The 1960s doyenne of protest music, Joan Baez, once said songwriters could choose one of two options for saying something, anything, of importance in their songs: they could personalise their thoughts or politicise them. Given that the personal and the political are one and the same, Baez's comments might now seem redundant or naive, but as the political awareness of certain topics has widened from when she was protest song royalty (the queen to Bob Dylan's king), it makes sense to view them as intertwined.
The birth of the popular protest song – or, as music writer Dorian Lynskey writes in his thorough book 33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of the Protest Song (2010), "the popular protest song's ground zero", took place in New York in March, 1939. On West Fourth Street, in Cafe Society, Billie Holiday sang Strange Fruit. A Jewish communist by the name of Abel Meeropol was stirred to write the song when he saw a photograph of a lynching that took place in Marion, Indiana, in the summer of 1930.
Up to the point when Strange Fruit took on a life of its own, Lynskey points out that, although it wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination the first protest song, it was indisputably the first that worked as art and not propaganda.
As the decades passed – from Holiday’s Strange Fruit to Plastic Ono Band’s Give Peace a Chance; from The Clash’s White Riot to Billy Bragg’s Between the Wars; from Green Day’s American Idiot to Beyoncé’s Formation – questions have been asked about the validity of such work. Does a protest song have any real meaning, especially in the present climate of attention deficit disorder? Is it art or entertainment? Are people actually interested?
The Zrazy ethos
"I know that sometimes people feel musicians should keep their mouths shut, but having an awareness of social justice is part of self-expression as much as anything else," says Carole Nelson of Irish duo Zrazy, who have proudly identified as gay since the band's beginnings in the early 1990s.
Nelson and her Zrazy partner, Maria Walsh, have spent considerable time on the sidelines – coping with pitiful levels of national radio play and subtle, sometimes not so subtle, homophobia – with a mixture of resignation and disdain.
Nelson recalls her entry to activism in the late 1970s, when she lived in London. “I got very involved with Rock Against Racism and Rock Against Sexism. That mostly consisted of being on the backs of lorries demonstrating. I wasn’t really a punk; I loved Patti Smith and Jonathan Richman, but I wasn’t heading out to see The Clash, let’s put it that way. Musically, I was more into what I could do with my saxophone, which wasn’t leading me in a very punk direction. I just recall getting my gigs by doing benefit shows – and the benefits were for every conceivable thing you can imagine. Our social life consisted of looking up the agit-prop section of Time Out magazine and seeing what demonstrations you were going to go on.”
Come the early 1990s, back in Ireland, Zrazy’s music was created via punk’s DIY aesthetic (“in a bedroom, costing next to nothing”) and filtered through with politically charged, vibrant jazz-pop. “We were just saying things that we felt we needed to say.”
The video for Zrazy's first single, I'm in Love with Mother Nature, was banned by RTÉ; another of their songs, 6794700 ("just the way to try and remember the abortion information phone number"), was also viewed in a less than positive light. "If I say it was all fun," says Nelson from a distance of more than 20 years. "It sounds glib, but we were just doing what we wanted to do."
Punk poet polemicist
The expression of concerns or grievances, irrespective of commercial or cultural acceptance, seems to be at the core of the protest song and the singer.
“If you are a musician and you feel strongly enough about something, then sing about it,” says Jinx Lennon, a singer based in Dundalk who has staked a claim as Ireland’s most prominent punk-poet- polemicist.
“Of course, you may feel that you’re putting off people who want to hear about love, or hear a cover of a hit song. Are you prepared to put a bit of humanity into it, a bit of yourself, a bit of emotional nakedness? Or are you going to bore the shit out of people with an us-versus-them diatribe that puts you on a pedestal?
“For me, the great songs always shine the light on the writer, and the sense of injustice that they have experienced at some point must always shine through the issue at hand. It’s a special talent to bring people together through a song that means something; there’s a healing sense of that for the songsmith and the audience.”
The saving grace of the passing of time, says Carole Nelson, is that she feels people are now much more politicised than they have ever been (she points to last year’s Equality Referendum, and to the Repeal the Eighth campaign, for which Zrazy will be doing benefit gigs to raise awareness).
The Neil Young effect
For Jinx Lennon, time, place and circumstances are valued component parts of the protest songwriting experience, but so is perspective as filtered by age.
“I read something Neil Young said – the gist of it being you should write from the point of your life that you are existing in right now. Getting older comes into that, too, and so I write about that. Racism is a big thing with me. I went to the UK in the 1980s-1990s, and I experienced harassment because I was Irish. I can sympathise with our recent guests from Europe and Africa, and have little time for budding homegrown Alf Garnetts.”
To this end, the validation and justification of protest through art continues. Yet there’s also a healthy dose of self-realisation and lack of self-satisfaction in the air. It’s something Lennon alludes to when he admits that, just because he may take particular stances on injustices of various kinds, he’s no saint.
“I have prejudices that I’m not proud of, but such is real life.”
- Zrazy's latest album, The Art of Happy Accidents, is available now via zrazy.com.
- Jinx Lennon releases two new albums simultaneously in October – Past Pupils Stay Sane and Magic Bullets of Madness to Uplift Grief Magnets (via jinxlennon.com).
- 33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of the Protest Song by Dorian Lynskey is published by Faber & Faber
POLITICAL YEAR: TOP THREE PROTEST ALBUMS OF 2016 SO FAR
BLOOD ORANGE Freetown Sound
Londoner Devonte 'Dev' Hynes delivers an immersive solo album that pushes buttons as divisive as race, sexuality, religion and gender. Assisted by some heavy-hitting guest vocalists (Debbie Harry and Nelly Furtado) and a found-sound approach to song structure, Freetown Sound marries the highly personalised and the political while simultaneously placing its finger on the musical pulse.
Described by Anohni (previously Antony Hegarty, of Antony and the Johnsons, and a transgender person who now identifies as female) as "an electronic record with some sharp teeth", Hopelessness deals explicitly with violent masculinity, drone warfare, environmental issues, ecofeminism, surveillance, the US presidency and the post-9-11 era. Rolling Stone described it as an album that is "difficult to hear without facing one's own privilege and culpability, equally difficult to turn away from, and impossible to forget."
The personal and the sexual clash with the political in Beyoncé's sixth solo album, as she fuses songs of marital unrest with a narrative that includes Malcolm X quotes ("the most disrespected person in America is the black woman"), raw political poetry (by Somali-British woman Warsan Shire) and nods to the Black Lives Matter movement. As bold a statement from a mainstream artist as you're likely to hear – and see, as each track has a corresponding video.