Fighting Oppression with Music

12 Apr

Lawrence Duncan said, “Silence is the fabric upon which the notes are woven.”  Duncan suggests, that silence is the inspiration that propels the creation of music.  Literally, the structure of silence encourages the formation of silence’s demise.  Similarly, artists have used their music to speak out against different social/civil issues, or end the “silence” on such atrocities.  Such artists span different generations, genres and locations; but all use music as a means to end the injustices.

 One of the biggest atrocities that plague European and American History is slavery.  Bob Marley, a Jamaican born reggae singer, co-wrote a song entitled Buffalo Soldier that attests to this time in history.

The song depicts the slaves who were taken from Africa and unwillingly brought to the States.  Lyrics such as “he was a buffalo soldier win the war for America, ” highlights the US’ first regiment of black soldiers.  During the Indian Wars these soldiers oversaw the migration of the Native Americans to the west.  The natives, who linked their strength and valour to that of a buffalo, endearingly gave them the name “Buffalo Soldiers”.   Marley uses this song to paint the soldier’s trying past in slavery and their progression as soldiers of the United States of America.      

Though the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, the United States would be scarred by segregation for over a century following.  During this large time frame different artists touched on particular aspects of the situation.  For instance, Billie Holiday: a jazz singer from the mid 1900’s sang a song entitled Strange Fruit.  Holiday’s song begins: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit/ blood on the leaves and blood at the root” paints a dark image of a “crop” that hung frequently during her time.  Holiday compares lynched bodies to strange fruits, which, depicts a disturbing and eerie time in a telling way.  With this comparison, Holiday destroys the good notions of a fruit and reveals sensory details of a lynching.  

Another amazing artist of the mid 1900’s: Sam Cooke, sung a soulful version of the song: A Change is Gonna Come.  Though the words of this song are motivational and telling, the power of his message resides in how he sings the song.  The first line of the song: “I was born by the river” does not hold any overall meaning, however, the voice that starts the song tells the audience that this song is the essence of his passions and struggles.  Immediately his voice equips you for a strong plea for something to change.  Lyrics such as “Then I go to my brother/ and I say ‘brother, help me please’/ and he winds up knocking me/ and I’m back down on my knees,” reveals the hardship of his life but still expresses the notion that we are all brothers and not enemies.  Throughout the song, he expresses the obstacles he faces but always reiterates, “I know a change is gonna come”, therefore portraying evident difficult times, but installing hope in his audience to make the change come. 

Another song from this era the Hollies’ He’s not heavy he’s my brother conveys the same plea for equality.  Unlike Sam Cooke, the Hollies presented the perspective of the Caucasian group who believe in equality.  The title conveys African Americans as their “brothers” which creates an equal and intimate relationship.  In addition lyrics such as: “If I’m laden at all/I’m laden with sadness/That everyone’s heart/Isn’t filled with the gladness/Of love for one another” is a direct attack at oppressors.  The words suggest that their fellow men are not a burden and those who think otherwise are the only problem in this situation. 

In the U.S. songs were written to fight the suppression of one group by another.  However, the Tradewinds’ Not A Blade of Grass and Sex Pistol’s God Save the Queen are two songs that attest to the struggles of one nation against another.  The Tradewinds is a calypso group who wrote a song about the Venezuela/Guyana issue.  Venezuela, a neighbouring country to Guyana, continuously argues that the Essequibo region of Guyana belongs to them.  The Tradewinds song presents the patriotic notions of Guyanese people that we will not allow Venezuela to take any of our land not even “a blade of grass”.  In other words, the Guyanese groups used their local calypso music to express their feelings on the situation and send a message to the Venezuelan government. Similarily, the Sex Pistol an Irish punk rock group’s God Save the Queen is an attack on the British monarchy and their customs.  The Irish often suppressed by the English, inspired many punk bands at this time to reject the British institution.  They used the same title as the British national anthem but a different tune and words to convey their thoughts. Using the same title as the British national anthem is a direct attack on the monarchy. All of these artists had different messages to get across however, they they all used the medium of music to ensure they are heard. Their ambition and lyrics help initiate change and shape a less oppressed atmosphere.

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