The artists are revolting
11 musicians turning their activism up to 11
From rappers challenging gender roles to bands kicking back against a music industry devalued by on-demand, musicians are making a racket to stamp on the status quo
What’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down.Buffalo Springfield
Music has always been mobilised in a bid to highlight politics, societal injustice, economic inequalities, and what’s wrong with the world. Or suggest what could be right. Long before the advent of the album, people were arranging compositions and coming up with songs that stood up to the ills of their day.
Take Beethoven’s ‘Ode To Joy’. It was intended to address slavery and promote universal brotherhood. Just over a decade later, in 1795, a group of proto-suffragettes got a head start on the Pankhurst sisters by reworking UK national anthem ‘God Save the Queen’ into the protest tune ‘Rights of Women’. In the 20th century, just look to Billie Holiday with ‘Strange Fruit’, Buffalo Springfield’s anti-establishment ‘For What It’s Worth’ and this bonfire classic from Bob Marley…
“Historically music has often been at the front of social change – think of ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ and Rock Against Racism,” says revered producer Brian Eno. “Now we’re facing climate change, the biggest challenge in human history. It’s time for us to get out there again.”
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The last fortnight has seen over 100 musicians – Nile Rodgers, Peter Gabriel, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Love Ssega, Anna Calvi and more – release tracks to raise money for climate crisis organisations via Eno’s new environmental charity, EarthPercent, which is working to reduce the music industry’s impact. He is on a monumental mission to unleash the power of music, to “gently, subtly” persuade people to stop pushing our planetary limits. As Hot Chip puts it in their contributing release, “We’re all looking for the line in the sand”.
Artists can remind us how beautiful the world is and how valuable it is to us. You don’t hurt the thing you love.Brian Eno
Whether civilisation has grown more dystopian since the millennium or we’ve simply become more aware of bad stuff through information overload – or both – there is clearly as much need for revolutionary musicians as there ever has been. With that in mind, TOPIA set about compiling a list of 11 ‘revolting artists’ using their art to influence and putting meaning back into music.
South Asian UK club collective
Formed in Covid-19 lockdown, this South London collective – who are named after secret South Asian daytime raves from back in the good ‘ol days (the ’80s and ’90s) – have quickly built a reputation for bringing underground garage, hip-hop and sub-continental sounds into mainstream clubland. The tip of a creative groundswell flooding from Britain’s South Asian diaspora, they’re changing perceptions, rebalancing visibility, raising money for coronavirus in India and LGBTQIA+ causes – and throwing wild parties while they are at it. (Photo by Yushy)
DOPE SAINT JUDE
Queen of South Africa’s hip hop
Born in the notoriously-troubled city of Cape Town, South Africa, Catherine Saint Jude Pretorius has always pushed back against expectations. She was the first Drag King in her hometown, but that was just the start of her playful-yet-fierce efforts at dismantling gender roles and supporting LGBTQIA+ rights. Now London-based, the rapper is known for stomping drums and stamping on the status quo as she strives for new ways to encourage progress through words and sounds.
Ireland’s hip hop poet
Building a loyal following on the Limerick music landscape since 2012, but only releasing her debut EP, Duel Citizenship, three years ago, Denise Chaila flies the flag for a nascent Irish rap, grime, and spoken word scene. Born in Zambia, her songs are cited among the most influential and poignant Ireland has to offer right now, directly addressing the 21st Century Black Irish experience, migrant identities, racism, and a historic lack of female role models in hip hop.
Fighting for breathing space
Melding New Wave, African polyrhythms, old school hip hop, loft disco, and contemporary pop, on the face of it Love Ssega is all about good times. Scratch the surface, though, and the founding member of electronic four piece Clean Bandit-cum-Cambridge University Chemical Engineering PhD graduate is a British-Ugandan tour de force when it comes to climate activism. Ssegawa-Ssekintu Kiwanuka is deeply involved in a campaign for cleaner air in London, helping keep the issue visible, and highlighting huge disparities in how neglected communities are being impacted by pollution.
Broken Britain’s fury unleashed
Punk is among the most significant protest sounds the 20th Century produced. The genre has softened significantly since Iggy, Patti, The Ramones, and Sex Pistols called for varying degrees of anarchy and the downfall of establishments, even spawning the chart-friendly and hugely marketable pop punk subcanon. But listen closely and you can still find teeth-clenched fury, with IDLES being the UK’s best example. Tracks like the hilarious-yet-depressing ‘Model Village’ position the band as necessary, poetic critics of an island nation no longer able to hide nationalistic tendencies amid the ongoing post-Brexit existential identity crisis.
Spanish New Wave goes reggaeton
Madrid-based, Argentina-born Jorgeline Torres, also known as Ms Nina, is a tormenta in a Latam music scene, which is the fastest growing music market in the world. Legions of fans look up to her for turning misogynistic reggaeton style on its head, by way of a feminist suckerpunch. Something of a creative fixer in Spain’s capital – bringing music and dance troupes, often from disenfranchised and marginalised migrant communities, into the spotlight – she has recently been recognised by Ballantine’s True Music, which works to address equity issues in the industry.
Russia’s hardcore objectors
What the church branded sacrilege, we consider essential. It’s been ten years since three members of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in a Russian penal colony for “hooliganism” thanks to that landmark 2012 takeover of Moscow’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Members speak up about LGBTQIA+ rights, the policies of Putin, religious leadership, autocrats, kleptocrats, and fascists, among other demons. In April 2022, under the continued threat of imprisonment by Vladimir Putin’s regime for anti-government activism, Maria Alyokhina successfully escaped Russia by disguising herself as a food courier.
Jazz pop with a message
Purdy’s latest single, ‘Sink or Swim’, puts the climate crisis front and centre – as part of a collaboration with Just One Ocean, an organisation committed to protecting seas through scientific education, communication, and action. Unveiled in time for the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Rebecca ‘Purdy’ Poole invited the campaign group’s founder – scientist and speaker David Jones – to join her at a green-themed Q&A session in her hometown of Henley-On-Thames, where she has started a refill project aimed at reducing plastic waste. New genre… Climate Jazz?
The Scaramanga Six
Prog-punk plays against the tide
Formed in 1995, The Scaramanga Six have positioned themselves as purveyors of “cinematic punk and evil pop” since inception, but their latest record shouts the loudest about the state of play right now. ‘Worthless Music’ was inspired by the familiar sight of Siri being asked to play any and every track imaginable, and the woeful returns streaming services like Spotify offer artists – their revenue decimated by a world obsessed with convenience, and a public that no longer sees value in creative process. So many platforms have done their best to make everyone forget those processes exist.
Not just another reality show celebrity, Lucy Spraggan is a champion for the LGBTQ community, and an advocate for positive mental health. Having struggled with anxiety and depression, the former X Factor star addresses cyberbullying and trolling in her music. She’s also now known as an ambassador for Future Fit, campaigning for better access to physical education programmes in a bid to help others improve body and mind.
Space sister with sonic visions
Award-winning, pioneering artist Beatie Wolfe reinvents how we listen to music, creating innovative concepts for the digital age. The world’s first 360-degree AR stream, used for her album Raw Space, was conceived in Bell Labs’ anechoic chamber – the quietest room on the planet. COP26 saw her artwork projected onto the conference’s Armadillo building, a protest piece showing 800,000 years of rising CO2 levels, built using historic climate data from NASA. She also advocates for music’s use in dementia treatment. Find out how she beamed music into space, and about her upcoming eco documentary in TOPIA’s interview with the artist.
What’s so good about this?
Although incredibly entertaining, music is more than entertainment. Check out meaningful global campaigns like the climate-focused Music Declares Emergency and EarthPercent, as well as Keychange – a movement on a mission to create a sustainable music industry, and promote underrepresented artists and gender equality.
Celebrate creative spokespeople, because without them movements would be far quieter.
Meet the writer
Martin Guttridge-Hewitt has written on music, art, culture, design, environmental, and social issues for 15 years, contributing to titles such as BBC Travel, The Guardian, DJ Mag, The Face, Dazed & Confused, and Metro, with commissions taking him across the world from his Manchester base. Follow him on @martinghewitt.