This past week, everyone has been up in arms about Nike’s new ad that features Colin Kaepernick as the spokesperson. Nike’s ad has reignited the controversy surrounding Kaepernick’s choice in 2016 to kneel during the US National Anthem in protest of racial injustice. In the new ad campaign, Kaepernick is quoted saying, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”
The controversy about the ad led me to think about the responsibility we have to speak out for what we believe, especially given the current state of the nation and looming racial tension. My night of deep thought left me wondering: do black music artists in particular have a responsibility to make socially conscious music?
Historically, socially conscious music has always been a part of American culture. Specifically in the black community, music has been a driving force, especially during the civil rights era. Songs like Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free)” have inspired us and given us hope, solace, or peace. Gospel songs like “We Shall Overcome” and “This Little Light of Mine” were sung in protests during the 60’s. In the 70’s, there were songs that directly addressed civil rights and challenged societal norms like “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go” by Curtis Mayfield, “Get Up Stand Up” by The Wailers, and “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scott-Heron. Hip-hop artists in the 80’s addressed violence in communities with songs like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and “Self-Destruction” by the Stop the Violence Movement.
“Music does a lot of things for a lot of people. It’s transporting, for sure. It can take you right back, years back, to the very moment certain things happened in your life. It’s uplifting, it’s encouraging, it’s strengthening.” – Aretha Franklin
There have been moments in the past where coalitions of popular music artists would gather for a cause. We saw creations like “We Are the World” by United Support of Artists (USA) for Africa or the 2005 remake of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” by Artists Against AIDS Worldwide. Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Janet Jackson, Bob Marley, and even NWA have used their music to impact the culture and tackle issues that affect the black community. Black music of the past often represented the state of black culture at the time and has helped open doors in places where they would normally be closed.
This year, The Carters (Beyoncé and Jay-Z) have been the biggest artists to successfully use their platform to address today’s social concerns through imagery and music. They have also taken action outside of the music that shows support for the black community. Janelle Monae released her most recent album, Dirty Computer, which touches on the black queer experience. J. Cole’s K.O.D. tackles subjects of depression, addiction, greed, and black culture.
In contrast, some of the biggest names in music have released projects this year that do not engage in social commentary. Most recently, Nicki Minaj released her latest album, Queen, which sounds like it could be an opportunity to address issues that concern black women. Instead, Minaj seems to squander the moment, choosing to focus on herself and continue with her predictable themes of her status, money, and sex life. With Scorpion, Drake rides the line of what could be socially conscious music, but it is often conflated with reflections about what’s going on in his life.
Some artists may choose not to engage in socially conscious music because their target audience doesn’t expect or accept it. For example, Rihanna released “American Oxygen” in 2015, a year prior to the release of Anti. The failed single did not win the support of her fans and sent RiRi back to the drawing board. Artists like Rihanna can run the risk of alienating their target audience. There are also artists who seem to be comfortable talking about the same subject matter simply because they know that it will sell. In other instances, artists don’t tackle heavy subject matter because the music labels behind them don’t want to take the risk.
Kanye West chooses to use his platform to talk about social issues; however, he seems to be misaligned with the concerns of the black community. Artists like him can be dangerous and do more damage to a cause than the actual opposition.
We have to consider that just because an artist is thrust into the limelight, it doesn’t mean that they magically gained knowledge. These artists don’t always have the information needed to be able to participate intelligently in social commentary.
“The true beauty of music is that it connects people. It carries a message, and we, the musicians, are the messengers.” – Roy Ayers
When it comes to making socially conscious music, artists have three options.
- They can use their art, through music or imagery, to make social commentary.
- They can speak up or show actions that support a social movement and keep their music separate.
- They can avoid getting involved at all.
Ultimately, it is the choice of the artists to determine what’s right for them. We as consumers of music can control what type of music we want to listen to: if we want to hear more socially conscious music, then we have to support it by buying, streaming and supporting that music and the artists who make it.
After some thought, I am not quite sure that artists have a responsibility to make socially conscious music. In fact, there are times when I would rather some would just sit in the corner and be quiet (side-eyeing Kanye). I think the old Bible saying applies here: “To whom much is given, much will be required.”
If you have a platform, I think you do have a responsibility to use it to make change for the better in this world; however, it is not required that you use your music to do it. Artists can make change through their words and actions outside of their music. There is room for light-hearted music that just makes you feel good or want to dance. The most skilled musicians have learned to create fun and serious music successfully.