Donald Trump’s inauguration planning has been bumpy. After numerous rejections, X Factor winner Rebecca Ferguson offered to sing, providing she could perform the protest song about lynching, “Strange Fruit”. In the last few days, a Bruce Springsteen Tribute Act has dropped out of the line-up. I hear it’s touch-and-go with the marching band.
The list of singers who have rejected the “opportunity” to play at Trump’s inauguration is extensive. Elton John, Charlotte Church, Céline Dion, Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars and Kiss – so far, but the list continues to rack up. Those who have agreed are hardly household names: the Talladega College marching band, 3 Doors Down, Jackie Evancho (???), the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and someone called “DJ Ravidrums”. For context, Barack Obama had Beyoncé and Aretha Franklin.
From a musical perspective, Trump is screwed. While Obama was the subject matter of anthems (“My President” by Young Jeezy/ “Changes” by Common/ “Black President” by Nas), Trump is like an over-keen uni student attempting to organise a club night four days into Freshers’ Week. He’s already printed the goddamn posters, and keeps asking you whether you’ve bought your ticket to “Leeds’ FRE$HEST t e c h n o night – Artists TBC.”
Inauguration Day is turning out to be even bigger than expected. January 20th, Washington D.C. Have fun!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 15, 2017
To be fair to Trump, he has inspired some good music: YG’s “FDT” (that’s “Fuck Donald Trump” for all you non-YG fans out there) is a real hit.
Of course, the President-Elect is not the first political figure to have anti-establishment art created about him. Far from it. Punk centred around anti-authoritarianism: fuck Thatcher, fuck the Queen, et al. Public Enemy, Gil Scott-Heron, and Dead Kennedys all created anti-presidential songs during the Seventies and Eighties with Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in their crosshairs.
There will always be a counter-cultural movement dissenting from the mainstream, raging against the machine – but what happens when it’s not counter-cultural, but just er, all culture? When even the mediocre Christian rock bands won’t play at your inauguration?
Trump does not worry about the backlash against him, but he should. Good music is born out of communities, which speaks to experiences. From lines like “When a n***a tryna board the plane / And they ask you, ‘What’s your name again?’ / ‘Cause they thinking, ‘Yeah, you’re all the same’” or “America is now blood and tears instead of milk and honey,” Trump could do with paying attention. Indeed, W.E.B. Du Bois writes in The Souls of Black Folk, “There is no true American Music but the wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave.” Music has always been a political tool, and we should not underestimate its rhetorical power.
This is why Obama’s musical reach was so important. His appreciation of contemporary music spoke to a political awareness of American culture, one that he wanted to engage with and listen to. The recent Ta-Nehisi Coates piece My President was Black opens with the writer’s first-hand experiences of this – from Obama inviting musicians like Jay Z and Chance the Rapper to the White House, to holding music events.
“The Obamas are fervent and eclectic music fans,” Coates writes. “In the past eight years, they have hosted performances at the White House by everyone from Mavis Staples to Bob Dylan to Tony Bennett to the Blind Boys of Alabama.”
Heck, Obama even released two Spotify playlists.
The implications of Obama’s enthusiasm showed an affinity to the people he represented, an awareness of his times, and built a responsive community: one of artists, rappers and singers who want to celebrate in his existence. Obama’s love of music was a sign of an appreciation of the cultures that were producing it. Like a call and response, Obama spoke to the people, and the people called back.
Politics and music will always be interlinked. This is why people were angry over Kanye’s friendship with Trump – the “abomination of Obama’s nation” ignoring his fans, his community, to associate with a man with such a flagrant disregard for black voters. This is in part why we mourn dead musicians. This is why we sing at rallies and marches. The two are inextricably linked, and it is not wise to underestimate the power of the form.
Trump will, inevitably, brush away the foreboding cultural signifier of a musical community rejecting him like a defensive child who doesn’t care. America is divided and it feels like we’re on the brink of something terrifying. Ignoring the masses of people and their voices will be a big mistake. Are you listening, Mr President?