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The Saratoga Falcon

Musicians belt out controversial messages for social change

Kendrick Lamar walked out on stage in chains, one man in a line of limping inmates. The metal links rattled as he wrapped his hands around the microphone, his brow furrowed in concentration. The sharp snap of the snare drum made the audience flinch, as if they had felt the impact from a gunshot. Lamar’s quiet strength swelled to an unbridled passion as he sang, “What you want, you a house, you a car? Forty acres and a mule, a piano, a guitar?”

Lamar lit up the stage during his performance at this year’s Grammys on Feb. 16, not only with his flaming backdrop but also with his powerful, pointed message in his song “Alright,” which has become an anthem for the #BlackLivesMatter movement. After his performance, it was especially easy to see why he deserved the Grammys he won that night.

Lamar’s performance reflects how the music industry is increasingly returning to its fundamentals: a platform to express original ideas, and often social commentary. In the past, this has been reflected in works such as the 1985 charity single “We Are the World,” which famous musicians like Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie recorded together to bring attention to African famine relief. Now, pieces from musicians like Lamar, Beyoncé, Macklemore, Mary Lambert and Lady Gaga are creating discourse on topics that have meaning to these artists.

Beyoncé, who had not put out new music in nearly a year, came out with “Formation” two days before the Super Bowl and performed the piece at the halftime show. She unabashedly tells her critics in the song, “I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros, I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.”

Still, there have been petitions to #BoycottBeyoncé that criticize her for singing about a controversial topic, the Black Lives Matter movement, at the national football game. Others criticized her costumes for the black leather and black berets that paid homage to the Black Panthers, a revolutionary black nationalist organization and influential civil rights group that was also vilified by mainstream media and connected to illegal activities. As the video of Beyoncé’s performance started circulating on the Internet, even more people denounced her video as anti-feminist, as her videos “excluded” white women.

Macklemore, who is no stranger to criticism, especially as a white rapper in the music industry, wanted to examine white privilege and his own choices in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. In his work with Ryan Lewis on “White Privilege II,” featuring poet and singer Jamila Woods, Macklemore presented his ideas with raw honesty in a conversation about race.

“Am I in the outside looking in, or am I in the inside looking out? Is it my place to give my two cents, or should I stand on the side and shut my mouth for justice? No peace,” Macklemore raps in his song.

In an interview with “Rolling Stone” before the song’s release, the two artists correctly predicted that they would receive criticism from black and white listeners alike. Especially given that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis benefit from the issue of white privilege that they address in the song, they had to repeatedly ask themselves what their intentions were in making the song.

In the end, their willingness to tackle uncomfortable questions in the music — “Are you marching for freedom, or when it’s convenient?” — also called upon other people to ask those same questions. Their readiness to speak their mind amidst criticism is a testament to their will, and the conversation they’ve generated is a testament to the power of music.

Music has always united people under the same ideologies. By provoking social change, these musicians are realizing the weight of their accessible medium and unapologetically using it to its full potential.

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