Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Rocking for rights

This was first posted at The Malaysian Insider under the title “The message is in the song” on 13 March 2011.


Bob Marley once sang these famous words:

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery

None but ourselves can free our minds

Have no fear for atomic energy

Cause none of them can stop the time

I wonder whether he was high on weed when he was writing those words. Whether he was or wasn’t, this song went on to become one of the most iconic songs for those who value freedom, particularly of the mind.

This article is about political expression in music. But before anyone jumps into conclusion that this is going to be an anti-government propaganda, here’s an interesting fact. Politics and music are not just about anti-establishment, anti-war or peaceful expression of protest against any form of government or political ideology. It can also be pro-establishment such as seen in the national anthem or patriotic songs.

So, if anyone starts criticising that music with political theme is evil, let’s be reminded that the Negaraku, which contains the lyrics Raja kita selamat bertakhta, is a song that all primary and secondary school students are compelled to sing first thing in the morning in schools.

I’ve always thought that political expression in music is a fairly recent phenomenon. When I think about music and politics, I usually picture half a million demonstrators gathered at Washington D.C and sang Give Peace a Chance by John Lennon in peaceful protest of the Vietnam War in 1969.

I was, of course proven wrong when I google searched and discovered that classical composers such as Beethoven, Verdi, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, just to name a few, have been known to compose music that had either abhorred foreign domination or venerated a particular regime. We, who live in this modern era, tend to identify more with singers and bands such as Bob Dylan, John Lennon, The Clash, U2, Rage Against the Machine, Bob Marley, Sex Pistols and many others when it comes to expressing political messages through music.

When it comes to spreading and sharing messages, nothing has been quite as effective as music, which explains why Christians still sing praises to God and the Taliban banned it in Afghanistan.

Music can either reinforce a message, or destroy it; depending on which side you’re looking from. After all, music is a manifestation of freedom and for some, this is something to be feared of.

In 1990, a non-profit and non-partisan organisation called Rock the Vote emerged in the United States of America to attract the seriously declining youth population to register as voters and to vote in the election. Its modus operandi is none other than music, popular culture and new technologies. The campaign was so successful that the percentage of registered young voters increased by 20% within 2 years since its inception. In 2004, more than 1.2 million youths registered as voters on its website. I believe wide participation by celebrity spokesperson such as Christina Aguilera, Robert Downey Jr., Leonardo DiCaprio and Justine Timberlake plays a part in making this campaign a major hit.

In 2004, rapper Sean “P Diddy” Combs, led a not-for-profit organisation called Citizen Change responsibled for the campaign called Vote or Die. In the 2004 US elections, the campaign attracted 20.9 million young voters from the age of 18 to 29; a staggering change from the 16.2 million young voters in 2000. This inevitably helped to raise the overall percentage of voters in America in 2004.

Today, I want to write about a somewhat similar campaign in Malaysia but without the violence. Nobody is going to die but hopefully many will start to vote.

I learn that there are 27 million Malaysians, 11 million voters, 4 million more eligible Malaysians who haven’t registered to vote. I also learn that we have a Federal Constitution that guarantees all of us rights, freedoms and a democratic system of government that answers to us. But the question is: how many Malaysians know this?

The information above can be found on the CD inlay of Radio Demokratika, a music album produced by the Bar Council’s MyConstitution Campaign in conjunction with its Elections and Democracy theme. Some of you may have seen the eye-catching pocket-sized booklets that contain a wealth of information pertaining to the Federal Constitution produced by the Campaign, but this music album has only been making its debut just recently.

Last Saturday, amidst a decent crowd of more than 200 people, the album was launched at Pekan Frinjan 18, a regular event organised by Frinjan at Dataran Shah Alam. Close to 100 copies of the album was sold within that couple of hours, especially after an electrifying live performances by some of the bands.

Radio Demokratika features 12 original songs written and performed by 12 local independent bands. I was told that names such as Azmyl Yunor, Carburetor Dung, amongst others, are infamous in the underground music scene and no strangers to many urban youths since more than two decades ago.

There are many strong qualities about this album. Apart from the obvious fact that the songs are mainly about the Federal Constitution and socio-political issues that concern Malaysian youths such as inter-racial relationships, freedom of expression and political responsibilities, it has huge potential to unite youths from all racial divide and in so doing, encourage them to play a role in making Malaysia a better place to live.

As I listen to the lyrics of one of the songs that goes like this:

We’ll be the change that our nation needs to see

We’ll turn the dream into reality to be

A land that’s peaceful and strong

Which fights for right against wrong

And all of its people united and free!

I’ve begun to realise that this is precisely what this Campaign has hoped for.

There is no doubt that this Campaign can never achieve the same kind of magnitude that Rock the Vote or Vote or Die have achieved but make no mistake that it has great potential, with your support.

There is nothing more refreshing than this campaign as you flip through the morning headlines that write about nothing but what Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat have or have not done. The Campaign does not speak about political parties but only political issues.

Mahatma Gandhi once said: "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."

I’ll say that the greatness of a truly democratic nation can be judged by how well we have emancipated ourselves from mental slavery.

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