If you bemoan the fact that there aren’t enough protest singers these days — especially during a period in world history when they seem most needed — you probably should give singer/songwriter Dustin Thomas a listen.
Thomas’ modernized Folk songs often go straight to the heart of political and societal issues, rallying against injustice with surgical focus, yet also infusing the message with a peace-and-love perspective. He is certainly a spiritual relative of ’60s icons like Richie Havens and Joan Baez, but also Bob Marley, Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean. His musical and ideological palates are much more expansive, a reflection of his generation, his background and his experiences.
A Missouri native, Thomas grew up in Minneapolis before deciding to leave behind the cold, harsh winters (as well as a supportive music community) in favor of the warm and natural lightness of Hawaii. After honing his performance skills busking on the streets, he met the likeminded Nahko Bear and began touring with him and his band Medicine for the People, developing a bigger taste for global touring — something he has sustained to this day. He’s played everywhere from Bali to Russia and with artists like SOJA and Xavier Rudd, cultivating a rabid following with every show.
Musically, Thomas’ style is a smooth and unique blend of contemporary Folk, R&B and Hip Hop. In 2013, he explained to Minnesota Public Radio station The Current why he had yet to release a true “album,” saying he didn’t know what direction he wanted to go. “Do I want to make an album like Frank Ocean? Or do I want to do a Lumineers/Mumford thing?” His 2017 album Year in Review indicates that he has since figured things out, presenting a sparse, uniquely rhythmic (providing largely by his own beat-boxing) and atmospherically layered sound without fussy production.
Thematically, as the title suggests, the songs are incredibly “of the moment,” as he addresses pivotal 2016 events like Prince’s death and the fight against the pipeline through Standing Rock. Some of Year in Review’s songs feature sampled quotes to help lay the foundation for the subject matter, from Sinead O’Connor calling out religious hypocrisy (on “Trouble Ain’t Nothing”) to Marlon Brando speaking on America’s racist blind-spot when it comes to Native Americans (“Cowboys & Indians”). “Call on the Wolves” is one of the album’s highlights, beginning with NFL player Colin Kaepernick explaining the reasons for his “kneel” protests before Thomas takes over and delivers a deep meditation on police aggression, faux patriotism, greed and corruptive political power. The song is threaded throughout with the repeated line, “Can there be peace for all?,” which comes off like both a worryingly serious question and an urgent call-to-arms plea.