Throughout history, there have been artists from all corners of the world that have taken political stands for what they believe in. From Bob Marley to Rage Against The Machine, many musicians have taken a step further and created theme songs that stand against oppression and tyranny. Listed below are 5 International names whose songs have reflected activism on various fronts.
Manu Chao, also known as José-Manuel Thomas Arthur Chao is a French-born, internationally renowned singer who has performed songs in a multitude of languages including French, Spanish, English, Italian, Arabic, Galician, and Portuguese among others. He has played in front of crowds of 100,000 and is extremely popular in both South America and in Europe. Manu Chao’s music can be classified as an alterative, punk rock, and Latin ska fusion occasionally branching out into other genres.
Chao can be labeled as a left wing political activist who is pro-democracy (although he has been on record saying that he has little faith in government institutions). Chao’s grandfather was sentenced to death by Francisco Franco (Spain’s last dictator). His songs cover a broad range of political topics, which include immigration “Clandestino”, corruption in politics “Politik Kills”, the disappearance of 30,000 people that occurred in Argentina in the 1980’s “Desaparecido”, among many other political topics.
Chao has been known to explore some of the poorer neighborhoods of the cities he has toured. He was once reported walking through the streets of São Palo, Brazil speaking to child prostitutes in order to get an understanding of their situation. He has made many bold statements to the media stating that George W. Bush at the time of his administration was the greatest terrorist on the planet. Chao has criticized U.S. foreign policy on a number of occasions stating, “you can’t fight terrorism with terrorism” and “immigrants are not criminals.” Chao last toured in the U.S. in 2007 and hit destinations such as the Coachella Music Festival in California and Prospect Park Summer Stage in New York.
Pussy Riot is a Russian Feminist punk band that has gained a lot of notoriety in recent years for their public political antics. The band is a made up of 11 woman who have heavily protested the Russian government, tackling a number of different issues including woman’s rights, gay rights, and Russian foreign policy. They have a number of touchy tracks that involve the Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin such as “Putin Will Teach You How To Love,” “Mother Of God, Drive Putin Away,” “Putin Lights up the Fires,” and “Putin Zassal.”
The group became popular after starting the trend of guerilla performances; performing in public places and editing/posting music videos online. In 2012, three members of the group were arrested after performing songs that promote protests while inside of a Moscow Cathedral. They were arrested on charges of hooliganism motivated by “religious hatred.” Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina went on to spend a year in separate prisons while receiving support from a number of different prominent entertainers and human rights groups.
Since being arrested in 2012, Pussy Riot has been documented by numerous news sources including Vice News and The Guardian. A documentary “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer” was released in 2013 as well as a number of books that have been written on the group. The band has even gotten involved in some American issues as one of their more recent tracks “I Can’t Breath,” was dedicated to Eric Garner after he was killed in a chokehold by New York City police.
National Wake is a South African Punk band hailing from Johannesburg. The band was most prominent in the 1970’s and 80’s when apartheid (a government domestic policy) divided whites from blacks. The band by itself defied apartheid as it was made up of members both black and white with very different upbringings.
National Wake had only released one album titled “Walk In Africa 1979-81” in 1981, but has had to withdraw it due to government pressure. Tracks off the album such as “International News,” “Black Punk Rockers,” and “Walk In Africa” help to tell the story of the oppression that plagued South Africa. Flavors of reggae and tropical punk rock can be heard on the album.
While the band would disintegrate following the withdrawal of their album, they would serve as inspiration to a number of South African bands that question the normal standards put in place by the government. Much of National Wake’s music was featured in the movie “Bang Bang Club” staring Ryan Phillippe, which tells the true story of a group of journalists covering apartheid in the late 1980’s and early 90’s. A documentary titled “This Is National Wake” is currently in the works.
Ramy Essam is an Egyptian musician that gained prominence after his performances in Tahrir Square, Cairo during the Egyptian revolution in 2011. Essan has been referred to as the hero of Tahrir Square, as his inspirational performances and songs have gone viral. He often plays acoustic while proving his worth as a singer-songwriter. His song “Irhal” (Leave) has been labeled as the theme song for the revolution.
Essam was arrested along with 100 others by the Egyptian military in 2011 after they stormed Tahrir Square while Essam was performing. He was sent to a courtyard where he was tortured. Essam would eventually be released, beaten, and battered, but still with life, which is more than what could be said for many Egyptian detainees.
Essam has since taken up residence in Sweden after fearing further persecution. The Swedish government has offered him both residence and the opportunity to attend university to pursue a degree in music. Last year, Essam toured North America, making stops in New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Vancouver among other destinations.
Gogol Bordello is a gypsy punk rock band consisting of 8 members. The name Gogol Bordello came from a combination of the classic Russian author, Nikolai Gogol, and the name of a brothel which is pronounced Bordello in Italian. All 8 members of Gogol Bordello are immigrants coming from China, Ukraine, Russia, Trinidad, and Ecuador. The lead singer Eugene Hütz is a native to the Ukraine and was evacuated from his town in 1986, following the Chernobyl disaster. He would live as a refugee in Poland, Hungary, Austria, and Italy before making the move to the U.S. in 1993. Much of the band’s experiences as immigrants can be heard in Gogol Bordello’s music.
Sergey Ryabtsev a Russian fiddler whose experiences as a Moscow theater director can be seen in much of Gogol Bordello’s theatrical stage performances. This is evident in one such performance that tells the tale of Ukrainian immigrant vampires. The group started as a wedding band, playing gypsy music at Russian weddings. A 2002 tour through Europe helped foster their popularity, as well as a stint playing many Russian clubs and restaurants in downtown New York City.
Since 2002, Gogol Bordello has toured both North America and Europe on a number of occasions including Bonnaroo Music Festival in 2011. A documentary titled “Gogol Bordello Non Stop” was released in 2008 chronicling the band’s experiences on tour. The band will be touring North America and Europe this summer.