Musicians as Cultural Warriors in the Occupy Movement
For as long as there has been dissent, there has been the protest song. In the people’s history, the fight for social justice has always been accompanied by, inspired by the voices of outspoken songwriters, the daring harmonies of dissident composers, the passionate cry of radical poets and the compelling news reports of the topical balladeer. This is the drumbeat of radicalism. Phil Ochs told us that every headline can be realized as verse just as he cautioned us that, “a protest song is something you don’t hear on the radio”. But regardless of popular acceptance or not, the music of revolution prevails.
One can easily trace work songs back to the earliest toilers and songs of revolt directly to the movements to organize—in each era. Reviewing poetry or ballads composed on slave ships, within workers’ hovels or concentration camps, or in cold urban landscapes, we can not only gain valuable information about earlier uprisings against injustice, but develop a visceral understanding of them. Where progressive history books offer core stories and important dates, topical art-forms deliver the fervor, the agitation, the struggle of the embattled to survive and then to live. Bread and roses.
Often artists can become overwhelmed by the stressors in their midst. In the US, the creative community has never had adequate funding or respect, so in times of fiscal constraint, we can easily fall victim. Further, audiences during lean years find it easier to simply avoid. Popular culture reflects this in “the feel-good movie of the year” or the litany of Top 40 hits that are pure escapism.
After eight years of Bush and Cheney, with the rise of cowboy capitalism, first-strike offenses and a repressive economy, progressives of every shade began to build a protest movement of ebbs and flows. Many sought out change through the Obama candidacy. With the promise of the nation’s first African American president, one who’d had a background as a community organizer, countless among us were moved to rebuild a progressive base. But Obama’s drive toward conciliation with the forces of reaction for far too long turned many off. The teabaggers were all over the news and every brand of lunatic flooded the right-wing. Oh, there were pockets of celebrated rebellion: Wisconsin taught us all. But on the heels of that amazing takeover, Occupy Wall Street happened. And then nothing was the same.
In my own experience as a musician and a cultural organizer (one moved toward Left philosophy as a direct result of the first Reagan term!), I’d long sought out something—anything—like OWS. And here came a disparate group with no visible leader, one that united all facets of the Left, liberalism, and Labor, and not just the most progressive of unions. Yeah, it turned out to be this generation’s Popular Front. After my first visit to Zuccotti Park, I was drawn to return many times, usually carrying a drum. The first time I sat in with the pulsating mass of a drum circle, I realized the distance our message could carry. How voluminous the voice of a determined, unified group! We breathed as one through percussion and this was evidenced by the reactions of the beaming, dancing passerby, often wearing designer suits and Italian shoes but sharing in a historic moment with this band of rad rhythmatists.
Though drum circles are empowering and an excellent means to build still larger masses, there is a need for musicians of conscience to forge a more cohesive unit, a cultural arm of OWS. Rather than the occasional folksinger or rapper writing an anthem for the movement, why couldn’t there be, shouldn’t there be a solid, committed organization which would feed the protest, inspire creativity and then take it out to the wider populace? The Occupy Musicians group ( is an exciting means toward this goal. Hundreds of signatories and a series of events has fortified the organization’s dawning. Now what’s left to do is to draw on the considerable strengths of musicians of conscience; we must agitate, educate and organize through song, through verse, through shout and stomp, through musical weaponry.
Using earlier cultural movements as models, we can draw on the work of the bards, the songsters, poets, playwrights and journalists of the Industrial Workers of the World. This radical internationalist union counted artists in their front line of organizers. This spawned the likes of Joe Hill; no mean feat! And the Socialist Party in the first decades of the 20th century also laid the ground work for later models. It did so with the likes of Jack London and Carl Sandburg and by the 1930s founded the Radical Arts Group toward the establishment of a national cultural program. However it was the Communist Party which, in the 1930s and ‘40s, successfully founded a cultural commission of widespread proportions. It not only counted artists such as Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, Dalton Trumbo, Hazel Scott and the Almanac Singers in its ranks, but a massive list of fellow travelers across the country. Of important note are the arts collectives under CP cultural auspices which were both activist bases and educational seminars for all genres: the John Reed Club, the League of American Writers, the American Artists’ Congress, the Red Dancers, and the Composers Collective of New York which produced contemporary classical works that were at least as daring musically as they were politically!
The generation of folksingers in the 1960s became the very soul of the struggles of civil rights and peace. Immortal, moving works were created and tirelessly sang at each rally and march. Folk revival musicians such as Bob Dylan, Odetta, Phil Ochs and Joan Baez wrote the anthems that acted as shields against the assaults of the police and the national guard, as did the songs which had originated in southern Black churches. Performers like the Freedom Singers made all the difference in the world when staring down Bull Connor. And the Black Arts Movement offered creative guidance along with fiery radical sounds to urban centers. Avant garde jazz figured highly into this scene, as well it should in today’s movement. Legendary names like Amiri Baraka, the late Sam Rivers, the AACM and Black Arts Group were instrumental, so to speak, in countless seminars, rallies, gatherings and confrontations. There’s was a music which celebrated African culture as it fought for American rights through the most creative means.
The Punk movement often carried with it an anarchist message, or in the least an intolerance for mere compliance. While some aspects of Punk could seem right-wing due to the presence of fascist imagery (to shock) most Punks were drawn to the Left messages found in the music of the Clash and the fight against Reaganism launched by the Dead Kennedys. Punk also turned “DIY” into a freedom cry for all artists. Hip Hop has also stood out as a people’s movement which has called on multiple generations to speak out. For every gangsta rapper there are scores of Hip Hop artists who use their poetry and music as a means of unity and expression: life and survival in the ghettos, exposing social ills and the need for social change are mainstays. Some rappers are inspired by the Beat poets of the ‘50s, and most are well aware of the radical statements of Gil-Scott Heron. Rappers like Dead Prez and Immortal Technique have focused on a specific kind of topical Hip Hop.
MUSICIANS ALIGNED WITH THE OWS MOVEMENT need to make a close study of the history of cultural workers in building a lasting organization. Occupy Musicians should call on composers, improvisers, rappers, singers, songwriters and instrumentalists; there’s a need for pop singers, jazz and contemporary classical musicians, hip hop artists, world music performers, folkies, satirists, rockers, balladeers and punks. We must speak in every language, to every taste, to allow for the unrestrained flow of outreach. And we need to establish a series of awareness-raising concerts, to circulate recordings of OWS musicians and offer teach-ins and workshops to not only insure continuity of current artists but to inspire the generations to come. Occupy Musicians can not only offer a soundtrack to OWS but can drive it with Shock Brigade bands to descend upon rallies and marches. And to really be thorough, we need to do so in concert with radical poets, performance artists and other cultural workers.
Occupy Musicians can become an integral part of Occupy movements all over the nation, all over the world. And through both concert presentations and social media we can grow a network that will keep live music relevant even as it carries activists to the necessary next level, true social and political change. Upward, onward.
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