January 2020

Curating Political Fellowship at the Intersections between Music and Activism

Any cultural production is in and of itself a political act.

by Carolin Müller

Music plays a pivotal role in activism across the globe[i] and songs have been used to curate political fellowship. The performance of a well-known song in the protest setting can encourage a sense of community as participants perceive being among like-minded people.

Familiar popular music, in particular, allows activists to connect musical themes to the political concerns of people. Song lyrics become part of political speech that seeks to persuade movement participants, “maintain solidarity, drum up support and, in some instances, demobilize opposition.”[ii]

Different activist movements have co-opted popular music for their protest and rebellion. Using music’s function as a vehicle for curating political action, they have made music key to different causes, for example, in the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa[iii], as part of the Cuban Revolution[iv] and more recently throughout the 2011 Egyptian Revolution[v] and the 2019/20 Hong Kong protests,[vi] among many others.

In Sounds of Resistance, a two-volume collection of different musics in resistance movements, Eunice Rojas argues that “societies turn to music to voice dissent and dissatisfaction with oppressive social orders.”[vii] In other words, activists perceive music not only as an amplifier for political speech but also as a medium that translates affect.[viii]

Following Irish Republican leader James Connolly’s statement, that “no revolutionary movement is complete without its poetic expression,”[ix] this article explores how contrasting resistance groups in Germany use the affective relationship between audiences and familiar music to curate political fellowship.

James Connelly, an Irish socialist and revolutionary leader who was executed by the British and buried in a mass grave following the Easter Rising. Connelly published a collection of Irish revolutionary songs to help inspire the Irish freedom movement and, after his murder, became the subject of revolutionary songs himself. Image via Wikimedia.

Drawing on 2017-19 ethnographic research on music activism conducted in the city of Dresden, Germany, I show how two groups with opposing political ideology use the same musical material in the service of their disparate agendas. Audiences’ responses to music are guided by music’s potential to evoke affective responses. Popular music, specifically, interlaces perceived and felt emotions and lends itself to communicating information. The question that my study, thus, seeks to answer is what happens if the same familiar music is used to communicate contrasting information?

Popular Music and the Familiar

Dresden is an urban center in eastern Germany that has become a recent hotspot for debates that take place between conservative stakeholders and pluralistic thinkers on issues of immigration, racism, and xenophobia following the 2014-emergence of the right-wing extremist group “Pegida” (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident). Subsequent to growing audiences at weekly right-wing protests that gathered up to 25,000 people, local arts initiatives have tried to counter Pegida’s racist and xenophobic rhetoric with their own concerts, performance art and demonstrations.[x] Both groups rely on the musical amplification of their political agenda during demonstrations and place emphasis on familiar and popular music that resonates well with audiences.

While Pegida’s political agenda places the group into the spectrum of right-wing activism, counter groups align with left-wing ideological premises. Both scenes are well-established networks that use music primarily in two ways: 1) activists engage, support, and rely on existing music networks or scenes[xi] or 2) activists co-opt popular, traditional, and “folk” music for a particular political purpose. While the former includes the composition of melody and text with the political already in mind, the latter refers to cases in which well-known songs are injected into a political context for their recognition value among an audience.[xii]

Both left and far-right activism rely on their respective musical scenes to embed their political message and to attract new followers to their groups. Recent encounters in Dresden, however, have shown that the use of familiar popular music in activism has gained more traction. A reason for that may be that popular music can be shaped to communicate a range of information[xiii], including contrasting political ideologies.

Protestors wave antifascist and antiracist flags to the mustic at a rally in Dresden.

Intended to inspire the so-called ‘silent-mass’ of potential demonstration-goers, both groups encourage not only the consumption and performance of music that is familiar, but they do it in a way that is familiar and seemingly unpolitical. Examples of that are choral singing meetings, dance parties, and semi-private gatherings, which people would otherwise do as a leisure activity.

The following comparison of different Christmas Concert traditions in each of these groups demonstrates how the use of popular music manifests itself differently in both left and far-right groups in Dresden.

The Case of Pegida’s Christmas Concerts in Dresden

In December 2014, Pegida held its first “Weihnachtssingen” against the backdrop of Dresden’s baroque architecture at Theaterplatz in the city center. The year thereafter the event was transferred to the opposite side of the river Elbe due to increasing participant numbers. The protestors’ vocalization of popular Christmas carols like “Oh, Christmas tree” and “Silent Night” echoed up and down the river valley. The choral performance of six such carols was interspersed with lengthy speeches by right-wing supporters like movement leader Lutz Bachmann and the leader of the movement’s Leipzig derivative “Legida” Markus Jöhnke. Permeated by inflammatory commentary against the German government and its immigration politics, speakers used nationalist and ethno-centric lexis to insinuate the need for a fight for an imagined ethnically homogenous German state.

Recurring ever since, the annual event showcases different speakers’ contributions, which are sonically accentuated through the scattered performances of a handful of popular Christmas carols. The carefully mapped presentation of songs like “Alle Jahre wieder” (Every single year) weaves into speaker Bachmann’s 2018 assertive statement with which he aims to declare to his followers that the movement has prevailed in spite of criticism by media, politicians, and left-wing activists. Pegida’s meticulous selection and placement of songs during demonstrations goes to show how much a careful implementation of popular music matters in activism in order to construct the intended message in word and sound.

Choral singing at Pegida demonstrations is staged as an easy means to participate in the movement by following along a familiar tune. Such form of participation lies at the interstices of what Rancière terms “participation” and “genuine participation” in the protest setting. While the experience of “participation” refers to the sheer occupancy of “spaces left empty by power,”[xiv] “genuine participation” describes spontaneous and unexpected seizure of space by an unpredictable subject. Participants at Pegida demonstrations partake differently in the gathering. For one, they fulfill their assigned role as choral singers throughout the event’s holding. At the same time, the speaker’s intermittent commentary encourages the audience to suddenly cry out familiar chants to display support for the speaker’s statements.

Music becomes secondary in the implementation of different participatory schemes since the primary purpose of sonic engagement in this setting is to control and direct the attendees. Besides the name of the event, its content has little to do with a celebration of the holiday season. Instead, the music is an empty signifier to the occasion. Different from distinctly identifiable songs by far-right musicians like Frontalkraft and Kategorie C, the implementation of the Christmas carols at the annual meeting allows visitors to construct a kind of collective experience for themselves that allows them to deny the radicalism and depreciation that the Pegida movement seeks in all aspects of life. White-washed by the music, the assembled choir of attendees and organizers can insinuate an imagined innocence into their protest and obscure the racism and xenophobia that they display.

Choral Performance with the Bergfinken Choir and Banda Internationale

A different presentation of choral performance took place in December 2018 when the Dresden-based Bergfinken, a local men’s choir, and the brass ensemble Banda Internationale joined each other for the Bergfinken’s annual concert. Together they performed a collection of popular Christmas and traditional choral songs like “Kommet, ihr Hirten” (Come, ye shepherds) and “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” (Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming), mixed with an Ethiopian Jazz classic “Yegelle Tezeta,” an Iraqi lullaby “Fog elna khel,” “Kuilga Noore” (By the Shore) a contemporary “folk” song from Burkina Faso and the Yiddish “Dire-gelt” (Rent).

Since the emergence of Pegida, Banda Internationale (formerly known as Banda Comunale) has been one of the right-wing movement’s loudest opponents. The group initiated and performed in countless marches, performance art pieces and community events. In 2016, the musicians invited instrumentalists and vocalists in refugeedom[xv], who were at the time resident in Dresden, to join their band and make music together. Soon, Banda Internationale gained the attention of a range of local, federal and international projects and received prices for its activism for intercultural exchange through music and working on building a better world together by the aid of sound. By 2018, everyone in the ensemble had a permanent position, the band could play larger stages and even engage in a collaboration with the Bergfinken choir.

Bergfinken and Banda Internationale perform “Fog El Nakhal,” an Iraqi lullaby, to protest the growing fascist movement in Dresden.

The annual Christmas concert is an essential component of the Bergfinken performance repertoire and is also considered part of its contribution to the city’s musical development. Every year, the choir partners with a different music project to compose anew familiar songs to play with an instrumental ensemble. Such collaborations go beyond learning to perform according to each other’s tune.

For the Bergfinken and its partners, it is a way of getting to know other performers in the scene, learn about how they make their music and what can be learned about one’s own interpretation of a piece. In other words, at the core of the annual collaboration is an exchange about and also through music that seeks to bring performers closer together, foster understanding across district and cultural differences. Part of their meeting is to engage in the affective reception and reproduction of familiar songs through different musical lenses.

As a matter of fact, both Pegida and the joint Christmas concert by the Bergfinken and Banda Internationale performed different versions of the same song: “O du fröhliche” (O, how joyfully). One of the oldest German Christmas carols by Johannes Daniel Frank, the song itself underwent significant transitions from a festive ballad to a Christmas hymn that changed lyrics and melodies.[xvi] Altering yet again the affective translation of the song in their performances, both Pegida and its counter demonstrate how the meaning of the song is not stable but instead variable according to the interpreting body that performs it.

However, in contrast to Pegida’s orchestration of traditional choral music as a trope behind which political ideology radiated out into the audience, the performance of the same song by the Bergfinken and Banda Internationale conveyed a different notion. The political in their performance does not lie in the rhetoric that accompanies the music. Instead, the joint Christmas concert reconfigures the co-optation of “O du fröhliche” by drawing the focus not to how the lyrics correspond to a particular political message.

Part and parcel of the performance is curating a space that amplifies the importance of collectively consuming an instrumentally-accompanied choral concert. The function of this performance is to draw out the emotional experience of different people being moved musically by the same thing.

On the one hand, it is clear that the choice of songs is an extension of Banda Internationale’s political activism onto the concert stage because any cultural production is in and of itself a political act. At the same time, it is also significant that the musical performance is a visible celebration of what the band achieved over the last few years. The concert offers a variety of audiences the opportunity to listen and take in the sonic carpet that the combined ensemble weaves of international classics.

This performance of the traditional German Christmas song, “Es kommt ein Schiff geladen” (A ship is coming laden), by Bergfinken and Banda Internationale reveals how traditional music takes on new meanings based on the changes to the political context. The ship, traditionally interpreted as bringing Jesus, evokes clear images of boats carrying migrants, a staple of the European “migrant crisis.”

The performance at the joint Christmas concert reveals differently how its performers imagine the society around them to function. Absent are the explicit political commentaries that are so essential to Pegida’s seasonal gathering. Present, instead, is a lived embodiment of how melody, rhythm, and word aid the performers in their quest of reconstructing and shaping their surroundings to reflect their activist cause.

This is not to say that any of the songs reverberate a particular kind of political message. Every song is embedded in the narrative of what the event symbolizes: a coming-together of different musicians, traditions, and histories. The digital discourse on Social Media that was held in anticipation of the concert promoted the celebration of differences within the joint ensemble and local newspaper articles highlighted the, at times stressful, process of making music across boundaries.[xvii]

Conclusion

To conclude, music and other forms of art are sought-after vehicles for social thought that help activists and communities organize themselves and shape their movement. The performance of a melody, rhythm, or choral singing, therefore, is the transposition of the social into the world, which is always with a certain kind of politics. The songs themselves, however, are constantly in translation. Popular songs in particular and the familiar ways in which people consume them are important for understanding how the familiar is gaining momentum as an activist strategy in recent movements.

The idea that music always remains in process suggests that a song itself has an identity that can be transformed so that its meaning is altered. Any such translation is a social and a political act. Maintaining and preserving the identity of a song across generations, in turn, reflects an agreement on a particular kind of interpretation over another. However, this essay demonstrated that the affective function of the familiar in groups should not be underestimated. The meaning of songs depends on how they are performed. Therefore, a closer investigation is needed to better understand the information that activists seek to convey by utilizing the popular in their work.

It is noteworthy that Pegida’s insistence in instrumentalizing traditional choral music for its political theater is something to be wary about. As the political climate continues to shift towards right-wing conservatism, there is a need to be aware of how the identity of currently celebrated and performed traditional music is constructed. The joint concert by the Bergfinken and Banda Internationale has shown that there is a need to retain some kind of openness to welcome other musics as part of a locale’s repertoire so that the activism that calls for intercultural dialogue also reflects the very essence of that in its music.  

Carolin Müller is a PhD candidate in Germanic Languages and Literatures at Ohio State University, where she obtained her MA in German Film. She also received a MEd in English and Art Studies from the Technical University Dresden. Her research draws on performance and bordering studies to focus on issues of belonging and citizenship in migrant and musical activism in Germany. She explores how the discourse on borders has shaped how cultural practices respond to, intervene, contest or critique social and political developments. Müller’s work has been published in The International Encyclopedia of Art and Design Education, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, On_Culture, and textpraxis, and heard at conferences across the United States and Europe.

Further Reading

[i] On the role of music in different protest movements across the globe, see Eunice Rojas and Lindsay Michie, Sounds of Resistance: The Role of Music in Multicultural Activism [2 Volumes]: The Role of Music in Multicultural Activism (Santa Barbara, CA, Denver, CL, Oxford: Praeger, 2013).

[ii] Francesca Polletta, “Contending Stories: Narrative in Social Movements,” Qualitative Sociology, 1998, 421.

[iii] Lindsay Michie and Vangeli Gamede, “‘The Toyi-Toyi Was Our Weapon’ The Role of Music in the Struggle Against Apartheid in South Africa,” in Sounds of Resistance: The Role of Music in Multicultural Activism [2 Volumes]: The Role of Music in Multicultural Activism, by Lindsay Michie and Eunice Rojas (Santa Barbara, CA, Denver, CL, Oxford: Praeger, 2013), 251–59.

[iv] Stephen Silverstein, “The Cuban Protest Song from Pablo Milanés to Los Aldeanos,” in Sounds of Resistance: The Role of Music in Multicultural Activism [2 Volumes]: The Role of Music in Multicultural Activism, by Lindsay Michie and Eunice Rojas (Santa Barbara, CA, Denver, CL, Oxford: Praeger, 2013), 397–421.

[v] Darci Sprengel, “‘Loud’ and ‘Quiet’ Politics: Questioning the Role of ‘the Artist’ in Street Art Projects after the 2011 Egyptian Revolution,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 23, no. 2 (March 1, 2020): 208–26, https://doi.org/10.1177/1367877919847212.

[vi] Hillary Leung, “Listen to the Song That Hong Kong’s Youthful Protesters Are Calling Their ‘National Anthem,’” Time, September 12, 2019, https://time.com/5672018/glory-to-hong-kong-protests-national-anthem/.

[vii] Eunice Rojas, “Introduction,” in Sounds of Resistance: The Role of Music in Multicultural Activism [2 Volumes]: The Role of Music in Multicultural Activism, by Lindsay Michie and Eunice Rojas (Santa Barbara, CA, Denver, CL, Oxford: Praeger, 2013), xi.

[viii] Michael Baldo’s analysis of the Italian queer transfeminist group ideadestroyingmuros demonstrates that the role of affect and emotions in activism is to translate how the performance of these as bodily acts creates action, Michael Baldo, “Translating Affect, Redeeming Life. The Case of the Italian Queer Transfeminist Group Ideadestroyingmuros,” The Translator, 2019.

[ix] James Connolly, “James Connolly: Revolutionary Song (1907),” Marxists’ Internet Archive, accessed January 13, 2020, https://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1907/xx/revsong.htm.

[x] For an overview of different artistic counter protest across Germany, see Kai Unzicker, “Kunst in Der Einwanderungsgesellschaft, Beiträge Der Künste Für Das Zusammenleben in Vielfalt” (Deutsche UNESCO-Kommission, Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2017). https://www.thelocal.de/20150113/inside-dresdens-pegida-march and https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-30777841

[xi] On the influence of music in the far-right scene, see Shekhovtsov, A., 2013. ‘European Far-Right Music and Its Enemies, in: Analysing Fascist Discourse. Routledge, New York, London, pp. 277–296. and on the complex relationship between jazz and politics in Harlem in the 1930s and 1940s, see Jonathon Bakan, “Jazz and the ‘Popular Front’: ‘Swing’ Musicians and the Left‐Wing Movement of the 1930s–1940s,” Jazz Perspectives, 2009, https://doi.org/10.1080/17494060902778118.

[xii] On the influence of folk music revival in Sweden during immigration debates in the 1970s, see David Kaminsky, “Keeping Sweden Swedish: Folk Music, Right-Wing Nationalism, and the Immigration Debate,” Journal of Folklore Research, 2012, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/jfolkrese.49.1.73.

[xiii] On the use of popular music in advertising, see https://nielsen.com/en/insights/article/2015/i-second-that-emotion-the-emotive-power-of-music-inadvertising/

[xiv] Jacques Rancière, On the Shores of Politics (London: Verso, 1995), 60.

[xv] Peter Gatrell, “Refugees—What’s Wrong with History?,” Journal of Refugee Studies 30, no. 2 (2017): 170–89.

[xvi] Gerhard Blail, O Du Fröhliche. Die Geschichte Unserer Schönsten Weihnachtslieder. (Stuttgart: Quell, 1994).

[xvii] https://amp-welt-de.cdn.ampproject.org/v/s/amp.welt.de/regionales/sachsen/article184963314/Weihnachtskonzerte-Banda-Internationale-und-Bergfinken.html?amp_js_v=a2&amp_gsa=1&usqp=mq331AQCKAE%3D#aoh=15792717210468&csi=1&referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com/amp_tf=Von%20%251%24s&ampshare=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.welt.de%2Fregionales%2Fsachsen%2Farticle184963314%2FWeihnachtskonzerte-Banda-Internationale-und-Bergfinken.html

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