The Power Of Music In Political Struggle (Part 2): Frame Realignment And Collective Power


This is the second in a four part series by writer and musician Simon Gall published on National Collective, focusing on the power of music in political struggle across history. Read the first part here.

The Power of Music in Action

If music does indeed have power to influence human action, then surely this power has been harnessed before? [2]

Below, I will look at some of the many ways in which this power has been utilised through history by various progressive political and social campaigns. I will structure this section in four parts using headings taken from the titles of chapters in Rob Rosenthal and Richard Flacks’ book Playing for Change: Music and Musician in the Service of Social Movements: Serving the Committed, Education, Conversion and Recruitment and Mobilisation. It should be borne in mind though, that music or musicking (the act of making music) does not necessarily ‘do’ the above separately. All of the headings are in some way interwoven and it is possible for a piece of music, for example, to simultaneously educate and recruit or serve the committed and convert people to a cause or perhaps all four at once.

Serving the Committed

Affirmation and Reaffirmation

The music, and songs, of the civil rights movement in the US, said one participant:

Had an unparalleled ability to evoke the moral power of the movement’s goals, to arouse the spirit, comfort the afflicted, instill courage and commitment, and to unite disparate strangers into a ‘band of brothers and sisters’ and a ‘circle of trust’.”

Playing for Change [5]

Rosenthal and Flacks argue that this ability to assist in the process of affirmation and reaffirmation of commitment to a movement is one of music’s most important functions since “movement loyalty is not simply achieved once and for all; it needs to be constantly re-created for a movement to survive.” [5]

The music of a movement can serve this purpose in a number of ways. Songs can remind people of why they joined in the first place and can help reinforce the collective goals of the movement. For example, in Venezuela, some of the revolutionary music deals with the life of Simon Bolivar and his quest to free South America from the Spanish Empire thus maintaining at the fore the concepts of anti-imperialism and national (and regional) sovereignty; two of the most important tenets of the Bolivarian Movement. Songs of a movement are also portable. They can be carried around in people’s heads or in personal music devices and can therefore connect people to a cause even when they are not at a meeting or demonstration thus aiding the reaffirmation process.


When sung together at, say, a rally or on a march, songs help in the construction of positive identities; both individual and collective. These identities develop through a process sociologists call ‘frame alignment’; a process whereby participants perceive that the movement’s goals are in line with their own. And since songs often articulate the overarching goals of a movement this can be a powerful tool. It can foster a sense of belonging. Songs like ‘Solidarity Forever’ or ‘The International’ are frequently sung on trade union marches and can help build solidarity between participants through helping them align their frames and provoking similar emotional responses.

On an individual level, singing songs with progressive content or participating in music-making that challenges dominant conventions (eg punk) can aid in the development of personal identity. Once personal identities are established or developed they can lead to a search for others who frame the world in the same way. For example, someone who listens to punk might begin to see themselves as oppositional, progressive, anti-bourgeois etc and may seek to find others who feel the same way and may ultimately form groups or movements. The punk movement has a strong DIY element and has links to anarchist politics so it is possible to see how through music, and the scene that surrounds it, an individual could be exposed to, or perhaps participate in, political struggle. The constructing of collective identities through music has been a precursor to political engagement in the past.

For example, in Peru during the 1950s and 60s there was a strong revival of Afro-Peruvian music and dance which was a vital first step to the political struggle for civil rights:

In the absence of a prominent political movement for black rights, the revival served as the primary means of promoting an African diasporic identity in Peru, elevating performers of African descent to Lima’s grandest stages and challenging the invisibility of blacks in Peru by staging the culture of Peru’s enslaved Africans and their descendants.” [6]

Afro-descendants, now unified, began organising around a new collective diasporic identity and went on to create important political bodies to fight for black rights in Peru. The  revival made Afro-Peruvians visible not only in Peru but also throughout the world. Perfomers like Eva Allyon and Susana Baca as well as music and dance companies such as ‘Peru Negro’ today tour the world bringing the music, and thus the history, of Afro-Peru to people who, in the absence of a cultural movement, may never have been aware of the existence of a black population in Peru.

The Afro-Peruvian example is one of many of music’s power to construct positive identities which lead to political action. We could also have discussed the role played by music in uniting workers of different nationalities and backgrounds in 1912 in the US. During mass strikes, IWW songs played a part in convincing labourers that their identity as ‘workers’ was more important than their various national identities and thus helped maintain a united front against the bosses and the state. On a slightly different, but still related note, we could have looked at how popular music, according to Dr John Bailey, has helped to foster a pan-Afghan identity in some parts of Afghanistan where before there was much conflict. Some popular styles, he writes, are “a hybrid of the Pashtun musical style with a lot of Tajik language.” This music has been broadcast on the radio and has “brought together these two groups.” This unifying quality of music can also be seen in Scotland when the Latino community attends, alongside Scots and others, Salsa Celtica concerts, or when, at India Alba concerts, the crowd is made up of members of the Indian community as well as Scots and other Brits. The fusion of styles of different cultures can make important symbolic statements about tolerance and internationalism while at the same time, through live performances, can physically bring different ethnicities together.

Musicking – the process of making music – itself can be the site of struggle. In the UK in the 1970s a movement called Rock Against Racism (RAR) was formed as a result of a rise in far-right political groups and increased attacks on black Britons. But the immediate spur for the formation of RAR was a diatribe given by Eric Clapton at a performance in Birmingham in which he praised controversial conservative MP Enoch Powell who was strongly opposed to immigration and whose speeches had provoked anti-immigrant feelings in Britain. RAR united musicians from all styles and sought to fight racism in music. Ska was one of the styles that embodied the ideals of RAR; a style in which black and white musicians played together and created physical spaces where youths from different ethnic backgrounds could mix and enjoy themselves. In RAR’s case, music was the political activity. Its role was to galvanise and support anti-fascist and anti-racist campaigners while at the same time send out messages of hope and tolerance. What is particularly interesting about ska and much of the musical styles performed at RAR events is that often the lyrics were not political. What was new and oppositional were the musical forms, rhythms and sounds created by the blending of styles. In this sense, the music, and not necessarily the lyrics, was the protest and the solution in one.

Resource Gathering

Every campaign needs some money in order to be able to function effectively and music and music-related events such as concerts and festivals are one way to raise the necessary funds. Perhaps the most famous example of fund raising, though many were skeptical of the motives of some of the performers, is Live Aid which, in 1985, raised tens of millions of pounds for those in Ethiopia suffering through famine. Another was George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh which raised money for Bangladeshis who had been affected by a cyclone and civil war. But there are other instances of where music has helped to raise funds. In 1937 for example, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union wrote and staged a musical play called ‘Pins and Needles’, initially at its own Labour Theatre, presenting the viewpoint of workers on current issues. The play went on to be the longest running Broadway show of its time and helped gather public support and much needed financial resources for union activities. [8]

The events mentioned above, of course, are not solely about gathering financial resources, they also act as spaces where committed activists can network and socialise outwith the usual settings. They may also act as a way to attract new people towards the campaign or may perform an educational function (more on that in part three).

Political parties have also used music to gather resources. One example is the yearly festival ‘Festa Do Avante’ which is organised and run by the Communist Party of Portugal. It is an enormous festival held a few miles south of Lisbon each September. The festival includes debating areas, a theatre program, a cinema, five music stages and sporting competitions and attracts tens of thousands of festival-goers each year. The Festa Do Avante performs all of the functions mentioned above while at the same time reaching out to families and younger generations, maintaining the name of the Party in the collective consciousness and boosting its visibility in public life.

Part three of The Power of Music in Political Struggle by Simon Gall will be published on National Collective next week.

Simon Gall
National Collective

[2] John Street – Music and Politics
[5] Rosenthal and Flacks – Playing for Change: Music and Musicians in the Service of Social Movements
[6] Heidi Carolyn Feldman – Strategies of the Black Pacific: Music and Diasporic Identities in Peru
[8] Harry Merton Goldman – Pins and Needles: A White House Command Performance

Photo by B.C. Lorio


About Simon Gall

Simon Gall is a musician and music teacher. He plays piano with Salsa Celtica and Son al Son and is a singer-songwriter, arranger and part time promoter. He teaches music in community settings for local authorities, arts charities and community centres. He has a keen interest in music and politics and in particular, the places where the two overlap.