“Over Our Fallen Comrades: Mass Singing at South Korean Protests as a Musical Communion”

Southwest Popular/American Culture Association (SWPACA). Albuquerque, NM, 16 February 2017.

Imŭl wihan haengjingok” (March for the Beloved), a 1981 South Korean protest song, has evolved from a requiem written for the posthumous wedding ceremony of two fallen activists after the 1980 Democratization Movement, to a frequently-sung mass anthem heard at most Korean demonstrations today. The anthem’s lyrics, written in the voice of martyred past activists now risen to life, urge the living to follow their lead.

By adopting this and other anthems that date back to the peak of the democratic movement at the height of authoritarianism during the 1980s, South Korean protesters and their sympathizers not only claim heirship to the political current, but also create a mass experience that amounts to a communion with their fallen comrades and predecessors. Moreover, in many contemporary demonstrations in which the mass singing of these protest songs is a common and perhaps defining element, the act of singing together shapes the soundscape at protest sites as homophonic and massive, contributing to a heard and felt sense of solidarity and political agency, the latter of which has provided musical legitimacy to generations of Korean folk singers and contemporary singer-songwriters.

The mass singing in this context, while rarely a topic of public, academic discourse or inquiry, is not only a tribute to the dead but also a cathartic occasion for the living, and one of significance, as this paper shall examine. The aural experience that these protest songs create provides participants with corporeal unity with fellow protesters and communion with their predecessors, as well as subjectivity as potent political and musical agents. In addition, it turns contemporary protests (often dubbed “munhwaje,” or cultural festivals, for legal purposes) into an affirmation of political togetherness—and, though often met with brutal dissolution methods by state authorities, indeed a resoundingly festive occasion.

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