Fight Songs: Can Political Debate Make Good Music?

Kanye West and Janelle Monáe are among those artists to stage rhetorical battles between red and blue America.

Am image from Joyner Lucas's "I'm Not Racist"
MAGA and Black Lives Matter square off in Joyner Lucas's "I'm Not Racist" (Atlantic Records)

ABC executives now say that the next season of Roseanne will focus more on “family” and less on “politics,” though one of the big lessons of the show is that the first can hardly be separated from the second. It was politics that gave the rebooted sitcom its initial gust of publicity, and the show probably stands as the most discussed pop-culture riff on the Trump era.

While the president himself attributes Roseanne’s ratings success to the sympathy the show holds toward his voters, there’s an argument to be made that what’s so quintessentially 2018 about it is not that it takes sides. It’s that it captures national disagreement. On screen, there’s a divide between the conservative resentment of Roseanne and the liberal frenzy of her sister, Jackie. Off screen, there’s a divide between the liberal-leaning writers of the show and its InfoWars-reading lead actor. The tension—off and on screen—might just be what charges the comedy.

Partisan tension can be a creative force in other arenas, too. In the latest issue of The Atlantic, I wrote about how pop culture, especially pop music, has lately addressed politics less through advocacy than through emotions. But there is a substrain of music that surveys the national landscape and decides to stage a gladiator match between red and blue America. These songs are structured as dialogues, making them part of a musical tradition that’s long and, it must be said, often grating, as previously heard in (shudder) “Anything You Can Do,” or (yikes) “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” or (double yikes) “Accidental Racist.” They fantasize about bringing both sides together, though they really just egg on the fight.

The most brazen recent example came from Kanye West, who has been hard at work to position himself as an impish referee of national discord. His recent pro-Trump tweeting claimed he was simply asking questions while also radiating contempt for his critics. The contradictions of his stated point of view have been much discussed. Some observers theorize that West’s MAGA phase is actually a performance art project, and if they’re right, his likely intended “point” is to show how dug-in the two political sides are nowadays. As if anyone needs to be reminded.

As the controversy over West’s tweets was cresting, the rapper released two truly weird songs—one a straight-up trolling effort (a long instrumental segment followed by a verse of nonsense: “poopy-di scoop”) and another a collaboration with the rapper T.I., titled “Ye vs. the People.” T.I., the Georgia rapper who has become increasingly involved in progressive activism over the years, was meant to speak for all of West’s critics, and West was meant to defend himself. As music, with the two trading lumpen lines over a fidgety sample of the Four Tops, it was strictly a download-and-then-delete affair. As politics, it was so unproductive as to almost approximate catchiness: You might think of it days later, still annoyed.

West’s lyrics were typical of his recent public stance: obsessed over the spectacle of disagreeing with the crowd, but not getting into the substance of why he disagrees. “Ain’t goin’ against the grain everything I fought for?” he asks. He also seems to think espousing an edgy opinion is in itself somehow a gesture of peace: “You on some choosin’-side shit, I’m on some unified shit,” and “Wearin’ the hat’ll show people that we equal.” Then there are echoes of Candace Owens: “See that’s the problem with this damn nation / All blacks gotta be Democrats, man / We ain’t made it off the plantation.”

T.I. returns fire largely along the superficial lines of argument that West has called out as manipulative and “based on fear”: questioning whether West is harming his legacy or using his fame correctly. But toward the end, he lands a salient point against West’s previously stated belief that American racism is not that important. “Genocide and slavery, we should just try and forget?,” T.I. asks. West doesn’t respond, though. He simply ends things: “Alright, Tip, we could be rappin’ about this all day, man / Why don’t we just cut the beat off and let the people talk?” It’s confirmation that finding common ground isn’t the point; stirring the pot is.

Last year, the rapper Joyner Lucas staged a viral argument somewhat less slapdash than West’s. In “I’m Not Racist,” Lucas rapped first from the perspective of a white Trump fan and then from the perspective of a black Trump critic. Emotionally intense and lyrically intricate, the song succeeded in triggering conversation—but under a false pretense of building understanding.

Lucas’s imagined MAGA man is, contrary to the song title, definitely racist. He uses the n-word with gusto, and though at first he simply claims it’s not fair he doesn’t get to use it when black people do, he ends up spitting it as a blatant slur. His argument, such as it is, is that he thinks black people are lazy, entitled, violent complainers. It’s hard to imagine many on the anti-Trump side finding these ugly thoughts novel, and it’s hard to imagine many on the pro-Trump side not claiming the character is an unfair caricature. Still, we’re told the guy’s open-minded. He ends his verse, “But there’s two sides to every story / I wish that I knew yours.”

The other side of the story then arrives in a point-by-point response from an imagined black person. He starts with venom—“With all disrespect / I don’t really like you white motherfuckers, that’s just where I’m at”—but then gets to explaining his point of view: “You don’t know what it’s like to mind your business / And get stopped by the cops and not know if you ‘bout to die or not.” In the video, the MAGA character listens and seems to become more pensive as the anti-MAGA character raps at him. At the end, the two hug and then appear to chat more calmly.

The implication is that simply sitting across from the person you consider your foe and hearing their case, angrily made, will bring about reconciliation. Of course, that’s not the dynamic we see playing out in the average Twitter battle between people with Pepe the Frog and Hillary Clinton for avatars.

I haven’t fully figured out if Janelle Monáe’s “Americans” deserves to be put in this category of bickering ballads, but there is definitely a dialectic within it. At some points, Monáe sings from the perspective of a progressive champion: “Seventy-nine cent to your dollar / All that bullshit from white-collars / You see my color before my vision.” At other points, she inhabits a conservative stereotype: “I like my woman in the kitchen / I teach my children superstitions / I keep my two guns on my blue nightstand.” It’s not clear whether the two perspectives are directly addressing one another, but it is clear what they have in common. “Don’t try to take my country, I will defend my land / I’m not crazy, baby, naw, I’m American,” goes the chorus: a line that both sides, in their way, might claim.

Monáe isn’t pretending to weight both sides equally. The song, a brisk and radiant anthem, is laced with spoken-word sermons about including Mexican immigrants and gay people in the national dream. Monáe’s clear message is that it’s not just those who keep guns on their nightstand who should be able to claim the title of American. Whether that’s a notion that the traditionalist types Monáe sometimes sings from the perspective of are ever going to accept is besides the point. She’s acknowledging the national divide, and stepping over it.

In this, Monáe avoids seeming like the performatively “reasonable” politicians who are constantly decrying the unraveling of civility in the public forum. Fights are happening around dinner tables (as seen in Roseanne) and online (as seen in the replies section of any given Donald Trump tweet), regardless of whether Sen. Jeff Flake approves. Music can capture this reality, but it rings false and manipulative when it tries to tsk-tsk it. “We were all humans until race disconnected us, religion separated us, politics divided us, and wealth classified us,” says the epitaph on Lucas’s video. Politics divided us is true enough, but it implies that politics is simply a sport of disagreement. The truth is, there are consequences to who wins.