El General is a 22-year-old rapper from Tunisia. Two years ago, he was virtually unknown, even in the small but tight-knit world of Tunisian rap. On November 7, 2011, he uploaded a shaky recording of one of his songs to Facebook. This was the same way he had always publicized his music, because political music like El General's was blocked by the Tunisian government at the time. Unlike his prior songs, though, this one, entitled "Rais Lebled," (roughly "Head of the State") went viral.
The song -- a four-minute long condemnation of then-Tunisian ruler Ben Ali's 30-year reign -- calls out the nation's brutal police force and the government's alleged kleptocracy. Heavy-hitting and powerful, the rap soon became the anthem for the Tunisian revolution that came just weeks after. According to some, "Rais Lebled" may have had as equally large a role in starting the revolution as Mohammed Bouazizi's self-immolation.
Music can have a huge influence on what we think and how we view the world, especially now that it is so easily accessible and transferable via social networking and Youtube. Still, few artists are taking advantage of the prodigious influence they have. If El General, a musician with little to no following was able to have such a large role in a national revolution, there is no doubt that musicians with millions of followers worldwide could do the same.
In 2009, over 90 percent of the 174 songs that made it on to the Billboard Top 100 charts were focused on relationships and sex, according to a study conducted by the SUNY Albany Department of Psychology. These artists could have been singing to raise awareness about any number of issues or facing us: the failing global economy, immigration reform, poverty, war, and protecting reproductive rights as Roe v. Wade is being chipped away at, just to name a few.
Instead, most artists choose to write about how they want us to give them everything tonight because they are sexy and they know it.
Political statements in music are at an all-time low. Artists like Lady Gaga and Robyn's promotion of equal rights is a start, but so much more can be done.
The lack of politics in music was especially clear about six months ago as thousands of Americans took to the streets as part of the nationwide Occupy Wall Street protests. Although the Occupy protests were not as large as notable past demonstrations, such as the Vietnam protests of the 1960s and 70s, very few big-name musicians stepped up to provide a song supporting the protesters. Jeff Magnum, vocalist of the rock band Neutral Milk Hotel, performed at an event on October 5, and other musicians like Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Michael Franti of Spearhead and rappers Talib Kweli and Mos Def have since done the same. But the soundtrack to Occupy Wall Street has primarily been drum circles, acoustic guitars and chanting. As distinctive and stirring as these sounds can be, they cannot be heard by those not at the events like a recorded song can.
The one recorded song that gained attention during Occupy was Third Eye Blind's "If There Ever Was a Time," a catchy, guitar-heavy tune encouraging people to get up and help with the Occupy movement. The song was not perfect though, in that it was released late into the protests, after they were beginning to dwindle down. Also, Third Eye Blind simply is not as influential as some of the stars who could have latched onto the Occupy movement and written a song.
As disappointing as it is that so few big-name musicians choose to write about topics that are really important, some have at least used their celebrity to support and raise money for awareness.
K'naan, the Somalian rapper behind the World Cup theme song "Wavin' Flag," has not only released music raising awareness of the violent Civil War in Somalia, but also performed at humanitarian benefit concerts, both in America and abroad, and has recently returned to his war-torn homeland to do even more good.
Another classic example of meaningful and politically infused music is Green Day's American Idiot, although few listeners put in the effort to see through the guitars and drums and hear the underlying themes of self-destruction, rage and the imperfections of former President George W. Bush's presidency.
There are, no doubt, musicians who do use their music for good. There are countless lesser-known musicians who sing about relevant topics and presumably do have an influence on their listeners. Still, the fact that 92 percent of the most popular songs in America are just about the musicians' love lives and desire to have sex is simply depressing. Starting a campaign to raise awareness or donating to a relevant cause is a small and important step, but a musician who proves commitment to a purpose through lyrics or even just writes about others as opposed to themselves can be even more meaningful.
Unlike so many great promoters of peace, social justice and equality, many musicians are blessed with the fact that millions of people already are listening to their songs. With that much influence, it only seems logical that they would choose to write about something worthwhile. After all, in the words of the great composer Ludwig van Beethoven, "Music can change the world."