|The underground hardcore punk movement – led by the likes of Black Flag, MDC and Minor Threat – flourished during the height of Reagan’s presidency in the 80s. Composite: Getty Images & Malcolm Rivera|
Since the election, the Kominas have been getting the same curious request. The east coast punk band keeps being asked, by film-makers and documentarians, for a Donald Trump protest song. “People just assume we have an anti-Trump song already recorded,” says Basim Usmani, the group’s bassist.
In the weeks preceding and following the election, musicians, fans and critics have discussed and debated the idea that Trump’s impending presidency could inspire a new movement of politically charged protest music. So it’s no surprise that the Kominas, a South Asian American band whose discography includes provocative statements like Sharia Law in the USA, would be called upon for a musical reaction to the president-elect.
“It’s been hard to deal with,” says Usmani, whose band recently recorded a new batch of material focusing instead on highlighting angst and mental health issues from the perspectives of people of color. “It’s radical for us to center ourselves in our own music, as opposed to Trump. We’d like to turn him into background noise.”
The Kominas are just one band that’s begun thinking about how to use rock music, viewed by many as a dated genre long past its cultural relevancy, to react to and channel the collective sense of unrest, fear and anger felt by tens of millions of Americans in the wake of last month’s election.
Less than two weeks after election night, Green Day began their performance at the 2016 American Music Awards by covering a snippet of Born to Die by 80s punk outfit Millions of Dead Cops. Green Day’s performance recalled the underground hardcore punk movement – led by the likes of Black Flag, MDC and Minor Threat – that flourished during the height of Reagan’s presidency in the 80s.
“No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA,” Billie Joe Armstrong sang, slightly tweaking MDC’s “No war, no KKK,” refrain from 1982’s Born to Die. For his performance, Armstrong drew from MDC’s modified chorus that had long been chanted at protests nationwide. “That happened real organically, people had started chanting ‘no Trump, no KKK’ four or five months ago,” says Dave Dictor, lead singer of MDC. “We take up lots of food and oxygen and resources as musicians and as Americans, so the least we can do is give a shit about something and try to give something back.”
The similarities between Reagan and Trump have left some wondering if the next few years of underground rock music may bear any resemblance to the wave of independent-spirited, politically conscious rock that arose during the Reagan years.
“There were big time issues in those days, and there certainly are these days, so I see the parallel,” says Mike Watt, founding member of the 80s underground pioneers the Minutemen. Still, Watt fundamentally believes that “it should always be time”, that there should always be resistance music fighting power structures. He also expresses serious reservations about lionizing the 80s. “Young bands come up to me a lot and say, ‘you guys did it all, you were from a special time’ which makes me really sad. I try to convince them that every time is a special time.”
For young bands, the notion that 2016’s election might usher in a musical renaissance is at best misguided and at worst offensive to some. “People who’ve had the privilege to think that this is going to ignite an artistic revolution that hasn’t always been there just speaks to the ability for people to be blind,” says Victoria Ruiz, lead singer of the Providence-based Downtown Boys. “The election pulled the Band-Aid off for the people who could afford the Band-Aid to begin with, and now we see that the blood is flowing.”
“It’s a ridiculous idea, especially for the many bands, including ours, who have been making explicit political statements for so long,” adds guitarist Joey DeFrancesco. Karna Ray, drummer for the Kominas, puts it even more bluntly. “There’s something implicitly greedy in expecting suffering to reach a high enough watermark to force vital music in response,” he says. “It seems to be a common sentiment among white men punks, but that just shows they have no skin in the game. They’ll never be deported. They’ll never have their bodies policed or violated by the government, so they can sit back at a distance and vibe on the music.”
One of the most visible collective forms of directly political music during the election was 30 Days, 30 Songs, a collection of “songs written and recorded for a Trump-Free America” organized by novelist Dave Eggers. The project was heavily centered around rock music, a genre Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney, who contributed a song, believes has long been replaced as the standard-bearer of social consciousness.
|Kendrick Lamar performs onstage at the Grammys. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images|
“We’re already in an incredible time in the United States for protest music, but it’s all happening in a lot of hip-hop and R&B tied to the Black Lives Matter movement,” she says. But the idea that national unrest can lead to increased artistic momentum has been tough to disregard. “I do think that when times are bad externally, it builds up more energy,” says fellow 30 Days, 30 Songs contributor Roger Miller, lead singer of pioneering 80s post-punk band Mission of Burma.
For Miller, the big question is whether or not the internet has the ability to harness collective energy into widespread artistic resistance. “I don’t see any evidence of any ball of energy getting ready to explode, because with the internet, that energy’s always getting poked and little bits of it get released.”
That sentiment is echoed by Mike Watt, who views technology as the crucial difference between 80s underground culture and today. “This might sound corny, but I think people got information from songs back then. That’s how we spoke to each other about issues.”
Veterans from the 80s and 90s underground scenes like Miller, Dictor, Tucker and Watt insist that old-fashioned forms of involvement, like playing benefit shows and aligning with grassroots organizations, are still some of the most basic and meaningful things young bands can do. “Even if your songs are all about boys and girls, playing a fundraiser for a cause you believe in can still be a very useful political tool,” says Miller.
An overwhelming consensus is that the way in which protest music gets defined and discussed needs to become more flexible, more contradictory, less literal. “I’m most interested in hearing from people who have a story to tell, because that’s the best way to get others to change their minds and listen,” says Tucker. “Stories are always the most effective protest music.”
As for the type of plainly confrontational anti-Trump statement, a type of protest most clearly channeled this year by rapper YG’s Fuck Donald Trump, new bands may already be forming to write those songs in middle schools across the country. “We feel like what kids need to hear right now is not an anti-Trump song, because an anti-Trump song is promising, but it’s not the truth,” says Usmani. “That being said, I will go on record and say that if four young brown kids want to start a hardcore, Reagan-era punk band that’s anti-Trump, that could be awesome. That would be epic.”
Bernstein, Jonathan. "Rise above: will Donald Trump's America trigger a punk protest renaissance?" The Guardian. 2016. Accessed December 21, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/dec/15/protest-songs-hip-hop-punk-black-flag-trump.