Forty six years ago this week, on 4 May 1970, on the campus of a small State University in Ohio, United States National Guard soldiers fatally killed four students who were protesting America’s war in Southeast Asia. Within weeks the following lines of Neil Young were pouring out of radios across the country:
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio
The song, Ohio, was not the first hard-hitting anti-Establishment song of that era. Ironically, it was one of the last. By 1972, mass anger against the government and military was morphing into a dreamy Jesus Freak movement. But Young’s anthem remains a classic example of how popular music can be a powerful outlet for sentiments that the media is unwilling to express and the political class suppress.
On the subcontinent too, singers have been making protest music for centuries – arguably longer –speaking out against every sort of injustice under the sun. This week Sunday Sounds presents a rough guide to the history of South Asian incendiary music.
Though one could make the case that our history lesson should really begin with some chanted Buddhist jataka tales, we start with the greatest of the bhakti poets, Kabir. Though this particular lyric address personal piety rather than social injustice, the relevance of the bhakti poets lies in their startling and abrupt assertion of the common man’s right to access the divine. Thumbing their noses at the codified, vested interests of the religious elites, Kabir and his ilk facilitated a fatal "cracking open" of religious and social practices that some scholars argue has had the greatest impact of any social movement in India’s long history.
Allama Iqbal’s grand complaint (shikwa) against none other than the Almighty Creator of the Universe Himself has to go down, not just in the annals of South Asian literature, but in those of humanity, as one of the most thunderous and aggrieved protests ever uttered. Written at a time when Muslims perceived their fortunes to be on a endless slide into irrelevance and dissolution, Iqbal raised his fist to the heavens and shouted:
We removed falsehood from the earth's face,
We broke the shackles of the human race.
We reclaimed your Kaaba with our kneeling brows,
We pressed the sacred Quran to our heart and soul.
Even then you grumble, we are false, untrue,
If you call us faithless, tell us what are you?
You reserve your favours for men of other shades,
While you hurl your bolts on the Muslim race.
This is not our complaint that such alone are blesse,
Who do not know the etiquette, nor even can converse.
The tragedy is while kafirs are with houries actually blest,
On vague hopes of houries in heaven the Muslim race is made to rest!
Poverty, taunts, ignominy stare us in the face,
Is humiliation the sole reward of our suffering race?
To perpetuate Thy name is our sole concern,
Deprived of the saqi's aid can the cup revolve and turn?
Gone is your assemblage, off your lovers have sailed,
The midnight sights are no more heard, nor the morning wails;
They pledged their hearts to you, what is their return?
Hardly had they stepped inside, when they were externed.
This is not polite language. And when Shikwa was published in 1909, the ulema immediately counter-protested. Condemning Iqbal as confused and dangerous, they demanded he withdraw his words. Four years later, Iqbal published Jawab-e-shikwa, (response to the complaint) and all was forgiven. But such is the quickening, even chilling, energy of the first part of this epic that it has transcended literature to become an intangible cultural treasure for Muslims everywhere. It has been set to music and sung by dozens of artists, but it is Aziz Mian’s rugged vocals that, in my opinion, best capture the searing emotion of this masterpiece.
This song was conceived as an anthem against the colonial power’s demand that Indians sing God Save the Queen. That at the time the boots of the same Queen’s soldiers’ were holding Indian necks firmly to the ground seemed not to matter to the Viceroy’s men. During the Freedom Movement the Bengali poem was used to rally anti-English feelings to great effect. The Raj banned the song. But it became ever more popular. Such is the inherent trickiness of protest: It grows in power the more it is resisted. But Vande Mataram also demonstrates another slippery aspect of the genre: re-appropriation. What one generation once sang in protest, is often used by a following generation as a weapon to bludgeon new protesters. The song continues to be controversial today, with many Muslims, Sikhs and Christians, including members of Parliament, refusing to sing or recite the lyrics, which they consider to be fundamentally exclusive of non-Hindu Indians. A case of protest against a protest song?
Abdus Salique and Dishari
Abdus Salique, a leftist activist who fled to the United Kingdom from what was East Pakistan, composed this song for his fellow Bangladeshi immigrants resident in East London. Protesting the exploitative sweatshop working conditions offered to immigrants, Salique and his group Dishari were invited to record the song for Communist rocker Robert Wyatt’s 1982 album Nothing Can Stop Us. Kadir Durvesh’s shenai provides a plaintive introduction.
The boys of Beygairat Brigade (lit. Shameless Brigade) are really upset with their mother for packing potato and egg curry yet again. But in this clever and subversive little song, the three school boys find a way to slaughter a whole herd of sacred cows in Pakistan – from terrorists and jihadi murderers to Imran Khan and an enterprising nuclear scientist. In an echo of Dylan’s famous placard-tossing video, Subterranean Homesick Blues, the Brigadiers hold up flash cards that uncomfortably lance the accepted shibboleths of contemporary Pakistan. All to a lilting pop beat – nicely done boys!
Beneath This Sky
Given that beautiful State’s troubled recent history it should come as no surprise that there is protest music aplenty to be found in Kashmir. MC Kash is a child of the 90s and as such has lived his life out in the midst of violence. Hiphopmay have been born on the tough streets of America’s failed cities but its angry, in-your-face attitude has been embraced by "Intifada generations" all around the world. Somehow Hiphop seems to fit perfectly our time in History. MC Kash is entirely focused on making political music. Or at least music that speaks out about larger issues, causes and injustices. Indeed, his debut single was entitled, I Protest. No stranger to "official" investigations and disruptions of his concerts, MC Kash has inspired a whole tribe of other Kashmiri rappers. In this clip he pulls no punches as he draws parallels with other political struggles and protesters from across human history
I don’t give a f**k if you live or die
You go to heaven or you’ll soul to fry
Cause all I know is ‘neath this sky
Let the Armageddon come but the stones still fly
Shut down Tasmac
Kovan is a Dalit musician and social activist associated with Makkal Kalai Ilakkiya Kazhagam (People's Art and Literary Association). A thorn in the flesh of authority, his most famous outing seems to be this protest against the state government’s involvement in running alcohol shops in Tamil Nadu. The Sedition Act 153 (Provoking riots), 505 (1) (b) and (c) – intent to cause fear and alarm to public against state and incitement – was used to silence his voice. Human Rights organisations and civil society protested his arrest mightily, arguing no one was safe if satirical comment on political leaders was considered a criminal act. He was eventually released in December 2015. Soon after he recorded a video in support of JNU students who, like him, had been arrested under the same Act.
Hailing from Jaipur, the rock/rap outfit, Motorcyle Shayaries wind up our survey of desi protest music with some hard questions about the true essence of Indian culture.
Sex nahi hamari sanskriti
Hamari sanskriti to rape hai...
Ham asal khoon ke pyaase hain
Shakahari hain naam ke
Words and songs such as these are not easy to hear. But every society needs courageous voices. Voices that trash the taboos and expose the dust that has so carefully been swept under the carpet.
Music is not just about feeling good. Sometimes its work is to make us feel uncomfortable, squirm and question.