During their concert in Argentina on October 29, popular English band Coldplay invited the exiled Iranian actor Golshifteh Farahani on stage. Together, they performed the new anthem of protest in the ongoing Mahsa Amini movement for women’s rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, that has been dubbed “Baraye Azadi” (For Freedom).
The song made waves as soon as it was released online by the 25-year-old singer-composer Shervin Hajipour, and was watched over 40 million times in just two days. Subsequently, Hajipour was arrested, and released only after the song was removed from his social media page.
Bringing an Iranian female lead singer on stage to perform the song was in itself an act of protest, considering that after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, female solo singing was outlawed in Iran. The period prior to that is recalled as the “Golden Age of Iranian Music” but the revolution abruptly ended the career of many popular singers like Homeyra and Googoosh, who were compelled to leave the country. As for Golshifteh Farahani, she was exiled in 2012 for appearing in “unacceptable” photoshoots for the western media.
“Baraye Azadi” is now technically banned in Iran, but what the song represents is a lament of desire for an ordinary, peaceful, and mindful life that has caught global attention and now it can be heard everywhere, from the cobblestoned Persian crossroads lined by protesters to international platforms and stages. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, taking off from the band’s classic “Another Brick in the Wall”, tweeted: “Hey! Ayatollah leave them kids alone!” In many ways, therefore, the ban has been ineffectual.
People-led and popular political events, such as the current one in Iran, are times when the sensibilities of artists are honed sharp, their antennae raised, insides churning, as, being present in the eye of the storm makes them produce works that have the power to inspire millions of people and become global currency. In this respect, “Baraye Azadi” joins other famous songs in the revolutionary hall of fame.
Die for liberty
One of the most famous of such songs is the Italian “Bella Ciao”. What started as a women’s protest song against the hardships of working in rice fields under a padrone, or overseer, was later adopted by the antifascist partigianos (the partisans) who fought against the Nazi forces in the 1940s. The song was briefly banned in Italy by the right-wing in 2015 but it came back stronger.
“Bella Ciao” has now evolved into a song with hundreds of versions that call for the rights of all people to be liberated from tyranny and is known internationally as a “Hymn for Freedom”. The power of its lyrics and music has been used in many historic revolutionary events, including the farmers’ protests in India last year, adapted as the Punjabi “Wapas Jao” (Go Back). It was also widely sung during the COVID-19 pandemic, when people isolated within their homes and sang the song from their balconies. As it is taken up and adapted globally, the song’s power to unite the world is unmistakeable.
“Bella Ciao” has a fascinating Turkish connection. It was adapted as “Bella Chav” by the revolutionary music band Grup Yorum, which had been under attack from the government of Turkey since it started to perform in 1985. In 2016, the band’s studio was destroyed, its members arrested, and the group banned. The band was charged with being associated with an ultra-left political outfit which had been designated a terrorist organisation by the government but the charges could not be proved. Eventually, the members of the band were released. A few of them sought asylum in other countries but many remained in Turkey, flitting in and out of prison.
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In May 2019, some of the band members decided to go on a hunger strike to protest the ban. Over time, two of them, Helin Bolek and Ibrahim Gokçek, decided to fast unto death for their right to make music and sing. Neither did the government relent nor did the two. In April 2020, Helin died after 288 days of fasting and in May, Ibrahim died, after 323 days of fasting. The last line of “Bella Ciao” is Muerta per la Libertad—To die for Liberty.
Some days after the death of Gokçek, a curious incident happened in Izmir, a Turkish city. Instead of the regular azaan, or call for prayer, Grup Yorum’s version of “Bella Ciao” was played from several minarets of mosques across Izmir. A woman was later arrested for orchestrating this protest.
Another song that stirs revolutionary fervour in people is “El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido”, or “The People United Shall Always Be Victorious”. It started as a slogan in Chile, chanted during the rallies of Salvador Allende, a widely beloved socialist leader.
The song, written and composed later, became emblematic of the “Nueva Cancion Chilena” (New Chilean Song) movement. Composer Sergio Ortega set to tune the words written by Quilapayun, a band that was soon to become intertwined with not just the Nueva Cancion Chilena movement, but also with Salvador Allende’s government.
On September 11, 1973, the Latin American equivalent of 9/11, Allende died during a CIA-backed coup d’etat. It was at this point that the song became the people’s war-cry against the subsequent military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
The song’s socially committed lyrics have had a profound impact on pro-democracy movements in countries across the world in the 1970s and the 1980s. Over time, it became a universal protest song, uniting the whole world, adapted and translated by people from almost all countries.
Interestingly, the Leftist revolutionaries who were instrumental in the Iranian Revolution that deposed the Shah regime in 1979 composed a Persian version of the song called “Barpakhiz” (Arise). The Left, however, was later decimated by the Islamic Republic.
Another Nueva Cancion song was “Venceremos”—we shall prevail. It was composed for Allende’s election campaign and became so popular that the leader famously said that “there can be no revolution without a song”.
When Pinochet took the reins of power in Chile, his men rounded up all known socialists and tortured them, including the celebrated singer and guitarist of the time, Victor Jara. It is known that they crushed his fingers and mocked him about playing the guitar, before killing him. Jara died singing “Venceremos”.
Crowns flung and thrones felled
India and Pakistan might be two of the most quarrelsome neighbours, but music—folk, pop, and now Coke Studio—unites the fractured subcontinent. There is also a shared protest hymn, “Hum dekhenge” (We shall see), in which the poet claims that it is written in the book of destiny that we shall witness the fall of the oppressors and their tyrannical instruments and live in a world where truth and equality prevail.
This Urdu nazm was written by the Marxist poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz in 1979, impending the hanging of the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the country, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, by the militarist Zia-ul Haq regime. Faiz also had in mind the people of Iran who, at the time, were revolting against a dictatorial monarchy.
Zia’s rule was marked by an increasing role of religion in law and governance of Pakistan. The lyrics of the poem are incendiary to rulers and perceived as blasphemous from the Islamic point of view. The poem was, therefore, banned, as were sundry other things, like wearing sarees, in Zia’s Pakistan.
In the year 1986, noted ghazal singer Iqbal Bano performed “Hum Dekhenge” in a packed auditorium, wearing a saree. This act of double defiance, whereby she imparted a tune to Faiz’s nazm, immortalised “Hum Dekhenge” in the subcontinent’s psyche forever.
From then on, it has been invoked time and again by people who want to raise their voice against governmental excesses. It was copiously sung during the reign of general Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan and during the anti-CAA movement in India.
What makes “Hum Dekhenge” special is that it not only unites the masses of the two countries in their love for the song, but also unites the leaders and conservatives on both sides in their contempt of it.
The profundity of Faiz’s words is such that the custodians of religions on both sides of the border perceive the nazm to be against them, their faith, and their country. To belittle its social impact and usage, “Hum Dekhenge” was caricatured in a recent Hindi movie as a song sung by “anti-national” college students. But it’s unlikely that the song can be shushed.
Won’t be slaves again
While many revolutionary songs and poems come from people who were a part of a movement, the impact of the media and entertainment industry also cannot be ignored. In recent times, one of the most widely sung protest songs—“Do you hear the people sing”—was picked up from the 1980 musical Les Miserables, for which it was composed.
Based on the novel of the same name written by Victor Hugo in 1862, LesMiserables tells the story of an ordinary peasant named Jean Valjean and his miserable life. It culminates with him joining the revolution on the streets of Paris to overthrow the government. “Do you hear the people sing” is sung in the climactic sequence, first by the protagonist, then by the rest of the crowd in a surging chorus.
Les Miserables is one of the longest running shows in the world. For over four decades, the song has resonated with ordinary people who have a fire within that pushes them to demand justice and a better life. The lyrics and the beat aptly capture the spirit of protest, reiterating that the people ‘will not be slaves again’, while offering hope for the future—‘there is a life about to start when tomorrow comes’.
It is one of those songs that tugged at the heartstrings of millions of people across the globe and like “Bella Ciao” and “El Pueblo”, has been translated into several languages. In several recent popular movements, such as the Arab Spring, the Maidan protests in Ukraine, the Gezi Park protests in Turkey, the South Korean anti-government movement, the protests against the Duterte government in Philippines, protests in Belarus and in China, and most recently during the Sri Lankan crisis, “Do you hear the people sing” echoed in the streets.
The fundamental human feelings of pain, oppression, revolutionary fervour, desire for a better life, and love connects people all over. And on the notes of music one flies over national boundaries and barbed wire fences.
Vijayta Mahendru is an independent researcher who works on people and places, art and culture. She is also a multilingual singer. Instagram: @vijayta_mahendru.
- Popular English band Coldplay invited exiled Iranian actor Golshifteh Farahani on stage during their concert in Argentina.
- Together they performed “Baraye Azadi”, the new anthem of protest in the ongoing Mahsa Amini movement, for women’s rights in Iran.
- Similarly, “Bella Ciao” was initially a women’s protest song against the hardships of working in rice fields under a padrone. It was later adopted by the antifascist partigianos who fought against the Nazis.
- In 1986, noted ghazal singer Iqbal Bano performed “Hum Dekhenge” wearing a saree and immortalised the song.