The lyrics of a song are an interesting animal for a musician to conjure. Sometimes they are simply a placeholder for the melody of the vocals. This can be seen in pop songs, which generally are composed of lyrics encouraging good times (partying, love, relationships, etc.) However, when the lyrics have merit on their own, as a written work, they can begin to take shape as something powerful. They can become anthems for a movement, or the personal motto of an individual. Lyrics don’t necessarily have to be just about having a good time; they can be cathartic in approaching a subject that is hard to talk about. One of these subjects can be frustrations with the operation of politics, and the workings of the modern world. Politics in music hasn’t been approached much in recent years, despite issues like income equality and police brutality becoming more apparent in the public eye. Three musicians who have decided to tackle this forgotten task are D’Angelo, Kendrick Lamar, and lead songwriter/singer of The Strokes, Julian Casablancas.

In the past, it seemed like politics and music were inseparable. When considering how politics have been written about in music, the first name to come to mind is Bob Dylan. Writing lyrics like, “How many roads must a man walk down / Before you call him a man?” in “Blowin’ in the Wind”, Dylan wrote lyrics that encourage the listener to summon a sense of empathy. Dylan’s songs eventually took him to the civil rights movement, where Dylan played Only A Pawn In Their Game following Martin Luther King’s speech during the March on Washington. “Only A Pawn In Their Game” features lyrics lamenting the assassination of Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist and a member of the NAACP.

Rather than write music to encourage a hedonistic, blind mentality, Dylan wrote songs about the wrongs he saw in the world and has been cemented as one of the greatest songwriters of all time. Dylan’s ongoing legacy has its roots in his songs that called out the wrongs of life. As music continued, some artists continued to approach politics in music, such as Bruce Springsteen, Rage Against the Machine, Sonic Youth, Bob Marley and more. But it was around the late ’90s and the 2000s—when music consumption began to transition onto a primarily digital platform – that music began to focus more on encouraging blind hedonism. However, three works of music have come out recently that have chosen to walk in the path of Dylan. These albums are focused on the wrongs of the world the songwriters sees. One of which is by D’Angelo on his landmark return to music, BLACK MESSIAH.

CLICK: Want to see another more social change in art? Then you’ll love Agency, Choice, and the Feminism of the ALIEN Films

For many years, D’Angelo left the music industry, his legacy seemingly cemented with his music video “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” off his critically acclaimed album VOODOO. Perceived as a sex icon, D’Angelo’s roots showed his drive had more depth, despite his initial impact on the mainstream was a salacious video. D’Angelo was a member of The Soulquarians, a collective group of musicians that often explored the depths of social activism and performed on each other’s records. Other members of The Soulquarians included Questlove, Common, Erykah Badu, Mos Def, and J Dilla.

Following VOODOO’s release, D’Angelo went on a world tour, riding the acclaim of VOODOO and the success of the “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” video. The tour began to create personal struggles for D’Angelo, causing him to retreat from the music industry. He returned to the music industry with the surprise release of BLACK MESSIAH in 2014, which was moved forward due to growing tensions caused by the Ferguson Protests and the killing of Eric Garner due to police violence. Released to critical acclaim, BLACK MESSIAH is laced with songs that are forceful in calling out the wrongs of the world as perceived by D’Angelo. The etymology of the album’s name is focused on praising the outsiders who want to change the world for the better; the BLACK in the title is how those outsiders are perceived, seen by the overall dogma as others and should be avoided, a la the black plague. The most political song on the album is “The Charade,” which was fiercely performed by D’Angelo and musicians wearing “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts on SNL, in front of a chalk outline of a body.

“All we wanted was a chance to talk

‘Stead we only got outlined in chalk

Feet have bled a million miles we’ve walked

Revealing at the end of the day, the charade”

D’Angelo calls out the frustration he experiences when seeing the uselessness in protests like the Occupy movement, or the Ferguson Protests, and how they were acknowledged, but quickly swept under the rug to maintain appearances. In “The Charade,” D’Angelo expresses frustration at seeing how the protests of individuals who are trying to change the world are passed under the rug to continue the charade of everyday life, allowing the wrongs of the world to continue.

Throughout BLACK MESSIAH, D’Angelo expresses his disappointment and frustration with society. Another musician who expresses frustration in his music, yet reinvigorates confidence in himself and the listener, encouraging them to hold on to their morals, is Kendrick Lamar on his groundbreaking album TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY

Following the release of his debut album, GOOD KID M.A.A.D CITY, Kendrick Lamar released, TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY in 2015. Featuring themes depression, and the violence in his hometown, TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY features a perspective of an individual who is disappointed that the perspective of his community, culture, and society continues to be blind. In “Wesley’s Theory,” Kendrick criticizes the greed and obsession of material goods that gets systematically taken advantage of by American society.

“What you

want you? A house or a car?

Forty acres and a mule, a piano, a guitar?

Anything, see, my name is Uncle Sam on your dollar

Motherfucker you can live at the mall

I know your kind (That’s why I’m kind)

Don’t have receipts (Oh man, that’s fine)

Pay me later, wear those gators

Cliche and say, fuck your haters

can see the borrow in you

I can see the dollar in you”

In these lines, Kendrick states that the US government encourages borrowing to purchase material goods, tempting the borrower to take out loans, and in turn, allow the lender to profit off the interest. Additionally, Kendrick states that the American people encourage their worth to be defined by the material goods. Overall, one example of Kendrick desiring a change in his community is to open their eyes to how US capitalism takes advantage of them. He encourages the listener to recognize the systematic pressure to be obsessed with material goods. Kendrick encourages the individual to recognize how the overall dogma is forcing society to define their self-worth by their goods, even if they have to take a loan out to purchase it.

Another song off of TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY is “Alight.” In “Alight” Kendrick acknowledges the futility and frustration he and his community face in trying to incite political change in the face of police brutality, and having their concerns being swept under the rug by the media. Yet, as opposed to “The Charade,” which simply calls out the lack of lasting impact past movements have had, in “Alright,” Kendrick empathizes with the listener’s frustration regarding the lack of change:

“When you know, we been hurt, been down before, nigga

When my pride was low, lookin’ at the world like, “where do we go, nigga?”

And we hate Popo, wanna kill us dead in the street for sure, nigga

I’m at the preacher’s door

My knees gettin’ weak and my gun might blow but we gon’ be alright”

Kendrick encourages the listener that all is not lost, and to hold on to their beliefs and morals and that everything will be alright: “Nazareth, I’m fucked up / Homie you fucked up/ But if God got us then we gon’ be alright…My knees gettin’ weak and my gun might blow but we gon’ be alright.” The song comforts the listener, empathizing with their frustration, and desire for a more active, violent, action. However “Alright” comforts and urges the listener to hold to their morals. The morals Kendrick asks the listener to abide to are the same morals established by the original civil rights movements, which moved with non-violent protests. Ultimately, the hook of “Alright” is that if the movement is pure then, “God got us, then we gon’ be alright.”

How strongly the song resonated during the anxious and stressful period following the Ferguson protests and the death of Eric Garner can be seen here, where after police harassed and arrested a 14-year-old, a crowd chants “Alright” in unison. Just as Dylan’s songs in the past civil rights movement provided the soundtrack to a time of change, Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” off TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY is doing it now.

Another musician that also has felt the drive to write about the wrongs he sees in the world is the lead singer of The Strokes, Julian Casablancas.

CLICK: Want to see how TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY explores depression? Check this out!

The Strokes came onto the music scene with their debut album, IS THIS IT, which was subject to a lot of hype built by music publications. Since the release of their debut, The Strokes have remained as stalwarts in the music industry. Though subject to constant rumors of their demise due to infighting, The Strokes have consistently released material since their debut album. As the primary songwriter and lyricist of the band, Julian Casablancas didn’t begin to write about the wrongs he saw in life until FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF EARTH, released in 2006. In “Ize of the World Julian sings, “Sometimes it feels like the world is falling asleep / How do you wake someone up from inside of a dream?” Here, similar to Kendrick and D’Angelo, Julian also laments on how blind society is in healing itself and promoting growth towards peace. As the song continues, Julian aims straight at unrestrained greed:

“How disappointed would D(ead) I.(dealistic) I.(inventor) P.(pioneer) P.(hilosophers) be

To see such power in our hands all wasted on greed?”

Julian poses a question asking how disappointed would our past masters, such as the Aristotles, or Einsteins be, seeing all of the world’s resources and advancements, such as nuclear power and modern technology, all be hinged on providing a higher return to investors, even if that means starting a war? They would most likely feel all their work wasted, as Einstein famously stated: “Every thoughtful, well-meaning and conscientious human being should assume in time of peace, the solemn and unconditional obligation not to participate in war, for any reason, or to lend support of any kind, whether direct or indirect.” Just as Julian asks society why it is still blind, Einstein, one of the world’s masters and greatest innovators, begged society to remain perceptive. Ultimately “Ize of the World closes in a sonic storm, with Julian describing the blind machinations society has devolved to, and how its inevitable end, without any change, is total annihilation:

“A desk to organize, a product to advertise

A market to monopolize, movie stars to idolize

Leaders to scandalize, enemies to neutralize

No time to apologize, fury to tranquilize

Weapons to synchronize, cities to vapor-i(ze)”

Here, Julian speaks of his fear that the fury that will inevitably rise due to the stifling of true social growth and will lead the protectors of the greedy to silence the angry and, eventually, implode society.

CLICK: Want to see capitalism explored in comics? Then check out Fight Club 2

Julian thoroughly explores the themes of a blind perception being promoted so that blind profit can continue to stifle social growth in TYRANNY. Released by Julian Casablancas + The Voidz, TYRANNY’s lyrics are filled with begging the blind to attain some perception such as in “Take Me In Your Army:”

“It took a thousand days to build and only a day to destroy

The customer is obviously oblivious and wrong.”

However , in the cornerstone of the album, “Human Sadness,” Julian criticizes those who pursue profit blindly, be it politicians or the oligarchy or anyone with with no consideration of the full effects of their actions:

“Put money in my hand

And I will do the things you want me to

Vanity… overriding wisdom,

Usually common sense..”

Building upon a sample of Mozart’s “Requiem, (which means “mass of the dead”) Julian sums up his perception of the wrongs of society in these lines, and he sees us all living in a wasteland. In the first few lines, he speaks from the role of a man focused on gaining capital at any cost. In doing so, h exhibits how the modern age solely obeys one tenet: “Whatever nets me the most capital, no matter how deprecating the act, or how many morals I sacrifice, as long as my pockets are lined, I will do it.”

Throughout the epic of “Human Sadness,” Julian continues to retreat back to a quote by Persian philosopher Rumi: “Beyond all ideas of right and wrong there is a field / I will be meeting you there.” “Human Sadness is a sonically disjointed epic, however the only anchor point throughout the song is this quote by Rumi. The importance of this quote is to assure the listener/reader that we are all human. That beyond how the infrastructure and society pressure us to obey, towards the end, all we have is each other. In the end, there are no rules or societal expectations to abide to, nor any political expectations. Beyond what your enemy defines as right or wrong, there will eventually be a time where both will understand each other.

CLICK: Should comics explore politics as well? What do you think?

It is throughout “Human Sadness,” as well as BLACK MESSIAH, and TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY, that the musician urges the listener to be emphatic, and understand the perspective of the other. From “The Charade” empathizing with the frustrations of the listener, to “Alright” encouraging the listener to understand the earth will abide for the morally righteous, to “Human Sadness requesting listeners empathize with their enemies, all three songs ask the same of the listener: to disregard the temptations of violent protests, to stand strong with the morals they were taught, and to empathize with even their most vicious enemies to bring about positive social change.

D’Angelo, Kendrick Lamar, and Julian Casablancas have used their work to call out the wrongs they personally see in the world. All three musicians converge on speaking about the frustration they feel due to a severe lack of social growth, and how it is stifled by both a lack of perception and the greed and manipulation allowed by the overarching society. While most successful music encourages maintaining that blind perception by focusing on the greatest immediate pleasure, it is works like that of these three artists that will serve as the soundtrack to the spark of the flame that will truly make the world a better place.

Show ComicsVerse some Love! Leave a Reply!