Music is my practice and with that comes with crafting photographs and videos to coincide with songs etc. In all these things I seek to make work that is different because I seek it to be more than just aesthetical, it should be a social commentary on life and what I experience as a young gay, working-class black male.
With this I wanted to go into further research of other artists that I am inspired by and also am unaware of, who use their art to speak on social matters and issues, whether they do it consciously or not.
I want to explore in this essay why it is important to make work that is a social commentary, if it can be damaging & what impact it has or if it has any at all?
Social Commentary Art is the art that comments on society. This can be issued in everyday life such as race, gender or sexuality, politics, etc.
An example is artists such as Leon Golub a painter who comments on topics such as torture, police abuse, and his wife Nancy Spero who makes installations tackling issues about gender, woman’s issues, and also torture.
It can be said that all art and artists make work that is a social commentary that reflect the times that they are living in today. Rather than certain artists who make it their focus to do work that is social commentary such as Lil Kim (a rapper) who’s main themes in her music is feminism, equality with males and sexual liberation of females.
It can be said that for all artists there is no avoiding making social commentary work because living in world, you will have experiences and issues that affect you that you have no choice but to comment with your art an example would be Andy Warhol’s Race Riot paintings.
Social Commentary can differ from which perspective is being made. Such as Gregg Araki’s movie Doom Generation released in 1995 & Larry Clarke’s movie, KIDS released in the same year. Both I feel are social commentary movies on youth culture and my favorite movies of all time that I cannot deny influence my work and aesthetic of visuals and performances. It is important to note that Gregg Araki is a gay director who puts social commentary of homosexuality in all of his work. Both movies at the time shocked a horrified people by their depiction of youth and youth behavior especially KIDS which gained wide acclaim notoriety. The reason for the shock reception to the films is to be said because people were reluctant to believe that kids of a young age would have sex and act in such crude acts of violence, rape, and drug abuse.
The impact KIDS had socially can be questioned but critics nonetheless gave it mixed reviews some declaring it paedophilic and horrific others raving about it. But the best reviews were those that can be said to a degree understood it, such as Janet Maslin from the New York Times who said about the movie “Frightening, frank and serious, a wake-up call to the world.” ( As well as Robert Egbert “What you realize, thinking about Telly, is that life has given him nothing that interests him, except for sex, drugs, and skateboards. His life is a kind of hell, briefly interrupted by orgasms.” ( Larry Clarke commented on its controversy saying “it shocked people because it was so real. Even though people themselves were young once and knew this is how youth behave, they never actually saw it projected on a large motion picture where they had to intake and acknowledge the reality that this is the truth.”
Musicians who make social commentary music videos and visuals vary, I cannot say one artist’s who consistently has music videos or visuals that are always social commentaries, this can largely be based on the fact that they may be restricted by powers above them, or simply a case of they want to show the variety they have to offer(not a one-trick pony). However, a majority have, for example, most if not all female musicians have done music videos that tackle issues of sexism or show feminism whether they are feminists or not such as Charli XCX’s video for the song Boys that used famous male celebrities “subverting the male gaze.’
In addition, M.I.A., someone who is famous for her social commentary music, is someone that might be expected to have visuals that are social commentary, of which she has some but not all, nevertheless more than the majority. The few she has have been quite shocking such as the single artwork for her single Born Free, is a still image from mobile phone footage that shows the extrajudicial killing of Tamil males by Sri Lankan government soldiers, with the music video also commenting on the issue by showing the genocide of red-haired people. M.I.A.’s single artwork and music video for Born Free made an impact within the media, gaining critical acclaim for commentary on genocide and military force, with media coverage and the same occurred for Charli XCX for her video Boys, being interviewed on BBC Breakfast, who praised her for tackling the issue.
However, unlike Boys, Born Free was met with some controversy by being banned by YouTube for a short time and the video itself being banned from appearing on US & UK television. Even though it was an important video that showed the reality of genocide and military violence, it was not appreciated by certain powers within the music and media industry, resulting in it not being able to have wider exposure around the world and on television, as much art has done having social commentary on issues that include brutality, sex or violence can face.
Music production is the process by which a music producer or record producer oversees the production (recording, making, sometimes contributes to the songwriting process) of a single, ep & or album. During the recording process they will make suggestions for editing and make alterations to songs to be sure that they are guiding the artists in the right direction to make the best songs possible but more importantly act as a mediator between the artist’s vision and the record labels desire for a successful album, single or ep.
In my opinion, when making music, music production is one of the most difficult things about creating a song, more than just creating it, the mixing and mastering is even more difficult, but it is also the best way to add social commentary that is slight but not too obvious. People often disregard music producers and production as being able to have an impact or make commentary but I would say that “it acts as the paint for the painting’ and with that you are just as able as was done by The Bomb Squad who produced Bring The Noise by Public Enemy who sampled Malcolm X saying “too black, too strong” from Malcolm X’s Fire & Fury Grass Roots Speech, this sample acted as the intro for the song, simple yet effective.
Some music composers that I have looked to that have made works that have social commentary include Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On’ in which all the songs were produced by him but not all written by himself. Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, all the songs were written, produced and arranged by himself, it is also infamously said that Wonder also played all the instruments himself in the production of this album. In addition, Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid’, for which all band members for this album participated in the production, composition, arrangement and songwriting, so acted as collaborative composers.
All three of these albums and artists are highly regarded as some of the best of their era. However, at the time they did not come without controversies either in the making process or the aftermath of their impact. Both Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were signed to Motown Records which was very much against political or protest music as they felt away, that is still felt now in the music industry, that being political in music loses fans, and does not sell and above all decreases your chances of longevity in the industry. Stevie Wonder had left Motown in order to be able to release more experimental as well as political works such as Innervisions, which was something he looked to do after the release of “What’s Going On’ by Gaye, who inspired him and many others. Marvin Gaye was known for being a music rebel and constantly defied the label each time having great success with his musical risks. Even though Berry Gordy(The Founder of Motown) was said to have tried to block the release of “What’s Going On’, however, was kept occupied with other priorities that allowed it to slip through the cracks and with its release it was an instant success, something that was not expected of it, even from Gaye himself who said, “To be truly righteous, you offer love with a pure heart, without regard for what you’ll get in return.”
Black Sabbath did not face such difficulties in their recording process or writing lyrics of a social commentary nature tackling political issues, but this can be said to be because of peoples, lack of awareness that the lyrics were political. After the album’s release many people who listened to the album were unaware of the political nature of the album, focusing more on the band’s satanic lines in their lyrics which was the main theme from their first album. Furthermore, after a nurse committed suicide and the Paranoid LP was found spinning on her record player controversy spurred for the band & their new album was deemed as being evil and the cause of death.
In the documentary The Black Sabbath Story, Vol. 1, Butler expressed his frustration at how fans misinterpreted the band’s lyrics, stating that “for instance, on “Hand of Doom’ they’ll pick up one sentence out of that and blow it up into this big thing, like as if we’re telling everyone to go and shoot smack. The whole song is against drugs.”
A Songwriter is someone who writes lyrics to music and melodies. Not all singers are songwriters with many singers having other musicians or professional songwriters, write songs for them. It can be said that songwriting is something that can be taught but some may argue, that it comes from a feeling or as said by a mother of two successful artists “songwriting is an innate talent – and the process of the struggle is a self-inflicted and absolutely necessary path to realization of an artist’s potential. However as much as feeling and “natural born talent’ is part of being able to make great songs, technical skills are never the less required to do so in terms of literacy and grammatical structuring whether the artist knows it or not, those are things that are learned whether in school or from reading or listening to other musicians music who were taught so, it is all learned, passed on and used.
Songwriting differs from music production and being able to add social commentary because it is a lot more blatant and obvious, it acts as the image formed from the painting. However, I feel that with it still being a taboo to make music that is a social commentary many musicians and very good songwriters do so slyly such as Frank Ocean Thinkin’ Bout You, which was a song about his first experience of having feelings for another man, which is not obvious in the song but announced by Ocean himself to the public. This, however, is not the case for other artists such as Young MA who is a gay female rapper that has always made it clear in her lyrics and visuals her relations with a woman.
I myself being a songwriter, am biased and regard songwriting as something that is very important, When Mariah Carey was interviewed by Genius for her songwriting in her career she said: “Oftentimes people put that(songwriting) as a secondary thing and for me, it’s always been at the top.” I agree with this because the lyrics written by a songwriter have the ability to relate to many different people going through struggles in life or to represent an important time in their lives. When speaking on her song “Outside’ (a song about not fitting in) a man shouted during the interview that it saved his life and she further expressed how people have connected to that song and gotten tattoos that say “outside’ and of the lyrics from the song, as well as the song has helped many gay people with coming out and the interviewer being bi-racial felt it was a song he connected to also dealing with those issues.
Bob Dylan is someone who is notorious for his political & protest songs, with it being said about his writing “music and socially conscious lyrics have to be from the heart and honest, or what is the point. When a person makes socially conscious songs it is because “they believe in the power of song as being able to make a change to the world.’ Bob Dylan is someone that succeeded in having career-making protest songs that were socially conscious and one of many others in leading the protest folk music scene of the 60’s & the ’70s.
Undoubtedly Bob Dylan’s socially-conscious songwriting was done as a reaction to times of the 60’s to 70’s, with the Civil Rights Movement & Vietnam War all occurring, affecting people in the US. However, Bob Dylan’s protest songs became less as it reached into the 80’s in which he drifted from writing political protest songs, however, he did have slight references to politics still in some of his lyrics. The same can is somewhat said for other artists, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Black Sabbath never again made albums reflecting on social commentary issues, possibly because they no longer felt like writing about such things, or it was just what was popular at the time to do and once the war ended, the fad faded so there was no need to continue writing social commentary music. However other artists making protest music such as Bob Marley & Peter Tosh still continued however it can be said that they were far from seeing the change that they wanted to see done in their country. In addition, new songwriters arouse such as Tracy Chapman who continued what Dylan and many others of his time started in folk music by writing songs that tackled social commentary issues and politics.
Why Bob Dylan would have declined in his writing of protest songs can be said for many reasons, but one I feel that may have had an impact that affects many other musicians, and mentioned about Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On, is issues with the record label. For major record labels, it could be said that it does not matter if an album or song is political or social commentary, all that matters is that a song is sellable and appeals to the masses, just as for a major label a song or albums craftmanship is not assessed however is a bonus. What is important is the economics it is able to bring in. “Then you’ve got the heavyweights like EMI, Warner, Sony, Universal. They are experts in giving the people what they want. They are masters of pop. They don’t always promote what is “good” or of “artistic merit” but they know what will sell. It’s not about sound. It’s about money.” It can be said for only so long can you write protest songs and social commentary music, eventually perceptions change, this can be in the case of an artist or an audience, fans. Whether an artist likes it or not their music is their lively hood and it is important to keep making their lively hood which may mean compromising their’ art to have less political music or social commentary lyrics, in addition, as an artist you are signed by the labels, unless they branch out on their own, they to a degree have to do as the label says or face being dropped.
Lauryn Hill said on MTV Unplugged 1999 “what we want is fiction but what we need is real.” Social commentary art is important because I feel it speaks the truth, it reflects the times and issues that are affecting people.
From writing this Word & Image document I learned that making social commentary art of all forms but particularly music, comes with struggles and controversies, whether that be from record labels or other entities within the media industry, backlash can occur, audiences can turn away from you, as a musician you to think is it a risk worth taking. Many of the social commentary music made still lives on and inspires new artists, fortunately but sadly unfortunately the songs by Bob Dylan, Peter Tosh, Marvin Gaye, Tracy Chapman, Lil Kim, can still be re-worked and be relatable to people because it still reflects what is going on because people are still affected by the same social issues of the past(even though there is some progression). However, the purpose of social commentary art is to be able to make a change and in terms of wars & conflict it doesn’t, in terms of sexism and homophobia, it doesn’t change laws. However, it opens up avenues for more females, lgbtq+ musicians to be at the forefront of music and visible more than they were in the past, which it has done, but the struggle continues so social commentary music must continue also. In addition, in terms of wars and conflicts M.I.A social commentary music and art about the Tamil War continued until the end of the civil war and it may not have had a large impact but certainly brought major awareness to Western Society. As well as adding the infamous moment by Bob Marley at the One Love Peace Concert 1978 in which during his performance he joined the hands of political rivals Michael Manley & Edward Seaga, a historical moment. However, after the concert, its organizers died within two years, and during the election of Jamaica in 1980 murders of more than double from the previous election occurred.
Ultimately what I have discovered is to think about when making social commentary art for myself what am I making it for and what impact is it that I want it to have, what change am I striving for, what change do I want to see, that my music can champion and be an anthem for?