Pop music is, almost by dint of its youthful target audience, oppositional. The Spice Girls may have been a manufactured pop group, but their focus on Girl Power highlighted and refuted the ideas regulating what young women should, and should not, be doing. Years before this, The Beatles stated that they wanted to hold your hand; a statement that suggested more than hand holding was possible. In many ways pop music is protest music; albeit often protesting at restrictions on having a good time rather than specific events in the wider culture. However, the spirit of true protest is alive and well in hip hop more than any other genre of music, because hip hop has always been the music of protest.
There are no shortage of takes on the birth of hip hop; but most people agree it came out of the South Bronx in New York in the late 1970s. New York in the 1970s had faced bankruptcy and was struggling financially. Amongst the hardest hit by the city’s problems were the working classes, especially the city’s immigrant population, with an exodus of the affluent white middle class to the suburbs.
New York offered precious little in the way of opportunities for the Hispanic and black population of the Bronx. Partying as protest is something of a cliché nowadays. But against a background of blackouts; lack of opportunities; arson and white flight; hip hop offered the youth of New York an identity that flew in the face of society’s expectations. DJ’s Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash created a new sonic template, cutting between breaks on existing records, that allowed the youth to redefine themselves, with politicised groups such as the Zulu Nation appearing shortly after. By 1982 hip hop had seen its first protest anthem become a hit, The Message by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
Take a few steps and we get to what is widely considered the definitive political hip hop group, and certainly one of the key groups in hip hop’s history, Public Enemy. And then a few more to one of the most controversial, NWA. NWA were the definitive group for gangster rap. As often as not, their lyrics crashed into the sphere of politics, albeit on a micro level compared to Public Enemy’s macro view.
Black Steel in The Hour of Chaos, from Public Enemy’s masterpiece, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, looks at the connections between the military and the prison industrial complex and what that means to the average black man. Whereas Straight Outta Compton from NWA’s album of the same name repositions the realities of gang life in California’s from an aggressively masculine viewpoint.
Public Enemy were concerned with the systematic controls forcing their fellow men into undesirable situations; NWA were concerned with how to use systematic controls to their advantage and improve their positions within those constraints. It might not be Bob Dylan, but it’s impossible not to hear the band’s rage, as unfocused as it might be.
The conscious rappers of the 90s and early 2000s carried the trend of protest. Gangster rap became less about blunt force trauma deployed to everyone in response to the world’s cruelty and more about guns and bling. Hip hop has seen a swing towards greater tales of vulnerability but macho posturing is still a huge part of the scene. Nowadays, the political is widely eschewed in favour of the personal (Hello Kanye West!) but protestation can still be found. The work of young buck, Kendrick Lamar, demonstrates an aptitude for rage and measured calm in equal measure on his last two albums. Beyond the shock tactics; posturing; easily co-opted rebellion; and gross commercialism that all too often blight the genre; the protest song still sits most comfortably in hip hop’s house.
With 11 Tony Awards, a Grammy and a Pulitzer Prize under its belt, Hamilton is a show like now other. And in 2017, Sir Cameron Macintosh will be bringing the musical to London’s West End.
The show notably incorporates hip-hop, rhythm and blues, pop music, soul music, traditional-style show tunes and protest songs. This collection for Voice with Piano accompaniment features selections from the songs Alexander Hamilton, Dear Theodosia, Hurricane, It’s Quiet Uptown, One Last Time, That Would Be Enough, Washington on Your Side and more.