Soundtrack to the streets: a year of global protests – and the songs that underscored them

Soundtrack to the streets: a year of global protests – and the songs that underscored them

Around 100 Chilean musicians at an anti-government demonstration pay tribute to the singer-songwriter Víctor Jara, who was tortured and killed during the Pinochet dictatorship. 25 October 2019, Santiago, Chile.

(AP/Esteban Felix)
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Oh bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao...” Its insistent and catchy refrain has made it a rallying cry for protesters all over the world. Originally sung by Italian farm workers at the beginning of the 20th century, Bella Ciao became an anti-fascist anthem in Mussolini’s Italy. Today, the song can be heard at protests throughout the world, from Paris to Kurdistan to New Delhi. So many different versions and interpretations of Bella Ciao have been made over the years that many are unaware that its origin predates the credit music of the Spanish television series La Casa de Papel, which brought the song to the attention of a worldwide audience in 2018.

“Because it can move people and make them move, because it speaks to everyone, because for so long it was the art of people whose voices were not heard, music has been part of popular protests since the Middle Ages,” writes French historian Clyde Marlo-Plumauzille in the newspaper Libération. La Marseillaise, now France’s national anthem, is one of the most well-known examples of a song written against a revolutionary backdrop (in 1792) which has endured through the centuries with its verses calling for patriotism, liberty and resistance against tyranny. Despite the song’s ‘institutionalisation’ and the attempts of right-wing nationalists to claim it as their own, this “War Song” (as it was originally called) continues to be used in protests, most recently by the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) and the musicians of the Paris Opera, who went on strike in December 2019 in protest against the pension reforms of the Emmanuel Macron government.

Today, at political protests in places like Chile, Algeria and Hong Kong, the classics of protest music can be heard alongside songs taken from popular culture, often from the most unlikely of sources. At the same time, new songs by socially engaged artists are also making history as the new revolutionary anthems of the turn of the decade.

Tradition and virality

Chile has a long tradition of political music, which resurfaced during the uprisings of autumn 2019. El pueblo unido jamás será vencido (The People United Will Never be Defeated), written in 1970 by Sergio Ortega and the group Quilapayún during the Pinochet dictatorship, has already enjoyed a certain degree of international success.

Recently it has been sung numerous times by crowds of protesters (and even in front of military forces by one man alone with his instrument), as has another standard from the same period, El derecho de vivir en paz (The Right to Live in Peace) by Víctor Jara, a musician murdered by the military junta in 1973. This heritage of Chile’s past political struggles has been used to galvanize the current protest movement – which began in October in response to deteriorating social conditions and has claimed around 20 lives – and bring the Chilean people together. Hundreds of amateur musicians took to the streets to sing the song, while a collective of 29 professional musicians recorded a 2019 update. Unsurprisingly, the emotional power of this combination of music, symbolism and communal action has caused videos of these performances to go viral on social media.

The 2010 decade, which began with the ‘Arab revolutions’ and the Indignados movement and was characterised by the power of internet virality, ended with a flurry of movements around the world, each one inspiring the next, in which music has proved to be connecting factor, both with gravity and with humour.

One example, before leaving Chile, is the success of Un violador en tu camino (A Rapist in your Path), performed for the first time on the occasion of International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, 25 November, by the Las Tesis collective in the city of Valparaiso. Within weeks, the chanted lyrics and choreography of this feminist anthem were performed by groups of women all over the world. The song has rapidly assumed a place in the repertoire of feminist protest movements alongside L’hymne des femmes (or Hymn of the MLF, the French Women’s Liberation Movement, popularised after May 1968), or the more recent Huelga feminista (Women’s Strike).

In contrast, other songs have become rallying cries for political demonstrators despite their apolitical content. In Austria, a ‘summer hit’ from 1999 resurfaced in May 2019 during anti-corruption protests. We’re Going to Ibiza! by the Dutch group Vengaboys was used humorously by protesters denouncing the practices of the extreme right in the context of the ‘Ibizagate’ scandal. Even more eccentric was the use of the children’s song Baby Shark during anti-government protests in Lebanon. As writer Rabih Alameddine reminds us in the New York Times, even when mobilising in protest of their difficult living conditions, the Lebanese don’t lose their festive temperament: “Only in Lebanon would a song like Baby Shark, which is now being played at every crowd gathering, become the anthem of a revolution. The song is both catchy and repetitive, inspiring and interminable.” The origin of the song’s role in the protests was a video in which demonstrators attempt to reassure a small boy who is scared by the crowd. “The video is both sweet and uplifting. It’s also surprising, because a Lebanese crowd acting in unison is such a rarity,” the author adds. “The Lebanese are showing the world how to hold a great demonstration.”

From the stadiums and the opera to the streets

In 2019, another country stood out for the originality of its political movement and the central role that music played: Algeria. From the very first demonstrations, protesters were singing La Casa del Mouradia, yet another reference to Casa de Papel, and to El Mouradia, the seat of Algeria’s presidential palace. The song, which mocks Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s four terms as president, started on the terraces of Algiers-based football club USMA and quickly became an anthem for protesters as they marched to prevent the former president from seeking a fifth term. Another song that came out of the stadiums, Ultima verba (Last Warning), inspired the French-language single La liberté by rapper Soolking, which has received millions of views and is also critical of the Algerian regime. “It [protest songs] has become something of a musical genre in Algeria,” says Mahfoud Amara, professor of social sciences at the University of Qatar.

These two songs along with a third, Libérez l’Algérie (Free Algeria) sung by a collective of Algerian artists who support the hirak (movement), are competitors for the title of ‘anthem of the revolution’. But as journalist Leila Assas explains on the website Pan African Music, Algeria’s playlist of political protest songs is extensive.

“The first several months of protests were characterised by an abundance of musical creativity. Songs came out every Friday and criss-crossed the country. Music, biting, trivial and lyrical, has become a vehicle for protest. Professional and amateur musicians are energising the marches to the beat of a drum. National songs are sung alongside local traditional rhythms, both updated and reinterpreted to serve the current revolutionary context.”

Somewhat less elaborate than the Algerian melodies, two noteworthy protest hits of 2019 emerged from the stadiums of Europe. The first, Nous, on est là! (We’re Here!), was adopted by the Gilets Jaunes and striking French railway workers from the supporters of the football teams RC Lens and Olympique de Marseille. One of a multitude of often sarcastic songs criticising the French government, its lyrics – “We’re here, we’re here, even if Macron doesn’t want us to be! For the honour of workers and for a better world, even if Macron doesn’t want it, we’re here!” – have been sung at almost every rally for the last year.

Moving across the Channel, a famous guitar riff consisting of just a few notes has received a new life in the United Kingdom. For about fifteen years, the chorus of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army has been used to make supporters jump up and down to “oh, oh, oh” at festivals and sporting events all over the world. But ever since Labour Party activists set the words “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!” (Leader of the Labour Party and candidate in the most recent elections of December 2019) to the melody, people in Britain have been going mad, believing they are hearing the Labour Leader’s name every time the song is played.

Because our musical tastes are as diverse as our societies, political mobilisation can also be carried out with the help of classical music. Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves (Va, pensiero) from Verdi’s opera Nabucco, has been used for its powerful call to freedom by, among others, the striking choir members of Choeur de Radio France in January 2020 and by Italian conductor Riccardo Muti in 2011, both in protest of cuts to cultural funding. Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (9th Symphony) is also often heard when instrumentalists take part in political festivities.

Popular protest, popular culture

As we continue on our tour of the world, it’s interesting to see the multiple intersections that result from cultural globalisation, which mixes and remixes references, as we’ve seen in the case of Casa de Papel (which in addition to musical inspiration, provided protesters with a new mask to wear: the face of Salvador Dali) or Lebanese protesters dancing to the Korean version of the nursery rhyme Baby Shark.

In another striking example, protesters in Hong Kong have adopted Do You Hear the People Sing?, which they most likely took from the 2012 blockbuster Les Misérables, which was adapted from a French musical from the 1980s, itself adapted from Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name. The song’s lyrics “Do you hear the people sing? Singing a song of angry men? It is the music if a people who will not be slaves again,” are relevant to so many popular movements that the origin has become less important than the universal nature of the message “singing as one people.”

In their struggle to preserve their independent status from the rest of China, the people of Hong Kong have placed particular emphasis on their unity and uniqueness, symbolised in particular by a large network of mutual assistance on the ground. They even anonymously and collaboratively wrote their own anthem, Glory to Hong Kong, using the power of the internet to create and disseminate it and make history in just a few days.

While we have continued to see images of violence from all these demonstrations, of which we have named only a few, we have also seen the beauty of music used for political struggle and the intelligence and collective creativity of the demonstrators.

We have witnessed the emergence of new figures such as Ala’a Salah, a young Sudanese woman dressed all in white, encouraging the crowd gathered around her to join her in revolutionary song, or Noah Simons, a young Indigenous American boy whose vocal performance at a climate rally with Greta Thunberg in Canada in October caused a sensation.

But we can’t forget that music can still cause problems for those who use it as a peaceful weapon. In Indonesia, Robert Robertus, a university professor and activist was arrested in March and is facing trial on charges of defaming institutions for publicly singing an old anti-militarist song (the video was broadcast on social networks). In India, the Urdu song Hum Dekhenge (1979) by Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, sung in resistance to fundamentalism, created fierce controversy after demonstrators sung it at the large protests against the amendment of the citizenship law that began in December. Some authorities saw this as an expression of ‘anti-Hindu’ sentiment and sought to ban the song. It is now played everywhere as an act of affirmation and resistance.

This story has been translated from French.