How Portugal. The Man’s Music and Art Became Activism

Portugal the man

Portugal. The Man’s Political Activism

If you’ve ever heard the joyous pop song called “Feel It Still” on the radio, in ads, at the movies, or even at a party, then you know of Portugal. The Man. You know about them being “rebels just for kicks,” and you’ve got a slight understanding that being a rebel just for kicks is not as simple as it sounds.


It’s a lifestyle, but most importantly, it’s a musical and artistic political statement that made it to the mainstream both in the U.S. and the world. It garnered even more success when the song earned them a Grammy in 2018 in the category of Best Pop Duo/Group Performance.


Winning the Grammy even changed their music category from alternative indie rock to pop.

In a story for the Arizona Republic, John Gourley, the band’s singer said, “that song was so big that they didn't even allow Portugal. The Man in the rock or alternative categories. That to me was the craziest thing, that assumption that we're a pop band now.”

 

To understand how Portugal. The Man went from alternative indie rock to pop while being a rebel just for kicks, you must visit their past. It all started in Wasilla, Alaska, in 2001 at Wasilla High School when Gourley and Zach Carothers, his friend and now bandmate, met and started playing music.

 

They played in another band called Anatomy of a Ghost before creating Portugal. The Man, which started out as Gourley’s side project where he sang and Carothers played the bass.

As soon as the band formed, they left for Portland, Oregon, in search of better recording and touring opportunities. From 2006 to 2011, they released one album per year and then took a break to release their next album in 2013. After 2013, they took a four-year break and released “Woodstock”—the album responsible for “Feel It Still”—in 2017.


In all of these albums, there’s a common thread: their activism. Since their beginning, they’ve used their platform to support social causes. In 2013 during the release of their “Evil Friends” album, they partnered with NGO Head Count for their #Soundoff campaign to promote participation in democracy and register voters.


In that particular campaign, the band chose to raise awareness and give a voice to Native Alaskans who have a history of being economically and socially marginalized.


In an interview with MIC, Carothers mentioned that “the basic idea of it is that we just want voices to be heard. And like I was saying, in this day and age, people can hear a lot of voices. There are still some that are pretty quiet, and they need to get louder.”


Amplifying the voices of Native Alaskans has always been important to the band. So much so, that they dedicated their Grammy win to the Native Alaskan youth in the villages of Shishmaref, Barrow, and Bethel. Their ongoing support to raise visibility and awareness to Native issues and people led them to win the Public Sector Leadership Award from the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) in 2020.

Untitled by Gourley
Print by John Gourley
Untitled Pink Head by John Gourley
Print by John Gourley

This award was a result of their efforts in using music and art during their national tour as a platform for local tribal artists, tribal leaders, and activists to do land acknowledgments, performances, and speeches.

 

They also won the  Legend Award at the 19th Annual Native American Music Awards in 2019. Their strong fight for Indigenous rights led them to the creation of  the PTM Foundation, which was launched on  July 16, 2020. According to their website, the foundation “is focused on building community resilience, empathy, and awareness through music, stories, art, education, and connectivity.”


Indigenous rights are just one of the reasons why they’re “rebels just for kicks.” They’ve also raised awareness for the  critically endangered Sumatran tiger, helped raise money to  place instruments in schools and institutions with limited funding, supported the  tightening of gun legislation, and raised  mental health awareness amongst their fans.


Music and Art’s Power to Create Social Awareness

Portugal. The Man has become a global platform that uses their music and art to empower marginalized and underrepresented minorities. They’ve done this throughout their career by directly helping social causes or simply by expressing social commentary through their music.


This is evident in their last album titled “Woodstock.” Gourley was inspired by the 1969 Woodstock festival, which his father attended. He needed to return to the root cause of music:  commenting on societal and political issues.


Portugal. The Man’s political and social commentary is nothing new in  the world of art activism. It aligns with what U.S. author Thomas Vernon Reed expresses in his book  The Art of Protest: Culture And Activism From The Civil Rights Movement To The Streets of Seattle.


Reed states that “the primary uses of music were to mobilize, organize and used to create history and tradition.”


And that’s exactly what Portugal. The Man is doing by being “rebels just for kicks” through music and art. Their advocacy for social causes and minorities is communicated through songs, but also through the constant collaborations they do with  Indigenous Black, and  Latin American artists.

Is Modern Jesus Mexican?

The latest example of this is one of their newest singles titled “Thunderdome [W.T.A.]” featuring U.S. rapper Black Thought and Mexican singer-songwriter  Natalia Lafourcade. This song explores the American dream both from the U.S. and Mexican perspectives. It is both a critique and a defiance of religion and immigration.

 

It states that Jesus is Mexican while crossing the border. This is not the first time they defy Jesus, as it happened in their song Modern Jesus” from their “Evil Friends” album.  Yet, Thunderdome takes this defiance while also exploring how immigrants are required to “learn to speak American” when arriving in the U.S.

 

It definitely means that Portugal. The Man is still true to their social and political roots in a new album called Chris Black Changed My Life—a tribute to their late friend Chris Black—that will be released on June 23, 2023.

In this album, once again, they explore mental health by creating music inspired by their anxieties and write about everything that happened in the world during strenuous pandemic times and political upheaval.

 

Lastly, most of their albums are accompanied by  vibrant watercolor doodles and strange creatures created by Gourley that have no outright and straightforward political and social connotations, but that accompany their social messages.

 

And that’s how Portugal. The Man became a global platform that empowers underrepresented and marginalized minorities through music and art.

 

Always remember to be a rebel just for kicks.


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