Music as a Messenger: Do the Dead Wear Gold Jewelry?

I have never thought that Madonna was the inspiration of this piece. When I was listening to it carefully by minding the lyrics, I came across these two lines, and wondered, so music can have a dual role for humanity: it either divides or unites. Just like people who do not listen to anything different than heavy metal and exclude all other genres, or the emergence of blues music in the 1930s USA that united black community, the role which hip-hop and rap music have. Therefore, it seems that music can be an impetus for collective action, when considering it as an artistic expression of ideas, beliefs, sentiments and grievances that a particular group of people experiences, and in this regard, musicians can act as messengers conveying these unheard events and opinions in their songs. It then builds an identity around this collectiveness.

Environmental protest events against the construction of power plants or mining (unfortunately) provide a favorable context to observe environmentally unjust practices and the resistance of localities to defend their lives and living spaces. I have come across the song that I have previously analyzed for Turkish context as a coincidence and started to locate the missing pieces of the puzzle. The questions that arose in my mind were manifold. So how music makes people come together? What is the function of music in social movements? How are environmental injustices reflected in music? How can songs and music reflect the political culture in Turkey? With this piece, I have two objectives. The first one is to contribute to the growing literature of music-social movement nexus by highlighting the narrative power of music in social movements. Second, I observe how protest attitudes in Turkish music interact with social and political life, thus aimed to contribute to the wider literature on Turkish political culture.

A little bit of literature to answer the question of what the function of music in social movements is. Earlier works, such as Lewis’s, attributed two roles: (1) the articulation of social discontent and (2) the development of “a social ideology to reinforce and rationalize the social movement”[i]. I think the most detailed work examining this relationship is Eyerman and Jamison’s 1998 book titled “Music and Social Movements”. In a nutshell, for the authors music is a medium of communication for social movement actors, and this medium is subject to different meaning-making processes. Having followed this, Rosenthal[ii] argues that music can turn bystanders into mobilizing actors and compels movement actors to go beyond.

The US was the center that hosted the emergence of environmental activism and its music, thanks to Pete Seeger in the 1960s and 70s with God Bless the Grass. He and Malvina Reynolds, who were civil rights activists, made an album entirely dedicated to environmental protest, because they see environmental advocacy as an extension to the civil rights movement. Seeger believed in the power of music to voice the concerns over “pollution, overdevelopment and resource wastage” as Ingram listed[iii], therefore told the stories of struggle against such problems This album can be considered as the best example of narrative power of music in social movements. From this album, for example, the song “Cement Octopus” is about a protest against the construction of a freeway on Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. In the verse that explains how the issue emerged, the growing monster is referred to the profit-seeking federal government and companies. Taxes have to be spent to build the proposed freeway in a destructive and costly way. Trees would be cut for this plan, so he calls out to protect trees from this project. Other songs, such as John Prine’s Paradise and many others, overall were called under the genre “American environmental folk music”, which directly criticized anthropocentric aspects of environmental destruction – industrialization, resource extraction, and an indifference to nature.

The Freeway protesters in City Hall, 1966

Similar to American folk music, it is possible to talk about the New Left influences in Turkish music in the 1960s. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on Anatolian rock music and one of the most influential bands of this genre: Moğollar is one of the long-lasting bands in Turkish musical history – which recently celebrated their 53rd year. Started out with English-language rock songs influenced by Western rock, and towards tbe end of 60s, they started to blend Anatolian instruments and sound, and Turkish lyrics that reflect Anatolian mysticism until 1976. The albums they have made until today were sensitive to the political and societal issues in Turkey. Especially, Moğollar’s neutral stance has been politicized with this incident in Madımak, and they continued to write songs that directly targets a specific issue, such as the anti-gold mining protests in Bergama in the mid-1990s. It can be classified as the first full-fledged movement against environmentally hazardous, cyanide-based mining. Wider support has been received from media, political parties and international environmental networks.

The band members were so inspired by the Bergama resistance that they wrote the song “Ölüler Altin Takar Mi?” (EN: Do the Dead Wear Gold [Jewelry]?) to support the resistance, which directly tells the story of the Bergama resistance. In the first part, the natural beauty of Bergama is portrayed by sanctifying the region’s natural resources, in order to highlight their importance to the residents. In the second part, the practices of mining company (cutting trees, drilling mountains), reactions of villagers (holding a referendum) are described and the company is asked to leave Bergama.

In a recent interview with BBC Turkey in 2020, Taner Öngür, lead guitarist of Moğollar, has said upon a question about the song[iv]:

“Right-wing governments have been ruling our country for many years. As you know, right-wing politics generally prefers neoliberal policies for development. Naturally, such a tendency had negative consequences in terms of social, environment, justice and true democracy. As long as this continues, some of our songs will always stay valid and up-to-date”

This statement pretty sums up how Moğollar’s music was influenced by the social and political environment of Turkey over the decades, and their ability to narrate the experiences of oppression and resistance as a counter-reaction. Music is not just something that entertains audiences, when taking a closer look, it is important to understand how music helps raise the voices which were oppressed or silenced, narrate the stories untold, and mobilize people. Unpredictable relationship between environmental movements and music: some things just don’t change…but music is there to stay in the collective memory of the society.

[i] Lewis, G. H. (1985). The Role of Music in Popular Social Movements: A Theory and Case Study of the Island State of Hawaii, USA. International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, 16(2), 153–162.

[ii] Rosenthal, R. (2001). Serving the movement: The role(s) of music. Popular Music and Society, 25(3–4), 11–24.

[iii] Ingram, D. (2008). “My dirty stream”: Pete Seeger, American folk music, and environmental protest. Popular Music and Society, 31(1), 21–36.

[iv] BBC Turkish (2020). “Moğollar, 53’üncü yılına yeni albümle girdi: ‘Hak ettiklerimizin esirgenmesine razıyız biz, hak etmediğimiz bir şey vermesinler yeter”. Accessible on

Elif Akın

Elif Akın

arete E-Bülten Aboneliği

Haftalık E-Bültenimize abone olun, her pazar günü bir önceki haftanın içeriklerinden derlediğimiz mail e-posta kutunuzda olsun.