by Mindy Clegg
Music provides a powerful means of shaping emotion and even actions. Most of the times, that’s a positive. A popular song can bring a group of strangers together in a shared experience. In times of uncertainty a good song can be an outlet for fears and frustration. In the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade pop stars helped give voice to the anger many Americans felt about the loss of an important civil right for women. Pop star Olivia Rodrigo dedicated her Glastonbury performance of Lily Allen’s “Fuck You” (with Allen) to the members of the Supreme Court who voted to end Roe protections.
Historically, songs were employed by labor unions to create a sense of solidarity and move labor rights forward against overwhelming odds. If music can be a salve and a rallying cry, is the opposite true? History confirms this to be the case. I want to share three examples from global pop music history. First, white power punk bands emerged from the UK and US in the 1980s. Later that same decade also saw the emergence of turbofolk in the Balkans, which became the soundtrack of a violent strain of genocidal nationalism in the Yugoslav wars. More recently, a genre of music known as Hindutva pop found a ready and eager audience among the far right members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Prime Minister’s Nerendra Modi’s political party.
Punks in the 1980s and early 1990s dealt with racially motivated violence in their scenes. As far back as the late 1970s, some white supremacist elements embraced punk. In the first British wave of punk, right wingers were attracted by well-known punks like Sid Vicious wearing a swastika shirt. When Manchester band Joy Division rose to prominence, their name and early album artwork came from the history of the Holocaust. Their shows sometimes attracted people who would seig heil during their performances. In the 1980s, as the skinhead movement globalized, the racist wing of the movement made their presence known at punk shows. Racist skinheads, sometimes known as “bone heads” to differentiate them from anti-racist skins, would wreak havoc at shows and make them far less fun. Eventually, some punks had enough and started to push back. Over the course of the 1980s, some punks took steps to make racists (and other bigots) feel unwelcome in punk spaces. It was certainly a factor in creating a more political strain of punk over this period. In places like Portland Oregon, the violence caused by white power skins drove a left-wing turn in the counter-cultural life of the city, as described by the podcast It Did Happen Here. However, the rejection of these hatemongers by the majority of punk scenes reinforced an underground translocal white power movement, especially in English-speaking countries US, Canada, South Africa, and Australia. Leaders in the white supremacist movement such as William Pierce saw an opportunity to bring in young recruits willing to use violence against people opposed to a white supremacist society. In 1999 he bought Resistance Records to access an already existing global white power music scene. According to Justin Harlan, the label was founded in 1993 by George Burdi who took inspiration from the DIY ethos of the hardcore punk scene. Pierce bought a controlling stake in the label after Burdi reformed his racial views and abandoned the label. Pierce was aware of the power aggressive music could have as a recruitment tool. The early 90s Australian film Romper Stompers connected music with cementing social ties among racist skinheads.
Robert Forbes and Eddie Stampton connected music to the growth of the white power movement in their history of racist skinhead movement in the UK and US.1 Kirsten Dyck also published a recent study of the white power music scene.2 Few tools proved as powerful for recruitment as music, as these authors show.
Yugoslavia gives us another example from around the same period. In his study of the rise of Serbian nationalism Eric Gordy illustrated how any alternatives to that nationalism were systematically wiped out on all levels, including in popular music.3 Irony drove the formation of turbofolk at first. The genre originates with Antoniji Pušić, better known as Rambo Amadeus. He played in some bands in high school in the late 1970s, but began to make a serious go of a career in the late 1980s with his first album O tugo jesenja. He combined jazz, funk, some hip-hop, and Balkan folk music, dubbing his style “turbofolk.” His second album, Hoćme Gusle, included the single Balkan Boj, which parodied the rise of Serbian nationalist sentiment that was growing in the late 1980s. In it, Amadeus plays a provincial musician swept up in the music industry and enjoying the high life.
His unique mix of American pop styles with local folks would not remain platform for political parody. Soon other musicians began to imitate him, but without the satirical underpinnings. According to Gordy, Slobodan Milošević regime appropriated the genre and embraced it as the music of his nationalist movement during the wars in Yugoslavia. Natasa Franzisca Ivanovic discussed some of the more well-known turbofolk artists in an article for Post Pravda. This includes the wildly popular (and controversial) Ceca who married Željko Ražnatović or Arkan—a man who likely would have been tried for war crimes, had he survived the war. Turbofolk was embraced by the various militias that made up the Republika Srpska Army during the Bosnian war. One of the major themes of these songs was the memeable “remove kebab” that targeted Muslims. According to Balsa Lubarda, the songs are still embraced today by members of the far right that target Muslims in other contexts, such as the Christchurch shooting in 2019. More recently the genre has been embraced by more than genocidal nationalists according to Eurovicious writing for the Calvert Journal. They argue that since 2000, musicians working in the genre have embraced “female empowerment, [and] queer performativity.” The author explored these themes in an extended series at Balkanist in 2014. One wonders if the genre can ever fully leave behind its connections to acts of genocide, even if the more recent performers promote a more complex and inclusive Serbian identity.
Another genre rising in popularity among nationalist in India is Hindutva pop, a genre that combines Hindu praise music with nationalist politics of the BJP. Writing in AlJazeera, Quratulain Rehbar noted the Islamophobic nature of the genre, something it shares with the Bosnian War era turbofolk. Rehbar traces the rise of the genre back to the rise of Nerendra Modi in 2014. Songs in the genre often distort the long, shared history of Muslims and Hindus in the subcontinent, preferring a myth of nationalist Hindu purity. She quotes a song by Prem Krishnavanshi calling some Muslims “butchers.” Some songs include genocidal threats against Muslims, which Krishnavanshi dismisses, arguing that his “music signifies truth.” Another performer of the genre, Laxmi Dubey, embraced the BJP in part due to its embrace of Hindu nationalism. Some Hindu nationalists call for removal of all Muslims to Pakistan or face death. Brahma Prakash argued that the music “has changed the pattern of religious violence in India.” Religious riots are now disconnected from an individual leader stirring up violence in a specific context, but can happen in almost any context thanks to these songs. It removes the need for an instigator. Prakash draws parallels to the music created by the Nazis in the 1930s. Religious violence is on the rise in India, generally aimed at Indian Muslims. The music trades in Islamophobia, helps keep the BJP in power, and is deepening the already deep divide between religious groups, primarily at the expense of the Muslim community.
Should forms of music that promote supremacy, hatred, and even outright genocide be banned? The experience with hatecore seems to indicate that it often just makes the music more attractive, as it takes on a forbidden quality. Nor is it clear that the music itself creates adherents to these genocidal causes. Rather, people already attracted to these ideologies embrace the music as their soundtrack. Facing hateful propaganda and acts of violence head on provides one response that can be effective, such as was the case in Portland Oregon in the 1980s with racist skinheads. The task of changing minds proves far more difficult when a government plays a role. In the case of Yugoslavia, the level of genocidal violence of the wars helped some to see through the propaganda, but even now, the war era turbofolk still seems to have a fanbase and not just in the Balkans. The stakes seem especially high in India, with two nuclear armed powers saber-rattling and supporting acts of violence against religious minorities. One thing is for sure, while many dismiss mass culture as trivial in the study of history, we can see that instead, the music we embrace can be powerful signals to others about the values we hold. Music can save lives and end them.
3 Eric Gordy, The Culture of Power in Serbia: Nationalism and the Destruction of Alternatives, University Park, PN: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999, 103-164. Much of the information in this paragraph come from Gordy’s work here.