Thursday, August 23, 2007

Protest Music and Freedom of Speech

Musicians and Political Protest
I am reading this letter featured in Malaysiakini , Art for political protest will soon be more popular written by an anonymous "Absolute Freedom" on Aug 20, 07 3:28pm. Finally, a chance to write about something that I like, "Music" !

" Remember Bruce Springsteen's ‘Born in the USA’ single? Anyone reading the lyrics will realise that Springsteen was protesting about the selling-out of the American dream - a Vietnam War veteran's alienation by his own country. And recall that iconic album poster with the back view of a man in denim jeans and white T-shirt standing facing the Stars and Stripes?

Notice how one hand could be seen and the other not? Till today, no one has yet managed to convince me that the image cannot be that of a man urinating on his country's flag. Or have we forgotten the Sex Pistol's rendition of ‘God Save the Queen’? Namewee's ‘Negarakuku’ is kindergarten stuff compared to that.

Or Jimi Hendrix's guitar solo of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ during the Vietnam War years?

Anyone who knows rap, know's that rap language is stark, ‘in your face’ and in extreme cases, outright violent. There is no room for euphemisms in rap - you just tell it as it is from your own perspective. I am not a fan of rap but I acknowledge that is a form of protest music that grew out of the black ghettos of the US where a marginalised community (the Afro-Americans) live. Just as reggae and ska are protest music from the Caribbean.

Jazz and Rock Musicians Exercise Democracy
To top off on that, there is another article from Dr. Azly Rahman in Malaysia Today, titled " Learn Democracy from jazz and rock " in March 2007. He stated that jazz is a form of "democracy in music". Jazz arrangements can be improvised as it is played rather than constrained by the original decided form as evident in classical music.

This is what I wrote in reply:
" In the history of jazz and blues, there is something called "protest songs".

The most famous of it being the "anti-lynching" song sung by the famous Lady Day, Billie Holiday.

It goes by the title of "Strange Fruit"

Lyrics by Lewis Allen:
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

The strange fruit mentioned refers to the corpse of those killed by lynching.

"Protest songs" is part of the democracy underline. In the early days of American Independence, racism existed. African Americans were lynched publicly on trees for purported wrongdoings by White Supremacists.

The amazing part is Lady Day, with her limited vocal octave (one and a half) managed to make the song with rather short lyrics work with her legendary "emotional singing" style. The end of the song leaves you with a sense of bitterness. As bitter as the crop described.

Great artistry meets democratic expression.

When this song broke out in public, many did not know how to make of it. After some time, a lot of the listeners applauded her for such bravery to perform. Some Northern Americans (including White Americans) and African Americans gave her the support she deserved.

Another highlight is Lady Day was never arrested for singing that song.

With such impact, this brings to question whether the "anti lynching" activities managed to stop because of this song.

The fact is, it didn't happen immediately. However, the presence of this song managed to help in a nationwide campaign against public lynching. It brought to the nation, the seriousness and evil of such activities.

The engines started to work and the people made aware start to unite and work cohesively against it.

It maybe a long walk towards real democracy but it is certainly worth the effort.

There's a lot more about jazz, such as "free jazz" and "avant garde jazz" and "jazz rock". Jazz came from America and all of these sub-genres represent how 'democracy in music' allows great works to come about.

Naturally, there would be some quarters who complained that the western world is using music as a propaganda. I made a brief comment to that illogical claim:

" It is unfair to say the jazz and rock 'messiahs' that we mentioned are selling the US propaganda.

In fact, there are those from these so-called jazz and rock messiahs who criticised the US government in concerts and their lyrics.

Some artistes are considered by the US government as threat.

Look at Rage Against The Machine, 'Skinny Puppy'...

Listen to Billie Holiday ...

Bear in mind, not all Jazz and Rock Messiahs are White. Not all of them are Americans.

Future of music as a protesting mechanism in Malaysia
I end this with important excerpts from Art for political protest will soon be more popular from Malaysiakini :

" It's time Malaysians get to grips with the use of art and music to deliver political protest. This latest brouhaha with Namewee's ‘Negarakuku’ should be seen in the broader context of art being used for political protest.

We (Malaysians) seem to have selective thin skins. We are thin-skinned when criticism is directed at our narrowly-defined communities. But we seem to be thick-skinned when the criticism is directed at another community. It also reflects the failure of the BN government, after 50 years of independence, to forge a broader Malaysian identity that overrides our narrower ethnic and religious tribalism.

If you didn't protest when an Umno youth leader unsheathed a kris at an Umno general assembly or when they tore down temples across Malaysia, then you'd be a hypocrite to cry foul at a young man's rap who tells it like it is from his point of view. As I said ‘his point of view’ - it is neither right nor wrong. Just his point of view.

I believe that God put the different communities together in Malaysia so that we'd act as a check and balance on each other: Whenever one community gets too arrogant, the other communities act as a mirror to reflect the true image of that one community - beauty, warts, pimples and all.

Let's not miss the bigger picture in all of this. One of the pillars of our constitution is freedom of speech. The BN government will have us believe that our constitutional freedom of speech is not absolute, that we have to worry about the sensitivities of the various communities.

That is only true when communities feel insecure and threatened - a constant given BN's preference in following their white master's colonial ‘divide and rule’ policy in playing on narrow communal fears in order to secure the vote. If I am secure in my identity (ethnic, religious etc), no person's words can harm me.

Either you have it or you don't. There's no such thing ‘limited freedom of speech’. The more astute of your readers will also note that Umno leaders are able exercise absolute freedom of speech in spouting racial and religious hatred with impunity but insist that the rest of us toe the line of ‘limited freedom of speech’ which the threat of sedition hanging above our heads. Such hypocrites!

Namewee's criticism is not something new. One year ago (2006) in June, this song titled "UMNO New Theme Song" appeared in YouTube.

The artiste, Hattan sang his interpretation of Negaraku in 2005. Although Hattan is not singing a protest song, the Malaysiakini letter noted these points:

1) " The question of whether the singer had humiliated the national anthem by his singing would not have been a national issue if it had not been raised in Parliament. Such pettiness. "

2) " Surely our members of parliament should raise more important issues which affect their constituencies like rampant corruption, abuse of power by the high and mighty, price increases, all which affect a majority of the common people. Not on whether the NegaraKu was sung off key. "

Do you notice anything familiar between Namewee's and Hattan's cases ?

Namewee has apologised. I am very sure he will exercise more subtlety if he wants to address issues in the future. Perhaps, it is time to carry on with our lives on more pressing matters.


Rauff said...

Totally agree with you. Let take another song as an example....listen to FREEDOM by KLG Sqwad.

The issues run deep in the lyrics especially the Malay lines.

listen to it on

CCK said...

Jazz music originates from the blacks of the US. Even so-called American folk songs like 'Old Folks Home' etc. had roots in black music and songs.

Such black music became popular only after some white men had copied or commandeered them for themselves.

Sagaladoola said...

Hi cck,

I disagree with your point of view.

Nat King Cole is a black who has been famous since the 30s.

The white men only came in around 40s or 50s.