political and social activism – a musical

Music, like other mediums of art is a form of expression. While majority of the work being churned out these days leaves me unimpressed, bored and sometimes enraged, good purposeful content leaves you wanting for more.

Like everything else, our surroundings also reflect in our music. Similarly, music and politics have always had a connection. While music has always been used for political campaigns, we have seen use of music and lyrics for political use quite regularly forming national anthems, songs for adoration of political leaders and causes, earliest examples dating as back as 19th Century when Beethoven’s ‘third symphony’ was originally named “Bonaparte” in adulation of you-know-who. However, Beethoven went on revoke the title when Napoleon crowned himself as the King in 1806. It was officially published as “Sinfonia Eroica-composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grand Uomo” which translates into “heroic symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man”.

Its usually anti-establishment songs which catch the frenzy of audience from time to time. There are great examples of musicians using their platform to convey their support for a particular cause, raise awareness of a particular issue or quite simple raise its voice against the regime or work for and as agents of change. I am mentioning some of those songs and bands/artists below which if nothing else have at least got my attention due to their lyrical or musical content, or for the message they contain.

Born in the U.S.A – Bruce Springsteen

Probably the most misunderstood song of our times, often used a patriotic song on 4th of July, it is however anything but patriotic in nature. Song is primarily about a man’s regret of joining military and criticism of treatment of soldiers and their life upon return to normal.

I’m Afraid of Americans – David Bowie

Another song that is usually misinterpreted. Contrary to the general belief about political message in the song, it targets americanisation or ‘californication’ of the society. David Bowie in an interview himself rejected its comparison with ‘Born in the U.S.A’. “The invasion by any homogenised culture is so depressing, the erection of another Disney World in, say, Umbria, Italy, more so. It strangles the indigenous culture and narrows expression of life”.

Sunday Bloody Sunday – U2

Bono’s use of social, political and religious themes for his music does not need any mention. This song however stands out for its backdrop. It is about an incident when British troops opened fire on Irish civilians killing several of them. Incident took place on a Sunday, when they should have been on peace.

Money – Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd was all about change and confronting social norms. The band often had a go at its fans in concerts for just partying and missing out on point and lyrics. This song Money is about, well – Money. Although lyrics are about evils of money, it brought Pink Floyd lot of cash as album sold 34 million copies.

Daughter – Pearl Jam

Again a band well known for defying norms and choosing its own path. From refusing to make videos for its most popular songs e.g. “Black” to boycotting Ticketmaster for charging additional amount on concert tickets, band’s front man Eddie Vedder has been a regular activist and has been very critical of U.S foreign policy and Bush Administration. In some live concerts he added lyrics to the song ‘Daughter’ which said, “”George Bush leave this world alone/George Bush find yourself another home”.

Similarly, on the local front also music and poetry has been on the front line against social and political issues. In this part of the world, Sufi poetry and music has long been considered not only as message of peace but as pro-change and anti-establishment in nature.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz in the 50s and 60s faced wrath of establishment due to his inclination towards communism. However, his work is still inspiration for political movements.

Bol Ke Lab Azaad Hain – Tina Sani (Poetry: Faiz Ahmed Faiz)

Hum Dekheinge – Iqbal Bano (Poetry: Faiz Ahmed Faiz)


Junoon has had a bit of habbit of getting attention from government, that too of wrong kind. It first happened with the video of ‘ehtisab’ directed by Shoaib Mansoor, which famously showed a pony eating in posh surroundings – a direct reference to corruption of the then PPP government
of Benazir Bhutto and our current President’s love affair with horses.The song was also used as anthem in Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf’s protests. Salman Ahmed’s comments in post nuclear experiments era in India also weren’t taken kindly by PML-N government resulting in their second ban on national television. It however did not affect band’s popularity in any way. Junoon’s music has had references towards environmental issues (song Ghaflat from the album Talaash), political turbulence (Talaash, Ehtisaab, Main Kon Hoon) and Sufism.

No band or artist has attempted to successfully do a sustained effort on political or social activism through music since Junoon but there have been one off instances which deserve a mention.

Vital Signs’ brilliant second album Vital Signs 2 contained the song ‘Aisa Na Ho Yeh Din’, a major change from their usual subject.

Shahzad Roy’s take on local politics and probably lawyer’s movement came in the form of ‘Laga Reh’, a funny video directed by Ahsan Raheem.

Another band which gained attention during Lawyer’s movement is Laal, which used poetry from Habib Jalib and Fazi Ahmed Faiz for its first
album ‘Umeed-e-Seher’.

More recently Ali Azmat turned the heat with ‘Bum Phatta’ with its witty lyrics but the video currently going viral by Begairat Brigade titled ‘Aalo Anday’ is another example of a local outfit taking on present regime. Video could have been better and I do not agree with the band’s claim of Ajmal Kasab being hailed as a hero in Pakistan, however one should appreciate its political satire.


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