What Can We Learn from the Latest Wave of Rights-Inspired Music?

Inspiring Change: The Artists Using Music to Promote Human Rights

Creative expression is a powerful tool for challenging the status quo. In fact, our right to hold opinions and to receive and share information and ideas is enshrined in human rights law. This is an important mechanism for holding authority to account.

In the footsteps of Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come, Billie Holliday’s Strange Fruit, and Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind, here’s a roundup of four new songs to inspire change:

Maximo Park – ‘Risk to Exist’

Video: Maximo Park / Daylighting

With lyrics like “Put your arms around me, I’ve come too far and the ocean is deep,” Maximo Park addresses the refugee crisis from a position of human empathy. Asylum seekers and refugees are entitled to all the rights and freedoms spelled out in international human rights instruments.

The core principle of the United Nations’ (UN) 1951 Refugee Convention is ‘non-refoulement,’ which means that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. ‘Risk to Exist’ highlights the uncomfortable truth of Western historical responsibility for the current political situations in the origin countries of refugees: “Now I’m no expert but a cursory reading of the facts say you reap what you sow / And the expert colonisers we became, caused enough hurt to eat up the soul.”

The song’s video depicts the work of Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), a Malta-based foundation dedicated to preventing loss of life of refugees and migrants in distress at sea. Profits from the single have been donated to the charity.

A Tribe Called Quest – ‘We The People’

WARNING: EXPLICIT LYRICS

Video: A Tribe Called Quest / Epic

A Tribe Called Quest’s most recent and final album is filled with angry political tracks, from ‘The Donald’ and ‘Movin Backwards’ to‘Dis Generation’ and ‘Enough!’. At the Grammy awards in February, the band called on Americans to resist President Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ and his proposed border wall with Mexico.

This right to protest and express opinions in opposition to the government through speech, music, writing or art, is protected by freedom of expression under the US Constitution. Under the European Convention on Human RightsArticles 10 and 11 protect free speech and peaceful protest.

A Tribe Called Quest refer to the initial words of the US Constitution, ‘We The People’, bluntly summarising the feelings of minority groups in America: “All you Black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go / And all you poor folks, you must go / Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways / So all you bad folks, you must go.”

While the President might not like the band calling him ‘President Agent Orange,’ their right to release an album opposing him is constitutionally protected.

Jain – ‘Makeba’

Video: Jain / Spookland / RCA

Jeanne Galice (Jain) is a French singer-songwriter who grew up in Congo, the United Arab Emirates and France. The second single from her debut album Zanaka pays homage to Miriam Makeba, South African singer, actor and civil rights activist.

Jain sings: “I wanna see you sing, I wanna see you fight / Cause you are the real beauty of human rights.” Makeba was known as ‘Mama Africa’, as she introduced South African music to Western audiences. She was also a figurehead of the cultural boycott of South Africa during apartheid.

In 1960, soon after the Sharpeville massacre where 69 black protesters were killed by police officers, Makeba was working in New York when she heard her mother had died. She was prevented from returning home for the funeral as her South African passport had been revoked, beginning 30 years of exile. In 1963, she addressed to the UN special committee on apartheid. South Africa responded by banning Makeba’s records.

Jain brings Makeba’s musical and political legacy to life for a new generation. Today, the South African Constitution states that “everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law.” Freedom from discrimination is also protected under Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Father John Misty – ‘Pure Comedy’

Video: Father John Misty / Sub Pop

Father John Misty released a short film alongside this single, which he described as “nothing less than a commentary on the history and the state of the human race itself, up to and including our current political quagmire.”

The song itself displays some uncomfortable truths about holding uncompromising political or religious ideologies: “And how’s this for irony, their idea of being free is a prison of beliefs / That they never ever have to leave.”

Article 9 of the Human Rights Convention protects our right to hold beliefs and to show commitment through worship and teaching, as long as it does not interfere with the rights and freedoms of others. Misty’s lyrics show the complexity of balancing freedom of religion with freedom of expression and the rights of others.

For more rights-inspired music, check out this playlist.

Find out more: 

Featured image: Eric Nopanen / Unsplash.com. Additional image(s) from Side Stage Collective.

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About the Author

Hannah Johnson

Hannah Johnson is a senior parliamentary researcher at the National Assembly for Wales, specialising in equality, human rights, poverty and social security. She has worked on international parliamentary strengthening for the United Nations Development Programme in Fiji, co-runs the award-winning We Are Cardiff blog, runs a small publishing house called the We Are Cardiff Press, and spends the rest of her time on an aerial trapeze. View all posts by Hannah Johnson.
Inspiring Change: The Artists Using Music to Promote Human Rights
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