On this week’s Monday Mixtape, Marco Cartolano gets political when he recommends some of his favorite politically-inspired tracks. You can listen on Spotify here.
[“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” – Gil Scott-Heron]
Hello everybody, and welcome to Monday Mixtape. I’m Marco Cartolano, and let’s get political. Today, I’m going to recommend some of my favorite songs about political and social issues. As a political science double-major and all-around music geek, I’ve always been fascinated by the intersection of two of my biggest interests. Let’s start out with the one and only Gil Scott-Heron. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” gets its title from a slogan used in the ‘60s Black Power movement. Scott-Heron adapted one of his poems into a spoken-word funk track that is now considered a forerunner to hip-hop. Scott-Heron attacks mass media’s ability to numb its audience to the injustices committed by the government. He contrasts TV staples of the time with a revolution, saying that the people cannot tune out from social upheaval. With its minimal bass lines and heavy drum beats, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” predicted the sound of later hip-hop productions. It’s a clever song filled with witty digs at ‘70s popular culture. Scott-Heron’s words still ring true in 2018. Because even though TV now has 24-hour news, the media still struggles to properly cover social issues.
[“What’s Going On” – Marvin Gaye]
Another classic protest track from 1971, “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye rightfully appears on countless lists of the best songs of all time. A Motown star, Gaye was deeply affected by both the civil strife of the ‘60s and his brother’s service in the Vietnam War. He decided to record a political album, much to the chagrin of Motown founder Berry Gordy. “What’s Going On,” the title track to the album, was first conceived by Four Tops member Obie Benson and songwriter Al Cleveland after Benson witnessed police brutality. Cleveland gave the song to Gaye, who reworked its melody and lyrics. It’s a plea for peace in a world gone mad. Gaye mourns the many soldiers lost in Vietnam and asks those in power to stop oppressing protestors. While it’s heavy stuff, the production is laid back – there’s some smooth saxophone playing and peaceful piano chords. Gaye’s powerful vocals are multi-tracked, and the move to serious subject matter hasn’t diminished his natural charm. “What’s Going On” feels like a message from the peaceful world that Gaye is trying to create through his music.
[“Straight to Hell” – The Clash]
For angry punk rockers from London, The Clash developed a refreshingly international perspective on injustice and conflict. Unabashed leftists, the band attacked European and American imperialism while empathizing with the downtrodden. On “Straight to Hell,” one of their masterpieces, they take a global tour of the victims of colonialism and capitalism. It starts in their native England, where both immigrants and the established working class suffer from the closing of steel mills. It transitions into tales of Vietnamese children left behind by their American fathers and of American immigrants facing racism. The song is carried by a bossa nova influenced drumbeat and a distorted guitar riff that M.I.A. would later sample for “Paper Planes.” Joe Strummer’s melancholic vocals reflect the desperation felt by the song’s subjects.
[“Stop the Violence” – Boogie Down Productions]
The rap group Boogie Down Productions changed their focus from violent imagery to a more socially-conscious approach after their DJ, Scott La Rock, was gunned down while he was trying to defuse a fight. Lead MC KRS-One had already founded the Stop the Violence movement in response to the death of a fan. After La Rock’s death, KRS-One dove further into opposing violence in the hip-hop community and released a song named after the movement. The first verse of “Stop the Violence” actually covers several of the topics that were mentioned in the previous songs – namely, the failure of the mass media, government warmongering and income inequality. The second verse breaks new ground by addressing bloodshed in Black communities. KRS-One calls for an end to the violence that was afflicting the hip-hop scene. As with any good anthem, it has a catchy chorus. The old school hip hop production and KRS-One’s Jamaican patois-influenced flow give the song a bouncy energy. It’s a song with a positive message that b-boys can still dance to.
[“Know Your Enemy” – Rage Against the Machine]
What sort of political mixtape would this be without Rage Against the Machine? On top of being one of the few ‘90s bands to mix rap and metal without embarrassing themselves, Rage Against the Machine were some of the most politically radical musicians of the ‘90s. They frequently attacked the U.S. government and called for revolution. “Know Your Enemy” is a call to action against a broken system. Zach De La Rocha combined punk ferocity with a hip-hop cadence to deliver plenty of revolutionary slogans. Tom Morello, one of the most ferocious guitarists of the ‘90s, begins the track by using guitar effects to mimic the sound of synthesizers before switching to more punk and metal-influenced riffing. While Rage Against the Machine could never be called subtle, their songs hit like a punch to the gut.
[“Drone Bomb Me” – Anohni]
Moving to the 2010’s, let’s talk about something that unites both Democratic and Republican politicians – drone warfare. Yes, the use of piloted drones to kill targets may have changed war as we know it, but it has led to a more than a few civilian casualties. On “Drone Bomb Me,” Anohni sings from the perspective of a girl that is weirdly excited about being blown up by a drone. The seductive synth lines and the suggestive lyrics make this girl’s desire to die sound sexual. The track satirizes the the government’s fetishization of warfare and how they find ways to blame the innocent victims of drone strikes for their own demise. It’s a glossy electronic number aided by two of the most promising producers in electronic music, Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never. And while it’s an undeniably weird take on the subject, it makes a great point about government-sanctioned violence.
[“This Is America” – Childish Gambino]
Finally, let’s discuss the track everyone’s talking about. Actor, comedian and musician Donald Glover debuted the newest single of his Childish Gambino persona, “This Is America,” on Saturday Night Live. “This is America” drew attention for its disturbing music video, but the song itself is also great. It synthesizes Gambino’s previous rap albums with the soul sound of his most recent album, Awaken My Love. It plays up the contrast between a cheery chorus and dark trap-influenced verses. The chorus represents the side of black culture that white America appropriates while the verses represent the various social ills afflicting that very same culture. It’s a high concept for a song, but Glover pulls through. It helps that he gets assists from rappers 21 Savage, Young Thug, Quavo, Slim Jxmmi and Blocboy JB, who provide their trademark ad-libs. Between his music, his TV show Atlanta, and his role in the next Star Wars movie, Glover is set to dominate 2018. And I’m fine with that as long as he keeps putting out creative material like this.
[Reprise – “This is America”]
And that’s all for Monday Mixtape. This week’s playlist will be available on Spotify at mondaymixtape. Make sure to subscribe to Monday Mixtape on Apple Podcasts so you get a notification every time we post a new episode. Don’t forget to fight the power and defend the defenseless. This has been Marco Cartolano for NBN Audio.