There is a long tradition of the artist being involved in the life of the nation. For me, it goes back to Woody Guthrie, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, and Bob Dylan. The artist is there to open up discourse, to get people thinking… Who are we? What do we fight for? What do we stand for? I view these things as a fundamental part of my job. – Bruce Springsteen
Music really awakens the real, natural nature, the individual essence. With whatever purpose you listen to music, that purpose will be increased. For instance: there will be a concert given for the poor and unfortunate, and if you go there thinking of the aim, the music will increase your compassion and generosity. – Abdu’l-Baha, as quoted by Mary L. Lucas in “A Brief Account of My Visit to Acca,” pp. 11-14.
Have you ever listened to a song and found yourself so deeply moved that you started to cry? Music has that unique emotional power to touch something deep inside of us, to change us, to inspire us and even to re-shape society.
That’s why we’ve sung protest and freedom songs for so long.
When did it start? Well, historians count Beethoven’s 1785 Ode to Joy as one of the very first protest songs, because it espoused universal brotherhood in an era of separation and division.
If you’re from Europe or North America, you’re probably familiar with protest and freedom songs from a whole range of artists. In the United States, for example, music has long served as a form of protest and dissatisfaction with the status quo, going back to the plantations and cotton fields of the Deep South during the slavery era. If you’d been alive during that era, you might’ve heard slaves singing Biblical hymns like Go Down Moses; Oh, Freedom; or Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, all with themes of deliverance and freedom.
Those songs and their powerful cadences started a movement set to music and designed to unify and inspire. The trend continued wherever people were oppressed—newly unionized workers, abolitionists, suffragettes, civil rights and antiwar activists all used music to unite their movements and drive them forward. Folk, soul and rock n’ roll all incorporated protest and freedom songs, from change-agent artists like Joe Hill, Lead Belly, Billie Holiday, Josh White, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Odetta and Bruce Springsteen to groups like U2 and N.W.A.
From the seeds planted by some of those early artists and their work, freedom songs have blossomed all over the planet.
Almost all of the African continent’s thirty-seven nations, for example, have robust traditions of protest and freedom songs. The rousing anti-apartheid, policy-challenging lyrics of musicians like South Africa’s Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Nigeria’s Fela Kuti empowered entire national movements, and helped do away with racist regimes. In his native Senegal, Youssou N’Dour has sung about and fought for peace, social justice and even stronger malaria prevention programs. In Zimbabwe, Oliver Mtukudzi’s music brought about an entirely new sense of awareness and understanding of the HIV and AIDS epidemic. Angélique Kidjo, originally from Benin, sings about homelessness, hunger and poverty. In Mozambique, a band called the Siguaque Project uses a pan-African Afro-beat approach to highlight issues of women’s rights and xenophobia. In Namibia, kwaito music from artists like Gazza and the Matongo Family of Katutura focuses on the hardships and injustices of life in the ghetto townships—and their hopes for overcoming those injustices.
Music from artists like these, and from thousands of other socially conscious artists around the world, can help build unity and a group identity, engaging audiences and generating mass movements for social change. How can a collection of notes and chords and the human voice have such an impact on us?
The Baha’i teachings explain why music affects us so deeply:
Music is one of the important arts. It has great effect upon human spirit. Musical melodies are a certain something which prove to be accidental upon etheric vibrations, for voice is nothing but the expression of vibrations, which reaching the tympanum, effect the nerves of hearing. Musical melodies are, therefore, those peculiar effects produced by, or from, vibration. However, they have the keenest effect upon the spirit. In sooth, although music is a material affair, yet its tremendous effect is spiritual, and its greatest attachment is to the realm of the spirit. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 9, p. 128.
Abdu’l-Baha said “…its tremendous effect is spiritual.” Think of a time when a particular song or piece of music moved your spirit, and you’ll understand. For Baha’is, music has enormous importance:
In this dispensation, music is one of the arts that is highly approved and is considered to be the cause of the exaltation of sad and desponding hearts. Music is most important. Music is the heart’s own language. Its vibrations uplift the spirit; it is very beautiful and a great art. – Ibid., p. 131.
If “music is the heart’s own language,” can you imagine a universal song, one that allows the entire world to harmonize together? In one way, that’s how Baha’is see the Baha’i Faith: as an all-embracing melody, a powerful, unifying freedom song that stirs the heart of humanity:
Let us seek the song with the sweetest strains, so that it may be taken up by the angels and carried to the supreme concourse. Let us hearken to the melody which will stir the world of humanity, so that the people may be transformed with joy. Let us listen to a symphony which will confer life on man; then we can obtain universal results; then we shall receive a new spirit; then we shall become illumined. Let us investigate a song which is above all songs; one which will develop the spirit and produce harmony and exhilaration, unfolding the inner potentialities of life. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, pp. 77-78.
Next: Prisoners, Singing for their Freedom