Grammy season is here again, but never before has it fallen so hard on the heels of Martin Luther King Day. Freedom struggles have swept the world and global inequality is at its highest levels in history. But not one song from the struggles filling our newspapers, magazines and TV's each day has made the Grammys or Billboard 100 for over a decade. This is American idle.
The Pope is calling for economic justice. Change-making is the dream of youth across the planet. Even the Oscars boast nominees The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, Dirty Wars, and The Square, grappling with corruption, imperialism and revolution. But mainstream music has become no more than a soundtrack for TV ads and increasingly pornographic videos.
With the industry collapsing amidst a cocktail of monopolized radio, million dollar promotion budgets, ubiquitous mp3's and Youtube, today's artists orphan their songs off as product pitches, or strip down to writhe on rugs and wrecking balls, while people are losing their homes.
Popular music, which for thousands of years has been a vanguard for social change, has been silenced, and society left without its most powerful galvanizing force. As preeminent blogger Bob Lefsetz frequently decries, music execs seem as out of touch with our reality as our politicians, so chained to money that they can't change course.
A year ago, hip-hop artist K'naan wrote an op-ed describing how he'd censored himself and lost his soul by giving into industry pressure. His song "Wavin' Flag" went from a potential revolutionary anthem to a Coca-Cola fueled World Cup commercial, with many of its best lyrics jettisoned.
This year, the two upcoming acts with the closest thing resembling social engagement, Lorde, and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, have already sold-out their hit singles repeatedly in ads for Samsung, Miller Beer and casinos. With the 2014 Grammys using the slogan "Music Unleashes Us," are we to believe music exists to ultimately unleash us to consumerism and gambling?
In his book "33 Revolutions," Guardian music critic Dorian Lynskey pinpointed the moral dilemma today's socially conscious musicians face. We are a generation protesting the very corporate globalization, commercialization, and economic inequality that mainstream music has come to represent.
I've used my music to help build my generation's social movements, from Seattle, to the global antiwar, Arab Spring, Occupy movement and on. All of these struggles have been part of a growing global movement for change that is now inarguably mainstream. But, I had to leave the music industry behind in order to do so.
And now, we're winning. Today's change-making youth have grown up on anthems for democracy and equality that never received radio play, songs rapped and sung by artists who didn't wait for permission from the music industry to be heard.
Years from now, when people look back at this generation as one that created change on a scale not seen since the civil rights movement itself, they will know there was a soundtrack. Dr. King said "Music is the soul of the movement," and we have ours. The sound of change to come is alive. But you didn't hear it, did you, Mr. Jones?
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