Can you hear the people sing?

Updated: Oct 25, 2020

Plugging your earphones into your phone and playing music may be a trivial part of your daily routine. You’ll choose a song with a certain tempo, melody or lyric to generate a certain emotion. Music is many things, it’s a platform for self-expression or a method of catharsis. Whilst music is all around us, we can underestimate the influence it has on us. Whether it is on our style or our group identity, music can also shape our political beliefs and principles. The link between music and politics is considered, but often forgotten. The 1960s and 1970s were decades of political turmoil and protests were expressed through music and songs. Protest songs can be used during political movements as a tool to challenge power dynamics between the people and the government. The legacy of that era remains with contemporary music artists such as M.I.A., or within the memory of legendary artists such as Billie Holiday. But what do politics and music have in common? Harmony. As harmony in music is created through the dichotomous relationship between dissonance and consonance, the nature of politics is rooted in conflict and harmony (Thomson, 2016).

Many are familiar with the song “Paper Planes” by M.I.A. What we are unfamiliar with however, is the deep, political message rooted in M.I.A.’s song lyrics, a political message that becomes a leitmotif in her musical endeavours. Her stage name M.I.A. is an anagram meaning "missing in action", which refers to the disappearance or deaths of individuals following military action. Her past experience as a war refugee, escaping the Sri Lankan Civil War, has evidently influenced her musical style and lyrics. Her song “Borders” was widely controversial and scandalous. “Borders”, “police shots”, “boat people”, “what’s up with that?” (2016) are lyrics taken from “Borders". The repetition of “what’s up with that?” a common, ordinary phrase is used in this song to directly expose and protest against the corrupt and selfish nature of ‘developed’ nations. M.I.A. utilises this song to protest against the anti-immigrant and conflictual tendencies in Western countries and believes more humanitarian aid should be provided to countries who need it. Through her music and lyrics, she gives a voice to the voiceless by sending a clear political message of protest, demanding a change in Western ideologies and attitudes.

Protest songs are ubiquitous and have been present throughout the decades. Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” recorded in the 1930s was one the first political protest songs released by a black female artist that exposed the xenophobic and discriminatory violence in Southern US states. “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze… The scent of magnolia, clean and fresh, then the sudden smell of burning flesh” (Holiday, 1939). The simplicity of Billie Holiday’s lyrics offers a lucid depiction of violence and lynching committed against the African American population. The juxtaposition and haunting message of “Strange Fruit” initiated social action and became the soul of the Civil Rights movement (Reed, 2019). Moreover, “Strange Fruit” is an inspiration to present-day artists and civil rights advocates. Kanye West’s “Blood on the leaves” exemplifies this influence as even though the lyrics are inspired by “Strange Fruit”, he manages to adapt it to our current era by introducing a modern, electronic sound to the song. Through this modern adaptation, Kanye West protests against the racial injustice and dilemmas that African Americans still endure to this day. At the time, “Strange Fruit” spawned the release of further political protest songs during the Civil Rights movement. “Blowin’ in the wind “ by Bob Dylan is another renowned piece of folk work that has successfully engaged masses to promote both political and social change. Written in the 1960s, this song serves to support the civil rights and the lack of freedom of African Americans, but is additionally an opposition to the war in Vietnam, as expressed through these lyrics: “How many deaths will it take ‘til he knows that too many people have died” (1963). The resentment Bob Dylan displays through his lyrics reflects the growing anger felt by those who participated in social movements. Billie Holiday’s and Bob Dylan’s songs provide the freedom to encourage racial and interstate harmony. These protest songs created new forms of political identities, “where people rebelled against the government and identified with peace movements”. This new form of political expression, enabled via protest songs created new political identities and attitudes in which people refused to comply to the system and government in power (Neuman, 2008).

Nevertheless, solely associating music with studio released songs is commercial and defies the idea of what music is and can be. Music can be a simple melody, with a repeated musical phrase, called an ostinato, passed via oral tradition. “We shall overcome” is a simplistic, repeated chant that emerged during the Civil Rights movement. These lyrics have transcended to other political protest movements around the world, and have become a universal anthem of protest. “We shall overcome” was sung by Germans during the fall of the Berlin Wall, by Chinese protesters during the Tiananmen Square protests, and more recently sung in Egypt during the Arab Spring (Reed, 2019). “We shall overcome” became a significant dilemma in the 1960s in East Germany, as it encouraged the youth to protest and oppose the government. In 1967, the East German government, under Soviet control, tried to censor this song and passed a law stating that all music had to be composed and written in ways that glorify the nation of East Germany (Stur, 2009). Similarly, “Strange Fruit” was heavily censored and banned from radio broadcasts due to its powerful depiction of violence in the US at the time. It is interesting to acknowledge what the government considers to be the most dangerous facet of social movements - songs. Not the riots, the use of weapons or the actual protests, but a song. What elements of protest songs and music threatens the government to the point that they want to ban and censor these songs? Evidently, protest songs opposing the government or system have revolutionary power. Through censorship and the control of protest music, the government can try and limit the exposure that people have to protest music, and other sources that incite social change. Using a Foucauldian approach, we understand that ‘power produces reality’ (1977, p. 194). If the government monopolises the state and its people, they can control what knowledge is accepted as the truth. On the contrary, if movements and protest songs diminish the power and control the government has, then protest songs defy the truth the government try to impose on the population.

Whether it is propaganda or heavily censored music, forms of governments can utilise music to brainwash and manipulate the population. This poses a question on morality and ethics. Should the government be morally allowed to regulate and censor music? Alternatively, can the government justify these censorships if they deem music to be a threat to their national security and position? Different groups in society use music for different political purposes, as seen with the use of music propaganda. The Hitler Youth movement heavily relied on musical propaganda and Nazi songs to create a sense of community, done in order to create the common knowledge that the Nazi regime was just and virtuous (Koch, 2000). Similarly, ‘No Motherland Without You’ is a North Korean song dedicated to the former leader, Kim Jong-il. It is broadcasted on a daily basis to reinforce the Juche ideology of the state, which refers to the North Koreans complete commitment to the government (Heigemeir, 2018). Here we see the multi-faceted power of music. Whilst music can create a social change through protest songs to induce a response from a state, it can also be used as an apparatus by that state to express ideologies to reinforce the power and position of that state and its government.

The role music has in shaping political beliefs is indisputable, whether it be through musical propaganda or protest songs. Through the political message embedded in protest songs, music has the power to create a community that rebels and stand up to the government in any oppressed and unjust society. Music will always be one of the many platforms that humans will use to express themselves as music has no borders, no barriers, no physical restrictions. It moves freely and is adopted by many different countries and cultures, but its meaning is always distinct. Whilst this may seem far-fetched, we can learn something from the transcending power of music. We can continue protesting in hopes of encouraging a sociopolitical change and stand up for those who do not have a voice, such as immigrants or minorities within a society. We can learn to live in a world without physical, mental, or musical borders.


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Foucault, M. (1977) ‘Discipline and Punish: The Birth of The Prison’, Translated by Alan Sheridan, London: Penguin Books

Heigemeir, R. (2018). North Korean music, peace, propaganda. [online] Stanford Libraries. Available at: [Accessed 7 Dec. 2019].

Holiday, B. (1939). Strange fruit. [Online] Commodore. Available at: [Accessed 2 Dec. 2019].

Koch, H. (2000). The Hitler Youth: Origins and Development 1922-1945. New ed. Cooper Square Press, pp.134-136.

M.I.A. (2016). Borders. [Online] Interscope. Available at: [Accessed 2 Dec. 2019].

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Reed, T. (2019). The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the present. 1st ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp.1-42.

Stur, H. (2009). ‘Borderless Troubadour: Bob Dylan’s Influence on International Protest during the Cold War.’, in Sheehy, C. and Swiss, T. (ed) Highway 61 revisited: Bob Dylan’s Road from Minnesota to the World: Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp.126-127.

Thomson, R. (2016). The Intertwined Relationship Between Music And Politics. [online] Live For Live Music. Available at: [Accessed 1 Dec. 2019].