By Alemayehu G. Mariam
Music as a Weapon of Protest
It is said that “music is a universal language.” Using a few notes and inspiring lyrics, musicians and song writers have waged relentless battles against the perpetrators of tyranny, oppression, inequality and injustice. Music is a divine language that can pierce through the stony walls of hatred in the heart, the irrationality and fallacies of the mind and the darkness of the spirit. Musicians and songwriters have used their lyrics and melodies to defend and uplift the downtrodden, the exploited, the oppressed, the needy, the persecuted and subjugated. They have pumped up the volume against colonialism, racism, tribalism, imperialism, capitalism, communism, socialism, fascism, totalitarianism, individualism, militarism, sexism, adventurism, fatalism, hedonism, materialism, nihilism, pessimism, statism, corporatism and whatever else is left out. Where have Bob Marely, Fela Kuti,…. gone?
Protest songs have served as potent weapons of political dissent and nonviolent resistance in American history. There were “protest” and “freedom” songs that championed civil rights, women’s rights, labor rights, and human rights and challenged slavery, injustice, inequality, war and brutality. The ultimate American freedom and protest songs were disguised in the Negro spirituals, consisting of religious songs created by enslaved African people in America to protest their oppression, degradation and exploitation on the plantation. They sang about escape from slavery: “Wade in the water./Wade in the water children./Wade in the water./God’s gonna trouble the water./”, was the coded message for fugitive slaves to elude their captors and make it safely to freedom. They sang about slipping the slave master’s grip by hopping on the “underground railroad”: “Swing low, sweet chariot/Coming for to carry me home,/…/ If I get there before you do,/ I’ll cut a hole and pull you through.” They even described the map of the escape route in song: “When the sun comes back,/and the first Quail calls,/Follow the drinking gourd,/For the old man is waiting/for to carry you to freedom/…/ The river ends between two hills,/Follow the drinking gourd,/…/”
In the 1960s, freedom and protest songs provided the spiritual force for the civil rights and nonviolence movement. “We Shall Overcome” became the signature protest song of the U.S. civil rights movement: “Oh, deep in my heart/I do believe/We shall overcome some day/We’ll walk hand in hand some day/We shall all be free some day.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said the protest songs of the day “invigorated and gave unity to the movement in a most significant way”.
Political protest and social activism were promoted in American pop music. The Soul music of James Brown electrified African American youth in the 1960s and 70s. “Say It Loud– I’m Black and I’m Proud” was Brown’s signature song. The “Godfather of Soul” used his lyrics and fame to speak out not only against prejudice and bigotry towards blacks in America, but also to inspire pride, self-reliance and empowerment among black people everywhere. Proudly defiant, Brown declared: “One thing more I got to say right here/ Now, we’re people/ Just like the birds and the bees/ We rather die on our feet, Than keep living on our knees.” The “Hardest Working Man in Show Business” followed up with “I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up The Door, I’ll Get It Myself)”, emphasizing self-reliance and self-confidence among African Americans: “Don’t give me sorrow/I want equal opportunity/To live tomorrow.” Marvin Gaye asked, “What’s Going on?” in Vietnam. “Brother, brother, brother/There’s far too many of you dying/You know we’ve got to find a way/To bring some lovin’ here today.”
There were countless other musicians and songwriters who delivered their political messages of protest, peace, racial harmony, tolerance and reconciliation. The long list of the great ones includes Paul Robeson (“No more auction block for me”), Pete Seeger/Lee Hays (If I had a hammer), Bob Dylan (“Blowin’ in the Wind”), John Lennon (“Give Peace a Chance”), Nina Simone (“Hound dogs on my trail/School children sitting in jail”) and Buffy Sainte-Marie (“Now That the Buffalo is Gone”) who wrote songs about the plight and suffering of Native American peoples. Even Elvis Presley, the apolitical “King of Rock and Roll”, told the gut-wrenching story of American poverty and crime “In the Ghetto”: “On a cold and gray Chicago mornin’/ A poor little baby child is born/In the ghetto/And his mama cries…/it’s another hungry mouth to feed/…/ People, don’t you understand/the child needs a helping hand/or he’ll grow to be an angry young man some day/…/
Bob Marley, Fela Kuti and Pan-African Protest Music
Jamaican Bob Marley used reggae music not just for entertainment, but to teach, preach and reach people’s minds, hearts and spirits the world over. He used his music and lyrics to promote love, understanding and tolerance while confronting racism, inequality and injustice with a defiant message. Marley sang about the struggles of black people in Babylon (The West) and the need for Pan-African unity to overcome oppression. As a member of the Rastafari movement, he deified H.I. M. Haile Selassie and saw Africa as “Zion”, the place of unity, peace and freedom. His message for Africans was unmistakable: “Africa, Unite/’Cause we’re moving right out of Babylon/And we’re going to our father’s land/…/ So, Africa, Unite, Africa, Unite/Unite for the benefit of your people/…/. He urged those suffering oppression to “Get up, stand up: stand up for your rights!/…/Get up, stand up: don’t give up the fight!/…/Most people think,/Great god will come from the skies,/Take away everything/And make everybody feel high./But if you know what life is worth,/You will look for yours on earth:/And now you see the light,/You stand up for your rights. jah!” African liberation from colonialism and Western exploitation was Marley’s foremost concern: “Zimbabwe./Every man gotta right/To decide his own destiny/…/So arm in arms, with arms/We will fight this little struggle/’Cause that’s the only way/We can overcome our little trouble/ Brother you’re right, you’re right/You’re right, you’re right, you’re so right/We gonna fight, we’ll have to fight/We gonna fight, fight for our rights/Natty dread it ina Zimbabwe/Set it up… Mash it up ina Zimbabwe/Africans a liberate Zimbabwe.” (If Bob Marley knew what Bob Mugabe had done to Zimbabwe today, he’d spin in his grave.)
Marley took part of a 1963 speech by H.I.M. Haile Selassie and made it a powerful song against war: “Until the philosophy which hold one race/Superior and another inferior/Is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned/Everywhere is war, me say war/That until there are no longer first class/And second class citizens of any nation/Until the colour of a man’s skin/Is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes/Me say war/That until the basic human rights are equally/Guaranteed to all, without regard to race/Dis a war/That until that day/The dream of lasting peace, world citizenship/Rule of international morality/Will remain in but a fleeting illusion/To be pursued, but never attained/Now everywhere is war, war/…/ Marley understood the daily struggle of the poor to find enough food to eat: “Them belly full but we hungry./A hungry mob is a angry mob./A rain a-fall but the dirt it tough;/A pot a-cook but the food no ‘nough./You’re gonna dance to JAH music, dance./…/ Cost of living get so high,/Rich and poor, they start a cry./Now the weak must get strong./They say, “Oh, what a tribulation.” In “Who the Cap Fit”, Marley warned against hypocrisy and duplicity in everyday relations: “Man to man is so unjust, children/You don’t know who to trust/Your worst enemy could be your best friend/And your best friend your worst enemy/Some will eat and drink with you/Then behind them su-su ‘pon you/Only your friend know your secrets/So only he could reveal it/And who the cap fit, let them wear it/…/Some will hate you,/Pretend they love you now/Then behind they try to eliminate you/But who Jah bless,/No one curse/Thank God we’re past the worse.”
Nigerian songwriter, singer and musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti was an equally talented and inspiring musical innovator and political advocate. He was inspired by the protest songs and political upheavals in the U.S. in the 1960s. For three decades, Fela became the musical voice of Nigeria’s poor, downtrodden, unemployed and marginalized. He sang about the abject conditions of existence in one of the richest African countries. His “Afrobeat” music was a combination of blues, funk, jazz and African rhythms. His lyrics are in pidgin English (“broken English”) and local languages. He relentlessly criticized government corruption, multi-national corporations, and police brutality in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa. He used music as a weapon to promote human rights, good governance, accountability and transparency in Nigeria and the rest of Africa.
In “Zombie”, Fela criticized Nigeria’s military as a bunch of mindless brutes who follow orders to shoot, kill and plunder: “Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go/Zombie no go stop, unless you tell am to stop/…unless you tell am to turn/… unless you tell am to think/… Go and kill!/Go and die!../Joro, jaro, joro../ (Zombie)”. In “Authority Stealing”, Fela compared the Nigerian kleptocrats to armed robbers for stealing the nation’s resources to enrich themselves using their “magic pens”. “Authority people them go dey steal/Public contribute plenty money/…/Authority man no dey pickpocket/…/Armed robber him need gun/Authority man him need pen/Authority man in charge of money/Him no need gun, him need pen/Pen got power gun no get/If gun steal eighty thousand naira/Pen go steal two billion naira/Thief, thief, thief!”
In “I.T.T.”, Fela satirized the multinational corporation International Telephone and Telegraph and condemned foreign companies for sucking dry the Nigerian economy and spreading confusion, corruption and inflation: “Many foreign companies dey Africa carry all our money go/…/ Them call him name na I.T.T./ Them go dey cause confusion (Confusion!)/Cause corruption (Corruption!)/Cause oppression (Oppression!)/Cause inflation (Inflation!)/Oppression, corruption, inflation/…/Them go pick one African man/A man with low mentality/Them go give am million naira breads/To become of high position here/Him go bribe some thousand naira bread/To become one useless chief…/ Like Obasanjo and Abiola.”
After travelling the world, in “Upside Down”, Fela sang that things are organized and planned well everywhere except in Africa where there are villages, but no roads, land, but no food or housing. Africans don’t even have knowledge of African culture: “Open that book dem call dictionary/…/Upside down na there dey proper/Dem recognize the word for sure, yes/…/People no know their African name/People no dey think African style/People no know Africa way/For Africa man house, I don’t see/…/Communication Disorganize /…/Agriculture Disorganize/Electric Disorganize/ Everything Upside Down” in Africa. In “Beasts of No Nation”, Fela criticizes corrupt leaders in Africa and elsewhere and focuses on how certain governments have helped apartheid thrive in South Africa for so long: “Many leaders as you see dem/…/Animals in human skin/Animal-I put-U tie-oh/ Animal-I wear agbada (traditional Nigerian robe)/Animal-I put-U suit-u.” In the must-see documentary “Fela: Music Is the Weapon,” Fela said “the situation here [Nigeria] is worse than in South Africa.”
In retaliation for his songs, in 1977 one thousand of General Obasanjo’s “zombie” soldiers attacked Fela’s compound (“Kalakuta Republic” established to protest military rule), beat him to a pulp, and burned his house and everything in it. The soldiers literally threw out his 82-year-old mother, one of the notable anti-colonial figures in Nigeria, from a second-story window. She died from her injuries a few months later. Fela launched his own political party (Movement of the People) and ran twice for the presidency. His confrontational messages always got him on the wrong side of the military dictators who tried to find reasons to put him in jail. Fela also had his eccentric side including marrying over two dozen women at one time.
Music as a Weapon Against Dictatorship and for Human Rights
Fela titled his 1998 album “Music is the Weapon of the Future”. I believe African musicians could play a pivotal frontline role in the struggle for human rights, the rule of law, accountability and transparency in the continent with their lyrics and music. Africans today need new sounds against home grown dictators and tyrants who cling to power like barnacles to a sunken ship. In the mid-1980s, Fela sang about leaders who are “animals in human skin”. In the second decade of the Twenty First Century we know the actual physical form of the “animals” Fela was talking about. They are hyenas that sip on the blood of Africans like wine and dine on their flesh and bones everyday. Shakespeare wrote, “If music be the food of life, play on”. If music be the weapon of the future, I say sing on until we chase the greedy and corrupt scavengers out of the continent. Africa needs a new generation of Marleys, Felas, Makebas… to give them a new message hope, faith and charity; and Africa’s youth need new battle songs and hymns to fight the hyenas in designer suits and uniforms.