The Relationship Between Art and Activism

“Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights. Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight.” I know it’s rather cliché, to begin with, a hackneyed Bob Marley quote but I feel this is the point we have reached as a society. Activism has been the heartbeat of countless social movements (across the spectrum) I can think of, but so has art. During times of revolution or significant societal change, we have seen art and activism become a combination that leaves people inspired and motivated to make a change worldwide. In essence, art and activism have often paired up to send a message (some good, some bad) to wider society.

My fear is the relationship between art and activism has become diluted for a myriad of reasons. We live in the age of technology where “likes” on social media have become the new necessity and a meme has more credibility than a broadsheet headline. This is an era where we have never been closer together but further apart at the same time. My point is that I feel it’s harder than ever for us to collectively read from the same societal hymn sheet, on pretty much any issue.

Can artists be activists? Of course. Look at music icons such as Michael Jackson, Tupac, John Lennon, Bob Marley, Nina Simone, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. I love rap, and artists such as AKALA, Lowkey, Immortal Technique and J Cole have influenced me massively. These are individuals who have created art that has not only stimulated my mind but taken me to a place where I can critically analyse society and my own value system.

When it comes to music, I have no doubt we have seen a sanitation of artists who perform under the corporate umbrella. When you consider that Sony, Warner & Universal dominate the music market (each a multi-billion pound corporation) it’s unlikely that we’ll see an artist who consistently challenges corporate ideology appear on their books. Interestingly, labels splurge as much as 15.6% of their revenue on artist development. This is a higher proportion than what technology, software, aerospace, healthcare and pharmaceutical industries spend on research and development. It begs the question, where are all of the critical thinkers & activists amongst this mess? Corporations are spending millions (on development) but we end up with sanitised corporate friendly entertainment that rarely challenges us to think. That doesn’t mean you can’t criticise “the man” if you’re an artist, just remember who signs those cheques!

We all consume art on a daily basis, we just don’t think of it that way. The podcast you listened to on the way to work, that’s art. The clever poster you saw that made you want to buy the latest iPhone, that’s art. The catchy tune you heard a busker play in town, that’s art. The videos created by the countless vloggers worldwide, they’re art. We all can and will be reached by an artist, it’s in our DNA. Be it an anthem like ‘Do they know it’s Christmas’ or a clever video by Casseteboy, art can send you a direct and enduring message held by many an activist.


Modern day activism needs a set of simple messages that can be expressed through many forms of art. The issue of sexism could be challenged through a simple poem or a live show, although the possibilities are endless. A conjoined campaign could seriously help put some issues back into the mainstream. The beauty of art isn’t just its ability to reach billions but its fluidity and ability to stand the test of time. Moreover, these messages and moments need to be part of a sustained effort to promote an ideology or message. Often I see speeches, performances or pieces of art created that truly spark debate or inspiration, but this momentum is often not seized upon by the artist themselves, never mind the general public.

However, I understand the difficulty that the form of art I love (rap) could have with discussing various issues. For instance, how could 50 Cent talk about the privatised prison complex on Track 4, when he’s advocated killing black men, objectifying women and selling drugs on the previous 3 tracks? Are certain issues off the table for certain forms of art? Do issues like class, race, sex, sexuality and wealth come into play? It becomes easy to deride someone whose message you disagree with if someone within the same sphere has a less than spotless record. I can’t help but feel that whilst, Damien Hirst could create a piece that displays the very same message in an equally pertinent fashion, would his message ever reach the multicultural inner cities of Leeds or Chicago for instance?

For art and activism to combine, thrive and endure, it may take many of us jumping outside of our own bubbles and comfort zones. Maybe we all need to consider consuming forms of art we never considered acknowledging before? After all, a fresh take on things can really open your mind. I know I felt some trepidation about my recent visits to art galleries, theatres and sculpture parks. I felt I didn’t belong. But out of that trepidation came a new found respect for types of art I previously considered accessible only to middle class people. Are there budding artists in the favelas of Brazil or on council estates of Leeds that create groundbreaking art that carries a significant message? I have no doubts. But why aren’t we seeing more of this art?

Do successful artists across the spectrum have a duty to promote these often ignored artists and messages? I can’t help but feel like successful activism is organic and the soul of a message sparks interest rather than a hollow retweet from a pretentious pop star.

Although, when artists have attempted to make some form of protest (take Beyonce’s Formation for instance) they’ve often received a harsh backlash from certain sects of society. If we look at Colin Kaepernick (San Francisco 49ers quarterback) and the abuse he has received as an activist, I can see why some may shy away from the grief. Interestingly, Kaepernick has used his own wealth and high profile to fund arts and activism programmes. Kaepernick knows that by funding grassroots art and activism he can help create a new generation of motivated, educated activists/artists who may even dwarf his “status” one day. I really recommend having a look at him and his journey thus far.

Colin Kaepernick
Image Credit: Counter Current News

For art and activism to thrive we all have to be as brave as Colin Kaepernick. Artist’s have to jump outside of their world and be unafraid to speak out, even if it means a lost endorsement or fewer followers on instagram. I know before making my own content I always try to deliver what I believe is right rather than what I think people want to hear. It can be a tough internal struggle when creating content. I look forward to discovering a range of new artists who inspire me to think about the world differently. Only this week I’ve discovered artists who have given me food for thought. If art and activism combine and utilise their unique and endearing traits, we could finally see the change we’ve all been waiting for.

Words and images by A Up Let’s Talk

Part of the East Street Arts Guest Writer Project #ESAGWP