We often associate ‘political music’ with the specific era and historical context that inspired it. When we hear Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young we think of the Vietnam War and the Kent State massacre. Virtually all of Rage Against the Machine’s catalog is inseparable from the rise of globalization and neoliberalism in the 1990s. These pieces of music manifest the conditions that inspired them and serve as valuable cultural artifacts. However, the messages of these songs usually live on, as the issues they address are often deeply systemic.
On the morning of Saturday, November 7th, in the wake of Joe Biden’s victory against Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, I decided to revisit one of my favorite, yet fairly unknown, political albums; Wake Up! by John Legend and The Roots. Wake Up! Was originally inspired by Barack Obama’s election in 2008, and captured the excitement that many in the country were feeling at the time. In November of 2020, those same people were most likely not feeling excitement, but instead relief that Trump was no longer president. As I listened to the album, I couldn’t help but think of Obama’s 2008 messaging of hope and change, and how in many ways that messaging had failed to become a reality in the subsequent years of his presidency. In a way, it felt as if the album’s central premise had been rejected by history.
The 2008 election of Barack Obama marked a unique moment of excitement in American society. In addition to being the nation’s first black president, Obama entered office with a strong mandate for real, systemic change. After eight long years under a Bush/Cheney Administration, Americans had grown tired of the state of affairs and wanted something different. In January of 2009, the U.S. was involved in two wars, economic inequality was rising, and the country was at the height of a severe recession. The historic moment was characterized both by the hope that Obama’s election promised, paired with the real pain felt by so many at the time.
John Legend and Ahmir Thompson, better known as Questlove, were both major supporters of Obama’s candidacy and subsequent presidency. Inspired by the atmosphere of excitement and hope created by the 2008 election, they decided to capture the moment by collaborating on a record with Thompson’s band, The Roots. Wake Up! Was released in 2010 and featured 12 songs, predominantly covers drawing from a catalogue of politically charged soul music from the ‘60s and ‘70s. In its purest essence, Wake Up! was a political statement, one that managed to both address the harsh realities of the present moment, such as war and poverty, and celebrate the optimism and excitement that Obama’s election brought.
My experience with Wake Up! began in 2014, four years after it was originally released. I was primarily drawn to the album by its sonic textures and excellent musicianship, although I did appreciate the politically motivated song choice, especially the 12-minute version of one of Bill Withers’ lesser-known ant-Vietnam War songs “I Can’t Write Left-Handed”. Though I was aware of the historic conditions that inspired Legend and Thompson to make the album, the political implications of the material didn’t really connect with me as a relatively apolitical, sheltered 15-year-old. During the Obama years, I was politically checked out. In my eyes, Obama was a ‘good guy’ and his election marked an end of history type moment where the issues sung about on Wake Up!, such as war, racial tension, and poverty, were either remedied or improving rapidly. If I derived any political meaning from the album, that was it.
Like many, my political awakening essentially began when Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, a clear referendum on my ‘end of history’ view of the Obama years. At the time, I was shocked that someone like Trump could’ve won, and desperately wanted to understand why his message appealed to so many. After exploring this question in greater depth, it became fairly clear to me that Trump’s rise was, at least in part, a symptom of the same issues that Obama’s 2008 platform has promised to address. In other words, Obama’s strong 2008 mandate and the excitement that it created failed to fully manifest into long-lasting, systemic change, at least in the manner that it was envisioned by so many.
As I listened to Wake Up! On the morning of Biden’s win, I began to think of the songs in a new light. While the inspiration behind the album itself may have not materialized in the way that many had hoped, the songs were as relevant as ever. We don’t know exactly what a Biden presidency will look like yet, but there is good reason to believe that the deeply systemic issues sung about in ‘60s and ‘70s soul music and revisited by John Legend and The Roots in 2010 will continue to persist. Wake Up! may be a lesser-known political album, defined by critics as a homage to a specific historic moment, but it includes a series of songs that are timeless. War, systematic racism, and poverty are still major forces of destruction in 2020 America, as they were in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Most political music can and should be thought of in this way. It can be highly associated with a specific moment in time, while simultaneously remaining relevant in a much larger context. In the case of Wake Up!, this dynamic holds true and is clearly evident in the selection of cover songs included in the album, including three tracks in particular:
“Hard Times” (Curtis Mayfield, 1975)
Hard Times confronts the dark social and economic reality faced by black individuals in the 1970s. While the Civil Rights Movement had made significant legal and social gains in the 1960s, many problems remained and Martin Luther King’s vision, which included the expansion of economic opportunity for black individuals, had not been fully realized. Obama’s presidency was another important milestone for civil rights, but it also failed to address the deep economic insecurity felt by so many Americans in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. In 2020, this dynamic is even more evident with the rise of the gig economy and the continued erosion of labor rights through mechanisms such as Prop 22.
“Compared to What” (Written by Gene McDaniels, performed by Roberta Flack, 1969)
“Compared to What” addresses two major issues prevalent in the late 1960s: the Vietnam War and the juxtaposition between the ideals of equality and actual material reality. It has been described as a ‘topical rant’ against President Johnson and the broader failures of American Liberalism in the late 1960s. While U.S. warfare looks vastly different today than it did during Vietnam, frustration and resentment remain, particularly against presidents Obama and Trump for their failure to remove American troops from the Middle East, despite numerous promises to do so. Furthermore, critiques of the Democratic Party from the left on economic issues are more prevalent now than ever.
“Hang On In There” (Written by Mike James Kirkland, 1972)
“Hang On In There” is my favorite track of the album and is perhaps the most relevant to the excitement surrounding Obama’s election in 2008 and the album’s central message. The song looks at American identity, especially the American identity of those who have been mistreated by their country. It also addresses the difficulties and costs of incremental social progress. The song certainly captures the feeling of frustration and feelings held by many Americans at the end of the Bush years and the optimism that Obama brought, but also foreshadows the slow change, or lack thereof, of the Obama years.
If John Legend and Ahmir Thompson set out to reimagine a selection of lesser-known yet highly relevant politically charged songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s, they succeeded. While much of the discourse around the album has involved one man, Obama, and the album’s sonic aesthetics are reminiscent of the past, the songs themselves sit above all of that. To listen to the album as a throwback record, or as a tribute to Obama (as I originally did), would be missing the point. Ultimately, Wake Up! presents a series of underappreciated, compelling, and timeless pieces of music that are important in their own right. As a listener, my interpretation of the album has changed as my politics and perception of the world have evolved. Good, conscious art has the power to do that and to be appreciated in multiple contexts, whether it be the Obama era, Trump era, or post-Trump era.
**Vibe Check – Post Insurrection Attempt/ Inauguration**
This piece was originally in November when Biden won the election (the first time). Many predicted that there would be mass unrest on election week, regardless of the outcome, and precautions were taken across the country. Election week ended up being relatively quiet, but serious underlying issues remained. President Trump refused to concede the election, claiming that it was stolen via widespread voter fraud in key swing states, which came as a surprise to exactly no one. Throughout November and December, Trump’s legal team filed over 60 lawsuits, losing nearly all of them. However, Trump’s claims of voter fraud were widely perpetuated online, with a noninsignificant sect of the country believing that the election was stolen. Inevitably, this movement, known as ‘Stop The Steal’, left the chat rooms of Facebook and Parler and entered mainstream liberal consciousness on January 6th when ‘Stop The Steal’ rally participants stormed the U.S. Capitol, occupying the building until the National Guard arrived.
It ended up being this event that finally brought Trump’s approval ratings down to second-term George W. Bush levels, around 34%. In many ways, Trump’s presidency was the worst of all worlds, pairing traditional republican politics of tax cuts and deregulation with a faux-populist white identity politics, or as Kyle Kulinski characterized it: “George W. Bush on steroids plus mean tweets.” Conversely, the limited excitement (and approval) that does exist around Biden’s future presidency seems to be largely rooted in the fact that he is not Trump, and that he rejects the most egregious elements of Trumpism. However, Biden could still deliver big things, and it would be a popular thing to do given the current state of the country. We will see.
Both the Bush and Trump eras were prime for political music, for fairly obvious reasons. However, albums like Wake Up! were able to transcend the binary of modern American politics and remain relevant, no matter who was in charge. It will be exciting to see what kind of political music is made in the post-Trump era. While many anticipate the Biden years to be a return to ‘normalcy’, many underlying problems remain and good political music will be as important as ever. Let’s not return to brunch.
Hank Mckay is a .WAV staff member, he wrote the article. Jena Nelson is a .WAV staff member, she created the graphic.