Rage Against The Machine – Without A Face

A 1996 update to Woody Guthrie’s song, Deportee, about illegal immigrants to the USA.

To Rage Against The Machine, these undocumented people don’t just cross borders but graves to make new lives for themselves. Then poorly treated, they give up their souls. Yet, without a face, their plight can go unrecognized.

Government permission with a “visa” is required to legally enter the USA. Visas come with expiry dates, meaning those that came legally may remain illegally.

Estimates for how many illegal immigrants there are range from 7-30 million, an imprecision that is not illuminating. Most are from Mexico.

 

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Steve Earle – City Of Immigrants

Multiculturalism is the term for a system of values which maintains that our ethnic and cultural identities are important, and should be protected, promoted and even enhanced, through government policy. Multiculturalism is cherished for officially recognizing that diversity matters. Earle sings about this, expressing excitement about the dynamism and energy from just being on a street and seeing, hearing, different people speaking different languages. Multiculturalism is also criticized for promoting our differences instead of common ground.

Woody Guthrie – Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)

A California plane crash in 1948 killed a number of migrant workers seeking to return to Mexico after a term of seasonal labour. Guthrie felt that their tragic deaths should have been better honoured, such as by some media reports that failed to identify the victims by name. The implication is that Mexicans were not considered equal to other Americans. A memorial was finally erected in tribute, in 2013.

Apparently, Woody only spoke the words, and music was added much later by others. Here is Woody’s son, Arlo, singing the song for us:

 

U2 – The Hands That Built America

For the Gangs of New York movie soundtrack, U2 sang in 2002 about a laundry list of issues concerning the USA.

While the lyrics are a little vague, the first verse is said to be partly concerned with the Irish Potato Famine/Great Famine (1840s-1850s) in which about a million Irish died and as much left, many for the USA.  The song also gets into the American Dream – the ethos that rolling up one’s sleeves in a land of equal opportunity can bring success. Various ethnicities are listed as being the immigrants that made the country what it is. As if that doesn’t cover enough, 9/11 is thrown in for good measure at the end.

Perhaps the song is a first year university survey course on issues that U2 were thinking about in 2002… but inspiration to turn each part into a separate song did not materialize.

A search for “American Dream” at right will bring up several other songs on this topic.

Willie Nelson – Living In The Promiseland

Willie Nelson recorded this song that was No. 1 on the country charts in 1986.

The “Promised Land” is a religious term, which can mean land promised to a people by God, and to Mormons, the continental USA.

The lyrics to this song cop several Biblical lines, and appear to be about an America that needs to continue caring about people, especially immigrants seeking the American Dream.  That there is room for everyone is a multicultural message, even if the Christianity of the song may not jive with new Americans that reject this faith. It is far easier to advocate than achieve and deliver acceptance, yet important for all to love they neighbor. Beyond this, blank acceptance of all dreams can lead to a meaningless sense of nationalism for a country. The song extols the need for all to enjoy their freedom, which when one’s expressions impinge on the activities of others, makes living in such a Promise Land a bumpy endeavour.

Kanye West and Jay-Z – Otis

Best rap song at the 2011 Grammy Awards, finds Kanye West and Jay-Z rapping about luxury cars in a year when many of their countrymen were trading in their used junkers to make rent. Nevertheless, we know that rappers brag.

Internet speculation posits that Otis is an acronym for “Only The Illuminati Survive” (the Illuminati being a secret group bringing about a New World Order). But Otis Redding is also sampled throughout, if you prefer to believe the obvious!

Whatever, New World Order goes back to the period after the Second World War, when idealistic talk looked at the possibility of global governance for peace and security. The United Nations came out of this. The phrase morphed into a conspiracy theory that unaccountable elites would install a single totalitarian government for the whole world. (Or maybe they already have and we don’t know it).

Otherwise, the song is a grab bag of political and religious references. The verses touch on Jesus, political refugees, border customs, illegal Mexican immigration, and Cuban President Fidel Castro. The song was released  in the year Castro officially retired from his country’s Central Committee of the Communist Party, though his brother, Raul, has been nominally in charge since 2006.

Genesis – Illegal Alien

This song from 1983 has been ranked as one of the worst songs ever on a few prominent lists and has lyrics and a video that appear to promote racial stereotypes. The song is not given much radio play, but perhaps is relevant again as “undocumented workers” (what President Obama calls them) face heightened difficulties with immigration laws in Arizona and Georgia.

The sing-along chorus – “It’s no fun/being an illegal alien” is enthusiastic, perhaps acknowledging that hey, illegal immigrants still find their hardships in the U.S.A. a better option than remaining lawfully in their home country. Mind you, one verse often edited out for radio has an immigrant offer his sister for sex to get across the border. Perhaps the attempt at satire and humour just went a little too far.