Whether it’s the International Brigades or the Cuban revolutionaries, music has always played a pivotal role in developing the ideas of any radical political movement. In the first of several radical arts guides, editor Jonathan Rimmer picks out some key artists, labels and projects with an anti-capitalist or anti-fascist ethos…
As with most places, Scotland’s artistic and creative community tends to fall on the left of the political spectrum. This is for many reasons: ideologically conservative governments have forever misunderstood the value of authentic art and culture, cutting funding and deincentivising creatives wherever possible.
In our capitalist society, music and art tends to be reduced to a money making exercise for major corporations. The musical mainstream has long been dominated by major labels releasing disposable carbon copy hits designed to engage with as few emotions as possible. Some of the most radical movements in music over the past several decades partially arose in response to this trend and the social and economic factors that spawned it.
Genres such as punk and hip hop, very much part of this fight back, have been co-opted and exploited by corporations at every turn, while overtly political artists often face censorship. As in other western nations, the Scottish music industry is steered by corporations and major events companies. The prevalent narrative revolves bands seeking to “break out” of their small towns and into the mainstream through a combination of hard work and good luck.
Technically speaking, no anti-capitalist movement designed to unify Scottish musicians exists (although we encourage musicians to join the Musicians’ Union), but there are numerous artists, labels and collectives set up who are driven by socialist politics. This piece is not an anthology of every instance of radical art over the past century, but a short guide of modern artists that we hope will inspire readers to make connections themselves. However, we also intend to update periodically with relevant projects – please get in touch if you’d like to assist or make additions in any way.
Drawing as much from the likes of Arctic Monkeys as they do punk legends The Clash, East Kilbride’s Declan Welsh and the Decadent West are a ferocious group building up a strong reputation. Welsh’s anti-fascist lyrics are most direct on the tracks ‘No Pasaran’ and ‘Nazi Boys’, but his polemical style informs the entire project. Declan performed at last year’s Festival for Socialism event in Glasgow, which hosted Jeremy Corbyn, and also appeared in solidarity at RISE’s recent Trongate occupation. As well as performing music, he hosts open mics around Glasgow and competes in slam poetry events.
Also check out: Self described council punks The Dunts and Motherwell’s The Banter Thiefs
DIY ethic and anti-consumerism are important elements of punk ideology, and this is evident in the thriving underground scenes of Glasgow, Dundee and Edinburgh. Riot Grrrrl, initially inspired by third wave feminism, has long been one of the most exciting sub-cultures within this movement. Of the bands in Scotland inspired by this style, Breakfast Muff are the most exciting and most unflinching. When they’re not ranting about Tories, they’re attacking misogynists in the bluntest possible terms.
Also check out: Another band who embrace the Riot Grrrl sound and ethos, Pennycress’ lyrics focus on intersectionality and LGBTI issues.
Scotland has had a great folk punk scene stretching back decades, inspired by the Irish folk musicians of yesteryear. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the history of Irish republicanism, bands like The Wakes have a strong ideological focus – protest, resistance and anti-fascism feature heavily in their lyrics. They’ve had albums distributed by the traditionally left wing football club St Pauli and written songs in tribute to Scottish veterans from the Spanish Civil War.
Also check out: The Exiles also focus on republican protest, workers struggle and civil rights.
The key tenets at hip hop’s inception included political awareness, civil rights and social justice for marginalised minorities. Designed as a universal movement, it’s unsurprising hip hop’s core values continue to resonate with many in Scotland, and it serves a platform for working class artists all over the country. Led by the virtuosic MC Tickle, Ill Papa Giraffe are an Edinburgh-based trio who are taking the genre back to these core principles. Their videos show they have a wicked sense of humour, too.
Also check out: Other hip hop heads who’ve grappled with radical politics include Solareye (Stanley Odd), Louie (Hector Bizerk) and Futurology.
There’s something fresh and exciting about northern soul, even though it first came to prominence many decades ago now. Black American music was a form of escapism for young working class people in the north of England, and there are many bands north of the border who still find inspiration in this movement today. Fronted by the excellent Paula Sheridan, Button Up give the sound a Glaswegian touch while maintaining its political edge.
Also check out: The band’s label Button Up Records host similar minded acts such as The DT6.
Scottish east coast DIY punk collective Make-That-A-Take put community at the heart of everything they do and have thrown dozens of shows in support of local foodbanks and refugee groups. Artists on the label include Kaddish, Billy Liar and Franz Nicolay (above).
In the words of founder Derrick Johnston: “We’ve always had a “social conscience” of sorts; we were founded as an anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-sexist collective and that’s something that we carry with us to this day… Our moral and ethical values inform everything that we do and will always continue to do so. For me, personally, one does not exist without the other as they’re intrinsically linked. That’s always been the basis of punk rock for me, ever since the Dead Kennedys blew my mind as a teenager.” Well said.
Described as the world’s first crowd-funded not-for-profit record label, Last Night From Glasgow’s financial model revolves around ensuring artists are fairly paid and rewarded for their work. Generous donations have kept the label rolling and helped go towards albums by the likes of Emme Woods, Medicine Men and even 90s legends Bis (above).
Founding director Ian Smith says: “We set up LNFG with a fundamental objective – to ensure that talent was unearthed and rewarded. We all committed to work for nothing and we committed to operate the company on a Non Profit basis but that wasn’t going to be enough to really make a difference to artists, we needed more… Being of solid socialist standing, we firmly believed that we could build a model that would massively assist artists whilst delivering huge value and enjoyment to the music-buying public.”
Set up by Girobabies frontman Mark McGhee, DIY non-for-profit label and promoter Traffic Cone Records have played a key role in developing underground Scottish music. As well as putting on talented artists regardless of genre, the label provide advice for upcoming independent artists and promote the importance of paying artists.
Key bands who’ve released on the label include Colonel Mustard & the Dijon 5 (above), who spearhead the wacky Yellow Movement. Although not every band is overtly political, the yellow-clad collective of artists are devoted to promoting good causes and involving themselves in community activism.
A regular club night hosted by RISE in Glasgow, Silver Spoon draws inspiration from musical movements such as Rock against Racism, the 2-tone Ska revival, hip hop, punk, songs of political struggle, liberation and a lot more. Each month, the night focuses on a specific genre or movement that has left their mark and inspired social change, while “maintaining the core general theme of excellent music, good vibes and bad dancing”. All money raised from the events are going towards building a cultural and social hub in Glasgow.
Run by artist and performer Johnny Cypher, Extra Second is nominally a poetry collective, but should be included here for their excellent activism within the music scene too. As well as hosting regular poetry events themed around issues such as equality and community empowerment, Cypher and co also recently hosted Elements Glasgow, a day of hip hop workshops, visual art, dancing and round table discussions about activism through music in local communities.
This is officially an academic project as opposed to a grassroots one, but it’s definitely worth mentioning here due to what it seeks to unearth. Led by Glasgow University’s Dr Catriona MacDonald, the project seeks to examine the neglected impact that local poetry and song cultures had in Scottish popular politics around the Victorian and Edwardian eras, focusing specifically on the successful campaigns to extend the electoral franchise between 1832-1914.
When it comes to connecting with and learning from Scotland’s radical musical history, studies like this are massively important. You can follow the project’s developments here. We’d also love to hear of more suggestions in this mould.