Anyone looking for a soundtrack to their particular version of progressive angst can probably find one from the last two years without too much effort. If you’re fed up about inequality and America’s global exploits, M.I.A., PJ Harvey, and Desparacidos have got you. B Real mentioned the need for music calling out “environmental insanity”—recent Anohni and Neil Young albums scorchingly do so. And to the notion that the music world’s ignoring the election, just look at the list of artists backing Bernie Sanders, or listen to YG and Nipsey Hussle’s “Fuck Donald Trump.” These musicians don’t currently have quite the cultural ubiquity that Rage Against the Machine once had, but they’re by no means unknowns.
Meanwhile, the most vibrant strand of political music in the past few years has been rap and R&B’s engagement with the grievances that fuel the Black Lives Matter movement. Kendrick Lamar, Janelle Monae, J. Cole, Chance the Rapper, D’Angelo and many others have made well-publicized songs about racism and its effects. The shared lineage these artists have with Prophets of Rage is often obvious. The fiercely political rap duo Run the Jewels has worked with Zach de la Rocha, the Rage Against the Machine frontman who’s sitting out this new super group. When Beyoncé showed up to the Super Bowl in Black Panther attire, it was a tactic straight out of the Public Enemy playbook.
On Friday the Chicago rapper Vic Mensa, a 23-year-old protege of Kanye West and Jay Z, released a surprise EP titled There’s Alot Going On. Mensa could be a decent candidate for heir to the Rage throne, thanks to the hints of ‘90s nu-metal in his aesthetic and, well, the fact that his forthcoming single is called “Rage.” Apolitical he isn’t: There’s Alot Going On promotes a get-out-the-vote campaign, and at the MTV VMAs, Mensa wore slogans calling out “KKKops”—making the same analogy as Rage Against the Machine’s most iconic song, “Killing in the Name Of.”
On one new song, “16 Shots,” he offers a specific and powerfully angry protest against over-policing, focusing on the killing of LaQuan McDonald by the Chicago police officer James Van Dyke. The chilling outro features a spoken-word description of a video of the incident. Another track, the melancholy “Shades of Blue,” laments the injustice of the Flint water crisis: “Can a nigga get his basic human rights? Is that too much to ask, should I say it more polite?”
But despite his explicit activism, it's likely that most of the debate over Mensa's EP will focus on the quality of his music. The other songs on There’s Alot Going On focus on his personal journey in rap, his sex life, and liquor. Politics is just one part of his persona.
In this, he’s well in line with artists of his generation. Whether it’s Run the Jewels putting out a cat-sounds album or Monae spinning a broad sci-fi allegory or Beyoncé weaving social themes into a narrative about personal reconciliation, the new musicians most likely to be associated with the word “woke” usually emphasize a lot more than advocacy in their art. Maybe this reflects how people construct their identities in the social media age, posting vacation photos next to screeds against presidential candidates. Or maybe it’s insurance against the fact that being political as an artist still has an element of risk.