• Sun. Mar 3rd, 2024

The power of music

ByMartha Gane

Feb 3, 2024
American police officer with protest walking behind

I was going to start this article by telling you that ‘The Revolution will not be televised’ by Gil-Scott Heron is the most sampled song in history. Unfortunately, my source was flawed; I’m looking at you, Arthur Healey who once told me this at the pub. It has in fact, been sampled 41 times, a respectable number, so my point still stands. The song is burned into our cultural memory, referenced throughout art and media, and my first port of call when I sat down to write about the relationship between music and revolution.
Gil-Scott Heron was a prominent voice in the 1960s civil rights movement, calling out the injustice in society and encouraging change from his audience. The song ‘Whitey on the Moon’, originally a poem, seems to maintain relevance speaking to the ridiculous state of a wealthy society able to send men to the moon but not take care of its most vulnerable. This is something quite literally reflected today as the rich pay Elon Musk to take them to space while others struggle to feed themselves in a cost of living crisis. But if this music is still relevant today, and nothing has changed, then surely it wasn’t successful as a revolutionary song. What impact did it actually have?

In order to qualify as revolutionary, do we demand music to bring about action, or could it be seen as prescriptive of pre-existing revolutionary sentiment? It gives voice to ideas already bubbling about in society, emerging as a consequence of a revolution already underway. The social discontent that already existed in America during the period Gil Scott-Heron made music is reflected through his work and that of others like Marvin Gaye and Nina Simone. The legacy of these artists, the revolutionary ideas, and articulation of social issues that their music had is undeniable. However, pinpointing whether this music caused any political change is much harder.

I would argue that the power of music is far more complex than trying to boil it down to being a cause or effect. Nina Simone’s ‘Sinnerman’ never brought about any American legislation, but it could be argued that the impact of her work has indirectly shaped American politics. Music’s power lies in its ability to spread information, it’s the most effective and basic form of communication there is.

Look to the control that is often placed on music and the arts in political regimes. The emergence of Ethiopian Jazz in the 70s as a distinct genre comes out of a politically restrictive regime. The government had ruled that all music had to either be celebrating them or God. Not everyone was up for this, especially because they were a brutal fascist government. Problem solved–no more lyrics, this worked perfectly with the already emerging sound of Ethiopian Jazz which had been influenced by global sounds and brought back to the country by Mulatu Astatke. It’s traditional roots were appealing to the western, import hating government. Musicians started to get more creative making a bunch of wacky funky sounds and the genre thrived. Which all comes round to mean that we now have one of my favourites; tezteta. So, hooray for fascism! Kind of. Not really.

The power of music as a political tool that can be harnessed by the collective can be seen again in apartheid South Africa. Musicians often used metaphors to voice discontent as a means to hide meaning and avoid suppression. This was a tool to maintain a code understood by those who were like minded in the struggle against apartheid. Following the Soweto uprising in which 700 students were estimated to have been killed by police for protesting against new restrictions to teaching in the Afrikaans language, there was a wave of new music made in outrage. Lyrics in this period would become so widely known they could be altered for different occasions, the songs became a collective work as people gathered behind their force as a means to express discontent.

The point is that music can educate and spread ideas. These governments targeted creative freedom because in doing so, they could cut short the freedom to express and share the political thoughts of their citizens. This demonstrates the power that music has not only to harness pre-existing revolutionary sentiment but to be active in bringing about revolution. It takes one individual’s political criticism to give it a platform; the power to give a voice to those that aren’t always heard in this way could even be seen as a revolutionary act in itself. ‘Sinnerman’ for example is a traditional African American spiritual. By performing it Nina Simone was able to give a platform to voices not often heard in politics at the time.
The legacy of the likes of Gil Scott-Heron and Nina Simone can be seen today in the ways Hip-Hop has not only borrowed melodies but also ideas. I don’t even have time to cover all the political criticism and revolutionary sentiment that pops up in Hip-Hop but I’m sure you can think of at least three songs encouraging the police to get fucked. In recent years Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ is an example of music being utilised as a unifying call to arms behind a political movement. Throughout 2015 it was chanted by protesters marching against police brutality. As a means to voice and highlight the social issues and flaws music then goes even further to spread or articulate an idea people already have, acting as a rallying cry. It is both an effect of revolutionary sentiment and political discontent and a cause in its ability to spread ideas and provide a platform for those otherwise denied by society. Like Gil Scott-Heron was trying to tell us all along, revolution is in the everyday acts, beliefs, and ideas of those around us and it can begin somewhere as mundane as music.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, We are the 99% (5 of 27)” by glennshootspeople is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.