R.E.M. (from Lifes Rich Pageant, 1986)
On a bootleg recording I have of a 1986 R.E.M. concert, singer Michael Stipe introduces "The Flowers of Guatemala" with a single word: "Genocide." In one of rock's most haunting songs, Stipe deploys Amanita, a flower that grows wild on graves, as a symbol for the catastrophe that descended on Guatemala's Mayan Indian population in the late 1970s and early 1980s. "There's something here I find hard to ignore," he sings, "there's something that I've never seen before." The song's chorus, with its incantation of "The flowers cover everything," is as evocative an expression of genocidal killing as any in popular music.
Bob Marley (from Uprising, 1980; also available on Legend and One Love)
Marley's masterpiece is a lament for the victims of Caribbean slavery, and a testimonial to the courage of the survivors. (For an argument that Atlantic slavery constituted genocide, see Chapter 1 of Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction.) The institution's terrors have never been so succinctly captured as in the song's opening refrain: "Old pirates yes they rob I, sold I to the merchant ship / Minutes of the day took I, from the bottomless pit." Then comes the redemption of the song's title: "We flowered in this generation, triumphantly." A candidate for most beautiful song of the twentieth century -- as Marley is that century's most beloved and influential artist, in any genre.
Buffy Sainte-Marie (from Little Wheel Spin and Spin, 1966; also available on The Best of Buffy Sainte-Marie)
Much of the protest music from the early and mid-1960s seems dated today -- even some of Bob Dylan's classic anthems. But "My Country 'Tis of Thy People You're Dying," by the Cree Indian singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, sounds devastatingly contemporary. There is something about the intensity of her delivery; the freshness and caustic bite of the language; and the post-modern irony that pervades this nearly seven-minute epic. Among other things, "My Country ..." may mark the first mention of the word "genocide" in English-language popular culture, as Buffy sings:
Now that the longhouses breed superstition
You force us to send our toddlers away
To your schools where they're taught to despise their traditions.
You forbid them their languages, then further say
That American history really began
When Columbus set sail out of Europe, then stress
That the nation of leeches that conquered this land
Are the biggest and bravest and boldest and best.
And yet where in your history books is the tale
Of the genocide basic to this country's birth,
Of the preachers who lied, how the Bill of Rights failed,
How a nation of patriots returned to their earth?
Incidentally, I might never have heard this song if the scholar of genocide against North American Indians, Ward Churchill, had not chosen it as the subject for his essay in my forthcoming edited volume, Evoking Genocide: Scholars and Activists Describe the Works That Shaped Their Lives.
Guns N' Roses (from Use Your Illusion II, 1991; also on Greatest Hits)
G N' R frontman Axl Rose aroused hostility on many fronts, most notoriously for his diatribe against "immigrants and faggots" in the 1986 song "One in a Million." But Rose partially compensated with this, one of the most titanic songs ever written against war and genocide:
My hands are tied
The billions shift from side to side
And the wars go on with brainwashed pride
For the love of God and our human rights
And all these things are swept aside
By bloody hands time can't deny
And are washed away by your genocide
And history hides the lies of our civil wars ...
Lead guitarist Slash's Hendrix-inflected solos drive the point home magnificently. "What's so civil 'bout war, anyway?" Rose mumbles at the end of the track -- a perfect coda.
System of a Down (from System of a Down, 1998)
All four members of System of a Down, currently America's most exciting and exploratory rock band, are of Armenian extraction. The Ottoman Empire's genocide against Armenians (1915-21) recurs regularly in their music, but nowhere so explicitly as on this closing cut from their debut album:
A whole race genocide,
Taken away all of our pride,
A whole race genocide,
Taken away, watch them all fall down.
Like most SOAD tunes, this one ranges from "abrupt mid-song shifts from speed-of-light semi-traditional thrash to melodies that probably sound Central European to average American ears" (Greg Milner, writing in The Village Voice). Lyrically, it's unclear what's meant, in this day and age, by the reference to "revolution, the only solution / The armed response of an entire nation." But the demand for "recognition, restoration, [and] reparation" rings true. And the band doesn't shy from the slog of lobbying for that cause. September 2005 found them in the halls of the US Congress, pushing for formal recognition of the genocide. (n.b.: Apparently, "P.L.U.C.K." stands for "Politically Lying, Unholy, Cowardly Killers.")
Sinéad O'Connor (from Universal Mother, 1994)
For the English, the Irish were the first "indigenous peoples" to be colonized, exploited, and oppressed. As Patrick Brantlinger notes in his book Dark Vanishings (2003), English writers in the Americas regularly "compared the Indians of the New World with the Irish in terms of their lawlessness, their nomadism, their treachery, their cruelty, and their cannibalism -- in short, in terms of their savagery." Sinéad O'Connor's powerful monologue, set to a propulsive hip-hop beat, makes clear the parallels with indigenous peoples' experiences worldwide: the vanquishing of a sense of history, the loss of native language, the descent into alcoholism and drug abuse and alienation, the need for "grieving ... forgiving ... knowledge ... understanding." "We're suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder," she declares. The song takes its lead from the mass starvation of the 1840s, which O'Connor depicts as mass murder: "I want to talk about the 'famine' / About the fact that there never really was one"; food was "shipped out of the country under armed guard / To England while the Irish people starved." The lyrics occasionally border on the mawkish, but overall this is a brave and potent performance.
Midnight Oil (from Diesel and Dust, 1987; also on 20,000 Watt RSL)
"How can we dance when our earth is turning / How do we sleep while our beds are burning?" After a tour through the outback and small-scale gigs in Aboriginal communities, Australia's premier band returned to pen the suite of songs that composed Diesel and Dust. "Beds" and its fellow anthem, "The Dead Heart," were hugely influential in persuading white society to take seriously the claims of the continent's first inhabitants. And they eloquently captured the need to respond to Aboriginal genocide and dispossession not with rejection, but with redress:
The time has come
To say fair's fair
To pay the rent
To pay our share
The time has come
A fact's a fact
It belongs to them
Let's give it back
(See also my 1986 essay on "The Oils.")
Bob Dylan (from The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, 1962; also a lovely version on The Concert for Bangladesh, 1971)
Dylan's epic ballad is constructed around an ancient folk refrain: "What did you see, my blue-eyed son? What did you see, my darlin' young one?" What he sees, as described in one of popular music's most poetic lyrics, is a world unimaginably laid waste ("where black is the color and none is the number"). What he hears is "the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world": the nuclear apocalypse that came as close as it ever has (with the Cuban Missile Crisis) in the same year the song was released. "Hard Rain" serves as the template for all of popular music's subsequent apocalyptic visions, from the Rolling Stones' "Gimmie Shelter" ("see the storm is threat'ning my very life today") to U2's "Bullet the Blue Sky" (see below). The dark song ends, however, with an affirmation of the need to bear witness:
And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin'
But I'll know my song well before I start singin' ...
U2 (from The Joshua Tree, 1987; live version on Rattle and Hum)
In the mid-1980s, U2's lead singer (now Nobel Peace Prize nominee) Bono visited El Salvador, then experiencing a savage US-backed state terror comparable to that of neighbouring Guatemala (see R.E.M.'s "The Flowers of Guatemala," above). Among other things, he witnessed a government bombing raid on civilians ("I've never been so scared in my life"). When he returned, he told the group's peerless guitarist, The Edge, to "put El Salvador through your amplifier." The result would be overwrought, if it weren't so shattering. Drawing on his Christian convictions, Bono laced the song with religious symbolism:
In the howling wind comes a stinging rain
See it driving nails into souls on the tree of pain
From the firefly, a red orange glow
See the face of fear running scared in the valley below
The lyrics are oblique; but just as Jimi Hendrix deconstructed "The Star-Spangled Banner" in his classic Woodstock version, The Edge heeds Bono's instructions with a distortion-ravaged guitar solo that conveys the horror and pain of some of the worst crimes ever inflicted in the western hemisphere. Then there is Larry Mullen Jr.'s stentorian drumming, and Bono's own surreal monologue, which ends with the song's subjects "run[ning] ... into the arms ... of America." (See also "Mothers of the Disappeared," from the same album: a mournful paean to the "Dirty War" in Argentina, and the women whose weekly demonstrations brought it to the world's attention.)
Neil Young (from Zuma, 1975; definitive version on Live Rust, 1979)
"He came dancing across the water / With his galleons and guns ..." Young's song describes Cortés the conquistador's destruction of the Aztec empire in Mexico. The lyrics are kitsch at points ("Hate was just a legend / War was never known" -- oh, really?), sometimes maudlin ("And I know she's living there / And she loves me to this day ..."). But the grandeur of Aztec civilization is vividly conveyed; and what the lyrics don't quite express, the heart of the song -- Young's keening guitar lines -- exquisitely do.
Rage Against the Machine (from The Battle of Los Angeles, 1999; also on Live at the Grand Olympic Auditorium)
This ferocious song, from Rage's most powerful and consistent record, builds itself around Tom Morello's blazing guitar riffs, which Mexican-American singer Zack de la Rocha overlays with his screaming indictment of génocidaires everywhere:
I am the Niña, the Pinta, the Santa Maria [Christopher Columbus's ships]
The noose and the rapist, the fields overseer
The agents of orange
The priests of Hiroshima
The cost of my desire
Sleep now in the fire
No million-selling band of the '90s staked out such radical territory as Rage, and with such verve and funk. See also "People of the Sun" (from Evil Empire, about the Zapatista rebels in Mexico), and "Guerrilla Radio" (from The Battle of Los Angeles: "Turn that shit up!").
Bruce Cockburn (from World of Wonders, 1985; also on Waiting for a Miracle)
A song so angry that it threatens to drown in its own bile -- but Cockburn's poetic flair keeps it afloat. For those of us who feel that structural and institutional violence can constitute genocide, and for anyone skeptical of claims that democracy inures a society to mass atrocity, this song is a touchstone. Whatever you make of it, you can't accuse the Canadian songwriter of mincing his words:
Padded with power here they come
International loan sharks backed by the guns
Of market hungry military profiteers
Whose word is a swamp and whose brow is smeared
With the blood of the poor
Who rob life of its quality
Who render rage a necessity
By turning countries into labour camps
Modern slavers in drag as champions of freedom ...
(One must hear that last line sung, to appreciate the cynicism in Cockburn's slap at the "chaaaampions of freedom.")
(1) Woody Guthrie's 1948 "Ilsa Koch" about the horrors of the Buchenwald concentration camp: "The prisoners walk the grounds / The hounds have killed a girl / The guards have shot a man / Some more have starved to death / Here comes the prisoners' car / They dump them in the pen / They load them down the chute / The trooper cracks their skulls." The first English-language folk song about the Holocaust?
(2) Bob Dylan's "With God on Our Side" from his 1964 album The Times They Are A-Changin' made reference to the Holocaust and the Cold War: "When the Second World War / Came to an end / We forgave the Germans / And we were friends / Though they murdered six million / In the ovens they fried / The Germans now too / Have God on their side."
(3) Captain Beefheart's 1969 "Dachau Blues" is growling, atonal, and sharp: "Dachau blues, those poor Jews / Dachau blues, those poor Jews ... One madman, six million lose."
(4) Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys' 1973 "Ride 'Em Jewboy" is a haunting country-and-western tribute to Holocaust victims: "Dead limbs play with ringless fingers / A melody which burns you deep inside / Oh, how the song becomes the singers / May peace be ever with you as you ride."
(5) Rush's "Red Sector A" is probably the best-known Holocaust rock song. It appeared on the band's 1984 smash album Grace Under Pressure. The seeds for this harrowing rocker were planted by the liberation of lead-singer Geddy Lee's mother from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp: "I hear the sound of gunfire at the prison gate / Are the liberators here? / Do I hope or do I fear? / For my father and my brother, it's too late / But I must help my mother stand up straight."
(6) The Indigo Girls' 1994 "This Train Revised" careens like a hell-bound express: "It's a fish white belly / A lump in the throat / Razor on the wire / Skin and bone / Piss and blood in a railroad car / 100 people / Gypsies, queers, and David's star / This train is bound for glory / This train is bound for glory ..."