Where are the protest songs of the Brexit generation?
Back in June 1989, American rappers Public Enemy released a song called Fight The Power. It became a rallying call for the disenfranchised, as lead vocalist Chuck D’s messianic lyrical delivery brought raw political reality laced with anti-establishment fury into my world.
The song was just one in a long line of protest songs decrying the state of the world, undermining received wisdoms and delivering a body blow to orthodox narratives. I was 18 years old and this band had encouraged me to question the world around me. It was far more than just a song; it brought to life a part of my brain that had hitherto been dormant.
In the 1960s, protest songs were at the heart of commercial music. Songs like For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield, Blowin’ In The Wind by Bob Dylan, Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come and Aretha Franklin asking for Respect.
From the 1970s and the 1980s, I could list an exhaustive library of music dedicated to protesting against the injustices of the world. Artists as diverse as Nina Simone and the Specials, Bruce Springsteen and Rage Against The Machine have all channelled their anger into creating anthems for an anxious world.
But where are they now? At a time when the younger generation has less chance of affording a house than their parents, more job insecurity, and a world with Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump hurling insults at each other, the biggest selling artists in the US are Adele, Justin Bieber and Drake. Why are the most popular singers on Earth avoiding addressing these issues in their music? Have tweets really replaced beats?
I love rap music. I also love grime. But instead of taking a stand, we hear from so many artists that the pursuit of flashy, designer clad, supercar-owning lifestyles is the ultimate goal. Have the Prophets Of Rage become the profits of rage, as inner city exclusion is commodified for mass consumption? Who will make an album that addresses the issues of our age – that connects with the disenfranchised?
There may be, as Frank Ocean sang, ‘no church in the wild’ but music must once again provide us with a voice in the wilderness.
Nihal hosts Afternoon Edition on BBC Radio 5 Live, 1pm-4pm, Monday to Thursday, and the Asian Network’s Big Debate from 10am-1pm on Friday.