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Perhaps love songs are the answer

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Apart from the theme of love, Elvis' songs also explore social issues and injustices. Photo by Emrecan Arik - Unsplash

By: Assoc. Prof. Ir. Dr. Nahrizul Adib Kadri

I came to know about Elvis Presley via someone else’s song (or what they call a ‘cover’ version nowadays). It was the reggae version of Presley’s 1961 hit “Can’t Help Falling In Love” by UB40 released in 1993 that got me reading about, and later a deeper appreciation of, the “King of Rock and Roll”.

Assoc. Prof. Ir. Dr. Nahrizul Adib Kadri

Elvis Aaron Presley, born on 8 January 1935 in Mississippi, rose to fame in the mid-1950s with his distinctive voice, energetic stage presence, and pioneering fusion of country, rhythm and blues, and gospel music. Leonard Bernstein, the legendary composer and conductor of the New York Philharmonic, even described him as “the greatest cultural force in the 20th century”; referring to his immeasurable impact in the entertainment industry, and beyond.

But what I am more interested with are his songs and their effects toward addressing social issues. Apart from revolving around themes of love, romance, and relationships (in the likes of “Love Me Tender” and “Heartbreak Hotel”); his songs also explore other subjects, such as social issues, faith, and identity (“In the Ghetto”, “If I Can Dream”, to name a couple).

Elvis’ distinctive style, which frequently incorporated African American musical elements, was said to have played a significant role in breaking down racial barriers in the industry. Along with his known insistence of refusing to play at segregated venues, Elvis has been seen by many as a true civil rights activist. Although he never made his stance on the movement publicly, his actions and impact on racial dynamics of the United States certainly cannot be taken lightly.

In the same era, albeit born earlier and shot to stardom later, Nesta Robert Marley (or Bob Marley to most of us), was also known widely for his songs that revolve around the themes of love, social justice, spirituality, and empowerment. Songs like “One Love,” “Is This Love,” and “Could You Be Loved” are among his famous tracks that express messages of love and unity. These songs advocate for universal love and emphasise the importance of treating others with kindness and respect, regardless of differences.

What I found interesting is that Marley’s music often addresses the struggles and challenges faced by marginalised communities. His commitment to social justice and equality is deeply intertwined with his message of love, as he truly believed that love could be a catalyst for positive change in the world.

Through his powerful lyrics and emotive performances, Marley masterfully brought our attention to issues like poverty, injustice, and oppression; indirectly encouraging us to reflect on the world and consider our role in creating positive change. In my mind, his music has inspired generations of activists to stand up against oppression and work towards a more just and equitable society. His songs became anthems for movements fighting against apartheid in South Africa, for civil rights in the United States, and for indigenous rights in Latin America, among others.

The Black Eyed Peas, founded in Los Angeles by two school friends (one of them was half Filipino), is another globally known artiste which frequently addresses social issues in their songs. The hip hop band shot to global fame via their 2003 hit, “Where is the Love?”, which tackles topics like violence, inequality, and the need for compassion and understanding in society.

They have also collaborated with organizations like The Red Cross on initiatives aimed at addressing social issues, such as education, environmental sustainability, and youth empowerment. Through their music and activism, they have sought to promote messages of unity, resilience, and social responsibility.

And by no means these three are the only ones who addresses social issues in their songs and works. Names like The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Tracy Chapman, John Legend, and The Fugees are often cited for their strong messages of identity, unity, and the need to work together in their respective songs too.

Perhaps love songs or music can be a platform for us to initiate positive change in society, particularly among the impressionable younger generations. By fostering a sense of optimism and belief in their ability to make a difference, we can empower young people to become agents of change in their own lives and in the world around them.

In conjunction with the Valentine’s Day today, perhaps we can prioritise love in all our interactions, institutions, and policies, so that we can create a world where each one of us have the opportunity to contribute to the common good.

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The author is the former Director of Corporate Communications Centre, Universiti Malaya, and may be reached at nahrizuladib@um.edu.my

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