Music and activism

From prefigurative to pragmatic politics

Authored by: Andrew Green , John Street

The Routledge Companion To Media And Activism

Print publication date:  March  2018
Online publication date:  March  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138202030
eBook ISBN: 9781315475059
Adobe ISBN:


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Music is a recurring feature of activism, from the iconic status of ‘We Shall Overcome’ in civil rights and peace movements to the efforts of New Song musicians to foment support for the Communist government of Salvador Allende in Chile (Tumas-Serna 1992; Eyerman & Jamison 1998; Rosenthal & Flacks 2012). The scholarly literature on political activism highlights ­multiple roles for music. To begin with, music can form a locus of efforts at fundraising for political causes, as in the case of the Live Aid concert that took place in support of famine relief for Ethiopia in 1985 (Widgery 1986; Street, Hague & Savigny 2008; Rachel 2016). However, music is not just a source of cash; musical practice can itself constitute the terrain on which politics is contested, as in the case of the black and white musicians performing together at Rock Against Racism rallies (Love 2006; Goodyer 2009). Music can also serve as a form of political communication and persuasion; a means of transmitting political messages, stories or information. Music can, furthermore, embody political action. Live music – whether the singing of a national anthem or the drums accompanying a demonstration – can serve as a means to enact a sense of ritual togetherness, allowing participants to perform a sense of community (Anderson 1983; Mattern 1998). Indeed, in a broader sense, music may provide a platform on which ideal social relationships can be presented, for instance by encouraging participation, egalitarianism and improvisation, or else producing forms of expression perceived as ‘authentic’ (Higgins 2008; Turino 2008). Finally, musical performances can claim public spaces, or maintain their status as a site in which political organization can legitimately emerge (Green 2016). This was evident in the occupations of Tahrir Square in Egypt and Gezi Park in Turkey, and in the various spaces used by Occupy.

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