Protest Songs

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 Jonathan Fong

“Do you hear the people sing?

Singing the song of angry men-

It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again.”

 

Protesting has been part of culture and politics worldwide for centuries, from the days of the storming of the Bastille and the Reign of Terror, to more modern incidences such as the recent Hong Kong extradition bill protests (which, as a local of the region, hit quite close to home, metaphorically and literally). And with protests, there have been protest songs, simple melodies and tunes belted out loud by a choir of the angry and aggrieved to motivate them for just one day more. And it is amongst this impromptu choir that the musical and the showtune have found an unlikely home—as these very protest songs that give people hope that “even the darkest night will end, and the sun will rise.”

Musical theatre has never shied away from political affairs—showtunes have long possessed, or been ascribed, political meanings. It’s only been a few years since the debut of Hamilton, a show whose famous line (“immigrants, we get the job done”) receives such thunderous applause from American audiences living under the Trump administration’s harsh stance on immigration that the pause following said line had to be lengthened considerably. Even unintentionally, songs originating from the stage have been assigned political meanings or contexts that they may not have actually had—"Edelweiss”, the famous tune from The Sound of Music, is often mistakenly attributed as the actual Austrian national anthem or at least a real song from the Austrian nationalist movement of the time (even despite the fact that it was very much written for the show by Rodgers and Hammerstein). And it’s easy to see why—with simple lyrics and a simpler melody, it’s a song that rather easily sticks in one’s head. Toss in a little conflated memory and you get the newly-dubbed Austrian nationalist movement’s theme song—"Edelweiss”.

Of course, there’s more to protest songs and the stage than just conflation and repurposing of showtunes—showtunes have been explicitly written as protest songs, with such songs even moving from the stage to the streets. “Do You Hear the People Sing”, a call to action for the protestors of the ill-fated June Rebellion of 1812 as depicted in the famed musical Les Miserables, is one of the more well-known and commonly used examples out there. Once more, its simple melody and lyrics allow it to be easily remembered and sung impromptu, with its rousing call to “join in the fight that will give you the right to be free” resonating across borders, regions, and political movements. It’s been sung worldwide—from Wisconsin to South Korea, from anti-corruption protests to Trump rallies, the song has been used as a protest song by crowds of angry people seeking justice for perceived wrongs, whatever they may be. From humble origins in a musical initially decried by West End critics as “witless and synthetic entertainment” and “like attempting to pour the entire [English] Channel through a china teapot”, it’s one of the most recognizable protest songs out there; it’s even been translated into different languages and had its lyrics rewritten in the name of specific movements, like this Cantonese translation in support of the recent Hong Kong protests. Indeed, the song has roused millions to action in the hopes that they may succeed (unlike, perhaps, those ill-fated students of the June Rebellion).

And as the digital age settles in, protests and their songs move from the streets to the internet—ingenious protesters take advantage of new means of communication to convey new, yet age-old, messages. Brits, protesting US President Trump’s July visit to the UK, took advantage of online campaigning and music distribution to coordinate and drive Green Day’s 2004 song “American Idiot”—a rousing pop anthem decrying fascism and authoritarianism which separately inspired its own jukebox Broadway musical—to the top of British pop charts. While this isn’t a new tactic—in 2013, “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead” from the well-known musical movie The Wizard of Oz was similarly driven to No. 2 of the UK music charts after controversial British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s death, partially to get BBC Radio (who customarily play the Top 10 songs on the UK charts) to play the song on radio—this campaign lasted far longer than any other, an indicator of the true power of the digital age and a connected populace.

It is clear that the showtune will remain a key driving force behind the protests and political movements of today. And as the cogs of the political machines worldwide continue to turn, what we can be certain is that as long as people take to the streets in protest, their hearts will most certainly “echo the beating of the drums” as they sing along to songs that very well may have originated from the stage.