Over the course of history, music has played a prominent role across every culture of humanity. Music is typically used as a leisure activity in contemporary societies for individuals to listen to, play or even discuss. Music in protest, however, serves a powerful function in mobilizing people in the name of a civil movement, or issue. The Centre of Democracy tasked me with finding 100 protest songs from the last 100 years as part of their #VinylRevolutions project, which seeks to introduce the South Australian public to music created to contribute to a more democratic world.
Protest songs, said Dr. Martin Luther King, “serve to give unity to a movement”. In the last century, protest music has evolved and become far more accessible as the modern hyper-connected world has taken shape. Nowadays even the most unknown artists can release their music into the stratosphere of the internet, increasing its chances of exposure.
Here is one example I found of how pop music influenced change:
The Specials – ‘Free Nelson Mandela’, which as the title indicates, protested for the release of Nelson Mandela from South African prison. When the song was released in 1984, Mandela had been imprisoned for 21 years. This song generated passionate conversations in liberal democracies about Mandela’s release, leading to several support concerts for the movement. Amazingly, the popularity of the movement became a major catalyst for Mandela’s release in 1990, culminating in his election to South African President in 1994 and an end to apartheid.
Such a finding proves that music can play a large and powerful role within the democratic world, acting as a catalyst in generating conversations regarding social issues to facilitate change.
For music originating in authoritarian states however, a different story unfolds:
Việt Khang – ‘Anh La ai?’, which translates to ‘Who are you?’, is about the police brutality experienced by Vietnamese protestors at the hands of the Communist Vietnamese Government, following the 2011 protests regarding the dispute with China over territory in the East China Sea. Việt Khang was later sentenced to 4 years’ imprisonment for “inciting propaganda” against the Communist Government.
This example serves as a painful reminder to the liberal democratic world that many people do not possess the right to speak up against authority through music without punishment. Here in Australia, we value our right to protest, and have produced several iconic protest songs of our own.
Arguably our most notable tracks come from indigenous Australians, including the following:
Yothu Yindi – ‘Treaty’ in 1991 generated a conversation on indigenous land rights at the time as the song was written in response to outgoing Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s broken promise to engage in talks with First Nations people regarding a potential treaty with the Commonwealth Government.
Paul Kelley & Kev Carmody – ‘From Little Things, Big Things Grow’ tells the story of Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji people’s battle against the Australian Federal Government over land rights in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Protest music has become an integral part of human expression throughout the world, and with the passing of time, more artists will be inspired by the issues of the day to write songs that inspire movements and protest, whether they be in democratic or authoritarian states. The #VinylRevolutions project was a fantastic experience for me to be involved in, and I hope all who follow the Centre of Democracy’s socials thoroughly enjoy the songs they post!
P.S. My personal favourite protest songs are: