During the ruling of the civic-military dictatorship over Uruguay in 1973 to 1985, there grew a surge of “musica popular” in Latin America—which means “the music of the oppressed people.”
One band, named “Canciones para no dormir la siesta,” was a children’s band that wrote children’s music with double meanings to protest the government. Uruguay and other Latin American countries were united under music that protested what was going on in the government—it was their voice when they had none.
Many people consider America today to be one of the most divided political climates in history. But why do we feel this way when just over 50 years ago, Americans were so divided that there were separate bathrooms, separate water fountains, separate schools based solely on skin color?
In comparison to the American society during the civil rights movement, Americans are not more divided, but perhaps they feel that way because they are less unified.
All throughout history, when a group of people undergo oppression, they become bonded through that fight—specifically, through music and protest songs. When oppression seeks to break a society, music is often the glue that unites it and the historical tool of measurement that shows just how oppressed a society was.
Just a few years before the citizens of Uruguay were brought together under the oppressive dictactorship, Americans were fighting back the same way Uruguayans did—through music. Protests songs during the civil rights movement were incredibly popular and often sung together in crowds as a way of both protesting and banding together.
“We Shall Overcome,” was known as the anthem of the civil rights movement sung at rallies, concerts, strikes and protests. “We shall live in peace someday; deep in my heart I do believe, we shall overcome someday,” echoed through crowds of American citizens during a time of great change and turmoil, creating a veil of homogeneity over deeply-oppressed individuals.
Today, 84 percent of Americans believe the United States is divided, according to a survey for the BBC by Ipsos Mori. The survey also found that the countries that feel the least divided are Saudi Arabia at 34 percent and China at 48 percent—two countries also considered to have some of the most repressive governments in the world.
How could Americans be more divided today than they were during the civil rights movement, more divided than Uruguay under an aggressive, civic-military dictatorship and more divided than the citizens of Saudi Arabia and China?
Americans are experiencing more freedom than ever before—with legal rights having just relatively recently expanded to the LGBTQ community, black people, other ethnicities, women and more. The freedom of America has divided Americans.
Today, there are few to no songs for Americans to unite under to speak out against the government. Instead, there is the collision of differing opinions on various political and social policies, but that is because we are not oppressed. We are just divided. There is no civil war, there are no government issued mass murders, there is no oppression, only division that we’re free to have.
And with that, people voice their judgments through platforms like Twitter and Facebook that can reach thousands in a matter of seconds—no matter how ill-advised the opinion may be.
“Music was for a time a powerful counter-cultural force,” wrote The Guardian. “Whereas Billy Bragg and his generation would have strapped on their guitars and headed for a street corner to make their point, today’s discontents prefer Facebook and other social media.”
But these unifying protest songs of past decades stemmed from cultural and political oppression. The problem has changed and so has the solution. There’s no telling how and if music would be able to unite American culture again the same way it used to.
In this way, America may truly be the most divided it has ever been, but only because it is as free as it has ever been—free enough to not have to use the secret weapon of music and free enough to be as rash and divided as social media allows people to be today.
And as America dynamically progresses toward more freedom and fights for more rights, Americans may come to realize that even freedom has its price.