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What's more, the very term protest music has always assumed a Western liberal-humanist bias. We think of earnest guitar strummers in natural fabrics singing for human rights and tolerance. But as recent history teaches, in the new cold war--between the Hollywood/Mickey D's axis and every other world culture--genuine cultural pride can morph into nationalism, racism and worse. To the world's musical rebels today, is the enemy within or without?
The answers are various and not simple. Nigeria's Femi Kuti, son of Afropop pioneer Fela Kuti, has, like his father, created a vibrant, pulsing, sweaty, sexy sound that's half African by way of Africa and half African by way of James Brown. His politically conscious music (Kuti heads the political party MASS--Movement Against Second Slavery) reflects that same complex consciousness of borders. Kuti knows, for instance, that African kleptocrats have often used nationalism for their own ends, and he gives neither Western cultural imperialism nor African corruption a pass. "We get the wrong people for government," he sings on Blackman Know Yourself, "Who force us to think with colonial sense/Na wrong information scatter your head/You regret your culture for Western sense."
If a song is a form of debate and the lyrics its text, the music itself is the equivalent of oratory--the intangible oomph that drives home the rhetoric. Kuti's music--American R.-and-B. guitar and horns over African percussion--is not just a sound but also the manifestation of a political idea: that the black man should know himself yet not be afraid to use the tools of the West to his own ends. Mali's chanteuse Rokia Traore, conversely, is a diplomat's daughter who grew up around the world but uses her native tongue, Bamanan, and Malian instruments on spare and lovely songs like the feminist Mancipera, which calls for the liberation of African women from subservience. For Traore as for the American folkies of the '30s and '60s, mastering the traditional music of her homeland figuratively allows her to claim a true connection to her people and her native roots even as she seeks to redefine their traditions.
Conversely again, China's tenuous protest-music movement has focused on Western-influenced rock, which the government first banned (as a bourgeois and immoral influence), then in the late '80s grudgingly opened up to (as a talisman of capitalism), with heavy censor oversight. Just as China has spent the past decade trying to prove that communist capitalism is no contradiction in terms, so is it trying to show that defanged rock music can be the totalitarian capitalist's pal. (Take the danger out of rock and what do you have, if not a Britney Spears Pepsi commercial?) Arguably it has been successful on both fronts. The recent recordings of China's foremost protest rocker, Cui Jian, whose Nothing to My Name was an anthem of the Tiananmen protests, have become more introspective and apolitical, and the Chinese rock scene has become muted.