Mr. Dylan, The Times Are Still A-Changin’

musicandpolitics-p1Has anyone considered that Bob Dylan might not want his Nobel Prize? He has yet again dismissed his prize for Literature by declining an invitation by President Barack Obama himself. But why? 2016 saw an increase of adversity and a divisive election pitting the country against itself. With continued violence against black America, increased involvement in the middle east, and a fear mongering demagogue becoming the leader of the free world: The United States has not seemed to heed the warning of his protest songs from the past 50 years.

Maybe he doesn’t want the prize because he feels as he doesn’t deserve it. The country is constantly divided, changing for better or worse and the need to call out injustice is still as necessary as it was in 1963

Music is and has always been a vehicle for ideas, movements, and stories to proliferate through society. The bards of past reciting stories of glory and triumph; began a legacy of allegory and perspective through music and prose. Weather it was “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the War of 1812, “Revolution” by the Beatles during the Vietnam war, NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police” and race issues in LA during the 80’s or today’s “Fuck Donald Trump” by rapper YG. Music and politics have traversed time hand in hand.

The contemporary impact of political music reflects the civil rights movement and anti-war sentiments of the 1960’s. Music provides a united front in the face of injustice. Musicians have always used their music as a platform to provide their own insights on the world. Mississippi Goddamn (1964), By Nina Simone reflects this, as it was inspired by a bombing of an Alabama church that killed four little girls. A year later, she performed Mississippi Goddam, concluding the historic marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.

Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day’s gonna be my last

Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time

– Nina Simone — Mississippi Goddam

In 1963, Bob Dylan Wrote The Times They Are A-Changin’. Emerging from of a counterculture of peace and love in contrast to the brute force of American patriotism and the fear of communism began to take hold. As the Disapproval of American involvement in Vietnam was beginning, so did the power of anti-war music and piece loving hippies. No longer did people desire to be wanted by Uncle Sam, an emergence of criticizing the government led to the movement of thousands against the Vietnam war. People wanted to be heard, and the government wasn’t listening. Music was the catalyst of this fissure between federal control and individual autonomy.

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s the battle outside raging
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changing

– Bob Dylan — The Times They Are A-Changin’

In times of adversity and struggle music also can unite us. In 2004 the United Nations Secretary-General asserted that music unites people of different backgrounds.

“Music penetrates almost every part of our lives: our rest, our entertainment, our education, and our worship. Throughout history, it has celebrated the triumphs and tragedies of life. As Plato said, music “gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination”. Music both shapes and reflects society. Dancers follow its beat; protesters use it to find their voice. It can promote ideals — like peace and solidarity — but it can also prepare armies for battle. It is part of almost every important personal and collective moment. In a world of diversity where often values clash, music leaps across language barriers and unites people of quite different cultural backgrounds. And so, through music, all peoples can come together to make the world a more harmonious place.”

– Secretary-General Kofi Annan Introductory Remarks on “Why Music Matters” by Professor Leon Bostein (November 8, 2004)

Music is a language all on its own, one does not need to understand the lyrics to understand the music, the feeling, the idea which surrounds a song. No matter one’s race, place of origin, heritage, sexuality, gender and identity: music creates connections even between the strongest of adversaries.

bio photo of Chris Richards courtesy of washingtonpost.com

On the individual level, music can change one’s life. Raised in the D.C. punk rock scene, and now the pop critic and editor for the Washington Post, Chris Richards is a man made by music. When considering the impact of musicians, music and politics he believes “music can teach us a lot about empathy and compassion — it shows us how other people feel and how they live”. It seems that the music we listen to has the ability to disseminate into what we believe, think, and do with the world and our personal politics.

Growing up in DC and being a part of its punk scene in the 90’s also had a major impact on Richards’s life. Many of the shows he would go to as a teenager were benefits concerts to raise money and awareness to local activists and charity groups. He explains, “It taught me that if you want to change the world, starting with your own community is an excellent first step”.

Music has always been an expression of free speech, and as a journalist Richards understands this all too well. He claims “a lot of the best music communicates a certain sense of possibility, and freedom is necessary to explore those possibilities”. For the Beatles, it was the possibility of coming together, or imagining a better world.

Considering the police brutality in LA During the 1980’s N.W.A.’s controversial song, Fuck tha Police is also an expression of these “possibilities”. Organized under the value to protect, mobilized by the fear of minorities, the police did not represent or protect black people, they were at war. Chris Richards believes “Musicians can use sound to respond to the world in countless ways, and that can include responding to the political moment. I’ve seen musical expression motivate listeners to take political action in their own lives, for sure.” N.W.A. used their music to make light of the injustices, to show the world why a sentiment like that was needed for society. It may have not been pretty, and respectful, but it carried meaning for all those who could relate.

Fuck the police coming straight from the underground
A young nigga got it bad cause I’m brown
And not the other color so police think
they have the authority to kill a minority
Fuck that shit, cause I ain’t the one
for a punk motherfucker with a badge and a gun

– N.W.A.    Fuck Tha Police

Music is Powerful. Music defines identities, provides foundations for movements, and inspires change. It can reinforce personal values, divide us and unite us. The stories told, and shared through a musician’s eye reflects the society that surrounds it. Music is a record of history, it shows us where we have come from, the changes we have seen and the issues that still preside from the past. As politics, debates and adversity continue to dictate our lives music shall always follow to show us the light as we follow it into the dark.

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Natalie Landin
Bradley University Class of 2018
American University Semester Internship Program Fall 2016
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