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The Sound of Protest in 2015

Everyone seems pretty angry at the establishment these days. By 'these days' I mean, of course, all days, across all demographics and every quadrant of the political spectrum. But there sure is a lot of it right now. For the Left, it's witnessing Reagan and Thatcher's neoliberalism in full swing, watching in horror as every public institution gets carved up and sold off, while the looming threat of corporate initiatives like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) seem destined to put even more power in the hands of big business. For the Right, it's an erosion of free speech through a programme of cultural Marxism, diluting free speech with political correctness. Race riots are tearing America apart. Iraq and Afghanistan are still fresh in the memory. So where are the great protest songs of our generation? Where is our Dylan, our Seeger, our Clash? Perhaps we're looking for protest music in all the wrong places. There are more than enough anti-war songs, from the Vietnam War and other misadventures, and we're all familiar with the right-on sentiment that they convey. Springsteen and Neil Young still drag them out. Band Aid 30 felt more patronising and out of touch than ever. Arguably the most commercially successful protest album of the 21st century so far, Green Day's American Idiot, feels a little embarrassing. It is one of the biggest rock bands in the world calling your bluff, looking you in the eye and saying, ‘But you wanted the Clash, right?’ It's a throwback, and an unsuccessful one. It feels like something's missing from all these voices. The voices of the underpaid and underprivileged. The real outsiders. Protest music that feels vital today comes from the artists who are writing about the issues that actually are vital today, not the old tropes. ‘Standing in the Way of Control’, The Gossip's hit single that attacked anti-gay marriage legislation in the US, stood out as an utterly modern example of where the genre felt like it should be going, taking some of that good old-fashioned righteous anger and directing it at the culture wars carving up 21st century politics. Pussy Riot broke out against the backdrop of Putin's archaic laws against homosexuality, and actually went to jail for it. Maybe the baton got passed when no-one was looking. Hip hop has always been a reliable vehicle for political dissent, from Public Enemy to Ice Cube, but somewhere along the line the focus dropped. Even the occasionally erudite likes of Jay-Z and Kanye West put their heads together in 2011 and came up with Watch the Throne, a record that might be worth listening to if you could hear it over the sound of all the back slapping. Then El-P and Killer Mike made a record. Last year's sequel to their brilliant collaboration, Run The Jewels 2 finally sounded indignant enough to match the landscape, and criticised those who didn't share the feeling: “The fellows at the top are likely rapists / But you're like, ‘Mellow out man, just relax, it's really not that complicated’ / Well, pardon me, I guess I'm just as sane as you explained / Or maybe sanctifying the sadistic is deranged.” Zach de la Rocha got in on a verse and it didn't sound laughable. El-P started dedicating shows on their tour to Mike Brown and Eric Garner. Suddenly Mike was being invited onto national news shows to discuss the riots in Ferguson, like the opinion of pop stars mattered again. For all those calling its time of death, the protest song lives on. It just doesn't look like a white man with a guitar anymore. It's Beth Ditto. It's Pussy Riot. It's Killer Mike. It's female, black, gay, disenfranchised, and more pissed off than ever. )

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