Opinion: Can art and online activism effect change?

In the age of Black Lives Matter, artists across the planet are finding solace in making music with a message. Some have opted to donate record sale profits, while others record liberatory musical examinations on the climate we live in. But what makes an activist when art is the method of protest? Danielle Koku explores.

Danielle Kokus
  • By Danielle Koku
  • 8 Oct 2020
  • min read

Black Lives Matter is the largest civil rights movement following the landmark shift of the ‘60s, centring priorities of how to actively protect, preserve and liberate Black lives from the scourge that is white supremacy. In 2020, it has taken centre stage following an ongoing spate of violent arrests and brutality in the United States and the United Kingdom. Sparking worldwide protests from Germany and Australia toJapan to South Africa, there are few who can say they believe in human rights yet don’t believe in BLM.

Powerful cultural currency has powered BLM’s integration into social media campaigns. While the occupation of physical place in protest (think: the March on Washington, the Mangrove Nine) is one of the most easily recognised forms of activism, it’s transition into online space during the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the nature of activism itself. Traditionally thought of as actively campaigning to bring about social change, activism has taken on a snazzier, trendier character as of late. Instagram, among other platforms became artsy activism guides from June onwards, with many users sharing a plethora of anti-racism resources, bail funds, and fundraisers for their followers. To some, we are all activists of a sort now.

'Contrary to the mantra of the entertainment world, the show simply couldn’t go on without the prioritisation of Black life at its core.'


We have nothing on heroes like Angela Davis, yet collectively using our voices on public platforms has made us feel like we are doing something, anything to play our role in the long march towards justice. And rightly so - conversations have been restarted. Whether it’s understanding why comments such as ‘I don’t see colour’ are racist, or why the notion of Black-on-Black-crime is a myth, many of us have learned the words to fight back against throwaway comments that may appear harmless, but have an intensely insidious angle behind them. In the music industry, #TheShowMustBePaused was conceived by senior directors at Atlantic Records, Brianna Agyemang and Jamila Thomas. Calls for an online ‘Blackout Tuesday’ culminated in industry voices posting Black squares across the platform to draw attention to the need for change. Musicians involved themselves, with some opting to donate record sale profits to charity, recording liberatory musical examinations of the world, or simply posting their true thoughts for once. Contrary to the mantra of the entertainment world, the show simply couldn’t go on without the prioritisation of Black life at its core.

However, the thing about performance is that once you start, it’s difficult to stop. The shallow elements of the campaign were quickly picked up by anyone with eyes to see, followed by criticisms of its inability to create real, tangible change. And again, rightly so. It is difficult to understand how posting a Black square on Instagram would actively change anyone’s immediate reality, especially when the very same brands and voices engaging in it have a history of devaluing their Black talent, talk much less of prioritising them. One by one, companies globally were dragged deep as their comments sections amassed with widespread criticism of their inability to change something, let alone anything about their problematic company practice. Not cancelled but widely perceived as frauds, by the end of summer it became abundantly clear who was actively on board for real change and who popped along for the retweets.

'While some can rely on grand platitudes that achieve little, others have their very freedom threatened for wanting to stand on the right side of history.'

What is the cost?

The disparity between the cool, fun trends that Black cultures are reduced to and the reality in which we are exposed to harm rears its head when artists who have a history with the justice system are listened to. Listened to not as rappers, but as young Black people. For those that dared to take a stand during the month-long BLM protests in London, their undue punishment speaks to a long history of trigger-finger criminalisation. Following his attendance of a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest, creator of Woi anthem Digga D was threatened with recall by police for posting a picture of his attendance online. 

The online pressure applied on forces to drop their obsession with Digga ironically contrasts throwaway statements by the likes of Secretary of Health and Social Care Matt Hancock, who claimed to 'know the power of the UK’s urban music scene' and his colleague, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, who suggested that musicians should simply retrain themselves in the current COVID-19 recession. These claims to understand or empathise with artists, let alone Black artists, always come up dry and unevidenced when examined in the light. While some can rely on grand platitudes that achieve little, others have their very freedom threatened for wanting to stand on the right side of history. Almost like the Black squares on Instagram, they are a meaningless show of solidarity.

'The ‘all’ in ‘All Black Lives Matter is silent, but should remain at the forefront of our minds.'

Soon, Tottenham stars Bandokay, Double Lz and Abra Cadabra will release a song titled BLM. Will it be met with claims that they may speak only as snazzy rappers, but not as young Black people? This notion that Black life has to be respectable in order to be deserving, or worthy of protection is one of cunning deceit that damages our community. Is their art a form of activism, too? If not, then what counts? Perhaps the most valuable takeaway from the movement is that the UK’s benevolent form of racism is no better than the American brutality we dare to watch in horror, and that no Black person’s life has to be perfect to be worthy of protection. The ‘all’ in ‘All Black Lives Matter is silent, but should remain at the forefront of our minds.

In his viral Mad About Bars freestyle, recently released Homerton rapper Unknown T openly claims ‘the Tridents know the Justice ain’t right, but the jury don’t, C.P.S. they know the justice ain’t right, but the jury don’t’, but maybe the jury is slowly becoming aware of the system they exist within.  

Unkown T - Mad About Bars freestyle

Che Lingo’s February release My Block is the definition of protest music. Lead by wanting to raise awareness for his friend Julian Cole, who was left brain-damaged and neck broken by officers in an incident in 2013 after which they were convicted of gross misconduct, the trappings of a system that boldly claims fairness as it’s barometer become more and more evident as the days pass.

Che Lingo - My Block

Activists aren’t only the people who post Black squares and reading lists on Instagram. They are the people who speak when it’s easier and safer not to, and they are the people whose lived experiences fuel them to create change beyond their immediate reality. Reading and learning from those who have gone before us (cue: Angela Davis) so as not to become misguided is equally necessary for passing the baton from one generation to the next, so now that some of us have cleared the first hurdle, it is time for the next.


This piece was guest edited by Stephanie Phillips. Stephanie is a London-based music journalist, singer and guitarist in the Black feminist punk band Big Joanie and an organiser at Decolonise Fest, an annual festival created by and for punks of colour. Her debut book, Why Solange Matters, will be released May 2021 on University of Texas Press.