Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2011 was the Protester. Time noted that there had been a hiatus of protest, at least in the developed world, over the past 20 years, as we enjoyed easy credit and increasing comfort and convenience in our lives, summed up by Francis Fukuyama’s declaration in 1989 that humankind had arrived at the “end point of … ideological evolution” in globally triumphant “Western liberalism.” Thus, Time suggested “’Massive and effective street protest’ was a global oxymoron until – suddenly, shockingly – starting exactly a year ago, it became the defining trope of our times. And the protester once again became a maker of history.”
It started in Tunisia, in December 2010, where a street vendor finally cracked at police harassment of him, symptomatic of more wide-scale regime abuse, walked straight to the provincial capital building, then drenched himself in paint thinner and lit a match. The revolt that subsequently took place in Tunisia then spread to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and Syria, being resisted all the way by their corrupt dictatorships with brutality and murder.
The courage of the protestors of the Arab Spring seemed to galvanize citizens across the globe, who, while not having to deal with cynical dictatorships, were sick of corruption and crime in governments and financial systems. So we saw ordinary people – disproportionately young, middle class and educated – on the streets of Moscow, Athens, Madrid, London, New York and other major US cities, protesting about the dysfunctional political and financial systems that have wreaked havoc with the world’s major economies. Time called the object of their ire, “the failure of hell-bent, megascaled, crony hypercapitalism”. Nicely put.
The blues at their very roots are protest songs. From the beginning they have railed against the injustice experienced by the black community in the US. B B King said “The blues is an expression of anger against shame and humiliation” – because at heart the essence of the blues is rooted in human suffering, in grief, in distress. And of course, that’s not all, because the blues is not simply a wallowing in all of that – it’s an expression of anger & hope that protests against the problems facing us and that enables us to get to a place where we can rise above them.
W C Handy, the man credited with discovering the blues said, “The blues were conceived in aching hearts”. Songs like Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Broke and Hungry”; Leadbelly’s “Pick a Bale of Cotton”; Leroy Carr’s How Long Blues (I ain’t seen no greenback on a dollar bill, How long, how how long, baby how long?); Victoria Spivey’s T B Blues (I got a tuberculosis; Consuption is killing me. It’s too late, too late Too late, too late, too late) – and many, many more, all speak of the hardships of life for African Americans when the blues were growing up. Suffering that was the result of poverty and discrimination and which led to personal degradation and social disintegration.
People of faith, too, have long protested about the injustice in the world. In the 7th century BC, the prophet Habakkuk railed against the cruelty his people had suffered from the Assyrians when he said:
“Oh Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not hear?
Why do you make me see wrongs and look upon trouble?
…Justice never goes forth,
The wicked surround the righteous
So justice goes forth perverted.”
The writer of the 55th Psalm complains of similar woes:
“I am distraught by the noise of the enemy
Because of the oppression of the wicked
For they bring trouble against me”
Centuries later, Mary, the mother of Jesus would anticipate the birth of her special baby by declaring that because of this birth, God “ has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. (Luke 1:52, 53)
Protest about the ways things are and hope for the world to be different is inherent to both the blues and Christian faith. Those of us who are into one or other (or both!) are part of protest movements. Maybe you wouldn’t think it, to look at us sometimes. But both the blues and faith in the God of Jesus Christ are – or should be – a howl of protest against injustice, corruption, brutality and greed, no matter where we find it. Maybe we need to howl a little louder. Let’s join the protest.
David Honeyboy Edwards plays Leroy Carr’s How Long Blues