American popular culture, specifically from the mid-60s to mid-70s, was highly politicized, critical, and urgent. Calls to action and societal critiques were common in forms of expression created and disseminated within mainstream youth culture. The sheer abundance and popularity of politicized art meant that both creators and consumers were interested in engaging with immediate problems. The imperative for change was palpable. But this sense of American political urgency seemed to diminish in the 1980s, with the election of President Reagan and the establishment of an overpowering neo-conservative ideology.
From the 1980s – 2010s, political expression was still a part of mainstream American pop culture, and is exemplified in the work of N.W.A, Shepard Fairey, Michael Moore, and countless others. My intention is not to discount these works, but to say that I am hopeful that America’s youth will collectively become more political again, with the same urgency that characterized the 60s & 70s.
Which brings me to Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar. Already this year, we have experienced two particularly powerful political moments in music: Beyoncé’s release of her music video for “Formation,” and Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy’s performance.
Although it has been over a month since the release of “Formation,” and almost a month since the Grammy’s, I think it’s important to discuss the absolute necessity of these performances.
Art and politics should be synonymous. White conservatives called to boycott Beyoncé’s Superbowl performance because they believed that her video was an attack on police. Let’s be clear: using the power of her image to critique police and the American justice system is not an attack. There is no sense of threat or violence towards police in “Formation”, but rather, Beyoncé is calling attention to the crisis of police brutality, specifically in black communities. “Formation” is both critical and celebratory, using Beyoncé’s immense influence and authority to make a potent statement.
Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy’s performance (which you can watch here) began as a transparent comment on the American prison industrial complex, in which black men are disproportionately incarcerated. Lamar broke free from his chains and carried the audience through a stunning performance that was simultaneously angry, sorrowful, and celebratory. I couldn’t believe some of the reaction shots featuring blank-faced white audience members; how could they not find joy in the unbelievably powerful moment that they were able to experience first hand?
These two performances exemplify what it should mean to be an American: that you can live here and be proud, yet acknowledge that this country is not perfect, and in order to make it a better place for all Americans, change is necessary. I hope that 2016, and the years that follow, are characterized by music, art, and film that is political, potent, and unavoidable.