during the 1980’s, in response to the so-called “riots”, that the British government began to crack down on the young Afrikan population who were beginning to get used to fighting back. The MET police sought FBI advice in dealing with the ‘racial unrest’ on British shores and subsequently during the mid to late 80s saw a rise in Black incarceration and guns & drugs in the Black community. Simultaneously Dianne Abbott, Paul Boateng, and the late Bernie Grant became the first Black MPs elected to parliament, seemingly a sign of political progression.
As Soul II Soul implored us to “Keep on Movin”, a new generation was born without the safeguards of a community solid in its identity. Youth who once stood together against the police now turned against each other as guns & drugs began to ravage their neighborhoods. ‘Conscious lyrics’ gave way for ‘tales of the hood’ that found it increasingly difficult to tread the line between glamourisation and social commentary.
This was the era of Jungle, Hip-Hop, House & Garage. The creative ingenuity was undeniable; the lyrical content however wavered in its direction. As ‘blinging’, partying and ‘keepin’ it real’ defined the focus of the Black music underground, the inevitable buzz gave rise to mainstream interest in the evolution of the art forms. However, a lack of affirmed Black identity meant that record companies were able to redefine the music away from a cultural heritage. Music born out the cultural heritage of Black people became ‘urban’, a social hybrid without an ancestry beyond the inner cities. Thus branded, ‘urban’ music is now a mass-market commodity, generally void of political content.
The reason for this appears to be simple. You can’t be a mainstream success making music that applies primarily to an ethnic minority. Whatever number of Black artists feature on the radio playlist, the main players in the industry remain as Mos Def would put it “Old White Men” who “be running this Rap s**t”. They are the decision makers who decide who gets signed and what gets played. Any voice that appears ‘too black’ is out of place to a market in which success is defined by ones ability to relate to mass non-Black audiences. A Black artist donning a Union Jack is a far safer image than a Black artist donning the Pan-Afrikanist colours of Red, Black & Green.
This coupled with the fact that too much political Blackness would threaten to challenge the demographics of the music industry itself, it can be safely argued that record execs have a vested interest in keeping ‘Pro-Blackness’ out of the top 10.
All is not lost, however. In the early 00s, the powerful voice of Ms. Dynamite broke the mould with “BOO” – a display of skills 2nd to none and a political conscience to go with it. Ms. Dynamite left an indelible mark and such this voice continued to simmer, just under the explosions of the blowup artists. With technology, the underground of yesteryear is truly a thing of the past and artists are bypassing the constraints of the major labels to forge independent careers.
The growth of the spoken word scene in the UK, audiences began to retune their ears to lyrical content with socio-political depth. The poets inspired their MC cousins and armed with an influx of lectures by Ashra Kwesi and Dr. Joy Leary among others, artists have been increasingly putting the knowledge back in the Rap.
Like his big sister before him, Akala along with artists such as Logic, Native Sun and Black the Ripper etc – have demonstrated Black power not only in lyrical content but independent business acumen. Reggae bands like the RasItes are holding it up for musicianship as well as conscious lyrical output. The lesson here being that the best of Black music comes to the fore when the people from whom the music is born to have independent control over its development.
The other lesson to be learned is political artists take their cue from political movements; not the other way round. A self-defining Black political movement will inspire artists as a part of that movement. Politics in music, therefore, is a reflection of the general politics of the Black community.
So there are many areas for improvement. For example, I write this article struggling to find many vocalists outside of the reggae genre with a strong political voice. As Afrobeats from the UK comes to the fore, there is serious concern as to whether it will walk in the footsteps the legacy of Fela Kuti & Miriam Makeba, or become lost in the pop mainstream increasingly lacking substance in the process. Whatever the case, the fact remains; Black music will always be a reflection of what is happening with Black people. When the link between politics and art is conscious and self-defining, Black music will once again be a positive and progressive expression of Black culture.