On January 11, 2016, the German Foreign Office tweeted “Good Bye David Bowie, You are now among #Heroes. Thank you for helping to bring down the #wall.” It was the day after Bowie died. The wall they were referring to was of course, the Berlin wall.
Bowie performed in West Berlin in 1987; the wall actually formed the back of the stage. A large crowd gathered on the other side of the wall in East Berlin to listen to him. In an interview, Bowie remembers how when he performed Heroes, “it was anthemic, almost like a prayer.” The lyrics included these lines:
We’re nothing, and nothing will help us
Maybe we’re lying, then you better not
But we could be safer, just for one day
We can be heroes
Just for one day.
Riots broke out in the days after the concert, and soon, ultimately, the Berlin wall did come down.
While Bowie’s music indirectly effected a political change, years later in 2011, music directly fed another kind of political action. Most of us remember being hooked to the news, watching and listening in an open-mouthed, hushed sense of wonder and elation at the events that unfolded in Tunisia and Eqypt.
We are not leaving
He will leave
We demand one thing
Leave, leave, leave.
These simple lyrics of the song “Irhal,” sung in an Arabic dialect fueled the resolve of the people in Tahrir Square, almost to the date six years ago, in what is now known as the Arab Spring. Its singer, Ramy Essam galvanized the “sit-in” with his guitar; the crowd responded with their hearts, voices, and their daf (Egyptian drum). It was one of the many Arabic songs of resistance and protest.
Artists have a unique power to not just express, but also to embody the expression of a people. As Sarah Johnson, Director of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute said in a panel discussion on the “Artist’s Role as a Citizen,” if “artists genuinely want to connect with their audiences in a broader sense, they must stop thinking of themselves as separate entities.”
On February 8th of this year, Bruce Springsteen purportedly wrote an open letter in the magazine, The Observer saying that he should have done more to not let Donald Trump win; he felt that he should have just had a concert at the same time in each of the regions where Trump campaigned. He could not believe that some states were won by a few thousand votes.
He knows what he is talking about; he is known for putting his art where his heart is—his song Born in the USA was against the State neglecting Vietnam War veterans.
Springsteen’s apology started with an ungenerous comment on Meryl Streep’s famous speech at the Golden Globe Awards. When she received the Cecil B. DeMille award earlier this year, Streep had used the time allotted to her for her thank you speech to criticize President Trump for mocking a disabled reporter. Springsteen would have liked her to do more, he said in his letter of contrition. The Observer stated a week later that it was actually written by a writer who felt a disconnect with Springsteen, it was a satirical piece.
I must admit, that while it is imperative that people not stop themselves from taking a stand, or to expressing what they feel, artists have the actual tools to do something more. History is replete with examples of when artists did use their art, not just to galvanize their people, but also hold up a mirror.
India’s freedom struggle has many examples of this, one being the writings of Subramanya Bharathi, who wrote the following words (translated from Tamil).
Lacking mental strength and moral courage,
They resort to deceit, warriors only by words
Even when they see own brethren dying in misery
It does not give them pause, they have
The relationship between art and politics is particularly interesting when political oppression is extreme, at times when artists are simply not tolerated. The Tropicalia movement in Brazil is a case in point. Brazil was under military dictatorship in the 1960s and 70s and it is widely accepted that it was also one of the most productive creative periods. The movement brought together many different strands of music, American rock-n-roll included. It was seen as a way of mobilizing youth and therefore a threat to the regime.
Gilberto Gil, who became the Minister of Culture in 2003 who was one of the primary Tropicalists, was forced into exile at that time. “Because of the suspicions that they had that we could mobilize society against them and by the ideas that we addressed, I mean, like ideas about freedom, about freedom of expression, about ways of contesting the regular ways,…to stand up for rights.”
Indeed, entire genres of music have been born out of repression. African slaves used a call-to-answer form of using spoken words and handmade music (which later became known as rap) in America as a form of coping with dehumanizing slavery. It gained momentum as a protest genre with the likes of Tupac Shakur who used it to talk about violent, underprivileged neighborhoods.
Rap is considered among the official forms of protest music in the Middle East as well. DAM (Da Arabian MCs) are Arabs with Israeli citizenship who rap in Arabic, Hebrew, and English; Tupac was their inspiration. Their song, “Born Here,” was featured by CNN in 2003 and had the lyrics,
I broke the law?
No the law broke me.
I was born here
You will not sever me from my roots.
The song draws an anguished parallel to the original Hebrew song generally sung by Israelis as a symbol of their own birthright to belong to that land.
It was a fight of a different kind that made Robert Nesta Marley become the legend that is Bob Marley. There is perhaps no other parallel in history where a musician survived an assassination attempt and got two bitterly warring Jamaican leaders to shake hands at an event that is sometimes dubbed “The Third World Woodstock.” It was the One Love Peace Concert in Kingston, which attracted an audience of 32,000.
Marley said on stage, “I’m not so good at talking but I hope you understand what I’m trying to say. Well, I’m trying to say, could we have up here onstage the presence of Mr. Michael Manley and Mr. Edward Seaga? I just want to shake hands and show the people that we’re gonna make it right, we’re gonna unite, we’re gonna make it right, we’ve got to unite. The moon is right over my head, and I give my love instead.”
Marley and Bowie spoke of love, they did not seek to be heroes. And yet they were. Essam and DAM continue to reflect the deep longing of their people; they’re seen as heroes by the world.
The satirical note on behalf of Springsteen has made us think that artists, especially icons, should do more.
These musicians were compelled to act when a conflict-free future and the light at the end of a dark tunnel seemed doubtful. When the world was in doubt, each stepped up to be a hero.
Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music, and avidly tracks inbtersecting points between folk, classical, jazz and other genres.