The labor demonstrations in Madison, Wisconsin, began on Monday, February 14; it took just a week for the protest singers to arrive. On the following Monday, opponents of Governor Scott Walker’s unionbusting legislation were sung to—and at, and with—by Tom Morello, lead guitarist of Rage Against the Machine, who also performs acoustic “rebel songs” as the Nightwatchman. On the bill as well was Wayne Kramer of MC5, a short-lived but influential Detroit band remembered as much for its part in the unrest surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention as its free-jazz-influenced garage rock.
Two months earlier, in Tunisia, 22-year-old Hamada Ben-Amor, who records as El Général, uploaded a video for his song “Rais Lebled” to the Internet. Shot with a hand-held camera, the video shows Ben-Amor rapping in impassioned Arabic over a relentless rhythm loop. In English the song’s title is usually rendered as “President, Your People Are Dying”; one available translation includes the lines “This is a message from one of your children/Who is telling of his suffering/We are living like dogs/Half of the people living in filth/And [drinking] from a cup of suffering.” The clip went viral in Tunisia even as the artist was arrested in the coastal city of Sfax and then jailed in Tunis. Along with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, an act of protest against the corrupt government of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, “Rais Lebled” has been cited as a catalyst for the popular uprising that toppled Ben Ali’s regime, and has since been heard and sung in Cairo and Bahrain.
Here are distinct, if not incompatible, expressions of protest through music. One, predominantly American, revives musical styles, modes of dissemination and even particular songs and performers associated with the Old and New Left. Despite its scripted quality, such music links contemporary struggles to a broad cultural inheritance. (Some Madisonians needed no reminder, singing “Solidarity Forever” well before Morello and Kramer’s appearance.) In the other mode, that of “Rais Lebled” and the Francophone rap that became the soundtrack of the 2005 riots in Paris’s banlieues, hip-hop is the musica franca, especially for a young generation more likely to learn lyrics from a Facebook link than a broadside, or Broadside.
These recent songs from the barricades lend an air of premature obituary to parts of Dorian Lynskey’s 33 Revolutions Per Minute, a history of protest music that is also a lament for its demise. Lynskey, a music critic for the Guardian, does not claim that contemporary pop is entirely quiescent, and he remains alert to signs of life, which he has been chronicling on an associated blog. Nevertheless, his book’s key assumption is that the sociopolitical engagement that once flowered in popular music has withered away. To the degree that the term “protest song” evokes warhorses like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Fixin’-to-Die Rag” and “Ohio,” this assessment will sound like a boomer’s version of “They don’t write ‘em like that anymore,” a generational complaint that usually means “I can’t hear ‘em like that anymore.” That charge, in its baldest form, does not stick to Lynskey, who tracks relevant strains of punk, hip-hop and even disco, of which the dismissal as “bubbleheaded” he deftly counters with Carl Bean’s gay liberation anthem “I Was Born This Way” and the subtler subversions of Chic’s “Good Times.” As Lynskey notes, “There are as many ways to write a protest song as there are to write a love song.”