Edition: November 30, 2011
Rock-n-Roll Exhibition: REBEKAH E. MOORE
Rock For Our Rights: The Planets Rarest and Most Radical Protest Songs
This stage has no podium. These musicians are not politicians, news reporters, or educators. They are Indonesian citizens who share, with those in the pit tonight, a concern for justice. This rock concert is a demonstration: a loud, emotion-filled rally for honesty and equality. The dissenters do not move forward, marching in unison. They move in dance—moshing, head banging, grasping compatriots, and singing, in unison, songs that unite them and give poetic shape to a deep longing for something better, for one and all.
I found these words in my research journal in 2010, written shortly after accompanying Bali-based grunge/psychedelic rock band Navicula on a tour to Jakarta to launch their latest single, “Metropolutan” (Metro-pollutant). One week earlier, the song was released for free download on the Internet.
“Metropolutan” marked the band’s latest critique of environmental degradation in Indonesia, a response to the pollution crisis in the nation’s capital. Each night of the tour, hundreds of Navicula fans crammed into Jakarta venues and sang this song collaboratively, having memorized the lyrics after just a few days of repeated listening.
As an ethnomusicologist, I came to Indonesia to study the development of the independent music industry in Bali following the 2002 bombings. But that tour, and my many other encounters with music activism in Indonesia and throughout my career have led me to a preoccupation with music as it debates and defines social justice.
For my installation in this Rock-n-Roll Exhibition, I present just a handful of the many protest songs I’ve encountered over the years and across nations. I exclude such distinguished artists as Rage Against The Machine or Bob Marley, as well as a number of definitive protest anthems, from Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” to Phil Ochs’ “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” despite my immense respect for these artists and anthems. Rather than revisiting the familiar classics (though I still sneak in a few favorites), I opt to explore a selection of artists—diverse in their styles, origins, and social concerns—who may be lesser known, and whose lyrical themes or personal activism has tantalized and scandalized their respective nations.
In the mushrooming heat of global activism in which we find ourselves today—the fire that started on Tahrir Square and spread to Wall Street now burns in the hearts of rebels throughout this very nation—these real radicals of rock demonstrate that change begins with a brave and loud few. These musicians, I contend, uphold the highest standards of human rights and our greatest hope that, in Sam Cooke’s prophetic words, “a change is gonna come.”
01. La Rage – Keny Arkana
“We will neither shut up nor sit down, for now we’ll be ready. We’ve got the rage, the heart, the faith.” I open with a song by an artist who resembles fellow seething human rights activists and rap rockers RATM in more than just song title. With this, her most viral track, French rapper Keny Arkana adds a powerful female voice to the alter-globalization movement, a social movement that opposes the negative effects of economic globalization and fights for environmental protection, economic justice, labor protection, protection of indigenous cultures, and human rights. Make room, Zack de la Rocha. This woman, too, knows how to represent “the rage of the people.”
• Note: “La Rage” in English = The Rage
Entre ciment et belle étoile/2006
02. Irhal – Ramy Essam
Throughout history, musicians are found at the forefront of social and political transformation—documenting, disseminating, and amplifying the will of the people to enact revolution. But rarely is their work captured in live recording, as in the case of “Irhal.” Egyptian musician Ramy Essam wrote and sang this song repeatedly with his compatriots during the Arab Spring at Tahrir Square, despite the numerous severe beatings and torture he received as a result. This special recording captures, through the collective singing of Egyptian demonstrators, what can happen when we make some collective noise.
• Note: “Irhal” in English = Leave
Live Recorded Single/2011
03. My Country Tis of Thee – Joe Buck
When someone sets out as a 1-man, American country/punk rock mash-up, you know the results will be…interesting. Friends reporting on Kentucky-born Joe Buck’s live shows—a bass drum at his feet, guitar strapped to his chest, and hoarse vocals making up the whole package—report unanimously: this shit is scary good. Most of his songs remain faithful to the anti-establishment themes of classic punk—a genre that, by design, reeks of nonspecific rebellion. But seeing as, by my biased estimation, he’s the most authentically punk thing to come out of the US in decades, Joe Buck has secured a place in my jaded heart—and on this list—as a true “fuck the system” radical.
Joe Buck Yourself/2007
04. We Care A Lot – Faith No More
Back in the 1980s, when the whole lot of pop stars and celebrity do-gooders were busy patting themselves on the backs for being such honorable humanitarians—remember Live AID and “We Are The World”?—one band had the good sense to take them all down a notch with a hilarious parody and homage to 1980s consumerism, decadence, and social inequities. Hearing this anti-protest song 25 years later, even the cockiest of cock-eyed optimists will likely emit a cynical chuckle.
05. Kill the Poor – Dead Kennedys
While certainly not rare, this third single release by American punk’s seminal, satirical rebels, Dead Kennedys’ “Kill the Poor” makes the list for a radical punch line, delivered through a freakish, poppy, 60s surfer rock vibe: “Gonna kill, kill, kill, kill, kill the poor tonight.” The song’s lyrics envision the use of the then newly invented neutron bomb to kill its targets, leaving valuables intact—for plundering perhaps?
Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables/1980
06. Rio Grande Blood – Ministry
While the Totalitarian Texan may have had plenty of enemies in American rock music during his disastrous 8-year reign, only Ministry dedicated a trilogy of albums to an anti-George W. Bush campaign. The title track of the band’s tenth album gets very specific in implicating George W. for his various war crimes. But lyrical finger-pointing isn’t their only approach: the former President’s own self-revealing voice, digitally mixed to splice together sound clips of broadcast interviews, is interspersed with Al Jourgensen’s commanding vocals. My favorite audio fusion kicks off the track: “I am a weapon of mass destruction. And I am a brutal dictator. And I am evil.”
Rio Grande Blood/2006
07. Boom! – System of a Down
The 2006 single “B.Y.O.B.” earned Southern California alternative metal outfit System of a Down a Grammy, but I chose an earlier SOAD protest song for its preemptive criticism of the American thirst for blood that followed 9/11. There’s a lot going on in this track, which criticizes everything from censored news to profiteering and foreshadows the atrocities of the American War on Terror. SOAD was always vocal in its political criticisms, and Boom! sees the band’s theatricality serving them well as rock provocateurs.
Steal This Album!/2002
08. Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition – Serj Tankian
A songwriter, activist, and musical visionary as influential as SOAD former frontman Serj Tankian deserves two spots on this list. In 2002, the Armenian-American singer and songwriter co-founded, with Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello, the nonprofit political activist organization Axis of Justice. He is a featured artist in the American-based project Musicians 4 Freedom, and in 2011, he was awarded the Armenian Prime Minister’s Medal for his recognition of the Armenian Genocide and advancement of music. The tagline of the featured track, borrowed from an American patriotic song written after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, is reframed as an indictment of murder and war in the name of God.
Elect The Dead/2007
09. Amerika – Armada Racun
I would be remiss not to include a section of Indonesia’s radicals, given my academic and personal penchant for the local, musical spin on social justice. While one might expect an Iwan Fals song or two, I tend to be swayed by more current—and more acerbic—takes on social critique, from acts ranging from Homicide to Seringai. Jogja’s Armada Racun caught my activist ear soon after moving to Indonesia. Amerika, which so simply implicates that worship of my own birth country as contributing to Indonesian…well…the song doesn’t say exactly what. It’s up to the imaginative listener to fill in the blank with what societal ills are endowed by the long arm of American capitalism.
• Note: “Amerika” in English = America
10. Let England Shake – PJ Harvey
Duly noted in each review, PJ Harvey’s latest album marks quite the stylistic turn—away from introspective ballads delivered in her signature, husky-warm voice and toward an eccentrically constructed blend of English balladry, experimental rock, and ethereal pop. But there is difference, too, in the subject matter: Let England Shake is about war; specifically, England’s role in World War I. This specificity accomplishes two things: it points to a historical moment when relationships among the world’s most powerful nations changed forever, and it evokes the kind of anti-patriotism necessary to shake to consciousness a countries’ citizens, whose sleepwalking conformity permits the audacity of war.
Let England Shake/2011
11. Dugu Kamalemba – Oumou Sangare
Moving from England to Mali, I turn now to one of my favorite women’s rights workers, West Africa’s Oumou Sangare. The Malian singer draws from her own tragic childhood to advocate for African women’s rights. When Oumou was two-years old, her father took a second wife, abandoned his three children and pregnant wife, and emigrated to Côte d’Ivoire. Oumou opposes child marriage and polygamy, onstage and in campaign, and her music honors her mother’s heritage by drawing inspiration from Wassoulou hunters’ music.
• Note: “Dugu Kamalemba” in English = Womanizer, Skirtchaser
12. Sinimory – Tiken Jah Fakoy
Prominent African reggae star Tiken Jah Fakoy won critical acclaims—and exile from his home country in Côte d’Ivoire—as a result of his music. Friend and fellow ethnomusicologist Daniel Reed, an expert on Ivoirian music, recommends Tiken Jah’s most progressive and radical songs, including Promesse de Caméléon (Promises of the Chameleon), which incorporates a speech delivered by the leader of a coup d’état, as well as Non A L’Excision, which opposes female circumcision. Born into a family of griots (African praise singers), Tiken Jah has written a number of songs documenting the political upheaval in Côte d’Ivoire. I choose a track from his latest album, a departure from his reggae propensities, which highlights the beauty of the music that delivers his message.
13. La Partida – Victor Jara
The late Victor Jara was a Chilean teacher, theater director, poet, sing-songwriter, and political activist who was brutally murdered following the Chilean coup of 11 September 1973. Following days of torture, he was executed by machine gunfire and his body was dumped in a Santiago street. Almost singlehandedly responsible for the musical revolution of his nation (with fellow folk artists he established the Nueva Canción Chilena (New Chilean Song) movement), Victor paid the ultimate price for singing the truth. Today he remains an icon for the power of music to empower a people to demand human rights and justice. The instrumental choice for this exhibition, La Partida, encapsulates the haunting beauty of his playing and the unique resonance of Chile’s folk music that inspired him.
• Note: “La Partida” in English = The Game
Te Recuerdo Amanda/1973
14. The Hands of Victor Jara – Chuck Brodsky
Victor Jara’s life and demise inspired a number of artists, including American folk singer Chuck Brodsky, to pay tribute. Currently hailing from my neck of the woods in the mountains of North Carolina, the musical storyteller is as well known for his distinctive humor and love of baseball as for his protest songs. But through his critical wit he takes on pollution, political corruption, and corporatization of America and revitalizes the folk musician’s role as frank truthsayer.
Letters In The Dirt/1996
15. Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday
Though I have attempted to remain faithful to the exhibition’s title and focus on fringe artists, I couldn’t possibly pass by America’s most well-known and radical documentation of violent racism. To say that a song like Strange Fruit, a portrayal of lynching in the Deep South based on a poem by Abel Meeropol and recorded in 1939, was a daring choice for a young Black performer of that time is a dramatic understatement. Luckily for my nation’s moral compass and the career of Lady Day, Strange Fruit launched the songstress into national and international fame rather than risking her own premature demise.
Fine And Mellow (A-side)/1939
16. Gäthu Mäwula – Gurrumul
Long before I came to Indonesia, I lived in northern Finland and studied at the University of Oulu. In my courses, I learned a great about the Sámi, Europe’s indigenous people, and about the land rights campaigns through which indigenous peoples throughout the world reclaim their rightful territories. One of the first Land Rights Movements began in Australia’s Northern Territory in Arnhem Land. A number of the region’s musicians have become international icons for indigenous rights. The painfully shy and elusive Gurrumul, a blind guitarist and songwriter and member of the Gumatj clan of northeast Arnhem Land is no political activist. But the beauty and broad appeal of his music, sung in his native tongue and often depicting his homeland, family, and people, have revitalized attention for the fundamental importance of land rights to indigenous peoples.
• Note: “Gäthu Mäwula” in English = Daughter of Mawula
17. Ri Ti Kharak Ri – Melong
From Arnhem Land to Tibet, the story of peoples deprived of their homes is one of the world’s most common. But unlike Australia’s aboriginal artists, who are free to publicly criticize governmental legislation in their home territories, Tibetans are only able to comment upon China’s atrocities and occupation of their native soil in exile. Melong is a Tibetan rock band based in Minneapolis that, since its debut album Notes in Exile, released in 2009, has used music as a platform to raise awareness for the Tibetan Independence Movement. “Music has always played a vital role in most freedom movements in history,” says Tenzing Jigme, Melong guitarist. “Singers and songwriters in Tibet are not free to sing freedom or protest songs…We sing our songs of freedom for them.”
18. Beholden (Peace Loving Nation) – Jolie Rickman
The Hollie Near of my generation, Jolie Rickman was a dedicated cultural worker, advocating for feminism, nonviolence, and direct action. She studied with Coretta Scott King at The King Center in Atlanta, but abandoned an academic career and doctoral program in Social Movements at Syracuse University in order to dedicate herself to music and social action. Prior to her death of ovarian cancer in 2005, the blind singer/songwriter was a fixture at campus demonstrations throughout the United States.
Hail to the Thieves, Volume III: Songs to Take Our Country Back!/2006
19. The Pill – Loretta Lynn
My dear friend Jeanette Castillo, communications professor at Florida State University—and herself a seasoned parody songwriter—often says that comedy is the quickest way to demand change. The Pill, recorded in 1975, is one of the best-known and most controversial songs of Loretta Lynn’s career. A humorous tale of a woman exhausted by childbearing and rearing but newly empowered with birth control, the song was adopted by many American feminists as an anthem for reproductive rights. In an interview with Playgirl Magazine, Lynn revealed that, following the song’s release, she was thanked by a number of physicians in rural communities, who claimed the song’s popularity greatly raised awareness for contraceptive options in America’s backwaters.
Back To The Country/1975
20. FYR – Le Tigre
Kathleen Hanna, former front woman for Bikini Kill, the leading act in the riot grrrl movement of the 1980s and 90s, went on to form electroclash band Le Tigre in 1998. Embarking on an exploration of a variety sociopolitical themes, Le Tigre distinguished itself from its riot grrrl predecessors through a nearly singular focus on the LGBT community. The song FYR, Fifty Years of Ridicule, references Shulamith Firestone’s controversial feminist work The Dialectic of Sex (1970). I saw Le Tigre perform in Washington, DC back in 2003. Incorporating visual displays, sporting neon digs, dancing in sync to elicit cheerleader-inspired hype, and shouting their lyrics through megaphones, the gig was one of the most kickass shows-cum-protest rallies I’ve ever seen.
21. Suck My Left One – Bikini Kill
And now back to the originators: Riot grrrl was an underground feminist punk movement that reached its peak in the early to mid-1990s in urban centers on both US coasts, particularly in the Pacific Northwest and Washington, DC. Riot grrrl songs blasted the nation for its most ubiquitous social sins, including rape, domestic abuse, racism, sexual inequality, and homophobia. Bands like Bikini Kill, The Butchies, and Sleater-Kinney formed the soundtrack, and the movement’s foot soldiers—fans and bands—propagated their politics through zines, art, and activism. Suck My Left One is the anthem of the movement.
22. Lost Woman Song – Ani Difranco
I always wax romantic about anything DIY, so it should come as no surprise that Ani Difranco, one of the first independent artists to own her record label (Righteous Records launched in 1989), has been my idol for nearly two decades. A progressive folksinger, who taps into some of the most provocative and familiar stories of American modern history, Ani has illuminated in poignant and simple poetry issues of racism, sexism, sexual abuse, homophobia, poverty, and war. She has also taken on abortion—not only advocating for a woman’s right to choice, but also implicating the anti-abortion demonstrators who were misguided to harassment, assault, and even murder. “Lost Woman Song” follows a young woman through her own “relatively easy tragedy” in an imperfect society, and the picketers outside the clinic door who condemn and punish without rationale.
23. Durian Dowry – Dengue Fever
Words, of course, are a transparent way to lay claim to specific issues, but language choice alone can send a powerful message. Gurrumul sings in his native Yolngu, Melong pens Tibetan poems, and Dengue Fever has released three albums, predominantly in the Khmer language of the Cambodian vocalist’s homeland. What all of these artists have in common is a desire to signify their loyalty to specific places, located far beyond the imaginings of the English language-dominated popular music industry. In addition to covering a number classic Cambodian 1960s surfer rock tunes, this LA-based band addresses historical and social challenges familiar throughout Southeast Asia, from the arms trade to the lives of refugees. My pick is an exploration of feminine inequality.
24. Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fondling Each Other- Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson has spent decades in social activism, from establishing the Farm Aid concerts in the 1980s to advocating for the legalization of marijuana to building his own biodiesel company. But he surprised critics and fans alike in 2006 when he released from the closet an amusing ode to gay cowboys, in the name of tolerance and human compassion.
25. Clausnophobia – Tika and The Dissidents
Admittedly, the acceptance of homosexuality is tentative in most countries, including Indonesia. But Jakarta-based indie jazz/pop band Tika and the Dissidents went proactive with their pro-choice stance on sexuality with the release of Clausnophobia. To my knowledge, this is the first studio recording appealing for the social acceptance of homosexuality in Indonesia’s history. But it isn’t the band’s only protest song. They were featured in the US’s Time magazine when their song Mayday was chosen as a protest anthem by writers and journalists during a Detroit demonstration. Also noteworthy are Polpot and Tantang Tirani off the band’s one and only album, chosen by Tempo magazine as “Album of the Year.”
The Headless Songstress/2009
26. Smells Like Queer Spirit – Pansy Division
Ok, one more in the same vein. Indonesia’s grunge fans listening out there may have a heart attack, but anyone who grew up with even the slightest knowledge of the queercore movement of the 1980s and 90s will certainly have a soft spot for Pansy Division. This American punk rock band, formed in where else but San Francisco, strikes a creative balance between parody, good music, and smart social critique in the majority of their endeavors, including this spin (you call it satire, I call it an homage) on the Nirvana classic. The lyrics are shocking, sexual, and pivotal. If you’re left with any squeamishness, then they’ve done their job well. The point is to make you aware of your own residual intolerance.
27. Dig Up Your Lawn – Trillion
Pardon the blatant endorsement, but when I came across this track by Jody Lloyd, aka Trillion, a New Zealand native, electronica and hip-hop musician, and record producer, I had to chuckle at the synchronicity. Think of Dig Up Your Lawn as Lecture 1 on urban farming, a lesson in self-sustainability. And urban farming just happens to be the primary community-based initiative of the Bali-based webzine Akarumput, for which I am managing editor. Do I hear a potential theme song? I’ll let the lyrics spread the word: “Can you dig it? For all the people who don’t have a garden, would you start one if you thought you’d be starving?…Turn the lawn into a garden.”
Everything Is Under Control/2010
28. People Have The Power – Patti Smith
Urban farming is all about food sovereignty: empowering people to rethink their surroundings and take control over their own basic needs. More than two decades ago, Patti Smith laid out the same, more broadly applicable message with People Have The Power. While neither rare nor radical, this track tops practically every protest anthem, in my own estimation, through the power of the poet’s extraordinary lyrics. Patti Smith, accomplished singer-songwriter, poet, and visual artist, continues to perform this song for a variety of causes; in 2009, she performed it during her Meltdown concert, in acknowledgement of post-election protests in Iran.
Dream Of Life/1988
29. WW III – KMFDM
Mad and loud since 1984, German KMFDM points an accusatory finger at the US—George W’s presidency, war in the Middle East, and foreign policy—on their 2003 album. The title track is compelling with its minimalist message. After a fast-paced, front porch-picking banjo solo—an allusion to the nation on trial—KMFDM kicks down the door with a full-on attack with their signature heavy industrial sound. My favorite lyric: “I declare war on the axis of morons, all out war on complacent consent; I declare war on the war against drugs, Rape and Slaughter of the innocent.”
30. Mayday!! – Flobots
I can forgive the Flobots, their massive success with a mainstream audience following the release of the single Handlebars, because the lyrics of this and all other tracks by this rock/hip hop collective from Denver, Colorado offer stunningly refined social critique. My favorite line from their breakthrough hit: “I can lead a nation with a microphone.” But I share an alternative track from the same album, which offers smart critique of the news media and war. I wager the group’s popularity owes to the combination of their brilliant rhymes with unusual live instrumentation for a hip hop group, including violin, guitar, and horns.
Fight With Tools/2008
31. Refuse/Resist – Sepultura
One more classic anti-war anthem. Under A Pale Grey Sky is a live album recording of Max Cavalera’s last show with Sepultura, Brazil’s own metal gods and social critics. Unfortunately, the album is a bit controversial, as the band’s label released it after they dropped the artists. But I couldn’t let such a fantastic protest song as Refuse/Resist gather “dust” on the digital shelf.
Under A Pale Grey Sky/2002
32. Refuse to Forget – Navicula
Sepultura’s Refuse / Resist offers a perfect lead-in for the last track and this exhibition’s grand finale. Bali’s own Navicula is at the forefront of musical activism in Indonesian rock. The band’s career spans fourteen years, six studio albums, and numerous compilation albums, all of which feature songs of social criticism. Some of my favorites include “Suram Wajah Negeri” (Land of Grim Faces), released in response to rising inter-religious conflict in Indonesia, which became an anthem for many Balinese in 2002, following the bombings in Kuta. Navicula joined several national recording artists to reject the now approved anti-pornography law with the song “Supremasi Rasa” (Supremacy of the Senses). On their 2007 album Beautiful Rebel the band took on political impotence through the song “Abdi Negri” (Domestic Servant), charging local and national governments with inaction, despite Indonesia’s transition into a democratic republic. The band’s sixth album, Salto (Somersaults), included several defiant songs of social criticism, but particularly popular is “Over Konsumsi” (Over-consumption), a song that implicates not only Indonesia, but also powerful Asian and Western nations for our current global environmental crises.
But Navicula’s latest single may be their most radical to date. Inspired by anonymous, Jogja-based artist Anti-tank’s campaign to paper his hometown with stencil work depicting murdered human rights worker Munir (coupled with the phrase, Menolak Lupa), Navicula penned the hard hitting, vicious homage “Refuse to Forget” earlier this year. On the 7th anniversary of Munir’s murder, frontman Robi home-recorded an acoustic version of the song and released it on the band’s website and social networking channels. But here, in a Rock-n-Roll Exhibition exclusive, the artists have permitted me to share a pre-release of the full band version of the song. Cheers, brothers. Keep rocking the globe with the truth.
Rebekah is a music writer, festival organizer, and rock fanatic. Her multifaceted career reflects her belief that the arts, as the greatest proof of humanity, are the most powerful means to demand justice, communicate compassion, and celebrate life. Though her college degrees dub her an ethnomusicologist, she prefers to think of her work as music activism—work that activates people’s passion for making music—and peace—together. Rebekah moved to Bali as a Fulbright scholar in 2008, in order to complete her research for a doctoral thesis on local underground rock bands. Bali has been her home ever since. Rebekah continues to write about culture and the performing arts for various popular magazines and academic journals. She works within the music industry in music journalism, event organization, and band management. She is Director of Music Collaborations for The BaliSpirit Festival, an annual festival of yoga, dance, and music held in Ubud, Bali and Managing Editor for Akarumput, an online alternative media source focusing on local and national social and environmental news and entertainment.
– Dec 07 | Exhibition: David Burden (writer, photographer)
– Dec 14 | Exhibition: Hasief Ardiasyah (Associate Editor Rolling Stone Indonesia)
– Dec 21 | Exhibition: Adi Cumi (vocalist of Fable & Raksasa)
– Dec 28 | Exhibition: Anto Arief (founder of 70s Orgasm Club, visual artist)
And more exhibitions by Doni Iblis, Tony Tandun, Ricky Surya Virgana, Tony Trax, Josh Howard, Kas, Saleh Husein, and more.
See y’all again next Wednesday!
Boozed, Broozed, and Broken-boned,
*subject to change
The Block Rockin’ Beats
Curator: Rudolf Dethu
Every Wednesday, 8 – 10 PM
The Beat Radio Plus – Bali, 98.5 FM
120 minutes of cock-melting tunes.
Zero horse shit.
Rad-ass rebel without a pause.
Shut up and slamdance!