The Songlines Essential 10: Protest Singers

Posted on January 23rd, 2015 in Recent posts by .


Only the bravest artists take on the biggest enemies. Chris Moss singles out the main role models for today’s young, wannabe revolutionary musicians.

Click here to stream the full playlist.

Freddie Aguilar – Greatest Hits (Vicor, 2009)
Aguilar’s rendition of the revolutionary song ‘Bayan Ko’ became the anthem of the opposition to the Marcos regime during the 1986 People Power Revolution. Soulful and searching, he is part late-Leonard Cohen, part James Taylor and part Pinoy rock sentimentality.

Billy Bragg – Talking With the Taxman About Poetry (Go! Discs, 1986)
Love/lust songs like ‘Greetings to the New Brunette’, ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ and ‘The Warmest Room’ say as much about the working classes as any of the overtly political tracks – though ‘There is Power in a Union’ and ‘Help Save the Youth of America’ assured listeners that the Bard of Barking was not softening.

Woody Guthrie – This Land is Your Land: The Asch Recordings, Vol 1 (Smithsonian Folkways, 1997)
Troubadour and tireless human rights activist Woody Guthrie beguiles us with his gentle voice, but the sticker on his guitar warned ‘This Machine Kills Fascists.’ This disc contains many classics including the original version of ‘This Land is Your Land’, his antidote to the patriotic puff of ‘God Bless America’.

Fela Kuti and Afrika 70 – Zombie (Knitting Factory, 2013)
Two songs lasting more than 12 minutes, one enemy – the corrupt, murderous and powerful Nigerian military. Fela Kuti’s brand of protest is danceable, cool, iconoclastic, passionate and controversial. The album was a smash. In response, a thousand ‘zombies’ attacked Fela’s Kalakuta Republic commune and destroyed his studio.

Bob Marley and the Wailers – Natty Dread (Island, 1974)
Marley, with or without the Wailers, always gave his social message a spiritual edge. Natty Dread was his first album without Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, and marks a shift towards a bluesy, skanky-swaying sound. In songs like ‘Rebel Music’, ‘No Woman No Cry’ and ‘Revolution’ the politics comes at us from the street with Marley as witness rather than speechmaker.

Hugh Masekela – Masekela (Uni Records, 1969)
South African jazz supremo Hugh Masekela is proof that the sound of rebellion can be subtle and sophisticated without losing any of its spleen. From the uncompromising opening track, ‘Mace and Grenades’, this 1969 album has an angry, anarchic quality, with the trumpet doing most of the protesting. On the closing song, ‘If There’s Anybody Out There’, Masekela tells us he’s ‘screaming here from way down below.’ Subversion is always subterranean.

Public Enemy – It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Def Jam, 1988)
Copied and caricatured, revered and reviled, this hip-hop mission statement gave African Americans a voice, and a noise, they recognised as authentic. Chuck D’s ire comes through loud and clear, while the sound shapeshifts as it wanders the streets of NYC, horns blasting, crowds colliding, ghetto-blasters blaring and vinyl sampling and scratching.

Show of Hands – Witness (Hands On Music, 2006)
Rousing, lyrical, occasionally acerbic, Witness shows Steve Knightley and Phil Beer doing what they do best – educating, entertaining and filling the huge cultural gap left by mass-market pop and rock (‘Branch, stem, shoot/They need roots’). The rise of UKIP has made ‘Roots’ seem especially timely, but there are powerful local sentiments in all these songs.

Mercedes Sosa – 30 Años (Polygram, 1993)
From Tucumán in north-west Argentina – where mestizo and indigenous cultures persist – Mercedes Sosa (1935-2009) established herself as a nueva canción superstar with covers of Violeta Parra’s ‘Gracias a la Vida’ and Horacio Guarany’s ‘Si Se Calla el Cantor’. Singing lullabies and country dances or belting out folk rock alongside León Gieco, she had the popular touch.

Various Artists – The Rough Guide to Arabic Revolution  (World Music Network, 2013)
Given the disastrous denouement unfolding in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Sudan, we can’t be certain terms like ‘Arab Spring’ or ‘Arabic Revolution’ will endure, but this compilation charts the mood of these heated times – from Tunisian rapper El General daring to question the ‘State of the Nation’ to Iranian-born Sami Yusuf exhorting Muslims the world over not to surrender in ‘I’m Your Hope’. It includes a bonus disc by Ramy Essam, who came to prominence performing on Tahrir Square.

Podcast Click here to listen to music from Egypt’s Ramy Essam on this issue’s podcast

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