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First published in The Islamabad Dateline (3rd April, 2011)

If music be the food of love, play on. 
— William Shakespeare

Music is an integral part of human life. Known as food for soul this art form penetrates social and cultural lives of humans to a great extent.

Whether used as a mean of entertainment or an anthem for uniting under a social, cultural or political cause, music plays an essential role in our daily lives. Ayerman and Jamison, in Music and Social Movements: Mobilizing Tradition in the Twentieth Century (1998) talk about the effect music had on social and political movements across the world.

They draw a conclusion that ‘protest songs gain power through their appropriation of tunes that are bearers of strong cultural traditions’. They recognize that music can be a vital force in preparing the emergence of a new movement.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described the freedom songs this way: “They invigorate the movement in a most significant way…these freedom songs serve to give unity to a movement” 

In the USA, the 19th-century music dealt for the most part, with three key issues: The American civil war with songs such as Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye from Ireland, and its American variant, When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again finding popularity in masses; The abolition of slavery with Song of the Abolitionist and No More Auction Block for Me among others and women’s right to vote.

The dawn of 20th century with the Great Depression, the Civil Rights movement, and the war in Vietnam all inspired great music.

Music seemed like an outlet for black musicians who protested against racial discrimination, such as Louis Armstrong’s What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue in 1929.

It was also during this period that many African American blues singers were beginning to make their voices across America through their music.

This eventually led to birth of rap-music in the 1980s with bands like Grandmaster Flash, Boogie Down Productions with their famous Stop the Violence, N.W.A and Public Enemy with their hit Fight the Power and later Tupac Shakur who fervidly protested the discrimination and poverty which the black community faced in America.

In 1988 the Stop the Violence Movement was formed by rapper KRS-One in response to violence in the hip hop and black communities.

Every era gave birth to a genre. Blues, hardcore rap and then in 1990’s the hardcore rock with bands like Rage Against the Machine using music as a tool for social activism.

Not only in the Western world, even in Palestine music is used to voice out against injustice. One suchsong is Biladi, Biladi which has become the unofficial Palestinian national anthem. Chinese-Korean Cui Jian’s 1986 song Nothing to My Name was popular with protesters in Tiananmen Square

Pakistan too has a rich history in music. Sufis used music and poetry to speak against tyrants and rigid interpretation of religion for centuries.

Inspirational songs of Madam Nur Jahan like Aye Puttar Hattan Day Nae Wikday during 1965 war and Iqbal Bano’s Hum Dekhayn Gayn are sung by all and sundry.

In contemporary times, we have had artists united against extremism in Yeh Hum Naheen and Laal band using Habib Jalib’s rebellious poetry as a tool to inspire youth.

Laal’s rendition of Aitezaz Ahsan’s Kal Aaj aur Kal became the anthem of lawyer’s movement which eventually ousted the dictator Musharraf and reinstated judiciary.

Atif Aslam with his Ab Khud Kuch Karna Paray Ga and Shehzad Roy’s pinching numbers are also popular in youth.

I grew up listening to Bob Marley, Lennon and Tupac Shakur and I believe their art made me the person that I am today. Our rich folklore and its music is anti-dote to the venom of extremism which has been used as one in highly polarized societies quite successfully.

Music in television, radio, cinema, mobile phones and internet has become an indispensable commodity. It helps each one of us find our social niche, uniting us with those who share similar interests. It also documents the history of social and cultural changes in society and its evolution.

Sadly, we our educational curricula does not pay high accolade to this art form. It is high time the stakeholders of our educational system realize the importance of music and give it the attention and space it deserves.

 My music fights against the system that teaches to live and die. — Bob Marley

 Syed Ali Abbas Zaidi is an aeronautical engineer by force, an activist by mind, a wanderer by soul and lover by heart.


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