Humanosity says..Music has a long history of producing political activism. However, this article points to a new trend of pop stars who are increasingly combining new technology and activism in what they are calling “pop’s great awokening….“
After maintaining a 20-year career largely based on affable crooning, razzle-dazzle dancing, and washboard abs, Usher released his first protest song in 2015. “Chains” is a scathing critique that calls attention to anti-black racism and gun violence. But it’s most memorable for a companion interactive video in which the faces of real-life black victims of police brutality, like Sean Bell and Trayvon Martin, fade in and out, one at a time; using your laptop or smartphone’s camera in tandem with facial recognition software, the video eerily pauses if it catches you averting your eyes from the screen.
The video experiment is meant to confront—or maybe shame—viewers who lapse into indifference about racial injustice. It’s a product of its time, tapping into the decade’s #BlackLivesMatter ethos and the pressure-cooker fury that we who are darker than blue feel about our state-sanctioned disposability. Its combination of storytelling and technology, delivered exclusively by way of the streaming service Tidal, is a version of agitprop pop that wouldn’t and couldn’t have existed before the 2010s.
Staying woke—remaining alert, informed, engaged, and attentive to the onslaught of existential threats that could circumscribe and negate your freedom—became so compulsory this decade that even a peppy, anodyne artist like Usher got swept up in the vortex of speaking truth to establishment power. It’s a telling snapshot of the development of “wokeness” in the 2010s—equal parts socioeconomic political statement, boundary-pushing technology, social media movement, and corporate branding.
The ’10s trend of pop stars who either got woke to social injustice, like Drake and Taylor Swift or helped define the terms for what it means to be a politically engaged musician, like Janelle Monáe and Frank Ocean, reflected a larger cultural turn to civic and political engagement. Millennials embraced an entire lexicon of terms and phrases to make sense of the anatomy of power relationships: cancel culture, intersectionality, allyship, white privilege, misogynoir, patriarchy, and microaggressions leapt out of the ivory tower to take root in everyday parlance.
The decade’s decisive turn to identity politics—a subject of controversy and criticism on both sides of the political aisle—helped bring into focus how structural forces like racism and sexism work through acts and policies that repress minorities and keep power in the hands of the already powerful.