“We can’t hold on to what we don’t have” is the repeated line in Geraint Rhys’s ‘Give it Up’, a new release that completes a ‘political trilogy’ of singles for the Swansea-born musician in 2017. ‘Give it Up’ may be an upbeat guitar-pop song to listen to, but lyrically it’s expressive, poignant and probing. Inspired by recent political events such as the Brexit referendum and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, ‘Give it Up’ explores the concept of power, and asks its listeners to consider exactly who it is that holds the cards.
Although placing ‘upbeat’ and either ‘Trump’ or ‘Brexit’ in such close proximity may seem odd to some, Rhys believes that music with a heavy subject matter can exercise more than just the brain. “I will always argue that music should make people think,” he says, “but I also want them to dance too.” There are obvious comparisons to be drawn with Blackwood’s Manic Street Preachers – those goliaths of Welsh music who have made a career of combining politically-infused lyrics with tunes fit for the top of the UK charts. Other comparisons collected since Rhys released his first single ‘Think Again’ in 2013 include Bob Dylan, Frank Turner, Johnny Marr and Jeff Buckley. Sometimes comparing an emerging artist with an established one suggests unoriginality, but in the case of Geraint Rhys it just seems a way for music journalists and reviewers to contextualise someone who refuses to be pigeonholed. Pop, rock, reggae and folk influences stream through Rhys’s music, helping to mix provoking messages with memorable melodies.
Released as a single on 17th November, ‘Give it Up’ follows on the heels of September’s ‘Visca La Terra’ – a song written about the Catalan Independence movement that’s closing in on 95,000 YouTube views. The first track in the trilogy, a Welsh-language anti-austerity anthem called ‘Ta Ta Tata’, appeared in April. Although its name (and accompanying music video) link it to the 2016 divestment in the steelworks of Port Talbot, the lyrics of ‘Ta Ta Tata’ apply to anyone affected by the difficult economic conditions created by the current government. Rhys acknowledges that the reality of a world where jobs and pensions are at risk is a stark contrast to the one commonly depicted in 21st-century pop music. “Mainstream music can ask big questions without having to reduce itself to sex or boasting about how much money or material possessions someone has,” he says, “I’m trying to create a political pop music which is organic, exciting, and likeable.”
Given the song’s link to President Trump, the fact that the music video for ‘Give it Up’ was directed by Mónica González-Carter is fitting. “Working with a Mexican director and having it filmed in Mexico obviously has a clear political stance on Donald Trump’s poisonous narrative,” says Rhys. González-Carter’s video is an intriguing depiction of the fine line between darkness and light. Paired with Rhys’s music, it also feeds into that necessary contemporary reminder that we should build bridges, not walls. And it’s a measure of the success of Rhys’s music that the repeated line “We can’t hold on to what we don’t have” stays with the listener long after the song has ended, both as a catchy pop lyric and a powerful political statement.