In the age of Twitter and Trump, can a politically charged song still make a difference?
Chuck D is shouting at me, and it’s making me want to set a cop car on fire.
I’m driving through the north side of Chicago, blasting “Hail to the Chief.” The song is from the new self-titled record—out September 15th—by Prophets of Rage, a super group comprised of the former Public Enemy frontman, Cypress Hill’s B-Real and three-fourths of Rage Against the Machine. It isn’t just a great excuse to drive too fast while pounding the steering wheel; it feels like a gasp of oxygen during a politically suffocating time.
But a funny thing happens when you start singing along to songs demanding that you fight back against your oppressors: You start to wonder whether we’ve entered a new golden age of protest music or we’re just stuck in our little bubbles, each with its own rage soundtrack. “What the fuck are you waiting for?” the Prophets ask in the record’s first single, “Unfuck the World.” It’s a very good question.
Whatever your political leanings, there are pop songs out there to prop you up. Most of them are anti-Trump, from Jack Johnson’s “My Mind Is for Sale”—the first single from his new album, which rails against “paranoid ‘us against them’ walls”—to Neil Young’s “Children of Destiny,” which urges listeners to “resist the powers that be.” The pickings are slimmer on the support-our-president side, but you can sing along to Joy Villa’s summer hit “Make America Great Again” while wearing any of the pro-Trump T-shirts being peddled on Kid Rock’s website. And given the fact that the Devil Without a Cause announced, just before press time, that he’s running for the Senate, we might be in for a patriotic rap-rock album called American Carnage.
There’s a lot of racket being made, but is it all just more partisan noise? A few years ago, Roots drummer Questlove wrote on Instagram, “We need new Dylans. New Public Enemys. New Simones.” Have we gotten them? Or have we become too jaded for protest music like it once existed, when you could stumble upon Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” on the radio and have your entire worldview upended?
Chuck D is hopeful that Prophets of Rage can be more than just a reason for young men to mosh righteously. “You listen to Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Woman’ and it makes you want to get with some fly girl,” he explains. “Why can’t it be the same with protest music? If a song speaks to your soul and mind and body, then it can change you.”
I love his conviction—I grew up singing along with it—but in 2017, it seems almost quaint. Is anybody’s political opinions going to be changed by a song anymore? The Internet sometimes seems to exist just so strangers can shout at each other about how they’re wrong, so what chance does Chuck D have of being heard over the din? I’ve probably over-romanticized protest music, but it used to feel important. Didn’t Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” single-handedly end the Vietnam War? I swear I read that somewhere.
During the ‘60s and ‘70s, when music was a countercultural force in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements, “more people were involved in disseminating the message in ways that the music bolstered,” says Eric T. Kasper, a political scientist and author of Don’t Stop Thinking About the Music: The Politics of Songs and Musicians in Presidential Campaigns. That’s not happening today, he says, thanks mostly to the Internet. We all stay in our respective bubbles, leaving only to lob rage-bombs at other bubbles. A protest song that doesn’t preach to the choir doesn’t have much of a chance. When Bob Dylan wrote “Masters of War,” he didn’t have to worry about being dismissed as fake news. Joe Strummer never got hate-tweeted to shut up about politics and sing.
“In the ’60s, I believed that rock music was the most powerful communicating force in human history,” says Wayne Kramer, the founder and lead guitarist for MC5, a Detroit punk band so radical that former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover allegedly told president Ford they “breathe revolution.” Wayne’s opinions have softened in recent years. “I don’t really believe that music leads to political change anymore,” he says. “Politics and the building of civilization is serious business. It’s immune to troubadours and poets.” It’s a little disconcerting to hear this from a guy who performed at the 1968 Democratic Convention at the request of notorious “Yippie” Abbie Hoffman, playing for eight hours before it devolved into a police riot.
He’s right about politics being serious business—but then, so is politically charged music. When Compton hip-hop artist YG released the single “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)” in 2016, it didn’t get much attention, other than a visit to the rapper by the Secret Service. But after the election, the song jumped 435% to 3.1 million U.S. streams and sold over 4,000 downloads in a matter of days. Joy Villa had a similar sales bump for music with a very different sentiment. After walking the Grammy red carpet in a dress with the words “Make America Great Again” and “TRUMP” bedazzled across it, the iTunes sales rank for her album I Make the Static jumped from #543,202 to #1 in just one night.
Villa tells us that her newest single—titled “Make America Great Again” and released over the July 4th holiday—was meant to “encourage people to reach across party lines” and “work toward unifying on important issues.” Okay, but naming a song after a slogan from a historically divisive presidential campaign seems less like an olive branch extended to the other side than a “we won, so shut your loser hole” sing-along for her own. Then again, was “Yes We Can,” will.i.am’s 2007 tribute to Barack Obama, really all that different?
Maybe that’s all it needs to be. Maybe it’s unrealistic to think that protest music has ever been more than preaching to the choir. Did any Nixon supporter listen to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio” and think, “You know, they make some good points?” Did an anti-war progressive pay close attention to Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” and wonder, “Maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about?” The world was simpler in a pre-Facebook age, but people have always been stubborn assholes.
If protest music is having a resurgence, it’s not necessarily that we need more rallying cries. It could just be that we need reassuring. “It gives voice to our frustration,” Wayne says about the music he once thought could spawn a revolution. “It can be like a town hall/ It’s not going to change any minds. It’s just a way to come together and voice our frustrations, and I think that’s plenty.”
Chuck D echoes the sentiment. The man who once told us to fight the power now hopes that his music can be “a beacon for people, to let them know, hey, you don’t have to be afraid.”
So maybe there is power to pumping your fist along to Prophets of Rage as they tell us to “Stand up and rise like the tide!” It’s okay if I don’t take the song literally, and join an angry mob and storm the White House. It just makes me feel a little less crazy and alone. Sometimes that’s enough.
[This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the September/October 2017 issue of Playboy.]