Fight the Power: Artists and Revolutions

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 10.14.11 in Lists

There are as many different types of protest music as there are musical styles. These range from the classic “protest song,” which originated in 18th-century Ireland, to more abstract examples from jazz and classical music. Likewise, our worldwide surplus of social injustice and economic inequality has inspired an equally international assortment of tuneful troublemakers, as indicated by the 12 albums from nearly as many nations below. A longer sampling might have included rap and hip-hop, straight-edge rock, Australian aboriginal sounds, Algerian rai, and of course everyone’s favorite French socialist anthem, “The Internationale.” But these should rock the casbah sufficiently for the time being.

Symptoms of struggle permeate the weeping wah-wah guitar of South Korea's rock 'n' roll godfather on this delirious and often downbeat compilation focusing on Shin Joong Hyun's early-'70s output. Born in 1938, Shin is something of an Asian Neil Young combined with Phil Spector. A tireless performer-producer who came of age before Chuck Berry invented rock 'n' roll, Shin continued to develop and evolve his sound even as South Korea's dictatorship tried to quash a syncretic charisma that embraced the Supremes, Jefferson Airplane, disco, Korean gayo (pop-rock) and much more.

Like Okinawa's Shoukichi Kina, Shin practiced his chops and acquired his taste for classic acid rock — and classic acid — in and around American military bases. "Moon Watching" captures Shin's tentative instrumental lounge-rock sound in 1958. Shin subsequently formed South Korea's first real rock group, ADD4; recorded thoroughly credible Asiatic soul-pop such as "I Don't Like" with his group Donkeys; and added acid-rock guitar solos to Korean folk motifs with his Golden Grapes on tracks like "Please Don't Bother Me Anymore." Shin also discovered and nurtured wonderful male and female singers such as the melodramatic Kim Sun (dig Shin's ghost-rattle soloing on "The Man Who Must Leave"), Kim Jung Mi (quietly majestic on "The Sun"), Jang Hyun (something of a Korean Glen Campbell on "Please Wait"), and the irrepressible twin Bunny Girls ("Why That Person").

Having once covered Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," drum solo and all, it's no surprise to find Shin stretching his weird yet always slightly tentative chops on the 15-minute "'J' Blues 72," which bears a strong whiff of Country Joe and the Fish. And always an uncompromising cultural subversive, Shin recorded this eclectic and poignant comp's trippy closing title track as an Aquarian, contrarian response to government pressure to record propaganda songs. "Beautiful River and Mountains" arrived after some serious soul searching. In response, the dictatorship banned Shin's music and subsequently busted, tortured, and incarcerated him in 1975. Shin nevertheless emerged, battered yet unbowed, to continue a roller-coaster career ripe for further exploration.

Liberation Music Orchestra

Charlie Haden

Does protest music require lyrics? Perhaps. We'd certainly hear bassist-composer Charlie Haden's tumultuously affecting 1969 album featuring Don Cherry (trumpet), Paul Motian (drums), saxophonists Gato Barbieri and Dewey Redman, and other modern jazz notables differently if we weren't eased into its anti-war, pro-freedom call to arms through the group's name, the album's art, and composition titles like "War Orphans" and "Song for Che." The great pianist Carla Bley composed other tunes and arranged its centerpiece medley of repurposed Spanish Civil War anthems, which brim with instrumental screams of anger, despair, and liberation. But make no mistake: Haden's LMO debut represents political music at its finest and is simply fine music besides.

Monkey Banana

Fela Kuti

Fela Kuti was both a master of musical pleasure and a tireless critic and satirist of the status quo. He hurled plenty of invective at Nigeria's corrupt and oil-besotted government elsewhere, but here he turns the tables, mocking workers for serving the elite without just compensation in a twelve-minute track titled "Before I Jump Like Monkey Give Me Banana." The album's flip side likewise settles into a familiar loping groove until Fela steps in to nag the nation's "been-to's," students who study abroad yet "no get sense wiseness."

The pan-African star belts out this updated, jazz-flavored township music in her native Xhosa language, mostly, on this upbeat and downright sophisticated 1989 album recorded in Italy (her South African citizenship having been revoked in 1963). Welela means "crossing over," which probably refers as much to her appearance on Paul Simon's 1986 Graceland as to the apartheid victims she consoles most notably in "Soweto Blues," which evokes the June 1976 police slaughter of hundreds of students during a peaceful protest.

This deeply grooving 1977 album by the so-called "Lion of Zimbabwe" and his Acid Band may not sound particularly provocative (the title means "watch out!"), and yet Mapfumo was still jailed by Rhodesia's apartheid regime following the release of its carefully couched Shona-language chimurenga "struggle" songs sympathizing with the anti-government rebels. Mapfumo chants and yodels over guitars that sometimes, as on "Hwah-Hwah" and "Mhandu Musango," electrify traditional mbira rhythms. And while Mapfumo's lyrics were often ambiguous enough to be used by both the right and the left, his high-stepping 12/8 retooling of South African jit, Congolese rumba, and local dancing and drumming rhythms are uncompromisingly righteous.

Born Ramon Pelegero Sanchis in 1940, and accompanying himself here on acoustic guitar, Raimon helpfully provides English title translations before breaking into the Catalan language songs on this no-frills 1971 collection. The nova cano (new song) luminary is known best for opposing the Franco dictatorship with tunes like "Sobre la Por" (About Fear), "Contra la Por" (Against Fear), and "Diguem No" (Say No). Neither a particularly amazing singer nor guitarist, Raimon nevertheless expresses a convincing urgency except on "Societat de Consum" (Consumer Society), catches him in an ironic mode.

Silver-tongued Silvio Rodrguez was one of the Cuban co-founders of Latin America's nueva trova or "new ballad" movement, which combined beautiful singing and playing with allegorical and socially relevant lyrics. While songs such as "Cancion Urgente Para Nicaragua" speaks to a specific political situation, others, like the idealistic and surreal "Unicornia" (heard here in a live version), have become anthems throughout much of Latin America. Rodrguez is more Joan Baez than Bob Dylan, however, and some argue that he squandered pre-revolution Cuba's rich musical legacy in favor of Westernized folk-rock. But David Byrne, who released this collection on his Luaka Bop label in 1991, isn't among them.


In terms of sheer musical pleasure, few social critics compare to Mali singer Oumou Sangar's joyful polyrhythms of protest. Although she tends to lead mostly by example, this 2009 album's standout track is "Wele Wele Wintou," which supports her opposition to the forced marriage of underage girls with percussion mimicking ringing bells ("wele wele"). Beside bemoaning the plight of unhappy women ("the great bee hive") in "Sounsoumba," Sangar praises a singing feminist forbearer in "Iyo Djeli," praises a progressive Nigerian politician and his wife ("Djigui"), and suggests a modest redistribution of fortune in "Kounyada."

Protest Anthology

Nina Simone

Consisting of 11 previously unreleased live performances and eight interview tracks, this 2008 release offers an unusual glimpse into the ideology behind the art of one of the 20th century's most cantankerous and talented protest singers. Simone was a fearless jazz cannibal, and her posthumous collection kicks off with a caterwauling rewrite of John Lennon's "Revolution" before offering a condensed history of the civil rights movement via "Mississippi Goddamn," "Old Jim Crow," "Backlash Blues," and "Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)." Simone's explanation of the politics behind her art ("I will do it by any means necessary") are almost as convincing as the music itself.



This North Saharan "desert blues" tribe plays protest music in the sense that nearly all Delta blues is essentially about place and displacement. Formed by Tuareg tribesmen in 1979, Tinariwen sing about revolution, nostalgia, exasperation with tribal capitulations to modernity, and the trouble with camels on this 2003 debut studio album, whose title means "travelers." Their loping guitars, syncopated clapping, djembe drums, and female ululation celebrate and explain a nomadic culture that has been at odds with surrounding territories since 1916.

Equal Rights

Peter Tosh

"Everyone is crying out for peace, yeah/ None is crying out for justice," sings Peter Tosh in Malcolm X mode on the title track of this exquisitely produced and rebelliously rocking stone classic of a reggae album. Reggae's greatest riddim section drummer Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare provide foundation for "Get Up, Stand Up," "Downpressor Man," "African," Apartheid," and other less politically explosive tracks, while Tosh dips into biblical Revelation to justify real-world revolt in suffering Jamaica. And it's harder by far than most anything produced by fellow Wailer Bob Marley.

Rebetika is a form of Greek folk music, or Greek blues, that originated during the early 20th century. It has been revived periodically and suppressed just as often, mostly because of hedonistic lyrics about sexing and hash smoking. This 2008 anthology concentrates on the classical bouzouki-based Piraeus style of rebetika recorded during its postwar revival. Listen up for Stelios Kazantzidis, a young, expressive singer who embodies rebetika's world-weary complaints in songs like "I Kinonia Halase" (Broken Society) and "Matose Matose" (Bleed Bleed).

South Africa's popular revolt against apartheid unleashed the most stylistically diverse array of rebel music of any modern protest movement. The soundtrack to a controversial, and not particularly well-reviewed, 2007 film about the nation's white anti-apartheid coalition contains a vividly representative selection of both black and white remonstrators from the movement's late '80s zenith. Highlights include the Genuines' brilliant goema drumming ("Struggle"), the Mamu Players township chorus ("War Is Declared"), and dub poet Mzwakhe Mbuli ("Now Is the Time"). Their Caucasian brethren show just as much breadth and vigor in National Wakes' power pop ("International News"), the Cherry Faced Lutcher's folk journalism ("Shot Down"), and especially in the Kalahari Surfers' political-pop experimentalism ("Treason," "Reasonable Men").