Protest songs
Protest songs can tell uncomfortable truths, make people think and question certain actions. | Image - Prathap Ravishankar

We shall overcome: Sounds of protest blowin' in the wind, again

For decades, many indigenous groups have been struggling to protect their identity, land, culture and resources, which they feel are threatened by insensitive and unsustainable development. And songs have become a medium to express their angst.

“…Manus mhanun jagnyasaathi amhala Sara karaycha
Aaj nahi udyala maraycha tar kashala maga saraycha
Hume na pasand ye khota vikas,
Na hai tum jaise choron pe vishwas
Metro banane ukhado tum zhaad
Jab zhaad na bachenge kaise loge saans…

(To live like humans what should we do?
Death will come today or tomorrow
So why be afraid and step back [from protecting the jungle]
We don’t like your fake development nor do we trust you thieves
To build a Metro you are killing trees
When they are gone, how will you breathe?)”

As the beat quickens, the above lines from a song — sung by 25-year-old rapper MC Mawali and environmental activist Prakash Bhoir in Marathi and Hindi — gathers steam.

The music album titled The Warli Revolt was released by multilingual hip-hop collective Swadesi this January. The song emerged as a clarion call for resistance against the cutting down of trees in Mumbai’s Aarey Colony for a Metro car shed.

As the song goes on, it calls out the real problems — discrimination, injustice and lack of awareness about tribal lives, government apathy and nationalists who “support” destruction in the name of development.

An Adivasi himself, Bhoir feels people might take away less from a two-hour-long speech, but a five-minute song can stay forever in people’s mind, if they can relate to it.

Music, he adds, is not all about feeling good. It is also about telling uncomfortable truths, make people think and question certain actions, or invoke people to be part of a revolutionary movement.

Bhoir spent a year making his team understand about Warli art, their lifestyle and culture before penning the lyrics for the song, but he isn’t the only one speaking through music, nor is he the first one.

A long musical history

Songs of resistance have always been an essential form of political expression in India, as across the world. For decades, many indigenous groups have been struggling to protect their identity, land, culture and resources, which they feel are threatened by insensitive and unsustainable development.

From the freedom movement to struggle against the big bourgeoisie in the 1940s and 50s to regional movements of the 80s, protest songs have contributed a great deal in changing the political discourse in India. Across the world, songs of resistance formed the backbone of civil rights movement in the US, anti-apartheid protests and women’s suffrage to cultural revolution between 1940s and 1970s.

During the Indian independence movement, poems and songs of Rabindranath Tagore united forces for the freedom movement.

Jodi tor dak shune keu na ase tobe akla cholo re
(If no one heeds your call, then walk alone)

A protest song written during the Swadeshi movement, is often invoked, even now, for political and social change.

Using songs as a means of dissent, a number of young Indians have been inspiring others to participate in social movements, uniting them for a common cause with soul-stirring music.

The new blood

From Bhim rap — a song on Ambedkar’s work — to Dalit pop, present-day protest music reflects on the never-ending oppression, casteism, marginalisation and years of neglect.

In a song, Ladai Seekh Le (Learn to resist) by Sumeet Samos, the Dalit musician from Odisha names Rohit, Jisha, Mutthu, Delta, Ilavarasan, Shankar, Kevin and Anitha — victims of atrocities against Dailts in India. He says we [Dalits] have to live through our deaths.

Samos, 26, started rapping in 2016, the year in which incidents like the death of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit PhD scholar at the University of Hyderabad, and arrest of JNU students union president Kanhaiya Kumar shook many like Samos.

  • Songs of rage
    • Bob Dylan: Masters of war, The times they are a-changin’, Blowin’ in the wind
    • Beatles: Give peace a chance, Revolution
    • Johnny cash: Don’t take your guns to town, The Ballad of Ira Hayes, Singing in Vietnam talkin’ blues
    • Bob Marley: I shot the sheriff, Get up stand up, Concrete jungle, Revolution
    • U2: Sunday Bloody Sunday
    • Billie Holiday: Strange Fruit
    • Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: Ohio
    • Cui Jian: Nothing to my name (China)
    • Boris Vian: Le déserteur (France)
    • Beyond: Boundless Oceans Vast Skies, Glory Days (Hong Kong)
    • Cuba’s Nueva trova movement
    • John Hanlon: Damn the Dam (New Zealand)
    • Biladi Biladi: (Palestine)
    • Shuli Natan: Jerusalem of Gold (Israel)
    • Bulat Okudzhava: Paper Soldier (Russia)

In the age of social media, he feels, a new kind of art form is needed for people to engage with to bring to the fore movements of the marginalised. Hip-pop, he says, could be one way as everyone can connect with quickly.

“I cannot fake myself. I express what I see and witness in my surroundings,” Samos says. “I tell about my own journey through songs and a lot of people who relate to it.”

He also draws inspiration from musicians like Gaddar, whose songs were part of the Telangana movement, Kadubai Devadas Kharat, also known as ‘Bhim Kanya’, a Bhim geet singer from Aurangabad, Ginni Mahi, the Punjabi pop sensation and Dalit musician, and Arivarasu Kalainesan of Casteless Collective in Tamil Nadu who sings on Ambedkar and Periyar.

Casteless Collective is the brainchild of filmmaker Pa Ranjith. They take ‘gaana’, an indigenous popular genre and make it international. From Mumbai to Madras, Casteless Collective has been spurring its own ‘hip-hop revolution’ across cities.

From small on-stage performances to viral videos, protest songs, by now, have a layered history in India, especially with the way artists have adapted to changing technology to make soul-stirring music for civil engagement.

Social change via social media

At a time when clouds of censorship hang heavy, many mainstream artists have chosen silence over resistance. But there are people like Samos, Bhoir and Kalainesan who see it as the right time to strike the chord, albeit with caution.

Samos is okay posting these videos on social media, but when it comes to performing live, he’s careful of the place where he participates.

“I fear I may be subjected to physical attack as I critique Hinduism and the oppressive culture. I have my parents to look after and I cannot ignore that. So, I’m wary of onstage performances,” he adds.

Samos’s fears are not unfounded in the backdrop of right-wing groups attacking music and musicians. Take for instance, in November last. A concert, jointly organised by Airport Authority of India (AAI) and SPIC-MACAY in Delhi, in which Carnatic singer TM Krishna was to participate, was cancelled due to criticism from right-wing trolls.

Like many, Krishna has been at the receiving end after he moved away from the mainstream and started a Carnatic music festival to speak out against the prevailing caste elitism in Carnatic music industry.

The “enfant terrible of Carnatic music”, Krishna has been branded as “anti-India” and a “converted bigot” by his detractors.

Message and the messenger

Protest music is much more than just unrestrained melodies. Nor are such musicians allowed to perform unbridled. In 2015, S Sivadas, who goes by the name Kovan, a Dalit musician and social activist associated with Makkal Kalai Ilakkiya Kazhagam (People’s Art and Literary Association), in his song, blamed the government for choosing revenue from liquor sales over people’s welfare. Soon after, the Tamil Nadu government arrested him on sedition charges. A clear message was sent across to silence his voice.

He was later released on bail. He has been arrested and released several times for taking on the right-wing government in the recent past.

But can such crackdowns muzzle the voice that wants to speak out against social, political and cultural repression? Well, unlikely.

If anything, the voice of resistance is ringing out loud and echoing across cities and towns in India.

Earlier this year, 29-year-old Mumbai-based singer and songwriter Aamir Aziz released a song, Ballad of Pehlu Khan, narrating the 2017 incident in which Pehlu Khan, a dairy farmer from Haryana, was lynched by a group of cow vigilantes.

“Pehlu Khan bechare ek insaan the
Umr pachpan, rehne wale Hindustan ke
Ek din ik bheed ke haatho noch noch khaaye gaye…
Bas khata itni si thi ki yahin paida huye
Aur, musalmaan the

(Pehlu Khan was just a man
Age 55 and he lived in Hindustan
One day a mob set upon him and tore him apart…
His only fault was he was born here
And that he was a Muslim).”

Rapper and songwriter Rahul Rajkhowa from Assam in February this year penned a song to oppose the controversial citizenship bill.

“Now let’s talk about Citizenship amendment
The Constitution kinda feels redundant
Kinda feels like you made secularism redundant.”

In 2017, Rajkhowa, a former JNU student, made headlines with his hard-hitting number, slamming the JNU vice-chancellor for reducing the number of seats.

Rahul Ram, singer and bass guitarist with Indian Ocean (a rock band), whose involvement with the Narmada Bachao Andolan in the 90s through songs brought urban minds to protest for the cause, says in the current communalised political environment, songs are the best way to inform people.

Ram, who currently writes and performs protest songs for Aisi Taisi Democracy, a satirical show, feels it is the best non-violent form of resistance.

“Such songs unite forces and let people easily associate with the cause,” he adds.

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