February 9, 2016
Stage Against The Machine
Twitter, the Internet’s swiftest medium for instant judgments, was working over-time when music sensation Beyoncé got on stage at the coveted Super Bowl, and wowed a frenzied audience. The reactions weren’t just about her performance but her not-so-subtle display of unapologetic blackness and political activism during one of the most-watched events of the year. Beyonce’s dancers were sporting berets and Afros, and they wore all-black, reminiscent of the Black Panther party that was founded 50 years ago in the Bay area — the location of this year’s Super Bowl. Opinions are divided on whether this was indeed the platform and moment to make such a statement. Nuanced and impulsive debates have followed and in the process, brought back the focus on musicians and political activism.
From the likes of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa and Rage Against The Machine to Lady Gaga, Eddie Vedder and Bono, the artistic stage has often been the podium of political messages. Calling out people in authority over a range of issues, spanning racism to arms control, musicians the world over have from time to time, used their reach with the audience and their commanding presence to make statements.
No matter which side of the argument one is on, there is no denying that politics, like social issues or romance or nostalgia, have the power to make one retrospect and introspect. How can musicians be any different? The germination of the creative process is in the heart, and if an issue or matter is of relevance to an artist, then it is naturally going to find its way to the artist’s works. Filmmakers have made films that are overt commentaries on where they stand on matters of governance and society. Books and works of art have done things similar. Actors have used the Academy Awards platform to speak out against social ills. Who can forget Michael Moore and his scathing speech? What is it then about music that makes one sit up and criticise without restraint?
Is it the occasion or the entertainment tag attached to it that makes it less eligible to have political opinion? Are the Super Bowls really the opportunity for one to make a statement? Should musicians restrict themselves in the public space from making such observations or doing subtle nods to political history?
One is entitled to think that a ticket holder at a sporting event may not want to be bothered about matters of political relevance when all one wants is to watch a musical spectacle. Much like those who are divided on standing up in honour of the anthem before a movie. Yet when we think of artists and creative inspirations, it’d be foolish to try and separate the artist from his stimulus. Some of the best songs, greatest crowd pullers, have been politically charged. They may not hold the same relevance in another country as the context is lost on that listener, but that aside, the music is often superlative. Try listening to Bulls on Parade, Soldier of Love or Blowin’ In The Wind and not be stirred. Thought so.