The Power of Artistic Expression in Political Ideologies


Artistic expression is one of the important amenders of the society and the political ideologies that govern the mankind. Since the medieval age, artistic expression has criticized and praised political ideologies and it has been responsible for the fall and rise of many kingdoms and governments. While the power of written words has always considered to be of supreme rebel in bringing a revolution, the power of other mediums cannot be ignored, especially music. If ‘pen is mightier than sword’, music is mightier than slogans. Music has always been a powerful tool for the lower class to raise their voices against oppression. From the Western countries to the Eastern nations, the sound of music has always inspired people to take a stand against oppression. Many of such protest songs have made their way into the modern pop culture as well. The recent Netflix show ‘Money Heist’ might have brought the protest song in the spotlight, the historical root of Bella Ciao can be traced back to the 19th century.

In this essay, we shall discuss the relationship between music and politics, how music has influenced political ideologies across the world, the types of music according to eminent sociologists that influence the political ideologies and we shall critically discuss how music still influences the modern day politics on a global scale and also critically assess the obsoleteness of the classical protest music as well.

Music and politics – A historical relationship

It might be invisible to the people’s eyes and ears but music and politics has an antagonistic relationship which dates back to the 1381’s peasant’s revolt in Europe. As it has been claimed by Marxist scholar A.L. Lloyd, ‘The Cutty Wren’ song can be considered as the first ever protest song ever written in the history of music and politics (Green, 1991). While this claim does not hold ground as proper evidence due to fact that the ancient folklores were passed from generation to generation orally. Thus, it is extremely difficult to understand the actual point of origin.


Although protest song or music against politics can be dated back to the medieval age, conclusive proof of such music can be seen in the works of various artists during the pre World War – II era herein. The famous Peter Seeger and Woody Guthrie are considered to be the author of many protest songs during this time. In the post World War era, we can notice Bob Dylan, who received a Nobel in literature for his songs and lyrics, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez are some of the notable names who adapted to this genre of protest songs and revolted against the existing political oppression with the help of melody. During the 1960’s, the protest music gathered a huge support in the USA against the ongoing Vietnam War. Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowing in the wind’, Phil Ochs’s ‘what are we fighting for’ are two great examples of protest song which helped in raising voices against the Vietnam War during the 1960’s (Goehr, 1994).

Also, in the United States of America, protest song is dated back to the 18th century i.e. during the colonial period. During this era, protest song was used in the continent of America against several political topics such as abolition of slavery, poverty and civil war herein (Dunaway, 1987).

Thus, before 1950, music was used greatly to instigate patriotism in the minds of the citizens herein. Most of the countries did not have sovereignty and people were suffering under the torture of big powers such as the Great Britain, Portuguese, French and many other European Western countries. Thus, to proclaim the mother land, most of the countries resorted to their protest folklore during this time. Among many examples of such struggle of the colonialism, India’s freedom struggle against British is of extreme importance and in the year of 1896, ‘Vandemataram’ by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay was sung for the proclamation of the mother land. This song played a great role during the later parts of India’s freedom struggle against British people as well.

Types of music in politics – Propaganda and Revolution

The era of music in politics can be divided into two groups – before and during the World Wars and after World War era. Before and during the World Wars, most of the poverty ridden countries were colonized by the big powers of the World. Thus, patriotic songs for the purpose of proclaiming mother land and owning sovereignty can be mostly seen during this time period. However, after the World War era, when the colonized nations became independent and formed their own government, patriotic protest songs took a backseat. The sooner the countries got their independence, the quicker their nature of music in political ideologies changed. This analogy can be tested through the USA’s 1960’s era and India or China’s 1960’s music development herein (Roy, 2006).

However, in the words of the famous sociologist, Denisoff (1966), protest songs could only be termed as propaganda songs. According to him, protest songs or music in political ideologies are essentially a form of propaganda which either works for it or against it. He classified music as political ideologies into two categories – ‘magnetic songs’ and ‘rhetorical songs’. “We shall overcome” or “Keep your eyes on the prize” can be put under the category of magnetic songs which Bob Dylan’s “Masters of war” can be termed as a rhetorical song herein.

Denisoff’s categorization of the political music was criticized by Eyerman (1998). Eyerman essentially held the view that protest songs cannot be only dissected based on its texts and sub-texts but their tunes should be taken under consideration as well. According to Eyerman and Andrew (1998) herein, music is more to just its texts or lyrics. While propaganda music on behalf of a particular government or political party can only be used as a method of brainwash, protest songs or music can actually cause a social movement. While the difference between these two are not clear in the naked eyes but propaganda songs and protest songs cannot put together whatsoever. As it has been said by Martin Luther King Jr. freedom songs have a quality that brings unity in a movement – “They invigorate the movement in a most significant way... these freedom songs serve to give unity to a movement” (Denisoff, 1968)

Musical genre challenging the status quo – A global perspective

The contribution of music to any social or political movement is huge. The contribution of different musical genre with respect to different nations is a wider topic. However, each country holds their unique history of challenging the status quo of their country’s political ideologies through their songs and in order to understand the importance of music in politics, a global perspective is the ultimate need of the hour herein.

United States of America

America has its way of protest songs through its folklores. The Latin America sets an important role of the folklore song during the protest of Nueva Trova movement. Victor Jara was the revolutionary songwriter who played an important role in transforming political ideologies with his “New Chilean Song”. Later in the mid-1950’s, Cuba started to follow this same genre of protest song to rebel against the ongoing feudal oppression.

Also, many folk revival songs such as “We shall overcome” by Peter Seeger, “This land is your land” by Woody Guthrie are some of the famous folk revivals that were extensively used in the US Civil rights movement during the time period of 1960’s. Folklores in America has always played a great role in challenging the existing political ideologies and the same has been done since the year of 1930.

However, the focus started to shift from folk songs to rock music in the mid-1970. Despite this, Tom Paxton continued his journey of referring the current political issues of the countries through his folk revival songs. “Outward Bound” and “Morning again” are two famous works of Paxton herein (Denisoff, 1970).

The modern USA’s hip-hop genre and rap musical genre is considered to be of utmost importance in case of the modern musical genre challenging political correctness. The punk-rock genre, hip-hip and the disco culture has essentially influenced the current USA’s political ideologies to a greater degree.

European Countries

Among other European Countries, the Great Britain holds the record of the oldest protest songs of the world. As it has been mentioned above, Britain is said to have the record of the oldest protest song in favor of the peasant’s revolt during the 1381. Also, during the 17th century, The Britain has crafted the “Digger’s Song” during the civil and religious war era herein (Bemstein, 1895).

However, the European countries faced a whole new level of music against the political ideology of war during the 1960’s when Beatles’ John Lennon actively participated in anti-war slogan through his revolutionary works. Also, “Peace Train” by Cat Stevens, “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath can be added to the list of revolutionary music that helped a great deal in changing the perspective of the political ideologies herein.

While Britain mostly holds onto the pop culture songs as their musical genre to challenge the status quo, Ireland stuck to their traditional folklores to challenge the system. “A Nation Once Again”, “Come Out Ye Black and Tans” and Paul McCartney’s “Give Ireland back to the Irish” are some of legendary and most important protest songs of the country (McCann, 1995).

In France, “The Internationale” was considered to be the anthem of a socio-democratic society. However, it was more of a patriotic song than a protest song. The first protest song was written by Boris Vian, who was eventually banned by the government. However, since the 1980’s, the protest song of France has evolved through its pop songs and folklores. Leo Ferre, Jacques Brel are two famous protest song writers who have constantly challenged the political ideologies of France herein (Sellen, 1976).

Germany, Netherland, Portugal have bloomed a little late in the segment of protest songs. Long after the World War – II, Germany started to navigate their antifascist movement through the rock genre during the time period of 1970’s. Portugal and Netherland also focused on rock genre to channelize their anti-war slogans during this time period as well. Robert Long, Wolf Biermann, Zeca Afonso were some of the well known protest songwriters of these countries.


In the Asian ring, the biggest nation does not show much historical perspective in the field of protest songs. After the World War, China was taken over by Communist party and protest songs or revolution has never since a part of China. During the One Child Policy, many propaganda songs on behalf of the Chinese government could be heard across different parts of the country (Goodstadt, 1982).

As it has been mentioned earlier, cultural mobilization through music is one of the greatest tools that India has exercised since the pre-Independent era. Through the verse of Rabindranath Tagore, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and many more eminent song writers, India has always exercised her power of protest songs to a great extent herein (Nussbaum, 2012). However, in the recent times, there are several singers and rappers who are actively taking part in the challenging the status quo of the country’s political ideologies through music. Divine’s “Azaadi” in the year of 2018 can be considered as one of the famous protest rap which has been used in several political processions ever since (Damodaran, 2020).

Also, in Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, folklores can be traced as protest songs. Hong Kong’s band ‘Glory Day’ is considered to be one of the contributors in protest anthems in the 21st century. “Minjung-Gayo” was South Korean protest anthem during the time period of 1980-1990 for the purpose of establishing a pro-democratic government. However, in the recent times, South Korea has not showed much promise in the sector of protest song (Law & Ho, 2006).

Middle-East Countries

Middle East countries were mostly depended on the folk songs as their protest anthems. The Palestine music “Biladi Biladi” is one of the famous protest anthems and it has become the unofficial Palestine anthem in the due course of time as well (LeVine, 2012). Also, Arabic hip-hop groups emerged with a protesting character against the governmental agencies which is still in function.

The relationship between Music and Political ideologies – The relevance and misuse of classical and modern protest songs against long-term political ideology

From the abovementioned discussion on the types of protest music and how protest anthems and songs have been one of the important parts of every country across the world, it can be seen that almost all the countries have developed their own versions of protest songs against their government in perusal of fundamental rights, freedom and democratic governmental system. However, the cultural sub-text is one of the elements of society that changes over time and it changes quite quickly. The protest anthems or music which were once used by and for the poverty ridden group of people, have become a luxurious thing for the elite class. One of the greatest examples of such incident is the ‘Opera’. Opera was originated during the renaissance period in order to support and favor of the working class people herein (Coulangeon, 2005). However, the social stratification and cultural modification over time, Opera has become the luxury of the elite class people. The tickets of the opera shows are priced at such a high range that no working class people can ever afford it.

Another such example of obsoleteness of protest anthems is Bob Dylan’s songs. For the major part of his life, he has worked on the creation of protest songs that essentially challenged the then American government and he has written several songs on anti-war theme as well. However, in 2016 when his songs were given its due respect, the Nobel Prize committee only highlighted the literary contributions of his songs by citing “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. He was not mentioned for his contributions towards America’s social and political movements or his contribution towards reforming the political ideologies of the country as well. The same commentary stands valid for the Beatles and other bands of that era as well. People has remembered them as the highlight of the 80’s and respect them as the golden time of music but very few people have the knowledge of how their songs have played a great role in evolving the political movements of the country herein. Nowadays, their songs are mostly used out of context. While some of the scholars want to see their recognition as win-win situation, it cannot be ignored that their contributions towards correcting the political ideologies are almost forgotten (Mangel, 2018).

Thus, if we critically analyze the abovementioned instances herein, it can be concluded that as the society evolves, the culture evolves and changes with it. The protest songs or the music was created by great rebels of the country, who might not have taken active part in the protest, but have contributed a great deal with their artistic expressions herein. However, as it can be seen from the abovementioned discussion that with respect to the recent societal change, opera has become the luxury of the elite class and Bob Dylan has become the idol of literature. In critically discussing the above two scenarios, it can be deducted that both of these music have lost their actual sense of being and melted into the background of a capitalist world.

The same can be seen from China’s propaganda songs as well. China upholds communism which essentially fights for the proletariat as per Karl Marx’s ideology. However, China’s propaganda songs and their ‘One Child Policy’ has essentially worked towards exploiting the poor people as it can be seen from Nanfu Wang’s 2019’s documentary – “One Child Nation.” In this documentary, it can be seen that China has used music as an avenue of propaganda and essentially brainwashed the minds of the people to commit the atrocity of fetus killing. From critically evaluating the abovementioned scenario, it can be said that capitalism has essentially swallowed the essence of music against political ideologies herein.

Another recent case of such cancelling the significance of a protest song has been done by DJ Snake in the year of 2021. Rapper Arivu’s one tamale rap, which essentially highlights the caste issues and other political issues, has been remixed by DJ Snake in such a way as to it has lost its relevance of being a protest music (Sithraputhran, 2021)

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Although the contribution of the protest music and songs, made for a certain cause cannot be discarded altogether as they did its job in the days when it was needed, the obsoleteness of such songs or cancelling of such music’s true purpose demeans and discards the whole integrity of music in political ideologies. Unlike literature, people often forget the background or the context of the protest music and anthems. In a way it can be said that protest songs or music is short lived. It does impact the country’s political tyranny for the time being but with time it loses its value.


Even though the past protest songs gradually lose their essence, it does not dilute the importance of it. It is true that in many cases classical protest songs are being misused, but the new emergence of music genre against the political backdrop of the country is always welcoming. Punk rock, hip-hop, rap and disco have been set out to be the new era of music against politics and the ancient classical protest songs and the folklores are slowly taking the backseat. However, it is to be remembered that the new music in political ideologies are heavily inspired by the ideologies presented in the classical folks and rock songs. The freedom of artistic expression is the key to a tyrant free world and music shall always be an important part of it.


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