Change is afoot in the Middle East, and while Hosni Mubarak finally saw the light and acceded to the protestors call to resign, Libya is in the throes of a violent crackdown by Muammar Gaddafi in an attempt to retain power. It will probably take more than a protest song to oust Gaddafi, but revolutionary songwriting and the power of a voice singing through struggle has been on my mind since I heard that Mubarak had handed power over to Vice-President Omar Suleiman and had hopes that it was actually Omar Souleyman, the Syrian singer. He’s not in this edition of EAP since Jazeera Nights isn’t a song-cycle of protest and struggle, but the Sublime Frequencies release is still worth a listen after you check out this playlist.
Sam Cooke — “A Change Is Gonna Come” [from Portrait of a Legend]
While Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” ranks a very close second, this is the first song that comes to mind when I think of protest and revolutionary sentiment. Cooke sings from a place of hope and aspiration instead of the anger that fuels an act like Rage Against The Machine, or the weariness of Gaye’s masterwork. The song accepts that things are bad, that there is struggle — but knows that eventually wrongs will be righted, struggle will be overcome. Amazingly, this anthem of the Civil Rights Movement was a b-side to “Shake,” released posthumously in 1964.
Nina Simone — “Mississippi Goddam” [from Nina Simone in Concert]
Known for her phenomenal voice, Nina Simone was also a phenomenal songwriter with an eye for injustice and a directness and economy in her wordplay. This tune was written in the aftermath of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls, and the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. While she seemed to crack wise in introducing the song as a show tune for a nonexistent show, the lyrics “Alabama’s got me so upset / Tennessee’s made me lose my rest / and everybody knows about Mississippi goddam” made clear the song was no joke. For more on the Birmingham church bombing, I’d recommend Spike Lee’s 1997 documentary 4 Little Girls.
Minutemen — “The Big Stick” [from Introducing the Minutemen]
Legendary California punk trio the Minutemen may have died a premature death when guitarist/vocalist D. Boon passed away tragically in late 1985, but their legacy and impact have loomed large in the intervening years, influencing countless numbers of artists and bands with their eclectic sound and political stance. “The Big Stick” takes on U.S. imperialist forays into Latin America and protests the support for fascist regimes in countries like Guatemala, where the C.I.A. helped prop up despots in exchange for their commitment to “anti-communist” causes.
Victor Jara — “Te Recuerdo Amanda” [from Vientos del Pueblo]
Probably the best-known U.S. foray into Latin America was the country’s involvement in the Chilean coup that brought the bloody dictator Augusto Pinochet to power in 1973. So the responsibility for the death of Nueva canción singer Victor Jara lies partly on the steps of the U.S. Capitol building. Jara was one of the political prisoners rounded up in the aftermath of the coup and then tortured and finally executed at the National Football Stadium. This heartbreaker of a love song is also a protest song in disguise — protagonist Amanda loved worker and activist Manuel, who took “to the mountains to fight.”
Miriam Makeba — “Soweto Blues” [from Welela]
Written by legendary South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela and performed by his ex-wife Miriam Makeba (known as Mama Afrika and a legend in her own right), this song was a direct response to the Soweto riots of June 1976, when black youths clashed with South African authorities over policies associated with apartheid. At this point, Makeba had already been living in exile for a decade and a half after her South African passport was cancelled by the National Party government in 1960. Her anti-apartheid efforts were unceasing and she would eventually return to South Africa at the urging of a newly freed Nelson Mandela in June 1990.
Cheb Mami — Parisian Du Nord [from Meli Meli]
Pronounced “rye” or “rah-AY,” Algerian Rai music is a longstanding genre in that North African nation, combining pop and Bedouin traditional sounds to support lyrics that are political in nature (Rai translates as “opinion” in Algerian), sung in both Arabic and French. Cheb Mami is one of the giants of contemporary Rai and his moniker actually hints at his style as young, modern Rai artists call themselves cheb (or chabaa if they are women). Cheb Mami raised the profile of Rai by singing on Sting’s hit “Desert Rose,” but in recent years the group Tinariwen have raised the genre’s profile even further.
Bright Eyes — “Coyote Song” [from Sound Strike]
Not every protest song is a historic artifact. Conor Oberst penned this tune after Arizona passed its thoroughly un-American immigration bill SB 1070, which gives the police broad power to detain people suspected to be in the country illegally. The song was recorded for Sound Strike, a group organized in part by Rage Against The Machine’s Zach De La Rocha (yup, I’ve mentioned RATM twice but haven’t included a single song by them — how do you like them apples?), and whose membership includes Sonic Youth and Kanye West as well as Bright Eyes. That would make for an interesting concert.
Serge Gainsbourg — “La Marseillaise” [from Jane Birkin/Serge Gainsbourg]
Anyone who has seen Casablanca knows a little about the revolutionary nature of this song — when the French resistance supporters sing it, the Nazis squirm visibly. The song dates back to 1792 when it was composed by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle as “Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin.” Within three years it had gone from the rallying call of the French Revolution to the nation’s first anthem after the melody was adopted and adapted by fédérés on the streets of Paris. Gainsbourg recorded this reggae version in 1978.
Gil Scott-Heron — “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” [from Small Talk at 125th and Lenox]
The godfather of rap? Scott-Heron’s street poetry went from page to record on his 1970 debut; the patterns of speech, the cadence of his delivery on this legendary track and elsewhere on the album surely influenced MCs like Chuck D and KRS-One. The revolutionary socio-political nature of the song would eventually be tempered somewhat by its use in a mid-nineties Nike ad featuring Jason Kidd.
Mahalia Jackson — “We Shall Overcome” [from Great Mahalia Jackson]
I thought we’d close this playlist on a hopeful note, with the greatest gospel singer singing one of the greatest protest songs. Written in 1947 by Charles Tindley as “We Will Overcome” and published in the Peoples’ Songs Bulletin, by 1959 the song had become the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, and part of the repertoire of folk giants Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, among others. But while those artists needed a guitar to prop up their voices, Jackson’s voice was a firmament unto itself, unshakeable in its solidity.