Just for the Record: The Politics of the Politics in Music

Now Hear This! #10  July/August 2018

“I wanna go there, still I don’t go there… everybody says ‘say something’…. I don’t wanna get, caught up in the middle of it…” (Justin Timberlake/Chris Stapleton)

In my recent article “The Music & the Madness”, I made a couple of comments that implicitly referenced my thoughts on our current President; one of my readers, a lifelong friend and a conservative Republican, took offense with the comments.  I encourage feedback on my articles, so I was welcoming of what she had to say;  she asked me “why did you have to bring politics into a music column, why not just keep it about the music?

The question took me right back to a quote that opened up an earlier article on Now Hear This!-  the quote came from me, and said “no one wants to hear your opinion, unless they agree with it…”  Now, I love my friend like a sister, although we aren’t (for the most part) politically aligned, but I was kind of amused by the question she asked, for I’ve read countless short reviews from listeners of albums by their favorite artists that became platforms for political commentary.  And in every case where there was disagreement with the artist’s stance, it was always “just stick to making music” or some other comment like that.

Let’s face it: we live in politically charged times, and one place where social politics have always gained a foothold is through music- you cannot escape it, especially today.  This is true in most every genre, except for one… but we’ll get into that in a bit…

Somehow, throughout all my trips to the Charleston, SC area over the past 16 years, I had managed to never been aware of the presence of Monster Music & Movies.  I realized why, though: all of my previous visits there were mainly to North Charleston, or on the peninsula, the main tourist trap; I rarely, if ever, ventured across the Ashley River to the area where most Charlestonians actually live (or can afford to live). img_2797 This is a music superstore, located in a strip mall across from a major shopping mall, with square footage rivaling a medium size grocery store.  I had to make two trips there to get to survey all the music- I never got to all the DVD’s and Blurays that consumed an entire wall.  The sell all the formats: new and used CD’s, vinyl, they had some cassettes, even a few 8-track tapes; they also have accessories, like record needles, sleeves and inserts for 7-inch and 12-inch vinyl, and more.  They have a large budget section (including a whole section of $1.99 Reggae CD’s!), and a pretty good selection of new music at competitive prices. I can now say that I’ve been there, done that, and bought the T-shirt (I actually did buy the T-shirt, for $7.99).  And from this point forward, EVERY trip to the Charleston area must include a stop at this store.  SUPPORT YOUR INDEPENDENT MUSIC RETAILER!

So… back to my earlier discussion.  Firstly, let me tell you a little about me… just for the record… I’m what I consider to be politically moderate at this point in my life.  At one point in my late teens/early 20’s, I was anarchic, far left leaning, considered Socialism to be a plausible solution, and atheist; fast forward 35 years or so, and the needle has moved considerably, closer to the center than it has ever been.  I’m still left leaning, but I’m conservative on some topics, and liberal on others – in some instances, I’m both within the same topic (like abortion – I’m pro-life for myself, pro-choice for everyone else).  I’m of the opinion that the two dominant political parties in America are both full of shiggedy, especially where it pertains to people of color.  Finally, I’m a Christian who attends church weekly via physical or virtual means.

Popular music has always been driven by what people go through in their lives, so it always speaks from a social perspective.  The political perspective was probably birthed around the time of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, and has continued to be a topic ever since then.  Today, in a society that’s more divided than ever, at a time when our togetherness, understanding, and tolerance with and of others not like us isn’t what we thought it was, it is more pervasive than ever.  The opening quote in this article is what this discourse is all about.  Most genres, be it Blues, Jazz, R&B, HipHop, or Rock, speak on the events of current times.  Conspicuously absent in this group is Country music.

There was an article about this very topic in the weekly Free Times newspaper here in Columbia, SC several months back; to read the article, click the following link:

It seems as if Country artists go out of their way to NOT include politics in their music.  Why is that?  I’m fairly sure of the answer, but before I delve into that, this reminds me of a parallel with other local events that happened around the time I first came to Columbia in late 1999.  There was the whole Confederate flag controversy here, but then there was a barbecue restaurant magnate who was in the news about his views on race.  The owner of several local restaurants, he informed us that there was biblical justification for the enslavement of Black people, and that the White man is the best friend the Black man has ever had.  His business suffered tremendously for a while, but it has ultimately sustained.  He has since passed away, and his children run the business today; when they were asked about their father’s views and whether or not they share those views, they didn’t denounce them- in fact, they completely sidestepped the issue, and wanted to stick to talking about the barbecue.

Here’s my take: The demographic that calls Country their favorite music of choice is  mostly White, Conservative, and Republican, and within that demographic are many whose views probably wouldn’t be acceptable to a larger majority of Americans or considered ‘politically correct’ (to be fair, the same could be said of HipHop, but those artists and its’ listening audience wear their thoughts and emotions on their sleeves).  The artists that may share their views would rather not seem out of step, or racist, fascist, homophobic, or sexist; they prefer to stick to topics about big wheel trucks, drinking, and homespun tales of domestic life and love.  Conversely, those brave enough to stick their necks out and express views not aligned with much of their audience can find themselves facing severe backlash.  Examples of that include Drive-by Truckers, whose last album American Band was very sympathetic to African American causes, and Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit’s last album The Nashville Sound, which again expressed empathetic sentiments to the African American experience.  Each caught some degree of flack from their fanbase for the songs, being called closet liberals- the Truckers in particular, heard it loud and clear from many in their fanbase that they didn’t approve- many jumped off the back of the truck!  Even legendary Southern Rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd are distancing themselves from the Confederate flag imagery that has been part of their identity their whole career, to the chagrin of some of their fanbase.

I’ve taken Black Country superstar Darius Rucker to task more than once for not speaking up- especially considering he comes from a place that witnessed one of the worst mass shootings in recent history- the Charleston church shootings at the hands of Dylann Roof-  but as with the others, his career is more important than risking it by infusing the music with political commentary, since you will probably piss off someone no matter what you say.

There is another line in the Timberlake/Stapleton collabo that goes “sometimes the greatest way to say something, is to say nothing at all”…. I love the song, BTW, but it isn’t lost on me that the writers of it are White men… you could just about guarantee a Black artist wouldn’t write this song (well, maybe Kanye would), because they come from a side (whether or not espouse those views) where many view that coming out in support of other groups compromises “our way of life”, while Black artists are more likely to state what’s wrong, and what’s needed to make it right.  But that lyric basically sums up the mindset of most Country artists… and probably others in other genres, as well…  and that can be a justifiable or a dangerous approach, depending upon the view.

Either way, I can understand… but sometimes, I still wish they would say something

R  E  V  I  E  W  S

Because of the length of the previous discourse, I will try to provide a degree of brevity to this month’s reviews.  Here we go…

Kamasi Washington “Heaven & Earth”

Kamasi Washington Heaven and Earth

Brevity is not the modus operandi of ambitious Jazz tenor saxophonist Washington, whose debut album, 2015’s The Epic was a three hour plus triple-disc set; he released a mini epic called The Harmony of Difference last year, containing just 6 tracks, at a total length of about a half hour.  This full-length sophomore effort is a double-disc set clocking in at just over 2 1/2 hours across 16 tracks; vinyl copies include a bonus disc called The Choice (available for download and streaming elsewhere), which pushes the overall length back over three hours.  Overall, it’s a more consistent effort, as he edited himself enough to leave out weaker tracks, something he didn’t do on his debut.  He is a student of Coltrane, but the music is also informed by current events and styles, as well.  He likes to employ strings and what I call a celestial choir in the music to further enhance the sound.  He is the most exciting saxophonist to hit the scene since Joshua Redman some 20 plus years ago.  Definitely recommended… just set aside some time to listen… check out the video for “Street Fighter Mas“…

Victory “The Broken Instrument”


The debut from 23 year old Detroit born, NYC based singer/guitarist Victory Boyd is a collection of songs she says are an attempt to spread the love of Jesus to a secular audience without being preachy.  Indeed, you wouldn’t detect that as a mission, but this preacher’s daughter sings uplifting and inspirational tunes with the maturity of someone much older; then again, she is part of a singing family- you can find videos of them on Youtube singing Christmas carols in Central Park.  She has drawn comparisons to the likes of Tracy Chapman and Nina Simone, among others, and the buzz around her is completely justified. Radio his beginning to pick up on the lead single “Open Your Eyes“, which recalls the Des’ree track “You Gotta Be“.   She will make your day… check out the video for the single…

Swing Out Sister “Almost Persuaded”


The 10th album from this British duo is their first one of all new material since their 2009 album A Beautiful Mess, and is the culmination of a fan pledge-funded project called “A Movable Feast” that they began recording about four years ago.   It was originally released last fall to those who helped fund the project, and is just now getting a general release.  They never disappoint in their sound, which has always been heavily influenced by 60’s Easy Listening, particularly the music of Burt Bacharach and Hal David; their sophisticated and subdued jazz pop stylings will put you in a mellow mood, and vocalist Corinne Drewery’s dreamy voice is oh so soothing.  Check out the video for “Which Wrong Is Right”

Kamaal Williams “The Return”


London based keyboardist born Henry Wu brings forth his second album, his first under his new Muslim name; he is of British and Taiwanese ancestry, and converted to Islam a few years ago.  His sound is best described as a nod to 70’s Jazz fusion from the likes of Herbie Hancock, combined with the flavor that style influenced, the 90’s Acid Jazz scene, particularly the music of groups like Incognito (in particular, the keyboardist for that group, Matt Cooper, did similar work under the moniker Outside).  Check out the video for “Salaam“, which is edited in this version, as it later breaks out into an almost drum ‘n bass vamp…

The Internet “Hive Mind”


Well look what we have here: an R&B GROUP!  The Internet is an amalgam of five individuals formerly involved with the Odd Future hip-hop collective, who’ve also dabbled in their own solo projects.  As a group, their fourth album solidifies them as an outfit to watch for, as they come together with a sound that is stripped down, lo-fi funky, smooth and silky, and yes, devoid of the Trap. Lead vocalist Syd has a voice reminiscent of Aaliyah or Janet, light and airy. Put this on and just zone out for close to an hour, let this one permeate your soul.  This one is an R&B album of the year candidate… check out the video for “Roll (Burbank Funk)“, a perfect summertime jam, and a great track for the skaters…

Gorillaz “The Now Now”


After last year’s overly ambitious but ultimately underwhelming Humanz album, Gorillaz returns with a more streamlined, less guest-filled effort.  The only features here are from George Benson, who provides guitar on the single “Humility”, and Jamie Principle and Snoop Dogg on “Hollywood”.  This is, for the most part, a groove-oriented disc that just proves that sometimes, keeping it simple is better.  Here is the video for “Humility”

Idris Ackamoor & the Pyramids “An Angel Fell”


The newest release from 67 year old Chicago native and cosmic space jazz saxophonist Ackamoor is his latest adventure in what he calls exploring the outer limits of jazz.  The influences of Sun Ra are abundant here, but he also mixes elements from around the African diaspora, from the Caribbean to South America and the African continent.  It may take a couple of listens before this one can be fully appreciated, but it is well worth the effort and repeated listens… no video is available for any of the tracks, but you can enjoy the audio to “Message to My People”…

By maestrotjd

I'm a music head. A classically trained violinist/violist literate from chant to Chopin to Copland, Soul man, aging Punk, Classic rocker, Alt rocker, Church choir man, House head, Techno, Industrial guy, almost Rasta, Ska & Rock Steady baby, Junglist, Dubstep to Two-step to Chicago old school steppin', Lounge & Exotica, World Fusion, Latin & Bossa Nova dude, Jazz man from Swing to Bebop to Acid, Trip hop and Hip hop, ya don't stop, a lil bit Country, Gospel, and everything in between. These are my musings (or ramblings).

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