by Sashenka Lleshaj
What do calls for the removal of the statues of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town and Oxford University (i.e., the student movement Rhodes Must Fall) and the Bosniak protest against the performance of the song March on the Drina (Marš na Drinu) at the United Nations New Year’s Concert have in common? At first consideration, not much. A closer look at these episodes, however, reveals the similarities between these political struggles. Both are struggles over competing narratives about the past and conflicting valuations of heritage, which signify glory and victory to some, and humiliation and suffering to others.
While both episodes are representative of the political struggles of our times—concerned with addressing historical injustices and wrongdoings—their similarities often escape us, because we privilege the analysis of the ideological dimensions of the built environment over the analysis of the ideological dimensions of ‘soundscapes’.
In this essay, I argue that the controversy over the performance of the song March on the Drina has much to teach us about the function of popular songs in political ideologies. I argue that popular sounds, or soundscapes, fulfil a similar role to those of monuments. However, their similarities are seldom obvious to us because we tend to privilege sight in political analysis. Like monuments, soundscapes carry both symbolic and sentimental capital and can mobilise affective investment in political ideologies. But while this has been recognised in studies on the ideological function of monuments, the role that songs play in ideological formation, consolidation, and continuation has so far been understudied. The last waves of monumental toppling in the West and the former-communist Eastern Europe sharpened our political analysis around the way ideologies shape landscapes, collective memories, and the sentimental ordering of the political space—commemorations, collective mourning and celebrations, apologies, forgiveness, resentment. These analytical tools can, I argue, also be used to analyse the political function of soundscapes.
Keeping an eye and an ear out for power
Recent controversies about ‘difficult heritage’ have shown us that statues are not just statues, neither in their inception and erection nor through their falling and dismantling—they are symbolic representations of prevailing ideologies vested with both meaning and an ordering of the collective sentiment an ideology aims to engender.
The student movement Rhodes Must Fall, for example, assembled around the call for the removal of the statues of Cecil Rhodes, first at the University of Cape Town, and then at the University of Oxford. Students also mobilised around this issue at other universities in South Africa, the UK, and the USA. For the students, Cecil Rhodes—a British imperialist and white supremacist—was the representation of the prevailing ideology of white supremacy. They argued that Rhodes should no longer be celebrated or commemorated. The students pointed to the inconsistency of universities’ claims to engage in policies of inclusion and coming to terms with their contribution to colonialism on the one hand, while maintaining monuments designed to honour individuals who had actively furthered the colonial project, on the other. The removal of Rhodes statues, they maintained, would signal universities’ commitment to come to terms with their own colonial and white supremacist legacy.
The student movement demonstrated that monuments are not just representations of old structures of power but representations of current structures of power, actively sustained by the vision of the past they commemorate. Commemorating Cecil Rhodes, then, is not an ideologically neutral act on the part of universities—it is, in fact, an ordering of the symbolic and sentimental space of representation of these institutions themselves.
The same holds true for ‘soundscapes’: If a statue is not just a statue, neither is a song just a song! Audible heritage—especially songs and speeches inherited from a previous regime, or representative of enslavement, subjugation, genocide, or violation of certain groups and communities—play a similar political function as monuments. Like monuments, they can also become sites of struggle over competing conceptions of the past.
In January 2013, for example, at a New Year’s concert at the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the Serbian group Viva Vox Choir while claiming that “voices can be used to divide and oppress—or they can be used to heal and uplift”. The group’s last performance was March on the Drina. March on the Drina is a patriotic Serbian song, which was originally associated with the Serbian quest for freedom in WWI. It was subsequently used as an anthem of Serbian nationalist forces in their genocidal campaigns in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s.
The performance of the song triggered a harsh letter from The Congress of Bosniaks of North America (CBNA). In the letter, CBNA called the performance of a song that inspired nationalist hatred “a scandalous insult to the victims of genocide”. The protest letter also reminded the Secretary General of the shameful role of the UN forces in letting the Srebrenica genocide happen under their watch.
Instead of an apology from both UN and Serbia, those victims were now confronted with an anthem of Serbian nationalism at the UN New Year’s concert. According to Serbia’s Vuk Jeremić, then President of the 67th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, the controversy was an offence to Serbia’s memory of loss and victory from WWI. Despite Jeremić’s attempts to define for everyone the ‘real victims’ of this controversy, the song’s symbolism for the most recent victims of genocide could not be re-sanitised to its original meaning alone. It had evolved to represent the grievances and quest for recognition of the victims of the Bosnian genocide, many of whom were still alive to remember the horrors perpetrated under its tunes. This piece of ‘audible heritage’ is therefore a symbol for a political event in a similar way to a monument cast in stone, marble, or bronze.
In need of an analytical toolkit for political soundscapes
This heavy reliance on a symbolic space of sight as paramount to power and to our understanding of political ideologies demonstrates that political analysis may have a problem of ‘ocularcentrism’, which privileges sight as the paramount political sense. While the recent political mobilisation around monuments helps us to see the ideological dimensions of such heritage, hearing through micro-techniques of power embodied in soundscapes is crucial to understanding the complex ways in which political ideologies work on both the symbolic and sentimental level.
While our collective gaze is trained to spot the micro-foundations of power inherent in monuments, soundscapes do not receive the same scrutiny, thus serving power undetected. The insufficient attention given to soundscapes demonstrates that their political functions within ideologies are understudied. If we understand contestations over ‘audible heritage’ as functionally equivalent to political struggles over monuments, we are better equipped to analyse their political significance.
 Roseanne Chantiluke, Brian Kwoba, and Athinagamso Nkopo, eds., Rhodes Must Fall: The Struggle to Decolonise the Racist Heart of Empire (London, UK: Zed Books Ltd, 2018).
 Also translated as “March on the River Drina”.
 The Congress of Bosniaks of North America (CBNA), “Protest Letter to Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General,” Congress of Bosniaks of North America, January 15, 2013, https://bosniak.org/2013/01/15/protest-letter-to-ban-ki-moon-un-general-secretary/.
 Michelle D. Weitzel, "Sensory Politics and the Discipline: An Emerging Research Paradigm," Working Paper presented at McGill University Department of Political Science, March 8, 2021.
 Simukai Chigudu, “More than Just a Statue: Why Removing Rhodes Matters,” The Guardian, May 24, 2021, sec. Opinion, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/may/24/oriel-college-rhodes-statue-anti-racist-anger.
 Chantiluke, Kwoba, and Nkopo, eds., Rhodes Must Fall: The Struggle to Decolonise the Racist Heart of Empire.
 “Remarks at New Year’s Concert of the 67th Session of the General Assembly | United Nations Secretary-General,” accessed August 22, 2022, https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/speeches/2013-01-14/remarks-new-years-concert-67th-session-general-assembly.
 Courtney Brooks, “Serbian ‘War Song’ At UN General Assembly Concert Upsets Bosniaks,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 18, 2013, sec. Bosnia-Herzegovina, https://www.rferl.org/a/serbian-war-song-un-assembly-controversy/24876973.html.
 The Congress of Bosniaks of North America (CBNA), “Protest Letter to Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General,” https://bosniak.org/2013/01/15/protest-letter-to-ban-ki-moon-un-general-secretary/.
 Reuters, “Serbian Military Song at U.N. Concert Sparks Bosnian Outcry,” Reuters, January 17, 2013, sec. World News, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-serbia-bosnia-un-song-idUSBRE90G1D520130117.
 Andrew M. Cox, “Embodied Knowledge and Sensory Information: Theoretical Roots and Inspirations,” Library Trends 66, no. 3 (2018): 223–38, https://doi.org/10.1353/lib.2018.0001.
 Michelle D. Weitzel, Sensory Politics and the Discipline: An Emerging Research Paradigm.