Ryan Harvey

Can’t Find The Protest Songs? Check Inside The Movement

In Music & Art on November 14, 2011 at 1:32 am

On October 18, The New York Times published the article, “At the Protests, the Message Lacks a Melody.”[i] In the piece, author James C. McKinley Jr. asks us, “Where have all the protest songs gone?” Citing Occupy Wall Street and the movement it has inspired, McKinley suggests that we “have yet to find an anthem”.

“So far, musicians living through the biggest economic disaster since the Great Depression have filled the airwaves with songs about dancing, not the worries of working people,” McKinley writes. He goes on to describe a handful of mainstream artists who have one or two notable songs that fit his definition, then he closes his investigation.

As an underground folk musician who regularly performs with other similar musicians, this simplification of what protest music is and where it is found brings me a bitter frustration. McKinley and other journalists covering this issue have consistently ignored the massive underground of contemporary “protest music” that has been thriving for years.

Myself and the other eight members of the Riot-Folk Collective, which I co-founded in 2004, have been singing songs of political analysis and social commentary within various social and economic justice movements for almost a decade, and we are far from alone.

A quick glance at the shirts and patches of people at any of the Wall Street-inspired occupations around the country will surely turn up popular band logos that have inspired those participating in the protests, whether they are punk outfits like Rise Against, Propagandi, and Strike Anywhere, or hip-hop artists like Lupe Fiasco, The Coup, and Talib Kweli.

If you asked any of these participants what music they are motivated or educated by, you will likely be exposed to a vibrant, hard-working underground of artists that have for years enjoyed much popularity within social movements in the U.S. and around the world. This underground includes poets, MCs, folk-singers, DJs, electronic producers, Son Jarocho bands, drag troupes, choirs, punk and pop bands, and more.

Artists like us at Riot-Folk and our musical allies like Rebel Diaz, Broadcast Live, Taina Asili, The Coup, Majesty, Son del Centro, David Rovics, Emma’s Revolution, Invincible, The Foundation, Born In A Cent, Son of Nun, Emcee Lynx, Las Krudas, Final Outlaw, The Wild, Climbing Poetry, Jim Page, The Readnex Poetry Squad, Blackfire, Intikana, Hot Mess, Mischief Brew, Olmeca, Head-Roc, Spiritchild, Defiance Ohio, Here’s To The Long Haul, From The Depths, and Riders Against the Storm -just to name a few- have all been influential forces in social circles that have participated in the recent occupations.

These artists have spent the last few years performing and recording critical songs about the economy, the wars, racism, immigrant rights, queer liberation, and much more.

While McKinley states that “in recent years the songwriters taking on political issues have tended to be older musicians” and that there is a “scarcity of songs about the economic disaster”, young song-writers like most of those mentioned above have been on the front lines writing powerful indictments of the financial barons and their political allies, and they didn’t just start writing them now.

In her 2008 video “Locusts”, which boats over 30,000 views on YouTube, Detroit MC Invincible lays out the politics of the housing crisis caused by the sub-prime loan bubble. “They been red-lining the dark skinned owners of homes where they loan with a shark’s fin, arson the property probably for the insurance policy, it’s a prophecy that’s self fulfilling.”

It is worth pointing out that the mass movement against the financial system did not start in Zuccotti Park on September 17th. It has manifested in several mass movements in recent years, from the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999 to the “Day Without an Immigrant” strikes and protests in California, Illinois, and elsewhere in 2006.

Baltimore-based hip-hop activist Son of Nun broke down the economics of Latin American immigration and displacement in his song “Pastures of Plenty”, a name referencing Woody Guthrie’s classic song. “And we ain’t leaving, til your debt-breeding, World Bank and IMF loans stop thieving. Your helping hands left Latin American lands bleeding, now on the money-trail our families are stampeding.”

Taking a domestic look, Appalachian bluegrass band Here’s to the Long Haul, in their song “Wood Flooring Plant”, sing of racism and misplaced anger towards immigrant workers at a factory in Kentucky: “I’ve seen it work before my eyes as many of my friends, resent not the bosses but instead blame the Mexicans.”

Some of us responded immediately to the 2008 bailout with songs, including me; my 2008 song “Roulette Wheel” questioned neoliberal economics while painting a grim picture of the United States. “Give the rich banker the bail out funds, it’ll trickle down like sewage does.”

Rebel Diaz also responded to the bail out with their song “A Trillion”, which received over 20,000 views on YouTube. Other YouTube videos by the trio, whose Rebel Diaz Arts Collective also runs a hip-hop community center in the South Bronx, have received hundreds of thousands of views.

On October 16, Final Outlaw of the Bronx and a dozen other MCs and poets performed at the Occupy Wall Street encampment to a crowd of about 100 people. “I grew up among the poor, I know the pain of what it means to have to sleep on the floor,” Final Outlaw said. “I only live now just to settle the score.”

Before performing, Final Outlaw explained that he had been down at the park participating in the cleaning crew and was one of the many who came at 5:00 am to defend it from police eviction on October 14th.

These artists don’t just write about politics or show up at political events and demonstrations to perform; we are often involved in organizing the events themselves, and we are often writing songs from a place situated within the context of what we are singing about.

Boots Riley of The Coup has been on the front lines of the Occupy Oakland marches this week, and has been very active in the assemblies that have consistently refused to back down in light of massive police violence. On all of my trips up to Occupy Wall Street I have run into several of those artists mentioned above, and several of us are active in the occupations in Baltimore, DC, Atlanta, San Francisco, and elsewhere.

McKinley does correctly mention artists like Tom Morello and Anti-Flag, who have been among a crew of dedicated, mostly mainstream artists that have also spent time within movements for social justice. That crew also includes people like Dead Prez, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, Immortal Technique, Eddie Vedder, The Flobots, State Radio, and others.

Contrary to what McKinley suggests, there are perhaps far more songs being written, recorded, and distributed today that would fit in the “protest” category than at any other time period in history. But unlike the 1960s, as he hints at in his article, there is no major label today that is hungry for radical political music.

Perhaps, however, we don’t need such labels. Perhaps we have moved beyond them. The availability of cheap recording equipment and open-source software has allowed artists to rapidly produce songs, while free or cheap downloads of our MP3s and tools like YouTube allow us easy access to millions of people in relatively short periods of time. “Don’t be afraid, we’ve come full circle, the medium is ours again,” New York-based hip-hop trio Broadcast Live says on their track, “Hell Hot.”

What is most problematic about McKinley’s article, however, is that this is not the 1960s, it’s 2011, and we are not searching for a Bob Dylan. The movement against the financial system that has arisen with Occupy Wall Street is largely based around participatory, direct democracy. It’s about recognizing the power of many, not of a few. So it doesn’t need a hero or a theme song that journalists can use to synthesize the dynamism of these times into simplified categories.

“Every successful movement has a soundtrack,” Morello is quoted as saying in the beginning of McKinley’s article. He’s right, we need a soundtrack and we have one, an ever-expanding one comprised of more songs and artists than one could possibly name.

If you want to hear our soundtrack, you have to look beyond the mainstream media and beyond the acoustic guitar. In fact, don’t just look, go join the thousands at Occupy Wall Street or one of the many occupations that have sprung up around the country and participate with the people.

There you will find artists making some of the most powerful protest music you will ever hear, and you will find that none of us will ever define “the voice of our generation,” because we are many generations with many voices.

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