The protest playlist
The Citi exhibition I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent features examples of what might be termed ‘creative disobedience’ – objects from across time and place, from the British Museum’s collection. It shows how people have used their skills as painters, printmakers, jewellers, weavers and even brickmakers, to challenge, question and mock the status quo. A notable absence is the work of musicians and songwriters, whose work is less physically tangible, surviving only as recordings, which the Museum has never systematically collected. To make up for its physical absence we introduced, via two audio posts in the exhibition, examples of protest music from all over the world – and have included some more recent ‘creatively disobedient’ songs.
Scroll down to listen to some of these songs of protest, along with a few others you may already have on your playlists.
Warning: this blog contains explicit content.
‘Some folks are born made to wave the flag / Ooh, they’re red, white and blue / And when the band plays ‘Hail to the chief’ / Ooh, they point the cannon at you, Lord.’
Many countercultural bands in the USA recorded songs opposing the Vietnam War, from 1955-75, often on the grounds that most North Vietnamese people did not want their help and because they believed the war was unfounded, as the South Vietnamese government the USA was purportedly defending was, in fact, corrupt. The ‘fortunate son’ of this track’s title was someone whose connections enabled them to avoid military service.
‘Shout, shout, up with your song! / Cry with the wind, for the dawn is breaking / March, march, swing you along / Wide blows our banner, and hope is waking’
A composer of operas and symphonic works, Smyth wrote this rousing anthem for Emmeline Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union, which led militant action in pursuit of women’s suffrage, and of which she was a member. It was performed everywhere, from the Royal Albert Hall to Holloway prison. There it was sung by inmates, including Smyth herself ( she was imprisoned after throwing a rock through the window of a Secretary of State who made a condescending remark about women), to lift their spirits.
‘Southern trees bear strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees’
This haunting protest song began life as a poem, possibly written in response to a widely circulated photograph of the double-lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana in 1930. Billie Holiday premiered the song at Café Society in New York in 1939, where it proved shocking, even to its liberal clientele. As she later recounted, ‘there wasn’t even a patter of applause when I finished. Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then suddenly everyone was clapping’.
‘Little brother, don’t cry, they are not bogeymen / you’re a big boy now, they are just soldiers / they came in square, iron caravans.’
Poet-songwriter Karel Kryl recorded this song in response to the 1968 suppression of the Prague Spring – a seven month period of liberalisation in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Sung in Czech, the words of the first verse sound angular and clunky, imitating the sound of the invading Soviet tanks. The song was banned shortly after it was released. Facing arrest, Kryl went into exile. He wouldn’t return until after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, which returned democracy to the country after Nazi occupation and communist rule, without bloodshed.
‘Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go (Zombie) / Zombie no go stop, unless you tell am to stop (Zombie) / Zombie no go turn, unless you tell am to turn (Zombie) / Zombie no go think, unless you tell am to think (Zombie)’
Fela Kuti’s opposition to Nigeria’s military dictatorship came to a head with the release of his album Zombie in 1976, from which this is the title track. It is a metaphor for soldiers who unthinkingly follow orders. After the album’s release, Kuti’s compound was stormed and burned to the ground. The musician was severely beaten and his mother thrown from an upper floor window. She later died from her injuries.
Ask the departing soldier / Where he is headed, where is he going? / Who is that woman who cries / Soothing her hungry children? / Can you hear life cry out amidst the stench of burnt bodies? / Where are you headed, oh soldier?
This anti-war song was written during the Second World War by an Urdu poet and composer. It questioned why Indians should fight on behalf of their colonial oppressors.
‘Don’t cut the flower that makes me a woman / If you circumcise girls / You will make their intimate moments difficult / They will always have health problems / I beg you mother, don’t make them circumcise me, it hurts so much!’
In an appeal to end the widespread practice of female circumcision, the artist sings about her own experience of being cut as a child.
There are many more chart-topping musicians who capture the spirit of dissent – and continue to question authority in our challenging world. Even if freedom of speech isn’t in question in their home country, the fact that they exercise this important right is something to celebrate.
Since its release, this song has amassed over 440,000,000 views on YouTube. Directed by Hiro Murai and choreographed by Sherrie Silver, the music video touches on gun violence, racial inequalities in America, and how entertainment has been historically used to distract us from current affairs. Gambino performed at the London-based festival Lovebox in July 2018 – during Trump’s official visit to London – and after referencing the infamous Trump baby blimp on stage, he closed the set with This is America.
‘So you say / It’s not okay to be gay / Well, I think you’re just evil / You’re just some racist who can’t tie my laces / Your point of view is medieval’
Sung with a cherubic voice over a breezy melody, Lily Allen’s anger at the often outdated views of elected representatives is brilliantly channelled in this modern pop classic. There are mixed opinions about who ‘inspired’ Fuck You, but Allen clarified at a concert in São Paulo, Brazil: ‘It was originally written about this fucking arsehole who used to be the President of the United States of America. His name is George W. Bush.’
Have we missed a brilliant protest song? What makes a good protest song? Can they really help achieve change? Share your views using #IObject on Twitter and Facebook and let us know what protest music means to you.
The Citi exhibition I object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent is open until 20 January 2019. Find out more and book your tickets.
Supported by Citi.