Column: To sing is to protest

The times they are a-changin’ for people in North Africa.

The recent protests in Egypt and Libya have forever changed the way that people in these countries see themselves and their nation. The region is full of uncertainty. Life is no longer what it used to be, and the best place to see these changes is protest songs.

For decades, protest songs have played a vital role in both provoking discussion and producing political and social change. These songs express the thoughts of a collective group of people in ways that individual chants or posters never could. Also, songs can be shared with people across the world and help others better understand your cause.

The perfect protest songs say a lot with only a few simple lines. They don’t drag on with complex political ideologies. Rather, they aim to mock the current corrupt system or bring people together and promote alternatives.

Protest songs like Nigerian Afro-beat musician Fela Kuti’s “Zombie” work because they base themselves in a healthy mix of comedy and truth.

The 1970s were a decade of mass military corruption in Nigeria. By 1977, Kuti had grown tired of this corruption and wrote “Zombie” to mock the soldiers’ lack of individuality or free will. The entirety of this nearly 13-minute song is filled with funky afro-beats, shouts of random orders and chants of the word “zombie.”

Kuti’s music made a clear and controversial statement. Nigerian listeners immediately identified with the song, and it became a hit. However, the Nigerian government was not so pleased. They instructed their soldiers to attack Fela’s studio and destroy his instruments.

They hoped to end Kuti’s movement, but in reality they only make him more popular among his Nigerian listeners. This fan base also expanded to Ghana, where his song led to riots in Accra, and in the end he and his music were banned from the country.

Contemporary protest songs have similar aims to that of Kuti’s “Zombie.” With the mass amount of globalization, songs of protest can travel and make a huge impact around the world.

Though it remains unclear just how important the role of protest music will be in the recent revolutions, many Egyptian YouTube videos seem to suggest that a similar phenomenon is occurring. “President, Your People Are Dying,” a song by Tunisian artist Ben Amor, aka El General, served as the catalyst for the creation of a plethora of new music videos by Egyptian artists like Amir Eid, Ahmed Mekky, Hamza Namira and Arabian Knightz. These videos show the engagement of a variety of different music genres in the various movements toward democracy.

Their songs serve as a call to action, which should also wake us up. They hope to educate those of us who are unaware of their struggles and help provide voices for the voiceless.

Protest songs will exist as long as there is inequality in the world. They are ways to both deal with past social, economic and political inequalities and forge new identities in uncertain times.

If you are angry and you want the world to know it, sing a protest song. If you want to hear about other people’s frustration, try listening to these songs from various countries in the region.


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