Rebel Songs – How Music Fights Political Oppression

As a writer, sometimes you’ll be trying to keep your head down and mind your own business when an incredible story will come along and slap you in the face, demanding to be told. That’s how I felt when I first heard the tale of National Wake: a punk band from apartheid-era South Africa comprised of guitarists Ivan Kadey and Steve Moni and a rhythm section of Gary and Punka Khoza, Shangaan-speaking brothers from the township of Soweto. Every move they made and every show they played – often in segregated whites-only clubs – was a challenge to their country’s openly racist laws. It was an honour to speak to the band’s remaining members for a feature in this week’s NME. It’s a hell of a story.

Sadly, of course, the story of bands being persecuted is not a unique one or something we can confine to history. Repressive governments all over the planet still fear and loathe any musicians who has the iron-clad cojones to speak out against them. Pussy Riot’s imprisonment in Russia for taking over the pulpit in a Moscow church to recite a “punk prayer” in opposition to Vladimir Putin is just one of the more high profile recent cases.

In Cameroon in 2008, for example, Lapiro de Mbanga’s song ‘Constipated Constitution’ suggested that President Paul Biya was, well, full of shit for changing the country’s constitution in his own favour. The song became an anthem for protestors, but Mbanga was imprisoned on invented charges and spent three years behind bars before he eventually managed to claim asylum in the USA last year. Check it out below, protest rarely gets this funky:

Earlier this year, Palestinian rapper Khaled Harara sought asylum in Sweden after speaking out about attacks on his freedom of expression by Hamas in Gaza. In Syria, musicians like the pianist Malek Jandali recently wrote his ‘Syria Anthem of the Free’ in support of the rebels hoping to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. Like Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, Afghanistan under the Taliban or pop under Simon Cowell, music in Syria has suffered under Assad.

Even in the worst circumstances, somehow music finds a way to survive and live on. Chilean singer Victor Jara was the subject of a lengthy NME feature after he was murdered in General Pinochet’s military coup 40 years ago. This September, Bruce Springsteen paid tribute to him at a gig in Santiago and covered his song ‘Manifesto’ – watch his performance here:

So why are governments so keen to silence musicians? Ole Reitov is the co-founder of Freemuse, an international organisation which advocates freedom of expression for musicians, and he says: “Artists in many repressive countries bring counter-discourses to existing power centres. They may entertain people, but they also contribute to important social debates. They transcend age, gender and borders and can reach illiterates. They give voice to ‘the voiceless’ and are therefore frequently censored, persecuted and even killed.”

Music feels like a matter of life and death, and sometimes and in some places it really is. Check out the full story of National Wake in this week’s magazine, stick this ‘Punk In Africa’ mixtape on and raise a glass to the muscians who take ‘Fighting The Power’ beyond a slogan.