Adding music to politics can make for even stranger bedfellows

Chilean musician and activist Victor Jara is remembered decades after his murder during the Pinochet coup. (Wikimedia Commons photo by Jaime Soto Ceura.)

Chilean musician and activist Victor Jara is remembered decades after his murder during the Pinochet coup. (Wikimedia Commons photo by Jaime Soto Ceura)

The 2016 American presidential campaign presents a view of how music and politics mix to excite or appease voters – or provide a break from dull policy speeches. But this intersection of culture and pursuit of political power, which is played out globally in a multitude of formats, can also prove dangerous, even deadly.

An upcoming event on the UC Berkeley campus stresses the extreme risks that can come with lending voice to a cause or opposing another one.

UC Berkeley remembers Victor Jara

Victor Jara, a 40-year-old folk singer/activist/university lecturer in Chile, had developed a loyal following for his poetic songs supporting social equality and the working class and the nueva canción traditions of south-central Chile’s indigenous Mapuche people. But he also generated fear and hatred from the soldiers and generals backing Gen. Augusto Pinochet in his 1973 coup, which led to the disappearance and deaths of thousands, including Jara.

Jara was taken into captivity, tortured, beaten and shot 44 times in Estadio Chile, a Santiago soccer stadium. After his slaying, his discarded body revealed badly broken fingers on the hands of a man known for his accomplished playing of the Spanish guitar.

American musician/activist Bruce Springsteen first played in Chile in 2011, dedicating his performance to Jara, whose supporters never stopped seeking justice for his murder. Just last summer, Pedro Pablo Barrientos Nuñez, a 67-year-old former Chilean army officer who fled to Florida and became a U.S. citizen and gardener, was found liable for Jara’s death. A jury awarded Jara’s family and estate $28 million in damages. Chile and the U.S. are wrangling over Chilean requests to extradite Barrientos.

On Monday, Almudena Bernabeau, the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability attorney who represented Jara’s family at trial in Florida, will speak about “Justice for Victor Jara” from 4-5:30 p.m. as a guest of UC Berkeley’s Center for Latin American Studies in Room 180 of Doe Library.

Bernabeau will assess the importance of the case in filling gaps in Chilean political history, and will describe what it was like to hear testimony of soldiers who participated in human rights abuses and murder at Estadio Chile. More about the case is available online.

‘Listening to music isn’t activism’

Darren Zook knows Victor Jara’s story.

He has taught numerous courses in political science and international and area studies UC Berkeley for almost 20 years. Zook’s favorite is one he taught in fall 2006 on music and politics, and he admits that he tries to incorporate some of the course information in many other classes he continues to teach – because it’s important well beyond the convention or concert hall floor.

George H.W. Bush made use during his 1988 presidential campaign of American folksinger and activist Woody Guthrie's song "This Land is Your Land." The song was said to be Guthrie's response to the song "God Bless America," which Guthrie found glib. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

George H.W. Bush made use during his 1988 presidential campaign of American folksinger and activist Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land is Your Land.” The song was said to be Guthrie’s response to the song “God Bless America,” which Guthrie reportedly found glib. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

“Too many students think listening to music is political activism,” said Zook in a recent interview about music and politics.

On the other hand, he said, few politicians make the best use of music either.

Hilliary Clinton’s staffers are reported on the verge of pulling their hair out when they hear her theme song, Fight Song, waft over an event.  The Rolling Stones and others have threatened Donald Trump for his unauthorized use of their music. Before George W. Bush was president, he tried using Springsteen’s Born in the USA as his theme song, unaware it was an unflattering depiction of the experience of a Vietnam veteran from the U.S.

“I’ve never seen a politician skillfully use music in the U.S. – except for Bill Clinton with his choice of Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow) for his 1992 campaign theme song,” said Zook.

George McGovern’s choice of Paul Simon’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters as a campaign song in 1972 didn’t quite hold, although the Republicans held onto the White House in 1988, when George H.W. Bush picked Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land for his musical base. 

“Music is always and everywhere a medium of expression and a form of communication. Politics, in both theory and practice, would be impossible without expression and communication,” Zook said in a description of his 2006 course. “The question is, what happens when music projects its expressive and communicative potential into the political arena?”

Zook can rattle off an ever-growing list of instances in which musicians engaged in political activity for or against established politicians, candidates or causes, or where politicians tried to use their music for political gain.

  • Rastafarian reggae musician Bob Marley’s “One Love Peace Concert,” held in 1978 at the National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica, during a political rivalry, concluded in a political statement as Marley raised the hands of the two leading political rivals – Michale Manley of the People’s National Party and Edward Seaga of the Jamaica Labour Party – together over their heads.

    All-female Russian band, Pussy Riot.

    All-female Russian band Pussy Riot

  • Members of the all-female Russian band Pussy Riot were arrested for “hooliganism” after performing music, often to promote feminism and LGBT rights or to oppose Russian President and former KGB leader Vladimir Putin.
  • Joko Widodo, president of culturally conservative Indonesia, is an unlikely, self-professed fan of heavy metal, especially the American band Metallica. While calling for more government support of popular culture and heavy metal, he declined to intervene in the execution in 2015 of two heavy “metal heads” convicted of trying to smuggle heroin into Indonesia.
  • The Islamic State is said to suppress all music, due to a belief that it corrupts the soul.
  • Despite China’s authoritarian reputation, underground rock shows are routinely – and illegally – held in residential basements.
  • Malaysia’s ruling party, UMNO, used the 2007 tune, Wanita (Woman), by pop star and Malaysian Islamic fashion icon Siti Nurhaliza, in a surprising move to reach out to women in the Muslim country and to appear to support women’s issues.