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Opinionista

Where have protest songs gone in this new time of struggle?

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Zukiswa Pikoli is a journalist and columnist at Daily Maverick and is part of the founding team of Maverick Citizen. Prior to Daily Maverick she worked as a communications and advocacy officer at Public Interest Law Centre SECTION27.

Throughout the history of struggle, song has been what generations of indentured and persecuted peoples have turned to as a salve that soothes a weary spirit, coaxing it to fight another day.

Scrolling through social media a few weeks ago, I came across a video that posed an arresting question: “What do liberation-minded people need in times of injustice and tragedy?”

At first blush, a simple question, but one that has been playing in my head as I seek to answer it. My immediate instinct was to turn to history and my reference point of living through the tail-end of South Africa’s liberation era and what the cohort of liberation fighters I knew turned to.

But it was only as I started writing this column that the answer crystallised – song.

Throughout the history of struggle, song has been what generations of indentured and persecuted peoples have turned to as a salve that soothes a weary spirit, coaxing it to fight another day.

Research from Gettysburg College that contrasts South Africa’s liberation struggle and the US civil rights struggle suggests: “As an elemental form of creative expression, music enables many of the vital tools needed to overcome hatred and violence. Jazz and freedom songs were two of the most influential genres, and each was integral especially to building solidarity, expressing struggles, and protesting against injustice.”

When words fail, other forms of expression are often necessary.

Incidentally, February is the birthday month of one of the world’s most politically astute and musically gifted artists, Nina Simone, whose song I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free was a liberation anthem in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s.

A fiercely independent musician with an unusual voice, Simone said of music: “As a political weapon, it has helped me for 30 years defend the rights of American blacks and third-world people all over the world, to defend them with protest songs. To move the audience, to make them conscious of what has been done to my people around the world.”

Even now, when I listen to her voice over her classically trained piano, the emotion and determination to make her political mark are undeniable.

Simone is, of course, not alone and exists in the company of other greats such as Tracy Chapman of Talkin’ Bout a Revolution fame, Bob Geldof of The Great Song of Indifference, Bob Marley of Get Up, Stand Up, Johnny Clegg of Asimbonanga and Miriam Makeba of A Luta Continua, to name a few.

These people chose to use their talents not only for individual gain, but to provide hope, solace and encouragement during difficult times.

This is something that has come to be conspicuous in its absence in recent years. One has to wonder why.

Is it a sign that the world is moving away from a culture of political activism that sees the value of music which universally unites and seeks to find solidarity? Or is it that our values have changed from being about our collective liberation and have turned protectionist and survivalist instead?

Those older musicians showed that it is not only the job of politicians to protect our liberties; the responsibility belongs to us all.

I wonder, what will history record as the soundtrack to the political moment we are living through today? DM

This article first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick newspaper, DM168, which is available countrywide for R29.

DM168

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  • JOHANN SCHOLTZ says:

    What on earth are you even on about? Liberation occured 30 years ago. Problem now is poverty and unemployment. To solve this we need economic growth. For this we need better education, proper maintenance and investment in infrastructure like Eskom. Singing songs wont help us one bit.

  • T'Plana Hath says:

    You need a song that perfectly encapsulates ‘the political moment we are living through today’? Look no further than 1979’s hit from the Flying Lizards; it’s called Money (that’s what I want). If ever there was a tune to toyi-toyi to …

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