Music, indeed, is the universal language. K-pop songs break streaming histories and music charts, a ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ from Sri Lanka goes viral in India, Despacito made an entrance on most upbeat dance music playlists all across the globe. The phenomenon of a ‘We shall Overcome’ or the haunting notes of ‘Bella Ciao’ however, script the universally popular appeal of music and the ever burning fires of revolution. The folk, populist origins of protest music speak from the heart of humanity and reverberates across ages.
Protest music can be largely understood, as the name suggests, lyrical melodies composed along the lines of some topical disorder and prevailing injustice and is a bid for a social change. Moving across genres from reggae and blues to pop. It is highly interesting to note that Beethoven too composed his “Ode to Joy ” as protest music, calling for a human fortification against disquiet and a universal call to brotherhood among humanity. Based on German poet Friedrich Schiller’s poem of the same name, the classical, haunting melody has been used far and wide- overcoming identities and geographic spaces. A song that represented the German National Olympic team through 1956 to 1968. The call to arms in brotherhood rang in Tiananmen Square as Chinese students rallied against the Communist vision of “westernization” and ban of western classical music. Amid the ambience of solidarity, students amassed speakers of their own and successfully drowned out autocratic government speakers at the Square and kept the sigil of protest burning bright. In Chile, the dictatorial regime of Pinochet marked a dark age of rampant human rights violation and arbitrary arrest and prosecution of dissidents and opposition. The women of Chile gathered in a remarkable show of will to unite their voices against the tyranny of state violence in singing ‘Himno a la Alegria’ out on the streets, flocking outside prisons where the inmates and victims of unjust violence could hear them. On the historic occasion of the wall of Berlin being brought down, hundreds of Germans came together in harmony and melody where the term Joy in the ode was replaced with Freedom. Classical music in an unprecedented note of harmony united millions, offering deliverance from pain and mental decay.
Black America charts a historic, glorious history of singing themselves into whitewashed aggrandized mainstream American history. The soulful jazz, the fiery rap, the thunderous clomps of b-boying tearing down the streets of New York and dazzling voguing – Black legacy is quintessential to the American identity we perceive today. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” flows in its hard hitting verses : “ we been hurt we been down before/ n***a when our pride was hurt/ we been hurt “ to the refrain of “ we gon’ be alright “ rings with empathy and brotherhood forged among the community from the horrors of slave trade to the atrocity of a George Floyd, 12 year old Tim Rice and many including Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York. Instead of the more traditional ‘We Shall Overcome’ that is was the the song adopted by the Civil Rights Movement this more explosive rap song speaks of the unique Black identity and its trauma of segregation. Nina Simone’s ‘ Mississippi Goddamn’ sings of a reaction to the murder of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing is very forthright in delivering its stong message of a shared dream of equality. Like most Black anthems it does not beat around the bush The sorrowful tune of Billie Holiday’s anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit’ is horrifyingly clear in its heart wrenching image of “ strange fruit hanging from the poplr tress”. All of these songs are all reactions to the historical eras of violence and discrimination. This is no imagining a utopia into existence unlike the tranquil notes an ‘Imagine’ or a ‘We shall Overcome’ suggests. This is feeling the pulse of the moment, letting the feelings wash ashore and consume- music straight from the heart that connects on the basic human level of empathy and dignity. Wallace Willis’ ‘ Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ draws on the Biblical tale of the Prophet Elijah who was delivered to heaven on a chariot of fire. A former sale working in the cotton fields of Oklahoma in the 1880s, it’s one of the many songs slaves sang to themselves in debilitating, inhuman conditions to remind themselves of their own humanity- of a better future on the horizon.
Bob Marley is THE figure in the ever transitional voices of protest songs. The Jamaican musician considered a pioneer of reggae is an amalgamation of a pop culture legend, a political figure and a man deeply troubled by the times he lived in. The image of the man is riddled with rumours, an assassination attempt supposedly politically motivated contributing to the myth making of the man- and his support of cannabis legalisation definitely adds to his polarities. His music however remains undisputed. Deeply profuse with philosophies, his own personal meditations on life and social realities, his songs of protest gave Jamaican music a global identity. His songs speak of changing the status quo as much as his dreadlocks proudly claim his Rastafarian identity ( a socio-religious movement that believes in a Black Christ and the manifestation of a Supreme Deity called Jah and sanctions the use of cannabis and idiosyncratic dress codes and beliefs such as keeping dreadlocks) and his songs also speak of pan Africanism. ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ is the quintessential protest song that is versatile enough to associate with any movement for its relatively simple and relatable lyrics of standing up for one’s rights. The Redemption song, arguably his magnum opus, sprung from his own diagnosis of cancer and the artist reaffirming his identity through art and coming to terms with mortality, while enthusing the strong message of ‘long live the revolution!’ In ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ , a fantasy of sorts plays out as a man literally shoots the sheriff in self- defense, very telling in its larger implications of a corrupt enforcement that is a mere puppet of administration and does its bidding.
Folk traditions and protest music have a long intertwined history. Woodie Guthrie, a prominent figure if American folk music, harped on themes of anti-fascism and voice of the people in his songs- This Land Is Your Land one of his defining hits, explores the grievances of the Native Americans displaced down the ‘trail of tears’ (a pathway crossing through infertile lands that the native Americans territories were relocated to by various groups of colonisers) because of the immense loss of lives and suffering this massive displacement from fertile native lands caused. Popular Netflix series La Casa de Papel, better known to the English speaking crowd as ‘Money Heist’, bought back a rendition and repopularised the immensely patriotic Italian folk number Bella Ciao ( Goodbye Beautiful ) that continues to be a landmark song for anti-fascist regimes and state autocracy and totalitarianism. Initially a protest song developed by the women mondina farmers of Italy to protest against the unfair working conditions and wages invested in the atrocious work involved in paddy fields. Later the song was revived with altered lyrics by Italian partisans against fascist movements.
No matter the era, ‘we shall overcome’ is the watchword. The flames of resistance have burned bright and strong throughout human movement in history. ‘Hum Dekhenge lazim hain ki hum bhi dekhenge, woh kal ke jiska wada hain,/ Jo lohe azal pe likha hain ‘(Inevitably we shall see the day that was promised to us on the tablet of eternity) rings Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s immortal scribes across Zia Ul Haq’s Pakistan to the Indian farmer’s aid in 2020. No boundaries suffice.
– Bipasha Bhowmick
Picture Credits: mencheymusic.com