A look at the ever-ferocious and ever-needed politically charged music in Britain today
Throughout history, radical music has existed as a cultural response to social and political issues. Looking outside of Britain at this history, it is easy to find ourselves in envy of the power and scale of radical music around the world. Think Joan Baez and Bob Dylan singing to the masses at the March on Washington, or Bob Marley uniting the hands of political rivals Edward Seaga (leader of the Jamaican Labour Party) and Michael Manley (leader of the People’s National Party) at the 1978 One Love Peace Concert. Radical music in Britain has never been a match for such moments (John Lennon refusing to get out of bed until there is world peace aside, perhaps), but in the chaotic political climate of today, radical music is elbowing its way into the mainstream like never before. We’re seeing a growth in sections of the grime scene becoming radicalised, as JME openly shows his support for Jeremy Corbyn, and Stormzy asks Theresa May at this year’s Brit Awards, “where is all the money for Grenfell?” Politically motivated musicians are making their comeback, and they deserve their accolade. Looking back over recent events and recently conceived radical projects, here are some of the top artists to keep an ear out for.
The brains behind much of Britain’s current hip-hop scene, Akala adopts the purest form of what can be considered politically motivated music. His rap is rife with political discussion and commentary that deals with the real events and statistics behind class struggle, racism and more. He puts it clearly in his Fire in the Booth performance that “it’s a movement. I don’t speak for myself but a unit”. Akala has also been using his musician status as a platform for effective direct political involvement and debate for years. Search his name into YouTube, and you will immediately find verbal confrontations with EDL co-founder Tommy Robinson, an appearance on Question Time, and lectures for Black History Month at Oxford University (to name just a few). His political observations have culminated in a book published in May of this year, titled Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. Examining the multi-faceted approaches that Akala demonstrates, we see an example of artists who radicalise themselves through taking on an even greater mantle than “the people’s voice”.
The Mods are a band that refuse to sit comfortably under the umbrella of any set genre, but rather speed around the categories of punk, electronic, hip-hop and beyond. The Nottingham-based duo, with a self-titled EP released this September, have been branded by journalists nation-wide as the voice of the working class. Take a look at a track like “BHS” as an example (released shortly after the 2016 scandal involving the chain), featuring the chorus “we’re going down like BHS/where the able-bodied vultures monitor and pick at us”, a fiery sentiment that embodies the punk ethos. Despite seemingly clear political overtones, the band refuse political labels, as vocalist Jason Williamson warns in a Channel 4 interview: “people assume you’re political, but all we’re doing is just sounding off”. Williamson’s words serve as a great testament to the fact that radical music should not have to bear the responsibility of making a difference through their music alone, seeing as these people are primarily artists, not politicians.
Bristolian punk powerhouse IDLES began their studio career with a lyrical force that could be described more like loose radicalism: brutally lashing out at this and that, without much depth as to where the problem resides or who to blame for it (not dissimilar from the early Sleaford Mods years). Their first studio album, Brutalism (released in 2017), has a title that shares this vision. Tracks like “Stendhal Syndrome” stand out with their attack on artsy-fartsy types, satirically stating that “if all paintings were as we wanted them to be/it would be page 3 as far as the eye could see”. This year, their new album carries a title that again shares the music’s main theme: Joy as an Act of Resistance. This record is driven by a more refined radical outlook, tackling highly relevant material such as immigration (“Danny Nedelko”) and hyper-masculinity (“Samaritans”). It can be easy to miss the message in vocalist Joe Talbot’s lyrics, amongst the heavy and harsh instrumentation, so make sure you give this one a couple goes.
Nottingham-born rapper Scorzayzee came to fame via two very different routes. One is his 2009 feature in Shane Meadows’ mockumentary, Le Donk and Scorzayzee, in which he is whisked to a music festival by bum-cum-music manager, Le Donk (played by Paddy Considine) to support the Arctic Monkeys. The other route is through a song deserving of no other title than this generation’s “God Save the Queen”. The track “Great Britain” is an apotheosis of the UK’s radical music scene. The track compares the Queen with Saddam Hussein and blames the entire royal family for murdering Princess Diana; if that doesn’t scream radical enough for you, just listen to the rest. Naturally, it received heavy backlash, but unlike the Sex Pistols’ 1977 single, no censorship. In fact, the BBC openly stated to the Telegraph that it was “a protest song that has been selected entirely on the basis of musical merit”. It’s now been over a decade since the song has been released, but that only places it in even greater need of a mention.