Quavo, a rapper from the Atlanta hip-hop trio Migos, wants a featured verse on the United States’ national anthem. A Migos fan started a petition for Quavo—arguably one of the most popular musicians in America at the moment, frequently dominating Billboard charts—to have his own official version of the Star-Spangled Banner, and it is likely to reach its goal of 10,000 signatures very soon. Even Quavo tweeted his approval for his fans’ efforts, suggesting in an interview with TMZ that his rendition of the national anthem could be a political act of unification and modernity.

The original idea behind the petition, however, is a facetious jab at the numerous songs Quavo has been featured on and ultimately rap features as a whole. The petition’s description reads, “It’s the current year, 2017, and I think the nation should get with the times and feature Quavo on the National Anthem. He’s a feature on everything else, so why not?” As evidenced by the petition, there has been an almost cult-ish following around the plentiful amount of Quavo guest verses. Some have even gone as far as to rank every single of his features in 2017 alone. This phenomenon of obsession with featured verses, while in this instance specifically centered around Quavo, is a byproduct of the music industry’s history of incorporating rap verses into pop songs–sometimes done fluidly and otherwise shoehorned in. In light of hip-hop being recently crowned as the most popular genre in the United States, it is worthwhile to investigate hip-hop’s treatment in pop music and its reflection of American culture, a relationship in which pop music frequently uses rap for its own benefit while the music industry eschews celebrating hip-hop as an independent genre.

Beginning in the 1990s, pop music has used guest rap verses to give a song a quick stylistic flair, often giving little credence to hip-hop as its own genre. “She Ain’t Worth It” by Glenn Medeiros featuring Bobby Brown was the number one hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in July of 1990, the first chart-topper to begin the wave of bringing in rappers for pop music–albeit Brown was more of a pop artist than a rapper during his halcyon–and introduced the word “featuring” into the music business lexicon as an official way of describing the relationship of two artists appearing on a single song. In the original cut of “She Ain’t Worth It,” Medeiros sings for a majority of the song as if it was his own single. Brown suddenly appears around the two-minute mark, delivers his eight bars, and disappears for the rest of the track. In the extended version, Brown reappears to give the outro to the song, although he delivers the same verse verbatim. Despite the spontaneity of Brown’s verse, listeners were attracted to the flamboyant, fast rap flow, and the song became an instant hit. Lasting for only twenty seconds, the guest verse serves to break up the otherwise mundane pop flavor of the track. The frivolousness of Brown’s verse demonstrates the use of rap to serve the interest of pop, and the success of “Ain’t” showed to the music industry the potential of combining pop music with rap.

Mainstream American culture has long been hesitant to fully embrace hip-hop and the culture associated with it, frequently citing the supposed way it promotes illicit and violent behavior and its use as a platform to address sociopolitical issues.


Soon, the rap verse bridge would become a staple of pop music for the upcoming decades. To trace the whole history of guest hip-hop verses in pop songs would be an ambitious task; once the formula for hip-hop and pop’s relationship was established, it proliferated rapidly. One only needs to look to the recent past to find examples. Estelle’s “American Boy” features verses from Kanye West. Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” includes a rap from Snoop Dogg. Justin Bieber’s “Baby” infamously featured Ludacris. Taylor Swift draws the talents of Kendrick Lamar for her “Bad Blood.” As prominently displayed as each of these guest verses are, they ultimately take a backseat to the original artist’s song. While this is to be expected for a “featured” artist, pop music has exploited its relationship with hip-hop. Nowadays, it’s difficult to find a pop song that isn’t attributed to a singer and featuring a rapper. The hip-hop guest verse has become instrumental to the pop genre, especially due to hip-hop’s recent dominance in popularity. Pop music rides the wave of hip-hop’s success while subverting a complete acceptance of hip-hop culture. Prior to hip-hop’s recent eminence, rap could only be appreciated but only in the context of a pop singer’s spotlight for a majority of audiences.

The relationship between pop and rap has clearly benefitted pop music, yet hip-hop does not reap the same rewards. Hip-hop songs featuring guest pop vocals come by far less often than do pop songs with guest rap verses. (Notable examples are Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” featuring Jamie Foxx and Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” featuring Rihanna.) As a genre, hip-hop has had to hold its own in the music industry. Mainstream American culture has long been hesitant to fully embrace hip-hop and the culture associated with it, frequently citing the supposed way it promotes illicit and violent behavior and its use as a platform to address sociopolitical issues. The Grammy’s rocky relationship with hip-hop demonstrates the apprehensiveness of the music industry and the mainstream culture it reflects to enjoy hip-hop with the same level of comfortability as pop, rock, R&B, or country. This is ironic considering the work hip-hop has done for pop music; it highlights the one-sided relationship of the two genres in which mainstream listeners find rap unoffensive as long as it is ultimately buried under a pop track but refuse to equally accept it in its original domain of hip-hop. Despite the benefits pop music has received by incorporating elements of rap into its songs, the music industry remains reluctant to award hip-hop for its own independent endeavors.

Not surprisingly, the sidelining of rap by pop has been criticized as another example of the entertainment industry’s overlooking of Black artists in public award ceremonies. In the same vein as the #OscarSoWhite responses to the lack of diversity in the Academy Awards, the Grammys have been called out for having a race problem as well. However, the underrepresentation of Black and hip-hop artists in comparison to their white and pop counterparts cannot be simply attributed to the fault of any singular organization. Rather, the lack of formal recognition that appropriately acknowledges the diverse breadth of Black hip-hop artists stems from American culture’s long refusal to completely adopt hip-hop–with all of its ethnic, historical, and sociopolitical baggage, considered distasteful to a broader, non-minority audience–into the mainstream. This explains the popularity and even ludicrous success of white hip-hop artists such as Eminem and Macklemore who are able to adopt the stylistic flair of rap music without having to be concerned with the social context and history of the genre. The same goes for guest rap verses in pop songs; when hip-hop appears without the weight of its ‘anomie’–when it conforms to conventions of innocuous music–the genre can be appreciated. In its conjunction with pop, hip-hop has been able to find validity, although only for an eight-bar bridge verse. The Grammys, though, can serve as a reflection of these otherwise intangible yet conspicuous sentiments.

With the new eminence of hip-hop in pop culture, the genre and everything it comes with stands strongly. Hip-hop and rap are now the main course of American music, not the garnish. Whereas before it could primarily appear in the mainstream as a brief feature for another artist, hip-hop now takes center stage. As one of the artists at the forefront of hip-hop’s reign, Quavo seems to deserve his own rendition of the national anthem, as many pop and rock artists have. In his interview with TMZ, Quavo affirms that his version of the Star Spangled Banner would be “Something that’s representing now. Something that representing the modern day national anthem.” Chasing modernity, hip-hop is fit for the challenge.

The Internet is, among many things, the new cultural frontier. Its egalitarian nature–letting anyone with access create, promote, and consume content–allows for new audiences of millions of people to be exposed to cultural movements and developments that would otherwise remain niche and obscure. The list of cultural sensations that have been subjects of the Internet’s propensity to proliferate, colloquially understood as “memes,” ranges from serious activism (Black Lives Matter) to meaningless timekillers (The color ambiguous dress). The ubiquitous presence of the Internet in our understanding and consumption of culture makes it no surprise that these memes have effects beyond their online existence.

Music and memes these days are inseparable. The two are in a symbiotic relationship in which memes help generate attention for imminently popular songs and the music creates content for jokes that rapidly disperse over the Internet. Hip-hop music especially exemplifies this codependence. Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” was the soundtrack to the viral Mannequin Challenge, which started as an inside joke among high school students on Twitter and eventually caught on with prominent public figures. Ellen Degeneres, Michelle Obama, Saturday Night Live, and numerous professional sports teams have produced their own versions of the challenge, each with the hip-hop duo’s anthemic track in the background, skyrocketing the group’s fame. Another hip-hop group, the Atlanta trap trio Migos, saw the opening lines to its hit song “Bad and Boujee” quoted and interpolated across the Internet, catapulting the song to the number one spot on Billboard’s Top 100 Chart (the song has well over 350 million plays on Spotify) and the group to international stardom. Often, the relationship between music and memes is constructive, but it can veer into insidious opportunities for racism through a problematic obsession with the culture of underprivileged blacks.

The previous examples are playfully innocuous and pay homage to the original artists, but some music-based memes lose the deeper context in which a particular song’s quirk is based. Particularly, the recent trend of replacing certain consonants with the red “B” emoji (🅱️) has become a staple of Internet meme culture. It follows the fad of “ghetto memes,” and the style of Black Twitter, an online cultural identity described by writer Michelle Taylor (a.k.a. Feminista Jones) as “a collective of active, primarily African-American Twitter users who have created a virtual community … [and are] proving adept at bringing about a wide range of sociopolitical changes.” Indeed the B emoji meme has sociopolitical roots, stemming from the rivalry between the Los Angeles Blood and Crip street gangs. Specifically, the trend of using the letter B in place of other consonants comes from the Blood’s tradition of replacing the letter C–the first letter of the Blood’s rival–with B, essentially removing any association with the Crips from the gang’s lexicon.

This practice appears in hip-hop. Compton rapper YG parades the use of the Blood’s alphabet throughout his discography on songs like “Bicken Back Being Bool” and “Bool, Balm & Bollective” off his 2016 album Still Brazy. In these songs, YG makes his affiliation with the Bloods explicit; on “Bicken,” he raps, “I’m a real Bompton n***a with a motherfuckin’ attitude / Walk up in the spot, you would think that a n***a mad at you.” YG has nothing but pride for his upbringing on the L.A. streets, even calling out rappers who put on gangster personas without ever actually experiencing the lifestyle.

However, there is more to YG’s music and identity than his flaunting of the Compton gang life. Being a gangster means more than the stereotypically assumed propensity for violence and crime. Rather, gangs are the results of larger societal and systemic problems that face underprivileged minorities. YG, despite his flamboyance, understands this deeply. His penultimate track on Still Brazy, “Blacks & Browns,” directly confronts the broader social consequences of gang violence (“I’m a n***a and I can’t go outside / We looking bad on the news, black-on-black homicide”) while also serving as a call to action against oppression (“We need to come together, fuck they system / Tired of being a victim, tired of racism / So I’mma spit this ism ’til this shit stop / Cause this that ‘n***a, we all we got!’”). The final track on the album, “Police Get Away Wit Murder,” lambasts anti-black police brutality and the way systems of oppression in society have been set up against minorities (“Black males in a hoodie–that’s a target to them / They say he oversized and choked him out–that was harmless to them”). The album ends with YG enumerating the names and ages of several black teenagers whose lives were taken unjustly by the police, yet its final words harken back to YG’s decision to live on the streets.

YG’s music, songs that detail what it means to be a gangster and what it is like to be consumed by a dangerous lifestyle produced by poverty and oppression, has been distilled to a meme.

Despite his efforts, perhaps it is too late for YG to be the spokesman for these issues facing the underprivileged in America. His legacy in pop culture has been decided by meme nerds on the Internet who find a funny joke in YG’s diction, ignorant of the baggage behind it. Even YG himself understands how he has been misconstrued by those who are not fully aware of what his background entails, as he explained in an interview with Complex Magazine,

“You got the fans that’s not out here, they’re up in their house watching this shit online, and it looks like it’s cool cause it’s dangerous. The most dangerous shit be the shit that everybody wanna be a part of—from a distance, though. So for those people at the crib, the little white kids, the young motherfuckers, that be playing with this shit, throwing up Bs and wearing red and playing with it? I don’t feel no type of way about that, because I can’t—I’m the reason why they’re doing it.”

YG’s music, songs that detail what it means to be a gangster and what it is like to be consumed by a dangerous lifestyle produced by poverty and oppression, has been distilled to a meme.

The cultural and social iconography behind YG’s music has been made irrelevant by viral meme consumption culture. The extent to which this meme has been extrapolated across the Internet is absurd. The Washington Post’s article, “Why is millennial humor so weird,” explores the bizarre taste of millennial comedy in recent online trends. In it, the author interviews Adam Downer, an editor for the online encyclopedia Know Your Meme. The author writes,

“The strangest meme he ever worked on, Downer says, was a bizarre mind-virus called ‘Hey Beter.’ The meme consists of four panels, the first including the phrase ‘Hey Beter,’ a riff on ‘Hey Peter,’ referring to the main character of the comedy cartoon series Family Guy. What comes next seems to make even less sense: In one iteration, the Sesame Street character Elmo (wearing a ‘suck my a**’ T-shirt) calls out to Peter, then asks him to spell ‘whomst’ve,’ then blasts him with blue lasers. In the final panel, readers are advised to ‘follow for a free iPhone 5.’ (There is no prize.) ‘That one was inexplicably popular,’ Downer told me. ‘I think it got popular because it was this giant emptiness of meaning. It was this giant race to the bottom of irony.’”

The image is truly senseless. It is impossible to make out what the jokes in it are references of without already being deeply ingrained in Internet meme culture. Above all, the tagline of the meme, “Hey Beter,” is clearly an interpolation of the Blood’s alphabet, and its origins in gang violence and thus poverty and oppression have been made into gibberish. Meme culture has contorted the Blood’s use of the letter B into a frivolous joke that washes away its broader social context.

To understand how the appropriation of the Blood’s use of “B” has become the nonsensical trademark of meme culture it is today, it is important to recognize who the people are behind the screens. While black users on social media are responsible for creating a lot of meme content that eventually becomes the most popular online trends, as The Daily Dot explains in its analysis of the B phenomenon, “The humor of posts rooted in black culture sometimes translates awkwardly when white meme nerds begin co-opting it.  That’s basically what seems to have happened with the use of ‘B’ in memes.” Black people are often the target of online humor, usually at their expense. In meme culture, black people are frequently depicted as destructive racial stereotypes–such as “ratchet” and “ghetto”–to elicit a joke. This is most notably seen in the wave of memes a few years ago centered around Daquan, a flagrantly problematic archetypal black character whose “hood” behavior appeals to white people in the way the gangster themes in YG’s music does. The stereotypical violence, drug use, and anomie of gangs in these memes appeal to white romanticized notions of what it is like to live on the streets, disregarding their creation by entrenched racism and oppression. Frequently in meme culture, black people are demeaningly caricatured for white people’s entertainment.

With YG’s music, his gangster flourish overshadows his awareness of the oppressive powers responsible for his life in the streets. Blown out of proportion by America’s fascination with the lifestyle of underprivileged blacks, the B emoji meme in its viral absurd application denigrates the violence, poverty, and societal injustice faced by the communities from which the trend originates–communities that YG tries to elevate through his music. While memes in the past have been criticized for their problematic connotations–Harambe, Pepe the Frog–their affiliations with racism and fascism respectively were thrust upon them rather than being intrinsically responsible for their rise. The popularity of the B emoji meme, however, stems from mainstream America’s obsession with underprivileged blacks struggling with poverty and gang violence. Through the rose-tinted frames of privilege, the Internet found a joke in YG’s gratuitous application of the Blood’s alphabet.

Almost every year since its inception in 1901, the Nobel Committee has handpicked the figures that their voters believe represent the superlative in chemistry, literature, peace, physics and physiology. These laureates are then added to the annals of history, to be forever remembered as one of that period’s best and brightest, master of their respective trades. Indeed, past winners include many figures whose names are commonly found in history books across disciplines and across the world: Marie Curie, Jimmy Carter, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, Martin Luther King. However, this myriad of names was forever altered when, last week, the first prize ever given to a sing-songwriter was awarded to Bob Dylan in the Literature category for “having created new poetic expressions within the American song tradition.”

This unprecedented decoration in a field usually reserved for novelists, poets, and the occasional philosopher predictably sparked immediate debate and controversy. Members of the literary and editorial community spoke out emphatically both for and against the nomination, arguing heatedly over the merits and downsides of choosing a musician to represent a community of writers. While some argue that Dylan embodies the belief and emotion of an entire American generation, others claim that the committee’s choice is both unfair and disrespectful towards those who rightly deserved the award. The public contention over Dylan’s nomination will substantially affect the trajectory of the award, as well as the legacy of the recipient himself. The choice of Dylan to represent the literary community’s finest both reinforces the subjective nature of a merit based system and highlights the tendency of the Academy to push the boundaries and standards for otherwise limited awards.

In many instances throughout history, the Academy has redefined the position of the Nobel Prize in intellectual and scientific communities, and has chosen some highly controversial winners. Most recently, in 2009, Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace prize after less than a year into his Presidency: they cited his potential to bring about change as the impetus for the choice. This led to general outrage in the international intellectual community, and even prompted Obama himself to claim, “I do not feel I deserve to be in the company of such great leaders.” The committee also expanded the Literature category in 1997, when Dario Fo was chosen for his performance art pieces along with his written works.

In a sense, choosing Bob Dylan as the winner is simply a way of reinforcing the Academy’s efforts to push the boundaries of what is considered literature, especially because there is no section for music that he could be honored in. This has been done before in the other categories; after John Nash won the award for economics in 1994 for what was actually a combination of sociology and game theory, the category expanded to include these tangential fields, as well as the academic circles accompanying them. Some also saw Dylan’s win as a victory of inclusion for what is considered “low culture” – forms of popular and consumer culture not usually recognized by intellectual awards such as the Nobel or Pulitzer. As LA Times Journalist Carolyn Kellogg stated, “The Nobel, in recognizing Dylan’s work as literature, acknowledges that artists create works of popular culture with just as much care, control, courage and genius as Ernest Hemingway did sitting down at a typewriter.”

This categorization of Dylan as a poet rather than a musician is somewhat problematic for his own legacy, as well as for those of the other writers.

However, while choosing Dylan does seem to insinuate a stretching of the Literature category, we have reason to doubt that this decision will lead to an overall inclusion of music as part of the literature prize. After the Academy released the nomination, it stressed that Dylan was picked for his written word only, and not the musical aspects associated with it. According to Nobel Permanent Secretary Sara Danius, the justification for the award follows the argument that poetry has been accompanied by music since the classical tradition. She argues, “We still read Homer and Sappho [without music] and we still enjoy it. And the same thing with Bob Dylan. He can be read and should be read, and is a great poet in the grand English poetic tradition.”

But this categorization of Dylan as a poet rather than a musician is somewhat problematic for his own legacy, as well as for those of the other writers. First of all, it presents him with an award that is supposed to recognize a lifetime achievement while honoring what is technically only half of his work. It seems artificial to attempt to separate the lyrical aspect of Dylan’s compositions from the melodic since they were conceived as a single, whole work. It also sidelines the achievements of those whose portfolios are produced solely in the literary field, effectively eliminating traditional writers —such as Philip Roth, who was considered a favorite for this year’s choice — from contention for an award that was created for them. It implies that “a byproduct of Dylan’s main job is as good or better than the life’s work of Haruki Murakami, Philip Roth, Adonis, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, or so many other authors theoretically in contention.”

Ultimately, the choice of whether or not this is true must be left up to the individual. The anachronism “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” has always held some truth, for better or for worse, and once a piece of art is created, the producer will never be around to justify it. Therefore, while criticism and analysis of certain works may have broad, sweeping trends, there is always room for a dissenting opinion. This subjectivity also makes presenting awards for the “best” of anything very difficult; someone will always think that another piece deserves the honor. In the end, the Academy has the power to expand their categories at their own discretion; they will always be able to justify testing the limits of the boundaries they set for themselves by simply adding on to the pre-existing precedents for the awards. So while Dylan may not be a traditional choice to represent the best of today’s literature, by giving the Nobel Committee the power to give the award at their own discretion, we have placed in their hands the ability to shape the classifications for winners as well.


In a notable scene from Straight Outta Compton, members of the hip-hop group N.W.A. sat at a press conference, answering questions from a coterie of white male journalists bewildered at the emergence of “gangsta” rap. To explain their rapid elevation into fame, MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) asserts, “We give the people a voice,” while Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) adds, “Our art is a reflection of our identity.” Two things are clear: Rap music often gives credence to voices that have been muted, and thus rap music is marked by its politics. But when young black members of underserved communities express these voices, political tension with those in power is inevitable. Historically, rap and politics have never had a particularly amiable relationship: Take Kanye West’s assertion that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” a comment that aptly sums up the relationship between politicians and hip-hop artists over the last three decades. However, this fractured dynamic seemed to flip over on its head when Barack Obama appeared on the national scene, exuding bright rays of trendy “cool” to anyone who followed his charismatic ascent to power.

Obama, affectionately known as “B-Rock” by the hip-hop community, concretized his relatability among youth, and quickly garnered a label as the “hiphop president,” thereby galvanizing young voters. However, following Obama’s rap-fueled rise to the executive office, he quickly did away with his associations with the genre, acquiescing to vehemently antirap Washington politics. Unsurprisingly, this opened him up to a barrage of attacks by hip-hop artists disillusioned by both his disregard of the genre and his inability to keep up with his idealistic promises. As Obama completes his final term, he has reconciled his relationship to rap, emblematic of his overall ideological freedom from the constraints of reelection. Thus, through the course of his presidential career, Obama’s relationship to hip-hop has followed a parallel course to that of his overall politics: in Obama’s 2008 campaign, politics and rap coalesced, skyrocketing up in a firebrand fashion, but after assuming office, his rosy relationship with hip-hop and promises of watershed change fell apart. Now, Obama’s hip-hop relationships and political reputation have settled into an atmosphere of overall satisfaction, pushing his public persona as the pinnacle of “cool” into posterity.

Common, one of Chicago’s most eminent rappers, trumpeted in his 2008 song “The People”: “My rap ignites people like Obama.” Indeed, Obama’s timeless declarations of “Yes We Can” and “Change We Can Believe In” brought rappers to their feet, with Jay Z having Obama “on speed dial” and Young Jeezy and Nas making a song called “My President is Black.” Possibly the most memorable moment from Obama’s 2008 campaign arose from Jay Z’s 2003 hit “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” in which Obama nonchalantly brushed off his opponents’ (namely Hillary Clinton’s) invectives to raucous applause. Obama embraced hip-hop culture with open arms, and it served him well politically.

As Obama’s presidency comes to a feel-good end, an end magnified when juxtaposed to Trump’s election, his relationship with the rap community has also found much stronger footing.

Obama’s hip-hop connection paid off — voter turnout among the young was at its highest in 35 years, assisted by his seamless connection to rap. According to Jermaine Hall, the editor-in-chief of Vibe Magazine, “Hip-hop brought awareness to a group of young adults who probably would not have voted otherwise.” Although other factors such as his progressivism and his historic status as the potential first black president played major parts in his vehicle of ecstatic hype, the effects of many hip-hop artists’ full fledged support cannot be understated in its mobilization of enthusiastic young voters. Hip-hop’s effects, although statistically unquantifiable, had an undoubted effect on the mobilization of the “Obama Coalition,” and on Election Day, Obama blew out John McCain by over 30 percentage points with voters 18-29.

Once Obama took office, however, hip-hop all but lost its position in his political arsenal. In 2009, Obama launched the White House Music Series, including classical, jazz, and country artists but excluding hip-hop artists, thus severing the implicit ties between the now proper, refined president and improper, unrefined rap music. Obama’s disconnection served to be a justified one: In 2011 Obama invited Common, one of rap’s most socially conscious MCs, to perform at a White House party. Controversy quickly spread like wildfire as conservative figures like Sarah Palin and Karl Rove lashed out, cherry-picking Common’s rap lyrics such as one line supporting a controversial Black Liberation Army member, Assata Shakur. If Common, one of rap’s most peace-loving, positive artists could be labeled a police-hating “thug,” rap’s short lived tenure in mainstream political culture was effectively over. The final nail in the coffin occurred in 2012, when Obama’s campaign playlist featured no hip-hop, but unsurprisingly included a healthy dosage of country, including songs by Darius Rucker and Sugarland. Overall, Obama’s relationship, or lack thereof, to hip-hop elucidate his priority of politics over principles, part of his larger philosophy of not radical change, but incremental progress. Rap music was simply incompatible with his centrist realpolitik.

Rappers felt Obama’s Judas kiss, both in terms of his rap affiliations and his idealistic policy promises, as an acute backstabbing, and left no shortage of lyrical excoriations behind. Jay Z, previously one of Obama’s most vehement supporters, expressed displeasure at his policies, stating that “It’s fucked up out there. Unemployment is still high.” Other prominent rappers, such as Lupe Fiasco, who told voters in 2008 that “a vote for Obama is a vote for the future,” later rapped in “Words I’ve Never Said” that “Gaza Strip was getting bombed / Obama didn’t say shit / that’s why I ain’t vote for him,” even going as far as to say that “the biggest terrorist is Obama, and the United States of America.” Overall, the milieu among the rap community was that Obama had not only let them down, but had dissipated their advocacy for social justice, which they felt had been echoed by Obama’s grandiose promises made before entering office. As a result, according to Killer Mike, Obama was no longer a conduit for their political voices, but merely “another talking head telling lies on teleprompters.” However, although Obama alienated the rap community in his first term, he was nevertheless comfortably reelected in 2012, eventually leading to the restoration of this soured relationship.

Now, as a lame duck president untethered to the political imperative of reelection, Obama has, in short, reconciled his downcast relationship with hip-hop. He has invited the new wave of popular rappers, such as J. Cole and Chance the Rapper, to support his My Brother’s Keeper initiative. At the end of 2015, Obama called Kendrick Lamar’s “How Much a Dollar Cost,” which coincidently ends with a cry for forgiveness, one of his favorite songs of the year, and invited Lamar to the White House. And on October 3 of this year, Obama cemented the reconciliation savvy by launching the all-inclusive South-by-South Lawn festival, blaring Public Enemy’s politically charged “Fight the Power” while hosting Leonardo DiCaprio as moderator. Common, Obama’s consistent cornerstone, although acknowledging that Obama could not achieve all that he set out to do, nevertheless extolled him the same way he did in 2007, stating that Obama “still represents hope.” As Obama’s presidency comes to a feel-good end, an end magnified when juxtaposed to Trump’s election, his relationship with the rap community has also found much stronger footing.

As a whole, Obama’s rocky relationship with hip-hop artists serves as an emblem for his overall political philosophy: One of pragmatic, centrist deliberation, a notion that many artists see as “selling out.” A confused, irking irony swept through the music genre, as Obama, who had once embraced hip-hop with open arms, instead represented the Washington politics rap artists castigated regularly. Nevertheless, Obama, as an astute politician, effectively wielded the cultural capital of hip-hop when he most needed it, eventually reclaiming his position as the “hip-hop president” when, no longer seeking reelection, he could place more priority on his principles over politics.

There might never be a president as “cool” and “hip” as “B-Rock” Obama in the near future. Moreover, the relative ease at which the hip-hop community and the White House supported each other is now irrevocably lost. Donald Trump, before entering into politics, had served for years as a tabloid symbol of opulent moguldom, comically revered in songs liked Rae Sremmurd’s “Up Like Trump.” However, once Trump launched his presidential campaign, he became inundated with tremendous animosity from the hip-hop community. Trump was recently the target of a barrage of social media attacks by Chance the Rapper, Macklemore, Snoop Dogg, and countless others. Instead of songs like “My President is Black,” Trump has been the subject of songs such as YG’s “FDT” (a not-so-seriously masked acronym), which features profanity after profanity thrown at the President-elect. YG reciprocates Trump’s disavowal of political correctness with a rejection of political correctness himself, repeating the song title 24 times. Amidst its abundance of ad hominem attacks, however, one line rings viscerally, and soon nostalgically clear: “He got me appreciatin’ Obama way more.”


If the Nobel Prize in Literature was established to celebrate words that empower, then the Swedish Academy’s selection of Bob Dylan is long overdue. In the past fifty years, one would be hard pressed to find an individual — presidents and popes included — whose words have had a more profound societal impact than Dylan. With the scratchy spin of the vinyl and the crackling of the radio, he disseminated ideas with poetic messages that verged on the prophetic. Through his words, Bob Dylan dramatically effected the trajectory of world culture through his reflection on social justice and his lasting influence on the masses and political leaders alike. More than simply honor his poetic contribution, the Academy’s selection of Dylan proves that he is still a figure engrained in the American political and social landscape.

Despite his reluctance to consciously enter the political arena, Dylan’s influence has had a vast and meaningful impact on politics. Breaking into the world of music in 1961 as a politically charged songwriter, Dylan emphasized the agency of his listeners in the issues of the era.  This marked a clear shift in the nature of political expression in music.  While many of his successors, such as Sam Cooke in “A Change is Gonna Come” and Pete Seeger in “We Shall Overcome,” offered listeners fortitude in the face of oppression by stressing that one day the oppression would end, Dylan advocated the ability of the individual to be the change they seek.  Through major hits like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Dylan called to action likeminded youth, while simultaneously requesting that obstinate sources of power — among them senators, congressmen, mothers, and fathers — to step away from their “rapidly fading” old order.  Dylan’s words helped usher in the new decade, one marked by the promise of political and social progress based upon the agency for change, not faith in it.

Dylan’s commentary on social justice was both timely and poignant, a meaningful combination for many in the American public. He wrote songs that were inextricably linked to specific social injustices in the United States.  In “Only a Pawn in the Game,” he simultaneously lamented the death of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the social degradation that caused a poor white man like Byron De La Beckwith to kill him.  In “Masters of War”, Dylan forcefully admonished the military-industrial complex.  In “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” he mocked fear of communism and counter-culture movements, using the song to warn against the dangers of stifling political expression.  Dylan was remarkably in tune with the American left, which was frustrated by the slow progress of the Civil Rights Movement, uneasy about the increasing American military presence in Vietnam, and still recovering from the witch-hunts of McCarthyism.

Even when Dylan’s music stopped being overtly political, a transition marked for many by his infamous electric performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, he continued to be a societal figure, forever analogous to the ideals of youth rebellion and dissatisfaction. Dylan’s impact, nebulous by the design of the artist, is perhaps best exemplified in how he inspired his fellow musicians. In serving as an inspiration to those who continued his topical songwriting, Dylan’s legacy multiplied. Credit must be given to Neil Young for the ingenuity in his politically-charged songs; his song “Ohio” with bandmates David Crosby, Graham Nash and Stephen Stills embodied youth angst after the 1970 Kent State Massacre, and “Let’s Impeach the President” represented the musician’s disapproval of George W. Bush.  However, Young is also quick to give Dylan the recognition he deserves as an inspiration: “[Dylan’s] the master,” Young said in 2005. “If I’d like to be anyone, it’s him.”  In keeping with the post-Dylan era of topical songwriting, both of Young’s songs are calls to action, the former being a call to end political suppression of youth and the latter a call to end the Bush Presidency and with it the War in Iraq.

Dylan’s commentary on social justice was both timely and poignant, a meaningful combination for many in the American public.

Dylan remained a commendable force even after his break with topical songwriting due to his ability to incorporate implicit societal analysis, rather than explicitly discussing political or social issues, in his songs, a strategy later adopted by artists like Bruce Springsteen.  In his memoir Born to Run, released this October, Springsteen paid homage to Dylan, the subtle societal commentator:

Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home [Dylan’s first two non-political albums] were not only great records, but they were the first time I can remember being exposed to a truthful vision of the place I lived…The world he described was all on view, in my little town, and spread out over the television that beamed into our isolated homes, but it went uncommented on and silently tolerated…A seismic gap had opened up between generations and you suddenly felt orphaned, abandoned amid the flow of history, your compass spinning, internally homeless. Bob pointed true north and served as a beacon to assist you in making your way through the new wilderness America had become.”

Dylan’s profound impact on American youth, is supported by empirical data. In the 1979 book Woodstock Census: The Nationwide Survey of the Sixties Generation, Rex Weiner and Deanne Stillman found that 72 percent of the respondents asserted their admiration for Dylan, and claimed that he had significantly influenced them as a societal leader. This statistic made him the most influential individual in the entire study, with only the Beatles, at 79 percent, having more reported influence. These results are even more astonishing when compared to that of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., who only influenced an estimated 62 percent of respondents.

While the legacy of Dylan has long been felt and recognized in many private circles, his impact on the public sphere is also evident. President Obama’s praise of Dylan, delivered during his presentation of the Medal of Freedom to Dylan in 2012, was markedly personal and revealed of Dylan’s deep-rooted impact on Obama himself. At the time, the president said, “There is not a bigger giant in the history of American music…I remember, in college, listening to Bob Dylan and my world opening up because he captured something about this country that was so vital.”  And while he is not known to speak that openly about artists, in many ways, President Obama’s embracing of Dylan seems natural. It would only be logical for a man who campaigned for the presidency in 2008 with the messages of change and hope to have found inspiration in the counterculture of Bob Dylan.

However, it should be noted that Dylan as a political symbol has been conversely utilized to challenge the progressive ideals that he represents for so many. There has been a long history of the American judiciary system using quotes from Dylan in cases. However, what is so surprising is that the most notable evocations have come from the more conservative justices, such as Chief Justice John Roberts and the late Antonin Scalia.  The citation of Dylan by the Justices, particularly the late conservative bulwark Scalia, is perplexing.  In 2010, the Supreme Court heard the case of City of Ontario v. Quon, delving into the application of the Fourth Amendment and its ban of unreasonable search and seizure in the modern technological age. The case involved officers from Ontario, California who had used government-issued pagers to send personal messages, some of which were sexually explicit.  The Court ruled that the city had not violated the officer’s Fourth Amendment rights in searching the devices, and that the officers should not have had expected confidentiality when using the government-issued resources. While concurring with the Court’s decision, Justice Scalia nonetheless chastised the Court’s fickle stance on the intersection of technology and privacy. He suggested that the Court’s tendency to handle events like on a literal case-by-case basis shirked its responsibility of informing private action through the lens of the Constitution.  He concluded: “‘The-times-they-are-a-changin’ is a feeble excuse for disregard of duty.” Yet, Scalia’s use of the reference delivers a message far from the intended original meaning of the song.  In quoting this iconic symbol of progress, Scalia suggests that even though entities like technology are in a state of evolution, how our society handles their interaction with our core legal values must remain constant.  Through such analysis, Dylan, an emblem of societal inversion for so many, is equated with the American political left, likening the rebuking of Dylan with a critique of the progressive political current.

In a press conferencein San Francisco in 1965, an astute reporter asked Dylan, “Do you think of yourself primarily as a singer or a poet?”  Through a cloud of cigarette smoke and with a coy smile, Dylan’s retort was “I think of myself more as a song-and-dance man.”  For decades, fans and critics of Dylan alike have attempted to prescribe a set of labels and political policies through which they can understand the ideology he represents.  However, the genius of Dylan as a cultural icon is that even after he left both politics and the limelight, he continues to inspire countless people. In constantly defying the expectations of others, whether it be on the Newport stage in 1965 or winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016, Bob Dylan has cemented himself as an emblem of change, progress, and innovation, ideals that remain present in every stage of the American political landscape. These ideals immortalize him an ever-relevant societal and political force.


Eight Days a Week a recently released documentary, directed by Ron Howard, sheds light on the early touring years of The Beatles as they played across America for the first time. The four mop-topped bandmates, John, Paul, George, and Ringo, were without a doubt the most recognizable and famous personalities in the world and possibly history — as John famously and controversially said in 1966, “The Beatles are bigger than Jesus.”  Beatlemania was at its peak.

Using never before seen footage of the group’s backstage more private moments, the documentary illuminates the more human and quaint side of these monumental figures. One of the key moments in the film is the discovery of an oft-forgotten episode in the group’s early touring years: the band’s headstrong refusal to play in front of segregated audiences in the United States. The documentary sheds light on and affirms the effectiveness of the use of performance in contemporary music as a tool to advance social change, a practice that has endured to this day. While the form and application of these performance-based protests have changed, evinced by the recent examples of the boycotts of North Carolina, its principal objective and efficacy remain the same.

The day was September 11, 1964, and the Beatles were scheduled to play the Gator Bowl stadium in Jacksonville, Florida. A few days beforehand, when they learned that the audience would be segregated, the band threatened to boycott the concert: “We never play to segregated audiences and we aren’t going to start now. I’d sooner lose our appearance money,” Lennon stated days before the show. The promoters quickly capitulated; they had too much to lose. Beatles concerts were the hottest, most sought-after events in the entire world and promoters weren’t willing to uphold their discriminatory policies at the risk of losing the revenue. In a city where institutionalized segregation was the norm, the arrival of the worldwide mop-top phenomena was able to shatter a deep-rooted racist practice in one performance, albeit for one evening.

Although it didn’t end segregation in Jacksonville, let alone the entire South, the powerful symbolism of this event should not be underestimated; a few twenty-year-olds from Liverpool were able to confront a deeply entrenched mentality through a musical set. This episode demonstrates the colossal dimensions of The Beatles’ impact: not only did they revolutionize contemporary culture and music, they set the precedent for artists being able to act, through their vocation and medium, for the causes they believe in. “At that time, no one that I knew of really took the initiative to address any kind of social issue,” Mark Lindsay, lead singer of also-popular 60’s band Paul Revere & The Raiders, stated in a recent interview regarding the Jacksonville show, providing further evidence of the extent to which the Beatles’ action was pioneering.

While perhaps not as groundbreaking as musical protests in the 1960’s, the more recent example of the boycotting of North Carolina demonstrates that music can still be an effective tool for instigating, or at least clamoring for, change. Earlier this year, North Carolina’s Governor, Pat McCrory signed the infamous “bathroom bill,” HB2, into law. The law denies individuals the right to use restrooms that do not correspond to their biological sex and also limits cities’ autonomy to establish their own antidiscriminatory ordinances. Largely decried as retrograde and highly prejudiced, the law caused dismay and outrage across the US; musicians were no exception, quickly joining these voices of indignation. Bruce Springsteen was one of the first high-profile artists to go a step further by cancelling a scheduled show set to take place in April earlier this year in Greensboro. On his site, Springsteen released a statement providing the following justification: “Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry — which is happening as I write — is one of them. [The boycott] is the strongest means I have for raising my voice in opposition to those who continue to push us backwards instead of forwards.” Quickly, several other artists scheduled to play in the state, including Ringo Starr, Pearl Jam, and Maroon 5, followed suit and cancelled their concerts. As a result, the issue of the boycotts’ efficacy leapt to the national forefront, along with that of HB2.

We often forget that music is a platform of unprecedented power and influence; unlike politics, it touches and awakens people in an inexplicable manner.

An examination of the effects of these cancellations reveal that these boycotts, although accused of being attention-seeking media spectacles, proved to be at least somewhat successful. By deciding to not show up, the artists put strong economic and media pressures on the state. The Greensboro Coliseum Complex, where Springsteen was booked to play, estimated a loss of $188,000 from just three artist cancellations. This was a major blow to the city, whose economy largely relies on the complex. Although harder to quantify, restaurants and smaller businesses around the arena also complained about major losses due to the artists not showing up; some restaurant managers estimate that the concerts double their revenue.

The City of Greensboro, feeling the impact of the boycotts, sent a letter in May to Governor McCrory asking him to reconsider his support of the law. As Zaid Flehain, the owner of a kebob shop two blocks down from the coliseum, said, “We should be making laws that bring business to North Carolina rather than creating barriers keeping people away from the state.” Moreover, the economic pressures weren’t the only consequence of the boycotts: the media attention played an equally large role. By refusing to play, these artists magnetized publicity to the issue and created a snowball effect; sports organizations such as the NCAA and NBA have pulled several large-scale events from the state, and companies such as PayPal have cancelled million dollar contracts.

This is bad news for Governor McCrory, who is up for re-election next month. According to a SurveyUSA/WRAL poll, 61 percent of North Carolinians believe HB2 hurt the state’s national image and its ability to attract investment. The Governor has largely campaigned on his ability to create new jobs, yet HB2, which he hastily signed and relentlessly defended, has had the opposite effect. The polls for the upcoming November election seem to indicate that North Carolinians hold him responsible.

Other artists have taken a different approach to the situation in North Carolina. Comedian Wanda Sykes, for example, decided not to cancel her show, claiming that her audience would largely be the people targeted by the law. For her, cancelling the show would mean “turning her back on them,” and by performing she would be giving them a voice. This is a valid argument, but only because other artists had already boycotted shows and brought attention to the issue. If none had done this before, her decision to simply keep the performance without making any type of statement would have done little to further the cause against the law. The boycotts seem to have been the most effective manner of magnetizing publicity and placing pressure on the promulgators of HB2.

Though the world has come a long way since Beatlemania, the power of music, which the four mop-tops epitomized, endures. We often forget that music is a platform of unprecedented power and influence; unlike politics, it touches and awakens people in an inexplicable manner. Unlike politicians, who have tangible power, musicians have a more abstract, impalpable influence on people. This power is given to them organically and purely by the listener, who does not require persuading and has no expectation of getting anything in return. A rhythm, a beat, or a lyric can move and connect multitudes; why, then, would musicians not use this power for change and the causes they believe in? The Beatles and the North Carolina boycotts show how this can be masterfully done; more often than not, however, musicians seem to forget this innate power they possess, exchanging it for superficiality and commercial success. The power we have as listeners is to choose what we listen to, and we should use this power consciously. We should shun the musicians who have traded substance for glitter and gold, and instead elevate the musicians who have something to say, those who move us and inexplicably awaken something inside us.  Those are the musicians who will in turn fight for the causes that make the world we live in a better place.


“With a goat’s horn and bazooka at our necks. Sending heads flying if anyone gets in the way. We’re bloodthirsty, crazies deep in the scene. We like to kill.”

Accompanied by the sounds of accordions, guitars, and AK-47s, these are the typical lyrics of Los Buknas de Culiacán and El Komander, two musical artists who have glorified the Mexican drug trade through songs known as narcocorridos. Together, they have amassed over 37 million views on YouTube and filled concert venues across Mexico and even in parts of the United States. Corridos first came to popularity at the height of the Mexican Revolution, providing an outlet to recount the hardships and victories of the movement as well as leaders like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata.

Today, corridos serve as a news source, detailing stories of cartel leaders, their executions, and the violence they create on both sides of the border. When Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, one of the most infamous drug leaders, escaped Mexico’s maximum-security prison in July 2015, musicians quickly composed corridos about his escape that criticized the federal government’s inability to defeat the cartels. Between the 2007 onset of Mexico’s military intervention against the cartels and the end of 2014, there were 164,000 homicides in the country, 55 percent of which can be attributed to the drug war. This continuing struggle, and consequent suffering, provides ample material for narcocorrido performers.

Drug leaders often commission songs from these musicians for up to $15,000 in an effort to promote their reputations. Such services, however, have turned musicians into pawns in the turf wars and rivalries that dominate the drug conflict. Singer Javier Rosas, for example, was shot and left in critical condition in Culiacán, the base of the notorious Sinaloa Cartel. Similarly gruesome tragedies have prompted many city governments, like that of Chihuahua, where a concert shooting left two dead, to institute a ban on the performance of the narcocorridos. Punishments include a fine of $20,000 and up to 36 hours in jail.

Because the federal government must respect freedom of speech, it has left lower governments to battle the influence of the narcocorridos on their own. Since as early as 2001, states have monitored musical groups for their connections with cartels and have negotiated bans with radio stations. Los Tucanes of Tijuana, which has reached international fame with noncartel related songs, is no longer allowed to play in its home city after paying tribute to Raydel Rosario López Uriarte, a hit man and high ranking member of the Tijuana Cartel. However, states rarely enforce these bans or raise any specter of censorship.

Narcocorridos are just a microcosm of the broader narco-culture that exists in communities in Mexico. Despite efforts to minimize the influence of drug traffickers, narco-culture has permeated the lives of Mexicans and people across the world. Documentaries, such as “Narco Cultura,” which follows the life of a narcocorrido performer, and “King of Shadows,” which offers insights on the conflict from the perspectives of a Catholic nun, a former drug smuggler, and a Homeland Security officer, attempt to help audiences understand the complexity of the drug wars and the culture they have created. However, more individuals watch so-called binge-worthy television shows related to the drug war like “Narcos” on Netflix, “El Cartel” on Telemundo, or “Breaking Bad” on AMC. The exploits of these drug kingpins seem like a faraway fantasy for many viewers, but for Mexican people living in areas greatly affected by the drug trade, such as Sinaloa and Tijuana, these depictions are the frightening reality.

The cultural phenomenon of narco-culture is indicative of a larger political problem at hand. The glorification of drug cartels has filled the vacuum left by Mexico’s failing government, which many say should be providing education and jobs instead of prohibiting music. Since the country’s political institutions do not support the people, drug cartels have swooped to the rescue of Mexican communities, providing economic opportunities, stability, and hope for a better life.

One key demographic affected by narco-culture is young adults in Mexico, who are hit the hardest by unemployment and wage stagnation, perhaps explaining the lure of informal economies like the drug trade. In 2014, 85 percent of adults between 20 and 29-years-old earned the lowest wages in the nation at $450 or less per month. Of the 8.3 percent of young adults that are unemployed, as many as 15 percent are college graduates. Since the global economic crisis of 2008, the lack of available jobs and the limits of the education system have led to the emergence of a class of young adults known as the ninis, a pun on the Spanish word for “neither,” because they neither work in the formal economy nor attend any type of educational institution. While the government has attempted to lessen the barriers to entry into the labor market with measures such as tax incentives for companies willing to hire young adults and short-term training courses, these attempts are not enough to solve the problem — a mismatch between the skills of young adults and the available positions persists, a concern compounded by the low education rates that characterize the group. As a result, the prevalence of drug trafficking has provided an easy and lucrative alternative for young adults that are in urgent need of income. For example, ninis in Juarez are paid $45 for a hit, an amount equivalent to the weekly average income of a worker in this city, once named the murder capital of the world due to cartel violence. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México asserts that there are millions of these ninis who are more exposed to these illicit career opportunities than ever.

Kingpin El Chapo’s own personal history is emblematic of the dreams nurtured by many of the ninis. He was born and raised in a destitute rural town by an abusive father who also traded drugs. By the time he was a teenager, he was kicked out of his house, eventually joining the drug trade. Through growing and selling marijuana, he managed to survive financially and start his empire, amassing a net-worth estimated to be $1 billion in 2016. Like many other high-ranking cartel members, he’s the epitome of a self-made man, starting off with no money and an urge to break the cycle of poverty. Especially when romanticized by popular music, stories of such success and wealth can offer an alluring alternative to Mexicans who feel like they have few other prospects.

The influence of narco-culture is far from limited to teens and young adults that make up the ninis; the drug trade also attracts children at a young age. Cartel members dangle promises of a better life to easily recruit children — desperate for money and social capital — to transport drugs and conduct key jobs for the cartel. The sheer number of young people implicated in the drug trade is staggering: The Child Rights Network in Mexico has indicated that about 30,000 children are involved in some sort of criminal organization. In one case, a 14-year-old boy was found guilty of torturing and beheading four people on behalf of one of the Mexican cartels, a startling but hardly rare occurrence. Another young girl, working for the Zeta cartel, earned about $800 a month before being caught for committing crimes on the Zetas’ behalves. In the city of Guerrero, which the governor has compared to Afghanistan for its prime production of opium, cartels enlist children to harvest the poppies for heroin. Many teenagers have also become mules for local drug traffickers, traveling across states and borders to deliver drugs from marijuana to methamphetamines. The US Immigration and Customs Enforcements states that the number of youths aged 14 to 18 that have been caught crossing the border has increased greatly. In 2008, 19 minors were arrested, while in 2011, the number increased ten-fold to 190.

With inadequately developed criminal justice procedures for youth, the government has failed to effectively respond to this type of child abuse. About 5,000 minors, most of whom come from low-income households, are currently in Mexican prisons, with over 1,000 of them arrested for committing serious cartel-related crimes. Deputy Alejandro Sánchez Camacho indicated that 22 percent of incarcerated youth have killed at least one person among other violent crimes. In 2015, the United Nations concluded that the Mexican government is taking insufficient measures to prevent the cartel recruitment of children and adolescents. For one, there’s a startling disregard for the children’s privacy: When these children are arrested, authorities oftentimes present them to the media without permission. Moreover, incarceration doesn’t seem to solve the core of the narco-culture issue; instead, as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has advocated, it’s necessary to promote educational and social treatment for these juvenile delinquents so that they can be given the tools necessary to live outside the illicit sector.

There’s evidence of a less explicit influence of the drug wars on Mexican childhood. Children increasingly mimic the actions and structures of organized crime groups, threatening each other for money on the playground or yelling obscenities to each other during soccer games. Exposure to violence is perhaps changing the way youths perceive their own futures and their opportunities for success. The ubiquity of music romanticizing the life of drug kingpins makes it easy for children to see such lifestyles as alluring.  Not only does the public image of this profession convey an image of cartel members’ financial stability, but also the popularity of narcocorridos. For instance, implies that the life of a drug kingpin is often a life of respect and adoration.

Even without the help of narcocorridos, cartel leaders are still often admired as modern-day Robin Hoods at the lowest ends of the socioeconomic ladder. By offering welfare of sorts to impoverished residents, the cartels have undermined the already failing government. In Sinaloa, for example, El Chapo has helped poor communities by providing money for infrastructure and jobs, thus earning the trust of the state’s residents by helping the community when the government has not. After his recapture in 2014, vendors printed shirts with El Chapo’s face and hats reading “God Save El Chapo.” Such narcomoda, or narco-fashion, is also prominent in Mexico, exemplified by jewelry depicting drug paraphernalia and similarly styled brand name clothing. In 2011, for example, street vendors stocked their shops with Ralph Lauren “narco polos” that were worn by high-ranking drug traffickers when they were arrested. This type of style is popular among lower classes, members of which have grown to idolize the drug lords, partially as a result of the social and economic aid that the cartels grant to poor communities.

Likewise, even religion cannot escape the tendrils of narco-culture. When El Chapo was recaptured in 2014, many Sinaloans took to prayer. Jesús Malverde, a 20th Century Mexican bandit who used money generated from illicit activity to support impoverished communities, just as El Chapo does today in Sinaloa, is the patron saint of drug trafficking and criminal activity. Although not recognized by the Catholic Church, many people, especially those in poverty, petition him for financial security and protection. Malverde’s products like prayer cards, candles, and statues can also be purchased across Mexico and in some US cities — but he is far from the only so-called “narco-saint.” Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, is a combination of the Virgin Mary and the Grim Reaper, who also serves as a patron for drug traffickers. While the Catholic Church has called the cult of Santa Muerte “blasphemous, diabolical, and anticultural,” her following continues to grow — Mexican religious shops sell more Santa Muerte figures than those of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of the nation. Drug lords also cultivate ties with local churches; some even refer to El Chapo as the patron saint of Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa. The altars of Jesus Malverde and Santa Muerte have been joined by icons and objects of El Chapo.

Narco-culture has affected nearly every aspect of Mexican culture, from children’s games to fashion trends to religion. While the negative effects of such glorification of drug culture and violence on youth are obvious, the prevalence of narco-culture is indicative of the larger political problems at play in Mexico. The vacuum left by government failures has allowed cartels to dominate life across the country. And until political reforms take place, cartels will continue to get richer, musicians will continue to sing about their success, poor Mexicans will continue to idolize narco-saints, and malcontent youth will continue to lose themselves in dreams of riches.


Art by Tiffany Pai

During the 1960s, artists like Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and Creedence Clearwater Revival used their music to speak out in favor of civil rights and against the Vietnam War. Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine, and others consistently criticized the US government throughout their careers. This convergence continues today, with such examples as Kendrick Lamar’s recent “Alright” music video, the Macklemore-penned gay rights anthem “Same Love,” or Lady Gaga’s rape-prevention PSA “Til It Happens to You.” Politics and art are inextricably intertwined, but sometimes, these socially-minded songs move into the political realm when used as campaign songs.

When choosing campaign songs, candidates often try to explain their visions and attitudes through music. Politicians have practiced this custom ever since the first American presidential election when “God Save Great Washington,” based on the British “God Save the Queen” and intended to elevate Washington’s reputation, helped drum up enthusiasm and support for the new nation’s first leader. “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too” famously carried William Henry Harrison to the White House in 1840. This particular song served to praise both the Whig party and Harrison’s heroics at Tippecanoe while also poking fun at Harrison’s opponent, Martin Van Buren. Many credit the piece with playing a large role in Harrison’s eventual victory. In the last quarter of the 20th Century, candidates began shifting away from campaign-specific songs and began using popular music as their themes. Bill Clinton employed Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 hit “Don’t Stop” and it’s “keep-on-moving-forward” message throughout his primary and presidential races in 1992 and even convinced the grudge-holding group to reunite and perform the track at his Inaugural Ball.

There lies an undeniable significance on the role campaign songs play in elections. In Harrison’s case, music swayed public opinion in favor of one candidate over the other. John F. Kennedy used popular music like Frank Sinatra’s to help construct his public image and give his voters a universal rallying cry. Dozens of candidates have used songs – and particularly single-line refrains – to give their campaign a theme, such George Bush utilizing Van Halen’s “Right Now” to say that Bush was the immediate answer to the issues stemming from Clinton’s presidency. Songs can also simply get voters excited about a candidate and increase voter turnout as a result.

However, campaign songs don’t always bring the band back together. Often, the artists will disapprove of a politician’s use of their art to advance a political platform, raising questions of both the legality and morality of campaign music. Typically, this has to do with the artists’ objections to their art being tied to political stances with which they disagree. For example, the McCain-Palin campaign used a 1994 Gretchen Peters song “Independence Day” at Sarah Palin’s rallies. Peters vehemently denied any sort of approval of the vice presidential candidate, writing, “The fact that the McCain/Palin campaign is using a song about an abused woman as a rallying cry for their vice presidential candidate, a woman who would ban abortion even in cases of rape and incest, is beyond irony. They are co-opting the song, completely overlooking the context and message, and using it to promote a candidate who would set women’s rights back decades.”

While there are legal avenues artists can use to prevent their music’s usage in campaigns, copyright law and publishing rights are arbitrary enough that a gray area exists.

Generally, artists succeed in separating their music from campaigns. Bruce Springsteen rejected Ronald Reagan’s request to adopt his “Born in the USA” – the campaign managers apparently not recognizing the song’s heavy criticism of blind patriotism and poor treatment of Vietnam War veterans – for his re-election campaign. Sometimes, the process is not quite as friendly; in 2000, Tom Petty issued George Bush’s campaign team a cease and desist letter over their use of “I Won’t Back Down.” Though not legally obligated to obey Petty’s wishes, the Bush campaign stopped playing the song at campaign events. Even more, sometimes campaigns continue to use songs at rallies after complaints from the artists, as John McCain’s team did in 2008 with the Foo Fighters single “My Hero.” This election cycle, more than any other, it seems, musicians are going out of their way to disassociate their music and themselves from political candidates; Neil Young, R.E.M., and Aerosmith have all done so this past year, and that’s just looking at Donald Trump’s campaign.

While there are legal avenues artists can use to prevent their music’s usage in campaigns, copyright law and publishing rights are arbitrary enough that a gray area exists. Copyright law states that if a song is protected, “you cannot play a recording of the music or lyrics in public.” However, campaigns only need a public performance license from the publishing group to legally use a song at any sort of public event. After that, artists can still fight against political usage of their music but have to do so through more nuanced regulation as opposed to general copyright laws. Artists essentially have three options. If a musician can demonstrate that a politician’s use of his or her music either dilutes the musician’s brand, falsely implies endorsement, or — and only in some states — unfairly uses the musician’s image, then the artist can legally compel a campaign to stop playing the music. But these violations aren’t cut-and-dry; it can be difficult—and often unfruitful—for musicians to try and reclaim their art as their own. However, these disputes usually don’t end up going to trial, because either the campaign drops the song in question or the artist doesn’t feel it is beneficial enough to go to court.

Beyond legality, campaigns’ use of songs without the artist’s permission raises questions about how we approach music as a medium. One could argue that by not getting a musician’s approval first, campaigns are implying that the original intentions of a piece of art don’t matter and that once a song is released to the world it no longer belongs solely to the person or people who created it. In an era where digital piracy is the norm and most artists rely on ticket sales for the vast majority of their profits, it’s imperative that the value of music be recognized and preserved. A politician’s unauthorized use of a song does just the opposite – and barring TV commercials, royalties are not given to musicians for campaign songs – and time and time again, the burden is placed upon musicians to retroactively appeal to candidates.

Generally speaking though, politicians will acquiesce if artists reach out to them and discontinue use of the song in question; such was the case with John McCain, George Bush, Barack Obama, and others. Typically, this is done to avoid a messy public dispute that would do more damage to the campaign than the song could have helped. But at that point, the campaign has already benefited somewhat from the song’s usage — as seen earlier with candidates like Harrison — and the artist is linked to a politician and their platform. Dozens of artists, including Kelly ClarksonTim McGraw, and most infamously The Dixie Chicks, have received backlash from their own fans after voicing support (or lack thereof) for politicians, and the same could happen to a musician who seems aligned with a candidate because of a campaign song. In order to remedy this problem, laws regarding public use of music must require campaigns to gain artists’ expressed permission before using their songs (or any art form) to advance their agenda. Until that happens, the legal gray area that surrounds campaign songs will continue to cause confusion and frustration for musicians everywhere.


In Cuba, the journey to implement public music education has paralleled the country’s battle for compulsory education, and nationhood itself. The implementation of widespread education reform was a pillar of Fidel Castro’s plan for the nation, and music education was an important facet of this reform. The tying of music education to a new, nationalized Cuban identity has lead to the prioritization of music education in Cuba that is unparalleled in the United States.

The tying of music education to Cuba’s national identity has yielded stunning results. Cuban music schools are world renowned for producing some of the world’s greatest musicians — a disproportionally high number considering the nation’s population of 11 million. Domestically, Cuba boasts tremendous job opportunities for professional musicians. For example, the country has 18 professional choirs and hundreds of community, church, and youth groups. By contrast, the United States only has one professional, full-time choir.

Cuba’s multitudes of musicians have all flowed through the nation’s excellent public education system — one of Latin America’s most successful. There, students receive high-quality music education from pre-school through Grade 7 for multiple hours per week —compared to less than 1 hour in American elementary schools. Curriculum is linked to the cultural and historical context of Cuban society, and lessons involving creativity, movement, and singing are presented using methods grounded in current cognitive and psychological theory. Talent is identified very early on, and Grade 7 students are encouraged to audition for one of the country’s specialized music high schools.

Music education in the United States, on the other hand, is in the midst of a crisis. The increased emphasis on standardized testing initiated by No Child Left Behind has left many schools scrambling for hours in which to drill multiple-choice questions. Cuts in funding have forced some schools to prioritize some subjects over others, and often the first of these subjects to go is music. Surveys show that the American public strongly supports music education in public schools, but consistently ranks music at or near the bottom in importance among school subjects. As Aristotle once mused, “All gentlemen play the flute, but no gentleman plays it well”.

In Cuba all children are afforded the opportunity to play the flute — or the piano, or the guitar, or any instrument in the orchestra — and play it well. Opened in 1961 as one of Castro’s early education reforms, la ENA (the Escuela Nacional de Artes) in Havana offers a nationalized music program for children ages 8 to 18. Admission is based on an extremely competitive audition, and the school offers boarding for students from other provinces. If a student does not make the cut for la ENA, there are still a wide variety of options: each province of Cuba has at least one specialized high school for music, and these high schools feed into university-level conservatories or jobs within the education system. The high schools offer training in elementary music education and performance, preparing their students for life as a musician.

In the United States, however, music instruction steadily declines in importance as a child grows older. In elementary schools, music classes are typically offered several times a week. In a study conducted in the 2009-10 school year, the United States Department of Education found that 94 percent of elementary schools offered instruction in music. However, this number declines drastically during secondary school, with students forced to seek musical instruction mainly on a performance basis. Choirs, bands and performance groups are still somewhat prevalent, but the quality of instruction varies, and student-to-teacher ratios are sometimes as stark as 1000:1. Music education has been linked to language development, math skills, multitasking skills, and an increased IQ, but these benefits have been ignored in a system that values only the bottom line.

At the turn of the century and leading up to the revolution, Cuba’s struggle for a nondiscriminatory, ethical education system paralleled its struggle for independence. Fidel Castro vocalized the battle cry of public education to fuel his January Revolution of 1959, and his idealist principles of equity, opportunity, and integration — albeit now within a very limited scope — remain preeminent within Cuba’s public education system. Like many aspects of the government at this time, music academies — and their public school counterparts — had devolved into bastions of corruption. Complaints of the selling of music diplomas and the exploitation of student musicians were rampant.

When Castro came into power, he immediately began comprehensive education reform to mitigate these deplorable aspects of Cuban socio-politics. Based on the writings of José Martí and Karl Marx, Castro set up an education system that encouraged self-sacrifice, honesty, nationalism, and internationalism. He also set out to combat the nation’s dismal literacy rate of 23.6 percent by sending Literacy Campaign volunteer teachers into the more rural areas of the country. Castro’s Literacy Campaign paralleled another campaign devoted to musical literacy and appreciation. Identifying music as a powerfully unifying force, Castro sent music appreciation teachers to towns throughout the nation to inform children about the history of Cuban music.

Castro recognized that music must be valued in order to have a well-balanced, forward-thinking society. The nationalization of the existing private conservatories and music schools led to the consolidation of a Cuban musical, and therefore national, identity.

Now, the ENA teaches a wide variety of classes and styles. The students are taught solfege and counterpoint, and every instrument in the orchestra is catered to with private, one-on-one instruction, all of which is free. All students learn the piano in addition to their primary instrument. However, in addition to these classical foundations, the students are taught quintessential Cuban rhythms and song structures, effectively integrating multiple aspects of Cuban society into a comprehensive curriculum. Their senior year of high school, ENA students are expected to sit in on an elementary school classroom and learn the fundamentals of music education — all while continuing one-on-one instruction — thus ensuring the cultivation of musical prowess amongst all generations. What results is not only an adept workforce of musicians, but also a unified society that collectively values the power of the arts.

In an interview, the principal of the ENA emphasized that nothing short of absolute success as a musician is allowed. She articulated that, once the students are attending ENA, they are expected to be the best musicians they can be. The students feel a responsibility to not only themselves and their professors, but also to the nation, continuing the legacy of collectivity and dedication instilled by Castro during the revolution. Students often go on to work as both performers and teachers, maintaining the cycle of music appreciation and education.

Coming from a large, underfunded public performing arts high school in New York City, experiencing la ENA filled me with jealousy. It is easy to see the one-on-one instruction and the expectations of a career in music as exceptional and unique to this system, but the principal assured me they are met with a lot of the same problems faced by public schools in the United States. La ENA’s funding comes almost entirely from the Cultural Affairs Ministry, and they are always in need of more money. The building is decrepit, and the practice rooms do not have proper soundproofing. Although jobs are almost entirely guaranteed in Cuba, most people make a very low wage. Therefore a majority of graduates work as both elementary school teachers and performers in order to make a living.

One thing la ENA does not lack, however, is a culture of expectation. It is assumed that graduating musicians have an important role within society. Performers continue to express a national identity, while educators help pass on the values instilled by Castro. Having gone to a performing arts high school similar to la ENA, I was often told “if you can see yourself doing anything other than music, do that.” Music is a treacherous career path in the United States, where many public programs are dying. The devaluing of music on an institutional level replicates itself in the real world: many musicians cannot make a living in their chosen field.

Modern United States schooling paints a picture of success as a series of numbers and test scores, and it is difficult for legislators to find a place for creativity in this picture. Cuba is far from perfect, but the culture of expectation and support surrounding young musicians has led to an incredible outpouring of artistic talent. A broader school of thought is encouraged, and the cycle of sustainability and support continues throughout generations of young musicians.

In releasing his new album “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Kendrick Lamar topped off a year of political and racial turmoil with an appropriately radical, incisive work of art. The album weaves together personal narratives with political thought on issues from colorism to the commodification of musicians. With biting lines like, “They tell me it’s a new gang in town/From Compton to Congress…ain’t nothing but a flu of new DemoCrips and ReBloodlicans/ Red state versus a blue state, which one you fightin’ for?” the album solidifies Lamar’s position as one of the leading voices in a new generation of rappers, one that is speaking out to millennials about injustice in the United States. His album’s debut at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart confirmed a sweeping change in the hip-hop industry. The genre is once again brazenly political.

In the past six months, rappers have released a plethora of songs advocating political change. In “The Blacker the Berry,” for example, Lamar confronts black self-hatred and institutional racism with lines like, “I mean it’s evident that I’m irrelevant to society/That’s what you’re telling me, a penitentiary would only hire me.” Since Michael Brown was killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, many rappers have taken up similar themes. J. Cole, another one of hip-hop’s leading voices, traveled to Ferguson one week after Brown’s death and marched in local protests. Afterwards, he released a song dedicated to Brown titled “Be Free.” The song is a heart-wrenching plea for peace, with Cole singing, “Can you tell me why/Every time I step outside I see my niggas die?/I’m letting you know/That there ain’t no gun they can make that can kill my soul.”

Significantly, Cole and Lamar are two of the most commercially successful rappers in the industry, unlike some other more overtly political artists. Cole’s three most recent albums were all certified gold by the RIAA. Lamar’s first album, “Good Kid M.A.A.D City,” sold over one million copies. Rather than becoming mired in the tropes of violence, drugs and misogyny for which commercialized hip-hop is often criticized, the two artists rail against them. Lamar has drawn many comparisons to the late Tupac Shakur, who dominated hip-hop in the 1990s with his socially-conscious rap, as his generation’s West Coast prophet.

Hip-hop artists’ recent political focus is nothing new. Indeed, the role of rapper as social critic goes back decades, to the very foundation of hip-hop. Some people trace its roots to the rhyming games that earlier African-Americans used to resist slavery and other systems of oppression. This form of creative resistance itself originated in the oral tradition of West Africa, where storytellers called griots were responsible for entertaining and for maintaining tribal and family histories. Whether or not it was a direct descendant of these traditions, rap rose to prominence in the South Bronx during the 1970s in an environment of social and political oppression. This was the era of Reaganomics, of deindustrialization, and of the racialized urban ghetto. The predominantly African-American South Bronx, like many other urban neighborhoods across the country, was ravaged by crime and unemployment, along with many other forms of deprivation. Many early rap songs coming out of the South Bronx addressed this desperation, and hip-hop culture quickly spread to other urban communities under similar conditions. For example, the 1982 song “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five decries the poor education, drug addiction, and physical disrepair that plagued the South Bronx: “I got a bum education, double-digit inflation…I can’t walk through the park ‘cause it’s crazy after dark.”

It wasn’t long before hip-hop artists became popular in mainstream America, and their roles as political leaders diminished. Cultural critics claim that white record label executives, as they signed hip-hop artists, altered their product to appeal to a wider market, and in doing so stripped hip-hop of its political power. Derek Ide, the Social Movement Studies Department Chair at the Hampton Institute, writes that because political dissidence was not attractive to the majority of American consumers, hip-hop became separated into “two worlds:” one of commodified mainstream rap, and one of political, socially-conscious rap that is not as commercially viable. While “underground” hip-hop continues to be politically charged, mainstream hip-hop is often directed at parties, centering itself on themes of materialism. A quick glance at the lyrics of songs on Billboard’s Top Rap Songs list makes this clear: the number one song, “Trap Queen,” is about rapper Fetty Wap’s conflicts with a gold-digging girlfriend. “Time of Our Lives” and “G.D.F.R,” the second and third ranked songs, are both party-anthems.

Rap stalwarts J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar have managed to bridge these two separate worlds, much like other exceptional rappers in the past. Tupac is exalted as a model of the politically-conscious, commercially successful rapper. In recent years, artists like Kanye West, Lauryn Hill, and Talib Kweli have all enjoyed financial success while speaking out against social and political issues afflicting African-Americans. In a recent New York Times editorial, writer Jay Caspian Kang hailed Kendrick Lamar as the new “Hip-Hop Messiah,” a spiritual leader of hip-hop that only comes around every few years. Of this imaginary role, he writes, “His work must feel political, but not overtly political. He should be an example and a savior to the young black people who listen to his music.”

Lamar, straddling the commercial and the political, occupies a precarious position. Although vastly popular activist rappers like Lamar are rare, they have historically risen to the occasion during moments of desperation for communities of color. In the 1980s, as a crack epidemic afflicted poor African-American communities in New York, rap group Public Enemy created a career with political music, including songs like “Night of the Living Baseheads,” which portrays the deleterious effects of crack on users in African-American communities.

The recent focus on racial divisions in light of Ferguson is a logical continuation of this tradition. In fact, it is not particularly novel; hip-hop has a long history of voicing anger against police racism, and today’s political climate is no different. The phrase “Fuck the Police,” now ubiquitous in anti-police brutality protests, has its origins in N.W.A.’s 1988 eponymous breakthrough song. During the 1990s, after Rodney King was beaten by police in Los Angeles, Ice-T released a controversial song “Cop Killer” that addressed police racism in the United States. Fear of the songs’ consequences among politicians and law enforcement officials was so great that they lead protests calling for a ban of Ice-T’s songs.

Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s 1982 album, The Message. The politically-charged album decried poor conditions in the ghettoes of the South Bronx.
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s 1982 album, The Message. The politically-charged album decried poor conditions in the ghettoes of the South Bronx.

Since the death of Michael Brown last August and the subsequent protests of his death, the United States has been forced to examine the human rights crisis of police brutality. It is no surprise that rappers, figures with a history of political activism, are responding to this moment of necessity with political music. This alone does not make them into “hip-hop messiahs.” The J.Coles and Kendrick Lamars of the world are unique because they possess not only the awareness of political scientists, but also the widespread appeal of pop stars. In using their popularity to decry racist policing, they prompt millions of listeners to examine political issues. They take ideas often confined to underground circles and present them to a huge body of listeners hungry for change.

As they have so many times before, rappers are emerging as the voices of a disenfranchised population. Some, like rapper Questlove, say that hip-hop artists are not doing as much as they should. In an Instagram post four months ago, he wrote, “I urge and challenge musicians and artists alike to push themselves to be a voice of the times that we live in.” Whether or not rappers’ efforts are adequate, Questlove’s post makes one thing clear: they are once again heralded as leaders in a moment of great suffering. In The Blacker the Berry, Lamar says, “This plot is bigger than me, it’s generational hatred.” If Americans feel powerless in the face of political oppression, these rappers’ star power employed in the name of social justice may be exactly what they need.

Political conflict and international relations aren’t usually the first things that come to mind when listening to classical music. As a genre made up largely of European repertoire from days past, it’s more likely to conjure up images of cathedrals, lavish opera houses, and modern concert halls rather than, say, the United Nations headquarters. A new project, however, seeks to change the way that classical music interacts with foreign affairs and global problems. The Barenboim-Said Academy is a new initiative in music education that reimagines the standard model of a music conservatory. Unlike most music schools, the academy will host only students from the Middle East and will offer a course of instruction leading to a two-year degree that not only includes intensive study of music, but also international relations, political science and the humanities, including courses in both Arabic and Hebrew. With a donation of €20 million from the German government and nearly €14 million in private donations funding the construction of concert, teaching, and practice facilities, the Berlin-based academy is set to open in 2016 after a pilot phase this year.

The academy is the product of a relationship between two illustrious individuals in the worlds of music and academia: Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said. Barenboim is a renowned Argentine-born Israeli conductor who has conducted the Orchestre de Paris, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, among others. Said is a well-known Palestinian-American literary theorist and public intellectual. His work in post-colonial thought has influenced the way that scholars think about modern societies, especially the Middle East. Both men joined together in 1999 with a vision to start a new orchestra, one that would include only young Israeli and Arab musicians who would practice and perform together. They named their new project the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, after a poem by Goethe, the renowned German poet known for his interest in Eastern cultures. Following the death of Edward Said in 2003, Daniel Barenboim has continued their joint mission of making music that crosses boundaries.

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra has become an icon, performing around the world, mostly outside of the countries its musicians call home due to security concerns. It has drawn the praise of world leaders and scholars from Kofi Annan to Pope Benedict XVI. In 2005, the orchestra performed a noteworthy and highly publicized concert in Ramallah in the West Bank, where Daniel Barenboim encountered a young girl who told him, “You are the first thing I have seen from Israel that is not a soldier or a tank.” The orchestra has also been uniquely involved with Brown University and has visited the campus twice: once in 2006 and again in 2013. Both visits were marked by a series of events to engage the Brown community, including campus conversations with Daniel Barenboim, performances by the orchestra and a special performance of Mendelssohn’s popular octet, combining the Providence Quartet and four of the orchestra’s musicians. Michael Steinberg, a professor of music history who serves as Brown’s Vice Provost of the Arts and as the director of the Cogut Center for the Humanities, met Daniel Barenboim while traveling abroad in Germany and has since been heavily involved in his projects, including the design of the new academy’s curriculum. “Music education is a form of understanding how people communicate without speaking to each other, and what it means to communicate over very large areas of difference,” including serious political and cultural differences, he said in a recent interview with BPR, adding that “professional music education does not pay much attention to these issues.” Its proponents hope the academy will carry forward the spirit of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and engineer a new form of music education that emphasizes a holistic view of music and society.

Daniel Barenboim is not alone in his quest to use music as a means of conflict resolution. Similar projects in classical music have been undertaken in many places, including classical music projects in Bosnia and Herzegovina that work to unite Muslim and Catholic communities in the wake of civil war. During a performance in Mostar made up of an ensemble of both Bozniak and Croat musicians, the leaders of the divided city displayed an unprecedented degree of hospitality toward one another in the wake of the violent conflict. Musicians Without Borders, an NGO whose mission is to use various genres of music to repair broken communities and diminish the effects of war, has sponsored projects in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Palestine and Rwanda, all areas known for recent conflict. In Mitrovica, Kosovo, for example, Musicians Without Borders created a rock school that helped bring together youth from various conflicted groups and forged friendships between them. Another organization with a wide following is Playing for Change, which produces incredibly popular music videos that feature songs from musicians around the world. Their mission is preventative rather than remedial; the charity hopes to bring people of different nations together in general, not necessarily in the realm of conflict.

Organizations like these raise an array of questions about the role that music plays in conflict resolution. Do such efforts really contribute in any substantial way, or do they simply obscure the realities of political conflict with meaningless spectacle? Should music be a priority in conflict resolution? What can be expected from such efforts, if anything at all? Answering these questions necessitates thinking about music and how it relates to people and societies.

Daniel Barenboim has adamantly denied that his Orchestra is a project designed to bring peace to the region its members call home. He prefers to speak of it as an “orchestra against ignorance.” This model acknowledges the ultimately limited impact of the arts on international relations. Nobody expects an orchestra or a music school to solve the intractable problems facing Israel and the Arab world. In total, both projects will only directly engage a few hundred people, an insignificant sum compared to the millions of people who live in Israel and the surrounding Arab nations. Despite the limitations of these efforts, however, music is still a powerful cultural force, and it, like any element of human culture, is political. Warfare throughout the ages has traditionally made use of music to organize large groups of soldiers and to keep up morale; one well-known example is the iconic drum and fife typically associated with the American Revolution. Additionally, music often plays a role as propaganda, as seen recently at the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea, where both sides blast provoking music at each other. Besides its demonstrated ability to work as a tool of power, music is also valued for its therapeutic value. The recent advent of music therapy as a way to treat a range of psychological disorders such as PTSD is a further testament to the power that music holds over the human mind, which is, after all, the primary locus of politics and political conflict.

In the realm of conflict resolution, the practice of making music itself is often key. Musicians who collaborate together speak a common language and must act in synchrony. The very act of making music necessitates mutual respect and collaboration, giving the community of musicians a superordinate goal in the form of creating a piece of complex music that help bring musicians from conflicting groups closer together. In the words of Michael Steinberg, “Listening itself is a practice that is political. It has to do with giving time and subjectivity and dignity to someone else.” By combining political issues with music as a way to develop listening and empathy, peoples can be brought together to solve complex problems in a way that would be impossible otherwise. Far from obscuring the issues at stake, music complements international politics, providing a space for groups at odds with each other to develop empathy, even though they may still disagree.

The Barenboim-Said Academy is still in its final stages of preparation, yet when it is finished it will become an important experiment in empathy and understanding, while potentially transforming music education and the practice of music itself in a way that relates more fully to the social and political realities of the world.

Here we are, a month removed from the VMA performance that shook a nation. Before Miley Cyrus did her infamous phallic-foam-finger dance, we had a federal government; clearly, times have changed. Like the pop-culture addict I am, I’ve been following the saga of Miley Cyrus’s artistic development with bated breath (and hoping against hope that if she grows her hair out again, the Tea Party will agree to a budget and we can reopen the national parks). After thinking about it for longer than any person should ever think about the star of a Disney Channel Original Series, I’ve come to the conclusion that Miley is a total mystery. But our reaction to Miley, that’s another story. Here’s what we can learn from the way we think about Miley Cyrus:

One: We’re so confused about sexuality.

If the media puts the word “sex” in front of something, we’ll respond accordingly, without thinking much about what exactly we’re reacting to.Although she was dressed provocatively, it only occurred to me recently that most of what Miley Cyrus has been doing lately isn’t actually sexy at all. “If I was trying to be sexy, I could have been sexy,” she said of her VMA performance in a recent Rolling Stone profile. As far as she’s concerned, running around dressed up like a teddy bear and licking things not, in fact, the pinnacle of sex appeal. Her VMA routine was more of a grotesque parody of sexuality than the pornographic nightmare everyone was talking about the next day (although it’s not clear how much of that parody was intentional).

Nonetheless, the nation responded as though we’d all watched that one scene in Black Swan together. We literally have no idea what’s actually attractive to us. If the media puts the word “sex” in front of something, we’ll respond accordingly, without thinking much about what exactly we’re reacting to.

Of course, the foam finger thing didn’t help.

Two: Men tend to get a free pass.

Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance elicited over 150 FCC complaints, which generally refer to the sexually explicit elements of the show (“She made multiple very indecent sexual poses and gestures, from grabbing her crouch, using a foam finger like a dildo, and licking the butt of a stuff bear,” reads one). It should be surprising that so few of these complaints mention Robin Thicke, the man on whom Miley was grinding, a man whose biggest hit refers to the “blurred lines” of consent. The ones that do refer to him generally only mention his participation in passing, making a point to condemn Cyrus’s “lewd and lascivious shenanigans” outright.

Miley CyrusMore recently, Miley Cyrus had a photo shoot with notable creep Terry Richardson. If you look at the whole series, you’ll see both of Miley’s nipples. Once again, news outlets are more concerned with Miley’s wrongdoing than the frankly creepy fact that these photos were taken by a 48 year old man in fake hipster glasses. “Cover your shame, girl!” says Perez Hilton about a photo where Miley’s labia are very nearly visible (I guess “shame” is another word for “vagina” these days), but few people give Terry Richardson more than an eye roll.

I’m sensing a double standard.

Three: We feel weird about cultural appropriation, but we don’t quite know how to talk about it yet.

A lot of very intelligent people have said a lot of very intelligent things about Miley Cyrus, her obsession with being “ratchet,” her use of black people as props, and cultural appropriation. I don’t have a lot to add to that conversation, except that it’s interesting to me how difficult it is to nail down what exactly constitutes appropriation.

Can someone provide me with a working definition of cultural appropriation, hopefully before Halloween? That would be incredibly useful.

Four: We can’t wait to see this blow up.

People are already googling “miley cyrus crazy” with more frequency than ever.

By defying so many of our cultural norms, Miley’s really just begging for a breakdown. We demand blood.

Even other musicians are foretelling her downward spiral. A few days ago, Sinead O’Connor wrote an open letter to Miley Cyrus that was part pep talk, part doomsday prophecy. “When you end up in rehab as a result of being prostituted, ‘they’ will be sunning themselves on their yachts in Antigua, which they bought by selling your body and you will find yourself very alone,” she wrote.

The story of the child-star gone crazy has been told so many times that we think we know how it ends. Hopefully, for her own sake, Miley Cyrus proves us wrong.