“South Korean Protest Songs Uniting the Living and the Dead”

International Association for the Study of Popular Music, U.S. Branch (IASPM-US). Cleveland, OH, 24 February 2017.

Imŭl wihan haengjingok” (March for the Beloved), a 1981 South Korean protest song, has grown from a number 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. 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 tradition now part of history, but also create a mass experience that amounts to a communion with their fallen comrades and predecessors. Moreover, the mass singing of these protest songs, a common and defining element of street demonstrations today, 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 contributed to musical legitimacy for many modern Korean political songwriters and, by association, today’s singer-songwriters.

The mass singing, like the music-drama tradition of noraegud and its roots in shamanistic appeasing rituals that it alludes to, is not only a tribute to the dead but also a cathartic occasion for the living; 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.

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