Politics: boring to some, controversial to others, are immersed in mostly everything we do.
Music: no matter which kind you enjoy, everybody loves it, is immersed in everything we do.
So what happens when politics and music combine? We get historical results like protest music, anthems and counter culture.
One can state that all music is political in some kind of way and might be true -if one considers that it is a constantly changing amalgam of human relations, but history has demonstrated that music serves as more than entertainment and people have repeatedly used it as tool for stimulating social change. Sometimes, even music that was not intended to have an effect on politics, or be used in that sense, took on to represent something dogmatic for others.
Here are ten examples of politically charged musical movements from world history.
10. National Anthems:
Not a movement in its own but an accumulation of songs related to an array of politically charged times, national anthems or patriotic songs often depict a countries growth and the struggle of its people by narrating crude sacrifices and liberation tactics. The Congo national anthem blatantly asks “… if we have to die, does it really matter”.
Often played in a hymn or a march style of music, national anthems can have translations in many different spoken languages of one country (as Switzerland’s) or include many official dialects in its sole rendition (as South Africa’s). In Spain the anthem hasn’t any lyrics. National anthems are usually played before the beginning of a school day, at sporting events or during governmental ceremonies.
In 2003 Canadian David Kendall invented the word Anthematology to name the study and collection of information about national anthems.
It is interesting to note that India and Bangladesh have anthems written by the same author; Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore. Colombia, Senegal, Ecuador and Belgium’s anthems have been written by presidents or prime ministers. The longest and shortest anthems belong to Greece and Uganda respectively, the first having 158 verses and the later only 8 bars of music.
9. White Power Music:
This controversial entry has been added to the list in order to prove that music can be used by anyone with many diverse political purposes. White power music has been performed in genres such as pop, rock, country and folk. Nazi punk, hate core and rock against communism encase very specific themes and are closely related to racist skinhead fractions. All thou European countries have a tendency to ban racist bands from their territories, in the United States they are protected under the freedom of speech constitutional amendment. Johnny Rebel has been a noticeably prominent musician within this musical movement. His 60’s racist country music was re-discovered in the 90’s along with the proliferation of his “September 11” related songs. White power lyrics often attack blacks, homosexuals, anarchists and communists.
According to Heidi Beirich, a political effect related to this music type is providing racist extremists around the world with a common language from which to catapult their interests. Another effect is in relations to violence. One cannot fully conclude that music propels violence, but it is true that many racist organizations are funded by the profits of these music labels. Such has been the case for National Alliance being aided by the proceeds of Resistance Records. Yearly profits from this industry have been reported by Interpol to be over $3.4 million. In terms of actual violent acts, a member of two white power bands, Wade Page was found responsible for the Sikh Temple massacre in Wisconsin, US.
8. Irish Rebel Music:
Since 1922 Irish rebel music has been related to the nationalist cause of Northern Ireland. All thou the main genre for this music movement is traditional Irish-folk, songs have been performed and mixed with pop, ballad and hip hop. During the 80’s there was a strong ban for Rebel music in Ireland in spite of its advocacy for freedom of speech.
The Wolfe Tones are the most prominent Irish rebel band having their most important album to be “The Rifles of the IRA”. These Rebel songs have the intention of challenging foreign, especially British, domination over Ireland and defending independence over their lands. It is important to note that for many people these revolutionary songs have a role in sustaining Irish nationalist pride by marking important historical moments, celebrating martyrs, providing moral strength to the guerrillas and grieving over circumstances of oppression.
7. Nueva Cancion:
During the 70’s and 80’s many Latin American liberation fronts began a musical movement that translates into “new song”. Topics within nueva cancion range among poverty, empowerment, imperialism, human rights and religion. In 1979 Carlos Mejias Godoy composed Guitarra Armada (armed guitar) with the purpose of teaching Sandinista guerrillas to clean, arm, disarm and use their weaponry. When released Mejias Godoy stated that the song rhythms had been chosen according to popular flavor with hopes of it becoming effective as lessons for the guerrilla. The songs were played in Radio Sandino, a pirate radio station of the insurgent.
In many countries nueva cancion musicians were forced into exile, tortured or forcefully disappeared. Such was the case for Victor Jara who was killed in Chile by the Pinochet dictatorship. Genres used for nueva cancion include ballad, Andean music, guitar solos and Cuban music. Some people have argued that nueva trova and nueva cancion have diminished post-soviet regime but in recent times their messages assisted in the struggle for demilitarization of the Puerto Rican sister island of Vieques from US Navy occupation.
6. Anti-War Songs:
Anti-war songs transcend aspects of location, era and genre for they respond to diverse historical fights and contexts. An anti-war song can seek peace or be critical of a specific bellicose conflict. All thou there have been songs opposing most wars, there was a noticeable musical movement during the Vietnam War.
Pete Seeger was a prominent anti-war musician during the 60’s. For many Bob Dylan was also considered to be an anti-war musician, but during the aftermath of the Vietnam war Dylan retreated from politics, in an attempt to regain a connection with a “freer”, more abstract form of his musical writing and expression. It is still debated today if Dylan was in fact a political artist, for some he betrayed the left when he rejected their topics, for others he still remains one of the most prominent antiwar lyricists, whose songs have taken a life of their own.
Recently Natalie Mainies of the Dixie Chicks was criticized for her anti-war speech ultimately responding with a song that questioned how the world can teach us to hate strangers and insisting that as artists they won’t just “shut up and sing” during conflicts. Bruce Springsteen, Annie Di Franco, Ludwig van Beethoven and John Lennon are just some of the most prominent anti-war musicians.
5. Amandla! Ngawethu! :
46 years of legalized white supremacy brought South Africans much loss and struggle, but in response to this situation many liberation and empowerment songs emerged in an attempt to sustain the people. Vuyisile Mini is seen as the father of this musical protest movement. The song titled “Ndodemnyama we Verwoerd” (Watch Out, Verwoerd) was intended to warn the “Architect of Apartheid” that the “black man would come to end the white man’s reign”. This song’s rhythm is described as “lively and fun”, sounding harmless to non-Xhosa speakers. Sentenced to death for opposing apartheid, Mini took the song onto the gallows until the final seconds of his life. Miriam Makeba and Africa Bambaataa are just two of the many performers that currently keep the song, as well as Mini’s memory, alive.
During the segregationist era music was a response to forceful community removals as sign of identity and cohesion. The overall South African resistance to apartheid was highly fueled by song and chant with recreations that provided strength and reaffirmed power to the people.
For forced mine workers choral music provided a distraction during hours of solitude and distance from their loved ones. The portrayal of successful warriors (like Shaka Zulu) in lyrics provided workers with hope of one day being able to overcome difficult times.
Today apartheid is no longer an issue in South Africa, but poverty still rides their streets and protest music has shifted its focus. Some kwaito music speaks about anger, violence, sex and a past that has scarred South African youth.
Capoeira, in essence, is not a music form but more of a game involving music and a political history. Being brought to Portugal and Brazil, African slaves from Angola developed a way to maintain their traditional fighting skills without the colonist acknowledgment. They achieved this by creating a game that looks like a dance but in essences is a martial art. Remarkable! But both in Portugal as well as in Brazil there was a regulation regarding playing the game that stated that anyone caught practicing it would be arrested and tortured.
In the 1920’s Mestre Bimba, from Brazil, noticed that some groups had been performing Capoeira moves for the sakes of tourism and decided to show his respect to the game by founding the first school teaching it under a concealed name. Since then Capoeira has gained worldwide importance as it brings pride and cultural identity to many. This entry was about a game involving music that is played with lively, loving fun lyrics, not at all rebellious, political or antiestablishment, or is it?
To surfers Bob Marley’s music might sound like ocean breeze and reefer smells of summer. The relaxed sounds might make us forget that he was shot (but unharmed) two days before giving a free concert in Kingston intended to promote peace.
Far from being chill out music, many Reggae tunes possess charged messages about revolution. Rock steady, reggae music’s predecessor, had introduced some political content through its lyrics helping to connect the divided British working class (who had been dealing with fascist fractions facing off immigrant workers from the Western Indies). Reggae went on to be fueled with Rastafarianism as well as Ethiopian pride, identifying itself with the freedom struggles of Jamaica, Zimbabwe, Cuba and Vietnam. One can argue that what makes the reggae movement highly political is it’s attempt of unifying the African Diaspora which was spread all over the world and shared similar struggles.
Reggae music has been influential to many new varieties such as dancehall and reggaeton. It is interesting to note that Dancehall reggae has been criticized for its anti “one love” mentality. The campaign “Stop Murder Music” has been created in response to dancehall (or dub) music’s recurring violence against gays. Reggaeton has been signaled as misogynistic to the point of being banned in Cuba. Now that’s what I call political!
2. Civil Rights Anthems:
Civil right anthems are strongly rooted to the 60’s era, but its origins are set in gospel music written during slavery and its reach goes farther than hip hop. “We Shall Overcome” is perhaps one of the most significant gospel anthems with the theme of equality for afro descendants within the United States.
This list item transverses struggles and eras of US history and has developed in folk, jazz, blues, rhythm and blues forms. Anti-racist messages have been transmitted through modern forms of expression, with groups like Public Enemy creating their anthem “Fight the Power”.
One can speculate that there might be enough lyrical content within these anthems to tell a story about civil rights in the U.S. There are songs about slavery, resistance, faith and oppression.
We can see how civil right topics continued to be a part of rhythmically charged political messages such as those of The Last Poets during the 70’s and conscious rap of the 80’s. Civil right lyrics are not a thing of the past. Lupe Fiasco is not afraid to state that “Limbaugh is a racist, Glenn Beck is a racist, Gaza strip was getting bombed, and Obama didn’t say sh–,” at the presidential inauguration of 2013.
Top 10 Civil Rights Protest Songs Of All Time
Hand horns down for a minute. Rock might have begun as one of the most unintentional political movement of these entries, but it grew to become many things. Some of the original rock gods were playing at peace concerts without really being intentionally political, like a psychedelic rocker Jimmy Hendrix playing a Star Spangled Banner introduction to Purple Haze in Woodstock. Rock music challenged stereotypes by fusing black and white musical. During the 80’s a number of benefit rock concerts were played to support various social causes. Many punk rockers promoted anarchism and defiance of authorities as well as created an “underground” musical lifestyle.
Motor city 5, John Lennon, The Sex Pistols and Rage against the Machine are only a few of the many political acts of English language rock. Spanish rock related to political movement has taken the place of nueva cancion in most of Latin America. Even today with the emergence of pop music younger generations can join the “Rock the Vote” movement to encourage social change.
When some musical movements were shaped responding to their conditions and others were establishing themselves as part of the dominant culture, rock (with all its fissions, forms and influences) resulted in the creation of a counter-culture. What can be more political than that? Now let’s see those hand horns high up in the air again!