Music as a Tool in Protest and Nonviolence? – Yes!


December 19, 2017

Photo: “Martello (L) also played with the crowd as he brought his grand piano to what was the center of a battlefield a day earlier.” (Hürriyet DAILY NEWS photo, Emrah GÜREL)

Published on 19/12/2017

Last Wednesday, The Hill featured an article by Judy Kurtz, addressing the topic of protest songs. Making reference to different artists in the past and presence, Kurtz examines the current role of protest-music in what she calls a “noisy political climate”. Different voices made various claims to why, but mostly agreed that protest songs are largely missing in the US today. Not saying they are totally absent, there at least seems to be a lack of big names or wide reach. This is unlike in the 1960s and early 1970s, when songwriters and musicians “gave voice to a generation, as Vietnam sparked violence at home and Watergate toppled a president, by capturing the angst and pain of a tumultuous political climate.”

What is different now? The arguments range from claims of a lesser urgency of what is happening, through a scattered pop culture, to a different media landscape today in comparison to before. Music analyst Bob Lefsetz further claimed that, besides frequently voicing criticism, artists seem reluctant and afraid to be ‘too’ political in their songs, fearing to alienate fans. In this context, Lefsetz makes reference to the country music band Dixie Chicks. Their music was widely stopped from airing on country music stations, after a comment by its lead singer criticizing then-President Geogre W. Bush at a London concert which some fans perceived as “unpatriotic”.

But maybe, it is also a matter of perspective. Pitchfork and Stacey Anderson, drew a slightly different picture in November, stating that “in 2017, ‘protest music’ seemed like a redundant term; when all identities are this politicized, all music feels political.” According to Pitchwork and Anderson, “[t]his year redefined our notions of politically reactive music: what it sounds like, who it comes from, and how much identity ignites its contents. Unlike other modern eras of American populist resistance, there was no single, centralized scene for discordant song […]. Sometimes they explicitly condemned the policies and people who dominated the year. And, just as often, for many artists, visibility itself was the defiance; this was music made by the marginalized voices Trump was working to exclude.” Taking this broader range of styles and topics into consideration for what they would categorize as protest music, Pitchfork and Anderson compiled a list of 20 songs, including well-known names like Eminem, Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé.

If you were wondering, why discuss the subject of (protest) music? Music has played an important role in nonviolent movements around the world, and different sources have addressed the ‘power of music’ in this context. But before explaining where and how music has played an important role, put on this song from Turkey as your background tune to get inspired by one example of protest music. As PRI described it, this song by the well-known ensemble “Kardes Turkuler” (Songs of Fraternity) became “a sort of anthem for the protests” that happened mostly around Gezi Park and Taksim Square, in Istanbul, 2013. And this “Song of Pots and Pans” was not the only case in which music and humoristic elements took an important part in Turkey’s protests (also see cover photo).

In the US, the aforementioned role of music in the anti-Vietnam war movement is also only one example. Earlier in the United States, the Civil Rights Movement also largely counted on the power of music, even to a degree which inspired the documentary “Soundtrack for a Revolution” to address this topic in 2009. During the Civil Rights Movement, “’freedom songs’ raised courage, stated the goals, declared commitment, united separated communities, and sometimes took melodic aim at notorious police chiefs”, as Mary Elizabeth King put it on Waging Nonviolence in 2011. One of its most powerful and well-known songs has probably been “We shall overcome”.

In Ukraine during its 2004-2005 Orange Revolution, musicians played at rallies, 17 days in a row, day and night, to support those on the streets and give them “staying power”. And more recently at the beginning of the Syrian uprising or elsewhere during the Arab Spring, music also played a role in nonviolent opposition. But one of the most powerful examples of music in nonviolent movements and resistance, has probably been what even became known as the “Singing Revolution” in Estonia, restoring its independence from the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s, alongside its neighboring Baltic states Lithuania and Latvia.

Reading Mary Elizabeth King’s article as well as listening to interviewees on an event by the United States Institute of Peace which brought together activists, artists and peacebuilders to explore music as a strategic tool in nonviolent resistance, several aspects seem to explain the  power of music in nonviolence. First, the music represents a powerful medium to articulate one’s message. In music, the latter can be expressed not only through the words themselves, but also through its rhythm and melody, something rather universal. It is thus easier to reach people on different levels, including not only their reason, but their emotions as well. Music as a medium to express oneself can sometimes even be the only way to do so, when other mediums are regulated and limited. In this, the internet as a possibility to publish and disperse such music, has also played an important role.

Regarding music’s universal character and ability to affect people more easily, it is also a powerful tool to mobilize people and create solidarity with those who might not have been supporters or even opponents of a cause. And it can certainly act as a crucial means to create unity in a movement and its activities, thus helping to uphold one of the three basic factors of success. And it can also help encourage people to stick to nonviolent discipline and keep faith, especially in otherwise repressive environments. Mary Elizabeth King wrote: “As in the civil rights movement, singing the right song at the fitting moment can involve heart, mind, body, soul—one’s entire being—in making the decision to face fear, stand unflinching in attacking the political power of the adversary, or confronting likely grave retaliation.”

These former examples and arguments have shown, that music can play a vital role in nonviolence on many levels. And it underlines again, that not everyone who wants to make a political statement or contribute to a movement has to be very ‘political’ to start with, or go out to protest in the street. As with the sewing of protest banners, making use of one’s individual talent and creativity, in this case through music, can make a great contribution to nonviolent movements. May it be to inspire people through its lyrics, melody and rhythm, to become a symbol or means of protest itself, or to support the morale in the field.

Find out more about protest songs and music here: