Musicians & Activism

From Lennon to The Specials & Saffiyah Khan

Thursday 28th March 2019

Music has always been a powerful tool. The instigators of change and the challengers of the status quo, the lives of musicians and activists have always intertwined. In fact, even as far back as the 4th Century, BC Plato warned (in The Republic - Book V) that 'any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole State'... 'when modes of music change, the State always changes with them.'

While Blues and Folk music helped form the template for what Rock 'n' Roll and all its subsequent iterations sounded like, it was also these early genres that gave them its social and political conscience.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the first John & Yoko 'Bed-In For Peace'. Following their marriage in March 1969, John and Yoko turned their celebrity status and the media interest around their wedding and honeymoon into a publicity stunt to promote world peace. The second bed-in in Montreal a couple of months later led to the recording of 'Give Peace A Chance' which became an anthem for the '60s counterculture and the anti-Vietnam War movement.

“We are both artists! Peace is our art. We believe that because of everything I was as a Beatle and everything that we are now, we stand a chance of influencing other young people. And it is they who will rule the world tomorrow.”

The rise of counterculture in the 1960s was a phenomenon partly attributed to post-war affluence allowing the new generation to prioritise social change and challenge traditional ideas on authority. The post-war era is remembered for the rise of the Hippie subculture and anti-war protests as well as campaigning for civil rights, nuclear disarmament, free speech, second-wave feminism, environmentalism and sexual liberation.

Music and gatherings were at the heart of the period with two potential nexus points to consider. first, The Monterey Pop Festival that took place in San Francisco in 1967 during the well-publicised Summer Of Love and the other being Woodstock in 1969. Music acted as the conduit to bring people together through their shared values, ideals and interests.

A crucial zeitgeist moment, the student protests Paris in 1968 led to major strikes that almost brought the French economy to a complete standstill. It is remembered now as a social revolution and considered a cultural turning point for France.

The events inspired artists and musicians long after they finished. The Rolling Stones wrote the song 'Street Fighting Man' about it, as did The Beatles with 'Revolution' and, decades later, The Stone Roses with 'Bye Bye Badman'. The latter was also the title of John Squire's painting used on the cover of the Stone Roses' self-titled debut album. The painting features the tricolour of the French flag and final artwork included lemons, which they had been told were used to nullify the effects of tear gas during the riots.

Punk is a subculture synonymous with activism - the emergence of the DIY ethic and culture is in itself a form of activism through rebellion, born out of punk anti-establishment and anti-consumerist attitudes.

One of the prominent ideologies to emerge from the punk era was anarchy. Anarchy advocates a society free of intervention from a government, state or institution where people are free to do whatever they choose. Its popularity was no doubt helped in no small part by the Sex Pistols debut single 'Anarchy In The UK'. 

The 'Rock Against Racism' movement was set up by musicians and activists to combat prejudice and discrimination through a series of gigs. The most notable of these was held at Victoria Park in London, following a march from Trafalgar Square which was reportedly attended by 100,000 people. The Clash, X-Ray Spex and Jimmy Pursey from Sham 69 were amongst the performers.

Benefit concerts to raise awareness or funds for charitable causes are certainly not a new idea, but it's generally accepted that the practice peaked in 1985 with Live Aid. Organised by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, Live Aid was a global phenomenon and exceeded expectations by raising over £30m for the famine in Ethiopia. The show was broadcast simultaneously in 160 countries, reaching a reported 1.6 billion people - nearly 40 per cent of the world's total population at the time.

The Red Wedge was a collection of British musicians who banded together in the mid-'80s to try and engage the current generation with politics and beat Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives in the 1987 general election.

Spearheaded by the likes of Billy Bragg, Paul Weller, Jerry Dammers and Kirsty MacColl a series of tours was put together with performances and appearances from people in the world of art, media and alternative comedy. Bragg, The Style Council and The Communards were often joined by bedfellows such as Suggs and Johnny Marr.

They had a logo by magazine designer Neville Brody and a comedy tour featured the likes of Ben Elton, Phil Jupitus (Porky The Poet) and Harry Enfield, but ultimately, the collective slowly dissipated following Neil Kinnock's defeat at the '87 election.

Saffiyah Khan is a protester who was famously photographed in April 2017 facing off the EDL with immense dignity and a smile, whilst wearing a Specials t-shirt. The Specials are no strangers to affirmative action, setting up 2-Tone records and creating music as a direct reaction to the racial tension that was rising in Thatcher-era Britain.

The Specials recently collaborated with Saffiyah on their new album Encore (2019). Saffiyah helped write and provides vocals for the track '10 Commandments' - an updated version of the problematic Prince Buster single from 1965. Saffiyah also recently performed the track live with The Specials as part of our SubcultureLive series of shows.

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