Yes We Can?

22 02 2008

By Derek Beres

In 1976, Bob Marley released Rastaman Vibration, which included what has become of his most memorable songs, “War.” In it he took the text of Ethiopian king Haile Selassie’s 1963 UN Conference speech and set it to music. The song (like the speech itself), while geared toward the liberation and uprising of Africans who had been colonized by European forces for nearly a century (and enslaved for many more), featured universal sentiments about social and political freedom. Notions such as “lasting peace,” “world citizenship” and “international morality” were entwined with reminders about the social and political stability of Mozambique and Angola, making the universal and the particular inseparable. Such was Marley’s legacy, turning political empowerment into sonic sorcery. His music was truly an agent of change, as the man behind the sound involved himself heavily in the plight of his peers.

Outside of the importance of content is the music itself — “War” is a damn good song: hard horn stabs, lax and precise hi hat behind a pounding bass drum, the easy swagger of Nesta’s skanking guitar. And of course, that undeniable and irreplaceable growl. Marley knew that the message and the medium were one and the same; he could not, as politically motivated songs have the knack of doing, compromise the musicality for the meaning. He knew that the musicality is the meaning, and to reach the hearts and minds of his audience, musical integrity was the primary concern.

Perhaps we cannot expect so much of musicians — Bob Marley was, in so many ways, unique unto himself. And yet when listening to the Barack Obama-inspired speech/song, “Yes We Can,” I can only shake my head at what is, from a musical standpoint, a blatant attempt of reaching the lowest common denominator. Such “superstar” cause songs are not new, and in this number’s glossy strains and overly impassioned vocals one is reminded of “We Are the World,” a record which exposed America to the famine trouble in Ethiopia — the same land Selassie once ruled over — while playing for the widest possible audience via radio waves and MTV.

In itself, popular music is indefinable. It has recognizable traits, and relies on certain formulas, though just exactly what “pop” means is rather elusive. When considering it, I always reflect back on what bass player Bill Laswell told me a few years ago: the four-minute song is not music, but a business idea. Of course, this does not apply to every four-minute piece of music; “War” clocked in at 3:37, for one. But the 4:30 “Yes We Can,” produced by Black Eyed Peas member will.i.am, certainly falls into that category. While it may be argued that it is a political, and not business, idea, I cannot see the difference between the two.

Read the full blog on Huffington Post.

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