The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic continues to foster global uncertainty, anxiety, and feelings of social seclusion. Indeed, governments around the world are issuing travel bans and mandated self-isolation periods, confining entire populations to their homes whenever possible. During this time, individuals have nonetheless sought to combat loneliness, encourage resilience, and build solidarity with each other through music. Countless stories and videos have emerged online from across the world: professional classical musicians are performing from their balconies, entire neighbourhoods are singing traditional folk music from their windows, and hundreds of homebound individuals are utilizing technology to collaborate with strangers in a virtual “choir” (Taylor, 2020). 

What role can music-making play in peaceful conflict transformations? Music as a discipline enjoys a broad recognition for its relations to political movements – there is seldom a movement, protest, or uprising of any capacity without music. Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” being heard throughout the Arab Spring, or the thousands of guitarists performing the martyred folk musician Victor Jara’s “El Derecho De Vivir En Paz” (The Right to Live in Peace) in the streets of Chile, come to mind as particularly powerful examples (Billet, 2019). While these examples, as well as the myriad of other popular movements set to music, are important to musicologists and political scholars alike, this analysis will not be limited to examining the relevance of what music can be heard in the backgrounds of violent, peaceful, or otherwise politically meaningful contexts. Rather, it will examine how communities in conflict societies are engaged in the holistic process of music-making, or “musicking” – a term coined by musicologist Christopher Small, used to describe music as an interdisciplinary process of creation, rather than a product meant for consumption. 

Musicking is “tak[ing] part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for a performance (what is called composing), or by dancing” (Small, 1998, pg. 9). This article will examine how musicking in conflict societies may be used as a tool to build solidarity and foster empathy between otherwise conflicting parties through radically inclusive, alternate peace dialogue. It will additionally examine musicking’s role as one that is able to peacefully challenge dominant narratives of violence and resist power structures that seek to perpetuate regional conflicts by exacerbating ongoing divisions and barring marginalized populations from leading social change. In particular, the Israel-Palestine conflict will be surveyed as a case study to determine how musicking has been, and may continue to be deployed as a means of fostering peace. 

Musicologists and peace scholars are increasingly using this framework to bridge the gap between studies of music and conflict transformation (Sandoval, 2016, pg. 201). Specifically, scholars are examining how music may be used as a tool to promote peace education, as an alternative method of peace dialogue, and as a means of grassroots resistance against hegemonic stereotypes and violent narratives. However, an examination of music’s role in conflict and post-conflict societies must of course acknowledge that like any peacebuilding tool – such as democratic institutions or community organizations, for example – music may be manipulated to take on violent roles. Iterations of music being weaponized in contexts of conflict have become more common. Musicological scholarship is becoming increasingly concerned with this violent use of music – scholars like Kent have long argued that the development of national anthems, for example, spreads narratives of violent nationalism (Kent, 2007, pg. 113). Nonetheless, contemporary conflicts are seeing music adopt new properties as a tool of combat. The songs of American artists such as Metallica, Christina Aguilera, or Rage Against the Machine have been played throughout Guantanamo Bay at unbearable volumes as a means of torturing detainees (Smith, 2008), while music has additionally been deployed as a call to arms promoting violent ideologies. 

Musicking as a tool of conflict transformation must be an unconditionally inclusive process that takes into account the contextual realities within which it is situated, and ought not to trivialize violence and oppression. Several scholars have researched musicking and peacebuilding with these considerations in mind. 

Given the political and cultural mechanics of certain conflict environments, some populations may not have the confidence or the agency to participate in traditional forms of dialogue. Music may also be used as a tool to challenge the hegemonic norms that define a conflict. Specifically, cross-cultural musicking can resist against colonial narratives that seek to instill division among parties and perpetuate violence. Benjamin Brinner, for example, found that musicking between Israelis and Palestinians has been able to foster a peaceful dialogue that rejects the very foundations of the sociocultural conflict in which the participants live. He notes that by “coming together to create music, these musicians are […] resisting political regimens of hatred and violence.” The act of musical collaboration in conflict environments has several properties that may aid in the process of establishing peace. In particular, this paper will further survey the use of musicking as a dialogic tool, as well as a means of challenging stereotypes and shifting the Overton window surrounding the Israel-Palestinian struggle against violence and occupation. 


Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Joint Palestinian nationalist movements, as well as joint Israeli-Palestinian political activist groups aimed at the emancipation of Palestinian Arabs, were established in response to a Zionist campaign that has led to the apartheid of Israeli and Palestinian populations, the occupation of Palestinian territory, and the general subjugation of Arab people in the region (Richter-Devroe, 2018). These movements are capable of encouraging peaceful coexistence and dialogue between parties, while exposing acts of state violence. Through many facets, music has played a large role in this activism. For populations who may otherwise engage in violence, musicking provides a nonviolent alternative to those wishing to express the frustrations of everyday life under occupation. The aftermath of the 1967 War saw Palestinian musicking develop the “spirit of resistance and struggle, and the resistance music written during the First Intifada has become central to the Palestinian musical repertoire” (Fung-Wong, 2009, 269). Musical participation and performance has evidently been central to the architecture of Palestinian resistance. It raises questions as to how it can be used to encourage peace in otherwise violent environments. 

The Israel-Palestine conflict presents a unique lens through which studies of music in peacebuilding may be examined. For one, the region is not considered a “post-conflict” society since structural and physical violence persist. Insights into why peacebuilding in the region continues to fail, and why alternative methods should be considered, are evident. In particular, the Israel-Palestine conflict accentuates the failures of liberal peacebuilding instruments and the need for peace activism that can creatively engage local populations. Trusted liberal peacebuilding tools are already in place in Israel-Palestine and have failed to bring about lasting peace: both Israel and Palestine are, at least ostensibly, governed by democratic institutions. Moreover, as violence persists, there has been an increasing reliance on international organizations to act as peacebuilders (Richter-Devroe, 2018, pg. 30). Despite these efforts, the region continues to struggle with a “cycle of violence” (Johnson and Shirazi, 2018). Grassroots peacebuilding organizations aimed at cross-cultural community mobilization and inclusive dialogic engagement may act as the most viable vehicle for delivering lasting social change. These strategies can be particularly effective when centered around musicking. 


Musicking as Alternate Peace Dialogue

Non-violent, cross-cultural dialogue is recognized by many peacebuilding scholars as an intrinsic factor in the transition from violence to peace. Peacebuilding dialogue exercises are typically assumed to be verbal processes that prioritize conversation and negotiation (Schirch, 2005). These facilitated “transformative dialogue encounters,” as described by Maoz et al., seek to strip people of prejudiced perceptions they may hold about one another (Maoz et al, 2007, pg. 37). 

Among the primary benefits of dialogue through musicking is the flexibility it offers to participants through its ability to move from verbal to nonverbal methods of communication. Kenneth Bruscia summarizes this notion: “Music can provide a nonverbal means of self-expression and communication, or it can serve as a bridge connecting nonverbal and verbal channels of communication. […] The music serves to intensify, elaborate, or stimulate verbal communication, while the verbal communication serves to define, consolidate, and clarify the music” (Bruscia, 2014, pg. 82). 

These inherent properties of flexibility and safe expression help to make musical participation a vehicle through which people can begin to participate in community-based peacebuilding projects. Traditional dialogic discourses may in fact alienate certain members of the population who may have otherwise added value to the conversations. Blommaert, Bock, and McCormick, for example, argue that traditional dialogue tends to rely on the use of “legitimate language” as a prerequisite for discussion in a manner that relegates the discussion itself to one that is only accessible to the educated and privileged of a conflict society (Pruitt, 2011, pg. 83). 

Contemporary definitions of peace dialogue ought to include nonverbal methods of communication, and in particular, music. Through musicking, there can be a “de-emphasizing of rational, academic modes of intelligence and a shift to the kind of knowledge that the participants in these programs feel they possess and can deploy without the need for extensive formal training” (Pruitt, 2011, pg. 89). 

These informal, musical methods of dialogue are particularly important in the context of Israel- Palestine, where youth, many of whom may not traditionally partake in formal peace dialogue, are particularly affected by existing in an environment of regular, sequential violence: A Save the Children report, for example, finds that 95% of Children in Gaza experience depressive symptoms (Trew, 2018). Music-based joint dialogue projects may be uniquely important for youth as Israeli’s policy of mandatory military service ensures that many young people will soon hold a monopoly on violence. Musicking can act as a form of alternate, informal, and interfaith dialogue in Israel- Palestine suggests that the collaborative processes of reconciliation may find a catalyst within musical conversations. John McLaughlin noted that music can “always cross borders easier than people” (Fischlin, 2010, pg. 3). 

Moreover, for many Palestinians who have seen themselves marginalized by conflict, music making is also a process through which social health may be improved. Often inarticulate emotions of despair can be communicated and understood between Israelis, Palestinians, and the rest of the world. Musical collaboration allows Arab and Jewish participants to “hear and be heard, and co-create, allowing for the unpacking and witnessing of each others’ stories, experiences, and realities, fostering critical understanding and empathy that can build equal relationships” (Gottesman, 2016, pg. 10). 


Challenging Stereotypes and Shifting Narratives Through Music

Using music as a vehicle to change minds, dispel stereotypes, and shift the Overton window surrounding the conflict is a particularly important undertaking among Israeli and Palestinian youth, given Israel’s policy of mandatory enlistment. Music may help young Palestinians challenge stereotypes and change the minds of those who may soon wield militarized power against them. The goals of conflict transformation are contingent on an intergenerational changing of attitudes and behaviours in Israeli and Palestinian population and leadership (Gottesman, 2016, pg. 10). The challenging of stereotypes can be achieved through music internationally, as well: Ted Swedenburg, for example, writes that when Palestinian hip- hop was first heard in the United States, it was “strange for Western reporters unfamiliar with the scene to find Palestinians, stereotypically known for terrorism and violence, doing something so familiar, so ‘normal’ as rapping” (Swedenburg, 2013, pg. 17). In this sense, music acts as a way for Israelis and Westerners – parties that exercise a great degree of control over Palestinians and their land – who were disconnected from the conflict to gain insight into the realities of the everyday and the lived experience of Palestinians. 

Musical performance often plays a central role in peacefully communicating these notions of nationalist resistance: acting as a framework for “communal interaction, political activism, and the assertion of counter-hegemonic ideology, music performances [are] a powerful tool in the establishment and development of Palestinian nationalism” (McDonald, 2013, pg. 196). 

Grassroots political action that seeks to resist institutional power structures that preserve conflict and protect perpetrators can be crucial to the long term project of conflict transformation. To this end, Palestinian music has historically played a significant role by resisting occupying forces and directing people towards peaceful methods of challenging oppression (McDonald, 2013, pg. 39). The hip-hop group Palestine Street, for example, has sought to provide guidance and peaceful alternatives to retaliation to conflict affected youth in “hopes of leading them to a more peaceful and stable future,” notes Kamile Taouk (Taouk, 2017). 

Moreover, musicking may cross boundaries and establish relationships that, on the basis of their existence alone, act as a protest against policies of cultural separation between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as between Palestinians living in the West Bank and those living in Gaza. The case of Amnon Abutbul, who was injured by a Palestinian throwing a rock provides an actualization of these relationships. In the aftermath of his injury, he worked alongside a Palestinian poet to write a peace song that was performed by Israeli and Palestinian children at the signing of the Oslo accords (Skyllstad, 2007). These joint collaborative efforts at musicking for peace are not uncommon; they emerged most prominently during the first intifada. Even canonical Hebrew music performed by both Israelis and Palestinians was played on Israeli radio stations, and “manage[d] to undermine well defined aesthetic and ideological borders.” 

It is important to recognize that like any peacebuilding apparatus, music-based conflict transformation projects have limitations. In particular, they will be invariably shaped by other confounding variables that may impact the environments and lived experience of participants. McLaughlin appropriately notes that “to speak about music, [participants] need a full belly, clothes, and shelter […] and on condition (sic) they have these basics, then the music can really help” (Fischlin, 2010, pg. 4). Moreover, peace scholars like Gottesman argue that in the Israel-Palestine context, while musical mediums of peace are effective, it is important to ensure that these projects do not “normalize” the inherent oppressive power structures that govern the region. Borrowing from the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, she cites normalization as the participation in a project that aims to bring together Palestinians and Israelis “without placing as its goal resistance to and exposure of the Israeli occupation and all forms of oppression against the Palestinian people” (Gottesman, 2016, pg. 17). Joint-musical enterprises that simply conform to the existing structures of oppression and do not challenge cultural separation will not have a particularly effective impact on the establishment of peace.

Music-based organizations are a potential tool that peacebuilders may use to engage local populations in cross-cultural dialogue, while also providing a peaceful outlet for assertions and redefinitions of national identity, and a means of shifting the conversations surrounding the conflict globally. While music is not a sole catalyst for peace, certain policy recommendations nonetheless emerge from this perspective. In particular, international peacebuilding actors who may seek to engage with the local “everyday” populations can do so by working alongside music-based civil society organizations and helping them reach diverse populations. The amalgamation of music education and peace education in local schools can help conflicting communities reject the narratives of conflict and adopt a more holistic view of one another, while constructing a confident and peaceful self-identity. 

I do not intend to suggest that music alone can solve global conflicts. Rather, the social nature of musicking can be a critical factor in overcoming certain conditions that allow prolonged violence. These musical processes, usually beginning at a grassroots level, have the power to bring people together, change minds, and “map new histories [and] new futures” suggesting “the possibility, however slim that this time, the rhythms of our lives might be ours to control” (Billet, 2019). 


Kiran Heble is an  M.A. candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, where he specializes in conflict analysis and conflict resolution.

Banner image by Lee Pigott, courtesy of Unsplash.

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