Category Archives: Politics

Kwaito’s promise

 

In the mid-1990s South African apartheid ended, and the country’s urban black youth developed kwaito—a form of dance music (redolent of North American house) that came to represent the post-struggle generation. Kwaito developed alongside the democratization of South Africa, a powerful cultural phenomenon that paradoxically engages South Africa’s crucial social and political problems by, in fact, seeming to ignore them.

Politicians and cultural critics criticize kwaito for failing to provide any meaningful contribution to a society that desperately needs direction, but these criticisms are built on problematic assumptions about the political function of music. Artists and fans aren’t escaping their social condition through kwaito, but are using it to expand their sensory realities and generate new possibilities. Resisting the truism that music is always political, kwaito thrives on its radically ambiguous relationship with politics, power, and the state.

This according to Kwaito’s promise: Music and the aesthetics of freedom in South Africa by Gavin Steingo (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

Above and below, Boom Shaka, whose It’s about time (1993) is widely regarded as the first kwaito hit.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Africa, Politics, Popular music

Drink, song, and disorder

 

“For a simple urban boy like me, the idea of listening to three Somerset folk singers sounds like hell.”

Thus declared the government minister Kim Howells during a debate in the British Parliament, as he responded to arguments predicting a decrease in musicians’ employment opportunities as a result of his plan to make all performances of music on premises where alcohol was sold subject to licensing by agencies of the State.

The plan that Howells introduced came to fruition in the form of the Licensing Act 2003. While this Act was presented by its proponents as a modernizing piece of legislation, it can be placed in a long history of British attempts to rein in the unruly side of music making, alcohol consumption, and the conjunction of the two—a history that has been marked by regulation in the name of public order and moral improvement.

This according to “Drink, song and disorder: The sorry saga of the Licensing Act 2003” by Dave Laing (Popular music XXXV/2 [May 2016] pp. 265–69).

Above and below, The Wurzels—three Somerset folk singers whose song I am a cider drinker was a number three hit in Britain in 1976.

Comments Off on Drink, song, and disorder

Filed under Humor, Politics, Popular music

Maldita Vecindad and activism

 

La Maldita Vecindad y los Hijos del Quinto Patio (usually referred to as Maldita Vecindad, or La Maldita, for short) produces music that is frequently categorized as fusion, due to its blending of rock, ska, reggae, and punk with traditional Mexican styles like danzón and bolero.

Deeply rooted in the working class, Maldita Vecindad is a pioneer of the rock en español movement, and its easily recognizable fusion rock—as well as the pachuco fashions favored by the members—have helped it to become one of the most influential groups of contemporary Mexican rock music.

From the group’s beginnings in the wake of the 1985 earthquake that devastated Mexico City, Maldita Vecindad’s members have drawn on their fame to make their fans more aware of leftist ideas and social causes, including the need for actively participating in relief efforts following the 1985 quake, political campaigns, and raising consciousness about HIV and AIDS. The group’s motto is paz y baile (peace and dance), a perfect combination of social message with ritual.

This according to “Maldita Vecindad, ritual, and memory: Paz y baile” by Lori Oxford, an essay included in Sounds of resistance: The role of music in multicultural activism (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2013, pp. 355–72).

Below, Maldita Vecindad performs in 2014.

Comments Off on Maldita Vecindad and activism

Filed under Performers, Politics, Popular music

Pete Seeger’s legacy

 

Pete Seeger essentially created the folk revival movement in the United States—carrying on the work of Woody Guthrie and helping to spawn the careers of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, among others—while also linking this movement to political protest and iconoclasm.

As a result of his anti-war crusading and open Communist leanings, Seeger was a central target of the infamous HUAC witch hunts, and was widely blacklisted and condemned. In the process, however, he ended up inventing the college circuit and becoming the cornerstone of the 1960s folk revolution.

Galvanized by the 1998 tribute album Where have all the flowers gone?, the late 1990s and 2000s saw a reawakening of interest in Seeger’s music and cultural legacy, which included Bruce Springsteen’s album-length We shall overcome: The Seeger sessions.

This according to “Voice of America” by Phil Sutcliffe (Mojo February 2007).

Today would have been Seeger’s 100th birthday! Below, his iconic 1968 broadcast of Waist deep in the Big Muddy; the antiwar song was censored by CBS when he taped it for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967, but the following year the network caved to pressure from the show’s hosts and allowed it to be aired.

Comments Off on Pete Seeger’s legacy

Filed under Performers, Politics, Popular music

Bachata and resistance

 

Bachata, a genre originating in the Dominican Republic, can be considered music of both political and social resistance. From the direct connection between the inception of the genre and the death of the dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo to the initial marginalization of the genre by the socially elite—as well as bachata’s relationship with nueva canción, a left-wing political movement—both the origins and rise to popularity of bachata are linked to political and social conflicts.

Today bachata’s wide popularity sets it apart from its humble roots and resistant nature; however, many songs with a strong social message suggest that bachata was and still is a music of the people, and a number of recent novels and films use the genre to portray social messages and to connect the music with the Dominican people.

This according to “Insolent origins and contemporary dilemmas: The bachata genre as a vehicle for social commentary, past and present” by Patricia Reagan, an essay included in Sounds of resistance: The role of music in multicultural activism (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2013, pp. 373–95).

Above, Juan Luís Guerra, whose 1991 album Bachata rosa (below) was particularly influential in changing the reception of bachata.

Comments Off on Bachata and resistance

Filed under Politics, Popular music, West Indies

British ballet during World War II

 

When World War II broke out, British ballet was only a few decades old, and few had imagined that it would establish roots in a nation long thought to be unresponsive to the genre.

Nevertheless, the War proved to be a boon for ballet dancers, choreographers, and audiences, for Britain’s dancers were forced to look inward to their own identity and sources of creativity. Instead of withering during the enforced isolation of war, ballet in Britain flourished, exhibiting a surprising heterogeneity and vibrant populism that moved ballet outside its typical elitist surroundings to be seen by uninitiated, often enthusiastic audiences.

Ballet proved to help boost morale, to render solace to the soul-weary, and to afford entertainment and diversion to those who simply craved a few hours of distraction. Government authorities came to see that ballet could serve as a tool of propaganda; it functioned within the larger public discourse of sacrifice, and it answered a public mood of pragmatism and idealism.

This according to Albion’s dance: British ballet during the Second World War by Karen Eliot (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Above, Robert Helpmann’s Miracle in the Gorbals (1944), one of the works discussed in the book; below, a documentary about reconstructing the dance in 2014.

Comments Off on British ballet during World War II

Filed under Dance, Politics

Tanzanian rap and neosocialist moralities

 

Rap songs from Tanzania’s urban youth are especially popular due to two factors: (1) unlike the majority of countries in Africa, Tanzania has a well-established national language, Swahili, which is spoken from one end of the country to the other, and has enabled the emergence of a well-subscribed sentiment of national belonging; and (2) as of 2013, 64% of Tanzania’s population was 25 years old or younger.

Like much youth music, a constant theme for Tanzanian rap is romance and relationships, but social and political critique has also proven emblematic of the genre. With penetrating lyrics, Swahili rappers target those who engage in predatory capitalism and political corruption—elites who hoard resources to accrue ever more wealth, spending it in an ever more conspicuous style, while the majority find their lives made ever more difficult.

This according to “Neosocialist moralities versus neoliberal religiousities: Constructing musical publics in 21st century Tanzania” by Kelly M. Askew, an essay included in Mambo moto moto: Music in Tanzania today (Berlin: VWB: Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung, 2016, pp. 61–74).

Above and below, Soggy Doggy’s Nyerere uses clips of Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, who believed that socialism was the antidote to colonial-era capitalism.

Comments Off on Tanzanian rap and neosocialist moralities

Filed under Africa, Politics, Popular music

Paul Robeson’s activism

Throughout his performing career Paul Robeson was fashioning an activist cultural theory to help to liberate his people and, increasingly, to support the cause of persecuted people everywhere.

His decision to sing the traditional songs of cultures in addition to his own—including songs in Chinese, Hebrew, and Russian—reflected his deepening and expanding identification with oppressed humanity irrespective of color.

This according to “‘I want to be African’: Paul Robeson and the ends of nationalist theory and practice, 1914–1945” by Sterling Stuckey (Massachusetts review XVII/1 [spring 1976] pp. 81–138; reprinted in Going through the storm: The influence of African American art in history (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 187–227).

Today is Robeson’s 120th birthday! Above, the singer, actor, and activist in 1942; below, singing Go down Moses, a classic African American spiritual—a genre that Robeson considered one of the finest examples of black artistic expression.

Comments Off on Paul Robeson’s activism

Filed under Performers, Politics

Rohingya music, identity, and resistance

The music of Rohingya refugees plays an important role in communicating their coherent identity and expressing their resistance to the discrimination and oppression experienced in their country of origin as well as in their exile.

This informal resistance keeps their memory alive, transmitting that history through verbal and visual expressions to the new generations, and communicating information about themselves to outsiders.

These forms of expression, while suggestive of their identity and everyday resistance, occur mostly in an informal and indirect form, rather than in direct confrontation and protest. The informal means also reflect the Rohingyas’ pragmatism and coping strategies for living in the borderlands.

This according to “Music and artistic artefacts: Symbols of Rohingya identity and everyday resistance in borderlands” by Farzana Kazi Fahmida (Austrian Journal of South-East Asian Studies / Österreichische Zeitschrift für Südostasienwissen-schaften (ASEAS) IV/2 [2011] pp. 215–36; reprinted in Farzana’s Memories of Burmese Rohingya refugees: Contested identity and belonging (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

Below, a Rohingya song with English subtitles.

Comments Off on Rohingya music, identity, and resistance

Filed under Asia, Politics

Ša‘bī and politics

Commonly associated with Cairo’s working class, ša‘bī (شعبى ) is a politically charged musical genre with a long history of bawdy humor and trenchant social critique. While the cultural elite may see the term as an index of the backwardness of the uneducated masses, for many Egyptians ša‘bī evokes a sense of identity, tradition, and heritage.

One of contemporary ša‘bī’s foremost practitioners of social commentary and political dissent, Ša‘bān ‘Abd al-Raḥīm (شعبان عبد الرحيم, above), stormed into popular culture in the early 21st century by mobilizing the genre’s potential to tap into the pulse of the Egyptian-Arab street. By 2002 ‘Abd al-Raīm’s brazen sociopolitical commentary had turned him into the unlikely hero of millions of Egyptians and Arabs.

This according to “‘I’ll tell you why we hate you!’ Ša‘bān ‘Abd al-Raīm and Middle Eastern reactions to 9/11” by James R. Grippo, an essay included in Music in the post-9/11 world (New York: Routledge, 2007, pp. 255–75).

Below,   ‘Abd al-Raīm’s Obama, which excoriates George W. Bush while poking fun at the notion that the newly elected Barack Obama will save the Arab world like Saladin.

 

Comments Off on Ša‘bī and politics

Filed under Politics, Popular music