How Immigrants and Refugees Use Music for Survival

 by Amina KhanFollow

Music plays a massive role for many immigrants and refugees in the past and present. The sheer power of it can resonate hope in times of survival. Artists showcase a sense of vulnerability when they write and sing songs about their own personal narrative. In doing so, they provide a safe haven for listeners who rely on music to survive traumatic situations.

African Americans

Singing was passed on from Africa to spread amongst slaves in America and these songs were often associated with spirituality. Slaves were not introduced to Christianity by their owners, but they would worship in small gatherings and mix Christian faith with religions from Africa. According to an article from the Library of Congress, after Nat Turner’s rebellion, in 1831, slave owners decided to convert slaves to Christianity, hiring white ministers to preach to them on such topics as obedience. This practice introduced slaves to white styles of hymns and psalm-singing that they then blended with their own styles of religious songs. The soul, pain, and suffering behind the lyrics is vividly represented in these songs. But many slave songs also held a coded meaning which gave descriptions on how to escape as shown in “Wade in the Water” which was coded and used by Harriet Tubman to tell slaves to get into the water and avoid being seen in order to escape.

1920 rendition of an old slave work song

Ed Lewis singing and recorded by Alan Lomax in the 1930’s.  This is a rendition of a slave song that was also used in the prison chain gangs.

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Indian Tribes

Many tribes in America were displaced but amongst the many, one of the tribes, the Seminoles, thrived a little while longer. However, as they too were soon displaced, a song was sung for the removal of the Seminoles.


Once children of European and American Indian heritage were produced, the children did not have a home in either of the parent’s cultures. In the 1820s, the Omaha negotiated with the United States government for a special reservation to be set aside for “half-breed” descendants of Europeans and the Iowa, Omaha, Oto, Santee Sioux and Yankton Sioux tribes. A song was sung by the “half-breeds” recorded by the 1983 Omaha Powwow.


The modern artist Cher also produced a song on being a half-breed as her father was a white man and her mother was of pure Cherokee descent.

[Read Related: The 9to5 Misfits Talk About Their Experience Immigrating to the U.S.]


During World War I, Armenians were displaced and killed by Turkey as many were driven to the Syrian desert of Deir ez-Zor and left to die. The United States sympathized with these refugees and labeled the crisis as a “holocaust” whilst updating newspapers on the situation. According to an article from the Library of Congress, Sidney Robertson Cowell recorded Armenian songs in California in the 1930s, including the song “Deir ez-Zor Collerinde” about the deaths in the Syrian desert; “De le Yaman”, a traditional love song of longing that, since World War I, has taken the meaning of longing for the homeland; and “Andouni,” a song whose title translates as “homeless” that has come to be associated with the deportees and was arranged by the folksong collector and composer Komitas Vardapet.

“De le Yaman”



[Read Related: 5 Real, not Alternative, Facts about Immigration]

Syrian Refugees

The Syrian crisis has forced 11 million Syrians to embody the role of a refugee.

A 17-year-old refugee created and listened to a Spotify playlist as she fled from Syria to Europe epitomizing her struggle during the crisis. The playlist consists of heavy metal music, something she has been listening to since she was 10, but the depth in the lyrics embodies the unimaginable pain she endured due to the ongoing war.

“Descent of Gods” – Aeternam

The first song in the playlist gives a glimpse of the history of the Nabateans. The Nabatean Empire has vague history, but according to a website on Nabatean history, the Nabatean empire stretched from modern-day Yemen to Damascus and from western Iraq into the Sinai Desert.

“Toxicity” – System Of A Down  

This song delves into an analysis of being caught in a dangerous situation and not knowing what to do as it also criticizes society and excessive drug use. Furthermore, the song implements points on ignorance and how purity can easily be blackened as people lust after wealth out of selfishness. The song also touches on corrupt leadership in countries.

“To Believe” – Trivium

The lyrics in this song make strong statements, beginning with:

as the innocent take the punishment and as the children died

These statements symbolize the horror of innocence being devoured due to the fatalities of war.

You cry ‘terrorist’
With a pounding fist
As your kind assists
Those who would end us

Yet, a lack of humanity is pronounced as people choose to direct their own fears by blaming the wrong people out of pure ignorance … *cough* Islamophobia *cough*.

Though these songs hold a deeper meaning through analysis, the Syrian refugee who created the playlist has a personal attachment to each one, where you can read here and listen to the playlist on Spotify here.

The songs the refugee chose to include in her playlist may seem too depressing to be analyzed as music that helps with survival. It clearly juxtaposes with the idea of survival and hope, something that is not evident in any of the songs listed. However, the rawness of her experience as a refugee is her way of connecting to darkness and finding familiarity in music that helps her personally relax as she fled from Syria to Greece.

Immigrants and refugees throughout the years who have been displaced while being forced out of the warmth of familiarity and submerged into the cold depths of the unknown have been driven towards music as it has been their savior and spark of hope. These songs help define their struggle as only they can relate to the darkness etched onto each and every word. The universal cultural significance of survival can be represented through music in ways that simple words cannot.


Amina Khan currently lives in Dallas, TX but forever misses her home in Los Angeles. She hopes to become a successful journalist and is always working towards enriching her writing by blogging about her travels or her current favorite TV show/book. Her dream is to work for AJ+ and deliver raw and unfiltered stories that don’t make it to major news headlines. When she’s not attending college or wandering around in botanical gardens, she invests her time in creating oil paintings and occupies herself with learning how to perfect Arabic calligraphy art. She also has an obsession for sushi, baby goats, Marvel and old people. Feel free to check out her blog!

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