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The Music of Twenty-First-Century Uprisings

From Lebanon to Haiti to Chile, the world is in revolt. And the music that makes up the soundtracks to those revolts can point to a radically democratic, egalitarian, and joyful world.

Anti-government demonstrators gather in Martyrs' Square to listen to speeches and music on November 3, 2019 in Beirut, Lebanon. Sam Tarling / Getty Images

What is music for? It’s a difficult question. Embedded as it is in our daily lives, to ask what music does, what function it might serve to us as human beings, is a question we don’t usually wrestle with. Most days we brush away the question as easily as putting our earbuds in en route to work. We construct a miniature universe to keep the matters of the world and other people at bay. Mark Fisher described it in Capitalist Realism as “OedIpod consumer bliss, a walling up against the social.”

But then there are moments when the answer isn’t just challenged but blown wide open — when people move, notice our chains, and the simple mention of a place drums up images of revolt and uprising. Hong Kong, Lebanon, Catalonia, Chile, Haiti, Iraq — all of them flooded with millions refusing to accept the futurelessness of austerity, corruption, repression. The gray predictability of life under capitalism gives way to new modes of interaction with other people and our surroundings.

As Henri Lefebvre argued, cities have rhythms. The ebbs and flows of people through public and private spaces, the way they are designed and policed, who is allowed in them and when, all reflect patterns of exploitation. How sound and music are removed or employed in the neoliberal city’s efforts to control space matters, be it bans on busking or classical music piped in to chase away the unwanted. Space changes with sound.

For the same reason, when crowds force aside the sanctioned rhythm of a city for their own collective one, it is profoundly meaningful. With enough power wielded from the bottom up, the social nature of music overwhelms our daily sense of isolation. The city’s contours and corners start to appear pliable, even radically democratic. We can see it, and hear it, in the music of these current uprisings.

Haiti: Carnival and Resistance

Haiti occupies a central place in the radical imagination as the location of the first successful slave revolution and movements throughout the twentieth century against corrupt leaders and foreign occupation. It is also a place where US-backed dictators have enriched themselves and their cronies to the point of obscenity.

A recent government probe revealed current president Jovenel Moïse had done just that, embezzling loans funded through the Venezuelan Petrocaribe program. Further fueled by high unemployment, stagnant wages, and a climbing cost of living, strikes and massive demonstrations have spread through the country since February.

At least nine have been killed and dozens injured. Yet in the midst of this violence, Haiti has also seen festive days. One mass demonstration in Port-au-Prince on October 13 was organized primarily by musicians, rappers, and recording artists — a day likened by several reporters to Haiti’s annual carnival.

The description is a significant one. As in many Caribbean countries, Haiti’s carnival is celebrated in the weeks running up to Mardi Gras. First officially observed by the nation the year after the revolution’s victory, it has frequently been an object of ire from conservative Protestants for its profanity, its sexuality, its mockery of authority, and the influence of Vodou.

It’s appropriate, then, that the current movement’s most popular protest song should conjure this same carnivalesque ethos. “Jojo Domi Deyo,” roughly translating to “game over, Jojo,” is in the rabòday genre, blending electronic music with traditional Vodou rhythms, a meeting of the hypermodern and traditional that fits with the hybridity and creolization that has always been the motor of popular music. Already a popular fixture at Carnival, “Jojo Domi Deyo” has over the past several months been reinterpreted by demonstrators, taking on a new, derisive meaning, irreverent and insurrectionary.

Lebanon: Dance for Your Freedom

Unlike Moïse, Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, had the decency to at least step down after the country went into open revolt. That hasn’t been enough for the movement that has emerged in recent weeks. What started as a protest against a tax on the use of WhatsApp has become a far-reaching insurgency against growing inequality and government-stoked sectarianism.

Graffiti on the walls of the capital calls for reshaping the country. Beirut is a city often referred to as “the Paris of the Middle East.” There is, indeed, plenty of wealth that has streamed into the city in recent decades. As with most major cities, however, that wealth has mostly gone one way in the city’s class hierarchy: up. Public spaces have been steadily privatized in recent years, gentrification is on the rise, and iconic buildings have been closed to the public.

It therefore makes sense that the reclamation of these urban spaces should be jubilant. Protests in Lebanon have, as in Haiti, included musicians and DJs on truck beds, blasting popular music. Yes, there is the viral video of protesters singing “Baby Shark” to calm a motorist’s young son, proving once again to parents around the world that they will never escape that fucking song. But it also shows how creatively and playfully people can meet the new expectations of solidarity that mass upheavals can thrust upon them.

Several reports have likened the protests’ feel to a rave. It is a poignant description — not simply because of Lebanon’s thriving EDM scene, but because raves and electronic music have a long history of engagement with public space, encouraging its collective reimagining as neoliberalism has allowed it to fall into disuse and disrepair. A private balcony in Tripoli becomes a soundstage, the streets on which people walked without making eye contact become a dance floor. What was once off-limits is suddenly a playground.

Chile: New Songs, New Again

First it was the opera singer. As the protests in Santiago gained steam, morphing from teenagers defying transit hikes into strikes and street fighting, Ayleen Jovita Romero stuck her head out the window and sang in defiance of the military-mandated curfew. The song? “El Derecho de Vivir en Paz,” signature of the martyred Victor Jara.

A week later, with a million flooding the streets, thousands of guitarists and singers performed the same song. Then a full orchestra in front of the Basílica de los Sacramentinos performed the well-known “El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido,” originally written and performed by Jara’s nueva canción comrades Sergio Ortega and Quilapayún.

The symbolism of these performances is moving. But that isn’t all that makes them so. Nueva canción was an explicitly socialist musical movement. Against what its proponents saw as gringo cultural imperialism, it sought to create a distinctly Latin American and proletarian approach to popular music that was part indigenous folk song, part psychedelic rock, part militant hymn. The aim was to craft the myriad experiences of the subaltern into a narrative in which the future could be theirs.

Depending on what happens next in Chile and around the world, these public performances may in fact prove nueva canción’s success, albeit delayed by nearly fifty years.

In mainstream culture, the oppressed and exploited are regarded as backward, anachronistic, brought into the present only begrudgingly. At best, “progress” is achieved on top of them; at worst, it pushes them out. Augusto Pinochet knew this, and he sought to enforce this order in the coup that overthrew Allende’s Chilean socialist project, killing Victor Jara, along with thousands of others. His regime even went as far as banning many kinds of indigenous instruments.

But, of course, mass democratic movements have a way of revealing how alive the past is, of putting the repressed and forgotten back in front of events. In this context, songs made new again don’t just rehash old times. They map new histories, new futures — the possibility, however slim, that this time the rhythms of our lives might be ours to control.