Considering the type of society we live in, egocentric and lined with affordable luxuries, we don’t often stop to think about human suffering on the grand scale at which it occurs. We don’t even realize what a large percentage of it is entirely needless. It is a heavy burden to think about such things, and more often then not they are simply ignored. Life is already hard enough without the woes of humanity weighing upon us. But there are still those who fret over the condition of the world beyond their own, and they are trying to speak out. They are trying to open our minds and hearts, and reveal the horrors we pretend not to see. They are trying to alert those of us who are well off, so that we might be inspired to help, or at least to better appreciate the lives we have. And one of the best mediums for sharing this is music.
In 2006, the indie rock group Islands released a song called “Rough Gem,” which illustrates the suffering caused by the diamond mines in Africa. Many people believe they are already aware of the horrors of the diamond industry: the violence and corruption spread by “illicitly” traded blood diamonds. However that is only a small part of the story, and much misrepresented. As described in a 1996 investigation by Jani Roberts, apartheid is alive and well in South Africa, and families are torn apart by an industry that promotes a materialistic marriage ritual.
The song is unique in the manner which it presents such a serious and morbid issue, because the song itself is very happy sounding. It opens with cheerful flutes, synth and strings, and remains energetic throughout. The lyrics are from the perspective of an actual diamond, who seems to pity the miners in a detached sort of way, saying “Dig deep but don’t dig too deep, when it’s late you’ll see the hole is empty, and oh so deadly.” A careful listener is shocked by the contrast of the pain and struggle in the words against the pleasant tone of the melody. And thus by illuminating this subject in such an unusual and ironic light, Islands has created piece of music that is both entertaining and stirring.
The tactics employed in the composition of “Rough Gem” can also be found in the famous 1980s song “99 Red Balloons” by the German group Nena, written during the frightening escalation of the Cold War. This song describes a fictional incident in which a large cluster of balloons released by some children are mistaken for an aircraft by the military, triggering a violent overreaction ending in a devastating war. It is also set to a cheerful, energetic mood, accompanying such depressing lyrics as “It's all over and I'm standin' pretty, in this dust that was a city.”
Both songs depict cases of needless human suffering that could be prevented by a little less greed, or a little more cautiousness. The artists of these pieces took a long, hard look at the harsh side of humanity that we rarely ever see, and presented it to us in a beautiful and powerful way. Isn’t it sad though, that reality sometimes has to be slyly sugarcoated for us to swallow it? Hopefully more musicians use such tactics in the future, because they certainly have an impact, and will be a great tool for opening the eyes of our spoiled society.