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Friday 6 December 2019
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The political artist

Culture Matters

DO POLITICIANS use artists when they play their music for political campaigns, or is it the other way around? When is it acceptable for artists to allow their art to be associated with a specific political party? What message does performing for politicians send about the desire of the artist to transform society through art?

It is almost impossible to imagine political campaigning without music. Over the decades, it has become a norm for parties to employ artists to enhance their campaigns. In our culture, political advertisements would probably not be noticed without an infectious beat and a catchy song praising the achievements of the political organisation.

“Well the artist have to eat ah food too,” I have been told. True. But as lopsided power relations between artist and politician demonstrate, too often the value that is placed on culture and the arts is in direct proportion to what the politician wants at the particular point in time.

Globally, many artists are clear about the association of their music with politicians. In 1984 Bruce Springsteen refused to allow the Ronald Reagan campaign to use Born in the USA. ABBA sent a cease-and-desist letter to Republican candidate John McCain over Take a Chance on Me. Not only did Sir Elton John turn down an invitation to perform at Donald Trump’s inauguration, but he asked that his songs not be used during the campaign. And in 2018, Guns and Roses and Rihanna both expressed disapproval over the Trump campaign using their music.

Of course, the issue of politics and music is much more complicated than simply the use a song.

When Marvin Gaye created the haunting What’s Going On – “Mother, mother/ There’s too many of you crying/ Brother, brother, brother/ There’s far too many of you dying/ You know we’ve got to find a way/ To bring some lovin’ here today...” – he was taking a very political position against the brutal war in Vietnam and the policies of the US government at the time.

Similarly, when the Mighty Sparrow sang Dan is the Man it was his way to protest an education system that promoted colonial values and ignored the culture and values of our developing nation: “They beat me like a dog to learn that in school/ If mih head was bright, I woulda be a damn fool/ With Dan is the man in the van.”

Much of the protest music in TT has emerged from our collective traumas of enslavement, indentureship and colonialism. Calypso has been described as “subversive,” a “cultural weapon.” Chalkdust says, “My role as a calypsonian/ Is a mailman/ To make government understand/ How the people thinking/ And all what they saying/ Bout all them things whey happening.”

Pitchkaree is East Indian-inspired political and social commentary, increasingly popular in community traditions. Rapso and spoken word continue to resonate with younger generations, infusing local styles with rhythms borrowed from other protest genres like rap.

Certainly, artists have a right to perform their music as they choose. So what is the issue if they lend their talent to a political party? In fact, Springsteen was much more open to the politics of president Barack Obama.

As one commentator observed, “typically the intent of protest musicians is to oppose the exploitation and oppression exercised by dominant elites and members of dominant groups.”

In 1978, Bob Marley used his power as a protest musician to move beyond politics. By linking the hands of Edward Seaga and Michael Manley during violent political conflict in Jamaica, he elevated the artist above party allegiance, making a statement on behalf of all citizens.

For the past several months, residents in my area have had to find a way to deal with the large holes in the road. The holes are a few feet away from the office of the political representative for the area.

Vehicles going in opposite directions politely allow each other to make a wide turn to avoid dropping into the deepening crevices. When it rains, drivers wait for pedestrians to gingerly step around the holes, to avoid soaking them with puddles of water.

Now, on a lamppost overlooking the holes are well-designed colour posters asking me to vote for the new representative.

No music can soothe the distress of political neglect. Perhaps if all artists refused to perform for politicians, it would send the message that officials need to sing the songs that the community writes. It may also remind that in many ways, it is the politician who needs the talent of the artist and not the other way around.

Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN

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