To some, artists are duty-bound to speak out against oppression. This strand of thought reflects Desmond Tutu’s quote, “If you’re neutral in the situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” This in a sense categorizes the artist as either a supporter of the oppressor or an ally of the oppressed. Artistry that fails, directly or indirectly, to address oppression is basically a performance of neutrality which, in line with Tutu’s quote, endorses the oppressors’ actions. Protest music and liberation music stand in stark contrast to this as they speak against the injustice occasioned on the oppressed.
On the other hand, it can be argued that artists are no different from their audiences as well as the societies they represent. Progressive messages in the society are disseminated by progressive artists; but not all artists or, by extension people, are progressive in their political outlook. This implies that holding an artist to a higher moral standard – by expecting him/her to speak out – would be unfair as the artist’s skill does not inherently make him/her an exceptionally progressive person.
Perhaps there is more to this question than just two diametrically opposite view points. Two artists weighed in on this question and had the following to say:
Ythera is a recording and performing artist who describes her genre of music as Soul Afro Funk. She aspires to create socially conscious and relatable music.
‘“You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” These are the words of the famous Nina Simone and I agree with this statement to an extent. Here’s why.
We as artists wield so much power - power to influence popular culture, trends, people’s choices, legislation, etc. We are especially successful in influencing the younger generation; those that look up to us and aspire to become what we are and more. With such power comes even greater responsibility and in certain situations I believe it is important for us to lend our voices and speak up for those who may not be able to do so. Considering that artists already have a platform and an audience that will relate to the cause, and can inspire their audiences to take action as well, I truly believe that our art should have a positive impact on those that consume it. I’m also of the school of thought that it should come from a genuine concern. As an artist I think one should find a cause that they truly believe in and support, and not just lend their voice for the optics or a pay cheque.
However, the situation is more complex. Music and other forms of art are also a release from some of the excesses of this world. Some artists may prefer to use their art form to heal and make other people feel good and forget their troubles or situations - almost in a therapeutic manner. There is nothing wrong with this. Art has a way of making a tough world, full of problems, seem a bit more bearable. It’s often said that for every spectrum of emotion there lies a song.
Matters of morals and ethics are often very contentious to discuss, especially in our creative industry, as the lines between acceptable and perverse are quite often blurred. I’m of the honest opinion that being true to your art and making a conscious effort to make a positive change in whatever way is the way to go. In conclusion, I’d say that if you are blessed to have a voice or a platform, you should use it to do good not only for yourself, but for others too.’
Mwafreeka is a respected Hip Hop artist who has been practicing his craft for the past 10 years and is a former radio presenter and TV show host for the programme Raiya (Civilian). He has a contrary view:
‘I don't think artists should feel obliged to speak on any particular subject. Such obligations would only spread ignorance as artists with little or no knowledge or even interest on certain matters would feel constrained to speak on them.
Renowned musicians have taught us that truly inspiring music comes from the heart. Therefore singing about or addressing matters that are not close to the heart would just result in flat, soulless music. The reason we still, 35 years after his death, sing along to Bob Marley's music is because we can resonate with his lyrics - he truly meant and felt everything he sang about.
I prefer an artist who makes me dance while singing something nonsensical than an artist who sings about matters that s/he knows little about, or just regurgitates views that are popular.’