The Magic of Music and Politics

Music and politics make nitroglycerine cocktail. It is nothing short of explosive, spreading like wildfire and fueled by the controversy it carries.

Whether it was the rhyme and satire of the bard or the pop song that rallied a returning politician, the combination of music and politics always brings out the best and worst in the masses.

And although we may think this is a relatively new concept, it has been around for quite some time now. Take the example of nursery rhymes, particularly the case of Four and Twenty Blackbirds and Yankee Doodle Came to Town. Both rhyme and song are deeply political in their meaning, and became embedded within the culture of their respective nations, namely Great Britain and the United States of America. And now it has become a part of their history.

Ultimately, the controversially political songs of today will shape the history of tomorrow. The more popular the song, the more it will shape history. Hence it is important for the song to strike a cord with the masses, such as Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud) by James Brown. During the racial turmoil of the ’60s, Brown came up with this theme that has empowered Black Americans for decades. Say it Loud dictates the need for respect and black self-reliance. This made Brown not only an icon in music, but the face of a movement that defined that era. Later on, Marvin Gaye’s 1971 hit, What’s Going On, depicted a nation’s division over the Vietnam War, racism and inner city struggle.

The ’60s and ’70s were ripe for political songs. Issues such as war and racism provided much ammunition to the ever-ready politically charged musician. As these times went by, old issues gave way to new ones, but war would remain constant for all musicians.

The Cold War era had its fair share of hits, too. Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror (1988) and 99 Luftballoons by Nena (1983) depicted a bleak future devastated by nuclear war.

Jackson’s venture into songs filled with political statements was short lived. Instead, he delved more towards social commentary and making statements about the current state of affairs. Songs like Black and White (1991) and Heal the World (1992) talked about issues like racism and ultimately the new issue at that time, global warming.

Now in this day and age, political forces have made use of music too. Take 1997’s Labour Party victory in England for example. The party re-branded itself as New Labour and more importantly it carried a theme song. D:Ream provided its song, Things Can Only Get Better, for the party’s soundtrack and ultimately it made more and more people aware of it. The song gave it a sense of accessibility to the people towards the Labour Party, something it’s opponents — the Conservative Party — didn’t have. And some say that it’s because of the song, Things Can Only Get Better, that the Labour Party won its first election in nearly 18 years!

Closer to home, music and politics have a different relationship. Some mixes are good, whereas others not so good. Columnist and music journalist Nadeem F. Paracha recalls that first ever incident: “Nazia and Zoheb Hasan’s first album, Disco Deewane (1980). It was a massive hit but soon attracted the wrath of the information ministry of Gen Ziaul Haq and the Jamat-i-Islami. Accusing the brother-sister duo and their music of ‘misleading the youth of Pakistan’ and as ‘un-Islamic’, both Nazia and Zoheb were banned from performing on the state-run PTV and Radio Pakistan. The ban was only lifted in 1982 after they met with Gen Zia and promised to “keep their music within the confines of acceptability.”

Ultimately, it would be songs like Dil Dil Pakistan by Vital Signs (1987) that would pave the way for a smooth relationship between music and politics. But in 1988, when Benazir Bhutto returned from exile, she brought with her a powerful weapon that would literally unclamp the clamped environment of Military rule. That weapon was a song called Jiye, Jiye Bhutto Benazir. Shazia Khushk recorded the famous Balochi song in a rundown studio in Karachi’s Lyari area. “The song became a massive hit and became an important part of the PPP election campaign for the November 1988 elections,” remembers NFP. This was perhaps the first-ever incident where local politics used the sway of music to turn the tide of an era. Political parties have not looked back since, and over the years many more soundtracks have accompanied various political marches and campaigns.

Junoon is perhaps the pinnacle of Pakistani music bands. Along with Vital Signs, few have ever achieved the level of fame these two bands have. Junoon’s politically-influenced songs seemed like they would be the band’s undoing. Their songs were often subject to censorship, which led to their eventual ban from the state-run electronic media. Songs like Ehtesab (1997) hardly even saw the light of day as music videos, though now thanks to the likes of YouTube it can be remembered as a historical piece of commentary on those times.

Though we came to see the might of military rule once again in October 1999, this time around there was more leeway in terms of what was acceptable and what wasn’t. What was acceptable and what did do incredibly well was Shehzad Roy’s Laga Reh. Roy’s track from the album Qismat Apnay Haath Mein, is a satire that pokes fun at the establishment and bluntly attacks it too. The song received a moderate airing, but was quickly spread through portals like YouTube and became the talk of the town and ultimately the nation. He has since recorded a new video of the title track from the same album, which picks up exactly where the last one left off. Again, the tones of the video are sharply political and satirical.

Both Roy and director Ahsan Rahim continue exactly where they left off in Laga Reh, when the former is surrounded by a group of armed guards that look like a cross between men in black and a Swat team. In it, Roy is captured and brought to prison where it seems that he is joined by others who share his views and opinions. Like all prison stories, ultimately there is rebellion and then a prison break. The short action sequences — with almost over-the-top violence — reflects how desensitised society has become, and how news items like prison breaks or riots have been the norm.

Finally, in the video, Roy meets the men incharge, who decided his fate. And just when we think that Roy has escaped their clutches, Ahsan shows that he may be able to run but thanks to state-of-the art drones and military intelligence, he can’t hide.

The video is almost immediately compared to the numerous prison videos that have come before it, such as Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock or the comedic number from the Austen Powers’ film. The production of the video is elaborate and doesn’t seem like a cardboard cut-out of a prison. Ahsan creates a stark comparison between the all-black establishment and the brightly-coloured orange boiler suits of the prisoners.

As conditions and state of affairs continue to deteriorate all around, Roy remains determined to get his message across. It’s interesting to see what he will do next, but from the looks of his previous work it surely will stir up controversy and debate… and be the talk of the town.

It is too soon to see the ramifications of such videos yet, but if current popularity has any say in the outcome of history, music and politics will mix even more yet. In an era where politics uses as many avenues it can to reach the people, it is ultimately the words of song and rhyme that will attract the attention more, than speeches ever will.

It is a matter of relation between the human psyche and the written/spoken word and perhaps it is comic book writer Alan Moore who describes this relationship the best. In his documentary on his views about the modern world, writing, art and entertainment, he states: “Words when written or spoken well can have an almost magic-like effect on the listener. They are literally the spells that conjure up images and feelings within the human psyche.”

Indeed, if anything, the combination of music and politics can be described as magic. Whether it is good or bad remains for history to judge.