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Good Playlist: Refugees in international politics ▶️

A soundtrack for studying refugees, including pop, rock, folk, punk, electronic, reggae, and soul.

- January 18, 2024

I have always used music in my teaching. It draws students in and helps them engage with the topics we cover in new ways. They will often volunteer candidates for the next iteration of the course. Updating the course playlist also makes course prep less of a slog for me, and it gives me something to listen to while revising lectures. We start every class session with a song, and then we spend a few minutes discussing how it connects to the day’s theme before diving into the lecture, simulation, or group activity planned for that day.

This is the most recent version of the playlist for my “Refugees in International Politics” course from fall 2023. You can see the song list by topic below. Some of the singers – like Wafia, K’naan, and of course, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars – have personal or family experiences with displacement. Many of the songs on the playlist are explicitly about refugees, including Jimmy Cliff and Wyclef Jean’s “Refugees” and Sara Bareilles and John Legend’s “A Safe Place to Land.” Others may not necessarily be about forced migration, but I find their lyrics evocative (like Vampire Weekend’s “My Mistake” and Paloma Faith’s “Warrior”). I tried to incorporate as many genres as I could, including pop, rock, folk, punk, electronic, reggae, and soul. 

I also screen some of the music videos in class. The award-winning animated video for Manu Chao and Calypso Rose’s “Clandestino” is beautiful and thought-provoking. Sonic Boom Six’s music video for “From the Fire to the Frying Pan” draws out the link between migrant arrivals, social media, and far-right extremism. The footage of people on flimsy dinghies in the MOAS version of the music video for Maximo Park’s “Risk to Exist” drives home the chorus: “Put your arms around me/ I’ve come too far and the ocean’s deep/ Where’s your empathy.” 

To strike a somewhat optimistic note, we end with Stevie Wonder: “Yes, there’s a place in the sun where there’s hope for everyone.”

1. Course preliminaries

  • Introduction: Wafia, “Bodies” 
  • Concepts and trends: Jimmy Cliff featuring Wyclef Jean, “Refugees” and Cold War Kids featuring Wesley Schultz, “1×1”
  • Analytical approaches: Vampire Weekend, “My mistake” and Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, “Living like a refugee”
  • International law on forced migration: Moxie Raia featuring Wyclef Jean, “Follow me” and Manu Chao featuring Calypso Rose, “Clandestino”

2. Causes and consequences of refugee movements

  • Sources of refugee movements: K’naan, “Wavin’ flag” and Katy Carr, “Kommander’s car”
  • Security implications of refugee movements: Sonic Boom Six, “From the fire to the frying pan,” and Paloma Faith, “Warrior” 
  • State building: Randy Newman, “Laugh and be happy” and Steve Earle, “City of immigrants”
  • Ethical concerns: Sara Bareilles featuring John Legend, “A safe place to land” and Chvrches, “Graves”

3. Responses to refugee movements

  • Responses by developed and developing countries: The Kinks, “Australia”
  • Asylum in the United States: Gil Scott-Heron, “Alien (Hold on to your dreams)” and Santana, “Migra” 
  • International and regional cooperation on refugees: Editors, “Hallelujah (So low)” and Neneh Cherry, “Kong” 
  • Responses by international and nongovernmental organizations: Rise Against, “Prayer of the refugee” and Lostboy! Aka Jim Kerr, “Refugee” 
  • Humanitarianism: Maximo Park, “Risk to exist”

4. Conclusions

  • Case studies: Village People, “Go West” and Benjamin Clementine, “God save the jungle”
  • Future challenges: Stevie Wonder, “A place in the sun”

Lamis Abdelaaty is associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. She is the author of the award-winning book Discrimination and Delegation: Explaining State Responses to Refugees (Oxford University Press, 2021).

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