Back when I was an even bigger pretentious a-hole than I am now, I wrote that musicians looking to make a political statement should just record themselves playing their instruments backward and upside down. To me, the literal approach to addressing injustice in music always seemed so hamfisted.
I woke up (“became woke”?) the first time I heard “Bulls on Parade,” so around 1996. What happens, I asked myself, if the fist isn’t porcine but as ironclad as a band like Rage Against the Machine? Kickass music happens, that’s what.
RATM is also heavily on the mind of at least one local musician of several whom I talked to about the effects of the current political situation on recreational, inspirational listening habits and even songwriting itself. Rage is probably on your mind, too, both the band and the concept.
Rapper Wrex Washington is listening to KRS-One, Bob Marley, Nas, Tupac Shakur, and Lupe Fiasco, but then again, he always listens to them.
“I wouldn’t say my listening habits have changed due to current world events,” he said. “I’ve always listened to music of a conscious/revolutionary nature … . Also, I’ve always written with social issues and injustices as topics.”
Bruceleroy is full of them. Washington’s collaboration with fellow Fort Worth rapper Dru B Shinin’ rages against the very same machine that’s been oppressing minorities forever over banging beats and catchy synth melodies.
“These topics aren’t new to those who know,” Washington said. “Rather, it seems popular now to care about them. Hopefully, the trend turns into real change going forward.”
For Sur Duda’s Cameron Smith, the protests have arrived around a time of personal mourning. He recently lost a dear friend who loved old-school hip-hop. “I’ve been on a lot of Gang Starr and Wu-Tang [Clan] and KRS-One. Turns out that the topic of police brutality isn’t ‘trending’ in the Black community. It’s ubiquitous. Go figure.”
Rapper Juma Spears said his listening habits have not changed at all. “I live this. I don’t need to start jammin’ Marvin Gaye to be reminded of my trauma. I look in the mirror or when I need to jog but can’t or when I sit in my car and think, ‘I hope I don’t look suspicious.’ ”
I spoke with rap and rock songwriters, Black and white, because way more than C&W or pop, rappers and rockers aren’t afraid to get political and, you could say, are artistically predisposed toward progressive causes. Locally, a lot of rappers and quite a few rockers have been raging against the machine forever, some noticeably more so since 2016. Now their angst can be funneled toward the hordes of anti-protest keyboard philosophers and the fights between conservatives, who want to rush to reopen the economy, and the liberals who believe a less hasty approach should be taken. All of the white artists I spoke with acknowledged their privilege readily.
The local muso also listening to RATM is Blake Parish, the Royal Sons frontman who said his writing hasn’t changed “because it’s basically aimless in the first place.”
He said if he wrote a political song, it would be because his brain had just landed on the theme randomly. “I will say I am proud of everyone participating in the movement in their respective ways, and beyond that, everyone that thinks this whole thing with the police is overblown can go fuck themselves. … My writing habits are as fickle as the weather, but my conviction for others is strong. The people that demand justice are my people, and the people that don’t understand can fade away.”
Spears said his process is the same. “It’s more of how people perceive what we are saying. … Rapping is like any other job to me. The way you wake up and do a routine is the way I rap. But now people are listening more. I have no idea what’s going on. My pages are booming, and my Instagram is flourishing.”
Spears said he’s aware that as good attention is coming toward him, most African-Americans are not faring as well. He’s considering donating the proceeds to the movement because he hasn’t “written anything about it.”
He said the average rapper — “well, at least a good rapper” — reports on life’s experiences, but, he said, “to be honest, most of us aren’t skilled enough to say anything important. I believe my voice is not needed.”
Aaron Bartz, from progarage rockers O. Deletron, said he has not written a single song on purpose “because of the current situation — I feel that I couldn’t express anything new that a POC couldn’t say better, so why even try? Writing songs for other people’s struggles is disingenuous.”
Jeffery Chase Friedman from proto-punks Mean Motor Scooter is also deferring to the artists who are victims of racial injustice now. “I must accept I will never truly understand what this level of persecution feels like to the black community. I have always had an issue with authority, but I have never felt this particular pain. It would feel wrong for me to write and perform a song about persecution I have never endured. I feel it would be disrespectful to the black community to assume their feelings. If I had written some punk song about social injustice, I’d just be another voice drowning out the ones that need to be heard: those who are directly or indirectly affected by the hate that has infected America. Their voices are what matter the most right now.” — Anthony Mariani
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