Beyond Protest To Liberation Music


When Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, he was hailed and ridiculed by many critics in equal measure. That Bob Dylan music was even considered for the award was an accomplishment by itself. It was a subtle recognition of the brand of protest music he has championed over the years in the struggles for civil liberties and social justice in America and beyond, much like Woody Guthrie, his idol and mentor, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, among other protest artists.

Protest music is given to rebellion against an unjust status quo, against oppression, discrimination, exploitation and all manner of subjugation of the human spirit and endeavor.  Most of Bob Dylan’s songs are in this genre. Protest songs seize and reflect the frustrations of the times, mostly of the youth, and channel the energies of discontent to mantras of rebellion that captivates the unsaid yearnings of those who are at society’s periphery. Protest music does not necessarily present grandiose visions or an alternative way of life or an ideology, only a sense of angst with an oppressive system and injustice.

Protest music, like protest or resistance literature, has been an engaging repertoire of many artists who are considered as being socially conscious. What expands protest music to liberation music are the yearnings of liberation music not only to protest, or to rebel, but to point out a way out of the predicament and to transform mindsets. Liberation music often envisions alternatives and becomes the fodder of an uprising to better lives.  Such were the negro spirituals which W.E.B. Du Bois’ wrote about in The Souls of Black Folk that have sustained decades of liberation music. “By fateful chance the Negro folk-song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands today not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the seas,” writes Du Bois. “They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.”

Only a few artists are able to gravitate between protest and liberation music. Bob Marley is one, from songs of protest chanting down Babylon to songs of liberation such as Zimbabwe and Redemption song. Mutabaruka, Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, among others. It takes a heightened sense of spirituality, or visions of a new way of life, or an ideological foothold for an artist to be able to oscillate between protest to liberation music. Bob Marley and Peter Tosh music was grounded in Rastafarianism spirituality and the movement and struggles of black people out of Babylon back to Zion (Africa). Mutabaruka moves beyond Rastafarian spirituality to militant rebellion encased in ideological underpinnings. Fela Kuti is grounded in African spirituality and a way out of neo-colonialism and dictatorship.

Protest music can as well be grounded in a movement capable of sharpening contradictions and heightening the need and urgency of an uprising. But protest music becomes enduring and transformative over time when it is emboldened by a deeper sense of spirituality, or an ideology, or alternatives and propelled by a movement for transformative social change – the fight and build stratagem. Protest music not cushioned by a movement becomes the plaintive cry of a lone artist, gets hoarse and slips into disillusion and despair of the music and the artist. Liberation music on the other hand is done for the sake of personal and collective redemption. It endures as the personal quest to transform oneself and society is transcendent, never ends, only changes the repertoire and the beat.

Such is the enduring legacy of an artist such as Franklin Boukaka, the Congolese singer, a freedom fighter, poet, composer, activist who fought for African liberation, socially and politically through his music and active engagement in the struggles. Boukaka was murdered in the frontline of a socialist inspired uprising in a failed coup in Congo Brazzaville in 1972. You might have heard his song “Aye Africa” that has over the years fueled Pan Africanism and the struggles for African liberation. The song is a testament to the timeless quality of liberation music. This timelessness is a pointer to the processual nature of liberation’s pursuit – at the seeming end of a struggle, another begins.  Liberation music are the songs observed by Rawiya Kameir (Our Generation Needs Liberation Music, Not Protest Songs) “that acknowledge political realities while interrogating them existentially; art that imitates life and then goes a step further to contextualize that life. Music that asks as many questions as it tries to answer. Like black liberation theology, liberation music puts forth some sort of ideology.” Liberation music therefore primes us to be vigilant in the protracted struggle for liberation.


*Njuki Githethwa is a Kenyan writer and activist – scholar

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