William Nassar: The commercial logic of capitalist culture spells the demise of protest music, but resistance is still possible!

Posted on July 7, 2022 by Il Grido del Popolo ©

William Nassar is a Canadian – Lebanese protest singer and composer. He has achieved world reputation as a protest singer and peace activist. William Nassar possesses a P.h.D. degree in Ethno-musicology and taught Arabic composition and orchestration at various musical institutions and conservatoires, besides his work as a songwriter and singer. He is a member of several musical organizations and considered one of today’s leading political “protest” composers and singers who promote peace and non-violence in the middle east. He was awarded a Medal of Honor in 2010 from the Palestinian National Authority for supporting the Palestinian cause via his songs and music, especially the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

Protest song, like no other form of artistic expression, tries to change the world. Do you think that this kind of expression has made a lot for revolutionary fighting in modern history?

WN: Before answering your question, it is important to highlight a short history of the protest song.

The protest song or what is widely known as political song is an old form of human expression, it was used hundreds of years ago, maybe thousands, and got developed along with the social, economical and political experience of human beings.

The first forms of this artistic expression began with peasants, where they used to express their pain and fatigue by singing during harvesting seasons. It remained the same until the uprisings against Feudal lords started to occur, and at this point, the song started to include some more powerful expressions in its lyrics other than tiredness. However, the most powerful musical expression used in protest song started with jazz and blues music during the Slavery era in the United States of America.

In the Mediterranean, the protest song was founded by the legendary Egyptian musician Sayed Darweesh  (died at the age of 31) during the British colonization of Egypt, where he touched topics such as freedom, independence, in addition to social and daily life topics. 

Back to your question, maybe in the beginnings we were dreamers and wanted to change the world, we wrote revolutionary lyrics and composed different kinds of musical expressions, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the changes followed to the Communist Parties all over the world, in addition to the invasion of the liberal ideologies to the communist parties under beautiful slogans such as reform or more democracy, all of these circumstances add to it the invention of what so called Social Media and advancements of technology, led, unfortunately, into rolling back the role of the protest song. However, personally I am still a dreamer and still have a desire to change the world, but in the meantime; I believe all of us need to fight within ourselves in order to survive the ugliness of this NEW WORLD ORDER technology and SOCIAL MEDIA and not allow them to change us, or at least not to follow the mainstream.

Political engagement has always had a great influence on the music scene, although this influence has subsided with time. Why is it so?

WN: I strongly believe that political engagement has no influence on the music scene, and using political topics in the music or/and the songs is something different. You might see many politically engaged artists and musicians but they have no political stand in their works. Engaging politics in musical work is a matter of personal belief and choice.

However, there are many reasons why engaging politics in artistic works, including music and songs, have been subsided with time:

1st, In addition to what I mentioned in the previous question, we should not ignore the invasion of Capitalist culture, which even affected communists, as individuals and parties.

2nd, The absence of political and ideological education, and sometimes ignorance.

3rd, Dealing with politically artistic works as a commercial product, by the artists themselves. I fully understand that art is not free and should not be free, but performing a political song in a bar, or chanting revolutionary slogans without a political agenda or a target in a concert, causes a momentary effect which will fade away the next morning. 

4th, In the near past there were clear and just causes such as peace, anti-wars, anti-Zionism and off coarse the Palestinian cause. The Imperialists succeeded to make us fight over small side issues and ignoring the main issue. Few examples: 

– Among the left you witness bloody ideological wars about who was the real communist, Stalin or Trotsky.

– Leftist intellectuals are divided between supporting Russia or Ukraine and forgetting that Russia today is a new Imperialist power while Ukraine is no more than Imperialist weapons manufactures puppet. 

– Palestinian supporters are affected by the Palestinian factions’ views, and their support and solidarity with the Palestinian cause turned to be defending a faction against other. I, certainly blame the Palestinians themselves for this situation, and above all I blame the Palestinian factions because all of them want to liberate Palestine, but each of them want freedom in accordance to each faction agenda.

I can list hundreds of reasons, but I think I explained my point of view in short.

On your professional Facebook’s page, you address “a big salute to the prostitutes and foreign housekeepers ( slaves) in Lebanon, for they are the only and real proletarian (…)”. These affirmations don’t spare neither the leftists nor the Lebanon right?

WN: You are correct, I didn’t and I don’t spare neither the Lebanese left, including communists, nor the right wing. We celebrate the first of May but we don’t have workers, we don’t have manufacturers. Capitalist culture which strongly took place since 1993, destroyed Lebanon in all aspects. People changed mentally, morally and socially. 

Imitating lifestyles of other societies and cultures became an illness.   

How can you hire a “SERVANT” housekeeper and your salary is less than hers, and at the end you don’t pay the poor housekeeper, and if she asks for her salary you accuse her of stealing. (Unfortunately and sadly many killed themselves because of the inhuman conditions and pressures).

How can you call yourself progressive or leftist and you enslave a human being, a housekeeper, just to keep up with the mainstream?

In the near past, we used to feel proud when we helped the garbage collectors in cleaning our streets. We used to see them as human beings doing their duty, not as inferior people. 

What we are witnessing nowadays is not our culture, it is not our traditions, it is not our mentality and morals. Capitalism culture has proven that it is capable of destroying cultures and societies.

That’s why I wrote a big salute to the prostitutes and foreign housekeepers, and that’s why I recognize them as the only working class in Lebanon.

It is sad and very heavy on me to say it, but it is the truth. However, I am not pessimistic and I have faith that this black cloud will pass sooner or later.

In your short essay “I am Israel”, you describe the tragedy of your people from the” other’s” perspective. Is there hope for reconciliation between civilizations whose people remained without land and those who never had it, and later received it?

WN: First of all let us agree that Judaism is not a nationality, neither an identity, otherwise we will be accepting the Imperialists propaganda. The Jews who occupied Palestine were never without a land, or a country. They abandoned their countries in America, Russia, Europe etc… looking for a new life, exactly as the Europeans who left their countries in the last two centuries seeking a new life in the United States. The only difference is those who colonized Palestine are driven by a criminal ideology wearing a mask of religion and myths, and unlike others who leave their countries to a new one and work hard to build a new life for themselves and their children, while the colonizers who came, and keep coming to Palestine, the only job they do is confiscating Palestinian lands, homes and dreams. They are getting paid to commit such crimes by the Israeli government and the international powers who support the existence of the colony called Israel. 

To think of reconciliation between civilizations, there should be similarities among every civilization, which is not valid in the Israeli case, and that is a main and strong reason why reconciliation is not available. 

Palestinians are part of the Mediterranean and Arab culture, they are connected to other peoples, societies and cultures in the region through language, habits, traditions, history and above all the same human feelings, while their colonizers, the Israelis, are of different contradicted cultures, societies, civilizations. Unlike Palestinians, they don’t have roots in the region. I can understand a Moroccan Jew or Iraqi Jew, or Egyptian and Lebanese Jew might have some roots in Palestine through language, marriages, family ties etc … but, no power can convince me that a Jew from Poland, or U.S.A. or Russia or Europe has roots in Palestine. Only the Brainwashed will believe such an ugly joke.

Unfortunately, there is no resolution for this tragedy in the foreseeable future, and the circle of blood, death and wars will not have an end. The only logical and momentary resolution is: 

First, to stop importing settlers, and by the way a good number of those settlers are not Jews.

Second, to criminalize settlers’ aggressions against Palestinians.

Third, to halt the idea of creating a pure Jewish state because it will not survive, and it will be a danger to the Jews themselves before Palestinians and Arabs.

Fourth, to put an end to the discrimination policies against Palestinians in West Bank, Gaza, Diaspora and inside Israel itself.

Personally, I believe that a secular state for all its citizens is the most appropriate resolution for this conflict.

In the aforementioned essay, the voice of the Israeli political power resounds powerfully through the ironic mode. Is that ironic voice being heard by Israel’s civil society? And, for that matter, there exists in Israel or, more generally, a Jewish audience of yours?

WN: Yes, it was heard and it was widely distributed among Israel’s civil society. The Left and peace activists in Israel, However, as you know, they are not organized and they lack capturing the momentum. On the other hand, several Zionist intellectuals wrote and published articles in respond to my article, and ironically, they gave their articles the same title “I am Israel” where they flipped the facts, as usual.

As for the second part of your question, yes I have Jewish audience and followers, some have the same ideas as mine, and some are Zionists following their masters orders to watch my songs, music, writings and any political stand I take, and that doesn’t bother me or terrify me, rather I might be a reason to enlighten and free one of those Zionism slaves. 

One of your songs is about Che Guevara and is dedicated to Victor Jara, a symbol of democratic thought in the time of the greatest tragedy for Chile’s people. Was it inspired by Guevara’s revolutionary fight or by Jara’s artistic mission in the fight against Pinochet?

WN: The song is dedicated to the Political detainees all over the world, it is a humble attempt to give those prisoners some hope, and to raise their morale I included the iconic musician Victor Jara, the iconic Egyptian political singer Sheikh Imam  and the symbol of revolution el Che in the song.

The lyrics do not mention revolution, however, it is powerful by its meanings;

I am still here

Inside my dungeon

Behind the iron bars

I still singing

To my comrades

Victor Jara and Sheikh Imam

I sing 

Guevara … Guevara

The executioner’s stick

Did not defeat me

Neither the whips 

Of terrified oppressors

For I have in my chest a Homland

And inside my heart 

There is an extended Horizon

And a bird lounge for Freedom

Because of all of this

I’m still singing

To my comrades

I sing 

Victor Jara and Sheikh Imam

Guevara … Guevara

I would fall if I was alone

Surrounded by darkness and oppression

But, as long as you are in my blood

I will be the Seagull of the Mediterranean

And my soul will always be dedicated 

To the Freedom  

And that because

To my comrades

Victor Jara and Sheikh Imam

I’m still singing

I sing 

Guevara … Guevara

As you say in one of your interviews, “your music is a weapon for social and political change…while your weapon is your wounded Guitar”. Does music heal?

WN: As I mentioned previously, music without a cause is just another form of commercial product, even if it touches political or social topics. 

In my case, music is my refuge and shelter. Through music I contribute to the struggle for a better world and for a better life. Via my music and songs I encourage people to resist and break their chains. I encourage them to raise their voice for a world without sickness and hunger, a world where there are no hospitals that reject a patient for she / he cannot afford to pay. A world where no student had to leave school or university to work in order to help feed her / his family. 

I might be a dreamer, but I believe for these reasons music does heal, at least it heals the soul. 

The richness of your music, either from the point of view of your poetry as well as your musical expression, based on Arab tradition interacting with the lyricism, expresses tenderness, while the lyrics are made of blood, tears and suffering. I’d like to ask you about your intellectual and political engagement, its rootedness in your native land? Was that also a family tradition or is yours a natural talent?

Of course Traditional Arabic music and Mediterranean music have a deep impact on me, but when I write music I do not put into consideration the identity or any other influence. However, the spirit gives the identity to the music. 

As for political engagement, I grew up in Lebanon, during my childhood I witnessed the ugliness of the civil war and started at an early age to ask questions about the reasons of this civil war. The ready-made answers from my family, neighbors and the news did not satisfy my hunger for knowledge and truth, for that I started my own search for answers. 

When I was 8 years old, I read my first political book, it was in the library of my uncle. I still remember the title of the book, The Barefoot. It was about the struggle of the communists and how they suffered in jails. This book led me to read more politics.

At the age of 11, when the civil war hit Lebanon , I formed my first musical band to run away from the craziness of the war, and we played music against the war in the Lebanese Komsomole summer camps.

This experience led me to discover the importance of music in opposing wars and in defending just causes, such as Global Peace, the Palestinian cause, refugees, anti-fascism and anti-Zionism.

The interview was conducted by Gordan Stosevic