It’s official: You can’t escape politics in America. On a recent trip to Seattle, everyone I spoke to wanted to talk about President Donald Trump. Fittingly, the 2017 edition of the Museum of Pop Culture’s Pop Conference, which I was invited to speak at, took on a political theme with “Sign O’ The Times: Music and Politics.”
I spoke about music in post-Fukushima Japan, which mostly meant focusing on a handful of artists who protested nuclear energy in the wake of the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant following the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. The prefecture’s own hardcore scene kicked back at the idea that people from the area were “contaminated,” with bands such as The Friday proudly declaring “F—- You, We’re From Fukushima.”
Other protests happened on the streets of Tokyo, on the internet, at music festivals and via independently released dance tracks, while many mainstream acts reacted with positive come-together songs. (If you’re interested on more about the topic, check out Noriko Manabe’s fantastic book, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Protest Music After Fukushima.”)
Other presenters spoke about protest music in their countries, and Trump loomed large in the discussion — despite the fact submissions were decided ahead of Election Day last year. Given their current obsession, Americans were keen on learning more about how Japanese musicians deal with politics. But the only other recent movement that really stands out was the 2015 reaction to proposed changes to Japan’s Constitution, which was nothing quite like what happened following Fukushima, with everyone from Rankin’ Taxi to Ryuichi Sakamoto expressing their anger at Tepco in some way.
Politics in America doesn’t just mean Trump, other issues pop up frequently — particularly the continued inequality faced by people of color and the LGBTQ community. One conference highlight came with an artist event in which Polaris Music Prize winner Tanya Tagaq, Meredith Graves of the band Perfect Pussy and Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, talked about their relationship to politics. Whereas Japanese musicians tend to get vocal after specific incidents, I was reminded how broader issues inform music from other places.
In an interview with The Japan Times on April 19, musician Dustin Wong expressed concern that a lot of artists he has met while working in Japan have been somewhat reluctant to express criticism, whether it was toward politics or the artistic works of others. Youth activist group SEALDs, which played a big part in the 2015 protests, also said that one of its aims was to just get everyone talking about politics a little more. If the Pop Conference taught me anything, it was that fans tend to reward signs of social engagement in music.
The key is authenticity. Artists should be encouraged to take a risk when they genuinely feel moved to do so — just as U.S. acts like Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar have demonstrated, their art can be all the stronger for it. And as the reaction to Fukushima once showed, many in Japan are up to the task.