Music is still a tool for social change

By Benjamin Clabault


(Arnie Papp/Flickr)
(Arnie Papp/Flickr)

As a kid, I used to spend a lot of time in my dad’s car, which meant I spent a lot of time listening to my dad’s music. I loved it. While my friends were listening to Justin Timberlake and Fergie, I couldn’t understand how their music could even begin to compare with Neil Young, The Doors and the Beatles.

As I got older, I especially enjoyed the political and social commentary coursing through the lyrics of many of those older songs. I remember listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and rushing to learn more about the Kent State Massacre to which their lyrics in “Ohio” refer. The band released the song just weeks after the May 4, 1970 tragedy, in which National Guardsmen shot and killed four college students.

“Ohio” peaked at No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and received substantial play on the radio. Its memorable chorus, “tin soldiers and Nixon coming,” evokes powerful emotions to this day.

As a music-loving kid, I was hugely impressed to see music hold so much power. I had always appreciated music as an art form, and I believe that what makes art so special is its ability to capture the essence of the human experience. Many songs deal with emotions or feelings on an intimate and personal level, often with a focus on romantic love. In “Ohio,” however, I found a message with a more collective feel, echoing the pains and sentiments not of an individual but of an entire community.  As Graham Nash has said, the band knew that listeners “recognized that we were speaking for them, too.”

I never managed to find music with that type of message in the contemporary hits that my classmates were listening to. That is not to say songs like that did not exist; I’m sure they did, and I simply never got a chance to listen to them. Within the popular new music that I had a chance to hear, however, I could not help but feel that something was missing. Music’s potential to affect the community with a pointed message was not being utilized.

I certainly do not mean to bash any music or artists for the songs that they have produced. I’ve always liked Shakira. I love Justin Timberlake’s “What Goes Around Comes Around,” both musically and lyrically. There is nothing wrong with any of the newer music, I just craved the type of social consciousness I heard in the music from my parents’ generation. Recently, though, I have been finding that popular musicians have plenty to say. I don’t know if I am noticing it for the first time or if, in the world of popular music, “the times they are a-changin.’”

I have been compelled by friends to give some rappers a chance, and artists like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole have shown me that music as means of social commentary is still alive and well. Pop star Beyoncé’s performance at the Super Bowl Halftime Show, with lyrics that commentators have called a “celebration of black Southern pride” and costumes that evoked thoughts of the Black Panthers, provides another example.

Beyoncé’s performance has seemed to attract attention and criticism in equal measure. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani called Beyoncé’s act an “outrageous” attack on law enforcement and a Florida police union has called for the boycott of an upcoming show in Miami because of the issue.

All of this controversy speaks to the reality of the music. When artists send a powerful message, especially if that message attacks the powers that be or the status quo, they are bound to make some enemies. But they are also bound to attract attention and provoke thought among the masses, and, in a country that still needs plenty of work, critical thought is the first step towards progress.

Benjamin Clabault is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].