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How music fights colonialism and silences racism

Nov 15,2018 - Last updated at Nov 15,2018

The 20th century has witnessed unprecedented mass migration movements from the formerly colonised to the heart of former colonies. This has resulted subsequent to the decolonisation of many formerly colonised nations. Resistance and affirmation of national identity has thus taken on various cultural forms. Music stands out here for reasons I explain below, as well as the fact it combines both written and oral cultural practices. Music offers an inventory of paramount disruption and a cultural intervention that offers spaces for national and historical re-examination.

It was during the 1960s that black Britons were immensely inspired and influenced by the American civil rights revolutions across the Atlantic with the rise of the likes of Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and Bob Marley. Marley’s music and his presence during the 1970s introduced him as an iconic figure of resistance. His songs discuss symbols of a larger system of brutality with its roots in plantation slavery. Marley embodies the political consciousness of Jamaican people particularly and the black man generally. Through his music, he aspires for political and ideological resurrection and rebellion. He denounces institutionalised oppression and the victimisation of the oppressed. Rebellion, therefore, is a universal and human right. Albums like Survival and Natty Dread are great manifestations of such declarations. Marley believed that colonial distortions must be revised and history told by winners must be rewritten. In Redemption Song, he highlights mental slavery and subsequently echoes Frantz Fanon’s emphasis on the importance of the decolonisation of the mind. Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand up in 1973 encouraged people to take a stand against colonial greed and against social injustice, too. Godfather of mystic Reggae music, a Rastafarian, and the Third World’s pop superstar, from the ghettos of Jamaica to global fame, Marley remains a symbol of resistance and a philosopher on emancipatory politics.

Songs and their lyrics form an articulate message first to the black man and secondly to the world. The lyrics express and confess restlessness of spirit, which makes that playful diasporic culture vital. Themes of these songs and other cultural performances varied from emancipation, autonomy to citizenship. Music and songs are melodic human expressions of various experiences, particularly for the oppressed. For a melody becomes a word and a rhythm becomes a howl and both mix together to become an unwritten, oral history and heritage of the other. 

One can also find in Bhangra a genre that has become internationalised as it crosses frontiers and territoriality. With an increasing Asian population in England, with the emergence of third and fourth generations too, a fusion of the past and present, of folk music of rural India and pop music of Europe has given voice to Bhangra as it is today. The Punjabi migrants who came to London did so in search for jobs and prosperity, but Bhangra also became an important part of community life, particularly at weddings and family parties, where the first Bhangra bands started to play. As immigration increased, Bhangra’s language, Indian/Punjabi, was not understood by all those who listened to it. However, the richness of the rhythm emanates from its mixing traditional Asian music with soul, hip-hop and R&B. This genre of music can be a cultural tool that transcends cultural conflicts by bringing a wider audience into its scenery. It is an Indian folk music and the traditional music of Punjab, northern India, where displacement has always been a predominant characteristic. Not only has Bhangra been used by the Asian community to maintain cultural links, but it has also featured as an established phenomenon of the British Asian music scene for the last half a century, reflecting the conforming nature of its people as well as the society it has emerged from.

Music is far more ancient than words, and in it we can find signs of societal and cultural development. Music is the voice of exile from home, from self and from society. Moreover, there is certainly more to music than what the ear hears. The social and national impact of a singer is never to be underestimated. Take for example Um Kulthum: “Star of the East” and the Maria Callas of the Middle East and north Africa. For most Egyptians, Um Kulthum’s songs were the only cure for Egyptians in their post-traumatic shocks after the defeat during and after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Um Kulthum was always called by the Egyptians the “Lady of Ladies” for she was and still is a national treasure, another Great Pyramid of Egypt, and most importantly a powerful voice that spoke for Arabs from Mauritania on the Atlantic, to Oman on the Arabian Sea. Pan-Arabism was becoming the dominant political ideology in the Arab world as Egyptian president Jamal Abdul Nasser nationalised all remaining British and French assets in Egypt. Um Kulthum’s legacy was a reminder of two wars, the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, and the loss and regain of the Sinai Peninsula from the British. She conquered peoples’ hearts the same way Jamal Abdul Nasser did: a charismatic voice through the radio. With her popularity, Um Kulthum was not a mere singer. She spread the sense of community amongst Arabs.


The writer is author at Palgrave Macmillan and an assistant professor in post-colonial and English literature at the American University of Madaba, Jordan. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times

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