Radical Music: 'Music is powerful'

IssueFebruary - March 2020
Comment by Penny Stone

When the world is in such a turbulent state, it can seem hopeless to ‘just’ sing songs.

I am a great believer in music and action working together, but it is also true that simply singing songs can help to change ideas and perceptions (for better or for worse!).

Music is powerful – if singing songs wasn’t a powerful human act, then governments and dictators wouldn’t bother to ban them.

To give a few of examples, Edwin Starr’s ‘War – yeah, u-huh, what is it good for?! Absolutely nothing!’ was banned by the BBC during the first Gulf War, but so were Elvis Presley’s ‘Only Fools Rush In’, The Bangles’ ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ and ABBA’s ‘Waterloo’!

Last year, Iranian singer Mehdi Yarrahi was asked by the government to change the lyrics of his hit song ‘Pareh Sang’ (‘Broken Rock’) that criticised the Iran-Iraq war. He refused, and has been banned from singing it in its original form.

So, in concert, Mehdi has just played the music and left the stage – and the audience have sung the song themselves.

In translation from Farsi, some of the lyrics say: ‘Death has won and once again the mind has died and all our memories are subject to war... Why have not we had a life yet?!’

There is more informal censorship that happens as well, to try and ‘hold the narrative line’.

In the build-up to the United States entering the First World War, ‘I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier’ was sung widely at anti-war meetings, and although there wasn’t a formal ‘ban’, very few music hall owners would let it be sung on their stages for fear of losing their licences.

In 1939, Billie Holiday’s record company, Columbia, wouldn’t let her record ‘Strange Fruit’ – one of the most powerful songs telling the truth of the lynching of black people in the US – for fear of financial losses from their white southern audience.

They did, however, give her a one-session release on her contract to allow her to record the track with Commodore Records.

When speaking about music’s power to change opinions, Pete Seeger used to share a quote, reportedly from Plato, that ‘It’s very dangerous to allow the wrong kind of music into the republic’.

Which should remind us that the more we write, sing and play the ‘wrong sort of music’ for the current government(s), the more we can potentially influence public opinion for the better.

‘Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.’ That is a paraphrase of something written by Andrew Fletcher, an 18th-century Scottish politician and writer. The longer piece of writing this quote summarises is really talking about how legislators are powerless to change laws if the will of the people is not behind them.

Fletcher says that even ‘the most ancient legislators thought that they could not well reform the matters of any city without the help of a lyric, and sometimes of a dramatic poet’.

I believe that we are being spun this ‘dramatic poetry’ far too strongly just now and that one of our most powerful tools is to use all forms of the creative arts to reclaim the narrative.

Truth be told, I would love to write some laws just now, laws that protect the human rights of all, and laws that limit the reach of the rich and powerful.

But I am a singer and an activist, so what I can do is help to support this work through campaigning and singing to help educate those around us and to resist those unthinkable things that are being done to our friends and neighbours, near and far.

Perhaps the most dangerous form of musical censorship of all is self-censorship – toeing the line for fear of reprisals big and small. But it is too important not to speak up – and sing – just now.

Too many lives are on the line – whether from the threat of war or from the desperate poverty so many in our own country and around the world are unnecessarily trapped within.

So must we make and sing the songs decrying political wars, lies and distractions while governments and corporations swindle us all out of a just society that benefits all.

We must sing anti-war songs and social justice songs and songs that speak differently of the relationship between people and planet.

And if they try to ban these songs, if they try to suppress the voice of dissent (for example by putting all peaceful campaigning groups on a terrorist watch list…), well, then we know it’s working, and we will sing louder.

Courage, friends, for we have so much to sing about. We can show our varied communities that another world is possible. And it is.

Topics: Culture
See more of: Radical music