Young Academic political correspondent Robert Gant explores the impact of music on society and how it is linked to current events, such as the UK riots.
Music and current affairs, especially events involving mass movements, protests and riots are inextricably linked and have been since the 1960s, perhaps even earlier. Martha and the Vandellas ‘Dancing In The Street’ became the theme music for riots in black ghettos of America during the civil rights protests of the late 60s.
Also during the 60s, many songs were written as a result of anti-Vietnam War or civil rights marches, such as Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What It’s Worth’ or in this country the Rolling Stones ‘Street Fighting Man’. In the 70s The Clash released ‘White Riot’ in response to a riot at a carnival in London in 1976 and in the 80s Morrissey and Marr penned numerous tracks together for the Smiths in response to the turbulent political episodes of the decade.
The argument in the aftermath of the UK riots has been that hip hop and the culture surrounding it has been to blame. Glorifying violence and the so called ‘bling culture’ that are themes in some hip hop songs have been highlighted by middle England and Conservative MPs as a key reason behind the riots. While the debate of that issue is probably worthy of a whole book rather than a small article it is worth pointing out that this particular argument relies very much on stereotypes and huge generalisations. It ignores the large catalogues of work by socially conscious hip hop artists Gil Scott-Heron, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, to name but a few.
It is also an argument that originates in the 60s. Back then it was rock n roll which was the cause of social disorder and politicians, historians and religious figures all lined up to condemn rock n roll culture as a societal evil.
While arguments are being made regarding hip hop contributing to the riots it is hard to pinpoint a soundtrack to the events, unlike the above mentioned songs that became synonymous with social affairs of their time period.
That raises the reverse question. Not what influence music had on the riots but what influence will the riots have on music. An obviously sad and destructive result of the riots on music was the burning of the Sony Music distribution centre in Enfield which houses CD and Vinyl stocks for an array of independent music labels. This has been devastating for many small labels and their artists.
Other than the physical results of the riots, it is interesting to ponder the impact they will have on artists and whether they produce music relating to the riots. The first artistic response came from London hip hop and grime artist Bashy who remixed Ed Sheeren’s ‘The A Team’ to produce the track ‘Angels Can’t Fly’. The song itself is a gritty insight into life on the streets where the riots were erupting and aimed to portray the hopelessness that the young people who were rioting felt.
Several more creative responses to last week’s distressing events can be expected. During the riots UK star Jessie J tweeted ‘I’m off to the studio. If I can’t help physically. I’m going to write about it.’ A whole host of musicians and artists commented very publicly during the riots which would suggest they will express further thoughts on the matter through their music.
It is impossible to say exactly what influence music had on the rioters and the events in the UK last week. It is all speculation. However it is not unreasonable to suggest that music is such a key part of the fabric of society that its social commentary influences events just as much as events influence music’s social commentary. Whether people like all the messages in every genre of music, they represent and portray cultures that already exist. Perhaps music and hip hop culture isn’t to blame for these riots as has been widely suggested. Perhaps it is society as a whole which needs to accept responsibility in part for what happens on the inner city streets of our country, a conclusion a lot of people are less keen to accept.