Times are pretty grim right now if you care about the world and its people.
The far right is in the ascendancy, hate crimes against almost everyone who isn’t a straight white male are on the rise, people in high office around the world are denying there’s a problem while the world heats up and the animals disappear, and loads of mad bastards ignore it all while they watch Love Island.
We are, to put it bluntly, fucked.
The first time I listened to IDLES, I thought they might simply be another expression of the grimness we see all around us. They were loud, aggressive, heavy, and shouty. Not my usual thing at all.
But then a few things on their debut stood out to me, made me see that there was something quite different about these shouty Bristolians.
‘The best way to scare a Tory is to read and get rich.’
That lyric did it for me straight away – anyone who can come up with a safe and non-violent way of scaring Tories is alright with me. But as much as I enjoyed Brutalism, I wasn’t totally in love with IDLES straight away. That love came crashing into me pretty quickly, though, once I heard Joy As An Act of Resistance.
In particular, it was ‘Danny Nedelko’ that hit me like a truck. A furiously pro-immigration song, it condensed so many of my feelings into a few minutes of joyful celebration, a nod to a host of immigrants that we all know and love, a challenge to those who can give love to Mo Farah and Freddie Mercury but not your average (yet incredible) immigrant that they see on the streets every day.
And the album is replete with similar messages of positivity. Be it ‘Samaritan’s’ encouraging men to reach out and discuss their mental health, or ‘Television’ telling everyone to ‘love yourself’ and ignore the negative messages of the media, it is a relentlessly positive piece of work that comes from a place of real anger. It is protest music at its very best.
And that’s what I’m here to discuss today; not just IDLES, but the reemergence of protest music and its importance in our current climate. Protest music had its heyday in the 50s and 60s, at the nadir of the Civil Rights Era, when black and white artists came together to push for change. Names like Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke, Odetta, and Joan Baez spring to mind. And Bob Dylan could barely go half an hour without writing a protest song, perhaps most famously in the case of ‘Hurricane’ a song which argued for the release of falsely convicted (and black, of course) boxer Ruben Carter. It is perhaps the archetypal protest song.
That this kind of music was most prevalent during the Civil Rights Era, and while the Vietnam war rolled on endlessly, does not come as a surprise. Protest music requires targets. In my first 30 years on the planet, despite wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and all sorts of other places, protest music seemed to have been shunted to the sidelines. It was still around, particularly in Hip-Hop circles, but it didn’t have the impact it once had. It was easier to push aside.
I’m not entirely sure that this has changed. But, in the year or so since Joy As An Act of Resistance was released, a year in which it won numerous Album of the Year awards (including ours) and even the Ivor Novello, I have begun to question that assumption. Maybe music isn’t having as direct an impact on politics and policy as it did back then, but the way IDLES’s AF gang has grown has proven that music has given those of us who stand against bigotry, Brexit, and billionaire presidents with orange skin a place to coalesce. A way to form a community. An opportunity to look across a packed venue and see that yes, there are still a host of people who think and feel the way that you do. That sanity still exists somewhere.
And it isn’t just IDLES. Several of my favourite albums of the last few years have been borne out of frustration with society. Nadine Shah’s Holiday Destination (which I discussed in Episode 11 of the Picky Bastards Podcast) was a furious tirade against Islamophobia, the current regimes in the UK and US, gentrification in cities around the world, and the continuation of gender inequality. It is one of the most powerful albums I have heard in a very long time, and songs such as ‘Evil’ and ‘Out The Way’ in particular spoke to me and my experiences of being brown in Britain since the Brexit vote. My love of this album has twice given me the opportunity to stand in a room while listening to it live, looking at the rest of the front row and thinking ‘thank you, I’ve found my people.’
And almost no other artist has made me feel that way as much as Kate Tempest, who can’t possibly have a single fan who isn’t a liberal. You just couldn’t listen to her sermon like songs if you didn’t believe in equality. I have gone on about Kate in a previous article, so will keep this short. But if you have been lucky enough to witness her perform ‘Europe is Lost’ in a live setting you will know what I mean about the reemergence of protest music and the ways in which it brings those of us who have experienced so many political defeats in recent times together.
I could go on. Artists such as Oddisee, Hurray for the Riff Raff, PJ Harvey, Christine and the Queens, Solange, and many more have put together albums with at least an element of protest in recent years. Is it enough that they give us a place to coalesce? I’m not sure. But it feels to me like this might just be the start of something, and that with IDLES it has reached a new level. If you love any of the music I’ve discussed here, if it’s drawn you in and helped you see a set of people who think the way that you do, then share it. Keep getting it out there. Draw more people in, help more people find a home, and maybe protest music can help us all find some sanity once more.
Word by Fran Slater and photo by Lindsay Melbourne