The politics of being political, politically speaking

I've always been attracted to the expression of politics in music. I didn't much care about P.E.'s incessant references to the "honorable" Elijah Muhammad, but I liked the rhetoric of revolution that swirled around the beats.

As I hacked through the past in my own attempt to craft a personal music history, I discovered that rock and roll was hardly the first revolutionary music. Hank Williams' "I'm Still Here" is one of the main templates for Johnny Cash's talking blues songs (the greatest of them being "Man in Black," a song whose expression of solidarity with the sinners and the downtrodden would seem radical if released today by, say, Brad Paisley or Keith Urban), and jazz was itself a revolutionary movement. Going further back, there are plenty of examples of composers who dabbled (or dove right into) politics.

Khat Thaleth
(Stronghold Sound)

The Risin' Cost of Livin' High and Lovin' Hard
A Tribute to Kris Kristofferson

There are some folks who believe that politically-themed music has disappeared, that all we have today are a bunch of processed clones who sing stupid songs about stupid people. They're wrong, of course, but political music isn't at the forefront of the mainstream these days. At least, not in the United States.

"Khat Thaleth" is an Arabic term that means (roughly) "third rail." The artists on the new collection of the same name from Stronghold Sound rap in Arabic (largely) about the events in their homelands. As near as I can tell from translations, most of these songs call for peace and freedom. Gotta love idealism. In most of the world, peace means repression, and freedom means unsettled lives--if not outright war. But these artists have dreams, and they're worth examining.

The beats are old school (there are plenty of Bomb Squad references, and the use of sampled speeches predominates), while the thoughts expressed are presented as a new way of thinking about and within the Middle East (I have to trust the translations on this).

If all that seems a bit pretentious, it probably is. But hey, music is one of the best ways to advance change within a culture. "Let's Spend the Night Together" wasn't a revolutionary thought, but it was a thought that wasn't expressed in public (and polite) society. By that measure, Ice-T's "L.G.B.N.A.F." is probably still ahead of its time--even if all of us would like to GBNAF more often than we actually do.

Forgive the digression. I doubt that the songs on Khat Thaleth are going to sow the seeds of revolution or even cultural change. They're probably just artifacts of this moment in time--a time when almost anything seems possible in the Middle East. These artists prefer to dream of a better future, rather than the still-dark present.

Kris Kristofferson was never a revolutionary. More than once he mentioned that selling a song to Johnny Cash was all he wanted from his music career. That's almost certainly a lie, but Kristofferson has always portrayed himself as possessing a calculated diffidence. He recently released a memoir, and he said that he wouldn't be doing a late-life song cycle a la Cash because people didn't really buy his records because he had a great voice.

Ah, but he did have a great voice. A great writing voice. As the twenty-eight tracks on The Risin' Cost of Livin' High and Lovin' Hard show, Kristofferson articulated a certain wry amusement at the follies of the sixties like nobody else. The artists on this tribute do a fine job of capturing the wrenching political discourse of the late 60s and early 70s that permeates many of Kristofferson's songs.

"Sunday Morning Coming Down" isn't a political song, per se, but given the audience for country music (then, as now, church-going white folks in the South), a song that celebrated sleeping in on Sundays while nursing a hangover could certainly be seen as bucking the culture. Getting Johnny Cash (whose religious beliefs were fervent, if disheveled) to sing it was another coup. And yes, it has always sounded better in Johnny's voice.

Twenty-eight songs is too much to digest at once--unless you simply let the music flow and don't pay close attention. That will allow Kristofferson's gift for the conversational song to meander through your brain without causing your logic centers to snap.

Khat Thaleth is an overtly political compilation. The Risin' Cost deals with personal politics and showcases Kristofferson's unique mind. They're not the same, but they compliment each other quite nicely. And both are a reminder that no matter how dreadful the music might be at the top of the pops, there's always somebody out there saying something worth hearing.

Jon Worley

return to A&A home page