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Dedicated to migrants, Pharrell’s new single ‘Freedom’ proves music can be more than just a summer hit

October 29, 2015 4:09 pm

Pharrell Williams Freedom

Pharrell Williams’ mega pop hit “Happy” was originally written for the animated film “Despicable Me”, but the peppy song quickly went viral as an unexpected call to action for people in troubled countries.

From the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan and Tunisia after the Arab Spring to Ukraine during the brutal government crack-down, the song became a powerful anthem of international resistance.

Now the US pop star has dedicated his jazzy new single “Freedom” to refugees fleeing to Europe, commending immigrants for their contributions to the world.

The beautifully liberating music video for the track features Pharrell singing and dancing in various locations where freedom is stifled including a work camp, a sweatshop and other locations that stress conformity and suffocate freedom of expression. The video also juxtaposes these settings with images that evoke the feeling of being free.

Although Pharrell does not consider himself an activist, he says, “We should use our platforms where we can. We have to be open. And it’s a tough conversation, but America is built on immigrants. We wouldn’t have a country.”

When asked by the AP if the same applies to the migrant crisis in Europe as it struggles to deal with the flow of migrants from Syria and other war-torn countries, he said, “Absolutely.”

Pharrell is following a rich tradition of activism and protest in modern music by using his art to voice opinions, tackle social issues and effect change.

Musicians like John Lennon (“Happy Xmas (War is Over)”), Bob Dylan (“Masters of War,” “The Times They Are A-Changin,” “Blowin’ in the Wind”), Bono (“Sunday Bloody Sunday, “Pride,” and “Walk on”), Macklemore (“Same Love”), El Général (“Rais Lebled”) and many others throughout the history of recorded music have written and performed songs as protest, to heighten awareness of a cause and as a call for change.

“I think a new generation of musicians are understanding that just doing concerts isn’t enough,” said singer-songwriter Patti Smith who is also known for using activism in her music. “You have to open the conversation…Throughout history, music has really excited people, incited them, rallied them. A musician can offer a song, can offer us presence, but it’s the people who have to make change. It’s the people who have to march, it’s the people who have to vote and protest.”

Just two days ago, Lebanese-American singer Xriss Jor released her cover of Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Really Care About Us” as a show of support for the “You Stink” movement in Lebanon which protests the country’s garbage pileup and political dysfunction.

Xriss Jor’s mentor, Grammy Award-winning American record producer, Quincy Jones does an on camera intro for her music video of the track.

Jor’s powerful video, “Care About Us,” features shots of her singing and walking through Beirut interspersed with images of protests and news bites.  Jor’s video loosely echoes Michael Jackson’s two original videos for the song: the first shot in Brazil’s Dona Marta and Salvador da Bahia and the second in a prison.

Jackson’s Brazil version sparked an emotional debate and helped catalyze change in Dona Marta, “a favela that was once notorious for drug dealing and is now a model for social development.” The prison version shone a much-needed light on the struggles of minorities against racism across the globe.

Jackson’s song and videos, as well as Jor’s new Lebanese twist on them, leave one feeling stronger and inspired.

Musicians like Pharrell, the late Michael Jackson, and Xriss Jor remind us that songs are often more than just catchy, soon forgotten summer hits; but anthems of resilience and resolve that move us to speak up and take action.

Patti Smith says it best: “The power of the individual is beauty. But the power of the people collective is change.”

By Hyacinth Mascarenhas

Do you have a favourite protest song or song that inspires change? Tell us in the comments!

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