Evolution of Revolutionary Sounds
In researching the music that was inspired by, and was the inspiration of the revolutions of the past, I am energized with the hope, strength and determination, though I analyze the mistakes and misperceptions of the masses and formulate a new interpretation and reason. Not only does this music echo the sentiment from these different societies but it is the breath and the heartbeat of the revolutionary mind. The composers and artists in history had inspired entire classes of people and struck fear in the hearts of the bourgeoisie from either the lyrics calling for an end to an oppressive regime, or by the sounds and notes played, relaying a feeling of triumph for the people. The musicians and composers had a sense of purpose and they gave the listeners hope. Family members would tuck their children in chanting the words from revolutionary marches. These chants and calls for social justice would become the youth’s “nursery rhymes” and would forever be engrained in their psyche. This was embodied in songs like “The Internationale”, to Shostakovich’s seventh symphony that had no lyrics but was a symphonic patriotic triumphant opus. Social change was a way of life and justice was the inspiration for the sounds created.
Just like the popular music of now where we see the youth glued to iPods listening to songs about erasing memories from drinking excessive amounts of alcohol in a “club”, there was popular music in every part of these older societies as well, and just like now, it was usually frowned upon by the revolutionary party. In revolutionary music, strife from the struggle of survival was the source of a message, not to complain, but to spend each breath living to see a better day and find justice for all people. We can also interpret these condemnations of popular music by the revolutionaries as a kind of elite dictatorship, as it was in many instances. We look at this negatively of course because of our negative association with dictatorships and rightfully so. We do however have to examine the elite dictatorship of our own popular music today in terms of what is played on the public radio waves, how it gets there, and who chooses its position in our society. There is still revolutionary music now but you have to search for it and like everything pure in a capitalist society, anything that captivates any amount of people’s attention is immediately processed and mass produced as something “new” to make a profit. Looking at our “radio-friendly” dictatorship today we notice that we are not encouraged to listen to music that upsets the status quo. We are not even taught to be content with what we have and be grateful. We are merely distracted and brainwashed by the commercials we call “music”, urging us to buy into things and that’s how we as a country whose economy is solely based on consumerism (seventy percent of gross domestic product) must function. We are bombarded by music with similar lyrical content aimed at alienating ourselves from ourselves, or the opposite, music encouraging becoming completely self-absorbed. We are herded like cattle to consume, by images of women scantily dressed and by shiny things, the same way we cling to foods high in salt, sugar and animal fat. We haven’t evolved that much in that respect. Our musical dictatorship has emphasized less thinking in music and more selling of ringtones.
I remember doing one of my first pop gigs and in speaking to the musical director he was explaining what kind of music he was creating for a track. He described it as “house” music. The joke was that he wasn’t speaking of the kind of dance club “house” music I was familiar with; he was talking about music he could purchase a house with. No doubt every musician composes for different reasons but in revolutionary music I’ve found the humble appreciation of being able to even own a musical instrument in the first place.
In this article I will examine the different types of revolutionary music in our recent history. We will analyze the lyrics and the context of where revolutionary music was most influential and how it has influenced the revolutionary music of today. Besides that we will see how this type of music has evolved to what it is today, the latest incarnation of revolutionary music: hip hop.
First off, one thing that needs to be acknowledged is the amount of revolutionary symphonies that were composed that did not have any lyrical content but still represented the revolution to the fullest. We cannot downplay the influence strings and woodwinds had on people’s actions. These symphonies from composers spoke volumes about the emotions the disenfranchised had, which voiced universal understandings that crossed all language barriers.
The early classical pieces of pre and post-revolutionary Russia were meant to inspire and rejoice in the hope for the success of the movement. The leaders themselves were greatly moved by these instrumentals though they wanted to stray away from what they called the elite or bourgeoisie culture and listen to pieces that were written specifically for the movement. Stalin addressed a classical piece: “I know nothing of which is greater than the Appassionata; I would like to listen to it every day. It is marvelous and superhuman music. I always think with pride - perhaps it is naïve of me – what marvelous things human beings can do.” These symphonies represented power but they also told tales of some of the strife that came from a war torn country such as what we hear in revolutionary Russia’s composer Shostakovich’s pieces. At a victorious time for the Red Army, Shostakovich composed his eighth symphony. When the piece should have embodied victory, honor and strength, Shostakovich created a dark and bleak work which in reality portrayed the devastation a war torn country was facing. Stalin himself was so perturbed by this lack of patriotism in the music he heard from Shostakovich that he banned this eighth symphony until 1960.
The Marxist regime in Russia, as in many other Marx inspired organizations, believed firmly that art reflects and advances ideology of the class that creates it. Their belief in a “class” form of music inspired them to try to define, identify and help create proletarian music. They classified most popular music and dance tunes in a category of what they called “light genre”, where “degenerates” influenced the laboring masses. They dismissed these songs as “musical surrogates” or “cast-off barroom garbage.” Some people maintained that there was still some value in these urban popular songs, but most Marxists maintained that most all urban pop music was the product of the working class’ assimilation of the second rate music of the bourgeoisie. They believed popular music literally had a narcotic effect which would take away from the working class’s drive to help with social work.
In the US a little later in the twentieth century, another completely different form of music was emerging and also was getting heat, not from a Marxist revolutionary regime but from the opposite: mainstream dominance. These were the revolutionary voices of the African American musicians who were creating jazz music in revolt against classical music of Western Europe. This is what the revolutionaries in Russia and jazz musicians had in common and were adamant about as well. The Russian Marxists were against the classical pieces of the bourgeoisie culture because they felt it represented the monarchy of the czar and his class of people. The young African musician’s musical voices, tenacity and prowess were directly influenced from the lack of tolerance in the United States. Their approach on their instruments was a certain attack on white supremacy and euro centrism. Jazz musicians played with a militancy aimed at contesting western classical music and eviscerating popular main stream music. Jazz’s predecessor was “blues” which was created in the rural African American community. As rural laborers traveled north to more urban industrial areas the music evolved from plantation chants and “field songs”, to music that envelops a high degree of sophistication and complexity, utilizing and combining features of both the compositional/notational and improvisational/oral traditions. Jazz musicians were fighting in their own way by specifically playing in places where no one could dance. This forced people to listen to the music and the intentions were to bring the listener to a whole different level of musical understanding and appreciation. These sounds were pioneered by musicians like Charlie Parker, and Art Tatum.
Lyrical content of patriotic chants throughout the ages have been very similar to each other as most of the time revolts occur from similar circumstances. As Defranzo points out in Revolts and Revolutionary Movements, mass frustration is the largest reoccurring theme in an overturn. The frustration leads to the people looking for some leadership with answers, and in many of the Marxist inspired revolutions, religion wasn’t enough of a focus in hard times. Religion was thought of a convenient way for the masses to stay docile while the church stayed a lucrative business and remained in a tyrannical position of control. Though in Latin American, in countries such as Nicaragua, where revolutionary ideas were stirred up by the holy men, most revolutionaries fight against organized religion as just another part of a corrupt establishment. It is important to also recognize that revolutions are not always backed by a leftist or liberal agenda but some are backed by a “right” or conservative agenda such as in the Iranian revolution where fundamental Islam was at the forefront of the cause. Similarly this occurred in nineteenth century China where the converted laborer Hong led the Taiping Rebellion that led to one of the biggest Chinese revolts racking up the highest death toll in human history. In this aspect, the lyrical content of revolutionary songs is not always coming from the same ideology. Some chants may be coming from an actual prayer to overcome “evil”, or in Latin American revolutionary lyrics, songs were written specifically about revolutionary leaders like Che’ Guevara. In any circumstance, these antiestablishment lyrics emphasize overcoming an adversity and general success of the repressed peoples. With many of the world revolutions; we see a draw on Marxist ideas. These ideas shaped revolutionary thought, though many times the movements strayed off course from what Marx actually envisioned. The rural classes weren’t aware of this and/or some didn’t care about the inconsistencies in what Marxist revolutionaries preached. They went along with it anyways, some being educated and some not, similarly to how millions celebrate the birth of a Christ on December 25th every year.
Marx envisioned a state of society where equal opportunity was given to all classes of people by the working proletariat class. This was known as socialism. Eventually when everyone was provided for the need for a government distributing goods would diminish and people’s natural “good” nature would prevail and everything would be beautiful. This final phase would be the final utopian phase of what we call communism today. These are economic theories, not forms of government. Marx never suggested that the working class form political parties and fight for social change through nonviolent means. Even so, workers parties emerged and so did violent revolutionaries who thought the only path to change would be through violent means. In many of the countries that revolted we see it perpetuated by the rural and agricultural class whereas Marx described the revolution coming from the industrial and urban areas.
The final stage of communism was supposed to be “government free”, but that was the opposite of what happened. To add to the pain, the disenfranchised peoples of these societies still live with some kind of hardships in the eyes of the capitalist world when a “Marxist” revolution was successful. We see this in Cuba where social benefits are prized but a selection and choices aren’t. This is simply the nature of two systems. Capitalist markets adhere to the preferences of people who can afford whatever product while providing a diversity of products. Socialism defines needs in much more basic terms such as enough food to eat, clothes, health care and education for everyone. In our society we pride ourselves on being able to purchase the most useless cheap products, made by 3rd world exploited children and their parents. In fact we have been raised to believe this is one of our basic “freedoms”. The fact of not having basic necessities is what the majority of the poor across the globe at any given time are fighting for. This struggle is what unifies the ideas and is what makes revolutionary songs so powerful, regardless of how closely they or their leaders followed an ideal, and in Cuba the lack of musical instruments has not been a hindrance necessarily on the music created there, other than having an instrument being an indescribable privilege. Some of the most talented musicians come from Cuba to this day.
In examining the lyrical content of revolutionary pieces, none encompass such frustration and call for social change as The Internationale. It was created in France after the Paris Commune was crushed and was later used as the first Soviet Union’s National Anthem. It has been reformatted and the lyrics have been adapted at different times but the premise remains the same. These lyrics embody a few different revolutions and can be used to represent the morale of repressed peoples internationally:
Arise ye workers from your slumbers
Arise ye prisoners of want
For reason in revolt now thunders
And at last ends the age of cant.
Away with all your superstitions
Servile masses arise, arise
We'll change henceforth the old tradition
And spurn the dust to win the prize.
So comrades, come rally
And the last fight let us face
The Internationale unites the human race.
No more deluded by reaction
On tyrants only we'll make war
The soldiers too will take strike action
They'll break ranks and fight no more
And if those cannibals keep trying
To sacrifice us to their pride
They soon shall hear the bullets flying
We'll shoot the generals on our own side.
No saviour from on high delivers
No faith have we in prince or peer
Our own right hand the chains must shiver
Chains of hatred, greed and fear
E'er the thieves will out with their booty
And give to all a happier lot.
Each at the forge must do their duty
And we'll strike while the iron is hot.
I picked these lyrics from this song specifically because in many ways I feel they are relative to now. The first line calling for workers to arise from their slumber resonates with anyone who is not independently wealthy. Few of us are able to do what we love for work and few are able to utilize their passion in life to survive. In this context, and around the world around the late 19th century with the industrial revolution still progressing, Karl Marx believed factory workers were becoming increasingly alienated from themselves. They had no connection to the finished product and their labor was mechanical and automated. Many in the US today still live this reality, though not in the harsh conditions of a factory per se which we save for the 3rd world. The monotony of the same thing every day creates a zombie like state which is what I feel these lyrics are referring to. “Away with all your superstitions, servile masses arise!” This I interpret as a blow to the religious institutions at that time. The Catholic Church in Europe has ruled for the past 500 years and with it came the worst, untouchable corruption the world has ever seen. Not only have we seen the ideology of “god’s plan” promote servitude and compliance to oppressive dictators, we have seen huge amounts of money go to the church to create gold pillars while the poor starve. This is also relevant to today. The “Internationale unites the human race” is a powerful lyric echoing millions of people around the worlds struggle. In my interpretation it is uniting the human race that is the most essential thing. This includes the wealthy elite. We can only hope for such things if the elite were to have an immediate consciousness evolution, which is a fanciful idea to me but it helps in the way of unifying as opposed to separating. The “soldiers to will take strike action, they will break ranks and fight no more” addresses the huge amount of young men and women sent by governments to fight wars that essentially are for the benefit of a small few. In regards to Russia at that time, the Bolshevik party was strongly opposed to anymore war with Germany and this echoes their sentiments. “No savior from on high delivers” is a strong statement that waiting for a holy messiah to come and relieve you of your misery on earth is simply making you a sitting duck. Action must be taken and we are the only ones to be held responsible if we fail to rise against tyranny. “Our own right hands the chain must shiver, chains of hatred greed and fear” is a call for everyone to break the mental incarcerations that those who accuse the wealthy of having, are plagued by as well.
When 2% of the population of the world owns more than half the entire world’s wealth we still have a need for revolting today. If you would NOT take your chances being born any nationality, any religion, any sex in any place, than there is still much injustice in the world. Unfortunately the music today does little to portray or acknowledge the horror some live on a regular basis and through many of our religious institutions, especially here in the US, we are taught that we were “chosen” and “blessed” by a god and those outside were not. This was used to justify the genocide of the native American’s as well as used to justify the slave labor we capitalized on and then later took credit for as an American “hard work” ethic and an “American dream”. The US wouldn’t have survived and flourished as a country without the exploitation of people and cheap labor and a few artists know this and report on it.
Throughout the 20th century we saw revolutionary music blossom throughout the world in many forms. We saw reggae music take hold and call for social change with such revolutionary artists as Bob Marley. We saw the UK punk music scene take over in the fight against the establishment with artists like the Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedy’s, and Anti-flag. And here in the US we see the birthplace of one of the world’s newest forms of revolutionary music: hip hop. Hip Hop was born in the south Bronx and was originally the voice of 2 main groups, Puerto Rican Nationalists and black power groups. It eventually evolved to other expressions with its roots in West African griot culture which were groups of traveling singers and poets who were part of an oral tradition dating back hundreds of years ago. From this new hip hop culture emerged the Universal Zulu Nation formed by Afrika Bambaataa, who was a warlord in the South Bronx and founder of the gang the Black Spades. Afrika used his influence to encourage gang members to reform and put their energy positively back into the community after he went on a life changing trip to the mother land: Africa. He eventually became known as the godfather of hip hop and the father of electro funk sound. Hip Hop used elements of jazz, funk and rock backed by a strong beat as the canvas to “flow” over. This has become an amazing art form as hip hop culture has encompassed 4 elements: DJ ing or turntablism, emceeing, graffiti art, and break dancing. Most recently the 5th element has been added which is knowledge. Hip hop has been successful not only as a revolutionary music style as its origins lie in social justice but almost everything that it encompassed in its early stages represented a smack to the status quo. In some instances hip hop beat makers sample jazz music which in itself was rebellious and the verses in between the hooks themselves are jam packed with knowledge and calls for change. We hear chants like in the Internationale in modern day political emcees such as Capital X who stands for prisoners’ rights in a country where African American men make up 12% of the entire US population but make up over 50% of the prison population:
Man they've been feeding me lies, ever since I was an adolescent
Well now watch me flip the script and teach these fucks a lesson
Sure I've lied to survive, but I've never lied to myself
I know I'm going to heaven, cause I already been through hell
Lock down in a cell, a corporate slave
But now I'm rising, like Christ from the grave
And I ain't talking on some Bad Boy shit, or Roca-Fella
I'm talking Filiberto Rios, and Nelson Mandela
Malcolm-X, Karl Marx and Medgar Evers
I'm wielding my machete, till the dragons 7 heads are severed
I ain't just talking about, we need a change,
Man I'm breaking the shackles, handcuffs and chains
Or we see in political emcee, private investigator in human trafficking, S.A.I. (South American Immigrant) who states in his song entitled Breathe:
Someday before my death I’ll see life for what it is worth.
The birth of consciousness will spread the reawakening of all the living dead,
All the souls we’ve shed, freedom that we’ve bled.
Later he says:
Preparing for the day when the shame keeps the sun from shining.
Let’s unite and keep their false creation from rewinding.
Keep the dream from binding, keep the eye from finding.
Wake up and leave your cage put up your fist in rage.
It serves the nerves to surf the war they wage.
Also political emcees like Immortal Technique incorporate lots of research and studying in their lyrical content to enlighten the listener, causing those who are serious about revolution to research what he says. Education is the key always. He says in his song the 4th Branch:
Media censorship, blocking out the video screens
A continent of oil kingdoms, bought for a bargain
Democracy is just a word, when the people are starvin'
The average citizen, made to be, blind to the reason
A desert full of genocide, where the bodies are freezin'
And the world doesn't believe that you fightin' for freedom
Cause you fucked the Middle East, and gave birth to a demon
It's open season with the CIA, bugging my crib
Trapped in a ghetto region like a Palestinian kid
Where nobody gives a fuck whether you die or you live
Since the incarnation of these new styles of revolutionary music, the sounds have been plagiarized and used by people who want less of a pressing message and by people looking at the art forms strictly as “marketable” from a capitalist perspective. Reggae music has impressed a drug and sex culture in southern California turning revolutionary songs into songs promoting 40oz bottles of beer. Punk has evolved to slower soundtracks for multimillion dollar movies and hip hop has become a modern day minstrel show in a lot of circumstances. The famous Amen Brother break, which was a drum sample taken from a band called The Winstons in 1969 was mass produced by countless genres of music and can now be heard backing everything from gangster rap to car commercials.
The artists that stay true to revolutionary music are far and few between but they are out there. Some have been able to sneak their message in with catchy guitar riffs like Rage Against the Machine or use their clout to voice their activism like the late John Lennon but none the less, the roots of revolutionary music remain the same because the basic premise of slavery remains the same. If we are ever to respect life in its entirety, we cannot fall into too much of a capitalist system or too much of a socialist system. The biggest misperception the human race has is its view on how everything we perceive with our senses is separate, and on a more defined scale, we think we came from different places and that people should be able to lift themselves by their bootstraps because it is a level playing field. This has never been the case and people’s right to excel on their own merits and their adaptability, on a level playing field, is always the last means of success. Wealth is accumulated the same way it always has, through inheritance and as long as imperialists and unfettered capitalists keep speaking solely in terms of pocket lining currency above the value of life, there will be a tremendous amount of energy put towards their overturn.