At the vanguard of the massive 20 June protests against the British government’s austerity agenda, stood one commercially successful musician. Charlotte Church lent her voice to the rally, energising the crowd with her presence. Why are popular musicians like Church not fired with enthusiasm to produce anti-austerity protest music for the cause?
The most insightful pieces have come from independent artists impelled to populate the social media with their expletive driven bluster. A reasoned critique from Kingpin, suggests we “F**k the government.” Robin Grey’s advice for politicians is: “F**k off back to Eton.” Rocking against the cuts, the Cabinet of Millionaires chant: “Bulls*t lies / Revolting, revolting!”
With a soundtrack like this, who could doubt the effectiveness of protests? Songs are memorable and can galvanise people around an issue. No one has ever argued that protest songs don’t work.
Music played a crucial role in Portugal’s 12 March Movement in 2011, which saw a revival of the Portuguese folk tradition, música de intervenção. Part of the resistance movement which catalysed the 1974 Carnation Revolution and ended Salazar´s dictatorship, the música de intervenção involved a group of singer-songwriters who risked arrest or exile to sing subversive songs about liberty, democracy, and equal rights. This same tradition of protest songs accompanied the 2011 movement. In March 2011, after hundreds of thousands across Portugal protested against austerity, parliament failed to pass austerity measures, leading to the Portuguese prime minister’s resignation.
Jump back 30 years to 1981 when British ska group, The Specials, released their hit Ghost Town. One in ten people in Britain were unemployed and 6,000 per day joined the dole queue. Ghost Town conveys the anger Britons felt watching their country being driven into crisis by Thatcher-ite cuts and subsequent rioting. As the cuts gloomed over a real dystopian Britain, the band painted a sonic canvas with that tension. The Specials weren’t prophets. They were paying attention.
Using the same powers of attention, a song can encapsulate the climate of austerity that demonstrators are railing against today. While Britons’ right to organise and to demonstrate is threatened under proposed legislation, music could be the mightiest tool in the protestor’s arsenal. The current campaign against government austerity measures can give impetus to a new wave of anti-austerity music.
Here are ten protest songs that work to inspire the fight against poverty, injustice and cuts.
José Afonso – Grândola Vila Morena
During Portugal’s 1974 revolution and turn toward democracy, Grândola Vila Morena became a symbol of protest. Forty years later, the song was revived as the soundtrack to the anti-austerity movement. Across Europe, Grândola Vila Morena is sung in English, Spanish, German and Finnish. It’s been heard at protests in Brazil, Japan and in Portuguese African speaking countries.
English, French, German and Polish lyrics
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five – The Message
If you’re looking for the social and political consciousness of hip-hop music, it starts with this anthem by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. The Message narrates the struggles of life in a community where opportunities are few and poverty is rife. Hugely influential, The Message conveys none of what some might call an economic double consciousness in rap. Not a shred of bling. It is 24-carat social commentary from start to finish.
Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings: What If We All Stopped Paying Taxes?
The most audacious and controversial song about poverty since Pulp sang Common People. Now, with welfare cuts across the board and 3.5 million children already living in poverty, the UK government wants to spend a stupefying £100 billion on Trident. What if we all stopped paying for a monstrous weapon of mass destruction that is not safe, not functional and not wanted by the people who actually do pay?
Ana Tijoux: Shock
Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine describes how a programme of economic shock and torture was implemented following the 1973 coup in Chile. For Chilean rap artist, Ana Tijoux, the younger generation, born after the dictatorship, is not in shock. They are organizing and protesting. When thousands of young people in 2011 took over their schools and universities, demanding their government provide free, quality education, they awakened an entire country. Tijoux had not meant to write the theme song for the movement. But with snare drums tapping a marching beat and a rousing foot stomper of a refrain, the song is nothing less than anthemic. “Our state of control / Your corrupt throne of gold / Your politics and your wealth / And your treasure, no.”
Marvin Gaye: Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)
The genius of Marvin Gaye created the first ever protest album, with 1971’s What’s Going On. Inspired by letters from Vietnam written by his brother, the effect of war on US families, poverty, unemployment, drug abuse, police violence and the protest movement, Marvin Gaye pioneered popular music as a form of non-violent protest with the power to influence mass social movements. The final track, Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler), was based around riot-torn Detroit, as his label, Motown, abandoned the crumbling city to move west. The song paints a powerful image of urban poverty, the black working class, working poor and protest movement.
Captain Ska: Liar Liar
London-based Captain Ska’s anti-cuts, anti-coalition song was named by the TUC as “the anthem of the anti-cuts movement.” The track samples sound bites from Thatcher, Cameron and Clegg. “Little men from little society / Telling us a bigger Big Society / Take the pinstriped suits and show them the door / Cut the rich, not the poor”
Barrington Levy: Robin Hood
“Don’t you remember Robin Hood / Who used to steal from the rich and give to the poor / All you have done is to rob the poor.” Imagining a Robin Hood who would channel funds from the bankers to public services, the great Barrington Levy’s silken tones indict a corrupt system. “Why don’t you call up Robin Hood / Do it like you know you should.” Recorded in 1979, the album Robin Hood sports poverty and justice themes particularly on When Friday Come, a hauntingly beautiful track about workers’ rights and struggling families.
Nicky Thomas: Love of the common people
When rock steady and ska came together in 1968 to form a new music called reggae, songs became more topical, addressing social conditions and politics in Jamaica. Reggae lyrics often convey resistance to oppression and injustice, calling attention to urban poverty in Jamaica’s slums and shantytowns. Recall Bob Marley and the Wailers Them Belly Full (But We Hungry), Bunny Wailer’s Fighting Against Conviction and Peter Tosh’s Vampire.
In the early days of Trojan Records, Nicky Thomas recorded a version of the famous folk tune Love of the Common People. With an uplifting message amid lyrics about unemployment, food stamps and threadbare clothing, the song depicts a broken system that’s failing families. Cover versions abound, most notably by Waylon Jennings, while Paul Young took the song to number two in the UK in 1982.
Aerosmith – Eat The Rich
No explanation needed.
The Beat: Stand Down Margaret
Stand Down Margaret by second wave ska band, The Beat, condemns the mother of all austerit-o-crats, Margaret Thatcher. Unlike other protest songs that demanded an end to Thatcher, Stand Down Margaret asks the Iron Lady ever so politely to please resign. Guitarist Dave Wakeling explains: “We wanted a protest song that was full of life and word play. We didn’t want it to be insulting. We even asked please.” But by standing down, they also meant she should get off her high horse “and stop putting on this hoity toity accent, because you know you’re really a shop girl from Nottingham.” Here, the band performs the song on national television in 1982.