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Resistance, protest and configurations of time, space and place in Herbs’ Pacific reggae songs

Elizabeth Turner


This paper begins by exploring the notions of resistance and protest in popular music. Although the terms have been used in Anglophone discussions of popular music for some hundred years, there is a tendency to treat them as synonymous. The paper draws on the work of David Laing (2003), who considers the distinction between protest songs and resistance songs, and also extends Barbara Harlow’s (1987) conceptualisation of resistance poetry to the similarly compressed discourse structures of popular songs. Framed by this exploration and by Mikhail Bakhtin’s theorisation of popular culture as “the privileged bearer of democratic and progressive values” (Hirschkop, 1987, p. 92), the paper presents an interpretive discourse analysis of the construction of social commentary, resistance and protest in the music of the band Herbs in Aotearoa New Zealand’s first Pacific reggae album, released in 1981. This investigation includes consideration of configurations of time/space and place relationships and the implications of these for meaning in three of Herbs’ songs, through the lens of Bakhtin’s (1981b) notion of the chronotope.

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1The New Zealand band Herbs is regarded as at the forefront of political comment in the early 1980s. The band was formally recognized in 2012, at its induction into the country’s Music Hall of Fame, for its cultural influence and for the musicians’ political stance in an important period of activism. More recently in 2015, Herbs musicians, Warrior Records founder Hugh Lynn, and label and artist manager Will ’Ilolahia were awarded the Independent Music New Zealand (IMNZ) Classic Record award for their EP What’s Be Happen ? (1981) and for their contribution to the “rich history of making fine albums that continue to inspire us and that also define who we are” (Independent Music New Zealand, 2015, para. 4). The band also received a lifetime achievement award for the same album that year, described at the ceremony as a ground-breaking album of social commentary, and for their second album Light of the Pacific (1983).

  • 1 Roots reggae is defined by Thomas Weber (2000) as the form popularised internationally by Bob Marle (...)

2What’s Be Happen ? is Aotearoa New Zealand’s first Pacific reggae album, a musical fusion of reggae rhythms and Pacific sounds by a multi-ethnic group of musicians of Samoan, Samoan-Cook Island, Tongan, Māori, and Pākehā (European) heritage in the band Herbs. The album is regarded as a defining moment in New Zealand’s popular music history (Reid, 2012). What’s Be Happen ? was important at the time of its release and continues to be significant today. It demonstrates the ways in which the genre of Jamaican roots reggae1 can be appropriated and localised, inflected in this case by musical traditions from the Pacific and mobilised as a form of musical resistance and protest, a “message music” (Weber, 2000, p. 117). Herbs’ creative construction of social commentary speaks with political courage of important local and international concerns and struggles against injustice and social oppression.

3This paper presents an interpretive discourse analysis that investigates the construction of resistance, protest, and social commentary in Herbs’ album. As Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories of dialogic discourse suggest, such a textual enquiry is contingent on an understanding of the context of a text’s production and its orientation towards its reception. As part of a larger study, the research methods that underpin this paper therefore included a preliminary identification of key themes in lyrical content and in imagery on the album cover (Turner, 2018 ; 2019). This thematic analysis was followed by a close reading of accounts of relevant historical issues and events to which these themes relate, and a review of the literature relating to the historical, social, and cultural context in Aotearoa New Zealand at the time of the EP’s release. The methodology thus aligns with Bakhtin’s concept of dialogism, in which “€verything means, is understood, as part of a greater whole” (Holquist, 1981, p. 426).

4Framed by an understanding of the album’s context and of major identifiable themes, the analysis of meaning presented here employs concepts and tools of literary and discourse analysis from the work of Mikhail Bakhtin. These include the significance of genre (Bakhtin, 1981 ; 1986c) ; narrative discourse style, particularly double-voiced discourse (Bakhtin, 1984) ; as well as the notion of language choices in lyrical content that are populated with other people’s intentions (Bakhtin, 1981). The exploration of meaning also involves consideration of the use of juxtaposition and, through the lens of Bakhtin’s influential theory of intertextuality, intertextual references to the language of other discourse communities.

5The paper begins with an exploration of the notions of resistance and protest in the context of popular music. This is followed by analysis of the ways in which resistance and protest are produced in the discourse of the EP. Finally, Bakhtin’s notion of the literary, artistic chronotope (Bakhtin, 1981b) frames an exploration of the construction of meaning through representations of time/space relationships in the narrative of three songs of social commentary.

Protest and resistance

  • 2 The 16 songs analysed by Guerra (2020) are also referred to as “insurgent songs” (p. 14), and as pr (...)

6In investigating the ways in which Herbs’ first album constructs and comments on political and social events and conditions in the 1970s and early 1980s, it seems relevant to explore the tendency to treat the terms resistance and protest as synonymous in the English-language literature related to popular music. As an example, Sumangala Damodaran (2016, p. 2) writes that “within the larger genre of political music, protest music or the music of resistance is a distinct category, encompassing the use of music in politics and as politics.” More recently, Paula Guerra’s detailed and valuable analysis of the discourse of 16 songs released between 2011 and 2014, that “sing the economic, financial and social crises” (p. 14) in Portugal, similarly refers to such songs as protest songs and “songs of musical resistance” (p. 15)2.

7While in many contexts this tendency to treat the terms resistance and protest as interchangeable is understandable and may not matter much, it may nonetheless elide differences that could be significant in explorations of the ways in which meaning is made in political popular music. This brief exploration, rather than suggesting any last words on these distinctions, helps to inform the analysis of Herbs’ songs and aims to prompt further consideration of such differences.

8Songs described as protest songs in the Anglophone world date back to folk songs of the late medieval era, and the terms protest and resistance have been used explicitly in discussions and studies of popular music since the 1930s (Laing, 2003). Protest songs have been defined in a variety of ways. In relation to politics in a broad sense, for example, Lynskey (2011, p. 2) describes a protest song as one that “addresses a political issue in a way which aligns itself with the underdog”. In a more specific context, eco-protest music is described as “an objection” to indifference towards the interrelationship between human beings and the environment (Gray, 2013, p. 165).

9In searching for distinctions in the literature between notions of protest songs and resistance songs, the ideas of David Laing seem a useful starting point. Laing (2003) distinguishes between protest songs as overt statements of opposition to social, political and economic conditions, and resistance songs which are described as more opaque or coded in their expression of opposition and criticism. John Street (2012) suggests similarly that Western popular protest songs are characterised by their identification of a particular enemy or issue while a song of resistance may lack a specific focus. Although both are political and derive from conscious intentions, each is mediated by political conditions or by the performer’s perception of such conditions.

10Marvin Gaye’s single “What’s Going On” (Cleveland, Benson, & Gaye, 1971) has been described as a protest song (Robinson, 2011). It was released in January 1971 when the American war in Vietnam was at its peak, and at a time when people who protested against the war were being beaten by police at demonstrations in the United States. The lyrics mourn the death of many young men and the mourning of many mothers, warn against the escalation of war and align the singer with protesters who resist their brutal treatment :

Mother, mother

There's too many of you crying

Brother, brother, brother

There's far too many of you dying …

Father, father

We don't need to escalate

You see, war is not the answer …

Picket lines and picket signs

Don't punish me with brutality …

11If Laing’s criteria are applied, “What’s Going On” is, however, a resistance song, rather than one of protest. Although audiences and listeners in the US at the time would have understood the war the song referred to, the lyrics do not name that war that and there is no clear statement of opposition. The protest in contrast, is indirect.

12The song “We shall not be moved”, which originated as a slave spiritual in the early 1800s, is described by David Spener (2016) as a protest song and an example of the use of politically charged music as resistance. However, the song includes no statements of overt opposition and identifies no specific issue or target of protest. As such, and in the context of this consideration of terms, it can similarly be considered a song of resistance, rather than protest. As Spener explains, implicitly reinforcing this interpretation, the song carries a message of “conviction, resolve and defiance” (p. 7) and acts as a symbolic resource that has built cohesion and solidarity between members of different movements for change. It has forged people’s sense of moral identity as “protagonists of their own history” (p. 7) ; lifted spirits and preserved the collective memory of movements ; acted as a reaffirmation of solidarity between activists and as a form of sanctification of gatherings of the members movements.

13It is likely that Laing’s (2003) analysis of resistance as coded criticism and opposition was influenced particularly by slave songs and other African American genres. Habits of indirection and circumlocution were a long-standing and necessary protection because for an enslaved and greatly oppressed people to articulate complaints or protests was to court physical danger (Springer, 2001). Even when emancipated from slavery, African American people had good reason to continue their habits of indirection.

14Willie Walker’s “South Carolina Rag-take 2” (W. Walker, 1931) is an effective illustration of Laing’s categorisation of resistance songs as coded opposition. The lyrics have a surface meaning apparently related to the singer’s or narrator’s girlfriend” “Talk about your girl, boy, oughta see mine / Ain't so pretty but she's surely dressed fine”. However, according to Robert Springer’s (2001) analysis, the song presents a coded criticism in its comparison between the singer’s (mean) girlfriend (“oughta see mine”), and the girlfriend of an unnamed addressee. The singer’s girlfriend brings him petrol when he asks for water :

Begged for water, she bring gasoline,

Now, let me tell you, ain’t that mean ?

I wanna tell you, that ain’t no way to do.

  • 3 The United States civil rights organisation, the National Association for the Advancement of Colore (...)

15The song’s coded sub text indirectly, and therefore more safely, voices African American experiences of cruel mistreatment at the hands of white people (coded as “she”). More explicitly and horrifyingly we can interpret the reference to gasoline as an allusion to petrol that was sometimes used in lynchings of African American people – and some white people – in Southern parts of the US3. The song in effect represents a coded and allegorical expression of resistance.

16The exploration of notions of protest and resistance in literary genres led to Barbara Harlow’s (1987) writings on resistance in poetry. Harlow’s ideas make it possible to extend David Laing’s description of resistance in song beyond the idea of coded opposition. In her book on Resistance literature Harlow focused on poems, narrative texts and prison memoirs of political detainees, written by people closely involved in struggles against colonialism and imperialist influences. According to Harlow, debates over the political function of poets include the view that resistance writers have a drive to locate poems and narratives in specific contexts, and for these texts to be read as documents or case histories of particular lives and times. Stratagems of resistance poetry therefore include archival features.

17On this view, rather than being coded, resistance poetry is documentary poetry which provides accounts of day-to-day historic details and historical struggles, events and people (Harlow, 1987). And by extension, popular songs that document the “here and now of historical reality” (p. 16) ; that tell “stories about ourselves” (Guerra, 2020, p. 15) and engage in the “discourse of political and social criticism that originates in artistic imagination” (p. 28) ; that provide accounts of day to hardships, or significant struggles, and of significant people involved in those struggles, can equally be described as resistance songs. Lead Belly’s song “Bourgeois Blues” (Ledbetter (Lead Belly), 1939) can thus be understood in these terms as a song of resistance that bears witness to the discriminatory treatment of black people in Washington DC in the 1930s, a bourgeois (racist) town, and vows to “spread the news all around” : “I tell all the colored folks to listen to me / Don't try to find you no home in Washington, DC”.

18The overt expression of opposition, of protest against injustice and structural inequalities, has been denied or restricted for political reasons in different places and in different ways throughout human history. While protest may be seen as “a legitimate, even essential, aspect of modern democratic societies” (Dillane, Power, Devereux & Haynes, 2018, p. 4), there are places in the world today where protest still involves risk and where those who have the courage to protest are suppressed with violence. The ability to consider and differentiate, in some contexts of analysis, between the musical expression and construction of protest, the production of creative resistance in song, and elements of social critique therefore seems useful.

The construction of resistance in Herbs’ EP What’s Be Happen ?

Resistance is “the action of resisting, opposing, or withstanding someone or something”4

  • 4 The Oxford English Dictionary [OED] Online definition of resistance in this context (2010). Availab (...)

19The late 1970s and early 1980s were a time of critical change in Aotearoa New Zealand. Social commentators and historians such as James Belich (2001), Michael King (2003), and Ranginui Walker (2004) agree that the issues that were so intensely contested at that time had a significant impact on subsequent opinion and many New Zealanders’ sense of identity. These were contests and struggles over human rights, ethical values and notions of national identity, and as historian Jock Phillips (Hubbard, 2010) has explained, struggles over the kind of society New Zealand needed to become.

  • 5 Merata Mita’s documentary film Patu! (Mita, 1983) records the demonstrations and civil disobedience (...)
  • 6 See Turner (2018) for a more detailed description of the political and social context in Aotearoa N (...)

20There were demonstrations against French nuclear testing in the Pacific and degradation of the environment and others against the racism of South African apartheid. There were socially divisive protests against the New Zealand tour by South Africa’s racially selected international rugby team, before it began and during the tour5. Other protests arose over the loss of Māori people’s ancestral lands, local racism in government and police treatment of Polynesian “over-stayers”, as well as the day-to-day treatment of newly urban Māori and Pacific Islands people. And as in other parts of the world, in the 1970s in Aotearoa New Zealand there were struggles for women’s rights and gay rights6.

21The social and political context for Herbs’ six songs on the album is thus formed by the experiences of many New Zealanders and their responses to some of these conflicts. Generally recognised themes in What’s Be Happen ? include “the realities of street life for young Polynesians” (Reid, 2012, para.4), the Springbok tour and the struggle to end the apartheid regime in South Africa, race relations, and the spiritual, cultural and political dislocation suffered by Pacific Islands people who migrated to or were born in Aotearoa New Zealand.

22Closer analysis identifies references in individual songs (in the order of their recording on the album) to the struggle against the racism of apartheid (“Azania (Soon Come))” ; spirituality and the battle between conflicting internal voices (“Dragons and Demons”) ; the dislocation of people from the Pacific Islands from their roots and their struggle to achieve materially better lives in New Zealand (“What’s Be Happen ?”) ; the loss of Māori ancestral land and the racism associated with that loss (“One Brotherhood”) ; Māori and Pacific Islands youths’ experience of racist police treatment in New Zealand towns and cities (“Whistling In The Dark”) ; and the death of Bob Marley in May 1981 as well as identification with reggae (“Reggae’s Doing Fine”). My own analysis has identified five main political and spiritual themes constructed in the music, the lyrics, and the album sleeve of What’s Be Happen ? : the dominant theme of resistance, oppression, power and the struggle for liberation, spirituality, and identity (Turner, 2018).

23The most obvious form of resistance in Herbs’ songs, perhaps, is the choice of musical genre and the appropriation and localisation of roots reggae. Apart from understanding the sheer pleasure derived from reggae’s rhythms, this appropriation can be understood as a positioning in relation to reggae’s cultural roots and its association with what George Lipsitz (1994) describes as urban resistance to dominant imperatives. It constructs an alignment with the struggles of the sufferahs of Jamaica and other oppressed peoples (Alvarez, 2008). Mikhail Bakhtin (1986c) argues that choice of genre is a signal of rhetorical intention ; the adoption of the resistive function of reggae as message music can thus be understood as a statement of political and ethical position. In the musicians’ “re-framing and interweaving” (Hirschkop, 2003, p. 66) of Pacific musical influences, the appropriation of roots reggae is also a resistive expression of cultural identity.

24Resistance is expressed and produced by the black and white photograph which dominates the front cover and depicts the final day of a seventeen-month occupation of former Māori land at Bastion Point in Auckland, in a struggle for the return of that land. The occupation to prevent the sale of the land to developers for expensive houses ended on 25 May 1978, when protesters were evicted by police, who with the support of the army encircled the makeshift encampment. Resistance is also signalled in the image of the five Herbs’ musicians on the back of the cover, which represents a kaupapa (a philosophy) of unity. It indicates a brotherhood of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds that is literally and metaphorically centred around music as they lean their elbows around the edge of a grand piano. The piano is played by Māori rhythm guitarist Dilworth Karaka, who adopts a traditional Māori facial expression, with tongue protruding. In the context of the front cover image, and the political and social context summarised here, the photograph can be understood to represent resistance in the face of divisions between different races and in the face of economic and cultural oppression.

25Resistance is created in the use of a form of “double-voiced” discourse (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 199) in the song “Whistling in the Dark” (Toni Fonoti, 1981a). The three verses relate accounts of three separate encounters with the police, narrated by the lead singer, Samoan New Zealander Toni Fonoti. The narrator is looked at with “contempt” and “move[d] along” ; accused of “obstructing the law”, threatened and attacked by an officer ; and on the third occasion is stopped by detectives (“Ds”) for an “I & D” check (for being “idle and disorderly”), “put in chains”, “kept all night” with “all [his] rights” ignored. The offensive and racist language of police officers who targeted and harassed young Pacific Islands people at that time is incorporated in the narrative as direct reported speech : “You’re obstructing the law gonna kick your ass” and “(What’s your name boy !)”, as a form of double-voiced discourse. This incorporation of the “objectified discourse... of a represented person” serves to distance the words of others (in this case a police officer) from authorial discourse (the narrative), rendering them “a referential object” that is characteristic or typical (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 187). The use of direct reported discourse constructs a contrast in tone with the narrator’s account of his carefree and innocent activities – just walking along, “chasing a cloud” and “I was minding my own floating so free”. Objectification also serves to distance and isolate the word “boy”, a form of address that has been commonly used by white Americans and by white people in apartheid South Africa to refer to adult black men. It embodies the racist and offensive idea that adult black males are not men (see Brown & Stentiford, 2008). In New Zealand in 1981 it carried overtones of the racism that many Pacific Islands and Māori people experienced at that time.

26In 1981, when the apartheid regime had been in power in South Africa for 33 years, the choice of the name Azania in the song “Azania (Soon Come)” (France, 1981) constructs a resistive rejection of the white colonial name of South Africa. The history of the name Azania stretches back to at least to the first century CE when it designated North-East Africa (Hilton, 1993). Its great symbolic significance is signalled by the fact that in 1993 the coffin of Bantu Steve Biko carried the words : “One Azania / One Nation”, as does the headstone that marks his grave. Steve Biko led the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa and died of head injuries in police custody. The choice of this name in Herbs’ song is a signal of the bands semantic position in using a term “populated... with the intentions of others” (Bakhtin, 1981, p. 294). It can be understood as a political expression of alignment and solidarity with the suffering of black people under the apartheid regime, and with Black Nationalist and multi-racial ambitions for a new and just society, with a new name (Turner, 2012).

  • 7 Organisations such as the African National Congress and anti-apartheid activists in New Zealand and (...)

27Resistance is also constructed in the dialogic juxtaposition of the name, Azania, with the Jamaican Patois expression “soon come” (see Hodges, 2008), producing an assertion of the belief that there would soon be victory over apartheid as well as a sense of willing it to arrive (“may it / let it come soon”). The call and response structure and incorporated slogans in “Azania (Soon Come)” have a similarly resistive function. The opening vocal line “What you say, what you say, what you say, what you say” suggests an opening “call” in a call and response dialogue. The call is repeated towards the end of the song and the verses and chorus form a collective (first-person plural) response. The response includes intertextual references to the slogans of other discourse communities involved with the struggle for liberation in South Africa : “Power to the freedom fighters … Power to the brothers and sisters”.7

28Resistance is called for in the rhetorical appeal for unity in the chorus of “One Brotherhood” (Toms, 1981) :

We’re one brotherhood, Aotearoa

Fighting man against man in the eleventh hour

Brother and sisterhood yeah, Aotearoa

Together we’ll stand together we have power

29It is implied in the chorus of the title track “What’s Be Happen ?” (Toni Fonoti, 1981d). In its narrative of cultural dislocation and loss as well as economic oppression of people from the Pacific Islands and newly urban Māori, the song calls for the resistive use of the Samoan, Tongan and Māori languages in a cultural environment dominated by English :

What’s be happen, when the children turn away

And why for you stay when nothing remains

And why for you laugh when I long for home

Sing that song, (Talofalava) that Samoan song

Sing that song, (Malolelei Kainga) that Tongan song

Sing that song, (Kia ora) that Māori song

30Resistance is referenced in Herbs’ album through allusions in verse two of “Azania (Soon Come)” to struggles against apartheid in South Africa led by Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela : “STEVE BIKO, murdered in your jails / While spreading the word to all black men” and “NELSON MANDELA, languishing on Robben Island”. And resistance to the loss of former Māori land in Orākei (Bastion Point) and Raglan in Aotearoa New Zealand is referred to explicitly in verse two of “One Brotherhood” : “Well they’re fighting for land in Raglan / And they’re fighting for land in Orakei”. In their naming of particular people and sites of struggle these songs can be seen as exemplifying Harlow’s (1987) notion of documentary resistance and understood as examples of resistance music. Like resistance poets, the songwriters locate lyrics and narratives in specific contexts, to be heard as documents of particular lives, places and specific historic struggles and so go beyond the idea of coded opposition (see Turner, 2018).

31And finally, the lyrics of “Dragons and Demons” (Toni Fonoti, 1981c) encourage resistance to attempts by organised religion to maintain authority and control through dread of “what’s up on ahead” and the notion of original sin. The narrative argues that “Dragons and Demons … are in your head”.

Protest in Herbs’ songs

  • 8 The Oxford English Dictionary [OED] Online definition of resistance in this context (2020). Availab (...)

32The Oxford English Dictionary definitions of protest reflect and further elaborate Laing’s (2003) idea that the defining characteristic of protest songs is the overt assertion of dissent in relation to social, political and economic conditions. The variety of definitions in the OED include, for protest as a noun : “any action, act, or statement expressing (emphatic) objection to or dissent from something” (definition 4a) ; and “the expression of social, political, or cultural dissent from a policy or course of action, typically by means of a public demonstration ; (also) an instance of this, a protest march, a public demonstration (4c)”. To protest as an intransitive verb is “to express collective disapproval or dissent publicly, typically by means of an organized demonstration ; to engage in a mass protest, usually against a government policy or legal decision” (6c)8.

33The previous section has noted the ways in which resistance is constructed in “Azania (Soon Come)” through the choice of song title and intertextual references to anti-apartheid slogans in the response to the opening call. “One Brotherhood” constructs a rhetorical appeal for a resistive brotherhood and sisterhood to stand together in struggle. However, these songs differ from the others on Herbs’ album in that they voice overt opposition to the injustice of apartheid and the treatment of those who struggle and demonstrate against it. They are therefore categorised here as protest songs. In illustration, the first verse of “Azania (Soon Come)” addresses the administrative capital of the apartheid regime with clear accusations of misinformation, racism and brutal control :

PRETORIA we see through all your lies

Hiding your evil system under multi-racial disguise

White racists holding power

through the barrel of a gun

Soon come the liberation war

Send racists on the run

34While in “One Brotherhood” the discourse of the first verse is directed at the regime and at the police forces that wielded batons in confrontations with demonstrators against the apartheid regime in Aotearoa New Zealand and elsewhere around the world :

So you knock me down

With your [monadnock] baton

’Cause I cause a big stir

about the bad things goin’ on

’Cause it’s a cover up

about the goal posts and the slaves

But you’d rather not know

’Cause time is dealing out your days

35As these verses show, in addition to overt expressions of criticism and some forceful and unequivocal language choices, “Azania (Soon Come)” and “One Brotherhood” differ from Herbs’ four songs of resistance on What’s Be Happen ? in that they identify the targets of their protest and address these directly.

Space/time relationships and critical social commentary

36Bakhtin theorised popular culture as “the privileged bearer of democratic and progressive values” (Hirschkop, 1986, p. 92), and so it seems fitting to draw on Bakhtin’s theories in the analysis of popular songs involving social commentary. Bakhtin’s (1986b) conceptualisations of utterances as responsible, moral deeds and language choices as ethical choices (Nielsen, 1995) make his work particularly compatible with the study of songs of resistance and protest. This section of the paper seeks to demonstrate that Bakhtin’s (1981b) notion of the literary, artistic chronotope can be fruitfully extended as a tool of analysis in exploring the construction of critical social commentary in the narrative of songs of social commentary.

37Bakhtin’s concept of the chronotope refers to varying perceptions and representations of time/space relationships and ways of “materializing time in space in the narrative of literary texts” (Bakhtin, 1981b, p. 250). As Holquist (1990) points out, the chronotope facilitates the exploration of the indirect and complex mediated relationship between the world of experience and artistic works in terms of representations of time and space ; it is particularly valuable as a concept in studying the relationship between an artistic, narrative text and its social and historical context. This is partly because representations of time in the narrative of such texts are frequently “concentrated and condensed” (Bakhtin, 1981b, p. 247) and because these may deform the likely, “real-life” sequence of events in their narration of those events. In this exploration, the paper focuses on three of Herbs’ songs on the album.

38The narrative of “Whistling in the Dark” can be seen in Bakhtin’s terms to be based on an overarching “chronotope of encounter” (1981b, p. 243) involving three episodes on “the road”. As the paper has already outlined, the lyrics describe a series of three oppressive encounters between the narrator and police officers. In the 1970s and early 80s in Aotearoa New Zealand, people who looked as though they might be from the Pacific Islands were subjected to random police checks in the streets of Auckland suburbs, and many were arrested under the charge of being “idle and disorderly” as part of police action to prevent groups of young Pacific Island people forming. There were also frightening dawn raids on houses in the 1970s, with police and their dogs searching for Pacific Island people alleged to have over-stayed their visas. The public spaces constructed in the lyrics of the three verses are therefore charged with meaning related to the song’s particular historic context and the racist treatment of Pacific island people at that time :

I was walking along just beating the feet

When I chance to meet a pig on his beat

The look that he sent was one of contempt

I made no offence but he took to defence

Said if I did him wrong he’d move me along.

I was chasing a cloud when I saw a crowd

Thought I’d check it out when I heard this shout

You’re obstructing the law gonna kick your ass.

It was self-defence not malicious intent

What I gave, gave back to stop his attack.

I was minding my own floating so free

Carload of D’s pulled me up for I & D (What’s your name boy !)

They put me in chains then asked me my name

They kept me all night ignored all of my rights

Said give me some names better play the game.

39In Bakhtin’s (1981b) analysis, the novel of the road constructs a representation of chance events in which time is characterized as of “random contingency” (p. 92). The absence of temporal indices and connectors between the verses in “One Brotherhood”, which would signal a temporal relationship between the three encounters, constructs a similar sense of randomness. This suggests that such encounters with police are, in the context of this chronotope between the narrators and the audience at the time of the album’s release, not in the least unusual.

40Temporal relations are, however, produced through the choice of verb tenses. There is a switch from past tenses in the verses to present tense in the first two lines of the chorus :

They’re whistlin’ in the dark no bite all bark

’Fraid of young minds one spark all fire

Warriors will rumble, blue boys will stumble

They’re whistlin’ in the dark no bite all bark

41This change suggests the narrated actions of the police (the blue boys) is a consequence of their collective fear of those they harass. The use of the future tense in the third line of the chorus suggests a more specific fear of a possible response by Pacific island “warriors”. At the same time, it can be interpreted as an encouragement to those who suffer harassment, to withstand it.

42Bakhtin (1981b) points out that any single work may be dominated by a particular chronotope, such as biographical time or “the road”, but narratives may also include several chronotopes which interact to produce meaning. Analysis of “What’s Be Happen ?” suggests three main time/space relationships. The narrative of “What’s Be Happen ?” takes the form of an apparent present time dialogue in which one speaker is hidden, a form that Bakhtin refers to as a hidden dialogue. Through the lens of the chronotope the song constructs a lived space that is dominated by work (“just slave and slave and slave”) to pay for a house, a car and hire purchase. The chorus suggests a sense of loss, an erosion of family ties and cultural connections to the Pacific Islands (“when the children turn away … and nothing remains”) :

Verse One

Say you’re alright brada, cause you’ve just bought a house

Come in to it at eve and in the morning you leave

Say you’re alright brada, cause you got hire purchase

No need to pay just slave and slave and slave

Chorus :

What’s be happen, when the children turn away

And why for you stay when nothing remains

And why for you laugh when I long for home

Sing that song, (Talofalava) that Samoan song

Sing that song, (Malolelei Kainga) that Tongan song

Sing that song, (Kia ora) that Māori song

Verse Two

Say you’re alright brada once you catch a boat

And smoke big heaps no worry no worry about sleep

Say you’re alright brada cause a car is handy

While your island grows weak and abandoned, abandoned and forsaken, yeah

Chorus :

Tau mai ia au poo leā le mea e tupu peā o ese tamaiti

Olea le mea ete nofo ai peāfai va leai semea o totoe

Olea le mea ete ai pea ou mafau – fāu i lo aiga

Usu lau pese (fa soifua) Usu lau pese Samoa

Usu lau pese (Ofa atu Kia moutolu Katoa) Usu lau pese Tonga

Usu lau pese (Ko haere ra) Usu lau pese Maori

43The call to sing that Samoan song … that Tongan song … that Māori song in the chorus, and the final chorus sung in Samoan can be understood as contributing to the construction of a form of cultural resistance. However, these also serve to ground the narrative in the physical and cultural space of the South Pacific. This effect is reinforced by aspects of the music and Herbs’ performance, such as a Pacific guitar strumming style, the style of harmonisation, and the Rarotongan log drumming in the intro and outro.

44A third and more specific chronotope locates the implied dialogue of the song in a cultural space shared by young people from the Pacific Islands in Auckland in the early 1980s. This is created by the choice to use a particular form of oral speech associated with Pacific Islands youth in Aotearoa New Zealand in the period, marked by expressions such as “What’s Be Happen ?”, “brada” (brother) and “big heaps”. In Bakhtin’s categorisation of narrative style, such incorporated day-to-day oral speech, “stylized skaz” (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 187), is a form of double-voiced discourse.

45The implied dialogue of the song appears initially to address a single invisible addressee. However, a closer examination of time-space relationships suggests that there is more than one implied addressee, and that these partners in the dialogue with the narrator stand for many migrants to Auckland from the Pacific Islands. There is a reversal of what would be regarded as a normal chronology of actions for such migrants to New Zealand, who arrive by sea, in the organisation of ideas in verse one (“you’ve just bought a house”) and verse two “once you catch a boat” [from your island home]”. This “deformation” of the usual lived sequence of events is reinforced by the use of the present tense, which suggests that the narrative describes an ongoing lived experience, shared by others in the past, and in the present, and one that will be repeated for other migrants in the future (see Turner, 2018).

46Bakhtin’s notion of the chronotope is also productive in the analysis of “One Brotherhood” (Turner, 2018). As the previous section has noted, the lyrics of the first verse refer to protests against the Springbok rugby tour of Aotearoa New Zealand by a national rugby team from apartheid South Africa, which was about to take place when the album was released. The second verse focuses on struggles to regain Māori land. With the exception of a reference to an “eleventh hour” in the chorus (see above) and a generalised reference to the passing of (limited) time in the last line of the first verse (“...time is dealing out your days”), the only marker to locate the narrative of “One Brotherhood” in time is the use of the present tense. Furthermore, there is an absence of indicators in the first verse that would locate the narrative in a particular space or place, although the space of “Aotearoa” New Zealand is broadly identified in the chorus. The omission of such details, and the choice of tense, suggest that the “I” and “me” in the direct authorial narrative of the first verse can be understood to embrace the narrator, the South African and the New Zealander who resisted and protested against apartheid, Bantu Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela, and all those who suffered, were suffering and would suffer violence “fighting” in support of this cause.

47The second verse does include the names of specific places and spaces, in a series of parallel structures : “Well they’re fighting for land in Raglan / And they’re fighting for land in Orakei / And they’re shouting in Parliament”. The inclusion of these names in this song can be seen as not only engendering a clear sense of place (see Mitchell, 1996), but can also be understood as part of the construction and expression of a political position. These named places are associated with significant struggles to regain lost Māori lands, and so their inclusion serves rhetorical purposes by locating the narrative in particular places “charged with social and cultural meanings” (Ganser, Pühringer, & Rheindorf, 2006, p. 15) related to those struggles, in the spatial environment of Aotearoa New Zealand.

48Even though the events identified in the second verse took place in the 1970s, the narrative uses the present tense. As a result, a sequence of events that were historically separated in past time (given that the song was written in 1981) is rhetorically “deformed” condensed and concentrated in present time by the narrative. The effect, considered through the lens of the chronotope, is to suggest that these struggles remain unfinished. By means of juxtaposition and tense use they are dialogically connected in this song to the narrative of protest, batons, the shifting goalposts in the first verse. In this way the representation of time and place links specific campaigns to regain Māori land with anti-apartheid protests against the Springbok tour as concurrent and connected struggles.


49Just as the creative construction of resistance and protest in popular music is an ongoing and evolving project, so too is the study of those concepts and the ways in which such meanings are produced. It is hoped that this paper makes a useful contribution to that work. Herbs’ ground-breaking and highly political Pacific reggae album, the first in Aotearoa New Zealand, is a fitting focus for an analysis that includes the choice of musical genre and the content and construction of song lyrics that in relation to their social, cultural and political context produce resistance and protest. The interpretation of aspects of the multi-faceted construction of critical social commentary in What’s Be Happen ? has included comment on the music itself as well as the ways in which songs incorporate the language and words of others in double-voiced discourse (Bakhtin, 1984). These incorporations take a number of forms : direct reported speech, which has the effect of objectifying and distancing the words of others (Bakhtin, 1984) ; the choice of the name Azania instead of the English-language name South Africa ; juxtaposition that creates a dialogic relationship between the name Azania and a Jamaican Patois expression in the song title “Azania (Soon Come)” ; and the incorporation of “stylized skaz” (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 187), the day-to-day oral speech of Pacific Island youth in the early 1980s, to narrate the common experiences of young people on the streets of Auckland.

50The dominant theme is resistance, with opposition and criticism generally expressed indirectly or by naming and thus documenting specific people and places involved in struggles against injustice. However, the analysis has also identified two of Herbs’ songs as protest songs. “Azania (Soon Come)” and “One Brotherhood” differ from other Herbs’ songs considered here in that both address the target of their opposition directly. The former clearly identifies the target of protest (“Pretoria we see through all your lies”), while the latter does so more indirectly (“So you knock me down … Time is dealing out your days”).

51Finally, the paper has illustrated how the notion of the chronotope (Bakhtin, 1981b) as a way of theorising perceptions and representations of time and space in the narratives of literary works, prompts a focus on representations of such relationships in the narratives of songs. In doing so, it prompts a focus on the meanings that these relationships suggest which might otherwise remain unnoticed. Through the lens of the chronotope, the paper has noted the ways in which meanings are generated by the absence of indicators of time and of space and place ; by tense choices and changes in tense ; and by the use of names as well as aspects of language and performance that ground the narrative in a particular geographic and cultural space. In “One Brotherhood”, for example, present tense narratives of events that took place at different times are juxtaposed, and in this “deformation” of the lived experience of those events and the naming of significant places a connection is created between the racist apartheid regime in South Africa and the historic and more recent confiscation of Māori land in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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1 Roots reggae is defined by Thomas Weber (2000) as the form popularised internationally by Bob Marley and other musicians. It features full instrumentation and harmonised vocals and is less frequently heard in Jamaica today, where “dancehall” reggae form predominates, with computer-generated backing and spoken vocals.

2 The 16 songs analysed by Guerra (2020) are also referred to as “insurgent songs” (p. 14), and as producers of “denunciation and protest” (p. 17). These are categorised in terms of feeling expressed; positions inherent in the messages of the songs; thematic sub-categories, predominantly under the major theme of social critique; and according to three categories of context or causation.

3 The United States civil rights organisation, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, records the terrible fact that between 1882 and 1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States; of the people that were lynched, 3,446 were black. See

4 The Oxford English Dictionary [OED] Online definition of resistance in this context (2010). Available at

5 Merata Mita’s documentary film Patu! (Mita, 1983) records the demonstrations and civil disobedience during the southern hemisphere winter of 1981 in protest against the hugely divisive South African rugby tour.

6 See Turner (2018) for a more detailed description of the political and social context in Aotearoa New Zealand in 1981.

7 Organisations such as the African National Congress and anti-apartheid activists in New Zealand and elsewhere often used the traditional Zulu/Xhosa call “Amandla” (“Power”) and the response "Ngawethu! (“to the people” or “to the brothers and sisters”) in protest demonstrations and carried placards that read “Power to the People”.

8 The Oxford English Dictionary [OED] Online definition of resistance in this context (2020). Available at

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Para citar este artigo

Referência eletrónica

Elizabeth Turner, «Resistance, protest and configurations of time, space and place in Herbs’ Pacific reggae songs»Cidades [Online], Au21 | 2021, posto online no dia 20 outubro 2021, consultado o 02 julho 2022. URL:

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Elizabeth Turner

Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand, eaturnernz [at]

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