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The power of a protest song

The first Midnight Oil song in 20 years is something to celebrate. And it’s a doozy. The new song Gadigal Land is from the band’s forthcoming mini-album Makarrata Project and is a message sent across the airwaves about the recognition of Australia’s First Nations people, the colonisation by the English and the ongoing impact from that dispossession. The song features Indigenous singers and performers Kaleena Briggs, Bunna Lawrie and Dan Sultan on the track. 

Here’s a snippet of the song’s lyrics.

Welcome to Gadigal land

Have you heard our history?

Welcome to Gadigal land

In the land where time stands still

In the land that’s in a spell

Every day since the day you came is a day of rage

It’s a day of rage

Welcome to Gadigal land

And this from another section.

Wenyo wenyo wenyo!

Mudjaru ngaya wunyang

Ngandu bayabawai….ngara

Ngarawa darayawai, darimi

Garamawaimi baya mudjin, wa?

Birrongaingun ngarawan

Always will be Gadigal land

So welcome to Gadigal land

Wenyo wenyo wenyo!

Welcome to Wiradjuri land

Welcome to Yorta Yorta land

Welcome to Arrernte land

Welcome to Mirning land

Welcome to Gurindji land

Gadigal poet Joel Davison features on the new song with a spoken word section that begins with the phrase Mudjaru ngaya wunyang and he spoke to NITV and explained he’s been working on revitalising his ancestor’s tongue, known as the Sydney Language.  

The band wants to bring national attention to the Uluru Statement from the Heart and help proper reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians about the country’s past. Their hope is to move forward toward recognition of First Nations people in the constitution and parliament, the goal of the Uluru Statement, to bring them into the heart of the nation and its national identity.

“After centuries of struggle for recognition and justice, 2017’s Uluru Statement called for the establishment of a ‘First Nations Voice’ enshrined in the Australian Constitution and the establishment of a ‘Makarrata Commission’ to supervise agreement-making and truth-telling between governments and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We urge the federal government to heed the messages in the Uluru Statement From The Heart and act accordingly.”

Looking back at songs that telegraph a message, the period of the 60s comes to mind and singers like Bob Dylan who talked about racism, the political establishment, war, joblessness and generational change. It was a time of great political and social upheaval and unrest as people sought to change the rules and conventions and cast off some of the prescriptions about the way we were supposed to live. Of course there were many other singers during that time and since who call out in verse to get us to see things a different way or highlight an issue or a topic that demands our attention.

The vein of politics running through music is no coincidence. The two are inextricably connected. In academic analysis, the power of music has been understood as a form of political communication, expressing among other things, protest, propaganda and resistance. When analysing politics and political communications, it’s essential to include music in any discussion of political discourse. 

In Music and Politics (2012), academic John Street, who is professor of politics at the University of East Anglia and editor of Popular Music journal, writes of the extraordinary potency of music and that music and politics are inseparably linked, and that each animates the other.

“It is common to hear talk of how music can inspire crowds, move individuals and mobilise movements. We know too of how governments can live in fear of its effects, censor its sounds and imprison its creators. At the same time, there are other governments that use music for propaganda or for torture. All of these examples speak to the idea of music’s political importance. But while we may share these assumptions about music’s power, we rarely stop to analyse what it is about organised sound – about notes and rhythms – that has the effects attributed to it.”

It’s not just in song musicians can convey political messages. Having a platform gives them a powerful platform. Take the example of Russian group Pussy Riot, for instance, which are known for their feminist protests, and have been arrested for their political stunts. AltPress has rounded up 10 contemporary musicians speaking up and speaking out.

No discussion of politics and music would be complete without a best of list and this one from Radio X has rounded up what it classes at the 50 best protest songs. Its list includes songs by Green Day, Public Enemy, Gil Scott Heron, The Specials, John Lennon and many more. There’s nothing like a best of list to inspire endless arguments about what made the cut and what didn’t so feel free to share your views in the comments.

Punk gave us the anti-establishment soundtrack in the 70s with bands like Sex Pistols in the UK and Radio Birdman and The Saints in Australia. Protest songs in the 80s came from bands like U2, NWA, Dead Kennedys, The Pogues and so many others. This list is a collection of some of the most important Australian punk songs.

If politics and music are inextricably linked, politicians understand the power of harnessing music to their cause but sometimes the protest comes as performers rail against their songs being used by those politicians they have ideological differences with. Adele, REM, Aerosmoth and now Neil Young have all demanded Trump stop using their music in his rallies and campaign. 

In 2020, with Black Lives Matter, hip hop music has become the soundtrack to protests around the world, giving voice and energising the message about racial injustice and discrimination. Public Enemy’s Fight The Power might be thirty years old, yet the problems persist and the message still resonates that structural discrimination exists in almost all parts of society. But in 2020, there are now artists like Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar and Janelle Monae that carry the pain and the hope for real, lasting change.

In Australia, Midnight Oil might be responsible for some of the most iconic protest songs – think Beds are Burning, US Forces, Short Memory, Blue Sky Mining – but there are others. Cold Chisel, Kev Carmody, Regum, Goanna and Powderfinger can all claim a political song in their oeuvre. 

Indigenous musicians like A B Original with January 26, Yothu Yindi’s Treaty, No Fixed Address and Archie Roach and emerging singers such as Kaiit, Emily Wurramara and Alice Skye sing about dispossession, racism and colonisation, giving voice to the Indigenous experience of the last 250 years and talking back to the colonisers, of present and past, from those who were silenced, dispossessed and disenfranchised in the country. 

Photo credit: Photo by Anthony DELANOIX on Unsplash

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Rosalyn Page
Journalist, blogger and writer covering arts, culture, travel and digital lifestyle at www.rosalynpage.com and www.somenotesfromabroad.com.

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