FEATURE: A Single Voice: The Influence of Musicians in Politics




A Single Voice


IN THIS PHOTO: Taylor Swift/ALL PHOTOS (unless credited otherwise): Getty Images/Press 

The Influence of Musicians in Politics


THE role of the musician in political life is nothing new…


 PHOTO CREDIT: @lukemichael/Unsplash

but there seems to be this guarded approach to speaking out when it comes to democracy! It is not the case with every gene/nation but, I don’t know…something is lacking. I am not sure how many big artists are told when to speak about politics and whether they can have their say but I get the impression some of the mainstream’s elite and carefully marketing and manoeuvred so that they do not make a faux pas. The same cannot be said of Kanye West: the man seems to have no filter and he does tend to run his mouth whenever the moment strikes him. He is a big supporter of President Donald Trump – no shocks when you stand them side-by-side – and I wonder how much of an impact that makes on his sales figures. I am sure a lot of his hardcore fans support Trump and back everything he says but I know a lot of former Kanye West fans have turned away and been put off by his political views. He is reprimanded when he makes a stupid comment – which is quite a bit – but his ego and freedom of speech and, for the most part, allowed to run and indulge as they see fit. I feel the rules are slightly different for the Pop market. Taylor Swift made the news recently because she has come out in support of the Democrat candidate in Tennessee – where she is registered to vote – and, because of that, there has been a leap in terms of the number of young voters...


 IN THIS PHOTO: Kanye West

The Guardian reported the story:

The US voter registration service has experienced a spike in numbers after Taylor Swift – long silent on partisan issues – expressed her support for two Democratic candidates and encouraged her 112 million Instagram followers to register to vote in time for next month’s US midterm elections.

Kamari Guthrie, the director of communications for vote.orgtold Buzzfeed News there were 65,000 registrations in the 24-hour period after the singer posted her statement to Instagram on Sunday.

Swift focused her post on the Senate race in Tennessee, where she is registered to vote. She stated that although she had previously voted for women in office, she felt unable to support the Republican Senate candidate, Marsha Blackburn. “Her voting record in Congress appalls and terrifies me,” she said, adding that she would be voting for the Democratic candidates Phil Bredesen for Senate and Jim Cooper for House of Representatives.

In her post, Swift affirmed her commitment to the fight for LGBTQ rights and described the “systemic racism” towards people of colour in the US as “terrifying, sickening and prevalent”. She encouraged her young fans to educate themselves on their local candidates and “vote based on who most closely represents your values”.

The reason I have raised this post is because a lot of commercial musicians are told to keep away from politics and not really engage that side of things. Maybe there is a fear that coming out in support of one party would damage their popularity: labels want artists to be neutral so, that way, they can appeal to all sides.


One may feel politics and music have no link and connection but just look at how Taylor Swift has galvanised and incentivised many young people who, before, were undecided voters or passive. Swift is a lover of those ignored by the U.S. Government and, in her music, she has spoken about gay rights and liberty; she is a conscientious writer and performer who wants her young audience to think more deeply about their country. Many might say that, by coming out in support of the Democrats; she is guiding her fans to them and making them decide. The thing is, Swift hasn’t come out in firm support of one candidate or another. Instead, she has encouraged many to vote and has revealed a lack of trust in a Republican candidate. It can be hard speaking about politics when you have a high-value record deal that makes millions – there is a nervousness when their big stars voice their politician preferences. I know many popular personalities in the U.K. are told to remain neutral – especially when it comes to T.V. and radio talent – but, for musicians, there is this platform to have a big say. Swift has increased the number of young voters and I feel her peers should follow suit. Artists like her hold a lot of sway and influence and, rather than push their fans to one party or another; that desire to see them vote and participate in the democratic process is crucial.


 IN THIS PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump/PHOTO CREDIT: John Lamparski/WireImage/Getty Images

We all know Donald Trump is leading America into a colonial black pit of despair and dictatorial rule; he is unconcerned with anyone but himself and, whilst Taylor Swift knows this, she has not come out and been that explicit. Musicians are potent and inspiring people who are listened to, bought and followed by armies (of fans). There is a certain rule and commercial sense of caution when it comes to the material some can produce and what they talk about in interviews but I feel, more and more, artists are having their say and keen to express their opinions. Swift’s recent statement is a breakthrough that I would like to see firmly supported. Depending on the genre, I guess, depends on how much an artist can vocalise their political preferences. Take Hip-Hop and Rap artists like Kanye West and Eminem: on different sides of the fence but both definitely unafraid to speak out and get their voices heard! Pop might be a different game and, to be fair, a lot of the traditional demographic might not be that involved or aware of politics. That is a generalisation but it is harder to motivate and connect with certain people. (I don’t know). What I do know is that the musician is key when it comes to highlighting concerns and inspiring. In the U.S., there are those opposed to Trump and unafraid to have their say…


 PHOTO CREDIT: @clemono2/Unsplash

Others talk about black lives and gun violence; some sing about environmental concerns or what is happening regarding immigration. Artists write about the society they live in so, naturally, politics plays a big part. Another reason why Taylor Swift ‘breaking a silence’ – so to speak – is so important and big is because it shows artists her age are concerned with what is happening and not remaining passive. I would like to see Swift, in future, funnelling her politics and activation into her music more. I feel she can make a genuine difference and, given her influence and status in the U.S., she can reach a lot of people and help affect betterment. From Hip-Hop pioneers and legends like N.W.A. directly aiming their anger at U.S. politicians and pointing the finger; there has always been that link between music and politics. This interesting article from Live for Live Music gives a chronology regarding musicians and encouraging others to vote:

The tumult of the sixties was a direct result of a generation born from the returning soldiers of the second World War.  The horrors endured by their parents turned them against the conflict, but after an entire decade of railing against the military industrial complex and unjust wars abroad, a sense of disillusionment came over the country and the era of the protest song slowly faded away. It’s no wonder that John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance” became such an anthem at the end of a difficult decade”.


PHOTO CREDIT: @christianw/Unsplash 

The American counterculture war veterans were slowly getting lost in the so called “Me Decade” of self indulgence that was the seventies. Though the flames of protest seemed to cool after the conflagration of the sixties, the fires still burned bright overseas.  In England, a wave of anarchic music gave voice to the growing sentiment of disillusionment and distrust among the increasingly angry youth. Jobs were scarce, especially for the young and untrained.  The combination of youthful energy and lack of any positive release turned the country into a simmering stew of resentment.  Protesters took to the streets, as an increasingly radical populace carried out acts of building aggression towards the elite.  Punk rockers the Sex Pistols were born of that rage, and vented it in their seminal hit “God Save The Queen.”

In 1990 Rock The Vote, a new, non partisan non-profit was founded to promote voter registration among the America’s youth.  Their marketing snazzy blend of big name band and artist endorsements and political activism worked well out of the gate with their debut PSA featuring Madonna in dressed only in her underwear and the American flag.

In 2004, Disco Biscuits bassist Marc Brownstein and his friend Andy Bernstein founded the nationwide non-profit HeadCount. In many ways, HeadCount was the next logical step forward along the path started by Rock The Vote. This new activist group takes registering to vote to the people, setting up shop at concerts and festivals around the nation. Keeping themselves non-partisan, HeadCount has set up registration booths at concerts and festivals all across the country, using an ever growing army of volunteers who see the value of a politically vocal population”.

It is not only U.S. artists like Taylor Swift who have been compelled to become more involved in political concerns. Here in the U.K., Sir Bob Geldof has penned a letter that has been signed by a number of high-profile musicians. Here is how the story has broken:

Ed Sheeran, Damon Albarn and Brian Eno are among the musicians who have co-signed a letter written by Bob Geldof to Prime Minister Theresa May warning that Brexit is "serious madness" and threatens "every aspect of the music industry".

The letter, backed by dozens of big names from pop, rock and classical music, calls on May to rethink her plans for leading Britain out of the European Union.

"We are about to make a very serious mistake regarding our giant industry and the vast pool of yet undiscovered genius that lives on this little island," says the letter, published in The Observer newspaper on Sunday.

"We have decided to put ourselves inside a self-built cultural jail! The very opposite of wall-destroying, prejudice-denying, ideas-generating that is the very essence of contemporary music."

Britain voted narrowly to leave the EU in a divisive 2016 referendum and is set to leave in March next year.

May has repeatedly said that the EU's freedom of movement rules, which allow its citizens to live and work across the 28-member bloc, would no longer apply to Britain after Brexit”.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Sir Bob Geldof

The U.K., post-Brexit – if it will ever come… – will become a very different place for music. One feels the plight of foreign musicians will be a lot harder and how easy will it be for international artists to make their way here?! Exporting and import music out to the world and the way the music industry has operated for generations in the U.K. will change and be constricted. It is good artists are concerned and compelled to get involved. Rather than sit back and be afraid any sort of political leaning will cost them fans; they know what is right and realise they have a role to play. The sort of action taken by the likes of Albarn and Sheeran will inspire their fans and, let’s hope, help provoke action. A lot of modern-day artists are eschewing political opinions and reacting to what is unfolding in Britain. From IDLES talking about immigration and change on Joy as an Act of Resistance to Nadine Shah speaking about immigration and hostility on Holiday Destination; newcomer Sam Fender addressing meaty topics on Dead Boys and Skepta blasting Prime Minister Theresa May regarding her stances and actions concerning Grenfell – the music industry in this country can hardly be accused of being passive and inactive! I feel musicians can provide greater influence than politicians because their messages are not being doctored and mired in subterfuge.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Nadine Shah

Even the ‘good’ politicians out there are being drowned out or having their words scrutinised by the press. You are never sure who to believe and, even when a politician is speaking about the pitfalls of Brexit or the plight of global warming; there are contradictions, press intrusion and a certain sense of guarded honesty – what they are told to say by spin doctors and how they actually feel! T.V. personalities and D.J.s are less able to be explicit regarding their views because of their contracts and the organisations they work for. There are so many important figures out there who are not truly able to say what they believe. Aside from a few musicians who are closely watched by labels and risk losing their fanbase if they are too political; the industry, largely, is less oppressive regarding protest and opinion. Taylor Swift has managed to instantly increase voting numbers in the U.S. How long would it have taken a news station, radio D.J. or actor to get that same sort of ball rolling?! I feel it would have taken longer for them to compel awareness and the same can be said in the U.K. regarding Geldof’s letter. I am hearing musicians in this country blast the Government and speak out against everything from Brexit and immigration rules to their handling of the Grenfell tragedy and what little money is being assigned to the NHS.


 PHOTO CREDIT: @rawpixel/Unsplash

Music, in a way, is this more open and less bias channel that is not being interfered with by broadcasters and made murky by sneaky political figures – rehearsed speeches, false statistics and a general amount of bullsh*t. For decades, musicians have got involved in politics but I feel the world is more divided, in trouble and fearful than it has ever been. That might sound hyperbolic but I feel, what with global warming, political insanity and the divisions we are feeling; have we ever been a more fractured, troubled and less-well-off people?! D.J. Chris Hawkins spoke to bands for his brilliant series, Band Politics, and it was a chance for us to hear from artists like Cabbage and Nadine Shah about their views and how they are addressing politics and British society through their music. I feel, in a way, musicians have a much more honest, powerful and impressive voice than any political figure out there. If there was a way of setting up an organisation or body whereby artists would unite and, in a sense, form their own political alliance; just how far could they go and how quickly could they force politicians to act?! It is interesting to think but not a thought I am comically tossing out into the world. A lot of the musicians speaking out are working-class and know what it is like to feel isolated, struggle and troubled by what is happening in the U.K. – how many of those elected know that or have ever had to struggle in their lives?! I feel a music-led coalition of resistance would be a great thing and could help move the country forward.



In any case; we are living in a time when musicians play a bigger and more important role in politics than ever before. I look back at Folk artists like Dylan who rebelled in the 1960s and Hip-Hop artists in the 1980s and 1990s that attacked their leaders. It seems like all the problems they vocalised are present today and there are more alongside them. We have fewer political bands/singers in the mainstream but now, in 2018, there are plenty of artists willing to get involved with politics – whether it is songwriting and talking about various issues or signing letters, for example. I have often bemoaned the lack of political voices high-up in music and wonder whether the mainstream should attune its big artists to be more socially-aware and involved. Maybe there is that fear politics is not their place or there is that risk of bias when it comes to voting but I feel it is possible to be partisan and morally-conscientious without imposing personal politics and brainwashing. Big labels need to loosen the strings and realise how integral politics and music have always been. The movements we have seen from artists like Taylor Swift, Rita Ora and Ed Sheeran are just the start of things – I wonder what more is to come! There are fantastic and bold artists out there who are making more of an impact on my mind and awareness of the world than any politician I am hearing! A musical platform is a very special and privileged thing and, away from the mass of artists bleating about heartache and their own lives; shining a light on the wider world and documenting something much more important should be top of the agenda. One might feel a few words from Taylor Swift is quite insignificant but when you see what an immediate and visible impact they have ALREADY made; you then realise just how influential, necessary and powerful…


 IN THIS PHOTO: @kslupski/Unsplash

MUSICIANS truly are.