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Music And Activism: From Protest Song To Occupy Wall Street

Art has always been one of the favourite vehicles to fight against the system. But who is protesting today, and how? We take a look at Occupy Wall Street in search of answers.

What political role does music play in these days of social unrest? The protest song is something from the past: in the present, as the Occupy Wall Street movement shows, what's important is personal commitment. Musicians joining the cause as citizens, with the people, without looking for medals.

Ah, music and protests! The idea of a man with a guitar looking for answers in the wind has been burnt into our collective memory. But what about today? Where is the non-conformist singer-songwriter with safety pins, singing about anarchy? Are there any? And if there are, can they do something to change the system? Or, let's go one step further: is it an artist's duty to reflect society's problems? Maybe that's the mother of all questions here. Apparently, it's neither their duty nor their vocation. Just look at the music being made today: except for the odd scatterbrain singing naïve proclamations or repeating those from times past, most of the bands are just doing their thing. Or they might have gone straight to escapism. So what do they do? Simple: they changed the stage for the street, but they're still protesting, whether they be from the musical avant-garde or headline-generating mainstream stars.

Artists have always had amplifying powers, whether they wanted to or not: to see an opinion leader support a cause generates debate, or, at least, it draws the attention of people who would normally steer clear of any. Daphne Carr, creator of Occupy Musicians, knows this all too well: “To me there are several types of musical activism. There is the activism of writing a great song that inspires people to action or empathy. Then there is the action of playing music in a space, either at a protest or at some other place where people are rallying. We need both to make a strong movement.”

Today - and this is new - musical activism seems to be of the second kind, at least most of the time. The proof is in Occupy Wall Street, where apparently apolitical mega stars like Katy Perry stood side by side with independent artists like Peaking Lights . They're all united by one thing: their support of the movement fighting for the rights of the 99%. Squaring the circle is, without a doubt, the video by Jay-Z and Kanye West, which, in spite of the both of them belonging to the 1% the other 99 is protesting against, reflected the global unrest. Some accuse them of being opportunistic (even though Kanye appeared at Zucotti Park alongside Russell Simmons a few months ago), but it does look like something is changing. But before that, a bit of history.

Recently, the 100th birthday of Woody Guthrie was celebrated, one of the biggest representatives of the battle through music against the powers that be, whose famous guitar (with the slogan this machine kills fascists written on it) is part of the global pop iconography. Guthrie was, of course, not the first or the only musician with his voice as his only weapon in the battle against the system: the real protest song boom took place in the 60s, with figures like Dylan and Joan Baez. In the 70s, the music became more aggressive and combative, and, even though the Sex Pistols arguably had their origins in the imagination of the handy business man that was Malcolm McLaren, the message made a deep impact on a whole generation doomed to fail, thanks to Margaret Thatcher's neoliberal politics. In the 80s, while the mainstream was dominated by artists who worried more about hairspray and tinsel, the punk and DIY spirit remained alive thanks to hardcore, whilst hip-hop was fighting its own battle against racism and social exclusion. Then came the 90s, with a nihilist philosophy, not free of any cynicism, and so disenchanted with politics that music went straight to causes like feminism (with the riot grrrls in front) and ecology.

"It is no longer about complaining through songs, among other things because many musicians don't really want to make protest songs; they just want to be able to go on"

And now? Where are we now? I'll admit that for a long time I've been asking myself where punk was during the past decade. But that's exactly what has been my mistake; looking for a new kind of punk. It is no longer about complaining through songs, among other things because it's not enough, and because many musicians don't really want to make protest songs; they just want to be able to go on. Let's be honest: Dylan's “Like A Rolling Stone” might have revolutionised folk by incorporating an electric guitar, but politically, it didn't change a thing. Like Gainsbourg's irreverent version of the Marseillaise didn't change anything, no matter how big a stir it caused. There it is, in the annals of music, just another anecdote.

In a world ruled by complex and opaque economical interests of big, speculating corporations, there's little a musician can do writing a protest song. But going out on the streets, mobilising people and awaking the people's sleeping conscience, that's a different story. It's no secret that the powers that be like silent and obedient people. And now, the streets aren't only full, people are even camping on them, like last year at Zucotti Park. What came afterwards: the camping spread throughout the country, there were daily protests, confrontations with the police, clearance of the camps, non-stop demonstrations and a constant flow of information through (another paradox) the big social networks owned and managed by the 1% people are protesting against, with tweets and links shared on Facebook.

But at Occupy Wall Street (OWS from now on), something more happened. Daphne Carr, author of “Pretty Hate Machine” (a book about the Nine Inch Nails album) and musician who was at Zucotti Park when the square unofficially changed its name to Liberty Square, decided to start a list that today features over 4000 musicians of all kinds and colours: “The idea behind Occupy Musicians,” Carr explains, “is to have a global, visible show of solidarity from musicians. We had hoped that this list would inspire connections among musicians and to occupy encampments and other social justice groups.”

"They all mixed with the people there, no-one got a favourable treatment, and when they spoke to the media about it was almost always in pursuit of facts and with the intention of explaining what was going on"

Carr's list didn't go unnoticed, and among those who signed it are Lou Reed, Four Tet, Peaking Lights, Laurie Anderson, Zach de la Rocha, Trent Reznor, and Lee Ranaldo. Ranaldo explained in an interview with this magazine why he joined the cause: “my role there is adding my name to the list and supporting it. Occasionally I have communication with those people, but more than anything else I think it’s important for people, especially for people with some sort of public profile, to put that out there, you know? Like 'this is the side of the line I’m standing on and I’m supporting this and I’m hoping that this and the things that they’re asking for will be given respect.” Ranaldo didn't only sign the list: he made field recordings at OWS, which he then went on to use on stage and on his latest work, “Between The Times And Tides” (Matador, 2012).

Ranaldo is not the only Sonic Youth member showing up at Zucotti Park: Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore were there with their daughter, who marched in the demonstrations against the 1%. Patti Smith was there, too, as were Lupe Fiasco (one of the rappers most involved with the cause), Trent Reznor, Amanda Palmer, Zach de la Rocha and Tom Morello, who, by the way, played Woody Guthrie's “This Land Is Your Land”. They all mixed with the people there, no-one got a favourable treatment, and when they spoke to the media about it, as Russell Simmons did, it was almost always in pursuit of facts and with the intention of explaining what was going on. Lupe Fiasco even gave an interview to Al Jazeera, in which he expressed the camp's concerns, and the conversations he'd had there: the main figure wasn't him, it was the people. And the music, when it played a role, was only anecdotal.

"It no longer is about singing on a stage, it's about joining the cause like any other citizen"

In these cases, the music wasn't a vehicle or a goal: it simply was there, like everything else. However, its presence served to spread the word about some protests that, to many, are only legitimate if opinion leaders are behind the cause. In a movement characterised by its horizontality, musicians play their role in an absolutely new context: it no longer is about singing on a stage before this week's leader steps up to do their speech and/or shift the focus of attention from the cause to their person, it's about joining the cause like any other citizen. The protests continue in the streets (these days there are almost daily protests in the United States, though the media, again, hardly even mention them), and many of the musicians who appeared in the early days are now in the background: we don't hear from them, except when they show their support on the social networks, or when they're asked about it. It looks like the title of the Wu Ming collective's book was visionary: “This Revolution Has No Face”.

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