Tag Archives: protest song

Music in times of war: Song as a form of Ukrainian resistance

Okean Elzy band’s lyrics speak to resistance and perseverance

A screenshot from Okean Elzy YouTube channel with the title of the song “Misto Vesny” (The City of Spring). In the lower right corner, a message in English and bellow in Russian reminds of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

This article was written by Filip Noubel, the managing editor of Global Voices. It was published on the GV webpage on March 25th 2022 and republished here under the media partnership between GV and Shouts.

Russia’s war on Ukraine is also a cultural one: the denial of a separate identity from the “Russian World,” the bombing of cultural and religious buildings, and more. Thus resistance in Ukraine is not just military but also cultural, and in that war, music takes a central place.

The Ukrainian band Okean Elzy (Океан Ельзи in Ukrainian, literally Elsa’s Ocean) is a prominent star in the country’s music scene. It was founded in 1994 in Lviv, a historical city in western Ukraine. After the band moved to Kyiv, they began to receive international attention and became the first modern Ukrainian band to be played on MTV Russia in 1998. Eventually, the band became widely known and gained fans in many post-Soviet countries. Most Russian speakers can, with little effort understand or guess the meaning of Ukrainian lyrics. The band also started performing concerts in Russia and Europe, and eventually gained cult status in Ukraine.

The lead singer, Svyatoslav Vakarchuk became a celebrity of his own: in 2005 he became a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, in 2007–2008, and then again in 2019–2020, he was a deputy at the Ukrainian parliament, and for a while was considered a frontrunner in the 2019 presidential elections. On March 7, he joined the Ukrainian army to serve in the defense forces of the Lviv region.

Since then he has spoken publicly about the war, calling Russian celebrities to break their silence and speak out against the war. Until the war, a number of Russian singers had a huge following in Ukraine and made commercially successful tours in the country.

Since the war started, Vakarchuk has performed for free to Ukrainian audiences, often solo, by singing and playing the piano or the guitar in subway stations, in front of railways stations and temporary relocation camps.

One song he plays regularly has a special significance. It is called “Місто весни” (Misto Vesny, or “The City of Spring”) and is dedicated to his home town Lviv.

The original version, which came out in 2021, is a duo with singer Irina Shvaydak, from the band Odin v kanoe. Vakarchuk, who wrote the lyrics, explains this is the first song he wrote about his hometown.

Today Lviv has become a gateway for over 3 million Ukrainian refugees who have left eastern and northern parts of their country to flee Russian bombs and seek refuge in Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary. They all transit via Lviv, by train, cars, buses. From the late 18th to the early 20th century, Lviv was also part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and today symbolizes prevailing Ukrainian aspirations to once again be part of Europe and distant from Russia.

Thus the lyrics of the song have gained a symbolic meaning and indeed seem to speak to today’s tragedy. The song opens with the followings words:

Why do I dream that, again and again / I am walking with you in my hometown Lviv / It smells of spring, and the sun sets / On the banks of a river that is no more /…/ What is dear to you does not die easily in Lviv.

Indeed the last words, when translated into Russian, sound like a defiant message to Russian troops: “Во Львове так просто своё не умирает,” meaning “What is dear to you does not die easily in Lviv“

BANTU charged and relevant as ever on What Is Your Breaking Point?

It must take a rare kind of resolve to continue to lay down the marker with daring political views as Afrobeat masters BANTU have done over the years, particularly on their latest record What Is Your Breaking Point?

What Is Your Breaking Point? album cover.

This article was written by Gabriel Myers Hansen and originally published on the Music In Africa webpage under a Creative Commons License.

The 13-piece collective’s new album, a brazen 10-track manifesto following 2020’s Everybody Get Agenda and2017’s Agberos International, not only strips back dire social circumstances that have bedevilled [insert African country] but also works as the soundtrack to an impending revolution.

What Is Your Breaking Point? is rooted in traditions originally plotted by Fela Kuti, and sees BANTU devotedly playing to the strengths and identity of Afrobeat. Mainly via the charisma of frontman Adé Bantu’s voice, the project bursts with the quintessential Fela-esque fury yet hopeful vision of Nigeria, driven by frantic percussion work, charged horn sections and biting allegories conveyed in English, West African pidgin, and Yoruba.

Shorn of filler verbiage or breathers, the collection invites listeners to engage with Africa’s dynamic political landscape while underscoring the transformative muscle of music, diving headfirst into the key issues: corruption, blind imitation of Western culture, the troubling perpetuation of gender norms and the danger of remaining silent.

Largely, when Afrobeat takes on the ‘S’, it paints a vain and glamorous picture preoccupied with love, sex and other nightlife rituals. Take the consonant away, and it’s serious business. What Is Your Breaking Point?, whose only guest is African-American rapper Akua Naru, does precisely this.

The feverishly paced ‘Wayo and Division’ kicks things off, tackling an integrity deficit among Africa’s leadership, which is often characterised by a strategy of deceit and division. ‘Japa’ is a cautionary tale against the mass exodus of Africans to the West, highlighting the perils of illegal migration and the illusory promise of greener pastures. “You just dey run from frying pan to fire,” a line goes. 

‘Ten Times Backwards’ rues the crippling of many an African dream by regressive structures, while ‘Worm and Grass’ returns to the topics of duplicity and manipulation among the ruling class. ‘Borrow Borrow’ examines the aftereffects of Western imperialism, while sobering revelations on ‘Africa for Sale’ summon more troubled sighs.

How much longer must this continue? When do we collectively decide that enough is enough? This is the focus of ‘Breaking Point’, and the question that shines throughout the project.

Focus track ‘Your Silence’, a sublime and reflective highlife (or Afrobeats) offering, resonates with the sentiments of German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller, invoking a connection to Niemöller’s famous quote on the Nazi atrocities. “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me,” Niemöller mourns.

The song prompts introspection and encourages listeners to consider the consequences of silence in the face of injustice. “The silence no go protect you,” is how BANTU puts it.

The project closes out with ‘We No Go Gree’, which retains the urgent ardour it commences 45 minutes earlier. “The political elites have only been concerned with short-term benefits,” Adé declares in his parting message, although if you are an African, this goes without saying. “We must take back our freedom, our voices and our future.”

These days, commentary surrounding governance on the continent can feel like a broken record, seeing how poorly a number of African countries have been run for decades. And so, while this new project, a fearless Afrobeat album of political resilience, represents an urgent and valuable perspective on the problem with Africa’s administration, I wonder how many more BANTU albums must arrive in the coming years to catalyse true transformation. As Sam Cooke once sang, “A change is gon’ come”, but when?

The answer remains vague, but until then, the struggle continues. Aluta continua!

Topeka musician navigates society through lyrics, activism and joy

This article was written by Sam Bailey and originally published on the Kansas Reflector webpage under a Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Marty Hillard appears for a July 12, 2023, recording of the Kansas Reflector podcast in downtown Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA (USA)— Marty Hillard has seen firsthand the ways systemic racism can destroy and consume lives, but the Topeka musician, who writes about resilience and advocacy as he holds a lyrical mirror to the Midwest, is determined to experience joy and help others do the same.

Hillard, director of community engagement at Kansas Children’s Discovery Center in Topeka, has worked in the community to combat police brutality and is a member and lyricist of the hardcore hip-hop trio Ebony Tusks, whose music often speaks on resilience and advocacy.

“Freedom is very important to me; joy is very important to me,” he said during an interview for the Kansas Reflector podcast. “These are things that I’m actively seeking out, despite what I might have experienced in the past, or what I may continue to experience as a Black man in America. I am resolute in finding joy, in as many experiences as possible for all of the years that I was sort of lost in my indignation.”

Through his work at the discovery center, he helps provide children and families learning opportunities through play. One partnership is with the Kansas Department of Corrections: Every few weeks, women who are incarcerated can spend the day and play with their children. Additionally, sensory friendly Sundays allow children on the autism spectrum to experience the center if they are unable to attend during regular hours.

“While the primary goal is for there to be an environment of play where learning can occur, it’s just really exciting to see people engaged in joyful experiences … and ones that they see themselves reflected in,” Hillard said.

Activism against violence

On Sept. 28, 2017, two Topeka police officers shot and killed Dominique White, a Black man. The officers were responding to a report of a disturbance in a park when they confronted White and noticed he had a gun in the pocket of his shorts. The officers shot White in the back as he ran away from them, and the district attorney cleared them of any wrongdoing.

Hillard, who knew members of White’s family, said the community was frustrated with not only White’s death but the level of violence in the city. In 2017, Topeka recorded 29 homicides, breaking the previous record from 1994, according to a Topeka Capital-Journal article.

The list includes homicides that were considered to be justified — such as police shootings.

“A big personal concern is knowing that as much as violence occurs in our society, at the hands of one citizen to another, I think it’s of the same importance that we recognize the violence that’s enacted by our local police department,” he said. “And so I think that’s a big part of why I wanted to get involved.”

From December 2017 through April 2018, Hillard helped organize No Confidence, a series of workshops allowing for members of the community to share their experiences with local law enforcement and give honest feedback.

Growing up in central Topeka, Hillard said he has a personal history of negative interactions with past iterations of the Topeka Police Department. He said being a part of a marginalized group can be all-consuming, but a lot of that has changed for him as he focuses on joy.

“There’s a point where you get exhausted being on fire all the time, being angry and feeling like you have to carry the weight of how you’re being perceived in the world around you,” Hillard said.

Hillard said while he can’t withhold realities of being a Black man in America from his child, he is grateful to be able to raise an emotionally intelligent child who can draw their own conclusions based on observation.

“We are very determined that as much as it’s a priority to want to protect your child’s innocence,” he said, “we also have to equip our child in a way that they can navigate the world as it exists, and they can have a better understanding of not only the world around them, but the world that my wife and I were raised in and the experiences that we’ve had.”

Marty Hillard, director of community engagement at Kansas Children’s Discovery Center and member of Ebony Tusks, uses music to spread messages of activism and resilience. In 2017 and 2018, Hillard worked in the community to try to combat systemic racism after the death of Dominique White. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Reflecting society through music

Hillard and his sister grew up singing songs on the radio and worship songs in church. When he was 11, Hillard and his brother started a rap group, and soon after, Hillard learned how to play guitar and began writing folk music and poetry.

In 2010, Hillard, Daniel Smith and Geese Giesecke formed Ebony Tusks. The hardcore hip-hop group often writes about resilience and activism through the lens of Kansas and Missouri, Hillard said.

Hillard said as a poet and rap writer, what he says is more than just words, so sometimes lyrics take years to write.

“I recognize a deep sense of responsibility to the words that I say,” he said. “And so I just want to make sure that I’m saying things that are really meaningful.”

Hillard said the words in Ebony Tusks songs are not only a reflection of the world around them but themselves, and he hopes that if there’s a message to be found in his lyrics, it’s that “our music becomes a vehicle for people to do that same analysis on themselves.”

Their music is available on Apple, Spotify, YouTube and other streaming platforms.

In April, Hillard’s friend Jeff Ensley, 45, died by suicide. Ensley was an important factor in Hillard pursuing music and a huge positive force in Hillard’s life. Hillard is designing a tattoo for a lyric in the song “You are Invited” by The Dismemberment Plan, a band Ensley showed Hillard a few years before he died.

“The lyric is: ‘You are invited by anyone to do anything. You are invited for all time,’ ” Hillard said. “And as I reflect on his life and the permission that he gave me to be the person that I am today, that lyric has become really important.”