The Role of Music in Protest

Rage Against the Machine is a rap metal band that is known for their political ideas portrayed through their music. Their single, “Sleep Now in the Fire,” released in 2000, is written in the point of view of someone who is wealthy and cares more about their own well-being. This wealthy individual is fueled by greed at the expense of others; “sleep now in the fire” is simply a reference to the individual burning in hell for his own greed. Thanks to the First Amendment to the constitution, Rage Against the Machine has received little persecution from our government. However, musicians from other cultures have not been as lucky.

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More recently in Russia, art punk band Pussy Riot was sentenced to two years in prison for acts of “hooliganism.” Known for their “hit-and-run gigs,” Pussy Riot performed a song called “Punk Prayer” in the Christ the Savior Cathedral. Steinholt suggests that the band anticipated getting arrested and convicted because of their knowledge of how world media would react. He explains “A principal goal of Pussy Riot’s performances has been to draw international attention to the flaws of a Russian judicial system that allows itself to be used by the government to silence unwanted criticism” (121). One aspect of the situation that has been overlooked by western Pussy Riot supports is that the performance “happened in front of the sacred alter, where only priests have admission,” so even the fans of the band were disturbed by this event (Steinholt).


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The next example, Chilean songwriter Victor Jara, is described as one of the pioneers of a song movement called “Nueva Canción.” Party describes Nueva Canción as “A protest song movement strongly associated with the socialist project of President Salvador Allende” (672). “El aparecido” was written by Victor Jara in 1967, and was made famous by ensemble Inti Illimani. According to Schechter, Inti Illimani’s interpretation of this song “speaks of [Che Guevara] eluding his pursuers” (282). Victor Jara’s support of President Allende was what lead to his murder. According to Party, a coup occurred on September 11, 1973, and “any person who had been involved in Allende’s government was considered a political opponent and was at risk” (675). Inti Illimani was on tour at the time, and became exiled for fifteen years.


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Thomas Mapfumo, from Zimbabwe, created a style which he named “chimurenga.” According to Locke, “The word chimurenga (‘struggle’) refers both to the war against the white regime in Rhodesia and to a style of music that rallied popular support for the cause” (96). His song, “Nyarai,” exemplifies this topic of support for Robert Mugabe, a politician who came to be in power when this song was recorded. Locke explains, “Mapfumo praises Mugabe for his role in the war of black liberation” (97). Due to his outspoken lyrics, his songs were eventually banned from radio play. According to Meredith, he was “facing harassment, [and] he went into exile to the United States” (162).


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My final example is by Tunisian rapper, El Général. His song, “Rayes Lebled,” became known as the anthem of the Jasmine Revolution. According to El-Khawas, the Jasmine Revolution was a result of the combination of a financial crisis and corruption within the government. A stimulus package that was created to resolve the economic crisis “didn’t produce jobs for 20 percent of Tunisia’s unemployed university graduates.” What sparked the revolution was the high demand for jobs. According to Walt, the turning point was caused by a “young fruit-and-vegetable vendor [who] set himself on fire.” Following this demonstration, El Général wrote a song called “Tunisia Our Country.” Two days later, he was arrested and brought in for questioning. According to LeVine, his arrest “was seen as a direct attack on Tunisian youth,” and protesters chanted the words to Rayes Lebled. In an interview, El Général explained that the police did not know he was a celebrity and they asked him, “please stop singing about the president and his family, and then we’ll release you” (Walt).


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In closing, I would like to share a quote from LeVine. He says “It is clear the success of a revolution does not depend on a song. But exploring revolution through their musical soniscapes illuminates social and political aspects of change that might otherwise go underappreciated, if not unnoticed.”(795) As we’ve seen in these examples, these artists made their music despite what would happen to them as a result.



Works Cited:

El-Khawas, Mohamed A. “Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution: Causes And Impact.” Mediterranean Quarterly 23.4 (2012): 1-23. Academic Search Complete. Web. 23 Apr. 2013.

LeVine, Mark. “Music And The Aura Of Revolution.” International Journal Of Middle East Studies 44.4 (2012): 794-797. Academic Search Complete. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.

Locke, David. “Africa/Ewe, Mande, Dagbamba, Shona, BaAka.” Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World’s People. Ed. Jeff T. Titon. Belmont: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. 67-105. Print.

Meredith, Martin. Our Votes, Our Guns: Robert Mugabe and the Tragedy of Zimbabwe. New York: PublicAffairs, 2002. Print.

Party, Daniel. “Beyond ‘Protest Song’: Popular Music in Pinochet’s Chile (1973-1990).” Music and Dictatorship in Europe and Latin America. Ed. Roberto Illiano. Turnhout: Brepols, 2009. 671-84. Print.

Schechter, John M. “Latin America/Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru.” Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World’s People. Ed. Jeff T. Titon. Belmont: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. 277-315. Print.

Steinholt, Yngvar B. “Kitten Heresy: Lost Contexts Of Pussy Riot’s Punk Prayer.” Popular Music & Society 36.1 (2013): 120-124. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Apr. 2013.

Walt, Vivienne. “El Général and the Rap Anthem of the Mideast Revolution.” Time World 15 Feb. 2011. Web.