Songs in the Key of Revolution

Brad Evans talks to Neo Muyanga, a South African composer, musician, and cultural activist.

Songs in the Key of Revolution

THIS IS THE SIXTH in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This discussion is with Neo Muyanga, a South African composer, musician, and cultural activist born in Soweto.


BRAD EVANS: The historical links between politics, violence, and music are well established. From early documented uses of musical accompaniments in the conduct of war, both to heighten the passions and signal the onslaught, to the psychological desire to utilize the power of sound (broadly understood) as a weapon of warfare, history is littered with examples of how the artistic can be appropriated for violent means. What remains neglected, however, is the way in which the lyrical has a more emancipatory dimension. Can you tell me more about your interest in this often forgotten history of revolutionary struggle?

NEO MUYANGA: I can’t pinpoint exactly when I became interested in revolutionary songs. This is largely because I was immersed in their presence, long before I understood their significance. I grew up in Soweto, during the last two decades of apartheid — a system of imposed racial segregation and the securing of white privilege that came to a legal end at the conclusion of the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994. The songs I heard growing up were revolutionary chants and hymns that spoke directly against this system; they were, happily, also songs that spoke of the valor and the dignity of the downtrodden in my own community. I don’t even remember how we learned them — the songs just seemed to accompany every aspect of our lives, be it going to school, playing sport, attending worship on a Sunday (if church was your thing), or when attending celebratory township gatherings or funerals over the weekends.

We used to sing the songs whenever we went out to protest against “the system” in the streets of Soweto, and they provided us with the stamina and the fervor needed. It didn’t matter if one was a good singer or not — what counted was being one among a mass, chanting in unison. The songs are particularly easy to learn, which makes them very effective for spontaneous outbursts of political solidarity too.

How might we meaningfully differentiate here between forms of music, which produced in a certain way have a clear and distinct relationship with regimes of power, against those arrangements that put themselves on the side of protest? 

I’d like to come at this by adding another question. What is it we actually do when we sing during a protest? Singing seems a distinctly counterintuitive expression of, say, anger or militancy, which are some of the key elements one expects it takes to animate a protest during a tense confrontation on some anonymous street corner of the globe. In her book Anthem, Shana Redmond tells us “beyond its many pleasures, music allows us to do and imagine things that may otherwise be unimaginable or seem impossible.”

There are countless famous songs included in the global repertoire of resistance that, on the surface, often seem so simple and straightforward as to offer very little in the way of revolutionary threat. Take, for instance, “Senzeni Na?” (what have we done?). This is a song which has been frequently sung during protests at least since the beginning of formal apartheid in South Africa (1948); or “We Shall Overcome,” a so-called negro spiritual sung by countless marchers during the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s; or more belatedly, the song “Ezzay,” written by Mohamed Mounir, asking “how come?” which was chanted widely and wildly in the megalopolis of Cairo and elsewhere as Egyptians brought down the reign of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

On the surface, all three of these songs are laments of one kind or another. They appear to operate on a level akin to what the perennial iconoclast Fela Kuti sought to describe the vectors inside his own music when he said during an interview, “despite my sadness I create joyful rhythms […] through happy music I tell you about the sadness of others.”

Is there not a danger here that we see these songs as part of the comforting blanket of culture, which, as you say, allows for a little escape despite the horrors of the everyday?

During a presentation I recently delivered entitled “Revolting Mass: A Survey of South African Songs of Protest,” I suggested pointedly that such songs could, in fact, be deployed — in the parlance of South African pseudo-technocrat speak — to great effect against a marauding enemy by virtue of the songs’ inherent ability to simultaneously suggest and access multiple registers and rationalities within those standing in opposing camps during a heated political stalemate.

Being a committed improvising musician, I chose to begin the presentation with this riff on the words associating the title: Revolting = disgusting = overturning = overthrowing mass = church liturgy = weight = the masses = the great, lumpen mob!

One of the political points I sought to make in presenting this barrage of jumbled words was the following: these songs of protest are not, in actual fact, music. That is to say, we certainly do not regard them in the way we would describe, say, a hymn or a pop song performed in its usual context. You won’t hear these protest songs played on your favorite radio station in the same way — certainly not in South Africa — since no one listens to this material; everyone (potentially) does this material when the circumstances call for it to be enacted.

To illustrate this idea, I shared a brief clip from film director Rehad Desai’s 2014 Emmy-winning documentary Miners Shot Down, which tracked the progress of a miner’s strike near Johannesburg in 2012 that culminated, tragically, in the shooting of more than 70 protesters and, ultimately, the killing of 34 strikers.

There is a chilling moment during the documentary: about 18 minutes in, the police threaten to use force to confiscate the miner’s traditional weapons (sticks, spears — their symbols of ethnic pride). That is when the striking miners who, in a show of respect, were kneeling down up until that moment, begin to clang their wares and break out in song. While singing, they rise up to their haunches and begin moving forward, past the line of policemen. Incredibly, the song they chose to sing, at this very tense moment during the negotiations, was a song about “testicles going hard.” This was a move, which may well have been meant as an insult to the very policemen they faced squarely, which policemen promptly began to cock and aim their shotguns.

The miners managed to walk away, on this occasion, without any shots being fired. That tragedy was to occur just two days later. After watching the scene in the film just described, it is my contention that the reason why violence didn’t occur on occasion in Marikana was because the song the miners sang put up for them a kind of invisible screen, a protective shield that either confused or marginally diffused the situation just enough so negotiations could be carried forward another day. The revolutionary power of song in this moment was all too apparent.

Do you think there is something unique to the colonial context here, where the use of song is not only part of a broader fabric of day-to-day revolutionary struggle, but also integral to the politics of memory and the proud assertion of identities across generations?

I tend to focus on the South African repertoire of the past four decades or so, as these are the songs of my own uprising; the songs with which I am most familiar. Songs like “Senzeni Na?,” “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” and others like them exemplify what Abdullah Ibrahim was referring to when he asserted, “the revolution in South Africa is the only revolution anywhere in the world that was done in four-part harmony.”

In this instance, four-part vocal harmony relates to the kind of musically hybrid aesthetics uniquely espoused by South Africa’s 19th- and 20th-century modernists: the Marcus Garvey/Du Bois–reading, missionary-schooled Africanists and founders of South Africa’s liberation movements, the ANC, and later the PAC and others. Many of these leaders were church folks: women and men for whom political manifestation had to do with exhibiting a dignity, discipline, a racial pride. Laments like “Senzeni Na?,” therefore, express what I would argue is a redoubtable and righteous indignation toward the rampant inhumanity operative in the kind of oppression they experienced due simply to the biological fact of their race. So yes, there is undoubtedly a colonial context to these harmonies — or to paraphrase Stevie Wonder, they are Songs in the Key of Revolution.

And in this regard, as your question intimates, we must take our understanding of these revolutionary poetic interventions a stage further. Songs such as “Senzeni Na?” held in them not only a shared pathos among those who saw themselves as victims, but also signaled that constituency’s fervent aspirations toward a political delivery from the extant systems of racial oppression — colonialism and apartheid. To the extent that such simple and straightforward songs were able to serve so effectively as ammunition against an oppressor during those periods in history exposes not only the horrifically technocratic lengths to which articulators of those same oppressive systems had to go to impose the will of the state, but also the everyday banalities of evil (as Hannah Arendt and Frantz Fanon understood all too well) it took to keep such humiliating, unjust maltreatment operable on a grand social scale.

The songs you have highlighted so far relate to an often “bracketed” conception of anticolonial struggle. And yet as authors such as David Theo Goldberg and Achille Mbembe, among others show, the very idea of the “post-colony” is a fiction often deployed by those in positions of power. How might we connect all this history to the contemporary political moment?

Today, protest music appears through the voices of the marginalized and oppressed in many countries around the world. Songs in revolt are now part of a common repertoire for those who confront highly combative political contexts, much exemplified in movements such as “Fees Must Fall” and “Rhodes Must Fall” both in South Africa and Britain, Black Lives Matter in the United States, the Zapatistas in Mexico and the movimento dos trabalhadores rurais sem terra (MST) in Brazil. These groupings are attracting more and more attention from scores of young people of color and the global media, arguably, both in response to untenable levels of continuing systemic racism, intolerance, and neglect, and the way they bring color to those who seek to suffocate existence.

In South Africa, for example, many well-rehearsed revolting songs are often recycled and remixed, posing an added irony: whereas chants like, “Siyaya Epitoli” (meaning: we are going, or rather marching, to Pretoria) were sung fervently in October 2015 by some of the youth marching on the government buildings to call for a no-fees-increase, that particular revolting song was pelted like a rock at the glass house now run by those erstwhile radicals of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, who sang the very same ditty to threaten apartheid, then ensconced in those selfsame hallowed halls of the union buildings. A kind of poignant switch had therefore been flipped, transposing a new band of revolutionaries at the door — in this case, the kids — out where the parents once revolted.

I will hazard a guess here and claim the poetic justice of the occasion will have struck a South African president much lauded as well as reviled for gleefully singing “Umshini Wam” at various high points during his rise up to high office. It was the same president who soon sanctioned a no-increase to all university fees for 2016, thus temporarily securing a reprieve. Yet it is also true that while revolting songs can shield, they can also cut like the sharp edge of truth against forgetting, against the arrogance and delusion of power. This political poignancy in South Africa today leaves a lingering confusion about which side of the generational pianoforte deserves the right to deploy these revolting songs on occasions, such as the one mentioned above.

This raises a whole number of challenging questions. Are the “authentic” instrumentalists, for instance, those who were pointed to by Abdullah Ibrahim earlier? Namely, the ones who sang the songs against apartheid, or are the “real authentic” instrumentalists the ones who are now stuck without any defenses against a globalism-captured state, like the miners in Marikana and their children? If so, do we need to write new revolting songs then, to shield the new revolting marginals?

My sense is the power of revolutionary songs is witnessed in their ability to stand the test of time. Such songs we should remember were not written against particular oppressors alone, but against a pervasive and highly articulated system of racial, gender-based, and classist oppression. It is for this reason that the older songs are just as relevant (and as revolting) today as they have ever been. After all, systems of stratification by race, gender, and class remain at play. Perhaps the songs can, however, be restrung and tuned to agitate at a higher frequency, making those who enter the hallowed halls of power as the new captains remember what is at stake. And in doing so, what may change is the mode agitating assumes now, as it performs itself in a posture no longer revolutionary in inflection as was the case at the turn of the 20th century, but targeting new forms of oppression and domination in the key of something different.


Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.

LARB Contributor

Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is author of over 17 books and edited volumes, including most recently Ecce Humanitas: Beholding the Pain of Humanity (2021) and Conversations on Violence: An Anthology (with Adrian Parr, 2021). He leads the Los Angeles Review of Books “Histories of Violence” section.


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