Redefining the protest song

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The protest song is present still, yet to what extent does its significance reach the alienated world? The medium that transcends form and style seems smothered beneath the illusion of freedom of expression.

The murder of Chilean revolutionary singer Victor Jara may be a nauseating historical crime yet, today, protest singers are still exiled or assassinated in some countries. In the face of such brutal epilogues, the protest song may be mellowing its voice into a more socially acceptable role.

While efforts on behalf of bands and singers might be applauded, such as Bono’s “Make Poverty History”, there is a striking difference between a singer whose life is at risk and another who lives comfortably.

As early as the 1960s, Victor Jara commented about this difference, differentiating between the protest song and the revolutionary song. “The term ‘protest song’ is no longer valid because it is ambiguous and has been misused. I prefer the term ‘revolutionary song’.”

The main difference between the two terms is the background of the singer and his or her philosophy. A protest singer may be inspired by events happening in the world. A revolutionary singer perceives these events as an integral part of their life, and is therefore compelled to influence other sufferers to defy oppression.

Jara was an authentic example of a revolutionary singer. Remaining loyal to his cause, he met his end after the triumph of Pinochet’s military coup — brutally beaten and murdered in the Estadio Chile, the stadium now bearing his name.

A revolutionary till the end, he wrote his last poem a few hours before his death, as his final testimony to the horrors endured by those imprisoned and awaiting their deaths in the stadium.

Historically, the protest song has been a response to oppression and injustice. Many lyrics are left leaning politically, and many protest singers very much associated with maligned communism, such as Cubans Carlos Puebla and Silvio Rodriguez and Chilean group Inti Illimani.

Others are a condemnation of oppressive governments. Viomak, a Zimbabwean singer, was exiled in London for being daring enough to address President Mugabe by name in one of her songs. In a country where freedom of expression is not respected, she recorded two albums on the outskirts of Harare and then fled to Britain, gaining political asylum in 2006.

Not all protest singers are so fortunate. In 1994, Algerian singer Cheb Hasni was shot to death outside his home. Hasni’s songs had already been censored and he had also received threats from Islamic extremists due to lyrics that were perceived as going against Muslim values.

Other lyrics were a definite stand against the social ills that people were suffering from, such as unemployment, lack of liberty and fear.

With the exceptions of singers who have lived through the terror or oppression, protest singers in democratic countries may be tricked into believing that their system allows their voices to be raised above the rhetoric.

The protest song has been superseded by huge concerts that attract multitudes and are followed by millions on television. Concertgoers are not necessarily activists. The comfort of the concert diverts people’s attention from another form of protest, that of taking the songs to the street in a more vociferous stand.

Commercialising the protest song does not allocate freedom for the singer. In return for publicity, the protest singer falls under the constraints of the music industry, becoming another voice that fades into the crowd.

With decades between the Vietnam War, which produced a notable number of protest singers, Bob Dylan amongst them, and our present reality with the two incessant wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is easy to comprehend the similarities between the eras.

The internet allows music to be distributed at a very fast pace. It can be the only outlet for singers who fear retribution, even in exile. But, considering the size of the internet, the message of the protest song may be lost — just another song or video amongst millions.

So, poverty continues to increase, wars ravage countries and people, diplomacy retains its impeccable appearance, and the protest song is muted by consumerism and the alienation that comes with it.

At a time when the world is in desperate need of positive change on numerous fronts — environmental, political, social — we might be in need of protest singers more than ever. But music’s infatuation with capitalism might yet turn out to be the downfall of ideals that seem to be hibernating and the protest song may have already become disillusioned.