Why Music Needs To Get Political Again
by Billy Bragg
August 25, 2011
How ironic that The Clash should be on the cover of the NME
in the week that London was burning, that their faces should
be staring out from the shelves as newsagents were ransacked
and robbed by looters intent on anarchy in the UK. Touching
too, that the picture should be from very early in their
career - Joe with curly blond hair - for The Clash were
formed in the wake of a London riot: the disturbances that
broke out at the end of the Notting Hill Carnival of 1976.
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
The Notting Hill Riots of 35 years ago created a genuine
`What The Fuck?' moment - the first in Britain since the
violent clashes between mods and rockers in the early 60s.
While west London burned, the rest of society recoiled in
terror at the anger they saw manifested on the streets of
England. In the aftermath, severe jail sentences were handed
down and police patrols stepped up in areas where there was
a large immigrant population. Sound familiar?
But something else happened too - in the months that
followed, bands appeared that sought to make sense of what
went down on that hot August night. Aswad, Steel Pulse and
Misty in Roots were among the reggae bands that stepped
forward to speak for the black community.
Punk was galvanised into action by The Clash, whose debut
album featured a picture of police charging towards black
youth under the Westway on the back cover. Their first
single, `White Riot', was an explicit attempt to make a
connection between the frustration faced by unemployed white
youth and their black counterparts whose employment
prospects were blighted by racism.
In the Clash interview from 1976 that was reprinted in the
NME `riot issue', Joe Strummer boldly said "We 're hoping to
educate any kid who comes to listen us, just to keep them
from joining the National Front". That certainly worked in
my case. When Notting Hill went up in smoke, I didn't get
it, yet, a year or so later, the first political activism
that I ever took part in was the first Rock Against Racism
Carnival in London. I' d been drawn by the fact that the
Clash were top of the bill.
That event brought me into contact with some of the
aforementioned British reggae bands, acts that had
previously struggled to find white audiences. This coming
together led directly to Two-Tone and to Artists Against
Apartheid. These bands, black and white, didn't end racism
in Britain, but they helped me to understand why it had to
Fast-forward 35 years to the present day. Much has changed,
yet we find ourselves in the same quandary. The August riots
of 2011 are another WTF? moment, when society recoils in
horror and says `I don' understand you'.
Everyone who has seen the footage of the `Bad Samaritans'
pretending to come to the aid of the injured Asyraf Haziq
Rossli, while their mates rummage through his rucksack and
rob him, will have made an instant judgement about the kind
of people who would do such an unspeakable thing.
Undoubtedly, many people in the 15-24 age group will know
people like that and be quick to condemn them. For the rest
of us - who know nothing but what we see - well damn you
all, because of your clothes, your music, your haircuts,
your attitude. You can already hear the generational disdain
in mainstream reactions to the sentences handed down to
Now, you don' have to do anything about this. You can
simply shrug your shoulders when politicians speak
dismissively about feral youth leading futile lives. But it
wont end there. The authorities are going to lean on your
generation and hard. You are being set up as the new enemy
within. `Feral' is a word that is virtually interchangeable
The disturbances of the past weeks have stirred up a shit
storm of opinion in the mainstream media, much of it from
people who have no real experience of the pressures faced by
this generation, the first in a century that are likely to
grow up worse off than their parents. Though this situation
has been building for some years, the disturbances have
created an opportunity for young people to provide an
I know things are different now, not least in the music
industry. Back in 1976, we only had one medium - pop music -
through which to speak one another and the world. The
internet has changed that. Now, if you have an opinion about
something, you can blog, tweet, and post your thoughts for
everyone to see. It makes you feel like you 're making a
contribution, but are you really?
Nobody ever got rich writing snarky remarks in the comment
section nor got to tour the world performing to thousands of
people on the back of writing a blog. Sure, you may get a
lot of `likes' on your comments, but nothing beats the
thrill of making an audience of 50 people cheer a line in a
song that you've just written that hits on something that
they feel strongly about.
I know that there are artists out there who already
understand this, but I am also aware of the atmosphere of
cynical post-modernism that has warped the music scene to
such an extent that musicians who write ostensibly political
songs spend their interviews desperately back-pedalling to
avoid being `divisive'. Joe Strummer is spinning in his
I can understand why young artists might be unsure of how to
approach politics. Since the ideological battles of the
1980s, the whole distinction between left and right has
disappeared under the rubble of the Berlin Wall. Even I have
trouble making sense of it all - does anybody know what Tony
Blair really stood for?
But making political pop should not be a matter of setting
Karl Marx to music. 'I've heard that stuff and it never
sounds right. Pop becomes political when it stops being
self-pitying and self-aggrandising and starts to speak truth
Punk was born in a time of rising unemployment and
stultifying boredom among young people. It contained a
strong nihilistic streak that claimed to only want to
destroy, an impulse that bands like the Clash constantly had
to fight against. I' not looking for a nostalgic trip down
memory lane nor for a punk revival. That was another time.
Yet, it at its core, punk contained a revolutionary idea
that remains relevant today: `Here's three chords, now a
form a band'.
Of course it doesn't have to be a band - technology has put
the means of production into the hands of anyone with a
computer and some beats. The riots last week were a spark -
what is needed now is an alternative commentary. Some of you
who are reading this need to produce songs with spirit that
tell us something we don' know about what the fuck happened
last week, how we got to such a place and where you think we
should be going from here.
A truncated version of this article appeared in the NME
Welcome to the official Billy Bragg site
The internet offers huge potential for artists who want to
make music on their own terms. As the old business model
crumbles to dust, artists have much to gain from entering
into dialogue with their fans, not least from encouraging
them to buy their music directly from the farm gate, secure
in the knowledge that the money they spend will support the
artist in their work.
I want this website to be my main source of communication
with the world: songs I record, articles that I write, clips
I film on my phone, merchandising I produce, blogs,
comments, posts, all will be available here.
It's time to start our own revolution and cut out the
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