Alan Graham examines how politics and music link up

Looking back on the Make Poverty History march and the events surrounding it, it is hard to ignore the effect music had on the event. But how did it compare to other political/music events, and how political was the music? I will look at various bands and collaborations and the variety of ways they tried to spread their political message.

A small disclaimer: this is not a definitive list of bands or events. There are hundreds of artists, from a vast range of genres who could have been included here, but I will just touch on a few artists that I am most familiar with. Neither is it an endorsement of the politics of each of these artists. As there is a percentage of people in society who consider themselves socialists, so there are artists who consider themselves socialists. Some of these may not make politicised music. This article will merely look at the ways of using music to spread a political message, or as will hopefully become more clear, political messages.

System of a Down

System of a Down are a band made up of the descendants of refugees who fled from the Turkish genocide in Armenia. They put a couple of songs with strong political messages on each album as well as peppering political messages in songs as one-liners. An example of a political song would be P.L.U.C.K. about the genocide in Armenia. Other notable songs include Prison Song focusing on exposing the prison industrial complex and the role of the CIA in the Iran Contra affair.

  • Drug money is used to rig elections,
  • And train brutal corporate sponsored,
  • Dictators around the world

The other stand out track is Boom!, the video of which was directed by Michael Moore which tied together globalisation and the 4000 children who die every day from poverty in comparison with the billions spent on bombs to kill people… Creating death showers.

Their latest album, which came out after the start of the war in Iraq, begins by criticising the system which sends economic conscripts to die in wars … Why don’t presidents fight the war? Why do we always send the poor? They always send the poor.

Rage Against the Machine

One of the biggest and most widely recognised political bands of the 1990’s was without doubt Rage Against the Machine. Unlike System of A Down who spoke of politics in some songs, Rage discussed politics in almost every song they released.

As the various band-members described themselves as anarchists, communists or simply left wing, they provided not only criticisms of the existing capitalist system but also were deeply involved in campaigns to change the system – from Anti Nazi League benefit gigs in London, supporting sweatshop workers, campaign to free Mumia-Abu-Jamal and support for the Zapatistas.

They have taken part in everything from tokenistic protest, such as hanging the US flag upside down, to direct action, such as filming a video outside the New York Stock Exchange. This caused mayhem as fans turned up to an illegal public performance, resulting in the Stock Exchange being closed down for the rest of the day and the band members and Michael Moore, who directed, being arrested. You can see the arrest as part of the video.

Needless to say their outspoken left-wing views and ability and willingness to link up differing campaigns whilst pointing out the capitalist system as the problem led to defamation and attacks by the right wing media. For example, they were dubbed anti-Semites and terrorist supporters for supporting the struggle of the Palestinians.

Peace Not War

The two volumes of the Peace Not War compilations were organised by the Stop the War coalition around the Iraq war.

The first compilation, produced in the build up to the war, comprised of artists from throughout the world opposed to it. The songs were not just narrowly about the war, but linked various issues to it: imperialism, nuclear weaponry, US support for Bin Laden and the plight of asylum seekers in Britain are all featured.

The second compilation has a more angry feel than the first, probably due to artists outraged that the war had actually happened, even though millions had mobilised against it. Most of the artists here are from UK, USA and Australia, whether this was deliberate or whether artists in the countries whose leaders were the most supportive of the war were most moved to write anti-war songs is unexplained, but unimportant.

Like Compilation 1, this album also links campaigns and struggles throughout the world, as well as sampling speeches by Tariq Ali and Bill Hicks and using songs from demonstrations.

Some noteworthy examples are:

  • Faithless’ excellent Mass DestructionRacism is a Weapon of Mass Destruction, Greed is a Weapon of Mass Destruction.
  • Son of a Nuns Fight Back: We’re on a mission to widen the schisms of capitalism and replace it with a system that’s for the people, by the people, of the people, not the evil.

The CDs can be ordered and tracks download for free from Peace Not War , their next release will be Peace Not War Japan.

Rock Against Bush

Another movement using music as the focus of political activities has been Rock Against Bush, in association with Punkvoter, a movement which through stalls at concerts throughout the USA managed to get 2 million, mostly young people, registered to vote for the first time. Their two volumes comprise of a CD and a DVD with documentaries and music videos as well as political comedy sketches.

Public Enemy

Although the examples so far have been mainly rock artists, unsurprisingly hip hop has a number of political acts. Public Enemy were ground breaking in both the size and breadth of popularity. They suffered massive state and media attacks including an FBI report to congress Rap Music and Its Effects on National Security. One member, Professor Griff, caused controversy and was eventually ejected from the band after comparing the acknowledged Holocaust with the largely ignored slaughter during slavery. He also attacked Zionism leading to claims of anti-Semitism, some of which appear to be without merit but others not, leaving his position in the group untenable.

On stage they had a group of minders called S1W (Security of the First World) which were a throwback to the Black Panthers defence militias. Attempts to link up with past struggles was a main feature of the group. Around the time of the first war against Iraq they released a track called Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos, echoing the sentiments of many economic conscripts their view was clear:

  • I got a letter from the government the other day
  • I opened and read it
  • It said they were suckers
  • They wanted me for their army or whatever
  • Picture me giving a damn – I said never

After speaking out for the poor in Africa for years, a visit there had a profound effect on Chuck D (the main rapper and songwriter). In his autobiography, Fight the Power, he describes the shock they received as they toured. One positive outcome was their realisation that not many people had access to electricity, to which they organised the donation of hundreds of thousands of clockwork radios and tapes allowing thousands to have access to radio for the first time, and to spread their powerful lyrics to new audiences.

One of the most moving sections of the autobiography is the description of visiting the Castle of Elmina where slaves were kept before transportation. The description of the conditions in this dungeon, as well as the 2 foot of hardened bone and flesh which covered the whole floor, helped to inspire the 1994 song Hitler Day which was hugely controversial.

This song started:

  • 500 years ago one man claimed to have discovered a new world
  • five centuries later we the people are forced to celebrate a black holocaust
  • how can you call a takeover a discovery?

Not surprisingly the song caused the American media to hit out. Chuck D defended the song claiming that there would be outrage if someone wanted to celebrate a Hitler Day for what he did for Germany. As Hitler represented death, torture and destruction, so Chuck D felt that is what Columbus Day represented to Native Americans and African Americans. Its other inspiration was that, at that time, the US state of Arizona still did not recognise Martin Luther King day.

Although they have not been working on music much lately, Chuck D has been active in promoting the use of file sharing and fighting copyright to encourage not only free downloading of music but the freedom for artists to sample sounds and other music for their own work.

Tupac Shakur

This year, 9 years after his murder, Tupac had another number one single in the UKGhetto Gospel: a song about poverty in American ghettos. The majority of his work, over the years, has dealt with this subject – from single mothers and his own life story, to trying to understand and confront the dead end outlets taken by many young black males – drug abuse and gang warfare.

Of all the artists using their work to discuss politics, he stands out as one of the greatest. However flawed his analysis, he portrays the system which created the poverty he lived in and despised so much.To understand why his music was so popular and why some of his analysis was wrong it is essential to put his music into context. Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, had been a Black Panther, a member of the Panther 21 group. While she was pregnant with Tupac, she was on remand for allegedly planning terrorist attacks against the state. His aunt Assata had escaped from prison and found exile in Cuba and his godfather, Geronimo Pratt, was a leading Panther and a political prisoner. Tupac campaigned for his freedom, both in his music and at grass roots level. Pratt was only released from prison after Tupac’s death.

Tupac claimed to have been followed and harassed by FBI agents from the age of 9, due to his politically active family and friends. At 17, he already had ideas of changes to the school system which would actually benefit the poor in America, and would also expose and question the nature of society:

There should be a class on drugs, there should be a class of sex education, a real sex education class, not just pictures and diagrams and illogical terms…There should be a class on scams. There should be a class on religious cults. There should be a class on police brutality. There should be a class on apartheid. There should be a class on racism in America. There should be a class on why people are hungry.

On his first release 2Pacalypse Now, the track Words of Wisdom was by far the most political, the majority of it comprising of a tirade against capitalism and the American state, but also promoted militancy:

  • Pledge allegiance to a flag that neglects us
  • Honour a man that refuses to respect us …
  • I charge you with robbery for robbing me of my history
  • I charge you with false imprisonment for keeping me
  • trapped in the projects
  • And the jury finds you guilty on all counts
Tupac: social commentator
Tupac: social commentator

On the angst-titled I Don’t Give a Fuck, he, like Chuck D, is angry about the Iraq war, And now they [are] trying to ship me off to Kuwait, Gimme a break the song ends in a vitriolic rant against the San Francisco and Marin County Police Departments, the FBI, the CIA, George Bush and AmeriKKKa a phrase which was so used by other artists and protesters it has become cliché.

The album also contained his landmark social commentary songs – Brenda’s Got a Baby – about a young girl who is the victim of sexual abuse who ends up turning to prostitution and crack cocaine abuse, and Trapped about the prison system and its effects on society. Topics most artists dare not cover, and this was a 19 year old’s début album.

Even from this time, he was interested in doing more than releasing songs about poverty, he wanted to change society. One naïve attempt was the creation of the Code of the Thug Life which tried to reduce gang warfare.

Less naively, once he had become famous he wanted to use his influence and respect from other rap artists to sponsor community centres in every ghetto.

Unsurprisingly his youthful enthusiasm, promotion of militant activism and ability to formulate ideas to give immediate improvements to the lives of the poorest workers in American quickly gained the attention of the state and he had a number of run-ins with police. In 1993, after the Rodney King beating, Shakur came across two off-duty police officers who were harassing a black motorist on the side of the road in Atlanta. Shakur got into a fight with them and shot both officers (one in the leg, one in the buttocks). He faced serious charges until it was discovered that both officers were intoxicated and were using stolen weapons. The charges against Shakur were dismissed. What followed was systematic harassment against him. This included arrest for jaywalking and a 4.5 year prison sentence for sexual assault, which he consistently denied.

Whilst in prison he studied politics and history. When released these run-ins with the law inspired him to take an even more militant stance in his view of the police, state and media as well as engage in grass roots activity like rallies to free all political prisoners as well as campaigns to encourage poor African Americans to register to vote.

Although the only album released between his release and his murder was his least political, his vast archive of posthumously released tracks contained many other songs about poverty and politics.

He also fought against some of the more reactionary claims in hip hop, that the vast majority of blacks are impoverished because of white men. In White Man’s World he parodies this view and ending: It ain’t them that’s killing us, it’s us that’s killing us.

In interviews of this period, he spoke of his new vision to improve society. As well as community centres in every ghetto, he promoted baseball teams sponsored by rappers. This served a duel purpose, firstly to encourage poor kids from the ghetto to get involved in sport as a way to stop them being involved in gangs and drug abuse. Secondly to heal the wound from the media invented ‘Rap War’, which, in reality, was a verbal polemic between a small number of artists, glamorised and exaggerated by the media as a way to attack and denigrate people who were role models to some of the most impoverished teens in America. Focusing on these battle tracks also diverted attention away from the positive initiatives some of these artists were involved in, as well as the songs dealing with subject matter the media ignored.

Sorting out Africa and global poverty!
Sorting out Africa and global poverty!

Live 8 in comparison

This is a long introduction for a rather short analysis of the musical events surrounding the anti-G8 protests but hopefully it has given a flavour of the mix of politics and music. The biggest factor to consider is the ability of these artists to speak, not only of politics and dissect society, but more importantly to link these struggles up with others:

Rage Against the Machine on Spanish imperialism, the Zapatistas and Globalisation; Public Enemy on slavery and intellectual property; Tupac speaking about political prisoners, drug abuse and prostitution.

This is what separates these political activists from the dirge of Live 8. The majority of the artists participating in Live 8 (U2 and Green Day being the main exceptions) had no history of political activism. What they had in common was they were famous and popular – therefore people would watch them rather than listen to speeches by political activists. This also attracted media attention. Where there was any political discussion to be had by artists at Live 8, it consisted of sloganeering – 250,000 people here – fantastic, great; more aid, fairer trade, buy a white band and that will stop the G8!

Geldof had the dubious honour to be appointed to Blair’s Commission for Africa. It is staffed with New Labour puppets who then lobbied the New Labour government for minor reforms, got some of them and could then claim the G8 had got 8/10 and 10/10. While the government lobbied itself for change, the media’s attention was on scaremongering over anarchist plots. Although it seemed to be the police planning all the trouble – harassing and lying to those travelling to Gleneagles, keeping them trapped for hours to frustrate them and re-routing the march to allow a massive target of a tiny fence between the protesters and the Hotel.

The solution presented by Geldof and his cohorts was for the G8 in their almighty benevolence to cancel some aid and allow an increase in the move towards globalisation of capitalism through the opening up of markets. And if Blair didn’t listen to your voice then you should just withhold your vote from him in 4 years time! This is assuming the majority of the 250,000 who were over 18 and were so concerned with poverty in Africa would have actually given a lying war criminal, partly responsible for this suffering, their vote in the first place.

The widest chasm between the political activism of the artists mentioned earlier and Live 8 was the complete lack of any link to other movements or issues. Anti war speakers were banned from the main stage and the Stop the War Coalition had to set up a separate stage to allow that issue to be heard at the Make Poverty History demonstration in Edinburgh. What chance would a speaker from Palestine or Iraq have had, never mind those fighting against privatisation schemes here, whilst government-funded, right wing think tanks are trying to force these schemes on the poorest in Africa.

For me, the Live 8 event was politically vacuous and a striking example of what happens when celebrities with media and state support jump onto a movement and take over the agenda and stifle any other relevant issues. When I first got interested in the G8 protests there were grass roots mobilisations against it.The office bearers were publicly known and accountable. Make Poverty History grew out of this, but was less accountable. Then came Live 8 who, out of nowhere, arrived a month before the events and organised a series of concerts which completely dominated and diverted media attention and focus of the anti-G8 protests, undermining the real agenda.

Alan Graham


Dyson, Michael Eric, 2001, Holler if you hear me

Hoye, Jacob, 2003, Tupac: Resurrection 1971-1996.


  • Another important band with strong political ties was Australia’s Midnight Oil. They were at their commercial peak in the 80’s and their big hit “Beds are Burning” was about Australian Aboriginal Land Rights. Interestingly the singer Peter Garrent is now the Federal Environment Minister and has had to make some compromises regarding the development of a pulp mill in Tasmania that Midnight Oil would’ve protested against for environmental reasons.

  • i believe rage were the most successful band in bring politics into mainstream and they did it without being labeled as “fake”. there still here and there still angry.