Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


The Politics of Music

Updated December 15, 2011

In the United States, the ’60s saw the coining of the phrase "protest song," as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and a variety of musicians and artists protested the Vietnam War.

"A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall," Dylan said. And it did.

Woodstock wasn't far away, neither was Jimi Hendrix's warped yet beautiful rendition of the American national anthem, reflecting what he thought of his country then.

Soon after, a dilettante in John Lennon was singing "Happiness is a warm gun" and becoming a thorn Richard Nixon’s side. Little did he know that on a cold December night, the warmth of a gun would take his life.

Pakistan is of course a much younger nation, with an even younger music scene. Previous generations will disagree, but it wasn’t until the ’80s that artists such as Nazia and Zoheb Hassan pioneered Pakistan’s first real flirtations with popular music.

Politically, the country has almost been a perpetual cauldron of upheaval and unrest since its inception.

Aside from warring with our Indian neighbours, the military has always acted like an overzealous mother-in-law when it comes to our fledgling democratic regimes.

These regimes in return have taken corruption to heights that even figures like Al Capone might blanch at.

But it wasn’t until the late ’90s that politics and music butted heads, when Junoon was accused of treason by Nawaz Sharif's government for promoting the apparently radical ideas of Indo-Pak peace and the band was banned between 1997 and 1999.

It was during that episode that Junoon really grasped on to the political zeitgeist of its time with their song, “Ehtisaab” as the youth in Pakistan rebelled against the brazen corruption of the power elite. But the evolution of musicians taking sides and involving themselves in the politics of the country seems to be a recent phenomenon.

When Shehzad Roy and Strings performed during Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s game-changing rally on Oct 30, it was a loud proclamation of which side they were on.

Similarly when Beygairat Brigade’s music video of “Aalu Anday”, an unsparing song that lampoons Pakistan’s top generals and politicians from Ashfaq Kayani and Zia-ul-Haq, to Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan, was released last month, it immediately became an internet sensation.

The stinging satirical number was merely the latest in a long chain of popular anti-establishment tracks by other well-known Pakistani singers and groups who have laughed at and lambasted the high and mighty.

Bands such as Laal have hopped on to that bandwagon giving music to the fiery protest poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib, known for producing art out of defiance. TV channels refused to play their song, “Jhooth ka uncha sar,” said to be “too anti-army” in sentiment.

In a country racked by terrorist violence and extreme disillusionment with the state, it seems that humour not only works as a form of subversion but also as a form of catharsis.

Many people argue that music’s political effect has died, the main reason being that it’s simply not the best medium for political discourse anymore.

Let’s face it, the Internet has been around for almost two decades, so it’s time we got over the hype of its revolutionary effect, but it can certainly be said of social media.

Facebook and Twitter powered the Arab Spring, and its continuing to power the Occupy movement in the US, while music is simply trying to keep up, if at all.

The Internet may lack the emotional power of music but it can’t be denied that its effectiveness lies in its immediacy.

In the ’60s music was the cutting edge of technological culture. If you had something to say, you recorded and released a seven inch single — the ultimate statement.

Today there’s no time to write a song about it. You get halfway through the first verse and the story has changed again, you get to the chorus and you realize that Bin Laden’s already been killed.

It could be argued that music’s role has changed. But I’d argue that it’s the music that changed. It’s gone from an art form and mutated into commercialism.

Today’s music doesn’t create the slogans that change the debate like it did in the folk generation, or the punk generation. It is no longer a place where ideas float around, a community for like minded people, a sense of the counter culture, a place of hope and euphoria. It doesn’t soundtrack the times like it used to.

But Pakistan has a knack for the co-opting genuine sentiments of protest by the corporate sector and forming a sort of Freedom Inc.

A recently reformed Entity Paradigm released a song called, “Shor Macha,” a rallying call to the youth of the country.  At first look the music video is eye-catching. The video highlights the societal problems and dilemmas confronted by Pakistan and later the focus deflects on past glory days.

But look closely and you notice the not-so-subtle strategic placement of Djuice logos all through out.

It’s like “Change you can believe in” brought to you by McDonald's.

It could be argued that’s simply a result of the business model that music requires in Pakistan. Without established record labels, it seems to be a necessary evil to get into bed with corporate sponsors.

That said, there’s something happening in this country. You can feel it and almost smell it. And I feel that musicians can be a catalysing force. So whether we like it or not, the times, they are a-changing.

The writer is a reporter at