Prime Minister or "Crime Minister"? Canadian Hip Hop Artists Harness the Power of the Political Protest Song
The political climate in Canada has been decidedly conservative for many years now, since the election of a united conservative movement, merging three parties of the ‘right’ and led by prime minister Stephen Harper. While liberals have been outraged by the actions of the government, the political scene is relatively stable. This is thanks to Mr. Harper, known as a brilliant tactician and for his tightly controlled caucus and messaging. He has a firm hand on the tiller, guiding Canada toward a future as a corporatist petro-state with few of the public services that Canadians historically enjoy and are known for.
While his methods and agenda have been widely criticized by activists and academics, there has been little in the way of artistic opposition. Unlike in the U.S., where Will.i.am, The Dixie Chicks, and many others use music to reach out to the masses and push a political message, Canadian musicians have remained largely silent – or at least not right in the fray. There are a number of possibilities as to why that might be. Canadians are quite fairly characterized as docile and polite. Canadian artists also rely more on government support than their counterparts in America, and with arts funding having been substantially cut under Harper, there is less to go around. This possibility is exacerbated by well-documented counts of artists and public servants being blacklisted or otherwise suffering retribution for speaking out against the government. So, in such a moment, it is notable to see a musician focus their sights directly on the prime minister, Stephen Harper.
In ‘What Up, Steve?’, the new track and video from Halifax Nova Scotia’s The Caravan, MC Kyle McKenna goes down the list of damage inflicted on Canadians by Harper and his Conservative Party. From cuts to health care and our public broadcaster, the CBC, to tax increases that disproportionately effect working and low-income people (while corporate tax rates continue to decrease), this song plays the Coles Notes (or Spark Notes) of the Harper government and its controversies. While some of it is playful, like accusing the Prime Minister of listen to the oft-mocked band Creed, much of what is being said is substantial and soundly accurate.
Not only is ‘What Up, Steve?’ notable for the subject matter, it stands out as the articulation of the Canadian “everyman”. Speaking with the band, everyone identifies themselves as absolutely non-political, and wouldn’t have expected themselves to be publicly attacking a politician. This song came about when McKenna heard about back-breaking cuts to the CBC, a center-piece of Canadian culture who have recorded sessions with The Caravan for TV and radio. The cuts led to the closing of an important soundstage in Halifax, where local talent was regularly given a chance to be seen by national television audiences. “We were one of the last four local bands to play that stage, so this affected myself as well as others and spurred the inspiration” says McKenna. So, with inspiration and an understanding of the issues gleaned from headlines and conversations with friends, Kyle wrote the song. But his lack of political acumen turns out to be his greatest asset. He references notable events spanning many years of Harpers time in office, ones that most any Canadian can immediately recognize and, when juxtaposed to other events and McKenna’s editorializing, leaves the listener with a decidedly clear picture of the Canadian Prime Minister – at least as it relates to whether or not you would want to support such a person.
But does it make a difference? My immediate answer is “It’s sure worth a try.” Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party have consistently increased their support among working class Canadians, despite an agenda that is decidedly against the best interests of the vast majority. Political, social, radical, and legal opposition has galvanized those already fighting Harper, but produced little in the way of results. In 2011, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Conservative Party had broken election law in 2006, when they first came to power, by spending 2 million dollars more than the 20 million dollar limit for a federal political party in an election. For overspending by more than 10% and winning the election by a hair, they were fined approximately $60,000. Legal action isn’t working, so musicians taking an easily-digestible (and catchy) message to the people might be our best shot.
John Wimberly is a political, social, and environmental activist in Halifax, Nova Scotia Canada. He currently works for the socialist New Democratic Party government in Nova Scotia and as a freelance writer.