Amid the serious criminal offences committed during the recent breach of the US Capitol, one prominent trespass was against good taste. Numerous commentators, including original I Three singers Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt, took exception to Trump supporters singing Bob Marley classics “Three Little Birds” and “One Love”.
The sound of white nationalists appropriating Afro-Caribbean music (though all too familiar in the UK of the 1970s-80s) was considered both offensive and surprising. Ideologically, such groups are more often associated with fetishising “white” classical music and eschewing “black” culture. One of the early warning signs of UK singer Morrissey’s far-right leanings was his 1986 comment “reggae is vile”.
Some may find it surprising to realise that the alt-right can enjoy Bob Marley as well as death metal and Wagner. But this might be less of an example of deliberate cultural appropriation than a pragmatic example of how music works when organising a crowd.
The lyrics of “One Love” unify its listeners, forming an in-group against an implicit other. The choruses of both songs are effortless to sing. Above all, the tempo is perfect. The Capitol mob neither goose-stepped nor surged: it shuffled slowly. Famously, it even kept between the guide ropes. Marley’s songs, with their relaxed, off-beat rhythm, are the perfect soundtrack for a movement that mostly mills about.
Still, this wasn’t the first time that the far-right’s choice of song has come out of left field. Here are five more instances when history has sounded a little out of tune.
2014: UKIP Calypso
In 2014, the anti-immigration UK Independence Party featured a song at its annual conference penned by former BBC Radio 1 DJ Mike Read, “UKIP Calypso” – a travesty of Trinidadian music sung in an accent that, in the views of many, bordered on minstrelsy. Bona fide calypso star Alexander D Great responded with his own song “Copycat Crime”.
1934: La Marseillaise
Yes, that Marseillaise: the anthem of liberty written by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle in 1792 and France’s national song. In 1934 the British Union of Fascists needed a song of its own. But its publication Fascist Week rejected Elgar’s “Land of Hope and Glory”, a far-right favourite then as now, because “it stands for ideals we regard as obsolete”. The Italian fascist anthem “Giovinezza” was deemed too, well, Italian. Instead, asked Blackshirt magazine (the British Union of Fascists’ newspaper), “Who is to be the first ‘Rouget de Lisle’ to give the Movement a ‘Marseillaise’?”
The anti-democratic right had a precedent here: in 1799, reactionary Royal Navy chaplain Alexander Duncan also proposed imitating the Marseillaise. But the idea never caught on, and today Britain’s far-right favours “Keep St George In My Heart” sung to the tune of the hymn “Oil in my Lamp”, most commonly associated with small schoolchildren.
Few far-right figures have embraced song in quite the manner of the leader of the French political party Rassemblement National (National Rally), Marine Le Pen. In 2015 she was filmed ironically serenading former French president and political rival Nicolas Sarkozy with the 1979 love song “Nicolas”. But the joke may have been on the anti-immigration Le Pen – “Nicolas” was made a hit by French singer Sylvie Vartan, born in Bulgaria and of Armenian and Jewish heritage.
1936: Das Lied der Deutschen
The most extreme case of misappropriation is surely the German national anthem. Its 1797 tune was penned by Haydn for the Habsburg emperor. So when August Heinrich Hoffman gave it new words in 1841, he was reappropriating a royalist song for republican ends.
Its infamous opening “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” was a call for the disparate German states to form a liberal union, putting their shared identity above allegiance to petty monarchs. Its lyrics are essentially peaceful, unlike bloodthirsty lines found in “God save the King”, “The Star-Spangled Banner”, or the “Marseillaise” itself. But since its appropriation by the Nazis, broadcast worldwide at the Berlin Olympics, its message has been tainted, and now only the third verse is officially sung.
2009: If You Tolerate This…
In recent decades, musicians have been quick to object to the appropriation of their material. Though Neil Young has abandoned his fight against Trump’s use of “Rockin’ in the Free World”, Tom Petty did successfully prevent the Bush campaign from playing “I Won’t Back Down” in 2000. As a former Bush spokesman said: “we backed down”. And when in 2009 the British National Party plumbed new ironic depths by pirating the Manic Street Preachers’ anti-fascist anthem “If You Tolerate This”, the band’s label were swift to take action.
There’s little room for nuance when a movement takes a fancy to a slogan. The ultimate example is Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” – meant as a critique of the Vietnam War and its effect upon veterans. Knowing this, some commentators sneer at its use by jingoistic nationalists and “birthers”. But its verses require concentrated listening, whereas the macho, stadium-rock chorus is simplicity itself.
Perhaps we should suspend our knowing impulses, and accept that in practice, a song’s meaning is determined in performance, not in the intentions of its author.