Revolution, Revolution, Revolution. Songs for the Politically Active.

Now I thought Christmastime was a time for peace and joy, not political unrest. While I am watching some good ole NFL football on this day, over in Russia, this is going on. According to the AP Report:

“Estimates of the number of demonstrators ranged from the police figure of 30,000 to 120,000 offered by the organizers. Demonstrators packed much of a broad avenue, which has room for nearly 100,000 people, about 2.5 kilometers (some 1.5 miles) from the Kremlin, as the temperature dipped well below freezing.

A stage at the end of the avenue featured banners reading “Russia will be free” and “This election Is a farce.” Heavy police cordons encircled the participants, who stood within metal barriers, and a police helicopter hovered overhead.”

Is this a case of the power of the people? That got me thinking here, it seems that the protesters have no central leader so I was wondering what else could unite the people, especially since they come from so many political backgrounds and ideas for reform…kind of like the Occupy movement. I was reading an article on matadornetwork that claims that “Music can give people a feeling of unification, understanding, this sense that we share something fundamental, that we can change things if we work together. While not always the intent of the composer, these songs had enormous influence on revolutionary times.”

So in the spirit of protest and political activism, here are revolutionary  songs you should check out, with some of these songs more current than others.  However, all are united in the fact that these songs are manifestations of unrest and hold optimism for progress in name of the people.

The voice of Egypt (Mohamed Mounir)

The Egyptian singer wrote two songs during his country’s revolution earlier this year. Much like the protests and rebellions weren’t televised, his songs were not played on Egyptian radio stations – but they reached an international audience thanks to the Internet.

The two most famous Mounir songs during this time, according to NPR (check out this link, it’s a really cool list of even more specific revolutionary songs), were “Ezzay,” (or “How come?”), which compares Egypt to a lover, and “#Jan25,” named for the trending Twitter topic, which begins with the lyrics “I heard them say the revolution won’t be televised / Al-Jazeera proved them wrong / Twitter has them paralyzed.”

Bread And Circuses

The Brazilian army assumed power of the country in 1964, with Castelo Branco as military president. Brazil would be under military dictatorship until 1985.

Musicians voiced their discontent over these developments through a style of music that became known as Tropícalía. Bossa nova and samba, the popular and traditional styles at the time, were fused with blues, rock, jazz, folk, and many other genres in an attempt to create a “universal sound,” along with politically and socially charged lyrics. It was  first movement to incorporate electric elements to often strictly acoustic Brazilian music.  Gilberto Gil actually went on to become the Minister of Culture in the early 2000’s.

The movement was led by Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, who were imprisoned by their government for seven months in 1969 before being released under exile. The two lived in London for four years before returning to their home country.

There was no specific charge for their arrest – we can chalk it up to them generally pissing the government off through their music. Arguably the most influential and famous album of the Tropicália movement was “ou Panis et Circenis,” (Latin for Bread and Circuses), a 1968 collaboration which drew influence from the Beatles’ 1967 album “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Other artists featured on the album included Gal Costa, Nara Leão, and Tom Zé. Os Mutantes, a psychedelic rock band, performed the title track, which was written by Gil and Veloso.

The bloody standard is raised (Get outta here, the French do have some spine after all!)

Revolutions are massive by definition; the French Revolution was massively massive. A centuries-old monarchy collapsed in just a few years time. Aristocracy was abandoned for equality. A new type of opera was invented – “rescue opera,” in which the hero (often a political prisoner) is rescued from danger and resistance to oppression triumphs.

The leaders of this revolution understood the power music can play in such times. Composers were encouraged to write songs that would spur rebellion – the most famous of which is, today, the French national anthem.

Composed by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, “Chant de Guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin” (“War Song for the Army of the Rhine”) was first sung by volunteers from Marseille, and the name was soon changed to “La Marseillaise.” The song was banned by Louis XVIII and Napoleon III, and was reinstated as the country’s national anthem in 1879.

The Cockroach

It’s been done by everyone from Charlie Parker to Speedy Gonzales to car horns to ring tones. But La Cucaracha first became popular during the Mexican Revolution – which is why the song is still associated with Mexico, despite originating in Spain.

There are seemingly infinite verses and versions; in fact, the lyrics were and are often changed to reflect current political or social situations. According to The Straight Dope, this song is the Spanish equivalent of “Yankee Doodle.” One of the more well-known verses:

The cockroach, the cockroach
Now he can’t go traveling
Because he doesn’t have, because he lacks
Marijuana to smoke

Some claim that last line was aimed at Mexican’s president-dictator Victoriano Huerta, rumored to love weed more than Hobbits. Others say Pancho Villa is the cucaracha. Either way – surprisingly political origins for a little ditty about a roach.

There’s a lot of versions to choose from…let’s try Liberace.

Why not take all of me

It’s hard to pick just one song that represents The Great Depression. E.Y. Harburg and Jay Gorney’s tune “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”and Barbecue Bob’s performance of “We Sure Got Hard Times Now” are pretty on-the-nose, while the Casa Loma Orchestra’s October 29th, 1929 performance of “Happy Days Are Here Again” is maybe a bit sarcastic,considering the headlines that week.

My personal favorite is “All of Me,” by Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons, and Louis Armstrong is my choice of the many (many many) recordings. Why? Because for years I thought of it as a love song. Then I listened to it while considering the state of the country during that time. The lyrics manage to be both tongue-in-cheek and even more heartbreaking.

No difference in the fare

Speaking of jazz, blues, gospel, and many (most?) genres of American music can be traced back to the spirituals and work songs sung by slaves. While the spirituals have African roots, work songs were often sung at the demand of the captors in their effort to raise morale and improve productivity.

Eventually, these songs became warning signals, coded instructions – secret messages that allowed slaves to communicate to one another without their captors knowing, leaving no evidence behind.

Many were used to share directions on escaping the South to free states and Canada via the Underground Railroad. The code name for the railroad itself was “Gospel Train” – as in the spiritual “The Gospel Train’s a Comin’.”

I do believe

Those same spirituals also played a role in a later revolution – the civil rights movement in the US during the 1960s. Speaking during the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated:

“The blues tell the story of life’s difficulties — and, if you think for a moment, you realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.”

Of all the songs that were sung at protests, rallies, and marches between 1955 an 1968, We Shall Overcome was arguably the anthem of the entire movement. According to NPR, this work song morphed into a hymn, and was first used politically at the tobacco workers’ strike in South Carolina in 1945.

The other Lady Macbeth (Hey hey, Russia does have a history of music discontent!)

Although he was only a child during the Russian Revolution of 1917, Dmitri Shostakovich was, in my opinion, absolutely a composer both influenced by and who influenced revolutionary times in the Soviet Union.

His opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (not to be confused with Verdi’s opera based on the Shakespearean play), premiered in 1934 to positive reviews. But in 1936, the Pravda (a Soviet newspaper run by the Communist Party) published an unsigned review of Macbeth, surprising the public and the composer by condemning the opera as “the crudest naturalism,” and dismissing its success abroad by stating that it suited “the perverted tastes of the bourgeois audience.”

While the review was published anonymously, many attribute it to Andrei Zhdanov, a close friend of Stalin’s, and some believe the piece was written by Stalin himself. The dictator did indeed attend a Bolshoi Theatre production of Macbeth, at which Shostakovich was also present and witnessed his country’s leader shuddering at the music and laughing at the scenes that contained love-making.

Shostakovich may not have written Lady Macbeth with rebellion on the mind (although his hatred for Stalin was well-known), but this work was the start of the Communist Party’s denunciation of his music. And on a larger scale, it saw the beginning of the “Great Terror,” which claimed the lives of many of Shostakovich’s own friends and family members.

Like I said, perhaps he didn’t create this music with revolutionary intent…but if you’re pissing off someone like Stalin, you’re probably doing something right.

What about the Clash?

Surely one can’t talk about politics in music without talking about the Clash right? Don’t worry, I got ya covered.


Rapper B. Dolan, along with guests Toki Wright and Jasiri X released a new video this week, “Film the Police,” an homage to seminal gangsta rap group N.W.A.’s classic “F*ck tha Police.” The new video uses extensive footage from Occupy Wall Street-related protests and is in clear solidarity with the Occupy movement. Here’s the press release

B. DOLAN’s “FILM THE POLICE” pays tribute to N.W.A.’s infamous “F*ck the Police,” serving as a call to action for the digitized media movement while responding to the recent explosion of police brutality all across the world.

This free MP3, courtesy of STRANGE FAMOUS RECORDS, features a reconstruction of Dr. Dre’s original beat, brilliantly reanimated by UK producer BUDDY PEACE. Label CEO, SAGE FRANCIS, opens the song by picking up the gavel where Dr. Dre left it 23 years ago, introducing a blistering, true-to-style flip of Ice Cube’s original verse by SFR cornerstone, B. Dolan. TOKI WRIGHT (Rhymesayers Entertainment) follows up by stepping into the shoes of MC Ren, penning the people’s struggle against cops as a case of “Goliath Vs. a bigger giant.” Finally, Jasiri X (Pittsburgh rapper/activist) rounds out the track by filling in for Eazy-E, reminding us that police brutality disproportionately affects poor people of color.

With the Occupy Movement bringing various forms of injustice to the forefront of people’s consciousness, “Film the Police” is a reminder that cops have been a continued and increasingly militarized presence in public streets. Thanks to the widespread use of smartphones and video cameras, along with the popularity of social networks such as Twitter and Facebook, the power of the media has been put back into the people’s hands as they document the injustices perpetrated by those who have sworn to serve and protect them.

The song is a worthy successor to the original and is a powerful call for citizen journalism and the use of digital technology and citizen activism as a check on abuses by police. The song’s full lyrics are below (advisory: explicit lyrics):

Intro (Sage Francis):
Right about now, the SFR court is in full effect!
Judge Sage presiding in the case of the People vs. The Police Department.
Prosecuting attorneys are: Toki Wright, Jasiri X and B motherf*ckin’ Dolan.
Order! Order! Order! B. Dolan, take the motherf*ckin’ stand.
Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
(Dolan: You godd*mn right.)
Then why don’t you tell everyone what the f*ck they have the right to do?

Verse 1 
(B. Dolan):
Film the Police. Run a tape for the underclass!
Get the face, name and number on the badge.
They flash, we flash back when they act disorderly.
React accordingly and capture all that we see…
Nightstick, Zip-ties, and Tasers.
Think they’re licensed for type vicious behavior.
Make a tight fist with a video trained toward the Pigs,
Like this. They trip & you make ‘em famous.
Explain to a Judge the bounds you oversteppin’.
2011 time to the change our method.
We aim lenses at the State’s weapon,
‘Til they remember whose godd*mn streets they’re protecting.
They’d rather see me in a cell
Than me and my cell with a different story to tell.
Camcorder by the dash. Next time you get stopped,
Reach for the celly if you wanna shoot a cop.
On a public sidewalk, you can tape what you see,
Or film from your window with a view of the street!
Neighborhood Crime Watch, we police the Police.
They can’t arrest the whole community.
Because the streets clock. These cops occupying blocks,
Harassing the homeless with batons, pulling glocks.
They stop lawful protests and let off shots…
Abuse prostitutes and misuse power they got.
In memory of the victims who are never forgot,
We’ve gotta’ exercise our right to shed light in the dark.
There is an army on the march that doesn’t want you to watch.
You’ve got a weapon in your pocket whether you know it or not.
We, the people, are the only real media we got.
Let’s protect one another from the f*cking goon squad.
Fascism’s coming to the U.S.A.
Eyo, Sage, I got something to say!

Verse 2 (Toki Wright):
Film the police! It’s time to make it our priority.
You see these fools are in abuse of their authority.
Crack a fist or you crack a whip.
But that ain’t power you coward, you beat a man with two shackled wrists.
So put their names up on a list next to an asterisk.
Next time you see ‘em blast a clip, then you flash a flick.
Attach a video and pic to your master list.
Be on the news at 6. YouTube views legit.
The cops watch us, so we gotta have the Cop Watchers.
Been in fear of law so long, so now it’s not awkward.
But what is law when it’s wrong. When you slam us on the floor.
Naw, this ain’t World Wrestling Entertainment Raw.
This is Edutainment, y’all. Got a call from B. Dolan.
You try to squabble with Johnny Law and get your meat swollen.
Why you think Bobby and Huey P. were heat holding?
You better load the footage up and get to key stroking.
And while you at it, send one off to the administration,
It’s indicating, all the physical intimidation.
It’s been too long they said to “bear with us.”
That’s when I run up on your caravan and rip off all your D.A.R.E. stickers.
This here is near Hitler’s; weirder than some mere tickets…
You feel privileged ’til your wife get her brassiere lifted.
You disappear quick as Hoffa if you p*ss a copper,
Off ya’ til you get a Channel 7 News helicopter.
Violence hides in a code of silence, tyrants hide in an alliance,
Quiet or be left somewhere, or get swept inside it.
It’s Goliath vs. a bigger giant.
Got us pulling over so far we ran a curb and hit a hydrant.
It’s systematic how the system has its symptoms,
Of the democratic law that’s been flawed since the pilgrims landed.
So now tell me what you wanna do? Next time you see the boys in blue,
You cock your camera back and point and shoot.

Verse 3 (Jasiri X):
Film the police! I got the Cannon 7D.
Highest definition for when they try to arrest and lynch ‘em,
Then lie and protest the whippin’, not serve and protect the victims.
Their murders, threats and hitmen…observe ‘em and let the witness be
The iphone. Never let bygones be bygones.
Get your flip cam before they get in the whip and ride on.
It’s vital ’cause our survival could depend on a video going viral,
With more viewers than American Idol.
Instead of having to bury a child who…
The cops shot ’cause they thought they carried a rifle.
Then the same cops will go to court and swear on a bible,
And smile to show the teeth that they’re preparing to lie through.
Whether Crips or Piru ,Vice Lords or Gangsta Disciples,
Make sure your camera lens gets an eyeful.
And they liable to try and confiscate it.
Better hold on to that sh*t like you’re constipated.
‘Cause they’ll pretend them injuries are not related,
Like, “When we arrived we saw him dive head first off the pavement.”
So keep the mini cam stashed in the dash of your mini van.
They’ll crash and smash on any man.
Pull out your Blackberry ’cause cops will take a shot at your black berry,
‘Til we see another black buried.
Don’t act scary, ’cause they’ll empty the gat on ya’,
Stand over your body just to sprinkle the crack on ya’.
Police attacking ya’. Don’t want to see they reflections like Dracula.
But camera’s capture ya’.
Too busy using your flashlight to batter us,
To notice John Singleton was my passenger.
So point, click and shoot they ass*s,
It’s the only way to get the real truth to the masses.
Jasiri X, I’m making movies like Spike Lee.
I won’t be a law and order special victim like Ice T.

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