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Where words fail, music speaks? Understanding the role of music in accessing justice

By Soumya Jha


This is the first blogpost in a four-part Blog Series on Music and Justice.


Introduction


Music and Justice are conventionally considered to not belong together. While music is supposedly a mere source of entertainment, justice deals with deep, philosophical concepts of fairness, equality and morality. This piece discusses how the paths of the two can however cross, and beautifully so.


The Universality of Music


Music has the ability to elicit a range of emotions, be it joy, love, anger, fear, sadness, shame, pride or solidarity. It is no wonder therefore, that our hearts swell upon hearing merely the first few seconds of Rahman’s ‘Maa Tujhe Salaam’, or we’re teary-eyed every time we listen to Lata Mangeshkar’s ‘Lag Ja Gale’. Moreover, a ‘Maa Tujhe Salaam’ is likely to make both a businessman sitting in a swanky high-rise, and a small-time shopkeeper, feel a sense of pride. As this paper on music and social bonding puts it, “Music forges and reinforces affiliative inter-individual relationships by synchronizing and harmonizing the moods, emotions, actions or perspectives of two or more individuals”. What music can therefore evoke, is universal, cutting across social constructs and barriers. Or as pop-singer Madonna articulates it, music mixes the ‘bourgeoisie and the rebel’.


Music aids Solidarity and Collaboration


Music can also elicit a sense of mutual support, collaboration and solidarity among people. Indeed, persons singing together, in a group setting can feel closer to, and can relate with each other better. A beautiful example of this is how people in Italy would sing together from their respective balconies during the global lockdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic.  


This ‘social-bonding’ quality of music, while serving the purpose of group cohesion in regular settings (concerts, religious ceremonies, or choir singing), has time and again been leveraged as part of social movements and protests, as well. Indeed, the addition of the element of music in such scenarios enhances their experience, more meaningfully. And therefore, music being employed as a tool to speak out for a cause, or as part of a protest, can make a lasting impact.


Music as a Tool to Raise Awareness against Injustice


One of the greatest examples of this is the song ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ written by Bob Marley and Peter Tosh, and performed by Bob Marley. This human-rights anthem is believed to have been written during one of Marley’s visits to Haiti where he witnessed extreme poverty and human rights abuses against its people. This catchy anthem, with a reggae beat, urges people to “stand up” for their rights, and to believe in their own ability to make the change they want to see. ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ continues to hold relevance even today, more than 50 years after its release, and has also been used by human rights organizations as a symbol of their own efforts. Justice Adda too, has its own a capella rendition of this anthem, to convey its mission of providing access to social justice to all.  


Similarly, the song ‘We shall overcome’, which started out as a labour rights anthem in America in the 1940s, resonated with the masses, evolving ultimately into an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement in America in the 1960s. It is indeed fascinating that the then American President who passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 banning racial segregation in schools, restaurants, theaters and hotels, referenced the anthem in his speech, upon passing the law. Such is the impact of music!


Fine examples of music in social movements can be found within India, too. Be it Sofia Ashraf’s ‘Kodaikanal Won’t’, which brought to the entire country’s notice the misdeeds of a corporation that was polluting the entire Kodaikanal region, and ultimately compelled the corporation to clean up its act, or Indian Ocean’s ‘Ma Reva’, which protested the displacement of thousands of people in India’s Madhya Pradesh-Gujarat region, caused by the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. The band Swadesi’s rap ‘Warli Revolt’ challenged the deforestation of Aarey forest area in Maharashtra- an eco-sensitive zone and home to several tribal folk- to construct a metro rail shed. The song garnered immense support, and galvanized several voices of resistance from across the nation. It features Prakash Bhoir, chieftain of the Warli tribe, himself. This song, apart from bringing into focus tribal rights and the issue of environmental destruction caused by urbanization, also played a role in compelling the judiciary to implement a stay order on the metro rail shed construction in Aarey forest.


An interesting study suggests that emotions enhance memory processes and music evokes strong emotions. Therefore, music’s direct correlation with emotions, and thereby, memory and retention, makes it an asset when it comes to conveying an important message. Indeed, the above-mentioned examples of songs/anthems as part of important social movements are somewhere etched in our memories, in some shape or form- be it a phrase or a tune.


Can Music play a more meaningful role in the Access to Justice?


Given the range of qualities music possesses, some of which we have discussed here, music can play a much greater and meaningful role as an instrument for advocacy and spreading awareness about a variety of issues.


And while music has, and will continue to be a means of communication during protests, its role may be expanded beyond the contours of social movements and protests, which address a very specific cause or goal. Music may be employed to disseminate information that concerns our everyday lives. For instance, how many of us are aware of our rights as consumers, do we know our traffic laws, how is intellectual property defined, how are electronic transactions carried out, what are the different kinds of rights available to women, what rights do persons from the LGBTQi community possess, how can citizens protect the environment, do animals have any rights etc. In a country like India, with a high percentage of illiteracy, especially in rural areas, as well as among marginalized communities, music can indeed play a vital role by aiding the simplification of such information and making it more accessible, only in a more melodic and long-lasting way.


In fact, irrespective of literacy and education, only a handful of us actively pick up a court ruling, a policy, circular or any other legal document, to understand its implications and effect on us. This lack of legal awareness and literacy even among the educated can prove to cause unnecessary confusion and deprivation of rights.


Justice Adda is committed to demystify academic and theoretical conversations about human rights and justice to allow the common man to participate. We are always on the lookout for creative and innovative ways to solve ordinary justice problems and facilitate greater participation among different sections of society. As discussed, music is an excellent tool that can be leveraged for this purpose. We are open to collaborate with corporates, non profits, academic institutions and government organizations to make music for justice!


The Role of Technology and Social Media in the Music-Justice partnership


While existing efforts towards legal awareness and literacy have been effective and are continuing, newer, more innovative and unconventional ways (in keeping with rapidly changing times) may be explored to keep the ball rolling. Technology, in this respect, is a powerful tool that can be tapped further into. For instance, songs on various themes and topics of importance, and the use of social media (that has the ability to reach the remotest corners of the earth, as well as the literate and illiterate alike) to disseminate such music can prove to be an effective way to meet legal literacy goals. This may especially help access the Indian youth well, who are most active on social media, and are largest in number in the world.


Conclusion


To conclude, plenty of research has been conducted, and is also underway, to understand the length and breadth of music’s potential vis-à-vis human psychology. It is clear that music can offer to the world much more. These unprecedented, yet exciting times we are living in, call for more unconventional and creative ways to approach different scenarios and present a range of information. Music, in this respect, can play a bigger role in doing so.


Afterword


I have curated a list of beautiful, soul stirring songs written over the years to compel people to get up, listen and think! These address a range of issues like racism, casteism, transgender rights, environmental rights, peace and non-violence. 


Go, give these gems a listen!


Get Up, Stand Up by Bob Marley


We Shall Overcome by Peeter Seeger


Imagine by John Lennon


Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday



Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan


The Three R’s by Jack Johnson


Where is the Love by The Black Eyed Peas


Same Love by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis


Feels like Summer by Childish Gambino


Alright by Kendrick Lamar


Kodaikanal Won’t by Sofia Ashraf


Ma Reva by Indian Ocean


The Warli Revolt ft. Prakash Bhoir


Enjoy Enjaami by Dhee ft. Arivu


Bird Flu by MIA


Vada Chennai by The Casteless Collective


Soumya Jha is a New Delhi based lawyer and musician. She holds a LLM in international and comparative law from the National University of Singapore, and recently completed a course in music production from the Sri Aurobindo College of Arts and Communication, New Delhi.

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