In the mid-1990s South African apartheid ended, and the country’s urban black youth developed kwaito—a form of dance music (redolent of North American house) that came to represent the post-struggle generation. Kwaito developed alongside the democratization of South Africa, a powerful cultural phenomenon that paradoxically engages South Africa’s crucial social and political problems by, in fact, seeming to ignore them.
Politicians and cultural critics criticize kwaito for failing to provide any meaningful contribution to a society that desperately needs direction, but these criticisms are built on problematic assumptions about the political function of music. Artists and fans aren’t escaping their social condition through kwaito, but are using it to expand their sensory realities and generate new possibilities. Resisting the truism that music is always political, kwaito thrives on its radically ambiguous relationship with politics, power, and the state.
This according to Kwaito’s promise: Music and the aesthetics of freedom in South Africa by Gavin Steingo (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
Above and below, Boom Shaka, whose It’s about time (1993) is widely regarded as the first kwaito hit.
Notoriously difficult to categorize as both a genre of music and as a social movement, riot grrrl has come to be acknowledged as one of the most significant crossovers between politics and sound: feminism as music, music as feminism.
Riot grrrl embraced and propagated feminism through its music, lyrics, performances, zines, and everyday activities. It complicated the notion of gender-based aesthetics in both music and in fashion, demanding attention and pointing out the hypocrisies present in our social norms. In addition, the music and movement worked to expose the social and personal concerns of girls that were habitually excluded from the mainstream, including sexual abuse, anorexia, and body image.
Through its incorporation of feminism, riot grrrl attempted to give a voice to girls, allowing for a self-representation that had never been accessible before. Yet their efforts at reappropriation also led to some alarming contradictions in their feminism. Riot grrrl’s use of irony and reworking of traditional gender roles and mores in some cases actually acted to reinforce those culturally sexist ideas of women. These complications deepened the political and social implications of a group of women trying to re-size control over how gender played out in our cultural landscape.
This according to “I predict a riot: Riot grrrls and the contradictions of feminism” by Shayna Maskell, an essay included in The Routledge history of social protest in popular music (New York: Routledge, 2013, pp. 184–97).
Above and below, the pioneering riot grrrl band Bikini Kill in the early 1990s.
“For a simple urban boy like me, the idea of listening to three Somerset folk singers sounds like hell.”
Thus declared the government minister Kim Howells during a debate in the British Parliament, as he responded to arguments predicting a decrease in musicians’ employment opportunities as a result of his plan to make all performances of music on premises where alcohol was sold subject to licensing by agencies of the State.
The plan that Howells introduced came to fruition in the form of the Licensing Act 2003. While this Act was presented by its proponents as a modernizing piece of legislation, it can be placed in a long history of British attempts to rein in the unruly side of music making, alcohol consumption, and the conjunction of the two—a history that has been marked by regulation in the name of public order and moral improvement.
This according to “Drink, song and disorder: The sorry saga of the Licensing Act 2003” by Dave Laing (Popular music XXXV/2 [May 2016] pp. 265–69).
Above and below, The Wurzels—three Somerset folk singers whose song I am a cider drinker was a number three hit in Britain in 1976.
La Maldita Vecindad y los Hijos del Quinto Patio (usually referred to as Maldita Vecindad, or La Maldita, for short) produces music that is frequently categorized as fusion, due to its blending of rock, ska, reggae, and punk with traditional Mexican styles like danzón and bolero.
Deeply rooted in the working class, Maldita Vecindad is a pioneer of the rock en español movement, and its easily recognizable fusion rock—as well as the pachuco fashions favored by the members—have helped it to become one of the most influential groups of contemporary Mexican rock music.
From the group’s beginnings in the wake of the 1985 earthquake that devastated Mexico City, Maldita Vecindad’s members have drawn on their fame to make their fans more aware of leftist ideas and social causes, including the need for actively participating in relief efforts following the 1985 quake, political campaigns, and raising consciousness about HIV and AIDS. The group’s motto is paz y baile (peace and dance), a perfect combination of social message with ritual.
This according to “Maldita Vecindad, ritual, and memory: Paz y baile” by Lori Oxford, an essay included in Sounds of resistance: The role of music in multicultural activism (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2013, pp. 355–72).
Below, Maldita Vecindad performs in 2014.
Pete Seeger essentially created the folk revival movement in the United States—carrying on the work of Woody Guthrie and helping to spawn the careers of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, among others—while also linking this movement to political protest and iconoclasm.
As a result of his anti-war crusading and open Communist leanings, Seeger was a central target of the infamous HUAC witch hunts, and was widely blacklisted and condemned. In the process, however, he ended up inventing the college circuit and becoming the cornerstone of the 1960s folk revolution.
Galvanized by the 1998 tribute album Where have all the flowers gone?, the late 1990s and 2000s saw a reawakening of interest in Seeger’s music and cultural legacy, which included Bruce Springsteen’s album-length We shall overcome: The Seeger sessions.
This according to “Voice of America” by Phil Sutcliffe (Mojo February 2007).
Today would have been Seeger’s 100th birthday! Below, his iconic 1968 broadcast of Waist deep in the Big Muddy; the antiwar song was censored by CBS when he taped it for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967, but the following year the network caved to pressure from the show’s hosts and allowed it to be aired.
The Kominas is a Pakistani-American Desi punk band known for its iconic role within the punk-inspired, Muslim-affiliated music culture self-labeled as taqwacore.
Since its national tour in 2006 the group has been creating a radically translocal social geography comprised of musicians, listeners, artists, filmmakers, and bloggers on- and off-line. The Kominas concocts a transnational sound, combining elements of Punjabi and punk music, while on social media the band members contemplate their troubled sense of national belonging and build a diasporic space that is digitally produced and unified by minoritarian politics.
This according to “Mapping The Kominas’ sociomusical transnation: Punk, diaspora, and digital media” by Wendy F. Hsu, an essay included in 2nd Inter-Asia Popular Music Studies Conference (Asian journal of communication XXIII/4  pp. 386–402).
Below, live in Morocco in 2017.
Bachata, a genre originating in the Dominican Republic, can be considered music of both political and social resistance. From the direct connection between the inception of the genre and the death of the dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo to the initial marginalization of the genre by the socially elite—as well as bachata’s relationship with nueva canción, a left-wing political movement—both the origins and rise to popularity of bachata are linked to political and social conflicts.
Today bachata’s wide popularity sets it apart from its humble roots and resistant nature; however, many songs with a strong social message suggest that bachata was and still is a music of the people, and a number of recent novels and films use the genre to portray social messages and to connect the music with the Dominican people.
This according to “Insolent origins and contemporary dilemmas: The bachata genre as a vehicle for social commentary, past and present” by Patricia Reagan, an essay included in Sounds of resistance: The role of music in multicultural activism (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2013, pp. 373–95).
Above, Juan Luís Guerra, whose 1991 album Bachata rosa (below) was particularly influential in changing the reception of bachata.
Richard Thompson wrote Meet on the Ledge for Fairport Convention in 1969, while he was still a teenager, shaken by the loss of a close friend.
Already well schooled in traditional ballads, Thompson was aware—consciously or not—that sparing the details would lend a universal appeal to the song, which is at once a memorial and a source of comfort.
“I always believed in an afterlife,” he said in an interview. “Even at the age I wrote that I had that belief and that is reflected in the song in a subtle way. It can be taken in many ways, as fans continually remind me!”
“It’s only because it became kind of anthemic for some people that I revisited the song. I had to drag it out and look at it and think ‘Are there things that I can extract from this song so that I can continue to enjoy it?’ And there are. I can find things in it that still speak for me.”
And it speaks for many others as well—in 2004 Meet on the ledge was voted number 17 in BBC Radio 2’s top 100 songs.
This according to I shot a man in Reno: A history of death by murder, suicide, fire, flood, drugs, disease, and general misadventure, as related in popular song by Graeme Thomson (New York: Continuum, 2008, pp. 170–71).
Today is Richard Thompson’s 70th birthday! Above, with Fairport around the time he wrote the song; below, performing it in 2006.
In 2007 the innovative young Wu-Tang Clan producer Cilvaringz took an incendiary idea to his mentor RZA. They felt that the impact of digitization threatened the sustainability of the record industry and independent artists, while shifting the perception of music from treasured works of art to disposable consumer products.
Together they conceived a statement that would unleash a torrent of global debate–a sole copy of an album in physical form, encased in gleaming silver and sold through an auction house for millions as a work of contemporary art.
The execution of this plan raised a number of questions: Would selling Once upon a time in Shaolin for millions be the ultimate betrayal of Wu-Tang’s fans? And could anyone ever justify the selling of the album to the infamous Martin Shkreli? Opinions were sharply divided over whether this was high art or hucksterism. Was it a subversive act of protest, an act of cultural vandalism, an obscene symbol of greed, or a profound mirror for our time?
The album’s journey from inception to disruption proved to be an extraordinary adventure that veered between outlandish caper and urgent cultural analysis, a story that twists and turns through mayhem and mischief while asking questions about our relationship with art, music, technology, and ultimately ourselves.
This according to Once upon a time in Shaolin: The untold story of Wu-Tang Clan’s million dollar secret album, the devaluation of music, and America’s new public enemy no. 1 by Cyrus Bozorgmehr (New York: Flatiron Books, 2017).
Above and below, the album in question.
In 2018 A-R Editions published a new critical edition of Shuffle along, which premiered on 23 May 1921 and became the first overwhelmingly successful African American musical on Broadway.
Langston Hughes, who saw the production, said that Shuffle along marked the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. Both black and white audiences swarmed to the show, which prompted the integration of subsequent Broadway audiences. The dances were such a smash that choreographers for white Broadway shows hired Shuffle along chorus girls to teach their chorus lines the new steps.
The editors have assembled the full score and libretto for this critical edition from the original performance materials, and the critical report thoroughly explains all sources and editorial decisions. The accompanying scholarly essay examines the music, dances, and script of Shuffle along and places this influential show in its social, racial, and historical context.
Above, a publicity photo from 1921; below, a recording from the production that includes the show’s breakout hit I’m just wild about Harry.