An unequal music

Ashwini Mishra | Updated on April 17, 2014

Sound and fury: Ashwini Mishra wants to be heard: Photo: Satyen Bordoloi


A ‘raptivist’ lends his voice to the many songs of freedom

N o protest march has been complete without a protest song. From the gospel songs of the Civil Rights Movement in America and the freedom ballads of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa to the protests against Vedanta in Niyamgiri, music has always played a crucial part.

In the past, I have been called a “raptivist” but I prefer, protest musician. My music is an act of protest, an expression of dissent. As I have become more active, I have realised that my music cannot ring true if I’m not involved in the struggles I write about. My musical activism is as much on the streets as it is in the studio and onstage. Over the last year, I have participated in several rallies, both as a performer and as an agitator.

2013 was the year that saw middleclass protesters erupt on to the streets — whether it was the surge after the Delhi gang rape or the anti-377 protests in December. But India also saw demonstrations at the grassroots that were equally important. I had the privilege of being a part of both, observing resistance on different planes.

If protest music is a religion, one of the places of worship is Ambedkar Bhavan in Dadar, Mumbai. With its long and rich history, it has been a site of many cultural performances that continue to play a big role in the Ambedkarite movement.

On January 26, 2013, we had a special protest concert on the theme of freedom of expression — ‘Bol ke lab azad hain tere’ (say that your words are free, from Faiz’s works) at the Bhavan. This was, among other things, a reaction to the arrest of the two Palghar girls for their Facebook post on Bal Thackeray’s death. At this concert, I had the privilege of performing with street theatre artists, folk musicians, poets and fellow cultural activists. Sambhaji Bhagat and his cultural troupe performed, and so did the musician-activists from Mumbai, the Republican Panthers. Although Deepak Dengle of Kabir Kala Manch, a band of Pune-based Dalit protest singers, was in prison at the time, his poetry was read out. The names, Kabir Kala Manch and Republican Panthers, may seem new to crowds that throng Blue Frog and Hard Rock, but to their audiences, Kabir Kala and the Panthers are rockstars for their music, passion and honesty.

As political artists, we are often told to tone down our politics. But Ambedkar Bhavan was a platform where political content and artistic dissent was celebrated. We performed in Marathi, Hindi and English. But across languages, one thing was consistent — the theme of resistance.

Protest music can’t be confined to a stage; it belongs to the streets too. One of the street protests, held last year in Delhi, was a musical satyagraha in front of Patiala Court. We stood outside the court and sang to a crowd about AFSPA in Manipur. This protest, held on May 22 (the day of the court hearing), was in solidarity with Irom Sharmila’s 14-year fast against AFSPA. One of the great things about protesting in open spaces is people walking into our performances, asking questions. As we sang that day, many young people came up to us to know more; college students asking simple questions like ‘do you think all soldiers are bad?’ It was a powerful moment when they told us that our songs, not lectures and seminars, made them think. And that, in a nutshell, is why we do what we do.

Of the many demonstrations I was part of last year, the most memorable moment was at Bijbehara in Islamabad (Anantnag), Kashmir. On October 22, 1993, over 40 Kashmiris were massacred by the armed forces. In 2013, I went to the town to attend a meeting held in a mosque. It was interesting to see the enthusiasm of the young attendees; even the choice of a mosque as a site of dissent. The mosque became more than just a place of worship. It became a common space for the community to rally round.

There were many other protests where I sang, and there will be many more. From the Golibar Demolitions protest and the march for Soni Sori to protests for Muzaffarnagar riot victims and the anti-POSCO marches across the nation, the struggle continues. What remains is the need to reclaim public spaces and use the power of protest music.

On that note, here’s an excerpt from one of my unreleased songs:

Rise Up

We protest, we resist, we stand up and we fight,

Do your best, raise your fist, understand what is right,

Understand what is right, I put my hand on this mic,

To take a stand, this is life, they think their plans will survive,

The wrath, the voice of people, but their glasses are quite cracked,

Lack of choice is evil, they can’t see, the masses will strike back,

Revolution is coming, you can run or you can stand,

The resolution is stunning, Justice in HD, that’s humongous demand,

I’m an emcee who just spits, let me just bust it and go speak,

No Peace No Justice, No Justice and No Peace.

( Ashwini Mishra is a protest musician from Mumbai ( director at the Nirman Foundation. Views are personal.)

Published on January 25, 2014

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