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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Collisions Ahead

Another fine piece by my freind Alexander Billet

If there's one word that can sum up what happened last Tuesday, it would have to be "catharsis." The election of Barack Obama set off a mass of spontaneous celebrations; dancing in the street from Harlem to the Castro. It's not hard to see why. After eight years of Bush, to see the Republican agenda roundly routed and replaced with the first Black president in the nation's history is truly a thing to behold. And though an Obama administration is going to be significantly limited by his corporate backers and Clinton-oid cabinet, right now people--especially young people--feel empowered.

If the vast majority of youth were energized by the prospect of an Obama victory, then it's no wonder why the same was true for some of music's most dynamic acts. There were, of course, the perennials like Pearl Jam and the Beastie Boys. But what stood out were the artists whose acclaim has only arrived in recent years.

Artists as disparate as the Arcade Fire, Common, Vampire Weekend and Santogold threw a considerable amount of weight behind the Obama camp. Looking back it seems impossible to even list all the artists who took the opportunity to lend their voices. Compare this to the fact that John McCain couldn't even get Abba on his side, and you start to get the picture of how much things have swung.

Of course, musicians endorsing candidates is nothing new. Readers may remember the failed "Vote For Change" tour of 2004, where musicians rallied around the simple and rather uninspiring mantra of Anybody But Bush.

What is striking to this writer, however, is how many of the artists backing Obama this time around want a lot more than just a new face in the White House. A recent issue of the indie-music magazine Under the Radar produced especially for the election carried a photo-spread of of artists holding up self-made placards with demands like "End This War Now!" (Sharon Jones) or "Subsidize Wind and Solar Energy," (the Decembrists), outrageous facts like "96% of musicians lack healthcare" (the Dresden Dolls), or simple sentiments like "I Want to Live in Woodrow Guthrie's America" (Akron/Family).

It's this kind of--dare I say--hope that stands in glaring contrast to 2004. The excitement for palpable change, and the feeling that we can play a role in it, are palpable. This election has seen even the most apolitical artists raise insightful ideas about the shape of politics itself. "It might be that this just isn't a good system anymore," says Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock, "The one president might not be the answer to the whole thing. We might need to redraw this... We're voting for the fucking class president, but we're not actually voting for the principal."

Hip-hop in particular found itself a lodestone in these elections. When one thinks of the slings and arrows that the genre has endured over the past several years then it's easy to get an idea of how big of a deal this really is. Industry big-wigs like Jay-Z and Russell Simmons were predictably over the moon about the candidate, but the truly impressive voices came from the likes of Outkast, the Roots, Joe Budden, Nas, T.I., Akon and countless other MCs and artists.

Given the treacherous waters that MCs have had to navigate in recent years--from Imus to Sean Bell--it's no wonder that the Obama campaign became a rallying point for the anger and fears, hopes and dreams that hip-hop has always conveyed. This kind of fervor was so tangible that Obama can claim what no other presidential candidate (let alone president) can: his own mixtape. Courtesy of Russell Simmons and DJ Green Lantern, the "Yes We Can" compilation was released in October with the specific intention of rallying heads around an Obama victory.

Featuring artists like David Banner, Wyclef, Joell Ortiz among many others, the release also features snippits from Obama's primary campaign, which were notably more populist and left-wing than anything the president elect has said since his nomination was sealed. But these soundclips say more about the motivations of the artists than the politician. As blogger Pham Binh points out:

"The clips are a fresh reminder of how quickly Obama jettisoned references to the Civil Rights movement, the Abolitionists, and the Suffragettes once he locked up the Democratic nomination... Judging by the lyrics, it seems that most of the artists on the mixtape fell in love with the Obama that won the primaries using anti-war, anti-free trade, pro-movement rhetoric."

They weren't the only ones from the look of it. This election saw the biggest bloc of 18-to-22-year-olds voting since the 1950s. These are young people who have grown up in a multiracial version of America, the first ones to be sent to Iraq, and who have known nothing but the same neoliberal raw deal that offers them nothing now past the promise of flipping burgers and crumbling schools. Whether Obama can deliver anything different has yet to be seen. But expectations run high, and if they aren't met it would be cynical to say these same young people wouldn't hold him accountable.

It's been over forty years since music, youth culture and popular resistance collided into what we know now as "the Sixties." That kind of defiant hope has been gone from both our music and politics for far too long. But if so many of today's best artists can become excited about real substantial change, it may be a sign that cobwebs are clearing. And if a victorious Obama campaign can become a lightening rod for the long-brewing discontent and longing among today's youth, then it may provide a glimpse of collisions to come.

Alexander Billet is a music journalist living in Chicago. He is a regular contributor to SleptOn.com, Dissident Voice and ZNet. His article on censorship in hip-hop is included in the recently published 'At Issue: Should Music Lyrics Be Censored for Violence and Exploitation?' from Greenhaven Press. His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com, and he can be reached at rebelfrequencies@gmail.com.

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