Left-Wing Music Continued

If you turn on the local top 40 or top 100 radio station you are bound to hear many catchy songs of various types. However, if you actually take time to examine the content of current popular songs, you’ll quickly find that many of them seem to be about the same thing. The songs are about chasing cars, money and the opposite sex. More often than not lyrics seem to glorify the bourgeois lifestyle, reinforcing the listener’s belief in the age old lie of the “American Dream.” Where does the leftist find music that focuses on a more revolutionary message?

Luckily enough, there are a plethora of artists around the world whose music carries the messages of social justice, anti-imperialism, anti-fascism, anti-war, pro-labor, equality, and so on in almost every genre.

In addition to being a singer and actor, Paul Robeson was an activist against imperialism, an advocate of civil rights as well as labor rights, and a friend of the Soviet Union. He sings in a soulful, deep voice and the listener hears true feeling in his words. In addition to an English version of “The National Anthem of the USSR,” Robeson also recorded “Joe Hill”. The song was written to honor the memory of the famous songwriter, activist, and Wobbly of the same name who had been framed on a murder charge and executed. The song’s lyrics are truly inspiring.

“Joe Hill ain’t dead,” he says to me,
“Joe Hill ain’t never died.
Where working men are out on strike
Joe Hill is at their side,
Joe Hill is at their side.”

Another of Paul Robeson’s most famous musical contributions was his rendition of “Ol’ Man River” from the play, “Show Boat” sung by the character, Joe. Originally, the song’s lyrics were an insult to black workers. Here is a comparison of the original lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and Robeson’s revisions. In the original, the opening lyrics was:

Dere’s an ol’ man called de Mississippi
Dat’s de ol’ man that I’d like to be…

Robeson’s version said:

There’s an ol’ man called the Mississippi
That’s the ol’ man I don’t like to be…

The original lyrics said:

Tote that barge!
Lift that bale!
Git a little drunk
An’ you land in jail…

Robeson sang:

Tote that barge and lift dat bale!
You show a little grit
And you lands in jail..

The original song said:

Ah gits weary
An’ sick of tryin’;
Ah’m tired of livin’
An skeered of dyin’,
But Ol’ Man River,
He jes’ keeps rolling along

Robeson sang:

But I keeps laffin’
Instead of cryin’
I must keep fightin’;
Until I’m dyin’,
And Ol’ Man River,
He’ll just keep rollin’ along!

Late in “Show Boat” Scene 7 of Act II, Joe does sing this verse, but rather than singing “I must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin,” he sings “I must keep livin’ until I’m dyin.” As can be seen, Robeson totally shifts the meaning of the song. Robeson’s “Ol’ Man River” turns a song whose original lyrics shamed black workers into one that glorifies their struggle.

Robeson was a very prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance and as mentioned above, a talented actor. He gained national attention when he landed the lead role of Jim in Eugene O’Neill’s “All God’s Chillun Got Wings.” The climax of the play involved Jim symbolically emasculating himself in order to metaphorically consummate his marriage with his white wife. The play caused such controversy that it was postponed. In the meantime, Robeson would go on to play Brutus in “The Emperor Jones” and later starred in “Othello” as the main character. In late 1934, he received an invitation to Moscow from famed Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein. There, Paul would reprise his role in “Othello.” Robeson would go on to speak about how free the U.S.S.R. was from the poison of racism, and remained a friend of the Soviet people until his death.

One of largest figures of twentieth century rock music has also written music with a left-wing point of view. John Lennon, famous member of The Beatles, was a wonderfully talented musician, a social activist and an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. Though it is hard to pin down where he stood on the left, Lennon has been quoted in Rolling Stone saying “You know, I really thought that love would save us all. But now I’m wearing a Chairman Mao badge.”

One of his songs that have a very class conscious context is “Working Class Hero.” “Working Class Hero” is about alienation in capitalist society. The lyrics speak for themselves.

“They hurt you at home and they hit you at school
They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool
Till you’re so fucking crazy you can’t follow their rules
A working class hero is something to be
When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years
Then they expect you to pick a career
When you can’t really function you’re so full of fear
A working class hero is something to be
Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV
And you think you’re so clever and classless and free
But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see
A working class hero is something to be”

His greatest masterpiece is “Imagine,” arguably one of the most beautiful songs ever written. The song simply asks the listener to imagine a world without religious superstition, bigotry, borders, greed and hunger. It conjures up a world in which the human race lives in complete peace, harmony and fraternity.

Rap and hip-hop are genres which many progressive artists call home as well. One of rap’s most legendary artists is Tupac Shakur. Tupac was the son of Black Panther Party member Afeni Shakur. The Panthers’ revolutionary message shines through in Tupac’s lyrics, which deal with the hardships of growing up in inner cities, racism, poverty, drugs, the prison-industrial complex, the effects of war on society and many other social problems.

“Changes” examines many of the aforementioned problems that continue to plague society and insists that it is high time to change these ills in any way we can. Another beautiful song by Tupac is “Keep Ya Head Up.” A large portion of the song deals with women’s oppression at home and elsewhere. Its lyrics encourage women to push the abuser out of their life but also to hold on to hope for a better future.

“But please don’t cry, dry your eyes, never let up
Forgive but don’t forget, girl keep your head up
And when he tells you you ain’t nuttin don’t believe him
And if he can’t learn to love you you should leave him
Cause sista you don’t need him
And I ain’t tryin to gas ya up, I just call em how I see em
You know it makes me unhappy (what’s that)
When brothas make babies, and leave a young mother to be a pappy
And since we all came from a woman
Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?
I think it’s time to kill for our women
Time to heal our women, be real to our women
And if we don’t we’ll have a race of babies
That will hate the ladies, that make the babies
And since a man can’t make one
He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one
So will the real men get up
I know you’re fed up ladies, but keep your head up”

Lupe Fiasco carries on in the tradition of Tupac in that his songs have a progressive message and have enjoyed a great deal of success. “Words I Never Said” is a scathing attack on the War on Terror, the reactionary media, the Israeli attacks on Gaza, the American education system and more. It also touches on how people can sometimes feel afraid to speak out against these things that confront us on a daily basis but urges the listener to start doing just that.

The rock genres of punk and metal have also generated a high number of left-wing music groups. In 2004, Green Day released the album American Idiot. The title track denounces the bourgeois news media and the atmosphere of fear that it creates in the lives of the average Joe or Jane.

Rise Against is another band that has released numerous songs which are leftist in character. “Reeducation Through Labor” is a song about the everyday toils of the worker under capitalism and the coming rebellion and overthrow of the oppressing class.

“We sow the seeds to see us through
Our days are precious and so few
We all reap what we are due
Under this sky no longer blue
We bring the dawn long overdue
We crawl
We crawl
We crawl… all over you”

The Armenian-American band System of a Down has many songs dealing with such topics as police repression, national oppression, anti-imperialism, history, and so many other topics that are prevalent discussion points among the left. System of a Down is also quite fond of putting statistics in their songs. “Prison Song” is a great example of this. In one song S.O.A.D. covers the interrelation of the War on Drugs, skyrocketing prison populations, and the hypocrisy of the United States government which uses drug money to “rig elections and train brutal, corporate sponsored dictators around the world.”

Following the rights movements
You clamped down with your iron fists,
Drugs became conveniently
Available for all the kids,
Following the rights movements
You clamped down with your iron fists,
Drugs became conveniently
Available for all the kids,

I buy my crack, my smack, my bitch,
Right here in Hollywood,

Nearly 2 million Americans are incarcerated
In the prison system, prison system
Prison system of the U.S.

They’re trying to build a prison

They’re trying to build a prison,
They’re trying to build a prison,
They’re trying to build a prison, (for you and me)
Another prison system,
Another prison system,
Another prison system.

Minor drug offenders fill your prisons
You don’t even flinch
All our taxes paying for your wars
Against the new non-rich,
Minor drug offenders fill your prisons
You don’t even flinch
All our taxes paying for your wars
Against the new non-rich

There are many other amazing musicians who, for the sake of brevity, have not been expounded on in this article. However, it is the author’s hope that the reader has been introduced to alternatives to the usual bourgeois clap-trap that is heard on the radio and will continue to find new and equally revolutionary music.


Categories: Afghanistan, Anti-War, Armenia, History, International, Labor, Media & Culture, Palestine, Prisons, Racism, Revolutionary History, United States History, Women and LGBTQIA+, Workers Struggle, World History, Zionism

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