‘The Sound of Music’: identifying the power of music in the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests

Music is omnipresent and “imbues nearly every moment of life”. By its very nature, music can thus be understood as a symbolic container; a unifying melting pot that is representative of the soundtrack of our thoughts, feelings, experiences and emotional responses. Music is at the heart of social interaction. As such music holds a great deal of communicative potential and power. 

The Copenhagen School’s (CS’s) securitization framework identifies the spoken word as the main way in which security threats are constructed. However, an aspect profoundly understudied in their framework is the role and power of music in security studies. This article aims to explore the ability of music to speak security; and to incorporate this understanding of music to broaden the scope and strengthen the contribution of securitization studies. 

An explicit example of music being used as a way of speaking security is the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong against the Government’s implementation of the ‘Fugitive Offenders Amendment Bill’ (2019-2020). If implemented this Bill would subject criminal figures in Hong Kong to extradition. It further led to concerns of the subjection of the population of Hong Kong to mainland China’s legal jurisdiction and fears for the region’s self-governance.  The introduction of the new national security law, implemented directly from China on the 30 June 2020, has further enhanced the ability of mainland China to control the lives of the population of Hong Kong. The law criminalises acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion and provides China with the legitimisation to clamp down on protests

Performative in nature, it is no surprise therefore that music has appeared at the centre of the protests, with one specific song uniting and communicating the demonstrator’s message. The rousing ‘Do You Hear the People Sing’ from the famous musical Les Miserable has become the political anthem of the protests and unified protestors with a collective forum for speaking security globally. The original song encapsulates the devastation of many disappointed by those governing as well as the determination to have one’s voice heard.

The connotations of revolution and freedom of speech associated with this song are thus extremely powerful and are internationally renowned. Since its adoption within protests, all access to the song within Hong Kong has been restricted by the Chinese government and censored on the country’s largest streaming service, QQ Music. The notion that a song has received a censored response indicates the extent the Chinese Government perceive this form of speech act as a threat to their authority. Holistically, it demonstrates music is a layered, complicated and a vital way of speaking security.

Going forward, music’s potential should be taken more seriously by securitization scholars. Music is so routinised into everyday life that one may perhaps forget how mundane songs can affect our thoughts, beliefs and evoke emotional responses by touching a nerve by speaking to the masses. What we fail to remember is that music provides us with a voice and, ultimately, a way of engaging with security related matters. To include music within the CS’s framework invites nuanced conversations about how a security threat is spoken, interpreted, analysed and accepted by certain audiences.

As David Munkittrick (2010) points out “music is everywhere”. Therefore, an acknowledgement that music is more than a background noise but rather a powerful communicative method has a potential to further expand understandings of the construction and context of security threats. Defining music in this way therefore promotes the future opportunity to explore the connection between individual and collective emotional responses and speech acts. Furthermore it also provides the ability to further investigate the ways in which our social interactions and practices associated with music impact the way speech acts are enacted and performed.

Ty Solomon (2019) further theorises “rhythmic action links individuals and collectives, and intensifies collective emotions, generates emergent identities and subjectivities and (re)constructs social meanings of public spaces”. So too music has the potential to be understood as mundanely shaping and unifying contexts and communicative platforms. Consequently it is vital that securitization scholars acknowledge the communicative potential and power of music to speak security for the advancement of the securitization framework.  

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