Saturday, September 26, 2020
Revolution music: What's soundtracking protests around the globe?

Revolution music: What’s soundtracking protests around the globe?

Sudanese rap, Puerto Rican reggaeton, K-Pop in Hong Kong, and even 'Les Miz'—here's what's echoing in the streets.


ALL EARSIf I cant dance to it, it’s not my revolution,” the old anarchist-feminist saying goes. And it’s true, every uprising needs a good soundtrack, though we’re a long way from Pete Seeger leading a massive singalong of a brand new tune called “Give Peace a Chance” outside the White House in 1969.

One of my most cherished travel hauls is a generous handful of rap CDs, bought on the streets of Tunis during the 2011 Arab Spring. Back then it seemed that hip-hop and social media could actually change the world for the better (a strange apex of American soft power that seems so long ago). And they in fact did, bringing down several dictators and authoritarian regimes—even if Tunisia’s attempt at a non-theocratic democracy is the only one that stuck.

During Tunisia’s transformation, booming rap—surprisingly well-produced and charged with a popular political fervor that American hip-hop had been missing since the 90s, at least until Killer Mike and  Run the Jewels came out—poured from every car and storefront; El Général’s inescapable “Rais Lebled” was the new national anthem.

Currently in the US, it’s weird that even in a musical environment that propels “This is America” to the top of the charts for months, we can’t summon the matching street energy to protest the infuriating miscarriages of justice in the Eric Garner case. But the symbiosis of revolution and music continues throughout recent protests around the world.


So it turns out there is, in fact, a huge swath of the US population willing to protest in the streets for days to turn out a homophobic, misogynist administration rife with corruption. Hmmmm. Kudos to the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans—including musical heroes Ricky Martin and Bad Bunny—who thronged the capital to bring down Governor Ricardo Rosselló.

Ricky Martin rode into the protest waving a giant rainbow flag, which is more actual Stonewall spirit than any mainland Pride parades have been able to muster. Bad Bunny is also a queer icon of a sort: the zillion-selling reggaeton artist is an insanely charming ally, a laidback trickster who plays with gender, paints his nails, and gamely flirts with his friends in his breezy videos. (Can you tell I love him.)

Bunny’s irrepressibly fluffy spirits turn edgy on Puerto Rican anthem “Afilando los Cuchillos,” literally “sharpen the knives” which roils like the protest crowds yet still exudes the satisfying smack of the guillotine. (The track leans more into apocalyptic trap music than reggaeton proper, which is usually much more light-spirited, but you can hear the connections.) He’s teamed up with fellow reggaeton stars Residente and iLe for the track, and of course can’t resist being the most fashionable protester on the truck.

Here’s more on the song, and for the uninitiated, a nice primer on reggaeton by 48 Hills writer Caitlin Donohue.


During the first half of this year, tens of thousands of Sudanese people turned out in the streets to demand civilian rule and the end of authoritarian Omar al-Bashir. They succeeded in chasing him out, and a shaky power-sharing agreement between the military and the populace is currently in effect, supposedly on the way to democracy.

One anthem of these protests, which were full of all kinds of music and celebration (most concerts, parties, and drinking were all punished under al-Bashir’s rule), was “Dum,” meaning blood, by Ayman Mao. The song has all the bass you want to shake a regime down, and the lyrics are perfectly blunt as well. When he performed “Dum” live, crowds would punctuate each line with “Thawra!” or revolution.

Rassasa hayya (Live ammunition)
Wa yagulu layk mattata (And they tell you it’s a rubber [bullet])
Dayl janjaweed (They’re janjaweed [militia members])
Janjaweed rabbata (Janjaweed thugs)
Galu al-gaddiya (They said it’s all)
Halwasa wa Hawwata (Hallucination and fanboyism)
‘Amleen ‘usbajiyya (They act like thugs)
Wa ihna nas shaffata (But we’re conscious people)
Ma basheel bundugiya (I don’t carry a rifle)
Fi yedi balata (In my hand is a brick)
Barjum al-fasad (I strike corruption)
Barjum al-wasata (I strike nepotism)

The Nation has more on the song, which has a touch of Caribbean bravura to it, but there were many other like it in this flowering of revolutionary music. Even classic Sudanese music legend Mohammed Wardi’s protest song, “Surrender,” written when al-Bashir first took over in 1989 and Wardi went into exile, was pressed into service in a series of remakes like the one below. Here’s a great guide to many more Sudanese uprising songs from 500 words mag.


In the case of the millions that turned out in Hong Kong to protest a law they felt tied them closer to China (though of course it’s more complicated than that—and still developing) the soundtrack to their massive demonstrations,  which caused Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam to withdraw the legislation, is wonderfully complex.

Christian groups and others chose “Hallelujah to the Lord” (see above video) as their anthem, afraid that religious freedom would be threatened. Others demonstrated to an electronic remix of a classic South Korean protest song that was also favored by the millions who ousted South Korean President Park Geun-hye, called “March for the Beloved.”

In an affirmation of every theater nerd’s dreams of revolution, crowds are roaring “Do You Hear the People Sing” from Broadway chestnut Les Miserables. Chinese supporters have even resorted to communicating about the Hong Kong protests using song lyrics, to get around censorship.

On the hipper side of things, young people in Hong Kong are adopting Korean pop anthems. The K-Pop “invasion” of the US charts has been one of the most refreshing things to happen to music here, in an era where there are lots of interesting things happening. But Korean pop domination has been a long time coming, with surprising political roots.

K-Pop’s not just a phenomenon on these shores. Hong Kong demonstrators have embraced a K-Pop classic from 2007, “New World” by Girls’ Generation. The feisty, complex confection may not seem anthemic to US ears—we like our stompers!—but “New World” has soundtracked many Asian Pride parades, and its aspirational lyrics of “a rough road ahead, waiting for a miracle” to “end the haunting,” are perfectly poetic.

Marke B.
Marke Bieschke is the publisher and arts and culture editor of 48 Hills. He co-owns the Stud bar in SoMa. Reach him at marke (at), follow @supermarke on Twitter.

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