For millennia music has been a vehicle for us to express our emotions, tell our stories, spark our movements, and inspire us to ask the big questions. The rise of mass media has only made this a more potent force.

The Power of Musical Momentum

It was Bob Dylan who espoused that we are ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game,’ during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The 1980s bore witness to Sting’s plea to our greater humanity with his anti-Nuclear anthem, Russians, and of course, in that same year Band Aid spearheaded the global war on poverty. By the 1990s, political anthems by the likes of Pulp and the Verve shaped the Brit-Pop soundtrack to New Labour’s landslide here in the UK. These transformative moments were catalysed by musical momentum.

Many have suggested that musical activism is on the cutting room floor in our world of TikTok soundbites and the weekly chart rat race. This is a mistake. In fact, it is now more prominent than ever, with a generation of listeners tuned into the political musings of their favourite artists. Through a pair of headphones, young people are open to a world of rallying cries. From our society’s stark inequalities to the normalisation of everyday insecurities, modern-day music is mobilising the masses and educating us all in a way the political establishment could only dream of. If politicians wish to engage with the youth vote, they need to listen to the poignant issues explored by Britain’s favourite artists. And where better to start than this year’s Reading Festival.

A Chorus of Calls for Change

There were visible tears on the faces of thousands in a crowd of black and white Newcastle United shirts as Sam Fender performed his set. A sobering moment came as the singer from a ‘drinking town with a fishing problem,’ sang about the absence of opportunity and abundance of ‘Dead Boys’ in his home of North Shields. The crowd, which moments before had been charged up by electric music, stood sentinel and sombre as they reflected on the high levels of alcoholism and suicide in some of Britain’s forgotten towns. A piercing song acting as a grave reminder of the importance of our mental health and the need for opportunities and purpose across the country.

The Jordie hero sang a whole slate of politically charged tunes. The set ended with the crowd shouting in unison about Western aggression abroad and the ills of our consumer society, with the smash-hit ‘Hypersonic Missiles.’ Thousands of people were galvanised by the magic of a strong message and catchy chorus.

Disapproval of the UK’s involvement in the arms trade was further highlighted by Declan McKenna’s glam-rock-inspired ballad ‘British Bombs.’ The Enfield performer sang about the ‘good old-fashioned landside’ that is the Saudi-Yemeni war, in front of a rotating sign showing the ‘£9.7 BILLION’ for licensed UK-made exported weapons to the Saudi-led coalition since March 2015 (CAAT). Again thousands of young people chanted in unison, all experiencing the bittersweet symphony of enjoying the music whilst being soberly aware of this shamefully poignant issue.

Politics ran throughout the festival in other forms. Many outfits were accompanied by a ‘Bollocks To Brexit’ sticker. Numerous artists took the time to dedicate their songs to certain causes, such as Scouse singer Jamie Webster’s anti-Conservative anthem ‘Something’s Got to Give,’ or You Me At Six encouraging all to ‘Take on the World’ in support of LGBTQ+ expression. Jazz rapper Loyle Carner gave an impassioned and well-received speech on fighting ‘toxic masculinity’ and not being afraid to show our emotions. Even the galactic superstar Billie Eilish performed her hit from the anti-patriarchy box-office success, Barbie. Ending the main body of her set with the slogan ‘No Music on a Dead Planet,’ she highlighted the need for action in the face of the climate crisis.

Across three days, a kaleidoscope of causes was promoted to captivated audiences. This is just a cross-section of the power of music. For the 2020 Brit Awards, the rapper Dave gave a powerful rendition of his song ‘Black,’ which shined a light on police brutality and went as far as branding the then-Prime Minister ‘a real racist.’ The rapper frequently merges politics with music, with his latest album being dedicated to the journeys of refugees across the globe.

Politics has certainly not left our music, it’s just that its branding has changed. Gone are the red flags, revolutionary symbols, and ‘burn it all down’ attitude of the punk era. In their place are individual anthems about causes close to their artist’s hearts.

Orchestrating a Movement

Despite the clear popularity of activist music, its resonance has not always equated to action. A prime example was the failure of the ‘Grime 4 Corbyn’ movement, with the 2017 expected ‘youth-quake’ proving to be more of a false alarm as the 18-24 voter turnout remained stubbornly low.

Today’s artists are getting people politically engaged in our age of apathy, and that is a great achievement in itself. Artists such as Sam Fender have over 3.7 million monthly listeners on Spotify alone, as many come for the music but stay for the message. However, for real change to be brought about, an industry-wide call to arms is required. Artists must use their status to encourage voter registration and educate the young about how positive change can be made through a simple act such as voting.

As for the politicians, paying attention to these artists would enlighten them about the key issues of this emerging generation. Climate, mental health, levelling-up and societal injustices are reaching young people’s ears and minds more through their headphones than any parliamentary pleas. Whether it’s in the gym, on the bus or at home, the people are listening … the politicians would be wise to tune in.

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