Capitalism: the economic system of the mid-1800s that, due to its methods of exchange and accumulation of profits, has sparked centuries of opposition, from the ideologies of Marx to the agenda of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Yet besides the philosophers, economists and protesters that gave their two cents about the system and its flaws were the musicians. And the musicians, it could be argued, are among the most influential — thanks to their powerful means of communication and ability to unite an allegiance of faithful listeners.
Exactly how far back the roots of the anti-capitalist movement within the music world go is debatable — at least as far as the “Little Red Songbook“ first published in 1909. However, it would seem that there really is no better entry point than what is arguably the decade of protest music: the 1960s. At this time, more than any other period, we find chart-topping artists reflecting their views on the social and political state of the world within their lyrics.
Both in songs and outside them, discussion was rife with issues of the time, including the Vietnam war, nuclear disarmament, the civil rights movement and the failings of capitalism in general. One notable artist that made his feelings heard on these topics was, of course, Bob Dylan. Listening to what was admittedly one of his favourite original songs, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, we hear his questioning on such issues as commercialism, consumerism and war:
Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred
Bob Dylan was not a niche artist; angst about capitalism and the ways in which it affected the general population were issues often raised by mainstream musicians at the time. This begs the question, then: why is it that we rarely hear artists speak out on the radio today? Is it that these issues are no longer prevalent? Or that people are no longer bothered enough to talk about them? A quick review of the social, economic and political state of affairs, and the recent rise of activist movements such as Occupy Wall Street would leave us with an answer quite to the contrary. Artists are speaking out about their political beliefs and distaste for the capitalist system, but today, as opposed to the ’60s, it is on such sites as YouTube that we’re likely to find them — not on New York’s “Hit Music Station” Z100, for example.
One such newcomer worthy of recognition is hip hop artist Sun Rise Above – or Sun R. A. With the release of his 2011 album Every Day I Wake Up On The Wrong Side Of Capitalism, Sun R. A. gained more widespread popularity as one among many artists proffering the kind of anti-capitalist stance that has boomed within certain segments of the music world in recent years.
“We work our lives away tired and ride deep underground. These are the symptoms of our system; capitalism is a prison.” (From the song “No Vote”, off the 2010 album Near Misses)
But why is it that now, more than ever it seems, we hear this great anti-capitalist musical revolt? The presence of the Occupy movement attracting countless followers worldwide could be one factor, both for its extensive line-up of musicians influenced by and working with the movement and for its use of music itself to bring people together in protest. The recent Occupy Guitarmy #99MileMarch is a prime example of this. Trying to democratize the creation of anti-capitalist songs, the group has posted an “Occupy Guitarmy Starter Kit” which helps you start your own open source musical action group (guitars not included). Tom Morello, who’s been involved in the Guitarmy, had this to say back in 2009:
Whether it’s in a small matter, like who’s at the top of the charts, or bigger matters like war and peace and economic inequality, when people band together and make their voices heard they can completely overturn the system as it is.
So despite the lack of mainstream attention of the sort given to current dominant pop stars, it would seem that there certainly is no shortage of music that purports to speak out against capitalism today. Are these artists and activists right in their critique of the capitalist regime? Or will there always be those in society dissatisfied with the current state of affairs? Those are questions far too big to approach here — perhaps careful listening to these artists will give us a better indication.