Brushstrokes, rhythm and rhyme: Art and political movements

Throughout our lives, we have come into contact with art in some form. Whether it is music, drawing, photography, writing, or anything else there is no denying that art plays a major role in our day-to-day lives.

In line with this fact, political movements are propelled by various mediums of art. Art plays a significant role in putting across the message of a movement, drumming up support, and raising morale among other things that are key to the survival and success of a movement.

These are the lyrics of a song that found a place in the heart of a struggle and were used as a rallying call for justice. I just love this artist and had never really looked at this song as anything more than some sick beats coupled with an amazing lyrical flow.

Wouldn’t you know

We been hurt, been down before

Nigga, when pride was low

Lookin’ at the world like, “Where do we go?”

Nigga, and we hate po-po

Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho’

Nigga, I’m at the preacher’s door

My knees getting’ weak, and my gun might blow

But we gon’ be alright

These are some of the lyrics of Alright by Kendrick Lamar, a song from his third studio album ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ released in 2015. The last line ‘we gon’ be alright’ became one of the many rallying calls during the Black Lives Matter movement during the protests of 2020 in the USA. Black Lives Matter is a decentralized political and social movement that works towards highlighting racism, discrimination, and inequality experienced by black people. It especially gained traction and support in 2020 after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer.

Super Bowl half-time show left to right- Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, Dr Dre, Mary J. Blige, 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg

One of the reasons why this song found a home in the movement was because of its lyrics. Notice the line ‘wanna kill us dead in the streets fo sho’ directly speaks to the killing of George Floyd by a police officer, the very incident that sparked off the protests of 2020 even though this lyric was written five years before this incident. This song is socially conscious and speaks to all the issues that the Black Lives Matter movement was actively working towards highlighting.

The creators of art in the eyes of South African screenwriter and director Malcom Purkey, “have a duty to give expression to their social context”. Art was key during the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa that sought to dismantle the oppressive apartheid regime that lasted from 1948 to 1994. This means if you were born in 1994 you would be 28 years today, so this wasn’t a long time ago. Some of the fiercest activists of the struggle were musicians, playwrights, and painters among others.

You had Athol Fugard’s play “Blood Knot” first shown in 1961 about two brothers, one with a lighter complexion and the other with a much darker complexion, and how they struggle to maneuver the absurdities and complexities of life under apartheid that meant the paths their respective lives took were very different. The premiere of this play was the first time a theater production in South Africa had a multi-racial cast, something that was outlawed by apartheid policies of the time. Though this play was only staged once it was a revolutionary one and it set South African theater on the path of revolutionary greatness.

‘Mama Africa’ Miriam Makeba, jazz legend Huge Masekela, and the ‘African Queen of Pop’ Brenda Fassie were some of the many musicians/anti-apartheid activists who weaved the message of the struggle artfully into their songs and overlaid the words with catchy beats that held the attention of audiences both in South Africa and abroad.

Music is a powerful tool and if used correctly can push a message even with the most danceable beats, for example, Gimme Hope Jo’Anna by Eddy Grant, a Guyanese-British musician. This song is a reference to the city of Johannesburg and the apartheid regime but the jolly melody of the song sort of offsets the heavy lyrics of the song.

Art is a form of expression that allows people to put their sentiments in the world and their creativity license. For example the poem “First They Came…” by Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller. This poem has tons of regret and guilt, it sends a message to the reader that silence is dangerous because when you need people to speak up on your behalf

Rhythm, rhyme, brushstrokes, poems, prose, video and audio. Art is not far removed from shaping the political movements that mold the sociopolitical landscapes of countries and the world. Art can take the world to “infinity and beyond”.


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