Thinking of music as social activism

We asked University of Birmingham academics for recommendations for applicants planning to start an undergraduate degree with us later this year. Dr Alexander M. Cannon, ethnomusicologist and Lecturer in Music, recommends….

Alexander CannonThinking of music as social activism.

Humans raise their voices to highlight injustice, beat drums to motivate action, and sing songs to memorialise. With sweet grooves and lyrical jabs, these songs shape our engagement with our communities and spur us into action. This is also why Jacques Attali argues in Noise: The Political Economy of Music that sound anticipates things to come. Musicians hold crystal balls; it’s high time we listen.

The sounds of social activism are copious in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Billie Holiday’s 1939 ‘Strange Fruit’ offers a powerful starting place for thinking about the role of music in shaping an understanding of injustice. With vivid and disturbing images of lynching in the American South, Holiday forces white audiences in particular to confront the violence caused by perpetuating racist stereotypes. This commentary on white supremacism continues to be relevant today.

In ‘Sugar Mama’ [right] released in 2019, Sudan-born and Minneapolis-based Dua Saleh combines infectious rhymes with pizzicato strings to offer commentary on the white saviour complex. Dua Saleh suggests that the gaze perpetuated by white Americans remains tinged with unwanted sexual advance, obnoxious displays of wealth, and oppression. If offering salvation to the African American community comes at the cost of the black body, America still has not learnt necessary lessons from slavery.

A key feature of activist music therefore lies in the reflection on power and the inherent danger of maintaining the status quo. Pete Seeger’s 1967 ‘Waist Deep in the Big Muddy’ started as an anti-Vietnam War protest song, but now resonates whenever overly self-assured and misguided leaders advance questionable solutions simply to flaunt their power. Seeger suggests that any deference towards power or dictatorship will lead to our collective demise.

Music around the world not only critiques poor leadership but also rampant consumerism and economic inequality. Such messages often are subtle. On the surface, the 2018 hip-hop track ‘N-Sao’ [above] by Vietnamese rapper Suboi starts with a typical depiction of everyday life in Saigon (a city now officially known as Ho Chi Minh City). She eats at a sidewalk café, listens to the sounds of lottery ticket sellers, and gets around on the ubiquitous motorbike. Suboi always has a point to make, however, as evidenced by an impromptu rap she performed for President Obama in 2016 on happiness and the acquisition of wealth. Suboi asks difficult questions in ‘N-Sao’ too: in a city characterised by exponential growth and chasing riches, she raps Bây giờ vui thì sao nhé? (Are you happy now?) If things could change, Đời vui thì sao nhéWhat would a happy life look like? How might you answer this question?

Whilst hip-hop carries long histories of social protest, other genres fulfil similar roles, especially when they demonstrate significant potential to become protest anthems. São Paulo-born Gloria Groove’s 2020 tune ‘A Caminhada’ [above] provides a case in point. The track sounds like party music, but her music video depicts a vivid narrative of empowerment. With a chorus of ‘Walk, walk, walk / Talk, talk, talk’, she encourages women and drag queens to take to the catwalk in their hallways, on the street, and in their imaginations. The video then takes us on a walk right into a bank. We initially think it’s a robbery, but on opening the vault, we find evidence of graft, violence against the LGBT community, and fake news advanced by those in power. These fierce women then confront the men in power and demand that they answer for their crimes. The second part of the chorus here then makes more sense—we need to ‘talk’ after we ‘walk’ to voice this injustice and bring about meaningful change. It also is worth noting that the genre of baile funk to which the tune belongs has its roots in the favelas, home to the poor of Brazil’s largest cities. The tune’s association with marginalised communities therefore is multifold.

Certain tunes spur us into action, and others keep us alive. In a more sombre recommendation from me, Music through the Dark: A Tale of Survival in Cambodia by Bree Lafreniere tells the heart-breaking, yet important story of Cambodian accordionist Daran Kravanh who survived the extraordinary brutality of the Khmer Rouge. (Borrow the book or listen to a National Public Radio story about the book.) His story is one of remembrance through music, as he writes of memorialising members of his family through sound.

'I lived in Pursat with my father, mother, seven brothers, and one sister. It is not enough to tell you their names or even describe what they looked like. When I think of them, I think of songs. I began to think of them that way when I was young and sat studying upstairs in my house. Listening to the footsteps on the wooden floor below, I found they created little musical pieces. I listened to the songs that were the bodies of my family. I can hear them still: the confident march that is my father; Reatrey, a slow sentimental song; Bunly, a snake charmer’s flute; my small sister Raksmey, a lullaby; Sthany, a romantic piece. I heard the rumba in you, Dararith. Samnang, are you jazz? For Rithy a sweet melody. Chamroeun, hands and feet playing together. And my mother a classical piece. And me, what was I? I do not know. We cannot hear the song that is ourselves. That is why we have each other. If I were to guess, I would say I am an old song—so old everyone knows it but no one knows its origin. All that music surrounding me was harmony.'

Never allow someone to convince you that sound is meaningless or unimportant. Music makes memories, shapes our experiences, and predicts future conditions. Music incites action and makes us more human. We all make music. Through music, others remember us, fight with us, and love us.

Do you know what your song is?

If not, start exploring.


Dr Alexander M. Cannon is an ethnomusicologist of southern Vietnamese traditional music who lectures on Asian music, creativity, and music sustainability.

Alexander teaches on our Music undergraduate degree programmes, teaching on the 'Critical Musicology' and 'Local Musicking in Asia; Music, Protest, and Social Activism'