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January 23, 2014
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Music: The political power of music

A friend recently mentioned to me an astonishing thought that occurred to him at Jazzfest in 2007.

The Eagles were closing out the festival, and he witnessed the not-uncommon spectacle of 60,000 people in rapt attention, parroting every word in unison that was sung from the stage. The astonishing thing was his observation, “This is every politicians dream!”

The power of music and shared experience is an astonishing thing, a power that has been used for good and evil.

A national anthem can be thought of as musical control, as it solidifies national identity and personifies pride and belonging. The power of tens of thousands of voices at a football game singing The Star Spangled Banner, with the ceremony of standing and saluting or placing ones hand over the heart, is obvious. So much so, that it is often impossible to decline to participate without garnering questioning looks from others. The only acceptable excuse may be if the silently seated person is foreign. In fact, it is an unforgivable transgression for a politician, Armed Service member, or other representative of a country to participate in singing the national anthem of another country. It’s just a song, but singing it can end a career, bring shame, or cause an international incident. That’s power.

Of course, this has not gone unnoticed by those who crave power.

In 1940s Germany, the music of Richard Wagner was appropriated as a symbol of national identity. The overture of Wagner’s “Meistersinger” was played to open every annual Nazi Party convention. Wagner became identified with anti-Semitism, and to this day none of the music written by this well-known classical composer has ever been publicly performed in Israel. Additionally, it is still illegal to sing the song “Die Fahre hoch” in Germany, as it was the Nazi national anthem. The power of these songs is, apparently, too dangerous.

The power of music to focus emotion and rally identity can be used by individuals, as well as governments. Bob Marley was able to join hands on stage during his “One Love” concert with Michael Manley and Edward Seaga, two Jamaican political leaders whose followers had overwhelmed the country with political violence. The image of these political opponents joining hands was powerful and nearly unimaginable to Jamaicans, and may have helped prevent an all-out civil war.

While Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robbin Island and was there deprived of music, songs which brought his situation and the existence of apartheid were being performed around the world. Brenda Fassie’s “My Black President” was widely played in South Africa despite being banned by the government, while Western artists such as Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and Peter Gabriel were freely able to promote their own anti-apartheid songs worldwide. Musicians collaborated on songs such as “Sun City,” which put pressure on other musicians to boycott South African venues and helped keep apartheid politics in the news.

Musicians collaborated again and harnessed the power of music for famine relief in Africa in 1985, with the release of the fastest selling pop single in history, “We Are the World.” Many of the most famous and popular artists of the time collaborated on this project, which raised more than $63 million and saved countless lives.

Consider how music is used to manipulate emotion and control crowds as you watch the upcoming Winter Olympics. Or just enjoy feeling the power of your own musical mix.

But pay attention, you might be controlled!

Karl Prager, aka “Uncle Karl,” is a volunteer programmer on KAFM Community Radio. When he’s not traveling the world or attending music festivals, you can catch Uncle Karl’s “Yellow Dog Show” every other Thursday from 6:30-9 p.m. at 88.1.


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The Post Independent Updated Jan 23, 2014 01:20PM Published Jan 27, 2014 10:04AM Copyright 2014 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.