For years, the 21st Century's seeming lack of protest music has puzzled me.
In my mind, Sam Cooke's “A Change Is Gonna Come”, Bob Dylan's “The Times They Are A-Changing,” and John Lennon's “Imagine” were a vital part of the resistance to injustice and unconsciousness. They didn't just bring catharsis and healing to the downtrodden. They were a megaphone voicing new possibility to the world. Disguised in a catchy melody, these songs sunk a hook into those who might not otherwise listen. When put to music, these truths became unavoidable.
I think the music coming out today is incredible. From Radiohead to Kanye West to Animal Collective to Bjork to Kendrick Lamar to Dirty Projectors to Grimes, it shows a diversity of expression, innovation, and simple mastery of songcraft and production that few eras can rival.
But sometimes I shake my head at today's artists. Many can express heartbreak, heady existentialism, or abstract emotionalism with stunning clarity and ingenuity. But few seem willing or able to make a direct political statement through their music. Even those intending to engage with politics seem to infuse their songs with a cloud of abstraction or vagueness.
From “Drone Bomb Me” to “Obama” to “Violent Men” to “Why Did You Separate Me From the Earth?” her songs are blunt and direct in their disdain of the current state of the world. There is no veil of ambiguity. There are no minced words. The music itself is beautiful, but stark – recalling John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band.
Anohni uses the language of 2016 – drum machines and synthesizers – to make despondent, triumphant dance music.
I'll admit upon my first listen in June, HOPELESSNESS felt indulgent, clinging to a version of despair that I found exaggerated and counter-productive. Why wallow in negativity and despair amid so much hope and possibility?
But since the election, I have come to understand it in a different light. Engaging and dealing with despair has all of a sudden felt necessary. I am coming to understand that the better world we envision is most possible when we breathe in the despair and hopelessness around us.
HOPELESSNESS asks me to do just that. Instead of pushing it away and insisting things are getting better, I embrace despair. I feel it fully.
HOPELESSNESS reminds me that hope can only exist in the presence of hopelessness and despair. We dance when we cry and cry when we dance.
I often cast aside “negative” feelings – like hopelessness – as unhelpful. But they are not only necessary and inevitable, they are often the source of staggering beauty, and thus essential to the cause of hope.
Just listen to the last few minutes of “Crisis.”
How can we despair when despair is so beautiful?