The 2010s in Activism, Identity Politics, and Pop’s Great Awokening

For his part, Eminem delivered a blistering, if awkward, freestyle attack on Trump on the 2017 BET Hip-Hop Awards, and Axl Rose, who once stood for much of the same reactionary white male privilege that Trump does today, took to Twitter two days before the 2018 midterm elections to slam the president for his lack of morals and ethics. The profound spectacle of white male celebrities telling their audiences that the conservative American president can kick rocks is not something any of us have seen in our recent lifetimes. (Even Bruce Springsteen, for all his mettle, rarely went that far.)

Ever the contrarian, Kanye West tried to classify himself as a free thinker by defining Trump’s MAGA sloganeering for himself in defiance or sheer ignorance of the president’s disastrous policies against people of color. Other artists, like Azealia Banks, A$AP Rocky, and UK grime star Skepta, just seemed confused in this woke new world.

If nothing else, it was made clear that staying woke is a complicated and slippery affair, full of potential blindspots and minefields. And while many found ways to confront racism, sexism, and homophobia in their music this decade, few artists had the artistic capacity or insight to make music that explicitly interrogated the dynamics of class and status. Country singer Margo Price’s activism in tackling the gender pay disparity on “Pay Gap,” from her 2017 album All American Made, remains relatively rare in pop music—which is unfortunate, given pop’s declining middle class.

Only a small handful of monied elite superstars have enough of a platform and budget to be able to make certain kinds of highly charged political statements, even in a diminished music economy. But the flipside is that those same artists are not likely to upset, disrupt, or criticize the capitalist system that has facilitated their success—even if that system is trapping some of the audiences they need to thrive in dead-end wage labor or insurmountable poverty. (The stunning 2016 Brazilian documentary Waiting for B, which tracks cash-poor LGBTQ+ Beyoncé fans waiting in line outside her concert in São Paulo, is heartbreaking, given that some wait as long as two months to see her perform, and go broke to do so.)

Superstars increasingly rely on brand sponsorships and deals rather than recorded music streams or sales, which means they’re often pro-corporate, even if only by default. This is especially true in hip-hop, where trap music mythologizes conspicuous consumption and where misguided ideas about black wealth accumulation as a knee-jerk form of revolutionary activity forestall the collective ability to think about deeper relationships between class, race, and gender.

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