Does Music With A Message Still Matter?

When Raheem DeVaughn was interviewed by NPR last month, he made it clear that he took seriously his role as an artist and someone with the power to impact world issues through his music. He said, "No matter what road I take, I can never get too far away from the conscious lyrics and the socially conscious content...I feel like as artists and producers, bottom line, we make message music, and you have to determine what your message is going to be."

Strong words from Raheem whose new CD--while one of the sexiest albums of the year--contains at least three songs on it that speak to social ills in today's society that make it relevant and far-reaching. Can we call his intentional use of his art as a voice for social change brave? What other artists can we say are doing the same thing? (That wretched "We Are the World" remake does not count.)


As we progress into the 21st century, the question remains: how palatable is music with a message when we consider music buyers who have greater access to diverse choices in music and artist selection? We can easily look at artists like Lauryn Hill, who had such a fantastic and almost meteoric rise as an artist after only one solo album, yet almost disappeared altogether when she took a more socially conscious direction with her music, and believe it is not palatable at all. The irony, however, is that this question exists when some of the biggest music names in history have a long history of creating music that is socially conscious and message-laden, speaking to a greater purpose that extends outside of a base level of entertainment. Consider Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" and "Mercy, Mercy, Me," or almost every Bob Marley song, to most of the songs recorded by Michael Jackson in his last years. Music with a message is what has made some of the greats great.

With new album drops this year by artists like Raheem, Nneka and Erykah Badu, who are selling well while remaining socially conscious, it will be interesting to see what other artists choose to follow the trend without losing their mainstream appeal.

Are there artists out there already who you are listening to who are bringing music with a message that sounds good as well?

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8 Responses

  1. I think it matters to some degree, but to a chosen few. "Message" songs just don't galvanize people anymore, and I think a lot of that is because we as black people are on a lot more pages today than we were back in the days of Marvin's messages. We aren't too unified anymore about many things and I think that's part of it. I recently played the very first solo album that Smokey Robinson did in the early seventies and it is very, very topical, almost dark in a way. I asked my father why it seemed like so many songs from that time were like that and quick as a flash he said "Because that's how we were living. It was our reality as a people." And beyond a few basic things, I don't think we as a people have a common reality anymore. But an even more basic point is that people just don't listen to or consume music the same way. The average listener isn't turning to music for those kinds of messages and outlets, especially in the Facebook world.
    But, that's just my view. Interesting post.

  2. When I look for music to listen to, I don't look for specifically "conscious" artists. If the artist makes great music that also happens to be socially conscious, then that's great.
    Also, what exactly do you mean by "conscious" music? Are you specifically talking about music that discusses politics or social issues or just positive and uplifting music in general?

  3. Georgia Anne Muldrow. Bobby Ray, Janelle Monae. All released/will release music this year, and Bobby Ray and Janelle both have mainstream appeal. Like Hmmmm said, the music reflects the social atmosphere, so there's conscious music out there for those who are willing to seek it out.
    Slight Side Note: I have been going through a Janet Jackson phase lately, and so much of her earlier music had conscious messages. She's lost that lately, and relied too heavily on sex and dance music, which I think has a direct correlation to her lack of success. She was once the queen of making socially conscious music that you could dance to. I'd like to see her go back to that.

  4. I don't think it's fair to say Lauryn Hill stopped selling records when she went "social conscious." She had some other issues going on in her life. It's true we consume music differently than before, but the music has to be good no matter the subject matter.

  5. Janelle Monae's album can be added to this list.

  6. Socially conscious and popular music was always rare but I think what's changed is the lack of any well written songs which communicate articulate thought, because God knows there's enough to protest about out there, as much as there ever was if not more. War, economic crises, bigotry, poverty and social injustice are still with us and not so long ago people used to actually riot in response.
    Everyone's looking after their own interests and doing their own deal, not communicating with each other and if there's no shared culture there's no recognition or shared sense of outrage. Where is our "Choice of Colors" or "Living for the City"? Old songs but can you imagine that level of sophistication today? Thought not.
    That said, there's not much weight to lyrics about personal needs or emotions either and much as I like Erykah I would never call her work particularly challenging or articulate, I just think she's a single flower in a desert so she stands out.
    It's worth noting that a lot of the old singer/writers released on labels that had some independence or were themselves created by visionaries or local people from the same communities as the artists. Clearly not the case now.
    Maybe they're all too busy calling their business managers.
    The times, they have 'a changed.

  7. Amel Larrieux has made songs about female circumcision (Bravebird), Congo Square in New Orleans (Congo), how women sacrifice so much just being women (Giving Something Up), the pitfalls of the music industry (Say You Want It All), and other social issues that all are jamming. I think the key is when some artists try to go social, the interesting beats and hooks that draw you in disappear.

  8. I grew up during the days of the social conscious songs. It was a differnt time then. Also, only a handful of them really put things across articulately. Those are remembered the most. Most used clenches and words like "the man" . Let us not forget that the basis for gangster rap were also laid back then to in the blackplotation flicks and some of the soundtracks.
    Back to today, what about Anthony Hamilton. He has something to say.