Desi swing songs that became global protest anthems long before ‘Jimmy’- QHN

Bappi Lahiri’s cult classic composition, “Jimmy Jimmy Aja Aja” from Disco Dancer (1982) — a song that arguably began the disco era in Bollywood — has found new currency the past few days, this time in China. The song’s catchy hook is homophonous to the mandarin phrase “jie mi” which means “Give me rice.” Thousands of Chinese social media users have taken to dancing to the 1980s Hindi superhit as they brandish empty bowls and pans. The song has become an expression of anger and frustration over the country’s stringent zero-Covid policy. The empty vessels signify the scarcity of essential food items during the lockdowns.

While the Chinese use of the hit 1980s disco number clearly stands out for its innovative take, it isn’t the only example of popular music crossing borders and taking up causes. In fact, media and cultural studies scholars like Ta-Nahisi Coates and Barbara Lebrun have often pointed out to the umbilical relation pop music has with protest movements and music.

Western media cultures have a long history of popular songs becoming protest anthems and vice versa. From “Bella Ciao” and “La Marseillaise” to Gil Scott-Heron’s “Revolution will not be Televised” and Kendrick Lamar’s “(Everything’s gonna be) Alright”, songs penned or sung in the context of specific protest movements — the Civil Rights movement, the French revolution and protests against Fascism during World War 2, etc. — have been revitalised in modern contexts for current causes like Black Lives Matter, anti-Vaccine protests in Paris, or Italy’s Five Star Movement in 2018.

Closer home, Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s “Hum Dekhenge” is a burning example. From Shaheen Bagh protests in 2019-2020, to the solidarity marches for Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid in 2015, to Coke Studio versions in Pakistan and India, the song has become a popular number for the young in the sub-continent. Its promise for a brighter future free of dictatorship and authoritarian oppression has also been sung in several cities of the United States like Chicago (Illinois), Portland (Oregon), Seattle (Washington) and Memphis (Tennessee), most recently in protest of the proposed “Musilim Ban” under the Trump Administration, and primarily by protest groups comprised of American citizens of South Asian origins.

There are other lesser-known examples as well. Kaifi Azmi’s “Itne Baazu Itne Sar”, sung by Amitabh Bachchan in the 1989 film Main Azaad Hoon (1989) was heard in snatches right after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in Rawalpindi in 2007. The lyrics famously challenge “the adversary” to “count carefully the heads and fists we have, for we shall win when we play with our full might.”

The highly croon-worthy “Give me some sunshine” from 3 Idiots (2009) — a film that has been remade in Mexican cinema as 3 Idiotas (2017) — received a brief lease of life in the Tex-Mex region of the US as well as in the border towns of Mexico, when protests flared up against the Donald Trump administration’s decision to phase out the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) plan in 2017.

Satyajit Ray’s cult classic Hirak Rajar Deshe (In the Land of King Hirak, 1980) featured several limericks and satirical songs aimed at the tyrannical King Hirak. One such song has the line “It’s a strange world; they who grow the grains sleep on empty stomachs and those who mine diamonds are dirt poor,” referring to the deplorable conditions of farmers and miners in the fictional film. The song and these lines have become a popular reference in Bangladeshi culture, finding space on walls as graffiti and in social media memes.

More recently, the viral Tamil song “Enjoy Enjaami” by rapper Arivu and singer Dhee, was taken up by Sri Lankan youths during the Sri Lankan economic crisis, to voice their anger against the government’s corrupt practices.

Given the immense popularity the recent adoption of Bappida’s “Jimmy” has gained, it will not be surprising if such adoption becomes more frequent in the near future.

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