The world has never cared much about the musical tastes of its world leaders. We rarely wonder whether the likes of Emmanuel Macron or Recep Tayyip Erdogan are fond of Adele or The Weeknd, and if they dared to venture an opinion it would be dismissed as an embarrassing attempt to stay in touch with an ever-fickle public.
With former US president Barack Obama, however, it’s a little different. The traditional end-of-year lists of his favourite books, music and films have more than a whiff of authenticity about them. “Art always sustains and nourishes the soul,” he writes in an accompanying note to a list of 27 songs released during 2021. “Hope you find a new artist or song to add to your own playlist.”
The apparent unlikelihood of a man aged 60 successfully staying in touch with current musical trends has led some commentators to suggest that the playlist was compiled by an intern, or his Gen Z daughters. But the themes running through the songs – human rights, triumph over adversity and the healing power of music – certainly feel like ones close to Obama’s heart.
The songs on the playlist by African artists are among the best. Gold Chains by Genesis Owusu, a Ghanaian-Australian singer whose debut album Smiling with No Teeth was widely acclaimed on its release back in March, is constructed around dark, brooding beats and an all-enveloping, soulful vocal.
Mdou Moctar, a talented guitarist who is well established in his native Niger, had his first international release this year, and Obama has now shone a very bright spotlight on his urgent, hypnotic Tala Tannam. Moctar’s political themes are shared by Ethiopian songwriter Teddy Afro, whose Armash uses mournful brass and wah-wah guitar to articulate his dream of unity in diversity.
On the other end of the spectrum is white indie rock, represented by Baltimore’s brilliant Wye Oak, Parquet Courts' Walking At Downtown Pace, and I Don’t Live Here Any More by The War On Drugs, which has particularly powerful echoes of stadium rock of the 1980s such as Bruce Springsteen and Simple Minds.
A slightly retro vibe can be heard throughout the playlist; Witchoo by Durand Jones & The Indications pays a glorious tribute to jazz-funk of the early 1980s, Jon Batiste’s Freedom has its roots in 1960s soul, and there are more than a few echoes of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On in Little Simz’s Woman, taken from her recent and highly acclaimed album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert.
A couple of artists will have been shocked and delighted by their inclusions, and be glad of the boost at the end of another difficult year for musicians. Dominican-Italian singer-songwriter Yendry tweeted: “This year I released a song called YA... unfortunately I didn’t get any support until now.” She thanked Obama with a suggestion: “Maybe you can join the next label strategy meeting!”
Meanwhile, Notice by Tammy Lakkis, a rising star in Detroit’s underground music scene, was quietly released this year on a small label via independent music platform Bandcamp. Its smooth electro sound topped with a haunting vocal has evidently been much overlooked; needless to say, all the vinyl copies are now sold out.
Amid the ever-changing genres on the playlist – reggaeton, rap and Jamaican dancehall – there’s a confessional strand that’s both touching and moving. Canadian folk singer Allison Russell released an album this year exploring her recovery from the trauma of abuse, and her song Nightflyer is one of the highlights.
Yebba, from Arkansas, also working in and around folk music, has an incredible voice which she uses to advocate mental health awareness. Obama’s inclination to highlight songs that, in turn, highlight important causes and prompt people to come together in their support, is perhaps best seen in Yotuel’s Patria Y Vida, which has become strongly associated with the protests in Cuba against the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Some may dismiss his playlist as merely a list of songs, or an undisguised attempt to stay relevant, but it actually serves as a welcome reminder that music can be exquisitely beautiful and also have the power to effect change.