Music’s Role at the Frontline of Liberation Struggles

By Ben Jacob.

We rarely consider sound as a fundamental medium of anticolonial liberation. Brazilian educator Paolo Freire suggests that liberation, as the human demand for full material, cultural and social autonomy, is achieved through “the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it”. In articulating this demand, music shares both the imaginative element of rhetoric and the embodied nature of action, grounded within the movement of human bodies to produce sound and rouse other human bodies to movement.

Song has a deep association with freedom, from the voodoo songs of the Caribbean plantation to the hymns of the Hebrews in Babylon. How far does this spiritual connection to freedom reflect a real role for music as a tool in liberation struggles in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? Human soundmaking is universal, and no time or place is without some form of music. The story of music’s role in liberation could be told through countless struggles in which it played a defining role. For today, however, the experience of musicians in apartheid-era South Africa and postcolonial Jamaica, making demands for liberation from entangled forms of colonial and neo-colonial oppression despite severe material and social constraints, has much to tell us. The tactics they employed are testimony to the pragmatic potential offered by song as a means of liberation in the face of rising hate.

The political potential of music is embedded in the forms by which it is disseminated. During the apartheid years, the Afrikaner government used the South African Broadcasting Corporation to control the cultural consumption of its population according to the policy of separate development. Radio Bantu, the wing of the SABC designed for black audiences, was forced to select content in accordance with state ideology, resulting in the suppression of directly political music. However, the transience of the aural medium meant that identifying subversive messages in radio content was harder for censors than in print media, where journalists would routinely be forced to pull stories on the eve of publication. Musicians employed word play to evade censors, with Yvonne Chaka Chaka’s ‘Winnie Mandela’ achieving air-play under the title ‘Winning My Dear Love’, while Lucky Dube’s ‘Slave’ simply substituted the line ‘liquor slave’ in place of ‘legal slave’. Gradually, words with seemingly little subversive content took on political meanings through their treatment. ‘Senzeni Na?’, a folk song sung at both demonstrations and funerals during the anti-apartheid struggle, consists largely of the single line ‘what have we done?’ repeated over and over. Yet through this repetition, in the words of musician Sibongule Khumalo, the song had an effect “like hammering somebody … you have no other option but to stand up and go and fight.” The direct interaction shared between the musician and listener allows music to convey messages in such a way to bypass barriers to less innocuous seeming messages.

How can music, as a medium of implicit meanings, challenge imposed social boundaries? Abdullah Ibrahim’s 1974 instrumental track Mannenberg encapsulates this struggle, drawing on an array of transnational influences to produce a contemporary folk music rooted in its immediate context. In the 1980s, at the climax of the antiapartheid struggle, Mannenberg took on a position as South Africa’s ‘unofficial national anthem’. Drawing on church organ music, the marabi music of the townships, jazz, blues and freedom hymns, Ibrahim’s tune foregrounded African material within a distillation of musical influences, reflecting wordlessly the growing Black Consciousness movement. In Ibrahim’s music, there is no separate development; the colonial dichotomy of the modern and the traditional is null and void. Musical elements from the African community comingle with the jazz aesthetic embraced by those who had seen shame in folk styles, all subordinated to an infectious groove. Serving, in Ibrahim’s words, as “an affirmation that our culture is valid”, Mannenberg both asserted a message of defiance to the apartheid system, and, as a popular dance hit, set bodies in motion dancing to its beat.

Mannenberg’s story is also a reminder that music is a situated act. Meaning emerges at the site of engagement, not simply the act of composition. As Steve Biko wrote of the radical potential of soul music, “when soul struck it immediately caught on and set hundreds of millions of black bodies in gyration throughout the world, people reading in soul the real meaning – the defiant message ‘say it loud! I’m black and I’m proud.” The radical potential of Mannenberg was not only contained in the notes themselves, but also in the ways in which the song was presented and performed at protests through the 1980s. Performance had long been acknowledged as a potential threat to the cultural apparatus of apartheid, with police shutting down Cape Town’s racially integrated jazz nightclubs in the aftermath of Sharpeville. From around 1982, Basil Coetzee and Robbie Jansen, saxophonists on the original recording of Mannenberg, boldly set out to use performance to amplify the impact of the song. Performing the song at demonstrations, they would encourage demonstrators to get up on stage and join in, while Jansen urged the crowd to ‘rise up’ and ‘be proud of our own stuff’. By repeatedly using the song at rallies and concerts dedicated to the freedom struggle, Mannenberg was converted into a vehicle of political mobilisation at the point of performance. 

This use of performance to mobilize music’s political content was a tactic borrowed from the dark years of the 1970s, when live sets would be used to disseminate otherwise lost meanings. In a love ballad, at the mention of the word ‘power’, a singer’s fist would be raised, and met with a chorus of amandla eyethu! (power is ours). This dialogic exchange between audience and singer, cemented through dance, is a direct contrast to the controlled mastery of the polemical speech. In this manner, performances acted as much as social events as aural ones, rallying a group of people towards communal objectives. This function was shared across the liberation struggle in southern Africa and beyond, from the dansi clubs of Tanzania which held covert political meetings, to the South African Communist Party’s fundraising concerts. Nowhere was this better encapsulated than in Harare on the eve of Zimbabwean independence. At the last minute, and at the personal cost of thousands of dollars for lighting and sound equipment, Bob Marley flew himself and his band out to the capital to headline the independence celebrations. By this point, Marley’s Survival was the bestselling foreign album in Zimbabwe, and the reggae tradition within which he stood was recognised worldwide as an anticolonial music aimed at liberation. The journey of Jamaican music in the 40 years leading up to Marley’s seminal concert has much to tell us of the potential for musical production in the face of oppression.

In the 1940s, rapid urbanisation led to the emergence of sound systems for community dance sessions in Kingston’s ghettos. Cheaper than live bands, these truck-mounted 300-watt plus amplifier systems initially played popular American styles, forcing operators to make either frequent trips to the US or special requests to record dealers in order to maintain a successful system. Intense – and often violent – competition between sound systems led operators to innovate further and, frustrated by relying on the release cycle of American record labels, Coxsone Dodd founded his own studio and label, Studio One. Others soon followed suit, and before long an abundant supply of records were being produced in two-track recording rooms in record and electronic equipment stores across Kingston. Local producers combined American styles with Jamaican mento, evolving into ska, rocksteady and, by the late 1960s, reggae. Bass culture was born of this unique set of circumstances, producing a uniquely Jamaican musical idiom in which production was mediated through local studios and produced and distributed by Jamaican-owned labels. 

This music, with its undiluted message, had an intensely political edge from the local to the transnational level. Its birthplace in the ghetto of western Kingston was a hub of Rastafari thought, resulting in a series of convergences, from the ubiquity of Rastafari drumming patterns to a shared culture of resistance to colonialism, imperialism and racism. Through the influence of Garveyist pan-Africanism, reggae espoused a politics that was transnational in scope, taking aim at the Babylon system in both its local and global manifestations. Between 1967 and 1971, protest against police brutality and the ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) was fomented through music, leading to the banning of radio and television. As a result, protest songs became sound system hits, which subsequently became a site of conflict between youth and the police. It was this interlinked politics, carried out on the level of rhythm, performance and distribution, that brought Bob Marley to the Zimbabwean liberation struggle, both in the form of cassettes consumed by ZANU guerrillas in the bush and in performance in 1980. That year remained the high water mark for the political function of reggae music, with deregulation following Edward Seaga’s election combining with increased production costs to break the dominance of local record companies. However, its emergence and twentieth-century significance stands as a testament to the successful forging of links between culture and the liberation struggle in the sphere of music.

The story of Jamaican music from WWII to 1980 is a testament to the ability of musicians to innovatively produce and distribute their music undiluted by the material demands of the music industry. The reality of music production and distribution within an asymmetrical global music industry complicates any easy transnational musical affiliations. Today, three American-based transnational corporations command over 70% of the global recording market, sustaining their control through a neo-colonial approach to peripheral musical cultures, which are mined for profits. These distributive patterns sustain western companies through the extraction of capital from commodities in the global south. The commodification of global music towards an internationally marketable product cleaves medium from message to remove political specificities and leads directly to uneven technological development. Koffi Olomide, the Congolese soukous superstar, couldn’t even record a cassette in 1980s Kinshasha, the home of soukous, while power relationships in South African studios today are drawn along racial lines, with black musicians’ music mediated through largely Afrikaner sound engineers.  

Despite this, music continues to navigate these dynamics, serving as a crucial tool in the face of oppression in 2019. Algeria’s ongoing protests continue the practices set out in Jamaica and South Africa, with music at the heart of activism. When protestors began taking to the streets to demand the departure of President Bouteflika, they did so singing ‘La Casa del Mouradia’, a song composed the year before by supporters of USM Algiers and sung by the ultras on the terraces. Like the Jamaican youth of the late sixties who took to the soundsystems in the ghettos to protest police brutality, Algeria’s musical challenge to the FLN emerged within the subculture of the ultras, before forcing its way onto the streets. The song itself, combining a range of both national and transnational cultural influences, mirrors the cross-cultural exchanges led by South African musicians under Apartheid. Meanwhile, the absorption of the chant, alongside others composed by the supporters group Ouled el-Bahdja, reflects the creation of a popular folk music from the grassroots, similar to the realization of Mannenberg’s radical potential through performance at demonstrations. Echoing around the streets of Algiers, the sound of thousands of protesters chanting ‘La Casa del Mouradia’ is a testament to music’s continuing role in fighting entangled forms of oppression, from the struggles of the twentieth century to today.

Paolo Freire coined the phrase ‘culture of silence’ to describe the denial of a voice to the oppressed through the suppression of “free and creative consciousness”. Music is not immune to this suppression – indeed a primary function of the global music industry towards liberatory music has been to deprive it of its active political content. However, cultures of noise exist both within the industry and at the grassroots that threaten this silence by encouraging dialogic engagement between producer and listener, whether in dance or singing along, through a participatory politics that incessantly incites movement. From Kingston to Kinshasa, via Cape Town, Algiers, and sites of struggle all over the world, music is interwoven with the liberation struggle. While a song cannot bring down a wall alone, in the journey traced here from song to performance to transmission, music is a constant reminder of Rex Nettleford’s maxim, that “the creative mind is free from the vilest oppressor”. Human soundmaking has a unique capacity to melt boundaries within the mind and the body. Used to its full potential, this melting can become a torrent, rising above walls and breaching borders. We silence our conceptions of struggle at our peril.


Soukous – Congolese music genre that emerged out of Congolese rumba in the 1960s, notable for its high tempo and extended dance sequences. 

Dansi – Tanzanian music genre, originating in the 1930s in Dar es Salaam. In the years leading up to independence, dansi clubs appeared across major cities. Dansi bands became institutions in the post-independence years, with rotating members playing club nights 7 days a week and rival bands competing for each others’ fan base.

Marabi – Township music from South Africa, emerging in the shebeens (illicit bars) of the slums, where marabi music would be used to draw in customers. Blending American jazz and blues structures with African melodies, marabi used memorable patterns to allow dancers to easily pick up the feel of a song. Associated with illegality and the impoverished working class, marabi was initially shunned in popular culture as a corrupting influence, but was heavily drawn on by successive generations of black musicians in South Africa.

Artwork by Stephan Humphrey-Gaskin.

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