Los Angeles artist Beard Bates has been called a lot of things in his time as a creative – some may say a mix/mastering engineer favorite, recording artist, author or perhaps, just a renaissance man of sorts.
When he’s not busy putting the final touches on client records, he can be found in the studio working on his own music, which pushes boundaries of psychedelic-rock, hip-hop, funk, EDM and ambient that he says “all blend into an at times disorienting and otherworldly dreamscape of weirdness.”
In an effort to respond to US entrepreneurs competitively launching themselves and companies into space (Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Elon Musk, etc.), Bates couldn’t help but think of the iconic and poetic piece “Whitey on the Moon” by Gil Scott-Heron.
With Bates going into characters that meet the energy of the moment, he knew that putting his own twist on the track with a touch of modern hip-hop would be his reimagining of the protest song. With some imagination and a great music video in tow, Bates released the track last week to critical praise and some hope that the world may soon prioritize things going on here back home.
In the spirit of Bates’ unique view of the world and making music, we asked to break down his top favorite artists and songs that emphasize protest and change.
I can’t say I’m an authority when it comes to protest or purpose-driven music, as I usually tread water in the mostly abstract, poetic and stream of consciousness end of the pool, but let me give this a go! Gil Scott-Heron’s work to me is novel and a favorite of mine insofar as it can come off as poetic and lighthearted in construction, allusion and delivery, while critically illuminating dire issues of racial and economic inequality. Case in point, both “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “Whitey on The Moon” satirically play with pulpy elements of the “modern” culture at the time and yet, the poems both never stray or meander to an end. There is a palpable and heated dissatisfaction behind the words, yet there’s also a clever poetic dance that entertains, questions and delivers the serious messages with a smirk. For me to cover “Whitey on The Moon” might seem odd to folks, but my intention was to recycle Scott-Heron’s same playful poetic smirk as again the content of the piece became satirically relevant with the current “Billionaire Space Race.”
If you’re talking protest songs, or songs that unearth and universally present some devastating error of humanity, there’s no song as powerful as “Strange Fruit.” Hell, there’s no song, in any genre, this dark or macabre either. It’s probably the most gut-wrenching imagery ever framed in melody. Holiday’s interpolation of the Abel Merropol poem paints a gruesome, yet pastoral painting of lynched bodies hanging as fruit from poplar trees….The effect takes your breath away as your heart sinks and breaks inside the horror yet poetic beauty and power of the piece. To me, this is the ultimate protest song, as it beautifully enters your ears and then holds you hostage, forcing you to experience its truth. Changing someone’s mind is not easy and blunt words rarely convince;, yet the beauty of a work of art is it can slip below the skin, trickle in as whisper, a lilting tune, a pleasing collection of imagery and yet then completely annihilate a listener’s defenses and cause a genuine emotional response. This is a masterpiece in that regard — it’s subtle and smooth…. yet an atomic blast upon impact.
Dylan’s “Masters of War” from 1963 — which calls out masked war-mongering puppet-masters that hide in the privileged shadows of the military industrial complex — is one of the greatest “protest” songs. According to Dylan, the song was not an “anti-war” song, but apparently resonated with President Eisenhower’s farewell address, in which he warned the US public on granting the military-industrial complex too much authority. To me, a “protest” song need not be specifically about a “protestable” or political event, but can be in response to any problematic issue that needs to be addressed in society or collectively in life and Dylan ferociously delivers a song that depicts elitist rich-boys who sociopathically play the public as pawns in war games for no good reason. “You hide in your mansion, while the young people’s blood flows out of their bodies and is buried in the mud.” Social inequality and injustice — whether evidenced in race, class or creed — seem the great motivators of one’s desire to protest and take a stand…. it’s a natural response, I suppose. At the end of the song, Dylan, after having sung, “All the money you made, will never buy back your soul,” states that “and I hope that you die and your death’ll come soon.” No-one wants to be played for a fool, to be disenfranchised, to be demeaned and manipulated. To any cowardly psychopaths in high places, Dylan finishes with, “and I’ll stand over your grave ’til I’m sure that you’re dead.”
Creedence Clearwater Revival:
I’m no musicologist, but I would suspect more protest songs were written in the 1960s than in any other decade ever. I could be wrong — you never know, the War of 1812 or Battle of Hastings or something could have spawned more. No matter, in line with Dylan’s similar anti-establishment, anti-military-industrial complex agenda, John Fogarty’s “Fortunate Son,” has always been a favorite of mine. An iconic rock track that was released midst the depths of the Vietnam war, when lower and middle class American boys were being drafted to fight overseas, while the sons of rich elites were granted exemptions, “Fortunate Son” presents a disparity between rich and poor that must have been painfully evident. You can feel Fogarty’s ire and disgust as he wails, “It ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son… I ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one.”
“I’m just a girl in the world. That’s all that you’ll let me be,” sings Gwen Stefani in No Doubt’s hit “I’m Just a Girl.” This was a mainstream radio hit that happened to make a very poignant point about gender stereotyping in the music industry and most likely, society in general. Stefani points out how she is disenfranchised by the doll-like expectations and social restrictions put in place for young women in society: “Oh, I’m just a girl, all pretty and petite, So don’t let me have any rights.” I always liked this song for being able to portray an honest and weighty perspective inside of a big hit. She cleverly makes her case and it’s definitely a protest song, for despite that she’s “succumbed to” making herself numb, she laments, “I’ve had it up to here…Am I making myself clear?”
I could continue on and on, but I’m prone to long-windedness and so, I’ll hit the”wrap it up” button. My last protest song of note is “Another Brick in The Wall,” by Pink Floyd. This Roger Waters song is an odd “protest” song, but I view it as making an interesting point about the oppression forced upon us all to conform to being educated and essentially “domesticated” in and by society. The freedom and wonder of childhood is arguably obliterated once a child is forced to enter the halls of learning, the sausage factories where teachers fatten you up with “knowledge” and “skills,” teaching you how to think and play well with others, all so your newly macerated guts can be pumped back into a wrapper, leaving you comfortably sterile and ready to be consumed. Excuse me playing upon grotesque visual cues from the song’s music video, but such a parallel seems apropos. However, this is certainly not to fully disparage and ultimately deny schooling or education, but the issue is we are not given a choice at the onset. Society and “humanity” does its best to fashion each one of us into another brick in the wall, a safe and controllable team player and this is at least something we need to be cognizant of, if not quietly protest for the sake of our own individuality.
I lied! One more. Now I’m not completely certain on all of this, but I’ve heard that the song “Yankee Doodle,” the patriotic American nursery rhyme of old, was apparently a recycled medieval melody crafted with new lyrics set on demeaning and ridiculing Colonial soldiers, whom British troops viewed as both “doodles” — country hicks — and “dandies” — conceited fools. The British used the song to mock their Colonist counterparts, but their intention eventually backfired when the Colonists began winning battles and playing the song as the British retreated. By cleverly adopting the song and essentially saying “How do you like us Yankee doodle dandies now?!” the Colonial soldiers turned the song on its head. What was an insult turned into a protest song and battle cry and this to me is a masterful alchemy of transforming hurtful words into self-defining words of empowerment, of accepting a negative and cleverly transforming it into a positive. In a meta way, “Yankee Doodle” is the ultimate protest song, as the mocked adopt the tune of their mockery and twist it into an emblem of freedom from their oppressors. Magic.