by Halley Cole
In several of the texts we have read this semester, music has played a role as a means of either oppression or empowerment for the women and children in the text. As a music therapy student I was very interested in the different ways that music worked in these texts. In Bessie Head’s A Question of Power, the main character’s abuser plays pop records intended to oppress her. In contrast to this book, music in the graphic novel Persepolis is an empowering force for the main character, as she is able to resist the oppressive Iranian government by purchasing illegal rock ‘n’ roll tapes. Finally, Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade is empowering both in its creation by Beyoncé and for the viewer or listener. In this paper, I will explore how music is a means of resisting oppression from racism and patriarchal systems in each of the texts. By examining these texts we can better understand the important role that music plays in the empowerment of women within oppressive systems.
Bessie Head’s A Question of Power is an autobiographical novel that tells the story of Elizabeth, a South African woman who is biracial and leaves South Africa for Botswana. Elizabeth continues to experience oppression in Botswana, where she has a psychotic break. Head communicates Elizabeth’s mental illness in the autobiographical novel through a seamless weaving of real life experiences and dreams and nightmares. One anchor for the reader, especially in the second half of the text, is music. The reader comes to realize that when Elizabeth hears music, especially pop music, it is the records played by her abuser Dan. The abuse Elizabeth suffers at Dan’s hand is one of the major factors in her mental illness. The music in the novel functions at another level as well: it is also reminiscent of the use of oppressive pop music played on the radio during Apartheid in South Africa.
Because Head used the form of an autobiographical novel, she fictionalizes some of her experiences, as a means of processing them. One of the experiences she must process is the abuse she endured from her husband. In Elizabeth’s nightmares, she envisions a manifestation of her abusive husband, a man named Dan. Dan is a very secular man who emotionally and physically abuses Elizabeth. He also frequently plays records of Western pop and jazz music. Contrary to the other texts we have read this semester in which music is empowering for the women and children involved, music in this text is oppressive for Elizabeth. However, it does lead her to resistance eventually.
There are many examples of the oppressive and abusive records that Dan plays for Elizabeth in the second half of the text. One of the first instances of this occurs when Dan plays a record that repeats three phrases: “You are supposed to feel jealous. You are inferior as a Coloured. You haven’t got what that girl has got” (Head 127). In this specific example, Dan is cheating on Elizabeth, and this record echoes the sentiment that she should be jealous because this other woman is better than her, which is a clear form of emotional abuse. This ‘record’ also features a racist comment about Elizabeth’s race. “Coloured” was the term used in South Africa during Apartheid to describe mixed-race individuals. Elizabeth goes on to say that “he turned on a record of whatever happened to be the issue of the moment” (Head 127). Dan is clearly using this record to abuse and oppress Elizabeth by making her feel inferior. This specific line from the record also invokes the second layer of musical meaning in the text, as it has a clear link to Apartheid.
During Apartheid, pop music and radio stations were used to oppress South Africans. The mainstream pop Afrikaans music was “non-confrontational” and “compliant” (Van der Merwe, 352). This music was broadcast constantly to send a message of compliance and obedience to Afrikaners. Much of the music featured happy, nonpolitical lyrics so that black South Africans experiencing horrible oppression would feel happy and not even consider resisting. The constant playing of this music on the radio was ultimately unsuccessful as Afrikaner musicians began to resist through music. Younger black South Africans also preferred Western rock ’n’ roll music to traditional Afrikaans music and found messages of resistance in this music as well. Ultimately, what was used as a means of oppression became a form of resistance through music.
Elizabeth is living and working through this system of racial oppression in addition to a patriarchal system of oppression through abuse. Elizabeth is able to begin to make sense of these systems through the music that she experiences as being played during her abuse. Music often functions in this way as we can look back at different times in our lives and remember exactly what music we were listening to and what was important to us at that time. In documenting her life experiences, Elizabeth uses music as a marker for moments of oppression. All of the music is recorded and experienced passively by Elizabeth, just as the abuse is done to her. While Elizabeth has many negative experiences with music, there are also positive experiences of empowerment through music in the book as well.
The first instance of music in the book is actually a positive one, when an American, Tom, begins singing the lyrics to “Hello Dolly.” Elizabeth immediately feels that she can relate and wonders if “Dolly had been to hell and back” (Head 111) too. This music differs from the records that Dan plays in that it is a recognizable song and it is produced live, by Tom, a person who turns out to be a safe person for Elizabeth. Tom is also a grounding force for the reader, as Elizabeth only experiences Tom when she is awake and in a solid mental state. This experience of song is empowering for Elizabeth, rather than oppressive, because she can relate to the lyrics and find comfort in knowing that another person has had a similar lived experience. Elizabeth is also empowered by music at the end of the novel, this time is it a psalm, “David’s song” (Head 202). Elizabeth recites to herself “powerful and secure: ‘I have been through the valley of the shadow of death, but I fear no evil. I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever’” (Head 202). Here, Elizabeth again can relate to the lyrics or message of the song and is empowered by this experience. Although Elizabeth has been horribly oppressed and abused, she emerges stronger from these experiences and ultimately resist this oppression through music that she finds empowering.
Persepolis is set in a very different place, wartime Iran, but the systems of patriarchy and oppression are still very present and problematic for the main character, who uses music as a means of resistance. Similarly to A Question of Power, Persepolis is also a sort of memoir: Marjane Satrapi tells the story of her childhood through the format of an autobiographical graphic novel. Satrapi was growing up in Iran in the 1970s, during which time the Iranian Revolution was occurring. The Iranian Revolution, also known as the Islamic Revoluation, was a time of great political and religious upheaval in Iran, which directly affects Marji as a young girl. One of the changes that was instituted during the revolution was the requirement for Iranian women and girls to wear the veil and cover their hair. This is both a system of political oppression, as well as a patriarchal system of oppression through which Marji must navigate as a child.
Persepolis features one specific instance in which music is discussed, in a chapter titled “Kim Wilde.” Marji’s parents go on a vacation to Turkey and Marji begs them to bring her back posters of Kim Wilde and Iron Maiden, which they manage to successfully sneak across the border, along with other Western paraphernalia, such as new Nike sneakers for Marji. Later in the chapter, Marji ventures out by herself to buy cassette tapes from black market sellers. She purchases two tapes: Kim Wilde and Camel. When she is returning home, Marji is questioned by members of the women’s branch of the “Guardians of the Revolution” (Satrapi 132) who mock and belittle her for wearing “punk” shoes and clothing. Satrapi explains that “their job was too put us back on the straight and narrow by explaining the duties of Muslim women” (133). Satrapi escapes without being taken back to their headquarters and without her tapes being discovered. When she gets home, she listens to “We’re the Kids in America” by Kim Wilde loudly in her room, saying “to each his own way of calming down” (Satrapi 134). For Marji, listening to these tapes is a form of resistance. Marji is resisting the harsh government and religious policies instated by the new regime. However, her resistance is complicated because by purchasing tapes of Western music, she is also participating in Western systems of oppression. Marji’s parents are also resisting the oppressive Iranian regime by illegally smuggling posters across the border for Marji. Despite the influence of Western patriarchal systems, Marji and her parents resist the systems that directly influence and affect them in ways that seem small but may be more significant.
In an article about music as resistance throughout history, Barrett Martin comments that “rock & roll is, by its very nature, a form of musical resistance against entrenched power structures.” This quote speaks to Marji’s use of American rock music to feel empowered against the political structures that are oppressive to her as an Iranian girl. Like Elizabeth in A Question of Power, the music experienced by Marji is recorded, in this case played on cassette tapes rather than records, and it is Western music. Unlike Elizabeth, Marji is able to resist the oppression she has experienced through illegally purchasing these tapes and listening to them to feel empowered. Despite its Western origin, music is useful if it empowers and Marji has found music that can do exactly this for her, which is what is important.
While Marji and Elizabeth experience and consume the music in the above texts, in her visual album Lemonade, Beyoncé creates the music herself as a means of self-empowerment. Like Persepolis and A Question of Power, Lemonade can also be viewed as a memoir of resistance against systems of racism and patriarchy. Lemonade in responds to Beyoncé’s husband’s infidelity, as well as in response to police brutality against black Americans. Incidences of police violence are especially highlighted in her song “Freedom,” in both the lyrics and accompanying visual. In “Freedom”, Beyoncé sings “Freedom! Freedom! I can’t move. Freedom, cut me loose. Freedom, freedom, where are you? Cause I need freedom too. I break chains all by myself, won’t let my freedom rot in hell.” These lyrics are a message of empowerment and resistance and can be interpreted in several different ways. In terms of resisting the patriarchal systems of oppression, Beyoncé could be singing about a newfound freedom following a cheating husband. However, by looking at the visual album, a very different message emerges. The accompanying visuals for this song feature the mothers of black Americans killed by police brutality holding portraits of their children. In this interpretation, “Freedom” is clearly a song that is resisting racist systems in America.
In contrast to A Question of Power and Persepolis, Beyoncé herself is performing the music that is present in Lemonade, it is not recorded but a live voice. It is also a different form: while still a memoir, Beyoncé created a visual album, a very visceral and accessible form of resistance to oppression. Both Lemonade and Persepolis make use of visuals and images to make their points very clear to the audience. In Persepolis, the images tell the story, which is supplemented by text. Images are used at some points in place of words to show how Satrapi processed the events as a young girl. Lemonade also uses visuals to accompany the music and lyrics, and they work together to communicate the message. While music is a minor part of Persepolis, music is central to Lemonade because music is the form. Lemonade is a clear example of how music can be created to empower and resist systems of oppression.
As a music therapy student, I have learned that music is empowering because it is accessible, grounding, and able to communicate important truths. In examining the instances of music in the texts we have read and watched in this class, I have seen that this is true. Music is an important form of empowerment and resistance from oppressive systems in a variety of cultures and forms. Each of these texts is a memoir of some sort in which music is used as a means of personal resistance. Even in A Question of Power, in which music is very oppressive for Elizabeth, she manages to find power through different genres of music. These texts highlight the importance of music as a form of resistance against patriarchal and racist systems of oppression and that it is a way for people oppressed by these systems to find power within themselves.
Beyoncé. “Freedom.” Lemonade, featuring Kendrick Lamar, Parkwood Entertainment, 2016.
Head, Bessie. A Question of Power. Heinemann, 1974.
Martin, B. (2014, October 14). “Music and the politics of resistance.” 14 October 2014. 27 April 2017. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/barrett-martin/music-and-the-politics-of_b_4087557.html.
Satrapi, M. Persepolis: The story of a childhood. Pantheon, 2003.
Van der Merwe, S.D. ‘Radio apartheid’: Investigating a history of compliance and resistance in popular Afrikaans music, 1956-1979. South African Historical Journal, vol. 66, no. 2, 2014, 349-370.