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Repression and Music

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Something that should probably be reflected upon during a time of crisis around the coronavirus and increasing authoritarianism across the world is how it will impact music. Much of the most profound music has come during times of huge strife, allowing artists to create music with a huge emotional resonance. Probably the most notable modern day example of this would be the case of Russian feminist punks Pussy Riot, whose unauthorised public performances of songs railing against Vladimir Putin, homophobia, sexism and the Russian Orthodox Church eventually saw two of their members imprisoned for 21 months for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” after a performance inside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February, 2012. Among the most most powerful and lasting examples of this type of music can be found in the legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, who in creating the style of afrobeat, a blistering fusion of funk, jazz, blues and Nigerian folk music, had a nearly 30-year career of unflinching protest. Whilst albums like Why Black Man Dey Suffer, Sorrow Tears and Blood or Coffin for Head of State were certainly unsubtle, it was Zombie, arguably his most famous album of them all, that was the most controversial for the military government in power in Nigeria at the time. Painting the military in the most irreverent and mocking way imaginable in a blistering 12-minute track, Fela Kuti saw his commune raided by the military, suffering significant injuries and having his mother killed. Following this Kuti formed a political party, the Movement of the People, that was an anticolonial and socialist movement which nearly saw him become a presidential candidate. He was later jailed in 1984, before tragically dying in 1997 from HIV. Another fine example is that of Chilean folk musician Victor Jara. A committed social activist who with albums like El Derecho de Vivi en Paz (translated somewhat fittingly as “the right to live in peace”) created socially conscious but touching folk. Jara must have thought much of his ideology was going to be mirrored in his nation’s government when Salvador Allende, the Marxist leader of Popular Unity, was elected in 1970. In September 1973 however, after a military coup, he was arrested before being brutally tortured, dying 5 days after Military General Augusto Pinochet rose to power. Conversely, another of the most famous examples of music heavily influenced by repression was that of the Buena Vista Social Club. Named after a club in Cuba’s capital Havana, the closure of such clubs by the early governments following the Cuban revolution of 1959 in an attempt was an attempt to temper the drinking and gambling issues in Cuban society. This did however contribute to the erasure of a distinct music style linked heavily to the culture of the country’s Afro-Cuban minority. Guitarist Ry Cooder, known for his work with The Rolling Stones and Captain Beefheart, brought together a group of musicians from the nation, with their joyful and breezy debut album earning them a Grammy in 1998. There are many more examples, with the context of crackdowns, coups and dictatorships leading to artistic expression taking on a context beyond just merely enjoyment, often tragically with dire consequences for the artist. Within today’s political context, this should be considered more than ever.

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Stephen Owen

Music Editor | 19-20

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