In May ‘18 it is exactly a half century ago that turbulent student revolts took place in Paris and spread throughout Europe. To mark the occasion, the city of Brussels has designated 2018 as ‘Year of the Contestation’ and asked all cultural players to offer an answer to the question: "What remains of the social, political and cultural revolution 50 years after May ‘68? Which forms of contestation are we familiar with today?"
AB responds and commits to protest music. The current social and political climate is unfortunately an ‘ideal’ source of inspiration. Noteworthy: "It’s remarkable that—in a year hijacked by Trump’s reckless, witless Twitter belches—artists didn’t dive to meet his level" – Pitchfork. And also: "Most of the year's socially conscious music has been far more personal than political" - Consequence Of Sound.
AB delves into the The Sound Of Protest and lets the voices of Turkish social protest songs, London’s grime, the call for (musical) borderlessness, the Black Lives Matter movement and working class heroes fully resound.
TURKISH SOCIAL PROTEST SONGS
The latest darling of the indie scene, for a while now: Turkish psychedelica. Labels like Finders Keepers ensure a revitalisation of the heritage through a constant stream of Turkish re-issues; folk hero Selda Bağcan is being rediscovered at a large scale; and contemporary acts like Gaye Su Akyol, Derya Yildirim, BaBa ZuLa and Altin Gün fully embrace this style. They all refer to the heyday of Turkish psychedelica in the ’60s and ’70s, when Anatolian rock/folk fused with Western rock ’n roll. Artists like Erkin Koray (often sampled by Gonjasufi), Ersen, Bariș Manço, Selda Bağcan or Cem Karaca, were the Turkish heroes of the time and, on top of that, were often also political activists. Time to open up the gates of the genre...
Enter SELDA BAĞCAN, whose songs often bear a socio-political message, making her hugely popular with left-wing activists during the politically polarized years of the ’70s. She was persecuted by the military regime after the Turkish coup of 1980 and ended up in prison three times (!) in the years that followed. Even her paspoort was confiscated. So, she couldn’t perform outside the country until ’87. In ’93 she released the single ‘Uğurlar Olsun’ (‘Farewell’), a lament for the murdered research journalist Uğur Mumcu. The song was symbol for the political turbulence of the ’90s. Selda also supported the Gezi Park protesters in ’13.
Enter BABA ZULA who laid the foundation for the so-called Istanbul psychedelica. Their unique psychedelic sound combines traditional Turkish instruments, electronica, reggae and dub whereby the electric saz – a Turkish stringed-instrument – plays a main role. They often consider their music to be a (political) statement. A song like ‘Efkarli Yaprak’ (‘Worried Leaf’) is about the uncle of frontman Osman Murat Ertel who was a journalist and fought the system with his pen. The result: he ended up in jail and was tortured. Noteworthy: Selda once wrote the politically tinted track ‘Yaz Gazeteci Yaz’ or: ’Schrijf, journalist, schrijf’. Both songs sound more relevent than ever.
Even though grime – just call it: the raw London underground variant of rap – already popped up around the turn of the century, the genre would seem to be just verging on a European breakthrough over the past two years. Flagbearer Skepta actually landed the prestigious Mercury Prize Award in ’16 and Stormzy’s debut ‘Gangs Signs & Prayer’ was the first grime album to reach #1 in the British charts. The Guardian just recently described grime as ‘The Sound of Protest’ and ‘The Most Vital Political Music Around’. Skepta says this of himself: "I’m not a rapper. I’m an activist" and Stormzy openly supports Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Their tweets at David Cameron about Syrian air strikes were fodder for political debate. So, its time for a real grime mini-festival!
Enter AJ Tracey, the 23-year-old West-London rapper who was tipped by Britain’s Independent as ‘One to watch’ in 2016 and already managed to meet those expectations a year later with an international tour. He combines his forthright beats with keen humor & London street talk and takes a clearly socially critical standpoint. He openly sided with the Jeremy Corbyn campaign: “The Labour Party strongly support the youth in following their dreams and giving people a chance. In my opinion we need a Labour government to give young people a hope, a chance for their future and I genuinely believe that Corbyn is the man to do it.”
The BBC Sound of 2017 nominee Nadia Rose, also Stormzy’s cousin, raised eyebrows with her debut ‘Highly Flammable’. She is at the heart of a new wave of female MCs and stands out in the grime scene with her authentic own sound. The Fader described her as ‘The sharp-tongued joker who can’t be stopped’.
British-Nigerian Flohio spits raw, heavy and poetic rhymes. She made her formidable entrance with the single ‘SE16’, produced by London duo God Colony and for which the video clip was directed by the eccentric GAIKA. She is currently working on her debut album.
PUNK ICONS & WORKING CLASS HEROES
It’s impossible to avoid the association between protest and punk. The genre that already manifested itself in the US in the second half of the ’60s / first half of the ‘70s (MC5, The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, Ramones,...) and didn’t exploded in the UK until the second half of the ’70s with (of course) The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Crass ...
Enter PATTI SMITH, the godmother of punk, who wrote one of the ultimate punk classics in ’75 with her debut ‘Horses’. She actually wrote a (protest)anthem with ‘People have The Power’ (’88), and with protest songs like ‘Qana’ (about an Israeli attack on the Libanese city of the same name) and ‘Without Chains’ (about Turk Murat Kurnaz who was held captive in Guantánamo Bay for years) she often expresses herself in political statements. She is aiming for a concert hat-trick in AB.
Enter PUBLIC IMAGE LTD, or: loudmouth John Lydon. A direct attack on the establishment, he quite definitely wrote punk history with The Sex Pistols. His band was banned from stages and TV shows. He fired off musical cluster-bombs at the English government with ‘God Save The Queen’ and ‘Anarchy in the Uk’, in a then broken England. He wrote politically loaded songs like ‘Rise’ (an anthem against apartheid in South Africa) with Public Image Ltd too and this year celebrates their 40th birthday. Live, PiL still sounds like one big chunk of pent up rage.
Enter CRASS – the collective that STEVE IGNORANT established together with Penny Rimbaud in ’77 – which is still the ultimate anarcho-punk band of all time! Their music was the equivalent of resistance, political activism, and direct action. Crass songs were essentially political commentary, which meant that they often (un)willingly clashed with the authorities. The release of the blasphemous single ‘Asylum’ led to an investigation by Scotland Yard that paid the band a visit. The release of the singles ‘How Does It Feel? (to Be the Mother of a Thousand Dead)’ and ‘Sheep Farming in the Falklands’ were an indictment of the Falklands War that let to questions in parliament. Crass was also behind the so-called Thatchergate tapes: manipulated tapes of a so-called conversation between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan that was leaked and led to accusations of the KGB by The Sunday Times.
Enter – there they are again – SLEAFORD MODS. The duo is not only endebted to Crass – check out their musical rawness and working class ideology – but are also diehard fans. Feel free to call them the current punk-version of Crass.
Lastly, enter folk troubadour and working class hero BILLY BRAGG. In ’78, during a concert that was a part of the ‘Rock Against Racism’ campagne of his heroes The Clash, that Bragg realized that politics and pop could perfectly well go hand in hand. Bragg has been involved in grassroots organisations and political movements for pretty much his entire career, which is of course reflected in his songs. Famous social anthems got the Bragg treatment, eg the ‘The Internationale’ or ‘The Red Flag’ and songs like ‘Rumours Of War’ (as a result of the Gulf war), ‘There Is Power in a Union’ or the anti-war song ‘Island of No Return’ were rich with well-considered statements.
Bragg on his political activism: "I don't mind being labelled a political songwriter. The thing that troubles me is being dismissed as a political songwriter." At the request of AB, Billy Bragg draws from his classic albums 'Life's a Riot with Spy vs Spy' (’83), 'Brewing up with Billy Bragg' (’84), 'Talking with the Taxman about Poetry' (’86) and ‘Workers Playtime' (’88). Never before has protest sounded so pure and honest.
In times when Donald Trump wants to build the Mexican Wall (simultaneously crossing acceptable boundaries himself, with his immigration policy), Europe closes its borders as an inappropriate response to the stream of refugees, and the United Kingdom turns its back on Europe… quite the opposite is happening in musical circles. Music has become bound(ary)less.
Enter: AMMAR 808 & THE MAGHREB UNIT, the brand new project of Brussels resideent and producer/musicologist Sofyann Ben Youssef (see: Kel Assouf). He combines his love of traditional Maghrebi music and heavy sub-bass in Ammar 808. Sofyann has surrounded himself with a number of powerful voices, irrespective of national borders (Tunesia, Algeria and Morocco), wanting to symbolically remove the (artificial) post-colonial borders.
Enter: the wonderful sonic world of NON Worldwide! A collective with African roots that puts electronic experiment first. Their mission: ’A rejection of mass culture and existing political conditions’. NON Worldwide was established by US resident Chino Amobi (whose roots can be traced back to Nigeria), Belgian/Conglolese Nkisi who operates out of London, and South African activist Angel-Ho. The Velvet Underground and New York: that was obvious. Non Worldwide links three continents.
Enter SLEAFORD MODS, ‘The angriest/most political band in Britain’ (The Guardian) that with their furious mix of (post)punk, rap, rant and broken dance beats don’t mince words. Sleaford Mods’ battle is one against Brexit, the reckless (sic) move made by England.
BLACK LIVES MATTER
The Black Lives Matter movement was established around ’13 as a reaction to police violence in the US. The movement resonated with very many artists and, ironically enough, yielded superb protest songs like Beyonce’s ‘Freedom’, Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ and Miguel’s ‘How Many’: “I'm tired of human lives turned into hashtags and prayer hands/I'm tired of watching murderers get off.”
Enter BONAVENTURE, the alter-ego of Soraya Lutangu, a producer with Congolese roots. You could call her music outright confronting, whereby the focus is on themes like institutional racisme and oppression. Bonaventure: “I don’t do music for a hobby. I’m just preparing weapons to be able to talk to white people.” Songs like ‘Supremacy’ (with incisive samples of rapper/activist Sister Souljah) and ‘Diaspora’ speak volumes.
Enter: the free jazz/spoken word project IRREVERSIBLE ENTANGLEMENTS (the band encompassing MOOR MOTHER who, according to The Wire, is ‘the most radical Afrofuturist artist to emerge for years.’) The project came into being in ’15, during a protest in the name of Musicians Against Policy Brutality, and it sounds like the modern musical equivalent of Archie Shepp’s ‘Blasé’ or ‘Poem For Malcolm’ (both from’69) … who in turn shouted out their love of Malcolm X. Protest could hardly sound rawer in the ‘Year of the Contestation’.