Massive Attack are an English trip-hop band formed in Bristol. The Bristolian group took the 90s by storm, redefining the music scene by fusing electronic music together with hip-hop, and in return were rewarded with a variety of awards such as a Brit Award for Best British Dance Act, two MTV European Music Awards, and two Q Awards. One of Massive Attack’s most consistent skills has been to take distinctive, often iconic vocalists, and fuse them together with the bands unique sound. Massive Attack have collaborated with the likes of Madonna, Damon Albarn, Sinead O’Connor, and beyond. However, whilst their music was highly popular amongst the public and other artists alike, Massive Attack amassed a large cult following that spread itself to every corner of Europe due to the way in which they engaged with politics and socio-cultural concerns.
Over the past 20 years, Robert Del Naja has become famous as one of a handful of musicians who place political activism at the forefront of their musical values. Del Naja is one third of Massive Attack, and has previously been extremely critical of the UK’s involvement in the war in Iraq, whilst the band also refused to play shows in Israel due to the treatment of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
Most recently Massive Attack has been very vocal in their support of climate activists group Extinction Rebellion. On the 21st of Apri, 2019, Massive Attack played a DJ set for the Extinction Rebellion protestors in the heart of London in Marble Arch. In July and October of 2019, Extinction Rebellion protested in 60 other cities worldwide, with Robert Del Naja providing a portable radio network using speakers in backpacks with receivers and transmitters for the campaigners in London.
For them to personally battle this, they announced next time they tour, they would aim to massively cut their carbon footprint wherever they went. Del Naja told the BBC: “As musicians we have enjoyed a high-carbon lifestyle. The challenge now is to not only make personal sacrifices, but insist on the systematic change that’s needed. Business as usual is over.” To overcome these concerns, Massive Attack donated four years worth of their tour data to a University of Manchester report in attempt to reduce their carbon footprint.
However, despite Del Naja and Massive Attack being heavily involved with socio-cultural concerns, this was never part of the plan. The ethos of the band involves forward-thinking and a huge sense of morality, but they never intended to become political spearheads. Del Naja explains: “People will come and say, ‘Look, do you want to get involved with this and that and the other?’ It’s good to learn and be engaged and listen to people, see what’s going on. But that’s not the motivator: If I was a political person, I’d have gone into politics.”
Moreover, it was their engagement in political activities and the way in which they voiced concerns that proved them as a niche in the market. Through this, Massive Attack grew a rather fiery following across Europe. Their live shows would be accomponied by the band’s trademark LED screens created by Del Naja and London’s United Visual Artists group, that flash up facts, figures, and headlines all created by a “news generator”, as well as news stories and information specific to whichever city the band are playing in. Del Naja explained how this type of activism is essentially a balancing act. You don’t want to be relentlessly ramming facts down peoples throats, when the main purpose of them going to the show is to be entertained. But you also need the audience to know what the band is doing. You want them to join the dots, not to trivialise everything.
With that being said, Massive attack’s album ‘Mezzanine’ was their most political, but also most successful release. The production of the album was so intense, so politically fused that it almost tore the band apart, but in return we were gifted with excellence. In 2016, Massive Attack performed a 21st anniversary show of ‘Mezzanine’ in Amsterdam, and the album show was something completely different to the norm. Anniversal album shows are often rowdy, indulgent, and usually filled with faithful playbacks. However, this show would have to be something quite different. The 2010 show brought political consciousness through the LED screens, the 2016 tour was devoted to the urgency of the refugee crisis, but the anniversary show combined everything from war, data, control, feedback loops, political idealism and everything in between. The whole performance was meticulous. The band never say a word. It was a stunning statement portrayed through a live visual art experience designed to provoke, rather than straightforwardly please. Ironically, this is what the album is all about, it is not served to please or comfort, it was produced to invoke a reaction and political awakening.
What’s more, Del Naja’s involvement in activism through socio-cultural concerns have seen everlasting rumours that he himself is Banksy. Del Naja had been a graffiti artist during the 1980s prior to forming Massive Attack, and had previously been identified as a ‘personal friend’ of Banksy. The media and public have been speculating over Banksy’s identity since the early 2000s, and speculation was heightened further when Banksy’s murals started appearing in places where the band had toured. But perhaps the most convincing evidence comes thanks to DJ Goldie who accidentally called Banksy ‘Robert’ during a podcast in 2017. With lawyers neither confirming or denying the allegations, and the respective duos involvement in political protesting, the signs do point towards Robert Del Naja being Banksy. Although, with that being said, we may never know who he really is.
Massive Attack’s music gained them popularity, but their involvement in political activism earned them worldwide respect. Whilst musicians do not make a name for themselves solely based on their political stance and engagement in worldwide affairs, it certainly adds extra substance to their music, with a message that fans resonate with. If like in Massive Attack’s case the subliminal messages in the music turn to positive action carried out by them and the public, then it proves that politics in music is hugely benefitial.