If you look up a list of “greatest protest songs,” nine times out of ten you’ll receive a list heavily reliant on the western popular canon, i.e. Dylan, Rage Against The Machine, and if you’re lucky, Public Enemy. These are all good, and all essential, but I think that sort of view can lead to a flattening of the world. It lends itself to the idea that our American pain and struggle is more painful and struggle-y than the rest of the world, that Le Tigre advocating for Hillary Clinton is hardcore praxis and that the sloganeering of IDLES on the topic of toxic masculinity is the bravest move a band can make.
The following are a few bands or projects that I love because they capture the strange existence of living under an oppressive state in a dire situation and fighting back the only way you know how. It’s blast beats under airburst missiles, it’s dancing despite the boot on your neck. These are the sounds of resistance.
Barbed Wire Love
To say that The Troubles were a bad time for Ireland is a spectacular understatement. It’s a difficult period to summarize, primarily because it’s roots go back to the foundation of the United Kingdom itself, but in brief: a couple generations of discrimination by the English and English-aligned Protestants against the majority Catholic Irish population had finally boiled over, erupting into thirty years of pseudo-civil war from 1968 to 1998.
These were the conditions in which Stiff Little Fingers released their first record, “Inflammable Material,” in 1979. They weren’t the only band to make music about The Troubles, and they wouldn’t be the last. A few years later, U2 would produce the shuffling “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and nearly two decades later, The Cranberries would hit big with “Zombie,” but none had the raw bite of “Inflammable Material.”
Only about half of tracks on this record tackle the conflict itself, but the ones that do seem intent to peel your scalp back with their intensity. Opener “Suspect Device” is the kind of track the average punk band dreams about creating; an absolute barnburner, spitting in the face of the mindsets and literal walls dividing Ireland. Its lyrics portray youth under monarchy rule like a pressure cooker with the release valve removed, with singer Jake Burns screaming not to trust anyone: not the government stealing natural resources, not the soldiers shooting civilians in the name of peace, and in the final chorus, not even the band themselves, proclaiming, “Don’t believe us, don’t believe us/Don’t be bitten twice.”
The guitar rips through the mix like shears splitting fiberglass insulation, interweaving its way through a dexterous bassline played with percussive force equalled only by the kind of suspect device the song is about. The abrasiveness of the recording here only emphasizes the fury within the lyrics and performances. It’s the screams of youth, living in a limbo between occupation and freedom.
Nekhei Naatza and Jarada
If you watch the news at all, go on social media, or have any senses left intact, you’re aware of what’s been going down in Palestine and Israel the last few months. The lives of two million people, the majority of whom are underage, rest in the hands of one Benjamin Netanyahu, the current prime minister of Israel, who seems none too eager to use his immense power for the good of the Palestinians. This isn’t where the conflict started, but it’s where we live now.
This is where we find bands like Nekhei Naatza and Jarada, who have been keeping a small, but ever burning, anarchist flame alive within Israel, on the side of the Palestinian cause. Jarada, whose self-titled LP from 2018 I’ll spotlight here, is a hardcore firestorm. A fuzzy, DIY recording style gives extra power to the downtuned riffs and frenetic drumming on display here. The lyrics are in Hebrew, but in a genre that thrives so much on emotion, the vocalist is overflowing with it. The group’s name translates roughly to “anxiety,” and you can feel that in every second of the 20 minute runtime.
Meanwhile, Nekhei Naatza are a bit of a throwback; existing almost entirely on one Bandcamp compilation, the audio quality is less “DIY” and more “house show bootleg.” Their 1997 release “Hail the New Regime” – which proudly plasters a photo of a pre-presidency Netanyahu giving a Nazi salute – consists of Black Flag-like buzzsaw guitars and drums that sound like ragged, panic attack breaths. The individual components here sit comfortably among some uneven songwriting that nevertheless gets the point across. Their legacy stands now as an Israeli group brave enough to rebel, to create the first inklings of a scene that could shout at the wall they knew would never fall.
The Heartbeat of Africa
In Africa during the 1960s, the Nigerian government was in dire straits. At least, that’s what seminal afrobeat bandleader Fela Kuti believed; and by god was he prepared to blast the rooftops with his message. A long outspoken socialist and Pan-African, Kuti would spend the majority of his career with his band Africa 70 lashing out at the regime and injustices he felt were being perpetrated, going so far as to call Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari an “animal in a madman’s body” on “Beast of No Nation.”
His opus, in regards to this fusion of funk, jazz and righteous anger, is his 1975 record “Expensive Shit” and its successor “Zombie.” Fela Kuti, during this time period, doesn’t really have a bad record in him; this is an imperial period that rivals the likes of Pink Floyd in the 1970s, but these are particular standouts in a standout discography. On “Expensive Shit,” the a-side title track is a call-and-response story of swallowing a joint planted on him by the Nigerian police. Tony Allen’s drumming on both of these records is spectacular, perfectly in the pocket and yet driving with revolutionary force as saxophones and chorus lines dodge and weave in and out. “Zombie” is less satirical and more sardonic as the record portrays the foot-soldiers of the state as flesh-eating, mind-rotten beasts; a grim metaphor that the Nigerian government wasn’t too fond of, as they raided Kuti’s compound shortly after its release and burned his recording equipment. Despite their efforts to snuff his spirit, he would continue to fight and release music until his death in 1997.
Kuti’s work in this era was a collectivist force; He was the bandleader, yes, but only a small part of the overall experience by design. From the brightly colored backup dancers to the horn section featuring doubles and triples of instruments usually only incorporated once, the Africa 70 experience was as communal as the compound the members lived on.
The Fire This Time
In the midst of American intervention in the Middle East, an audio-documentary was released by the name “The Fire This Time.” It’s a mixture of expositional spoken word, contemporary electronics and sound collage of on-field news reporting during the Gulf War. It functions less as an album and more like a guided tour of atrocity. The sparse jabs of drum machines and pulsing synths give a riveting, forward moving energy to the entire affair that, when combined with the narration, feels less like a thrillride and more like a train moments from derailing. It’s a catastrophe that you can only clamp your eyes shut and listen to.
The entire project operates less off of tension and release and more Grecian tragedy. The slow, fuzzy “Nails In The Wall,” has prayer chants and women’s screams under the description of a bomb which overflowed an underground bunker with boiling water. This track immediately slams in Black Lung’s remix of Aphex Twin’s “Come To Daddy,” renamed here “Say Hello To Allah.” Haywire electronics sputter and fizz as news reports confirm that no country or governing body on earth could stop what was on the way. An explosion of fuzz carries the track out as a dizzying array of weapons are listed.
A certain gravity is lent to this release due to the time it came out. Erupting forth in 2002, shortly before the anniversary of 9/11, it forces the listener not to sympathize with the Americans, but to look rationally at the causes and consequences of the Gulf War before they’re repeated. Eight months later, we’d be in Iraq again. We wouldn’t be out until the decade’s clock rolled over once again, and all of the headlines and news broadcasts that litter the tracks on the record would be repeated over, and over, and over.
That’s the power of protest music, in my eyes. It is the refusal to be unknown, despite the mindset of governments that see the common man as a number, a general who sees them as a sacrificial pawn, or historians who will only know them in the abstract. It’s spitting in the face of a world who’s touch only seems to grow colder and saying, to be cliche, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.”
That’s what sticks to the craw of people like Trump, like Netanyahu, like Thatcher and Buhari and any of the million other dictators around the world, the kind who raided The Stonewall Inn, hung John Brown, killed Fred Hampton in his sleep; who now turn their weapons onto Sudan and Palestine and the Congo. Your existence as an individual is threatening to those who wish to flatten and control you; if they keep you quiet, they win. Grab a mic and get in line.
Graphic by Roman Diascro