The first time I heard a song by Moddi, I was on a mattress in my friend’s house half-listening to the TV that was on a rare music channel. There were people talking in the room, loud enough that when I caught the beginning of Let the Spider Run Alive I had to spring up from the mattress and press my ear to the TV to listen. I memorized a few words from the song and then googled them as soon as I got home.
I know that Pål Moddi Knutsen himself likely had completely different reasons for writing the verses that I identify with the most. But Poetry became my hymn for a long time; it’s such a beautifully hesitant song. Rubbles is angry, frustrated — something to listen to when you need a storm, but there isn’t one. House by the Sea was the song I listened to as I flew away from Paraguay, and one that has followed me on all my trips since. And countless others… One Minute More, The Northern Line, and Ardennes (something about the line about animal skin always freaked me out in a great way).
For me, listening to Moddi was a form of meditation. The lyrics force you to look inwards.
But recent times have changed the way I perceive media and art. More and more, I think, we’re aware that everything we consume is affecting our perception of the world. When I heard that Moddi would be releasing an album that consists solely of banned, censored or silenced songs, I was cautious. Music and activism are two fields that very often intersect, but it’s hard to write music that resonates with feelings more nuanced than love or sadness. And it’s even harder to keep them from turning political or aggressive in a very ugly way – or, at the other end of the spectrum, too ambiguous so that they lose their meaning.
This, I soon discovered, was not the case with Unsongs.
Punk Prayer was a beautiful combination of spirituality, freedom and feminism, which I readily fell in love with. A Matter of Habit hit me more personally; it distinctly reminded me of a young ex-soldier I met, and the stories I had heard from friends. And then O My Father I Am Joseph, which immediately made Unsongs my favorite album… possibly of all time. The story of Joseph has always fascinated me, and Moddi’s introduction, dedicating the song to Muslim people across the world who are being discriminated for peaceful beliefs, gave it even more depth. The lyrics — which are originally a poem written by Mahmoud Darwish, and adapted into a song by Marcel Khalife — remind me very much of the Tablet of Fire from the Baha’i Writings.
And then The Shaman and the Thief, and Strange Fruit, beautiful renditions of older tragedies, the wounds of which still haven’t healed today.
The love with which each song has been crafted, and then, in turn, adapted into a cover in English in Moddi’s voice, makes for an album of exquisite beauty; a collection of voices from all around the world, across history. A collection of beautiful stories that were once lost, but that we are now desperately trying to recover.
Being in the same room as Moddi while he plays is to witness something amazing happening within a person. I didn’t get the sense that I was being entertained in the way one normally is at a concert – rather, that I was finally understanding something about the world, and about myself. The music and its message is too important, too great, to be carried within one human body. It’s something that demands to be shared.
These days, I find myself thinking of platforms and their importance. When social media is both a blessing and a curse – providing a space for progressive movements, yet also spawning hate-speech and misinformation – anyone who possesses a platform and the ability to share facts with others, and empower them to contribute to the betterment of the world, should be doing so. We often criticize artists for not taking a strong enough stance in the face of world crisis, or not using their platform to raise marginalized voices.
I think Moddi is a good example of how this can be skillfully done. He openly speaks about his privilege, which I find very fascinating and unusual – and he uses that privilege to help less fortunate artists (imprisoned, exiled, or otherwise silenced) have a voice on a global stage. And even the way in which he speaks is markedly different. One of the first things I noticed is his avoidance of the word “fans” (although we are all, quite clearly, fans) – he uses “listeners”, instead; a posture that invites his audience to his level, that invites them into the conversation.
“Calm determination will be vital as they strive to demonstrate how stumbling blocks can be made stepping stones for progress” says the Universal House of Justice. To me, the songs in Unsongs are an example of how calmness and determination can be weaved together – how the silenced can find a voice again, how we can learn from their words. How to speak up in the face of oppression, but in a way that will be understood by the masses of people who, lacking the spiritual and moral education to understand their fellow human beings, can only be reached through meaningful conversation and individual stories.
There is a historical significance to all of this; from artists who choose to lift others’ voices as well as their own, to listeners who choose to take in and boost creators who inspire. This is true for books, and journalism, and every other creation of humanity, but especially the music that we write and listen to. Our music is our voice; it is our call to arms, and often our greatest weapon when it comes to elicit emotion out of other people and spur them into action. What songs will they remember this period of history by?