Politics And Spirituality In Music: Shut Up And Entertain, Or A Calling Of The Soul?

Music. It's art right down to its core, and perhaps to many the best kind and most alive! But throughout history, we see that perhaps it is more than just "Art for art's sake" as the old saying goes. That aside from aesthetics, tradition, and entertainment, it seems to also be a tool for revolution and societal development, time and time again being a catalyst for change in many ways that are still felt today from even hundreds of years ago. From Mozart to bands like The Beatles, we see the capability for music to help somehow bring insight into our lives, in a world that more than often seems awfully confused and out of place. It's as if the artists making this music sometimes understand things we might not. Helping us navigate through each and every day with what feels like wisdom, love and a capacity to feel which feels out of the ordinary; often inspiring us to do big things in life, sometimes even becoming musicians with the same purpose in mind: to give to others what was given to them!


When asked about the subject, Andy Barton of the iconic Bass Agenda label and radio show, explains that to him: "Music, politics and spirituality can all link well and all have a valid place inside one another. Like all things, especially these days where so many people are a self-appointed expert & commentator, it’s about perspectives. The perspective of the person making the music, and the person hearing it. I guess in terms of our niche music, spirituality is more vibe driven, it's inferred through the mood of some music. For some, it's deep atmospheric stuff. To my mind, if a hard, minimal bass track gives someone a spiritual experience or feeling by their own definition, then who’s to argue?" He goes on to add that: "Politics wise I think some people feel that liking or making this music is a political statement in itself. I think mostly that’s true, though probably more an anti-mainstream culture thing, than a well thought out highly political stance for most. Obviously, there are really clear examples like Underground Resistance as a movement, or more recently "Kill Switch" by Kronos Device; where political views or reaction to current events is explicit. Just like authentic Techno, this is a non-mainstream culture. The music gives some particular identity. It is still made up of fairly diverse people, some like to get deep into why artists make certain things or say certain things, some don’t think beyond the surface of the music. 9 times out of 10 I come down on the live and let live, and ‘it means what it means to you’ side of things".


Whatever music means to you, it is undeniabe that it moves us somehow. It helps to put things in perspective in a way that seems only possible when listening to it; perhaps because of how we contrast or even relate what we are thinking about in life, with what we feel listening to it. It inspires the best and worst of our emotions, and in the end helps us to simply feel and somehow even heal our wounds while in the process. But to many people, music is a form of entertainment first and foremost, and while these type of people would still argue it is by far the best kind, they may also disagree that musicians have any place in politics or preaching to people what life is all about. A musician should be an entertainer, and should focus on simply making good music, keeping lyrical or conceptual content to that which relates only to nightlife or romance perhaps. In contrast to the idea music should be of a political nature, when asking Paul Blackford of Militant Science fame about it, he says: "Music and politics? Nah, I keep that stuff separate, it just doesn't work for me. I don't mind music having a theme or a message, but when mixing music and politics there's a fine line that if trodden incorrectly can make you end up sounding like a bit of a dick; especially if you don't have all the correct facts of your subject matter".


Perhaps it is true that with music, people just like to dance, feel good, and stay on the surface of things. To escape life itself and it's mundane complexities for a while. Maybe we shouldn't think so much, but focus instead on creating good vibes with everyone around us, and have music be a reflection of this way of life. One that simply focuses on the cultural and even primal bond we experience when being around each other in the most festive of ways. 


But what if music could be both, for partylife and to gain insight into life; maybe even at the same time? The Summer Of Love, and subsequent Rave Culture around the world during the 1990's; especially in the UK and here in the United States, proved without question that humans can not only rejoice in the connection and love of tribal gatherings, but also bring in an element of spiriual understanding and devotion to each other, our planet and the universe through the music. Perhaps with music one cannot live in either extreme of thinking, Yin nor Yang, but in between: the balance, or "Middle Way" as Gautama Buddha referred to it. Fred Ho, legendary composer of what he likes to refer to as "African-American Vanguard Music" instead of Jazz (a word he believes to come from a derogatory origin), says in an article published in 2012 on Solidarity-us.org titled "Why Music Must Be Revolutionary", that: "Music, and all artistic and creative expression, is intrinsic to, and an essential characteristic of human species-being. Music is a form of language, a type of communication, a spiritual force, an aesthetic or artistic expression, social ritual, entertainment and recreational activity, and is socio-politically catalytic." He follows by saying that essentially, to consider music as anything but revolutionary is "Existentially Fallacious", because: "It is impossible for any human being to create outside of history, independent of societal constructions and conditions of support or opposition (e.g. from artistic institutions or industries), separate from artistic traditions that develop within cultural patterns and practices — such an assertion for what music ought to be, i.e. apolitical and autonomously aesthetic or an individualistic expression, I will argue, actually makes for weaker or bad music."


Which makes a great argument for a problem that is not necessarily new, but became ever so apparent after the turn of the century, and the absurd over-commercialization of music; primarily that of Hip Hop, and Pop music. As Fred Ho points out in his article, when music tries to get away from the historical and societal context of the times, it diminishes into superficiality, and looses a certain drive and depth that is so essential to music standing out as unique and powerful, able to reach deep within and touch us in ways nothing else can. Looking back throughout modern history, we can literally see millions upon millions of records (most of them which failed terribly) that seem to basically carry the same message over and over again: broken hearts, sexual content, and the glorification of party life. Things still part of the human experience yes, but we must also realize that through these times, like say, the 60's and 70's, we were in the middle of one of the most revolutionary episodes of our history, and yet the majority of the music seemed to not even pay attention to this. As if there were more important things going on somehow. On the other hand, listening to bands like Bob Marley And The Wailers, or Pink Floyd for example, we see something quite different, yet not necessarily so drastically so. To some degree there is speak of love and life, but there is also great depth and a message of concern for the times, urging people to essentially "wake up" out of their slumber and do something about what is happening around them. As Ho reinforces in his argument, we cannot exist outside the context of our own history, and to do so is simply dellusional. We may not choose to act, but to say humans should not participate in building their own future and be active politically and socially is simply ludicrous. 


Another point is that to say music should be "revolutionary", does not necessarily mean that it needs to be the soundtrack of people rioting with guns and torches demanding political change on the streets. Again, we cannot live outside the context of our own history and societal issues, so when we say revolutionary, we speak of political change to some degree, but we also speak of social exploration and evolution. Take Classical Music for example. Up until the invention of Notation in Western Music, music existed in many forms, though not quite as orderly as it became after the advent of Notation; which helped give music an identity it didn't have before. So in this case what we see is social and perhaps even spiritual revolution, or evolution, as it quite literally changed the way we lived. Through this process, we somehow gained much more depth and understanding of not just the music itself, but the world around us and how we truly felt about it. 


With that in mind, let's fast forward to the 1970's when one of the most important musical forms to appear in our history was born: Hip-Hop. Not only was this a new form of music that brought together many forms of infuences, from Funk, to Spoken Word, Disco, etc, but it would also be one of the most catalytic political and social reform movements of our time. During the time when Hip Hop was born in New York, life was not easy for many, yet this movement gave people a voice and a platform to build something that could truly challenge the status quo and raise the serious questions that people wanted answers to. From the borough of the Bronx and artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Kool Herc, and emerging bands like Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, the world would soon see a political and social revolution that would completely change the face of the earth. And while it is true that perhaps Hip Hop has been co-opted by elites as some like Professor Griff (Public Enemy) and KRS One claim, the effects of this evolution of music and culture are still being felt today and it shows no sign of slowing down. Because of people's gained understanding of each other, their ethnic backgrounds, the planet, and its complex ongoing political and even environmental issues, the fight is anything but over. If anything, it may just be ramping up, as many from the Underground challenge the over-commercialization of the Hip Hop movement, and stand up to voice their opinion as to what should be done to get it back on track, and who is responsible for the destruction of Black culture via Gangstah Rap, and the degradation of R&B music. 


But voicing your opinion, no matter your popularity as an artist, is often not without its consequences. Many artists do indeed suffer a lot of negative lashback when they raise their voice in concern to inform the masses, and many are simply too afraid to speak out in fear of hurting their career along the way. When asked about this, David Noller of the legendary Dynamix II, says that: "On one hand, music artists can use their power to get the word out to a lot of people very quickly. But on the other hand, an artist's fan base can be set on their left or right wing side of politics, so the artist stands to loose fans when they voice their political opinions." He goes on to add that: "There are artists who have had extreme followings like John Lennon, who found out what happens when you speak negatively about war". A strong point to make in a time when the world couldn't be more politically and socially polarized, with many artists publicly voicing their support for globalization and open borders under the guise of strong solidarity with all nations along with economic reform, while on the other side many voice their opposition to this system which they see as designed by corporations, in collusion with world governments who seek to consolidate their economic and political power across the globe, further enslaving us in a Technocratic society where the supposed benefit of all trumps that of the individual. 


No matter your stance, it is important to understand that music truly is something that lives not just within, but way beyond the contraints of our own physical limits. And while creating it may be impossible to do outside of the context of who we are in this world, we should honor something that is so powerful and catalytic, that touches so deep within us enough to spark revolutionary change; even being powerful enough for some to be able to simply escape from the burdens of life all together.


It is undeniable that our times demand action, and to sit back in many ways only makes us complicit to whatever consequences may lie ahead. Even if political or spiritual reform is not something that we feel our music should participate in as individual artists, shunning another by believing they are somehow lowering their standards as people and creators by attempting to use their talent and popularity to help bring about some form of change in this world, might not necessarily be the most prudent approach. In the end, we are all people who yearn to see a better future for all our fellow brethren. As the great Pink Floyd song "Hey You" states: "Together We Stand, Divided We Fall!".






Written by: Santino Fernandez

July 2017