Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Through the Years: Rhythm and Riot
Billy Bragg's response to the riots in the UK is spot on. In an article that appeared in the NME and was also posted on his website, he asserts that the uprisings were a "'What the Fuck?' moment" much like the riot that erupted at the Notting Hill Carnival almost exactly thirty-five years before:
"At the time, the press reported it as the mindless violence of black youth intent on causing trouble; now we look back and recognise that it was the stirrings of what became our multicultural society--the moment when the first generation of black Britons declared that these streets belonged to them too."
Billy also reminds us that music changed indelibly after the Notting Hill Carnival riots, increasingly reflecting an insurgent musical spirit that brought together Black, white and Asian, rock, reggae and punk. He is particularly mindful of the Clash, whose members participated in the rebellion and were inspired to write "White Riot" in the aftermath. Music really was never the same since. (One of my earliest articles was also written on just this topic five years ago and appeared in CounterPunch.)
The overarching conclusion that Billy puts forth should resonate through any music fan's bones. Indeed, music has always had a way of keeping its fingers on the pulse of the tensions running through society's most invisible. Maybe it's one of the reasons that we've been able to look back through history and see not only a host of songs that were influenced by riots, but actually anticipated them.
That's a phenomenon that goes back to the days of rock and soul. Accounts have it that during the 1967 uprising in Detroit, individuals took to the roof to blast Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street." It quickly became associated with the Civil Rights movement, and H. Rap Brown even started playing it at demonstrations. Radio stations pulled it, and Martha Reeves was upset by the new association the song had gained. When British reporters asked if she was now some kind of "militant leader," she replied "My Lord, it was a party song." Still, its resonance in the Black community had taken on a life of its own much bigger than what she intended.
There was, of course, "The Guns of Brixton," which anticipated the uprisings in that area of London by several months. About half of the Clash's output could arguably be related to rioting, but really much of the early punk years' content played at the simmering anger that was bound to burst forth at a full boil--most notably the Ruts' "Babylon's Burning," which I mentioned in passing in my article for Dissident Voice on the recent riots.
Flash forward by about ten years, and we have the Los Angeles rebellion. "Fuck tha Police," released four years earlier, wasn't directly a song about rioting. Nonetheless, the intense outrage embodied by N.W.A in that song lead it to be embraced as something of a soundtrack. And its allusions to snipers on the roof was eerily prophetic of the developments during the uprising. To this day, the riots are the biggest in US history; it took the National Guard four days to quell them.
What does all this tell us? Not that artist are somehow psychic. Only that, like most art, popular music has the potential to be connected more with the feel of the grassroots than any official political party or new show is bound to be. If we take music seriously as a social act, then we would do well to listen hard and do our damnedest to organize against the poverty, oppression and inequality that runs rife. And yes, Billy Bragg is correct: now is the time for young musicians to step up.