Projects That Don’t Intend to Shut Up and Sing
“Shut up and sing.” It’s a sentiment heard by virtually every artist with an opinion at some point in their careers. Setting aside the fact that it relegates artists to the status of a jukebox, it also ignores the fact that music has always been political. Many a rowdy British drinking ballad contains references to the fashions or customs of the upper classes. African American spirituals rose out of a need for slaves to retain their culture and find hope in the only way they could. And, of course, there’s all the great music of the civil rights era, from The Staple Singers to Bob Dylan.
Social commentary in music has been on an uptick as the events of the past few years have unfolded, and for this week’s column, I’m going to look at three active crowdfunding campaigns from artists who refuse to just “shut up and sing.” Two are new albums from established roots music artists. The third is a compilation album of one of music’s most successful reactionaries, curated by a current artist who knows a thing or two about taking a stand.
Will Hoge’s last album came out in August 2017. As he puts it in the intro to his PledgeMusic campaign for his next one, My American Dream,out Oct. 5, he didn’t really need to put out another album now, as he still had plenty of tour mileage from the last one. So why another? Worries about his children, and specifically the world they look to inherit, full of anti-intellectualism, corruption, poverty, and an indifference to suffering. Hoge says recording the album was “less expensive than therapy.” Fans have already gotten a taste of what to expect from My American Dream, as Hoge has included the single he released last year, “Thoughts and Prayers.” Both the CD and LP version will come with a copy of the U.S. Constitution printed with the lyrics. Backer rewards include an Everytown for Gun Safety Tour shirt, with $2 from the pledge being donated to Moms Demand Action; a signed and framed handwritten lyric sheet; and 12”x12” signed print of the album cover art.
Jazz vocalist and guitarist Madeleine Peyroux has never had the political-firebrand reputation of Will Hoge, but that doesn’t mean current events don’t weigh on her. For her new album, Anthem, co-written with Larry Klein, Peyroux found a lot of inspiration in the aftermath of the 2016 elections and the “constant stream of news” that followed. Peyroux may get topical on Anthem, but she does note that she and Klein went for “consciously not too preachy” with the lyrics. Peyroux’s band for Anthem, Patrick Warren (Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, JD Souther), Brian McLeod (Leonard Cohen), and David Baerwald (Joni Mitchell) give her jazzy foundation an appealingly rootsy kick. Backer rewards include a signed copy of the album on CD and vinyl, a T-shirt, and handwritten lyric sheets.
I started this week’s column by noting that music has always been political. I’m ending it with two generations of those political musicians colliding. Soul singer Erykah Badu, whose musical voice has won her fans worldwide, and whose political voice has made her equal numbers of friends and enemies, has taken on curation of a box set celebrating Afrobeat pioneer and political revolutionary Fela Kuti. The set, which contains seven of Badu’s favorite Fela albums on vinyl, also includes a 16”x24” poster and a 20 page booklet with seven essays from Badu, seven commentaries from Afrobeat historian Chris May, lyrics, and never-before-published photos of Fela. This campaign has no extra backer rewards, but only 3,000 copies of the set will be produced.