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Every protest movement has its soundtrack

Demonstrators play music during a gathering to mark the second anniversary of the 15M movement at Madrid's landmark Puerta del Sol Square May 15, 2013
Demonstrators play music during a gathering to mark the second anniversary of the 15M movement at Madrid's landmark Puerta del Sol Square May 15, 2013

REUTERS/Susana Vera

“One good song with a message can bring a point more deeply to more people than a thousand rallies.”

This quote is attributed to musician Philip Ochs, an American protest singer who performed at many political events during the 1960s, including anti-Vietnam war and civil rights rallies.

His words ring truer than ever in today's digital world. Songs of protest are heard not just at demonstrations but inside the homes of people far removed from the struggle, garnering millions of clicks online and eliciting emotional reactions from around the world. One of the most dramatic effects of music is its power to transport us to a specific time, place, and feeling. Protest music has the ability to embody the passion, the anger, and the powerful sense of unity felt by those who come together to fight for change.

In 2015, for Music Freedom Day, we were motivated to share songs that became unofficial anthems of some of the biggest protests in the preceding five years. Some were inspired by mass demonstrations and others have helped inspire them. This year, we've updated our list of protest songs to include mass demonstrations from the last two years as well.

Romania – Balada lui Dragnea (Dragnea’s Ballad)

During the first week of February 2017, Romania witnessed the largest mass demonstrations since the collapse of communism in 1989. What started out on 18 January with only a couple thousand demonstrators protesting the newly elected Social Democratic Party's (PSD) blatant attempts at getting away with corruption in office, turned into a headline-grabbing, half a million strong protest demanding the government's resignation.

In the early days of the protest movement, young psychology graduate Marilena Mihailescu wrote a satirical song dedicated to Liviu Dragnea, the head of the PSD, who is currently facing corruption charges. The song went viral a few hours after being posted on Facebook, and Mihailescu went on to perform it at many of the protests that followed.

Learn about free expression issues in Romania here.

United States – I Can’t Keep Quiet

One day after inaugurating into office a man who has been criticised for running the most audaciously racist, misogynistic and divisive political campaign in recent US history, hundreds of thousands of women descended on Washington in protest. Women-led marches also took place in over 600 locations spread across seven continents. It was an historic show of solidarity and a sign that women will not stand for the normalization of misogyny and sexism.

When 30-year-old singer and songwriter Connie Lim wrote her song 'Quiet' over a year ago to challenge and process the trauma of domestic violence she suffered as a 14-year-old, she had no idea it would become the unofficial anthem to the Women's March on Washington. The words 'I can't keep quiet', with which she starts her moving chorus, soon inspired the #ICantKeepQuiet movement, dedicated to breaking the cycles of oppression and fear, perpetuated by Donald Trump, his administration, and the media.

Learn about free expression issues in the United States here.

Venezuela – Valiente (Brave)

On 1 September 2016, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets of Caracas calling for a referendum to oust President Nicolas Maduro from office. Leading up to the mass demonstrations, Venezuela had been – and still is – suffering from record problems, including one of the world's highest inflation rates, a rapidly falling currency and huge shortages in food, medicine, and electricity. Protesters and the opposition blame Maduro and his United Socialist Party (PSUV), in power for 18 years now, for the economic crisis and argue that only a change in leadership can pull the country back from the brink.

To coincide with the mass demonstration scheduled for 1 September, Venezuelan artist Ignacio Mendoza, also known as Nacho, released the song 'Valiente', encouraging his fellow citizens to fight for a better future.

Learn about free expression issues in Venezuela here.

Standing Rock Sioux Reservation - Water is Life

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has been opposing the $3.8 million, 1,200-mile Dakota Access Pipeline since learning about plans for its construction in 2014. Their attempts to block the project, which threatens the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation's only supply of drinking water and its cultural sites, only started to gain traction and international attention in April 2016, when protesters started to camp out near construction sites directly in the path of the proposed pipeline. Protesters continued to camp out through the harsh North Dakota winter and were joined by celebrities, civic activists and concerned individuals from across the country

The phrase Mni Wiconi, which means Water is Life in the Siouan language spoken by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, became a rallying cry for all those opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline. Countless chants, songs, and dances have been inspired by this phrase and dedicated to the grassroots movement. In the video below, the Camp Pueblo Singers perform live inside a teepee in one of the encampments along the pipeline's path. While the fight against its construction now looks unwinnable, the tribe, its allies, and environmental activists have vowed to continue in their resistance efforts.

Lebanon – You Stink

For the Lebanese – who have consistently been failed and exploited by successive governments for years– a garbage crisis sparked by the closure of a Beirut landfill in July 2015 was the tipping point. As trash piled up on the sides of Beirut's roads and floated down its river, young activists began to mobilize under a non-partisan movement they aptly called 'You Stink', referring both to the rubbish pile-up and to the inherent corruption that characterizes the country's political class. On 29 August, thousands rallied in downtown Beirut calling for change in government. Protests continued to take place for some months after. Several pop songs inspired by the movement's slogan started to appear online but they didn't gain much traction. A rap song performed at one of the protests, however, was widely shared amongst activists for its starkly honest depiction of the reality on the ground. It garnered over 50,000 views on Facebook.

Learn about free expression issues in Lebanon here.

Mexico – Grito de Guerra (War Cry)

On 26 September 2014, the disappearance and probable murder of 43 students from Ayotzinapa teacher's college in Guerrero, Mexico led to mass demonstrations in the capital demanding government action and accountability. The protests inspired a group of Mexican musicians to release the song Grito de Guerra, or “War Cry”, a song set to the rhythm of cumbia (a popular music genre in Latin America), to raise funds to support the parents of the missing students. The musicians can be found on Twitter at @Grito_GuerraMX.

Learn about free expression issues in Mexico here.

Ukraine – Vitya Ciao (Goodbye Victor)

In late November 2013, Ukrainian activists, students, and opposition supporters began gathering in the streets to protest then President Victor Yanukovych's decision to abandon a series of trade agreements with the European Union. Protests escalated and in early December, the song Vitya Ciao, or “Goodbye, Victor”, a clear reference to Victor Yanukovych, was posted on YouTube, went viral and gathered close to one million views. The song, based on the popular Italian song “Bella Ciao”, was heard often on the streets as well. On 22 February, parliament voted to remove Yanukovych from power.

Learn about free expression issues in the Ukraine here.

Turkey – Tencere Tava Havasi (Sound of Pots and Pans)

In the summer of 2013, a wave of demonstrations, starting with a small protest over the redevelopment of Istanbul's Gezi Park – one of the city's last green spaces – rocked Turkey. The protests had a distinct element of humour. Nearly every statement made by the Prime Minister Erdogan during the protests was held up to ridicule in slogans, images, and songs. The song featured here begins with a frustrated Erdogan saying, "I am going to say one single thing: Saucepans and frying pans: it's all the same." Erdogan was referring to people banging pans from inside their own homes as an act of support to the protesters being beaten by police in Taksim Square.

Learn about free expression issues in Turkey here.

Hong Kong – Holding An Umbrella

In September 2014, a student-led movement which became widely known as the Umbrella Revolution began to take hold in Hong Kong. After Beijing ruled out open nominations for the position of Hong King Chief Executive in the 2017 elections, people spontaneously converged on the city's financial district. The umbrella became a potent symbol because it was used by demonstrators to defend themselves against the pepper spray being wielded by police to break up the demonstration. To support the protest, lyricist Albert Leung (also known by the penname Lin Xi) penned the song “Holding An Umbrella” in two days. Denise Ho and Anthony Wong performed it at the “Citizens Against Violence — Peaceful Resistance” rally in Hong Kong's Admiralty district.

Learn about free expression issues in Hong Kong here.

United States – I Can't Breathe

The fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri on 9 August 2014, sparked massive protests against police brutality and racism in cities across the country. Demonstrations gained momentum after the subsesquent deaths of John Crawford III and Eric Garner, also at the hands of police officers. Eric Garner's last words, repeated 11 times while a police officer put him in a chokehold, became a powerful symbol of the protest movement. “I can't breathe,” is now the name of a song heard on the streets and widely shared on social media. Written by the Peace Poets, a collective of artists “that celebrate, examine and advocate for life through music and poetry”, the song's simplicity makes it easy to recognize and repeat, march after march.

Senegal – Na Dem (Go Away)

In 2012, when Senegal's then president Abdoulaye Wade announced he was running for a controversial third term re-election, despite the constitution's two-term limit, Senegalese rapper Red Black released the song Na Dem, which means “go away” in the country's most widely spoken language, Wolof. It called on people to stand with him if they wanted the president gone. Many of the 13 opposition candidates began incorporating the song into their election campaigns, and it could be heard at nearly every protest. Wade lost the second round of voting to then opposition candidate Macky Sall, whom Red Black supported.

Learn about free expression issues in Senegal here.

Tunisia – Rayes le Bled (President of the Country)

A couple of weeks before the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, a young Tunisian rapper – known to his fans as El General – put out a song entitled Rayes le Bled, which means “President of the Country”, in which he raged against the failure of the authorities to deal with poverty, unemployment and corruption in his country. A week later, as demonstrations and international attention grew, protesters adopted his track as their call to revolution. El General still raps today and in 2014 he put out a sequel “Rayes El Bled 2” in which he rapped about a Tunisia he sees as not much different from his pre-revolution country.

Learn about free expression issues in Tunisia here.

Egypt – Irhal (Leave)

Ramy Essam was not particularly well known before protesters in Egypt ousted Hosni Mubarak and captivated the world's attention in 2011. Now, his song Irhal, meaning “Leave” in Arabic, is known as the song of that revolution, and Essam himself has been dubbed the “voice of the Egyptian uprising”. The lyrics include the most popular chants and slogans that were heard in Tahrir Square during the 18 days of revolution. Essam still writes and performs political songs today.

Learn about free expression issues in Egypt here.

Spain – La Solfonica

In Spain, an ongoing anti-austerity movement, also referred to as the 15-M movement, began on 15 May 2011 with demonstrations taking place in more than 50 Spanish cities. Since the ongoing economic crisis began, Spain has had one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe. In late March 2014, protesters from across Spain converged on Madrid to participate in the “Dignity Marches” and to express discontent with the administration's severe austerity measures. An open collective of singers and musicians known as La Solfonica could be spotted serenading thousands of demonstrators gathered in Madrid's plazas. On 22 March, Spanish riot police surrounded protesters and fired rubber bullets at them. The following video shows scenes from the night and features songs performed by La Salfonica, it also shows the moment members of La Solfonica raised their instruments in the air and chanted, “these are our weapons,” as police officers were attempting to disperse the crowds.

Music Freedom Day is celebrated every year on 3 March. Click here to learn more about it.

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