Artist – Peter Gabriel
Album – Peter Gabriel (Melt)
Year – 1980
Genre – Art Rock
This song is due. With the horrifying show of police force coming out of Ferguson, Missouri in the past week, I felt I needed to review a song that deals with same issues of racism and tragic violence used against an unarmed man. Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” is a song written for Stephen Biko, a journalist and anti-Apartheid activist in South Africa who was detained, tortured and beaten to death in jail by the South African police for organizing non-violent protests that led to an uprising within the black populace of South Africa. The parallels of the “big man with a gun” persona of the police in both cases are there. It’s time for a wake up call. Police racism, harassment, and unwarranted violence needs to end, and hopefully the message that this song preaches is one way for me to try and get this across to the world at large.
The incorporation of an African song sung by a crowd at the beginning is only fitting for a song of this subject matter and scope. Then you hear the beat. The beat of the people. The beat of revolution. The beat of a heart. Then, a piercing scream cuts through the song and fades into the rough grunts of a man. Then Gabriel begins to sing, and your jaw drops.
His voice is piercing and he seems impassioned beyond belief as he recounts the details of Stephen Biko’s death. It’s almost as if he’s on the verge of tears, and you can feel it. The vocals soar to the highest heights as Gabriel lets the world know of this atrocity. The chorus is simple, but the melody is just great, and the ending cries of “Yihla Moja” hit you right in the heart. The backing keyboard that follows almost sounds like the bagpipes of a funeral march, and it sounds even more so live, as is the case in the video above. It’s chilling and moving.
The next two verses are where Gabriel drives his point home with absolute ferocity lyric wise. These are chilling words when you put them in the context of the Ferguson events, and really any racial discrimination and violence in our own country:
When I try to sleep at night
I can only dream in red
The outside world is black and white
With only one color dead
You can blow out a candle
But you can’t blow out a fire
Once the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher
And the eyes of the world are
With the trend of racism and violence in our own country, those lyrics are the truest expressions of racial violence, revolution and change, and how the world is currently viewing the Ferguson situation. Gabriel knew that Biko’s death would bring about a great change in South Africa. It took ten years, but Apartheid eventually ended. It certainly wasn’t solely because of Biko, but the fact that his death sparked a change in the people and spurred them to action is what’s important. It’s a universal message, and one we can apply to the events in our own country.
As these lyrics pass by, Gabriel soaring voice, the tribal beat, and the bag pipe keyboards combine to great effect, and the energy and intensity only seems to build as the song continues. It’s the kind of song that makes you want to do something about the injustices that you see on the news day after day. This is the power of the music. A man like Gabriel, who sings with so much conviction and has crafted a melody and beat that touch you to the very heart, has the power to reveal the world’s problems and stir people to action.
As if the song weren’t already empowering enough, the chanting and vocal climax at the end are simply beautiful. It’s a powerful ending to a song that makes you want to change things. A song that makes you wish things were different. As the voices sing and rise, you want to join in and make the world better for everyone.
This song is mirror to the horrors we see in Missouri, and hopefully reflects many of our own feelings on the matter. I think for this song to gain even more salience and power, everyone reading this should watch this.
I can only hope for an end to the violence and discrimination. I hope this song provides a musical way to put things in perspective. Change is possible. I can only hope it happens soon.
Thanks for reading, and please check out the above NY times video in tandem with this song. Share this review around, and spread the message of the words. Show the true power of music.