Back in November 2016, when the impossible happened—when the sun turned to ash, the stars to cinders, and Donald Trump snatched his mad victory—there was instantly the expectation that a great era of protest music would follow. It was a thing people seemed to cling to: the sun is no more, but at least the tunes will slap. Four years later and this spectacularly bad president has fallen, replaced by a run-of-the-mill terrible one, so we can start to examine this strange era of American history. And surveying the cultural landscape shows that actually very few anti-Trump songs resonated.
“Ah, but what about this song that I like,” I hear an imaginary reader retort. Yes, we all have our favourites. Who can deny “We The People” by A Tribe Called Quest, released that strange November, cut to the bone of the bitterness and hatred that powered Trump’s successful campaign? But not many tracks made an impact with the larger public, enjoyed chart success, seeped into America’s consciousness, or powered any grassroots movement against the President. Why was this?
It’s important to say that great protest music was forged in the furnace of Trump’s America. The Black Lives Matter movement inspired stirring anthems before Donald took office and continued to do so throughout his terrible reign—when you saw protestors marching to chants of Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 single “Alright” you knew K-Dot had created something greater than what first came through headphones. A key reason that so few overt anti-Trump songs gained the same traction is that the voices who took up the challenge of capturing and attacking the malignancy in America’s soul often chose to sidestep the president. Take Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” a genuine cultural phenomenon (though not to everyone’s taste) that made no direct reference to Trump. Because the most trenchant critics of American prejudice recognized their messages will be required to live on beyond this president. Racism didn’t begin and end with MAGA.
Those who did attack Trump head-on found him to be extremely difficult to lay a glove on. Fuck, sometimes Trump was Sugar Ray Leonard to these poor fools’ Roberto Duran. The strange phenomenon of why Trump seemed largely invincible to comedy is still being analysed by spiritually emaciated comedians wondering what the hell happened. What’s obvious to me is that by cultivating a ridiculous persona, Trump was difficult to poke fun of. To quote Krusty The Clown: a pie gag is only funny when the sap’s got dignity.
When you have a president with childish traits, perhaps it’s tempting to come down to the level of a toddler. I found the vast majority of comedy on Trump lacking intelligence or a hard satirical edge—I mean, The Simpsons made jokes about his hair actually being a small dog. This dumbing down sometimes extended to music too. Eminem, for one, couldn’t help put lean into tired references to Trump’s tangerine-toned skin.
Speaking of Em, nobody went after Trump harder than Marshall. But watching him try to takedown the President was like watching Micky Rourke’s character in The Wrestler sag against a tree as he attempted to jog for the first time after a heart attack. Em’s struggles encapsulated one problem major artists struggled to overcome. Despite being a rich celebrity, Trump’s election pitch was that he was an anti-establishment, anti-elitism candidate, and it made an impression with working class white voters. This made him teflon to celebrity attacks (think about how silly Robert De Niro looked raging about Trump on news channels) and so the impacts of songs from hitmakers were blunted. And with high profile artists stifled, anti-Trump hits were always going to be hard to come by.
When attacks on Trump weren’t childish, they were often vapid (if sometimes fun, like when Knowledge The Pirate rapped on Roc Marciano’s “No Smoke”, “Somewhere in Fiji, sippin’ mojitos and martinis/While Trump tweetin’ quotes from Mussolini.”). That’s all songwriters could muster when they found it difficult or were unwilling to isolate a Trump policy that could be effectively attacked within the margins of a pop song, such as the Muslim ban or the border wall.
There was, of course, Trump’s sexism, which some songwriters righteously bombarded. Perhaps most notably, Fiona Apple released “Tiny Hands” on SoundCloud a few days before the January 2017 Women’s March, a historic protest focused in Washington D.C. that specifically targeted Trump’s treatment of and attitudes towards women. Apparently recorded on her phone, the one-minute long chant sees Apple repeat, “We don’t want your tiny hands/Anywhere near our underpants.” Though not a fully functioning song, “Tiny Hands” did exactly what Apple wanted it to do: provide a chant for the march. In terms of songs about Trump’s sexism making a broader cultural impact, these issues have never taken seriously in pop music anyway. A misogynistic industry that services a misogynistic culture mutating because Donald Trump was unpopular with liberals? It was never going to happen.
Apple came with a classic songwriting approach for protest songs: keep them simple, blunt, and easy to chant—think “Solidarity Forever,” or even Kendrick’s calls of “We gon’ be alright.” This helps explain why the best and most lasting anti-Trump anthem was one with the simplest message: YG and Nipsey Hussle’s “FDT.” I mean, is there a purer anti-Trump phrase than “Fuck Donald Trump”? Not when it’s served in a catchy hook over a thick West Coast bassline.
Released during the 2016 Republic primaries, YG opens the track with the honesty to admit he thought Trump the businessman and celebrity—the man frequently name-dropped in rap songs over the years—was “straight,” immediately setting up the parameters for him and Nip to deliver simple but effective rebukes (“Hey Donald, and everyone that follows/You gave us your reason to be President, but we hate yours”) and call for Black and Mexican unity against Trump’s rhetoric. Shortly after the election, YG took to Twitter to call the “FDT” the “theme song for the next four years.” He knew exactly what he had.
YG has said the line “Surprised El Chapo ain’t tried to snipe you,” was omitted from some edits of “FDT” because the Secret Service contacted Universal Records with concerns. Nip’s assertion that “you gon’ prolly get smoked,” was also left out. Power paid attention.
Let’s not be too hard on this generation’s stars. Protest music is a herald discipline, but it has a low batting average. Only a tiny number of songs that rally against power achieve their intended purpose: changing the world. When it does happen, societies shake. What the Trump era tells us is that lightning doesn’t always jump in the bottle just because the sky is falling down.
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