Political protest music requires a delicate balance which can easily lead to disaster if an artist is not careful. On the one side, there is a temptation toward shrill didacticism. One can become so engrossed in tending to the message of a protest song, that the medium is starved of the attention required to fully fruit. Under these conditions, the product can be aesthetically inert — merely a delivery system for some diatribe and not a piece of true art. True art which, at its best, not only engages the mind but also mobilizes the listener’s emotions to spur a personal involvement in the ideological content being communicated.
On the other side of this hazardous tightrope walk, is the capacity for protest music to be unfocused, leading the audience through a vague set of cliches about resistance. Or even more amorphously, rehearsing a kind of featureless expression of self against some equally featureless system of authority. This kind of protest music self-defeats in its own way. Situated as it is in a context of late-capitalism, the narrative of independence and authenticity in the face of a “system” are easily co-optable by a socio-economic order that is perfectly well suited to sell the flattery of our individuality and the declaration of our discontent back to us.
It’s also worth noting that attempts at politically tinged music can go completely off the skids, purveying a message that is not just banal, but problematic. One is reminded of the trashcan blaze that was Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s 2013 collaboration “Accidental Racist”. Its conceit was essentially that a guy wearing a Confederate flag shirt is apologizing to his African American waiter for offending him. You see, he, a thirty something year old man, thought he was just paying tribute to Skynard, don’t you know? Then LL’s ad libs during the chorus go on to keep digging this particular hole as he chalks up the episode to a mere misunderstanding:
“If you don’t judge my du-rag
I won’t judge your red flag”
This is an astoundingly tonedeaf piece of music. And not only that, it’s an incredibly self-serving piece of propaganda on the part of Paisley, as he is basically abdicating any responsibility for his ignorance of a commonly known fact of history: that the confederacy needed a flag in the first place because it decided the only response to being forced to let go of slavery was to fight a war of secession to save it. This nonsense, coupled with LL’s drawing a moral equivalence between the Dixie flag and wave cap, is stupefyingly wrongheaded.
Having said all this, I was delighted to press play on the video for the new single “No Lives Matter” by Body Count, Ice-T’s longstanding hip-hop, metal and hardcore hybrid, and to hear the damn thing done right. As a piece of music, it’s riffy, heavy, well written. It’s a beautifully produced and crushing piece of groove metal. As a life long metal and rap head, I tend to be pretty skeptical about the fusion of hip-hop and metal, because it tends to dilute the quality of both in all but rare circumstances. But artistically, the pitfalls of this fusion, perhaps most embodied by the execrable Limp Bizkit, are avoided. What’s left is a slab of tight, pummelling fury.
All that aside, the real achievement here is the way Ice-T manages to not merely parrot a political sentiment to get us all going, but to add something to the contemporary conversation about the movement for black lives. Astonishingly, the framing of the issue manages to keep front and center the specific and very real role that race plays in maintaining the status quo. And not only that, it also joins that analysis to a discussion of power wielded against the vulnerable, generally. And you might see how this is a potentially risky move, given that much vituperative ink has been spilled on the left about the propriety of discussing race and class in the same breath. But Ice-T does this fearlessly, dipping here into the direct and visceral experience of being a black man in America, and there into the multivalent matrix of socio-economic power and how it is deployed by the ruling class. More to the point, he explores how parasitic the ruling class is on the various faultlines of marginalization experienced by minority groups as they are played against one another, ruled by division. Ice-T accomplishes this by a number of devices. One that stands out is that he takes the careful prophylactic measure of setting a spoken preamble to the video, addressing the very issue of “all lives matter” style derailment head-on so that the rest of the song can be understood with that point already digested.
Another aspect of the song that makes it so successful in my view is in the format. The particular focus on black lives isn’t simply paid lip service, and then set aside for the remainder. The track flips back and forth between direct confrontation with the black experience of racism and the broader systemic critique. This formal device never lets our focus linger too long on one aspect at the expense of the other. There is a careful attempt to get us to try and keep both ideas in our heads at once, as well any analysis of the situation should. And being a formal device, Ice-T is freed from the potentially clumsy, didactic approach of having to lay out in excruciating detail just this balance. It’s an elegant way of letting the art do that work for him, so that the more visceral lyrical content isn’t crowded out by a ponderous meta-critique. It should be added that the bridge section has the music roll at a simmer and we are presented with nothing more than a news report about the murder of Keith Lamont Scott, a black man killed by police for the (quite tragically symbolic) crime of holding a book.
Perhaps the most brilliant rhetorical move Body Count takes here is to avoid making the point by saying “all lives matter” as this has come to be a shorthand for reactionary dismissal of the movement for black lives. Instead, it turns the phrase into a version of itself that expresses capitalism’s attitude toward those it dominates. Capitalism isn’t against the slogan “Black Lives Matter” because it believes it is too exclusive of other identities’ struggles. No, it rejects that slogan because of its own refusal to value any of our lives, outside of what it can extract and exploit from them. In reframing the struggle for black lives as a discrete discourse about a particular lived experience, and contextualizing it into a broader constellation of oppressive practices, “No Lives Matter” might be the most visible and successful attempt at an articulation of the common struggle of the oppressed to come roaring into today’s popular music scene.