Soapbox Rockstars: Activist, Musicians & Their Causes
Music has often been used as a vehicle to convey messages beyond those that are artistic. Whether it is through their craft or simply using their star power, musicians have continued to throw their support behind numerous social and political issues. Here’s a list of those musicians who wear their hearts on their sleeve and look to make an impact that reaches beyond making music.
Midnight Oil, Dan Sultan – Indigenous rights
The Oils never shied away from their political causes, namely issues surrounding indigenous rights and reconciliation. Who could forget that incredible performance at the closing ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics when the band performed in black with the word ‘sorry’ starkly printed across their clothing? It’s also worth noting other artists like Yothu Yindi and Black Arm Band who have pushed for increased awareness with indigenous issues. More recently, Dan Sultan has announced the Rock For Recognition tour promoting the need to officially recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples in the Australian Constitution.
Rage Against The Machine – cultural imperialism, corporate America
Considering their name, it’s no surprise that the band’s political views generally centre towards hating on any higher authority. Rage has forged a career out of using their aggressive music as a platform for social activism, particularly criticizing the policies of past (and current) US governments. They have regularly taken issue with American politics and the democratic system, performing protest concerts in 2000 during the Democratic National Convention and in 2008 during the Republican National Convention. They have also continued to support the EZLN who represent poor indigenous communities in southern Mexico, with their flag having been used as a recurring image with Rage Against The Machine.
Beastie Boys, REM & Radiohead – Free Tibet Movement
The Free Tibet movement has had support from a number of western celebrities and musicians haven’t been scared to show their support for the country after Chinese occupation in 1950. The Tibetan Freedom Concerts were a series of events organised by the Beastie Boys with the first being held in San Francisco in 1996. The concerts have featured performances from the likes of Bjork, Rage Against The Machine, Radiohead, A Tribe Called Quest and many other notable bands. During the 1998 concert in Washington D.C. lightning strikes on the first day forced the cancellation of some sets, creating the incentive for an impromptu gig in a local club where REM’s Michael Stype performed with Radiohead. During live performances Radiohead have also featured the Tibetan flag on the kick drum of Phil Selway’s kit.
Billy Bragg – left wing politics
For those even remotely familiar with the UK singer/songwriter they will know he’s not afraid to make his feelings felt about the political landscape. Live performances are often accompanied by some left-leaning political rant from the Englishman. Bragg has often taken active approaches not only through writing politically charged songs but also regularly attending protests and actively promoting tactical voting during national elections. Most recently, Bragg joined and supported the Occupy Movement protests as well as opposing the News of The World phone hacking scandal recording a song titled ‘Never Buy the Sun’.
John Lennon & George Harrison – pro peace
Lennon’s famous ‘bed-in’ certainly attracted its fair share of controversy and support. A unique protest, John Lennon and Yoko Ono used their honeymoon as the catalyst for a peaceful protest against war while literally staying in bed. Bunked at the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel, they invited the world’s press into their room every day for a week to talk about peace. They staged a second bed-in in Montreal where they recorded the famous anthem, ‘Give Peace A Chance’. Fellow Beatle, George Harrison, organised The Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, which paved the way for other benefit concerts such as Bob Geldof’s Live Aid. Featuring a supergroup that included Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston and Leon Russell, the concert raised $250,000 for Bangladesh Relief after the Bangladesh Liberation war.
Bob Dylan & Joan Baez – anti war and civil rights
Both Dylan and Baez were prominent musical figures during the civil rights and anti-war movements. Dylan’s ‘Times They Are A-Changin’ was to become an anthem of sorts for the social changes taking place in the U.S. from the mid-sixties. His relationship and performances with folk queen Joan Baez also cemented his place as a political songwriter. The latter became heavily involved in the civil rights movement, doing early public performances at marches organized by Martin Luther King Jr. As a performer and songwriter, she has continued to promote human and civil rights.
Xavier Rudd – Land Rights & Animal Welfare
Rudd’s latest album Spirit Bird has seen him incorporate his feelings on issues surrounding environmental land rights and animal welfare with his music. This role of activism has been something Rudd has managed to maintain as an important part of his role as an artist, using his blog Xavier Rudd – The Movement to promote the issues he cares about. He is involved and promotes the plight of the anti-whaling organisation Sea Shepherd as well as the environmental Save The Kimberley project.
The Clash – left wing politics
Joe Strummer was the main instigator for The Clash’s left leaning lyrics and general demeanor of hating authority. Songs such as ‘White Riot’ and ‘Career Opportunities’ revealed the aggressive nature of Strummer’s lyrics, addressing issues of youth unemployment and a general lack of understanding by the powers that be. The punk luminaries also maintained a general dislike for the commercial aspects of the music industry, ensuring a generally strained relationship between band and record label.
System Of A Down – War on Terror
A typical performance from the Armenian American metal group often features frontman Serj Tankian yelling at the crowd about totalitarian regimes and the terror inflicted on people by George ‘Dubya’ Bush and his administration. The film clip for the track ‘Boom!’ was directed by controversial documentarian Michael Moore and was a protest against the war in Iraq. The Grammy award winning single ‘B.Y.O.B’ also contained a strong message about American politics and the government’s willingness to send young soldiers to war.
Bruce Springsteen – left-wing politics
The Boss has been another one of those rock icon songwriters that has always spoken his mind and never been afraid to become involved in politics. Springsteen has actively supported the Obama presidential campaign, almost as vehemently as he criticised Reagen-era America. The irony being that Reagen actually used his anti-Vietnam anthem 'Born In The USA' during his presidential campaign. In 1988, he headlined the Amnesty International tour Human Rights Now! that spanned over six weeks. Toady, he has also lent his support to issues such as marriage equality and equal rights for same-sex couples.
Public Enemy – African American civil rights
With album titles like Fear of a Black Planet and It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back it’s not unreasonable to expect politically motivated diatribes from this influential hip hop outfit. Many of the group’s albums addressed issues surrounding black communities in the US ranging from white and black relationships to the police’s treatment of African Americans and the disparity between black and white communities. With Terminator X’s cacophonic production and Chuck D’s powerful delivery, theirs was a chaotic, but extremely potent polemic, with rousing anthems like ‘Fight The Power’ and ‘Bring The Noise’ cementing themselves as contemporary protest songs.
Radiohead – Climate Change
While being involved in numerous social and political issues, Radiohead have most recently focused their efforts on promoting the need to be carbon neutral. Before touring In Rainbows in 2008 the band commissioned a study by the group Best Foot Forward to help them choose venues and use transport methods that were more environmentally friendly. The band also uses low-energy LED lighting systems to further reduce their carbon footprint while touring. Their latest work involved producing a video with actor Jude Law for Greenpeace’s Save The Arctic campaign.
Chris Martin – Oxfam Fair Trade
Coldplay frontman Chris Martin has long been identified with Oxfam and their Make Trade Fair campaign. While the lyrical content of Coldplay’s songs don’t necessarily address social issues directly, Martin is famous for tattooing Oxfam’s slogans and logos across his hands during performances, or having the letters ‘MTF’ emblazoned upon his piano. Martin has also showed his support for Democratic candidates during the 2004 and 2008 American presidential campaigns.
Bono & Bob Geldof – third world debt relief
Whether you like him or not, the U2 frontman is equally well-known as a political activist trying to utilize his star power for the greater good. He has campaigned heavily for increased aid in Africa to help with poverty and treating diseases such as HIV and Malaria. These days you’re just as likely to see a picture of Bono sitting with President Obama as you are seeing him on stage. Fellow musician/philanthropist Bob Geldof has also continued to campaign to wipe out third world debt. In 1985, Geldof organized the huge benefit concert Live Aid with simultaneous events held at Wembley Stadium in London and JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. As well as the 2005 anniversary, Live 8, which held six concerts on the same day in different major cities.
MIA – Tamils in Sri Lanka
The English-born Mathangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam, aka M.I.A, has never been short of controversy nor been deterred from speaking her mind about refugees, human rights and particularly the plight of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Using her influence as an artist and also utilizing her strong social media following, M.I.A has been able to highlight what she believes to be human rights abuses by the Sri Lankan government against the Tamils, particularly in 2009 at the end of a 26 year civil war between the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers. Her political activism was no doubt inspired by her father, a founding member of the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students, a political group that worked to address similar systematic discremination of Tamils. M.I.A.’s debut, 2005’s Arular is also named after her dad.
Rufus Wainwright & Jay-Z – marriage equality
Same-sex marriage has been a hot topic of late and a number of musicians have thrown their support behind the issue. Namely, Rufus Wainwright who after years of being openly homosexual, enforced his public support in 2010 of favouring the legalization of same-sex marriage in order to marry his partner, Jorn Weisbrodt. In an interview with CNN, hip-hop superstar Jay Z also supported the updating of archaic marriage legislation indicating it was “something that was still holding the country back,” labeling it a form of discrimination.
Common – Animal Rights & AIDS/HIV awareness
Common, or Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr. to his mum, has appeared in print ads for PETA supporting animal rights in the ‘Think Before You Eat’ promotional campaign. The American entertainer is also a well-known practicer of pescetarianism; meaning he’s a vegan save for seafood. He’s also been involved with the ‘Knowing Is Beautiful’ movement in support of HIV/AIDS awareness. On top of that the hip hop artist has also established his own organization, the Common Ground Foundation, which aims to employ underprivileged youths.
Sting – rainforest preservation
Sting has been a supporter and contributor of many different social and political issues. Most famously, his position on sustaining the Amazonian rainforests. Along with his wife, Trudie Styler and Belgian filmmaker Jean-Pierre Dutilleux, the man born Gordon Sumner set up the Rainforest Foundation in 1989. Prompted by a personal plea from indigenous leader, Raoni, of the Kayapo people of Brazil – the charitable foundation works to preserving the rainforests and its communities. Another organization that has remained a priority for the former Police frontman is Amnesty International and their focus on human rights. His affiliation with the organization led to the Human Rights Now! Tour, featuring fellow musical activists, Bruce Springsteen and Peter Gabriel.
John Butler – Refugees & indigenous rights
‘Home Is Where The Heart Is’ couldn’t be a stronger example of Butler’s politically charged lyrics, they’re straightforward and certainly don’t beat around the bush. He has no qualms in criticizing the policies of Australian political parties and has been a strong supporter of refugee’s rights as well as contributing to the Save The Kimberley campaign and encouraging social activism in general. The beauty in Butler’s strong sense of social activism is his ability to weave it into his music as well as outside the music industry.
Lou Reed & Tom Morello – Occupy Movement
The Occupy Movement, whose catalyst triggered in Wall Street, involved many high-profile musicians who offered their support to the 99%. Of the more notable figures involved, Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello performed at a number of the Occupy camps; with Lou Reed also pledging his support through the set up of the Occupy Musicians website. The organization also has the support of a range of American artists, including Dresden Doll Amanda Palmer and hip hop icon, Talib Kweli.
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