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The Singles Life: What happened to political music in New Zealand?

Thursday 21st September 2017

Welcome to weekly series The Singles Life, where known experts Katie Parker and Hussein Moses peruse, ponder and pontificate on the latest and (maybe) greatest in New Zealand music.

In these trying times, political music feels like it would be more vital than ever - yet it seems that here in New Zealand we're not seeing much of it at all. Has political engagement in music disappeared? Or is something else going on? Katie and Hussein are here to find out.

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Katie: A controversial opinion: I hate being told to vote. Yes I will vote. Yes everyone should vote. BUT IF I SEE ANOTHER SMUG “VOTE NOW, COMPLACENT PEASANTS” PSA TWEET SO HELP ME GOD.

*ahem*

With the election but days away and many earnest folk having already proudly grammed their "I voted" stickers then, it was rather a shock to hear The Naenae Express’ song ‘Go Out and Vote’. Not because I haven’t already had this imperative issued to me a zillion times, but because this is the first time I have heard it in song.

It’s a noble pursuit, one I just happen to find extremely irritating. It also has me wondering: where the hell is all the other political Kiwi music? If all these arty people are so engaged why hasn’t that engagement made its way into … art?

Hussein: Katie, did you know you can vote early??? It’s honestly so easy. You don’t even need to bring anything! Let me just take a minute to tell you abo—

Sorry, let me get back on track.

I’ve had those exact same thoughts when it comes to political music in New Zealand lately. Musical activism has always had a strangely inconsistent past in our country, as Simon Grigg pointed out back in 2014. It ebbs and flows over time and as the 1980s would prove - with issues like the Springbok tour, Māori land rights and the anti-nuclear movement deep in the public consciousness - it would take a time of crisis to provoke a response.

Herbs, Blam Blam Blam, Upper Hutt Posse and Shona Laing were some of the names we associate with that era of protest music. Fast forward to the 2010s and we’ve got Home Brew (with a true classic in ‘Listen To Us’), Tourettes (‘John Key’s Son’s A DJ’), and Street Chant, who even pulled up outside a Young Nats ball a few years back and treated onlookers to a cover of ‘There Is No Depression In NZ’.

Political music feels like it would be more vital than ever, yet it seems that we're not seeing much of it at all.

Katie: Which seems weird, right? Because, if I'm not mistaken, the current stats for homelessness, mental health, poverty, house prices and whatever happened on The Block at the weekend certainly seem to suggest a time of crisis.

Hussein: I wish I could pretend I had all the answers, but since I don’t I decided to call someone who knows better. Dr Nabeel Zuberi is an Associate Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Auckland, who researches and writes about popular music. He says it’s important to think about political music a bit more broadly since some songs can be political, just in a less obvious way than we might realise.

“When I arrived here in 1997, one of the first songs that made an impression on me was Sisters Underground ‘In The Neighbourhood,’” he says. “It doesn't seem like a political song. It's just about explaining the space and everyday life, which was so absent at that time in mainstream New Zealand media. Even just logging what everyday life was like is a big thing.”

Which makes total sense, right? We might not have seen a lot of what we consider to be “protest songs” of late, but in New Zealand we’ve had a surge of artists taking their personal politics and putting them into the public sphere.

Stan Walker went unexpectedly radical with ‘New Takeover’, SWIDT centred an entire album on growing up in Onehunga before it was drowning in gentrification and Aaradhna used ‘Brown Girl’ to make a triumphant statement about prejudice and why she’s more than just the colour of her skin.

Katie: Nabeel’s right: as we ladies keep telling you, the personal is political.

I completely agree that music doesn’t need to be Green Day levels of explicit to be political. Just look at the way Beyoncé used Jay Z’s monogamy problem to ruminate on the generational devaluation of black womanhood on Lemonade. It’s probably not new but it kind of feels like it is. As rap and hip-hop edge ever closer to the New Zealand mainstream, we’re seeing new identities in a space that previously excluded them.  

Maybe the way we understand political engagement has changed too. The idea that politicians and government are responsible for, or even capable of, effectively representing an increasingly vulnerable and diverse society, is eroding before our very eyes. The artists you mentioned - Aaradhna, Stan Walker and SWIDT - might not be telling you to go vote, but what they are doing is engaging with disenfranchised communities, examining identity and personally stimulating change within the industry.

Hussein: It’s also pretty likely that the forms of protest are changing as well. Nabeel points to social media, and even stuff like memes, as a way to voice something that speaks to and mobilises people. Popular music is still important, it’s just important in different ways.

That idea also ties in with the suggestion that the media has become fragmented over time. There’s more diversity now and everyone’s not listening to the same songs or receiving information the same way. People operate in their own filter bubbles, says Nabeel, and it’s possible that there’s more activity we’re not seeing because of it.

Katie: For sure. The public sphere has at once become more tangible and more elusive than ever. I couldn’t have less of a clue what the general consensus on anything is these days, let alone politics, based on what I see on social media.

It’s funny but having talked to you about all this stuff, yesterday (this sounds like one of those fake anecdotes people make up to prove their point in articles but I swear on my cat’s life it’s true) I was waiting at the lights after work next to a young guy maybe teens/early 20s. He had a speaker hanging around his neck playing ‘Listen To Us’ by Home Brew and, as we were crossing the lights, I heard the bit with the soundbite of John Key saying he can’t remember whether he supported the Springbok tour followed by an extremely emphatic John Key can suck my dick.

It just kind of struck me. That song may not be subtle but it's just so powerful. I completely applaud and adore all the work that’s being done by the artists we’ve talked about and I absolutely agree that political engagement in music hasn’t disappeared so much as its shifted.

But at a time when things just feel like they’re getting worse and worse for everyone, that kind of raw, specific, blunt, aggressiveness - not some mumbly K Road boy issuing some boneless platitude to ‘get out and vote’ - is exactly what I needed to hear.

Follow Katie and Hussein on Twitter.



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