BY STEPHEN ADDANTE
In this article, some of the more memorable political performances in recent history will be discussed. While there are many artists with political songs and messages, not many have performed these tracks live on television. As our political climate gets increasingly tense, artists are becoming more political, however, as you’ll notice in this article, many of the artists mentioned are very established ones who don’t necessarily have as much to lose by performing on the big stage.
THIS IS AMERICA
MAY 5, 2018
Saturday Night Live
We’ll start this list off with Childish Gambino’s “This is America”, performed on Saturday Night Live. Gambino’s SNL performance was overshadowed by the discussion around his polarizing music video for the song, which released during the show and quickly went viral. The performance carried an equal amount of seriousness with Gambino stone faced and standing still throughout the first half of the song. The five kids who joined him on stage (in the same outfits from the music video) were complete opposites of him, dancing and smiling in a circle. Several parallels can be draw between the performance and music video, right down to Gambino’s gestures.
Blue and red lights, similar to those of a police siren are flashed throughout the performance alluding to some of the song’s main themes regarding police brutality and gun violence in the U.S. At one point, Gambino joins the kids and begins to dance with them as he does in the music video. Many people have pointed to the idea of this dancing representing the ways in which we are constantly being distracted from the real issues and injustice facing our society.
Money is also thrown in the air by the kids at one point in the performance while Gambino sings his “Get your money black man” refrain, similarly pointing to the ways in which money (or the pursuit of “success”) distracts us from the injustices across the nation.
The performance ends as Gambino walks off stage and the camera focuses on one of the girls who is left alone on stage dancing as Young Thug’s outro fades out: “You just a black man in this world, you just a barcode, ay”.
FEB 7, 2016
Super Bowl 50 Halftime Show
Beyoncé was tapped for the Super Bowl 50 halftime show a few years back along with Bruno Mars and Coldplay who shared the stage with her. She performed her new single “Formation” which was released a day prior to the performance along with its politically laced music video. The song quickly became an anthem for black empowerment and feminist movements across the country.
The halftime show started off with Coldplay who performed their repertoire before they were joined by Bruno Mars. Bruno performed “Uptown Funk” until a marching band took the field along with Beyoncé and her back-up dancers. Dressed in all black, their outfits resembled that of the Black Panthers as they fiercely marched up the field. Beyoncé and her dancers raise their fists and flaunt their sexuality as they take “formation”. At one point, they assemble into a X formation, a nod to Malcolm X.
Beyoncé sported a bandolier of bullets, similar to Michael Jackson’s Super Bowl performance in 1993 as well which made the moment that much more iconic. Once they reached midfield, they joined Bruno Mars on stage for a dance-off and ended a continuation of “Uptown Funk”. The performance was praised by many for its bold and charismatic take. The halftime show is widely considered one of the better performances in Super Bowl history.
DEC 10, 2014
The Late Show with David Letterman
A lot of people may not be as familiar with this performance as there was really no hype or build up to it. In fact, Cole was actually expected to perform a song off of his new album 2014 Forest Hills Drive which was released a day prior to this performance. However, he opted to go with the never performed “Be Free” which he originally released days after the Michael Brown shooting. In the statement for the song on SoundCloud, Cole wrote “Rest in Peace to Michael Brown and to every young black man murdered in America, whether by the hands of white or black. I pray that one day the world will be filled with peace and rid of injustice. Only then will we all Be Free”.
Cole is alone on stage with only Ron Gilmore behind him playing the keys and you can immediately tell the seriousness and importance of this moment for Cole. In an interview the day after with Angie Martinez, he noted that he was extremely nervous during the performance and that he actually re-watched the viral Eric Garner video to try and get back into the mind frame he was in when he originally made the song.
The song’s eerie instrumental works perfectly with Cole’s lyrics as he cries out “all we wanna do is break the chains off, all we wanna do is be free”. Cole also added a never before heard verse in which he dreams about President Obama potentially giving out reparations on his last day in office. He adds that despite his admiration for Obama, he really hasn’t seen any change, which may not have been entirely his fault. Cole also touches on forms of systematic oppression throughout the song discussing ideas of consumerism and racial injustice across America.
The performance remains one of Cole’s best performances ever and will give you the chills every time (even Letterman was shaken up at the end).
we the people….
A TRIBE CALLED QUEST
FEB 12, 2017
The 59th GRAMMY Awards
After releasing their first album in 18 years (We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service), A Tribe Called Quest reunited at the 59th GRAMMY Awards. The ceremony took place only a few weeks after President Donald Trump’s inauguration (January 20th) and you could definitely tell by watching this performance. There was also a lot of emotion in the air as former member of Tribe, Phife Dawg, passed away the year before, and whom the performance was dedicated to.
To begin their performance, Q-Tip, Jarobi, and Ali took the stage to perform classic tracks “Award Tour”, “Can I Kick It?” and “Movin’ Backwards” before being joined by Anderson Paak, Busta Rhymes, and Consequence for “We the People….” off their latest album. The song looks at several different issues across America including racial injustice, police brutality, religious discrimination, and gender rights. Before beginning the song, Busta Rhymes walks on stage and begins to discuss his distaste for the political climate, thanking “President agent orange for perpetuating all of the evil… across the United States” in reference to Donald Trump.
During the performance, people of all ages, races, religions, and sexuality join them on stage as they repeat the chorus of the song: “All of you black folks, you must go, all of you Mexicans, you must go, and all you poor folks, you must go, Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways, so all of you bad folks, you must go”. As Phife Dawg’s verse plays, multiple banners of the MC are dropped and all the artists raise their fists as a sign of resistance and solidarity. The group initially performed the track on Saturday Night Live, however, their Grammy performance served as the standout political performance.
FEB 15, 2016
The 58th GRAMMY Awards
After receiving 11 nominations (one short of Michael Jackson’s record 12), Kendrick Lamar gave an explosive performance at the 58th Grammy’s. He performed singles “The Blacker The Berry” and “Alright” off of his critically acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly, as well as a previously unheard song (later released as “untitled 05 | 09.21.2014”).
Kendrick opened the performance in a jail set as he walked up to the mic sporting a prison jumpsuit with chains around his wrists, similar to the inmates who followed behind him. “You hate me don’t you? You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture” shouts Kendrick as a man in the cell beside him plays the saxophone. Kendrick embraces and emphasizes his “blackness'“ throughout the entire performance, but to a much larger extent during this first part performing “The Blacker The Berry”. As the chorus for the song approaches, Kendrick and the other inmates break free of their chains and their outfits illuminate with a glow in the dark effect as the beat drops.
Kendrick then moves toward a burning fire where the “Alright” beat begins to play alongside Indigenous people dancing and playing traditional drums. The song became an anthem earlier in the year for movements across the world with its simple, yet effective chorus claiming that no matter what powers or injustices are against your people, “we gon’ be alright”.
The performance closed with Kendrick alone on stage reciting parts of the unreleased “untitled 05 | 09.21.2014” discussing issues of social inequality. The camera work on this last part was insane, taking quick cuts and different angles of Kendrick as a light continuously flashed across his face. The performance was received well and was praised by many celebrities and critics.
BLACK SKINHEAD / NEW SLAVES
MAY 18, 2013
Saturday Night Live
When Kanye West released his 6th studio album, Yeezus, many people were taken aback given the raw and stripped back experimental sound. Fans had become accustomed to the soul samples and pleasing melodies West had been known for, and Yeezus was anything but that. A day prior to the performance, Kanye premiered “New Slaves” in 66 locations around the world by projecting a close-up video of his face rapping the song onto buildings.
On SNL, Kanye performed a different song first, “Black Skinhead”, which went on to be the lead single for Yeezus. Black Skinhead serves as an anthem for anti-establishment and anti-racist movements with references to the Ku Klux Klan, Catholicism, and ‘Middle America’. The performance began with video of snarling dogs playing behind him as the heavy drum pattern rocked the stage. Kanye’s aggressive tone was surely felt throughout the building as he began: “For my theme song, my leather black jeans on, my by-any-means on, pardon I’m getting my scream on”. Some of his lyrics differ from the final version of the song but the main idea is still obviously there.
An image of three hooded figures (resembling a black Ku Klux Klan) was also projected several times throughout the performance on the screen behind him. However, the most eye-catching part of this performance was the collection of flashing images that played behind him. These advertisement-esque images included written statements such as “not for sale”, “discounted price”, “1/2 price”, and “new slaves”. The performance serves as his most aggressive and arguably one of his best performances of all-time.
Later on in the show, Kanye took the stage again to perform “New Slaves” which was equally as powerful. Like “Black Skinhead”, “New Slaves” is very political in its subject matter as it discusses slavery, racism in America, and materialism. The same flashing images from the “Black Skinhead” performance are used in the beginning of this performance as well as Kanye raps: “My mama was raised in the era when, clean water was only served to the fairer skin, doin’ clothes you would have thought I had help, but they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself”.
For the rest of the performance, a close-up of Kanye’s face (similar to that of the New Slaves premiere) is projected behind him as he stands in the dead center of the stage for the entire song. Kanye is standing completely still talking directly into the camera almost as if he is not even giving a performance, rather he is making a speech and sending a message directly to the American people.
Kanye’s aggressive tone and body language emphasize the seriousness of the message he is attempting to get across. He closes the performance with the final lines of “New Slaves” before the stage goes completely dark leaving one spotlight left on his face: “Y’all ‘bout to turn it up, I’m bout to tear it down, I’m bout to air it out, now what the hell they gon’ say now”. The performance is a reminder of Kanye’s boldness and relentlessness to speak his mind.
JAN 28, 2018
The 60th GRAMMY Awards
Once more, Kendrick Lamar. After rocking the Grammy’s two years earlier, Kendrick was hired again for the opening performance of the 60th GRAMMY Awards and he did not disappoint. Similar to his previous performance, he did a medley of songs, this time from his latest album DAMN. (XXX & DNA), and the Black Panther soundtrack (Big Shot & King’s Dead), as well as his verse from Rich the Kid’s “New Freezer”.
The performance began with a video of an American flag waving on the screens surrounding and on the stage as the intro for “XXX” played: “America, God bless you if it’s good to you, America, please take my hand, can you help me underst-”. Kendrick, center-staged, was surrounded by extras dressed as soldiers as he rapped his verse backed by the “Lust” instrumental. At one point, the music stops and stage goes dark as “This Is A Satire by Kendrick Lamar” appears on the screen behind him word by word. Bono and The Edge from U2 (who are featured on “XXX”) then appeared and performed their contributions to the song in what was truly a chilling moment.
Kendrick then moved onto “DNA” as the soldiers danced behind him until a gunshot is heard and the stage goes black once again. Comedian Dave Chappelle then appears on a separate stage to remind the audience “that the only thing more frightening than watching a black man be honest in America, is being a black man in America”. Kendrick continued with bits and pieces from “New Freezer”, “Big Shot”, and “King’s Dead” with a dancer, until another gunshot is heard and Chappelle appears again questioning whether this type of political content is allowed on television.
Kendrick finished with his “King’s Dead” verse where he was surrounded by extras in red outfits covering their whole body. The performance ended as the extras were shot down one by one after each line Kendrick rapped: “Burn integrity, burn your pedigree, burn your feelings, burn your culture, burn your moral, burn your family, burn your job, burn your land, burn your children, burn your wives…”. The performance was controversial, like almost all of the performances already discussed, however, Kendrick separated himself from his competition with this one and it will go down as one of his most iconic performances ever.