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Protest Music Hasn't Disappeared—It's Everywhere (Except the Music Business)
In every region of the world, music is used daily as a tool for expanding human rights and resisting authoritarianism—but this is due entirely to the public, not the music business
I often hear people reminisce about the golden age of protest songs. It’s not just baby boomers nostalgic for the lost days of their youth, when Bob Dylan and Joan Baez confronted the military-industrial complex. Even youngsters often express yearnings for a more activist kind of musical culture.
Music fans want to believe that their songs matter. And they worry that this stopped happening decades ago.
I find this perspective surprising.
In fact, political music and protest songs haven’t disappeared, not in the least. They are everywhere nowadays—as I’ll show below. Their apparent disappearance is an illusion created by the indifference of the music business. When you actually observe the real world outside the echo chamber of commercial interests, the musical culture is absolutely turbocharged with advocacy and adversarial conflicts.
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I’ve been studying the role of music in social and political change for several decades now, and I’ve come to realize that even a love song can serve as a powerful political statement.
That’s actually happened repeatedly in history.
The dangerous love song was a reality in ancient Egypt. The same was true in Greece and Rome. Love songs served as a force in promoting human rights throughout the medieval era, and especially at the time of French troubadours. In the United States, romantic music stirred up social upheaval again and again—with the rise of the blues or during the Jazz Age or the British invasion or the Stonewall Riots, all the way to the present day.
The blunt truth is that music is one of the most powerful forces we possess in promoting human rights and expanding personal autonomy in the face of authoritarian pressures. That was true thousands of years ago, and is just as true now.
If you disagree, consider the following news stories:
In October 2018, a Thai rap group called Rap Against Dictatorship released a music video that got 20 million views in just one week—in a country with a population of 70 million. The song was so influential, the Thai government responded with its own rap song, which was widely mocked and ridiculed.
In October 2019, the Baby Shark song was sung by protesters in Lebanon demonstrating against political corruption and economic decline.
Pakistan politicians are in a battle over TikTok.
China has launched a crackdown on karaoke songs with illegal content.
A Palestinian woman who is a leader in the electronic music scene was recently detained and investigated.
Dancing protesters in Bogotá have confronted the police by “vogueing.”
In North Korea, at least seven people have been executed for distributing or even just watching K-Pop videos.
In South Korea, K-Pop songs have been used as rallying cries at numerous protests. The so-called ‘Candlelight Revolution’ that led to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye relied on the boy band g.o.d.’s song “One Candle” as its anthem.
Drill music faces criticism, media attacks, and outright censorship in the UK.
Iran has cracked down on pop music with multiple arrests.
In Hong Kong, protesters turned the Broadway song “Do You Hear the People Sing?” into a pro-democracy anthem.
Around that same time, a song called “Glory to Hong Kong” started out as a YouTube video (with more than one million views in just the first two weeks), and then began showing up at protests. The music was so dangerous the songwriter had to remain anonymous. In fact many of the singers wore masks while singing it.
After the Taliban took over Kabul, a journalist reported that his hotel stopped playing background music—“Friends are here, so no more music,” was the explanation.
The Afghanistan National Institute of Music has been forced to rebuild its acclaimed school in Portugal, where students and teachers have been granted asylum.
Afghanistan leaders have meanwhile banned schoolgirls from singing.
Ethiopian authorities have imposed strict controls on protest music.
In Egypt, 19 singers recently faced government prohibitions for songs about alcohol, drugs, and other controversial topics.
One of the most important recent albums of Malian music had to be recorded at a refugee camp in Mauritania—because so many musicians have been forced into exile.
And this just scratches the surface. Despite what you might have heard to the contrary, the protest song is alive and well.
Each of these situations is different, but it’s curious to note how little the music business has done to spur these musical movements. Or even notice them.
If you judged music by radio or TV or promoted playlists, you wouldn’t know about any of this. The explanation is simple. You can’t make much money off these songs—especially if they get censored and prohibited. So there’s no incentive to expose audiences to these songs, or even let you know they exist.
But the protesters certainly know about them. And the authorities fear them.
This is a useful reminder that the dominant commercial model, which views songs as an entertainment product, distorts and constrains our musical culture. We’re fortunate that people still remember the power of song in changing the world, even when it’s been forgotten by the people running the business.