Throughout history, protest songs have galvanized the oppressed into resisting their oppressors. Martin Luther King Jr said, ‘freedom songs serve to give unity to a movement.’ The revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East have been inspired by rap music, which the authorities tried to ban, pointing again to the potential of political music to effect social change. However, the inevitable question that comes up when considering protest music is whether it really matters – does it make a difference? Or do the commoditization of music and the banality of TV talent shows devalue its political potential?
Steve Biko, a leading anti-apartheid activist and founder of the Black Consciousness Movement who was tortured and murdered in custody by the South African police wrote that, ‘The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed’. When government, media, and education is largely in the hands of the oppressor, whether that be overtly in authoritarian regimes or more covertly in a democracy, the protest song becomes one of the only ways to foster resistance as it speaks to the head as well as the heart. The singer songwriter Phil Ochs wrote ‘One good song with a message can bring a point more deeply to more people than a thousand rallies.’ Likewise, the Swedish-American Labor activist Joe Hill, who was controversially executed in 1915, wrote that, ‘A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over.’
Jimi Hendrix goes further and claims that, ‘If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music.’ And there is a lot of evidence for how political music has made a difference. As Martin Luther king Jr claims, music was a key component of the American civil rights movement. Pete Seeger – known as the father of American folk music – introduced ‘We shall overcome’ to King and it became an anthem for those resisting racist oppression in America in the 1960′s. The title of the song also became a theme for one of King’s major speeches. There is no doubt that songs such as this galvanized people to bravely face the brutal racial cruelty of the American south – often non-violently. See the film ‘Let Freedom Sing’ for an excellent depiction of the civil rights struggle.
In Estonia, one-third of the population gathered to sing songs banned by the Soviet regime and this contributed greatly to the country gaining independence through a bloodless revolution. This is well documented in the film, ‘The Singing Revolution – a single nation, a million voices, the fall of an empire’. And as Joan Baez claims, the Vietnam War was stopped due to increasing popular opposition in the USA – the government had wanted to continue the war – the people were informed and enlivened by protest songs.
In South Africa, the connection between protest songs and social change is perhaps even clearer. The Apartheid regime in South Africa was supported by America, the UK and other European allies. This was despite the whites making up only 8% of the population, holding almost all the wealth and the government brutally suppressing any opposition – blacks were not allowed to vote. The British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, even claimed that Nelson Mandela was a ‘terrorist’. Particularly in the 1980′s, western populations were informed of the plight of the South African people by musicians such as Eddie Grant, Labi Siffri and The Special AKA and this led to increasing pressure on the Apartheid regime with boycotts of South African goods and sanctions imposed on the country. The external pressure coupled with brave internal resistance eventually led to the downfall of Apartheid. The Special AKA’s song ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ was at the forefront of this wave of influential political music.
Music has played a powerful role in other areas of oppression. ‘Glad to be Gay’ by Tom Robinson was written for the 1976 London Gay Pride parade and pointed out the hypocrisy and cruelty of the ‘straight’ establishment – especially the police. At one stage banned by the BBC, it became an anthem of the gay rights movement and played its part in the increasingly widespread acceptance of homosexuality in the UK.
The powerful are fully aware of the power of protest songs, even though they rarely acknowledge it. In our opinion, the greatest protest singer songwriter of the twentieth century was Pete Seeger. Yet, he was indicted for Contempt of Congress in 1957 after refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) about his socialist political opinions on the grounds that this would violate his First Amendment rights. He argued that “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.” He was blacklisted for 17 years as a result. Likewise, the Soviets and Chinese clamped down heavily on any music that seemed to oppose the party. But such censorship is not just historical. As the Americans prepared to invade Iraq in 2003 with the ‘coalition of the willing’ (mostly blackmailed and threatened!’), the most successful female group of all time, The Dixie Chicks, appeared on stage in London and said that they were ashamed that President Bush was a fellow Texan. The outcry in America led to them being blacklisted by many radio stations with DJs sacked if they played Dixie Chicks’ music.
As we face the many challenges of the 21st century with environmental destruction, rising population, diminishing resources, ongoing regional wars and the rising gap between the ‘haves and have nots’ or has George Bush put it the ‘have mores and the have nots’, we trust that an uprising of popular resistance will find solutions. This is already happening in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 but seems some way off in the more comfortable West. If solutions are to be found it will likely be artists and musicians who will lead the change as once again protest songs and political music galvanize public opinion in the direction of freedom.