As Childish Gambino's 'This is America' breaks the internet, a playlist of protest music from the Indian subcontinent

Shubhra Dixit

May 12, 2018 18:14:54 IST

Who would have thought that instead of Kim Kardashian’s derriere, Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’ would finally be what broke the internet?

The singer’s new song and video has been hailed in all halls of the online world, fast reaching 84 million views (at last count), within six days.

Unlike a ‘Gangnam Style’, ‘Despacito’, or any other pop track, its popularity is not pegged on its hook, or bizarre dance moves; this is an anti-establishment song with commentary on everything from gun violence, racism, pop culture escapism, and politics in the US, leading to realms of thinkpieces attempting to decode the messaging in the video.

To be fair, other black (and non black) musicians in the US have been producing political works as well, but Childish Gambino’s (the musical alter ego of actor Donald Glover) track has managed to get the world’s attention. Appearing on Saturday Night Live where Glover first performed ‘This is America’ he described himself as a triple threat — “I’m an actor, a writer and a singer. Some people have described me as a triple threat. But I kind of like to call myself just a threat.” When the video dropped, it sent culture commentators (read: everyone) into a tizzy.

While music with political overtones flourished in the '60s and '70s in the US, and continues to in a lesser degree, in the Indian subcontinent it has become increasingly rare for pop culture to comment on the politics of our times.

Music has a close relationship to politics, used as it is by every state to instil patriotism and nationalism in its citizenry through anthems/songs and other versions of musical, hummable love for the nation state. (Think for a minute about the brouhaha surrounding the playing of national anthem in our movie theatres.)

Even as Hindi film music becomes more and more unintelligible, there still appears every so often music that engages its audience in something other than escapist fantasies. It is generally films with a political conscience that carry this form of music, for instance Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz that features a song called 'Chipkali', or Dibakar Bannerjee’s Shanghai where an irreverent ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ plays out as our anti-heroes dance to “Sone ki chidiya Dengue, Malaria/ Gud bhi hai, Gobar bhi/ Bharat Mata ki jai”. There are youtube channels like Sambhaji Bhagat’s ‘The War Beat’ where one can hear besides the poet himself, Sachin Male and Sheetal Sathe of the Kabir Kala Manch. But what else resides in the annals of what Rahul Ram of Indian Ocean would call “educated middle class protest music” (and in the case of this article primarily Hindi)?

'Azaadi' — Dub Sharma

In 2015, when Jawaharlal Nehru University students got the nation’s attention for a protest against the killing of Masood Azhar, what followed was a lot of bandying about on nightly TV debates on the matter. When Kanhaiya Kumar, the student union leader, returned to his campus he gave a rousing speech on 'Azaadi', which was picked up by a Punjabi DJ Dub Sharma and mixed into this catchy riff, demanding azaadi from hunger, caste, class, among others.

'Beneath this Sky' — MC Kash

Calls for azaadi until 2015 were mostly associated with Kashmir. The troubled state has produced some of the best protest music in our country. In Beneath this Sky, MC Kash sings:

Parlimentarian Stupids Be Talkin' Revolution
While Supplyin' Our Streets With Drugs And Prostitution
Stupid F**ks , Be Socialisin' With Rats
Who When Given A Chance Will Shoot A Hole In There Backs 

'Manzoor Nahi Hai' — Ali Saffudin

Another rising musician from Kashmir, Ali Saffuddin wrote the song ‘Manzoor Nahi Hai’ against a planned trip to the state by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015.

'Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Pe' — Rabbi Shergill

Earlier, Rabbi Shergill asked ‘Jinhe naaz hai Hind pe, woh kahan hai?’ The riff is taken from an old Guru Dutt song and tells the stories of four people — Bilqis Yaqoob Rasool, a 19-year-old Muslim girl who was raped during the 2002 Gujarat riots; Satyendra Dubey, a DGM in the National Highway Authority of India who complained of irregularities and was shot dead; Shanmughan Manjunath, an employee of the Indian Oil Corporation who sealed petrol pumps for adulterated petrol and was also shot dead; Navleen Kumar, an activist for land rights of adivasis and tribals, who was stabbed 19 times in June 2002.

‘Gaon Chodab Nahi’ — Based on a song by adivasi leader Bhaghwan Maaji

Gaon Chodab Nahi (We Will Not Leave Our Village)’ a protest song for the tribals and adivasis who are losing their lands to mining companies, has become more popular over time. It is the subaltern's song against the spectre of “development”.

'Mr President is Coming' — Imphal Talkies and The Howlers

Manipur band Imphal Talkies sings about the curfew in the state when Pranab Mukherjee visits, in 'Mr President is Coming'.

‘Hum Dekhenge’ — Based on a poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz; sung by Tina Sani

Pakistan has produced some of the best anti-establishment music, having suffered through so many years of political instability. Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s inimitable poem against authority — ‘Hum Dekhenge’ — has been covered by many singers. Here, Pakistani singer Tina Sani sings the poem in Kathmandu:

“Jab zulm-o-sitam ke koh-e-garan
Rooi ki tarah ur jaenge
Hum mehkoomon ke paaon tale
Ye dharti dhar dhar dharkegi
Aur ahl-e-hakam ke sar oopar
Jab bijli kar kar karkegi

(When the enormous mountains of tyranny
blow away like cotton.
Under our feet — the feet of the oppressed —
when the earth will pulsate deafeningly
and on the heads of our rulers
when lightning will strike.)”

'Awaam' — Faris Shafi

Faris Shafi does not hold back in his song 'Awaam'. He sings:

“Pakistan vaar pay tayaar hai,
Haath main talwaar tai, qalam to bekaar hai,
issi liyay sub berozgaar pareshaan hain,
Loadshedding say you khas, tour pay yeh kaum, Awaazaar hai,
Lahore, main andheray, aur bomb bhee batheray…

(Pakistan is on the brink of war
With swords in our hands, the pen’s become worthless
This is why all the unemployed are stressed out
Power outages are what bothers this nation especially
Lahore’s become dark, with bombs aplenty)”

Bonus track:

The irreverent 'Aloo Anday' by Beygairat Brigade.

Updated Date: Jun 13, 2018 13:42:54 IST