Music and politics have always had a strong relationship going back to the days of the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war movement, and campaigns to combat racism. These days, artists such as Childish Gambino are pushing the boundaries visually and musically when it comes to using their art as a political vehicle. Sam Smith spoke with Patrycja Rozbicka about the intersection between music and politics.
Patrycja Rozbicka is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University, United Kingdom. She is an expert in political interest groups and the music industry and is the co-author of As Childish Gambino shows, pop music can be powerfully political – despite censorship.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Sam Smith: You have recently written an article about the American musician Childish Gambino and his music video for his song “This Is America” which is this amazingly powerful visual statement against police brutality in the United States. You titled the article “Pop Music Can Be Powerfully Political Despite Censorship.” What was the premise for this article?
Pat Rozbickya: I work in general on this intersection between music and politics, and one of my colleagues from Bath University who is the co-author on this text Matthew Alford works on censorship in the cinema. He was like we should sit down and think about it because Childish Gambino produced this really amazing video clip, it goes online and you would expect some censorship talking about the Trump Administration. And yet it didn’t take place, the backlash wasn’t that obvious. There were also follow-ups, for example “This Is Nigeria” by Falz which basically got an immediate backlash from the community in Nigeria including religious communities, especially Muslim communities. So the question was like so what is going on? There is censorship in the cinema but censorship in music seems to be very vague. And there are different reasons for that. Sometimes it is there, sometimes it is not, so that was the idea of actually producing the text.
SS: Do you think that censorship in music is still a big issue these days or have artists found ways to get around this?
PR: It is definitely not the issue of like the 1960s, 70s, and even 1980s. It is a very marginalised aspect of the whole music industry and in our research, we actually discovered that it is more about market censorship, so it is not necessarily relevant to politics, the market itself steers it. So political songs, the ones that are very expressive about current situations they are actually not very popular in the market so they don’t sell well, they don’t reach that many masses. It is not really the issue that they are not there it is just that they are not as visible as before.
SS: Do you think music has become more or less political these days and do you think with that does it still have the ability to influence change perhaps like it used to?
PR: I would say the scale is different. So before we had historical examples, we had huge movements like Red Wedge, Rock the Vote, Rock Against Racism, so we had really big initiatives, and at this moment we don’t have this big-scale involvement from people. But also, on the other side it is the micro-pop activism which is popping up and becoming very active, so rather small-scale gigs but there is more of them. So using the idea of Rock Against Racism and organising tonnes of activities which actually create bigger awareness in getting people more aware of the issues.
SS: Why do you think that these changes have taken place?
PR: I think it is definitely down to technology because we have the availability of the twenty-four-seven news cycle, and then to be honest for something to stay on the news agenda it really has to be big and shocking, and to be honest all those micro-pop activism events and so on they don’t manage to pop up for long enough. So definitely the technology aspect. The other issue is, let’s take YouTube and Childish Gambino for example. He posted this online video which gets picked up by [Saturday Night Live] who put it on TV and then it gets millions of views and it is all because of technology. Everyone gets aware of it and we have spinoffs like “This Is Nigeria,” there is also a version in India and so on and it is all wonderful, but without the development in technology in terms of streaming and social media it wouldn’t happen on the same scale.
SS: I guess then this is a good time to talk about social media. Do you think it has made it easier for artists to be political and to get their views to their fans? And with this, is there an expectation now on musicians that they should use their platforms for this?
PR: There is definitely a push for encouraging this, especially new and up and coming artists who use social media. Definitely we have a celebratory culture where artists on Twitter are suggesting support for or endorsing particular politicians. It is definitely a force which can encourage a change of view and definitely getting youngsters involved because that is the main user. So we are talking about the youngest generation of potential voters, so eighteen to twenty-four.
SS: How effective do you think music is in creating political change or engaging people politically? Are things like benefit concerts or charity singles effective or are they more kind of cynical attempts by musicians to seem like they care?
PR: I don’t want to be very pessimistic. Maybe let’s look at it from the perspective of gig-goers and festival-goers, all the events that they attend are actually preaching to the choir. So you will not see for example [in the UK] Conservative supporters at the gigs organised by the Labour Party and so on. So it is not necessarily about changing political views rather about making them a bit stronger and giving people a chance to interact with people of the same view. It is also about making people more aware of what the issues are and that is the potential of music that it can be brought to politics and in general kind of larger movements.
SS: Let’s turn to then to the election of Donald Trump and his relationship with musicians and politics because do you think he has acted as a catalyst for greater political engagement from musicians?
PR: Nope. Definitely not. Because lots of people forget that engagement of musicians in the US actually precedes Donald Trump quite a lot. So just to give you more recent examples, let’s think back to when Obama was first a candidate and then the President there was huge support from a number of musicians. We had Beyoncé who was very supportive, we had Katy Perry who was very active on the Clinton campaign. So I wouldn’t say that the activity got bigger or more visible because the negative examples are there also. We had the Dixie Chicks who were banned for speaking out against Bush. So Trump coming in is neither the new exciting example or neither the very negative example because it was all there before and it just kind of gets highlighted because Trump uses Twitter and he has millions of followers.
SS: What about politicians trying to get musicians to support or endorse them? Does this have meaning to it or is it just kind of more the celebritisation of politics?
PR: I would say it is a bit about celebrity endorsements and kind of getting more popular and so on. When I was thinking about it in advance, I was like ‘Okay so Trump has 52 million followers on Twitter, Kanye West has like over 28 million, other examples, Beyoncé has 15 million’. So basically, a message transferred through Twitter reaches so much more people, it is not necessarily even about the message itself it is just about the fact that it gets to more people. This kind of links to your earlier question around technology, so this combination at the moment allows for this kind of particular celebrity endorsement. But again, it is not a very new phenomenon, if we compare it for example to the movie industry and actors endorsing politicians again it is nothing new and is something that started out very early with Hollywood.
SS: Now there was an example in the UK last year with Jeremy Corbyn where he became heavily endorsed by grime artists which in fact even led to a voter registration drive called Grime 4 Corbyn. What happened here? Could you explain this a bit more and was it successful?
PR: It was an extremely interesting social experiment I would say in the sense that lots of grime stars endorsed Jeremy Corbyn. We had Stormzy, JME, Novelist, lots of them who simply made a statement despite never voting before, but now they are getting more interested in politics. Did it have an effect? Well the whole campaign of Labour leading into the 2017 election next to the typical political rallies included a lot of gigs and small-scale festivals but mostly appearances of Jeremy Corbyn at different events including the famous speech during Glastonbury which reached almost eighteen million people. So the goal was to again not change political views rather to get those festival-goers and so on which are on average actually Labour supporters to mobilise them to go vote. The rise in numbers of first-time voters wasn’t gigantic but taken at really low numbers for the last twenty years starting from like 1992 with really low turnout of young people this was actually a big success. However, we can’t really strictly link it just to those activities. Definitely they got people more interested, there were options of registration, there was a lot of information available during events but again there is no strict link that we can say 100% that that was effective. But then you know there were some amazing things that haven’t been seen since like New Labour with Britpop in 1997, where people were chanting “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” to the White Stripes song “Seven Nation Army”, which is phenomenal in the sense that young people got engaged, not necessarily through traditional forms but more political engagement through untraditional means. So they are getting a bit more aware of the situation and I think that is the large success of the whole process because who knows, maybe they didn’t vote in the 2017 election but they have a few years before the next election and it is very probable that by the next election they will be more willing to go vote because they will be more aware of the problems and potential solutions.
SS: It is a good time to talk about the future. Do you think music and politics is going to have more of a closer relationship or do you think it is going to decline as such?
PR: That is an interesting question. I think we can’t really say it ever went that far away from each other. Again, as mentioned before it is not a new phenomenon, it is just we have a tendency to forget a lot of examples. Just to kind of bring in something which I just recently worked on with another colleague: Labour Live. So a few weeks ago [the British Labour Party] organised a big Labour festival, we had Jeremy Corbyn coming to this thing and talking about how politics and music have to be together and we have organised this big thing and next year it is going to be bigger and so on. And then I started thinking and went, ‘Hang on a minute, there are examples of similar initiatives from years before and they were actually much more popular’. So I wouldn’t say there will be a trend of renewing the relationship or going kind of totally apart but there definitely will be because of the media interest which is growing, there will be a bit more about the topic which is going to make my research more interesting. So it is not really going to change it is just going to be a bit more visible.
SS: Is there anything else you would like to add or that we might have missed?
PR: Something very interesting which comes up with this intersection of music and politics are these things called micro-events. So these are gigs of like maximum 400 people, small communities in the cities, and they are actually all very dependent on the interaction in those communities. So kind of creating a political awareness within those communities actually has more lasting effect than the bigger concerts. Because with the concerts you go, it is fun, you listen and you get aware of the issue. But if you get engaged within the smaller communities you get much more engaged and you get to voting because your friend told you to go voting, or he/she is going to vote. So actually, the big potential with music and politics is those small events and if politicians can tap into particular communities of this kind it is going to be much more effective.
This interview was originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview click here.
The Scholars’ Circle is our radio show that is broadcast weekly in ten US cities and available via podcast and/or transcript on our website. It brings together scholars’ from across various disciplines to discuss current issues in their chosen fields and various research that is taking place. For more click here.