For the first time in the lives of many young people, pop music is a political force — albeit compared to prior eras, it's far more cautious.
In February, with berets and upraised fists, Beyoncé shocked an unsuspecting Super Bowl audience by reminding them of the United States' unfinished history of racial strife, singing her defiant black anthem "Formation." Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly — which likened political parties to warring Los Angeles gangs and offered the Black Lives Matter movement a truly protest-worthy anthem — hit No. 1 last March. In June, 200 musicians signed a petition demanded Congress to act on gun violence, to as of yet no avail.
These moments paint a picture of a pop elite that feels markedly different from the Disney-raised pop stars of the '90s. However, this level of political engagement pop is not new, and it's not nearly as developed as it once was. In the past, music has shaken governments. Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings offers a thrilling, partially fictionalized account of what that has looked like from the ground level, following one of pop's truest revolutionaries — Bob Marley.
James' sprawling, bloody epic captures what it was like living when Marley was at his most active, making moves that put him in the crosshairs of the CIA. Marley is never named, he's simply referred to as "the Singer," a choice James explained to GQ as an attempt to "define him by what he symbolizes."
The novel covers the peace concert Marley attempted to organize, up through the attempted assassination that nearly silenced him. It follows all the aftershocks of violence and crime stemming directly or indirectly from those shots, spreading from Jamaica into Miami, New York City and beyond. We see it through the eyes of a dozen different characters, including a disgruntled CIA man, a counter-revolutionary mercenary, a ghetto hitman, a Rolling Stone journalist and one of Marley's one-night stands.
In real life, Marley survived that assassination attempt. The shooters that aimed and missed remain unknown. In James' imagination, that shooter was an up-and-coming CIA-backed, drug kingpin named Josey Wales, and missing was his plan all along.
"It's bad enough plenty man and woman have the Singer off as a prophet, but kill him and the man graduate to martyr," Josey Wales says in the book. "I shoot that man off the pedestal and he fall back down to man size."
This is the power an artist can have. This is the level of political disruption a song or a concert can cause, and the radical legacy a singer can leave behind. Of course, at nearly 700 pages, the novel is so much more than an account of a brief peace orchestrated by music. It's a story of life in the Jamaica's ghettos, the ravages of NYC's AIDS and crack epidemics, racism and colorism.
Music can speak to and affect all those narratives, as A Brief History ultimately illustrates. And if today's political trends in pop are going to amount to anything, it must continue to do so, getting louder and more powerfully song by song.