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Freedom Songs

Break the chains
"Break the chains" by Rob Oo is licensed under CC BY 2.0

July 4, 2014

by Peter van der Walt

I love freedom songs. I’ve heard them from all over the world. One of my favorites is Martina McBride’s “Independence Day.” It’s a personal declaration of independence. I also like Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”. South Africa’s Anthem, “Nkosi Sikelele”, began as a freedom song. Many freedom songs also began as gospel or spiritual songs… I’m thinking specifically of “We Shall Overcome,” “Go Tell It On The Mountain” and “This Little Light Of Mine”.

The truth is that you can sing about freedom without having any. Many freedom songs emerged from slavery. You can also sing about freedom and not mean it. Or sing about freedom without knowing what it means.

Because freedom means different things to different people, the word carries some baggage. The dictionary describes freedom simply as “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.” But freedom has political, economic, social, religious and cultural implications.

An interesting feature of freedom songs from around the world is that many of them describe an ongoing struggle (in South Africa, they are even referred to as “struggle songs”). This should dispel any illusions we might have that freedom is a feeling… or a state. Rather, it seems, invariably, that freedom is a process. Or a verb, if you will.

Also, when listening to freedom songs, it also becomes clear that freedom is not the same thing as peace. Or happiness. Or patriotism. I often hear the word “freedom” used rather liberally by people who clearly do not understand its meaning. When “freedom” is wrapped up in rhetoric, it usually means the opposite.

A person and a country can both be free. The Fourth of July is American Independence day. I see many parallels between what it takes, for both a person and a country, to, declare freedom.

Independence from the whims of others. Independence to pursue that which is desirable and avoid that which is undesirable. The steadfast determination to defend that sovereignty. The willingness to cooperate, peacefully as a modus operandi… but with firmness, if need be. The ability and willingness to choose from a range of options. The confidence to stand one’s ground, speak up for oneself and speak up for others. The utilization of limited resources to achieve a maximum gain. An awareness of the factors that influence the self and others – and what that means.

It’s fireworks.

But, I like the fireworks.

It gives proof, even in the night, that the work of freedom is ongoing. Wherever people struggle towards justice… there you will hear freedom songs. Some are celebratory. Some are determined. Some are soft. Some make you laugh… some make you cry. But, all freedom songs have one thing in common. When you are done singing, or listening, you’ll have a sense of hope.

Keep singing, America. Let ‘er ring.

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