This past year has been very political to say the least. Before 2016 even had a chance to start, we were being introduced to presidential candidates (and unknowingly the wildest election ever) back in early 2015. Obviously, there were many other things that shared the spotlight with the 2016 Hell-ections: the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality, the refugee crisis, anti LGBTQA+ laws, terrorist attacks, you name it. Basically, 2016 didn't wait to drop the bomb and now it's leaving us with a lot to clean up. Either way, when hellfire pours from the sky, something is bound to grow from the ashes. 2016 might've been a political shit-storm, but it resulted in some pretty damn good music. Several albums addressed the Black Lives Matter Movement and celebrated black culture, like Beyonce
's Lemonade, Solange
's A Seat At The Table,
and Blood Orange
's Freetown Sound
. The list goes on.
As expected, music comes with criticism. That's necessary for art. The thing is... there has been a lot of criticism on music's role in society in 2016. Because this year's music has been influenced by current events, people are arguing that musicians have overstepped their boundaries and are mixing with politics too much. This complaint has come up countless times this year in many different forms:
"Why did [artist] have to make their song/performance about race/gender/religion/politics?"
"They should just focus on music."
"They're sacrificing their art for a political message. The music should come first."
"Talking about politics in music only polarizes us more. Music is meant to bring people together."
They're all straight bullshit and they all point to a larger issue with how we view music, politics, and our world. So let's talk about it.
First, let me just tackle that whole "sacrificing art for a political message" comment real fast, because that is just laughable. Does art stop being art if it's trying to get a message across? Doesn't all art have a message to make? I find it similar to arguments that say PC culture is ruining comedy. My answer to that is pretty simple; If you only rely on beating people down to be funny, you're not a very creative comedian, let alone a good one. Similarly, a good artist will find a way to not sacrifice any part of their work. If 2016 has proven anything, it's that. There were plenty of artists who have cranked out work this year that raised awareness for marginalized people while still being really good music. But hey, don't just take my word for it. Go check the 2017 Grammy nominee list for yourself.
But why? Why do artists feel the need to make their music about race? Why are they "preaching" to us their political views? For the love of God, WHY WOULD THEY DO THIS TO US? The late jazz singer Nina Simone answered that question already, "An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times." I know that not all artists want to take up activism, but every artist does reflect their own
times and what is important to them. Music is used to analyze the world around us and to express our feelings about it. Some write about break ups while others write about their fears of being black in America. It's the artist's choice. It's like when people were shocked when the cast of Hamilton spoke to Mike Pence when he came to watch their show. Some said that the actors should be entertaining their audiences instead of lecturing them, as if Hamilton hasn't always been a political statement about race, gender, and sexual orientation. You don't get to choose what a work's message is. That's the artist's job. It shouldn't surprise us when politics are brought into a song, but it does. So what does this say about us as listeners?
Music isn't a one-way road. Artists write music with the intention of opening a dialogue with their listeners. People obviously have their right to disagree with a song's message, but that's not the complaint we've been hearing this year. Saying "I disagree with their message" is not the same as saying "politics has no place in music." Saying the latter is just another way of saying that you don't want to confront the outside world. That you don't want to engage with a wronged community because if their message doesn't align with yours, then you're potentially the wrong doer.
Look, we may be sick of dealing with social politics - it isn't the happiest topic and we never stop hearing about it - but the truth is that it's a part of our world. Of course it's everywhere, but the last thing we should do is shut ourselves off from it. We can't resolve a problem unless it is fully realized and understood, and that takes a lot of discussion. That's what music is trying to start. Artists aren't only sharing their opinions; they're trying to be a part of the solution by bringing others into it. That's how we come together. Politics can be polarizing, sure, but music has been, still is, and will always be bringing us together.
So no, music didn't get too political in 2016. It's always been political. We're just starting to hear it clearer.