Using music as a form of resistance and healing has been very much on my mind lately, in both my professional and “civilian” lives.
As previously mentioned, I work for a performing arts organization. We started our home season this year with “The War Requiem” by Benjamin Britten. A 20th-century composer, Britten was commissioned to write a piece for the re-opening of Coventry Cathedral in England, which had been destroyed by Nazi bombs during World War II.
Britten chose to write an anti-war requiem, using both the traditional Mass for the Dead and the poetry of Wilfred Owen, one of the World War I cadre of artistic souls who died during that conflict.
We produced another requiem a few years ago, the “Defiant” Requiem created by conductor Murry Sidlin, which uses the Verdi Requiem to tell a multi-media story about Raphael Schaecter, a Czechoslovakian Jew who was imprisoned at the Terezin concentration camp near Prague. Terezin was considered a “model” camp, and both Nazi bigwigs and Red Cross representatives visited regularly. The Jews from Prague’s artistic community were forced to entertain these visitors. One of the only pieces of music that they had was a score of the Verdi Requiem, and though they were Jews, they used the Catholic mass to sing their resistance to the Nazis. What they couldn’t say to the Nazis, said Schaecter, they would sing to them in the lyrics, especially the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath), warning their tormentors of the judgment they would eventually face.
Schaecter, along with most of the inmates of Terezin, was himself eventually sent to Auschwitz and gassed.
These classical works seem a world away from genres such as the blues, soul music, gangsta rap, and South African rhythms of resistance, but the link is very clear: Music has long been a means for the powerless to air their grievances and also as a source of comfort. As Bob Marley sang, “One good thing about the music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” Or, perhaps, the pain is transmuted. Kept inside, it festers; let out, it can transform.
Whether it’s Otis Redding asking “Ol’ Man Trouble” to leave him alone, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee singing “We Shall Overcome,” or N.W.A. singing “Fuck the Police,” music has been “the cuts that we bleed through,” as Common raps in “Glory,” the theme song to the movie “Selma.”
In a recent New York Times Magazine interview, Ice Cube was interviewed about his movie “Straight Outta Compton.” The first question asked was, “In a trailer for ‘Straight Outta Compton,’ the N.W.A. biopic that you co-produced, you say a lot of people don’t realize that your music was a form of nonviolent protest. Is that because the nonviolent part wasn’t very clear?”
“I think it’s very clear,” he replied. “We put our frustrations on a record, and we were creative. We didn’t make a Molotov cocktail, we didn’t loot no buildings or burn ‘em down or none of that. All we did was make music.”
While rap and blues, to me, sound silly coming out of the mouths of white people (except, perhaps, for Janis Joplin), there are also examples of white musicians using music as a means of resistance. I’m thinking particularly of Johnny Clegg, who is going to be in concert near enough for me to see him next spring for the first time in 24 years.
I first saw him in Boston when he and his band, Savuka (“We Shall Rise”), toured with Nelson Mandela on Mandela’s victory lap after being released from prison, but I was very familiar with his music already.
English by birth, Clegg grew up in Zimbabwe and South Africa. An anthropologist by education, he embraced the cause of dismantling apartheid; artistic by nature, he chose music through which to do this.
I particularly think of Clegg in relation to Common’s rap about music being “the cuts that we [African-Americans] bleed through” when I hear Clegg’s song, “The Rolling Ocean.” For Clegg it is the South African’s smiles that they bleed through, that underline their amazing resilience to the forces that would keep them down:
“Women of salt and earth they tell the same story
They saw you walking wounded wearing rags of glory
And when you rejoiced they saw you smiling at your rejoicing
When you wept they saw you smiling at your weeping
When you smiled they saw you smiling at your smiling
And you said “That’s the way I’ve survived these years of dust and blood”
Bishop Rob Wright of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta addresses this also in one of his weekly meditations: “God is: a song for the heart. A sound that bounces steps. A vibration that fans life. A consuming intoxication. A crowded dance floor. God is a melody to ride on.
“Paul told his friends, ‘Sing songs, psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, make melody in your heart to the Lord.’ He told them to do this so they could confirm their identity, confront evil, share wisdom and gorge themselves on Spirit.
“With the low-grade grief that seems to hang over us like a storm cloud, maybe what we need now is fewer words and more music. . . What do we know? . . . It might sound silly to some, but every time the followers of Jesus have changed the world there was always a soundtrack.”