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Music of Oppression, Music of Resistance


The conditions of an oppressed group’s lived experience are directly connected to the kind of resistance songs that the members of that group will produce. For example, “La Marseillaise” became the anthem of French revolutionaries in the late eighteenth century at about the same time as revolutionary Haitian slaves were gathering in the hills above Port-au-Prince to play their instruments and invoke the spirits of their ancestors. The Paris Commune, as many people know, is commemorated by “The Internationale.” What’s more, the genres of both Irish revolutionary songs and the Mexican corridos arose in concert with the Irish and Mexican insurrections earlier in the twentieth century.

The Black Resistance Heritage

In North America, W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (Vintage, 1903/1990) is laced with musical quotations and reflects the fact that songwriting may be “the one true expression of a people’s sorrow, despair and hope.” The Wobblies wrote and performed songs as instruments of mobilization in the early twentieth century. Lawrence Gellert’s early twentieth-century collection of Afro-American songs contained amongst them over two hundred protest songs. Music and the civil-rights movement of the sixties became virtually synonymous, as many African-American artists, from James Brown to Stevie Wonder, celebrated black consciousness or called for social change.

Rap artists from Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five through KRS-One and Public Enemy to today’s gangsta-rap performers like Chamillionaire, Juvenile, Ice Cube and, more generally, the French rappers who presaged last year’s urban riots have shown that, when social conditions provide material for rebellion, there is often a musical outcome. While gangsta rappers deserve critique for the misogyny still prevalent in their material, listeners are directed to Toronto’s remarkable K’naan and the downright radical work of Oakland’s exquisitely literate The Coup and their album, Pick a Bigger Weapon (Epitaph, 2006), for revolutionary funk with a sense of humour. There may be no better commemoration of the politics of Hurricane Katrina than the “Hurricane Song” by Allen Watty (see

The Wellspring of Indigenous Resistance Music

Contemporary Indigenous resistance music begins with Peter LaFarge’s Ira Hayes and Other Ballads (Columbia, 1961), followed most notably by Buffy Sainte-Marie’s historical ballad “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone” on her debut album, It’s My Way (Vanguard, 1964). In Canada, David Campbell was active on the folk-music scene. All three were part of the politicized folk-music revival of the period.


Asani has attracted worldwide attention, performing in South Africa, France, Finland and the U.S. (most notably Carnegie Hall, the Smithsonian Institute and the Kennedy Centre) and across Canada, from Vancouver to Cape Breton, via Montreal. In addition to being nominated for Aboriginal Recording of the Year at the 2006 Junos, Asani was nominated for Debut Artist/Group of the Year at this year’s Native American Music Awards. Yet, Asani has never had one of its repeated applications to an Alberta folk festival accepted, reflecting the marginalization of Aboriginal and other minority music characteristic of the music industry as a whole.

In The Trouble With Music, Mat Callahan argues that, “The music of the oppressed is ‘right now’ music. It is always intimately linked to generations of suffering and struggle within particular contexts, but it derives its vitality from being made right now and because of what it does right now for the sufferers. It is immediate, urgent, alive, and at the same it is eternal, ancient, timeless.”

Eekwol’s rap on Apprentice to the Mystery addresses domestic violence and other issues right now. The bluesy power of Asani’s “Rez Sister” concerns the situation of the majority of Aboriginal women, who live in the city right now. Asani’s soaring vocal range, close harmonies and clever melody propel this anthem to the resilience of urban Aboriginal women. “Rez Sister” is a call for unity and an expression of personal human strength in the face of adversity and oppression.

Against the Masters

The line “And someday we are gonna be free” can be traced back to African-American spirituals, thus both providing a universalist basis of unity and, in particular, connecting with other antiracist struggles with a historical resonance. Asani also challenges conditions faced by the victims of Bill C-31 right now in “Bill C-31 Blues” (“Yeah divide and conquer that’s the name of the game”). The use of the original language throughout the album in multiple ways shows respect and thereby establishes a basis of unity, at least among all Cree, and potentially among all Indigenous peoples.

Music of resistance is an important component of contemporary Aboriginal music. Such music fits well within the traditions of resistance practiced by oppressed peoples, including those other better-known traditions in North America. As Matt Callahan writes, “History is two dreams: that of the master and that of the slave. From Pharaoh to President, the master claims his prize. From Exodus to Insurrection, the slave dares to rise. To rule is right, dreams one. To rebel is justified, dreams the other.”

Perhaps the number of contemporary Aboriginal dreamers is a sign that some kind of rebellion is going on, that the slaves are rising once again.

Further Reading

Brian Wright-McLeod, The Encyclopedia of Native Music (University of Arizona Press, 2005).

Mat Callahan, The Trouble With Music (AK Press, 2005)


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