Where is our Bob Dylan?
August 8, 2019 12:08 PM   Subscribe

It seems to me that we in the USA are living through a time that is equally disruptive and equally disturbing as the 1960s were. Where is our Dylan? Or to put it more generally: Where are our artists who are helping to guide us through this time?

Are there artists who, like Dylan, are helping us define this moment? Giving it shape? Pushing our thinking? Inspiring action? Giving "voice" to a generation? If they are out there I'm not familiar with them. Am I just out of touch?

By using Dylan as the quintessential example of the political/protest artist I'm not suggesting the medium has to be music. Are there writers or visual artists who are adequately addressing the Trump era?

It has been nearly three years. I would think this would be a time when protest art would be exploding but I'm not seeing it. Please enlighten me.
posted by crapples to Media & Arts (38 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
Yes. These artists are not white and many are not male. Look for them in trap, hip hop, rap, r&b, reggae, Latin trap, etc. Look for the least powerful people traditionally, and seek out their music and art.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 12:27 PM on August 8 [57 favorites]

Have you seen Childish Gambino's This is America video?
posted by jacquilynne at 12:31 PM on August 8 [28 favorites]

I would suggest a bit of a framing issue which might help with your search, in that it sounds like you're looking for "a voice" in a singular sense, when music/media in general has fractured/fractalized such that the idea of unitary voice doesn't make as much sense (and 'protest art' is not immune as a category)

I wouldn't claim to have anything resembling a complete answer, but from what I see it's everywhere:
* Janelle Monáe, especially Dirty Computer
* Childish Gambino, This is America (If you want an easy reference "MTV Video Music Award for Best Video with a Social Message" should give you a long line of artists to dig into)
* Rage Against the Machine is going on 30 years of being *intensely* political, and I've seen Killing in the Name Of referenced more in the last couple years than in the years following its release
* Vienna Teng, the entire Aims album particularly (Hymn of Acxiom has also gone from its marching-band initial reception to eerily prescient)
[many more could be added here]

If anything, I'd be harder-pressed to find music & media which is/claims to be fiercely apolitical, these days.
posted by CrystalDave at 12:33 PM on August 8 [25 favorites]

Kendrick Lamar
Ijeoma Oluo
Childish Gambino
Rosario Dawson

Protest Art (NYT, 2017)

I find a lot of inspiration on Instagram, using the #craftivism tag.

On preview, what CrystalDave said.
posted by ApathyGirl at 12:36 PM on August 8 [7 favorites]

Your premise may be fatally flawed. The internet has fractured our generation and culture much much more than in Dylan's day - there are plenty of artists saying and doing important things, but the idea that there is a homogenous generation out there on whose behalf they speak seems much less tenable. And that is before you get at the issue of corporate control and distribution - so much (all?) of the music industry is controlled by corporate/shareholder interests, and that doesnt promote the kind of outspokenness you seek.

Janelle Monae is absolutely the contemporary artist i thought of first.

Talib Kweli spends a superhuman amount of time fighting bigots online.

A Tribe Called Quest's We got it from here came out the week of the 2016 election, but speaks to so much of its aftermath.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 12:37 PM on August 8 [30 favorites]

I might have been unduly focused on recording artists, and in my haste neglected to recommend someone who has truly opened my eyes to the experiences of folks who arent like me and dont look like me: Alok Menon
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 12:39 PM on August 8 [4 favorites]

I agree that it might be interesting to reframe the concept of Dylan. You could see him as someone creating art to speak directly against things he disliked in the culture, but you could also see him as one part of a larger, much longer trend in music that shaped the voice of a generation by lending it a way of talking about the times (through the tropes of folk music). If you expand the concept to a work of art or culture that both reflects and shaped these times (instead of something specifically created in response to Trump), I’d suggest (1) Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones, and the trend of superhero films sweeping the US; (2) Black Lives Matter and the cultural critique it spurred, including the language it popularized or introduced for talking about race and justice; and (3) the Me Too movement and other nonfiction writing about assault against women, particularly the writer Roxane Gay.
posted by sallybrown at 12:41 PM on August 8 [6 favorites]

Protest music is everywhere! Kendrick Lamar, Janelle Monáe, Jason Isbell—hundreds of artists of all genres have been writing and performing protest music.

Here's a LA Times rundown of features from last year. Here's Billboards' Top 20 Protest Songs of 2017. These are just a start.

I'll just highlight a recent favorite of mine. Gary Clark Jr.'s video for his 2019 single This Land is every bit as good as This is America, but just didn't get as much attention I guess.
posted by General Malaise at 12:46 PM on August 8 [12 favorites]

James Adomian, I'm not even kidding.
posted by Beardman at 12:56 PM on August 8 [2 favorites]

Lin-Manuel Miranda's collaborations and mixtapes (this in particular, this week).

Beyonce. And Kendrick, and sure Jay-Z, but...Beyonce.

Along the lines of reframing away from the one voice / Dylan model - don't forget pop. Lots of pop artists are including messages and imagery directly aimed at important issues, or supporting specific groups and populations. They're just adding it / integrating it instead of centering it. Katy Perry's Chained to the Rhythm video reached a wide audience and apparently Taylor Swift's You Need to Calm Down spurred massive donations to GLAAD.
posted by BlueBlueElectricBlue at 1:04 PM on August 8 [5 favorites]

Hamilton came out and blew up pre-Trump but I'm still going to say it is/was a huge generational moment, both in literally re-casting the vision of America's founding and grappling with the idea of America's reality never, from the very start, living up to America's promise.
posted by nakedmolerats at 1:20 PM on August 8 [4 favorites]

Consider as well:

Dylan kind of only looms as large as he does today because we're looking back at his day from now, and all of the lesser-outspoken and less-popular people who were around in his day may have simply faded into obscurity. Meanwhile, back when Dylan WAS active, all those other artists were too, so people maybe didn't know Dylan was Dylan, you know?

I mean, Dylan's song "The Times They Are A'Changin'" is considered one of his greats. But it actually didn't even crack the Billboard Top 100 the year it came out. Instead, the big popular acts in the year it came out were the Beatles, Roy Orbison, Dean Martin, the Four Tops, Manfred Mann...

"Our" Bob Dylan is probably out there somewhere, we just may not know which of the many performers he is until a few decades in the future.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:29 PM on August 8 [27 favorites]

I would think this would be a time when protest art would be exploding but I'm not seeing it.

I mean, it's in Teen Vogue?

White men are Trump's biggest supporting demographic so like others I'd suggest you look towards artists of color and women. You may also want to compare Wikipedia's list of albums released in 1963 (the year The Freewheelin Bob Dylan came out) vs. 2018. There's a lot of music being made out there right now, and it can be accessed on an individual basis. There is not ever going to be another musician again who Everyone Is Listening To Universally. Though it did legit feel like I was the only person who couldn't sing all of Hamilton there for a while.
posted by soren_lorensen at 1:30 PM on August 8 [9 favorites]

If you're interested in an actual *folk* successor to Dylan, a good candidate would be J. S. Ondara, who came to the US from Kenya in 2013 and cites Dylan as a direct influence on his music. One song from his debut album is God Bless America and it directly addresses immigration. He's an excellent musician and I'd keep an eye on his career.

Protesting Trump's Immigration Policy Through Song (NPR, 2018) highlights some Latinx artists and includes a cover of "Bésame Mucho" that is almost unwatchable because it hurts so much.

Pussy Riot has been one of the more high profile voices of protest in the past decade, and they have released several songs specifically aimed at Trump.

As far as writers, one novel I'm aware of is Trump Sky Alpha which is a science fiction work I'm afraid to read because the excerpts are so terrifying.
posted by castlebravo at 1:35 PM on August 8 [3 favorites]

Though now that I think about it, there is one old white dude who is still out there pissing Trump off in front of large groups of people in an extremely unsubtle way.
posted by soren_lorensen at 1:45 PM on August 8 [2 favorites]

RuPaul Charles is a high-profile drag artist whose television programs have continued to grow in popularity, year after year, to the extent now that they have effectively made drag a vibrant, fun, and politically-visible part of pop culture.

Occasionally, episodes bring in family members and others from the straight community to highlight how drag culture is as much about family values, to fight back attacks by the Trump/GOP/evangelical cult. Gay and trans communities owe a lot to RuPaul's efforts.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 1:53 PM on August 8 [3 favorites]

Dylan kind of only looms as large as he does today because we're looking back at his day from now, and all of the lesser-outspoken and less-popular people who were around in his day may have simply faded into obscurity.

Also, only with the benefit of hindsight can we see that someone was "helping us define this moment."
posted by John Borrowman at 1:56 PM on August 8 [4 favorites]

I think Lin-Manuel Miranda is hopelessly overrated (especially with his support of Promesa), but I think Hurray for the Riff Raff is awesome and a better candidate for this.
posted by history is a weapon at 2:08 PM on August 8

Great suggestions in here, to which I'd add Run the Jewels.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 2:12 PM on August 8 [2 favorites]

I was gonna say Killer Mike and Run the Jewels!
posted by Dressed to Kill at 2:29 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]

I don't think you can discount parody. Randy Rainbow is superlative. The fact that he's been nominated for an Emmy for his work (Shortform Variety Series) may incline you to think he's too mainstream, but the ability to make us laugh about the very thing that causes us so much anger can't be underestimated as a form of protest, as it strengthens our resolve and restores our capacity to keep fighting.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 2:41 PM on August 8 [2 favorites]

Frank Turner! The idea of 'protest songs' has been re-calibrated for the times we live in, and Turner has written some good ones. He wrote a song called 'The Sand In The Gears' when Trump was elected, and he opened the NYC show we saw with it. It was stunning. The lead track of his last album is called '1933,' and it's also very good. The key line:

'Don't go mistaking your house burning down for the dawn.'

His live shows never fail to lift me up. He brings humor and awareness to a bad situation. He's even cheekily written a song called 'Make America Great Again.' A voice worth listening to.
posted by MrKellyBlah at 2:44 PM on August 8 [3 favorites]

Wow - I am so glad I asked. These answers are so inspiring. I couldn't agree more that This Is America, in particular, was a cultural moment exactly like what I was asking about. I can imagine 20 years from now looking back and seeing that song/video as an art piece that helped us all better understand the moment that we are in.

Love all of the other ideas too. Thank you
posted by crapples at 3:10 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]

Billy Bragg.
posted by bile and syntax at 3:18 PM on August 8 [3 favorites]

Just wanted to nth Janelle Monae/Dirty Computer, which is the first thing I thought of right off the bat, and saw posted a few times already. Very fitting album (and film!) for this question, imo.
posted by caitcadieux at 4:10 PM on August 8 [2 favorites]

A large percentage of the Drive-By Truckers and (ex-Trucker) Jason Isbell's catalogues fit the bill. Some recent examples:

What It Means
Guns of Umpqua
White Man's World
posted by wps98 at 4:56 PM on August 8 [2 favorites]

All these suggestions are excellent.

It COULD have been Tupac, were he still with us. I think about that all the time.
posted by captain afab at 5:44 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]

I personally think John Cena using this video as his medium made a wonderful contribution.
posted by forthright at 6:38 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]

Kamasi Washington.
posted by Ahmad Khani at 8:24 PM on August 8 [2 favorites]

Casting a millionth vote for Janelle. And not just "Dirty Computer" - she got more explicitly political on that album, but c'mon, have yall HEARD "Cold War"??

Check out Kate Tempest too. Listening to "Europe is Lost" in the days after the 2016 election, it got under my skin HARD and stayed there since.
posted by potrzebie at 9:32 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]

I think Lizzo, a successful black woman of size who joyfully sings and speaks of loving yourself and not catering to fragile egos, is inherently political in a world run by people who hate everything she stands for but YMMV.
posted by Orange Dinosaur Slide at 5:19 AM on August 9 [11 favorites]

Tef Poe.
posted by limeonaire at 7:21 AM on August 9

Along with MrKellyBlah, above, I would offer another vote for Frank Turner: I was talking about this very topic with my 15-y.o. on the way home from his guitar lesson the other night!

Frank's last full abum, "Be More Kind," has a bunch of songs about politics and humanity and society (including "1933"). Give them a try.

And yeah, Billy Bragg is still chugging away. He just published a book called "Three Dimensions of Freedom" about how freedom requires three elements -- Liberty, Equality, and Accountability -- in order to work properly. I haven't read it yet but I am interested in his take.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:49 AM on August 9 [1 favorite]

Rising Appalachia are protest-y with songs like an invitation or resilient

Lots of bluegrass, really. I like that it seems to be heavily slanted politically in the exact opposite direction you'd expect
posted by Acari at 12:27 PM on August 9

Self-linking a prior post on MetaFilter: Protest songs, past and present, from Pitchfork (December 8, 2017), which captures some early anti-Trump-times protest movements and musicians.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:37 PM on August 9 [1 favorite]

Deerhoof has gotten pretty active in political matters in their music and on social media.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 3:27 PM on August 9

Josh Ritter.
posted by suncages at 3:18 PM on August 15

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