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30/1/2020 / Issue #028 / Text: Chris Kelly

The Return of Protest Music Ft. Lowkey & Noam Chomsky

“Life is a paradise for some and a pair of dice for others’’

Trust in traditional media outlets is at an all-time low. In a poll carried out by the independent research body Statista, “40% of all Europeans have ‘little to no’ trust in traditional media forums”. All though I’d hate to give Donald Trump and Borris Johnson credit for anything, there is no question that they both deserve a spot right next to Rupert Murdoch on the Mount Rushmore of compulsive liars. The construction of fabricated diatribes to create false narratives and conjecture, has become a part of today’s mainstream political strategy. It has dirtied and diluted our sources of truth, resulting in decades of political desensitisation, particularly amongst young people. However, there is one medium of independent education that has been historically proven to reignite the public’s passion for political involvement: Protest Music.

History of Protest Music
From the late 1800’s onwards, protest music became a way in which normal people could tell their side of the story and share the true nature of their experiences. Much like how Soul and Blues was born out of the music of plantation workers in the deep south, later musicians would use their music to voice their anguish at corrupt systems of governance. For example, the tensions between the American people and the government during the 1970’s became vocalised in the form of a vibrant renaissance of Protest Music from the likes of John Lennon, The Sex Pistols, Eagles, Bob Marley and The Doors. Not since the raw and cathartic sounds of Nina Simone’s ‘Missisipi Goddam’ and Ray Charles’s ‘Georgia’ had social unrest been so eloquently worded and creatively conveyed.

Protest music became a way of keeping specific injustices at the forefront of the collective social consciousness. This notion is perhaps best embodied by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song,‘Ohio’. The song was released in reaction to the Kent State University shooting that took place on May 4th 1970 in which 4 young students were killed by US soldiers during a peaceful, on campus, protest against the Vietnam War. The chorus reads:

“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio”

The song became a soundtrack to the 70’s as it defined and immortalised the contempt felt at the events of mainstream political discourse at the time. These events would include the Watergate scandal, the assasination of Kennedy and the war atrocities of Vietnam. Through their art, Crosby Stills, Nash & Young memorialised the events of Kent state and codified them as part of the national identity of the US.

Protest Music in the 2010’s: The Return of Lowkey
Much like the US in the 1970’s, the political unrest of the last decade has resulted in a similar element of political commentary permeating UK Garage, House, Electronic and Hip Hop music. Whether it be Fatboy Slim mixing Greta Thunberg’s speech with his single ‘Right here right now’, or the formation of the Grime4Corbyn movement, more and more UK artists are using their music to stimulate political curiosity and engagement. The risk of idleness is now too big and their voices too loud not to be used like the voices of Nina, Ray and Crosby. One musician in particular is redefining Protest Music once more.

Lowkey or Kareem Dennis is a prolific London based, Iraqi Grime MC and activist, who has used his music to contemplate and challenge the actions of the UK government. In 2009, he travelled to Palestine and was arrested for attempting to host charity concerts to rebuild the Gaza Strip. He was a core member of the Stop the War Coalition against the invasion of Iraq whilst also becoming a prominent supporter of Jeremy Corbyn in his 2017 and 2019 campaigns. In addition to all of this, Lowkey’s last album came out in 2011, meaning that for 8 year, fans have waited eagerly to hear this philosophers perspectives on a decade of political turmoil. His new project ‘Soundtrack to the Struggle 2’ is a masterful piece of political analysis and musicality.
In the album’s title track, Lowkey is joined by political philosopher and living legend Noam Chomsky. Lowkey asks him about his concerns with the intentions of capitalism and the inevitabilities of the system. Noam’s response is expertly layered over a dark and imposing beat as the two go back and forth. Lowkey raps about his confusion as to how ‘CEO’s are more concerned with with future profit than the future of their grandchildren’ before Noem delivers some hard political truths. He says: ‘The CEO of JP Morgan Chase has two choices every day: One, do exactly what is most profitable which happens to be fossil fuels. Or two, be replaced by someone who will do the same thing. Its an institutional problem, not a one man problem’.

This is an unparalleled philosophical analysis for the context of a Hip-Hop album. The rest of the album follows the same pattern of protestation against scandals of unjust governing that had elapsed during his 8 year hiatus. A track called ‘McDonald Trump’ deals with the result of the US election, where he writes:

“A weapon of mass distraction in this twisted age of decadence Government, big business, the relationship incestuous
Hope workers in your businesses unionize and shut you down A million people march when you try to enter London Town”

Similarly, the songs ‘The Ghost of Grenfell Tower’ part 1 and 2 enshrined the anger of Londoners within his discography, meaning that the memory of the victims will be remembered for as long as Lowkey is listened to. One last political event is addressed by Lowkey on a track entitled, ‘Long live Palestine’ that begins with a reading of a poem by British comedian Franky Boyle. The eclectic mix of features on this project is a testament to the broad fanbase of Lowkey’s work, encompassing Grime legends such as Akala and theoretical thinkers like Noam Chomsky and Chris Hedges.

The body of work that Lowkey has created in ‘Sounds too the Struggle 2’ is in many ways revolutionary. Lowkey has intelligently repackaged political matters and cultural events that desperately need public awareness into a format that is not only desired but revered by a generation that feels detached and excluded by traditional political discussions. He has revolutionised the protest song, turning it into a form of expertly researched and factually reliable source of honest but opinionated journalism. This new album sort of acts as an encyclopedia of the social injustices felt in London communities over the last decade and therefore it should be treated not only as a classic Hip-Hop album but also as an important document of political philosophy, journalism and history.


Photo: The 2&6 Collective