My relationship with those songs deemed “political” is nothing short of complicated. While the thematic approach may be relevant, these records seem to carry the profundity of a 6th grade social studies project. My apprehension with “politically conscious” music, a term that even its supposed artists tend to reject, comes from the fact that our current sociopolitical landscape is far more complex than 16 bars will ever allow. Taking political cues from your favorite rapper is about as reasonable as studying feminist theory under the tutelage of a Beyoncé album—it tends to fall rather short. My issue is not so much with the artist themselves, but rather its glorification as sound political theory. At best, the music is reactionary—an understood fact considering the contentious relationship between the artisan class and so-called “system.”
Do not, however, take my misgivings with the perfunctory nature of music’s espousal of political rhetoric as a condemnation of the music itself. Nor should it be misunderstood as a disagreement with the positions that most, if not all have undertaken. In reality, I applaud the efforts of every rapper, singer, and musician that decides to engage the plight of the people. This is a tradition rooted in a much greater American context—one that has been uniquely inspired by political protest and social upheaval. Moreover, it has led to a collection of music that is, above and beyond all other things, great music. In or out of the social context in which it was birthed, the music has remained timeless and for this, we should all be thankful.
So while we enjoy these songs that manage to both uplift and unite, I would be remiss if I did not implore us all to engage in not only the works of these artists, but also the important thinkers who have dedicated their lives to critically engaging these topics on a much larger scale. In doing so, you make yourself that much more of weapon in righting the wrongs you see in the world. Your opinion is only as powerful as the nuance that holds it together. Gil Scott-Heron can be the emotional charge to action, but the theoretical approach of W.E.B. Du Bois is what provides the framework for how to turn this action into reality.
As I share some of my favorite politically-themed records, I would also like to recognize, too, some of the relevant minds who have inspired my own personal politics.
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W.E.B. Du Bois — Black Reconstruction
Barbara Fields — Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States
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Adolph Reed — Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene
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Howard Zinn — A People’s History of the United States
“Education is that whole system of human training within and without the school house walls, which molds and develops men.” – W.E.B. Du Bois