Music as resistance playlist

Music has long been used as a form of resistance, from civil rights movements to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The latest issue of Index on Censorship magazine, focusing on taboos and the breaking down of social barriers, features an exclusive new short story by Ariel Dorfman about a military trumpeter who plays a defiant, rebellious song on his instrument.

In honour of the story, we have compiled a playlist of music that has been used as protest and resistance from all over the world. The influence of these songs show just how powerful music can be as a form of rebellion.

Many artists on the list have been forced into exile or censored. Index on Censorship has teamed up with the award-winning makers of the documentary They Will Have To Kill Us First to launch the Music in Exile Fund, which will help support musicians in similar situations.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – Ode to Joy

Ode to Joy has been adopted by many protest movements around the world. Most notably the song was played on the streets of Chile in resistance to the Pinochet dictatorship. Demonstrators gathered outside prisons singing Ode to Joy, giving strength to the prisoners who suffered torture there at the hands of the regime.

Joan Baez – We Shall Overcome

We Shall Overcome is a key protest song of the civil rights movement. The song, which has been covered by various artists, was first used in 1945 by tobacco workers fighting for better pay in Charleston, South Carolina. The song, with its message of solidarity and hope, has been used in many protests around the world, not least in the 1950s and 1960s by activists in the American civil rights movement.

Vuyisile Mini – Ndodemnyama we Verwoerd

Ndodemnyama we Verwoerd (Watch Out, Verwoerd) is one of the most well-known songs in South Africa due to its association with the campaign against apartheid. Hendrik Verwoerd, who served as prime minister of South Africa until his assassination in 1966, became known as the “architect of apartheid” for his role in implementing the system of racial segregation. Unsurprisingly, he became the subject of many protest songs, including Ndodemnyama we Verwoerd by Vuyisile Mini. Mini became one of the most powerful organisers of the resistance, earning himself the moniker the “organiser of unorganised”. He was sentenced to death in 1964 on charges of sabotage and political crimes and is said to have sung the song while being led to the gallows.

Winter 2015: What’s the taboo?

Editorial: Talk does not cost lives, silence does
Ariel Dorfman interview: Writer unveils new short story lost after Chilean coup
The Music as Resistance playlist
Full contents of the winter issue
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The Scorpions – Wind of Change

November 2015 marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. Many songs have been associated with the demise of the wall, which divided Berlin for nearly three decades, particularly Wind of Change by German heavy metal band The Scorpions. The song, one of peace and hope, was released a few months after the wall was torn down and became one of the top-selling singles of 1991. The music video to Wind of Change shows footage of the wall being removed.

Songhoy Blues – Al Hassidi Terei

The four members of Songhoy Blues met as refugees after being forced into exile by Muslim extremists who banned all music in Mali in 2012. In defiance of the extremists, they formed the desert blues band, refusing to have music taken away from them. They have since gone on to work with Damon Albarn of Blur and Nick Zimmer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, been on an international tour and were nominees for the arts category of the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards 2014.

Ramy Essam – Irhal

Irhal became known as the anthem of Egypt’s uprising against President Mubarak’s after singer Ramy Essam performed the song during the 2011 protests in Tahrir Square. Irhal, which urges the president to resign, became internationally known after Essam’s performance was posted on YouTube during the protests. After the revolution, Essam returned to Tahrir Square where he was arrested and tortured by the military council. He was offered safe city residence in Sweden following his arrest and has been living there since 2014.

Tropicália/Gilberto Gil  – Miserere Nóbis

The Tropicália movement is a brief artistic movement that took place in Brazil in the 1960s. During the movement, which was co-founded by Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, musicians expressed their resistance to the country’s military dictatorship through their music and their socially and politically charged lyrics. The movement only lasted around a year before being suppressed by the military regime. Gil and Veloso were arrested in 1969 and forced to live in exile in London for the political content of their work but returned to Brazil in 1972.

Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit

Strange Fruit, most famously performed by Billie Holiday, protests American racism and the lynching of African Americans. The song began as a poem written by teacher Abel Meeropol published in 1937; Who then set it to music and performed it as a protest song at various venues in New York in the late 1930s along with his wife and the singer Laura Duncan.

Chieftains and Sinead O’Connor – Foggy Dew

Foggy Dew is the name of several old Irish ballad. This version of the song chronicles the Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin when Irishmen fought for the cause of Irish independence. During World War I, thousands of Irishmen served in the British forces. Many Irish nationalists felt they should have stayed in Ireland and fought for Irish independence, which is reflected in the song.

Killing in the Name – Rage Against The Machine

American rap-metal band Rage Against the Machine released Killing in the Name in 1992, six months after the Los Angeles riots, which were triggered after four white police officers were acquitted of beating black motorist Rodney King. The song is institutional racism and police brutality. Known for its excessive use of expletives, Killing in the Name originally received little air time.

Joe Strummer (The Clash) mural, London. Credit: Flickr / Matt Brown

Joe Strummer (The Clash) mural, London. Credit: Flickr / Matt Brown

The Clash – White Riot

When The Clash released White Riot, many people thought it was a song advocating some kind of race war. This couldn’t be further from the truth. With the lyrics, Joe Strummer was appealing to white youths to find a worthy cause to fight (or riot) for, just as many black youths had in the UK at the time. At its heart, it is a song about class and race.

Bob Marley – Get Up, Stand Up

Bob Marley is renowned for his songs about peace, love and resistance. With Get Up, Stand Up being one of his most well-known protest songs. Marley wrote the song with fellow Jamaican musician Peter Tosh as a challenge to oppression. The song is famed for the lyrics: “You can fool some people sometimes but you can’t fool all the people all the time.”

Pete Seeger – Joe Hill

Joe Hill was a miner, songwriter and union organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Hill was executed in America in 1915 following a controversial trial in which he was found guilty of the murders of John G Morrison and his son Arling. Hill refused to testify at his trial believing he would be worth more to the labour movement as a dead martyr than alive. After his death, Hill was the subject of songs by various artists, including Paul Robeson, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger.

Sam Cooke – A Change Is Gonna Come

A Change Is Gonna Come has been covered by various artist but was originally written by Sam Cooke. The song is another civil rights anthem concerning the struggles of African Americans during the 1960s. Cooke was said to have been inspired to write to song by various events in his life, predominantly being turned away from a “whites only” hotel. The singer was shot and killed just before the song was due to be released as a single in 1964.

Tinariwen – Lulla

Tinariwen are made up of musicians from the Tuareg community, whose music reflects the issues faced by the Tuareg people. The musicians received military training when they were living in exile in Libya in the 1980s, and many of the members of Tinariwen were rebel fighters in the 1990 revolt against the Malian government. In 1991, the collective, who’s name translates to “the people of the desert”, left the military to focus on music on a full-time basis.

Eagles of Death Metal – People Have the Power

On 8 December, Eagles of Death Metal joined U2 on stage in Paris, just three weeks after Muslim extremists launched an attack at their concert at the Bataclan Theatre, killing 89 people, plus 41 in two other attacks. Together the bands performed a cover of Patti Smith’s People Have the Power, showing bravery and resistance against the terrorists who left the city in fear.


You can read the Ariel Dorfman’s new short story, All I Ever Have, about music as a form of resistance in the latest Index on Censorship magazine. Each magazine sale helps Index on Censorship fight for free expression worldwide. Order your copy here, or take out a digital subscription via Exact Editions (just £18 for the year).

The Music In Exile Fund playlist

UPDATE: Following the attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015, including the murder of 89 innocent concertgoers at Le Bataclan theatre, the Eagles of Death Metal have been added to the Music in Exile Fund playlist.


With the release of They Will Have To Kill Us First — Johanna Schwartz’s award-winning new documentary about Malian musicians who stood up to Islamists — comes the launch of the Music In Exile Fund, which will raise money to help musicians facing censorship globally.

Given the treatment of music by governments of all types from the early 20th century until today, it is clear to see it is a medium of real power. It can change minds and spread ideas. Works have been banned and artists imprisoned and sometimes even killed. In some cases, musicians flee their home country or are banned from entering another.

Here is our celebration of music and musicians who have provoked  debate, censorship or worked despite society’s disapproval. Listen to our playlist of some of the best songs and artists from this group of determined musicians.

1) Erwin Schulhoff – String Quartet No. 1

Jewish artists suffered under Hitler’s persecution. Dozens of composers were killed. Fortunately, much of Erwin Schulhoff’s work has survived for later generations. Schulhoff briefly studied piano with Debussy, and was awarded the Mendelssohn Prize in 1913 for his piano achievements and again after World War I for his compositions. He was sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1941 and died in the Salzburg concentration camp in 1942.

2) George Formby – When I’m Cleaning Windows

Before Elvis sent shockwaves through the music world with a swivel of his hips, George Formby was going head-to-head with censors for his use of innuendo. Compared to the expletive-laden music that tended to come up against censors later in the century, Formby was relatively mild. The ukulele player from Wigan found himself on the BBC banned list for lyrics like: “Pyjamas lyin’ side by side, Ladies nighties I have spied, I’ve often seen what goes inside, When I’m cleanin’ windows.”

3) Victor Jara – El Lazo

Victor Jara is one of the best-known musicians to have paid the ultimate price for being outspoken and critical of a despotic regime. The a folk singer, theatre director and communist party member was taken prisoner during the coup by General Augusto Pinochet. He was tortured, beaten and made to play Russian roulette before being executed on 16 September 1973. Over 40 years after his murder, 10 of the alleged perpetrators were finally brought to justice.

4) Sir Paul McCartney & Wings – Give Ireland Back To The Irish

In January 1972, Paul McCartney was moved by the events of Bloody Sunday in the Bogside area of Derry, Northern Ireland, when British soldiers killed 14 civil rights protesters. His anger turned into Give Ireland back To The Irish, released a month later, and was the first single by Wings. Given the political tensions of the time, the song was banned by BBC, both on the radio and television.

5) Crass – Where Next Columbus?

Anarcho-punk ensemble Crass had a penchant for catchy album titles. Penis Envy, their 1980 release is a fairly typical example. Many record stores in the UK wouldn’t sell the album after one store was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act for stocking it.

6) Fela Kuti – Colonial Mentality

Fela Kuti is one of Nigeria’s most influential and outspoken musicians. His political campaigning was so effective that he was arrested 200 times, and once sentenced to five years in prison by a military court for currency smuggling. Amnesty International campaigned for his release, calling him a prisoner of conscience. He served a year and a half of the sentence and always protested his innocence.

7) Stiff Little Fingers – Beirut Moon

Stiff Little Fingers are the band that epitomised punk’s anti-sectarian message in Northern Ireland. But their politics spread much wider than the six counties. The first single from their 1991 Flags and Emblems album was withdrawn from sale on the first day of release because it criticised the British government for not acting to free journalist, writer and broadcaster John McCarthy, who had been held during the in the Lebanon hostage crisis

8) Frankie Goes To Hollywood – Relax

When BBC DJ Mike Read pulled Relax from the airwaves, criticising it for being overtly sexual and “disgusting” he probably didn’t think he would be making history. The song we all know today became the seventh biggest selling single of all time, and the publicity over the controversy couldn’t have hurt. A really good example of how censorship often backfires. Frankie says relax!

9) Body Count – Cop Killer

During the 1990s, American politicians — while divided on many things — seemed united in their distaste of rap. From Democrat Tipper Gore riffing on it in Congress to Republican President H.W. Bush calling it “sick, Ice T’s Cop Killer was public enemy number one. It was subsequently pulled from his metal band Body Count’s debut album.

10) Lavon Volski – Starszynia

Lavon Volski is an icon, not only of rock music in Belarus but of the country’s opposition movement. It is probably of no surprise then that under the current government in Belarus, the guitarist and singer, along with his group Krambambulya are blacklisted.

11) Tyler The Creator – Yonkers

Rapper Tyler, The Creator, was barred from entering the UK in August this year for a period of three to five years due to his controversial lyrics. The Home Office claimed the rapper’s music “fosters hatred with views that seek to provoke others to terrorist acts” and “encourages violence and intolerance of homosexuality.” Tyler will be the first-ever musician to be banned from the UK because of lyrical content — effectively considering an artist on par with a terrorist or hate-preacher.

12) El Haqed – Dawla

Mouad Belghouat is a Moroccan rapper and human rights activist who releases music under the moniker El Haqed. His music has publicised widespread poverty and endemic government corruption in Morocco since he sang Stop the Silence in 2011 and galvanised Moroccans to protest against their government. He has been imprisoned on spurious charges and is banned from performing or releasing music in his home country.

13) Songhoy Blues – Soubour

Songhoy Blues are an energetic band from Mali with inspiring beginnings. They fled their homes as refugee  in the north of the country when Islamists took over. All four musicians met each other for the first time when they reached the safety of Bamako and, having decided they couldn’t remain silent, formed a band. Their music and story feature heavily in the film They Will Have To Kill Us First.

14) Ramy Essam – Foul Caviar

Ramy Essam was the voice of the Egyptian revolution which began in 2011. In just under three weeks at Tahrir Square, he found fame. His song Irhal, in which he urged Hosni Mubarak to step down, gained great popularity among the demonstrators. When the army moved in to clear the square, he was arrested and subsequently tortured. In October 2014, Essam was offered safe residence in Sweden for two years.

15) Ikonoklasta – Revolução

Luaty Beirão, aka Ikonoklasta, is a 33-year-old Angolan revolutionary rapper known for his politicised lyrics and criticism of the government. But since June, he has been in prison on charges of plotting to overthrow President Eduardo dos Santos. Beirão is currently on a hunger strike and, according to his family, in critical condition.

16) Eagles of Death Metal – So Easy

On 13 November 2015, the Eagles of Death Metal were playing a sold-out concert at Le Bataclan theatre in Paris when the venue was attacked by terrorists, who killed 89 concertgoers. The attackers shot randomly into the crowd and detonated explosive vests. All band members survived. However, 36-year-old Nick Alexander, who worked the band’s merchandise table, was among those killed.

You can donate to the Music In Exile Fund here.