Making Your Voice Heard: Artists Who Mix Politics and Music

Music and politics have always been deeply entwined. From the centuries old seemingly innocent nursery rhymes with a hidden agenda (Baa Baa Black Sheep took a swipe at the tax man, for instance) to the more in-your-face, occasionally expletive-ridden melodic laments on the state of things today, it seems both musicians and devoted listeners get a real kick out of the merging of music and weighty messages. And why not? We all have opinions, we all want to be listened to, and if self-expression isn’t the name of the game in the music industry, well, I don’t know what is.

So let’s say you’re bubbling over with passion for this one thing, this one issue that lights a fire under you like nothing else, but you’re hesitant to pen a song about it. Songs of this nature have a tendency to attract attention – what will the fallout be like? Is it worth it? What are some other, for lack of a better term, “protest songs” you can look to for inspiration?

We interviewed a series of musicians who have all written music that explores the socio-political spectrum to answer these questions and more. Elizabeth Rose has been making waves with her pro marriage equality single Division, Harmony James has been navigating the crossover of left-leaning politics and country music, Kahl Wallis frequently uses his position as frontman of The Medics to advocate for indigenous issues, and Ben Ely of Regurgitator fame has shared not only his own insights into socio-political music, but is exclusively debuting six songs here that span issues from developments and their impact on the environment to the closures of Aboriginal communities. Read on to find out what each had to say.

1. Elizabeth Rose

2. Harmony James

3. Kahl Wallis

4. Ben Ely (plus 6 song debuts)

 

Elizabeth Rose

elizabeth rose

What are the socio/political views that you express through your music?

 

Division is my first piece of released music that has a strong political stance for same sex marriage. I strongly believe in marriage equality and this song just flowed out of me at the time of writing it because I’ve been wanting to bring this up in my music for some time now.

Why is expressing these views through music important to you?

Because it allows for me to have/feel more of a personal connection to who’s listening. I can’t just have a career of writing songs based around love, I feel more credible as a writer if I’m touching on things that have more depth, more serious undertones… but these don’t necessarily have to be direct.

What reactions have you had to your decision to do this?

Of course I’ve had people strongly disagree with me. The morning that I went into Triple J on the breakfast show to premiere it, Alex showed me the texts that were coming in after it was played and there were a few foul comments about me. But I don’t really care, that was bound to happen, I’m allowed to express myself and this is such an important issue and one which 75% of the country agrees with too.

Has the good outweighed the bad or vice versa?

The good has definitely outweighed the bad! The love and support from people on my socials is so heart warming, people saying that they feel empowered to get involved and support Australian Marriage Equality in their campaign.

What value do you think merging music and politics has in the greater scheme of things?

Ultimately, it’s a strong, sometimes influential voice that may provoke change for the better.

Do you think music, and/or musicians, should be inherently political?

No not at all, it’s such a personal thing.

What’s your favourite “protest” song?

 

Harmony James

Harmony-James-1_R (1)

What are the socio/political views that you express through your music?

I recently released a track to radio called #CSG (Coal Seam Gas), which is penned from the point of view of someone whose livelihood and land are under threat as a result of the activity on their land. It was meant to portray the fear and the feelings that come with consequence.

Why is expressing these views through music important to you?

I feel as though there are so many issues to choose to care about and unless you are touched personally you can’t know about them all. I felt compelled to tell this story and hope to get people at least thinking about the resource sector and how it might impact futures.

What reactions have you had to your decision to do this?

Clearly, it was never going to be a commercially successful track and I knew that, but stand by it and felt it was a risk worth taking. It has made some of my dearest friends uncomfortable, and feel judged. I have to live with that. It has also opened some really strong passionate debates and forced me to consider angles I might not have and widen my knowledge. It has also come across the radar of people campaigning to keep their regions free of fracking and has encouraged them to know that they aren’t alone in their desire to set these boundaries.

Has the good outweighed the bad or vice versa?

I don’t regret my choice yet, and I still feel it is an important issue worth making myself uncomfortable for.

What value do you think merging music and politics has in the greater scheme of things?

To be honest, as a youth I was of the opinion that music was no place for political statements. I now feel that it is much easier to do nothing, and if you really believe in a cause you have to make the effort to contribute. Almost a moral obligation.

Do you think music, and/or musicians, should be inherently political?

I don’t at all think its our job to crusade. Music is an inherently self centred thing and you make art that reflects your own motivations and needs. I just happened to come across a cause I felt compelled to talk about.

What’s your favourite “protest” song?

It’s not so much as protest song as a call for compassion. It’s called Homeless and comes from the pen of Texas songwriting legend Guy Clark.

Kahl Wallis

the medics

What are the socio/political views that you express through your music?

My band released a single called Wake Up with the hope of empowering people and creating social change. We released the single on Survival Day (being the 26th January) as a way to raise awareness about this date currently being known as, and celebrated as, ‘Australia Day’. To the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, Australia Day is not a day of celebration, it is a day of mourning. The 26th January is the anniversary of colonisation, which was the beginning of the destruction and murder of this country’s original people.

Why is expressing these views through music important to you?

In my opinion, music can be one of the most powerful and influential mediums/platforms to create political change. Music speaks to all of us, it connects us to the spiritual inner workings of our being.

What reactions have you had to your decision to do this?

We’ve lost a few fans but we have gained much more in return. While we have experienced some deep-seated and intense racism and ignorance, we have also been able to start discussions, create change, educate others and highlight current issues regarding human rights.

Has the good outweighed the bad or vice versa?

The good has definitely outweighed the bad! We’ve started conversations and debate on some very important topics, and we’ve gained more opportunities along the way. Our music has also taken on a much more exciting form.

What value do you think merging music and politics has in the greater scheme of things?

Music is such an incredible art form. Fusing music and politics together is a bold move, but when you’ve seen the struggles of this world first-hand, you really want to create change. To me, music can become more than just a song, it can help to heal the fabric of our world, bringing us together and uniting us, creating community and harmony amongst the struggle. Music truly becomes medicine.

Do you think music, and/or musicians, should be inherently political?

I believe the music industry needs constant awakening, but it seems that many musicians shy away from political and provoking art. I do know we have a growing politically-driven art/music community though, and I look forward to the next generation of artists pushing the boundaries of the political arena.

What’s your favourite “protest” song?

Ben Ely

Ben Ely

What are the socio/political views that you express through your music?

The views that I express through my music are generally an emotional response to the politics that dictate this environment I live in. I feel deeply hurt by the disconnected nature of modern politics and big business in regards to renewable energy, our indigenous people and their culture, mining port developments on our natural wonder The Great Barrier Reef, old growth forests, etc etc… This pain and hurt builds up and I think my songs are almost a therapeutic release. So I guess my views are very much anti conservative right wing government, particularly this Abbott government.

Why is expressing these views through music important to you?

Expressing these views are important to me. Its very personal. I do it for no other reason than to release disturbed feelings that I hold inside. Music for me is very much like a meditation, singing and playing guitar recently is like my form of prayer. I feel better after writing and singing these songs. It is a very positive process for me.

What reactions have you had to your decision to do this?

I haven’t had any reaction to these songs as they have not been released yet. It will be very different for me stylistically. I usually play in a Rock band and this album is a solo folk style album, just my voice and a guitar… See how we go… It’s such a personal project for me that I don’t have a strong ambition to promote it. It’s more about the process.

Has the good outweighed the bad or vice versa?

The few people I have played this to have all said that its nice to hear some music that is politically charged as there isn’t a lot around at the moment. Not many people have heard it though. They are my friends so they are biased I guess.

What value do you think merging music and politics has in the greater scheme of things?

I think that personally I have a responsibility to reflect my place in the world and not be completely self obsessed. For me personally I hear way to many songs that are about ex-lovers and self absorbed drama… personally I feel it’s very boring. There is a lot more going on out there than our own personal relationships. The world and our future is at stake.

Do you think music, and/or musicians, should be inherently political?

I don’t think every artist needs to be political, everybody goes there own way. I cannot speak for anyone else’s choices in expression. Only my own.

What’s your favourite “protest” song?

Masters of War by Bob Dylan.

Listen to the exclusive debut of Ben Ely’s politically charged songs (presented with his comments) below.
IDIOT KING… [ our prime minister ]
FAR NORTH…[ a track about the effects of climate change ]
NARROW MINDED MEN…. [ a response to our first nations people being evicted from their lands ]
THE POWER IS OFF… [ future vision of a collapsing modern civilisation ]
AIRES…

GOLD COAST… [ trading in our natural environment for development]

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