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From Billy Bragg to Baker Boy: Protest music lives on

Protest music has the power to restore hope for change, even in its new fresh and exciting forms.

Art by Claire Hwang

The slightly cool air of an early autumn night in Newtown was a welcome relief after the sweaty heat of Billy Bragg’s early albums set at the Enmore Theatre last week. Still buzzing from the show, I walked with my parents across the glistening backstreet bitumen.

I was slightly taken aback when my mother turned to me and said, “they don’t make protest music like that anymore, do they?”

My mother was parroting a sentiment I have frequently encountered, especially from older generations who have grown up with baby-boomer protest songwriters as Bob Dylan and John Forgerty, or more thoroughly Gen-X outfits like Midnight Oil and Bikini Kill.

Even Billy Bragg himself, famous in part for his extensive oeuvre of socialist music, suggested in a 2021 interview with Crikey that there was less protest music being made by young people in most sections of society. He argued that social media has led to many who would have become politicised musicians forty years ago, now making social media content instead.

Bragg went on to suggest that – despite some outliers – the apparent decline in protest music was due to young people being less marginalised than they were previously. 

Could Bragg, and my mum, be correct? If so, where did all the political songs go? 

Fortunately, they haven’t gone anywhere: there is still a burgeoning and radical musical culture emerging from marginalised groups – particularly from people of colour and the LGBT+ community.

The explosive politically charged music that regularly comes out of such quarters, is just as urgent and important as any protest song written in the 20th century was in its context. Even just a quick glance reveals a number of musicians responding to police brutality, systemic racism, and transphobia – among other issues.

Hip hop is a genre that is as politically charged as ever. Rappers with politics on their lips include Donald Glover and Kendrick Lamar, the latter particularly known for musical activism that explores the racial violence and social injustice that defines the USA.

Closer to home, artists like Baker Boy and JK-47 continue a rich and urgent political-musical tradition that grapples with the extreme injustice and colonial violence faced by First Nations people.  

But music and politics don’t only intersect in hip-hop. Rock music also retains an intimate connection to radical politics. Irish punk outfit Mhaol regularly engages with feminism and queer politics in explosive songs like Bored of Men and Gender Studies, whilst Australian punk-rockers Amyl and the Sniffers have dabbled in protest about sexual politics, racism, and governmental incompetence with tracks like Capital and Knifey

The examples go on and on: Courtney Barnett, Pinch Points, IDLES, Fontaines DC, Pussy Riot, Tasman Keith, and many more besides. 

Political music is very much alive and kicking. Young people are still angry about the state of the world, and they are still making music about it.

Why does the continuing view of less politically charged music prevail?

Most likely, older progressives are simply out of touch with new political music. The situation is certainly not helped by the fact that young artists with radical politics are unlikely to receive much attention on mainstream radio stations. 

Yet there is another question often raised about political music that deserves addressing. We know it’s all around us, but what is it actually good for? Criticisms directed about any practical role for protest music abound — largely following the notion that “it’s just a song; it can’t vote, or strike, or organise.” 

Bragg himself concedes that you can’t really change the world through music, arguing that such a sentiment is naive and ignores the real effort that goes into political organisation — the strikes, the protests, and the ballot box. 

He instead chooses to focus on the power of protest music to “recharge” activists — to remind us that there still are people out there, willing to come together around shared visions of justice, and a common drive to fight for a better world. Protest music, then, is instrumental in combating the cynicism that all of us would be forgiven for feeling in trying times. Protest music has the power to restore hope for change.

Protest music often has a very real impact, and is still very much all around us today in fresh and exciting forms. But this doesn’t mean that older protest music does nothing for us. Contemporary artists exist within a long history of a tightly intertwined relationship between politics and music that goes back to Woody Guthrie and far beyond. Many of these artists have written music that continues to be painfully relevant today. 

As young people, justifiably angry about the state of the world, we should consult this long history to recharge our appetite for activism and give a soundtrack to our agitation. This includes, however, not only the musical activism our parents — and even grandparents — listened to, but the musical activism that our own generation is putting out into the world in great quantities — and quality — to this very day.

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