Midway through the peace rally in Seattle’s Volunteer Park this past October, the stage was given over to a young man with a guitar. It was a big moment for this callow troubadour–certainly the largest crowd he’d ever faced, hungry for inspiration, ready for a new rallying cry. He strummed and took his shot. One more rendition of “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Somewhere, Bob Dylan, who long ago stopped his marching, groaned.
A few speakers later, another sound overtook the stage. It emanated from a motley hip-hop jam band, young men and women redolent of yesterday’s patchouli, but bent on doing something at least partially new. The women traded acerbic raps above swirly guitar solos and some deft conga maneuvers. The result didn’t hit as hard as Bob’s old chestnut, but at least it took us into this century.
The venerable tradition of American protest music still generates heat on the rally circuit, as Dylan’s constant reinvocation proves. Still, political music is marked by the same tension that always feeds pop music: the desire to connect to a legacy versus the impulse to try something new. Protest has gained voice across genres, linking Steve Earle’s country polemics, Fugazi’s anticorporate hardcore, the radical hip-hop of Mos Def and Talib Kweli. The activist songbook includes major contributions from punk and hip-hop as well as folk-rock. Benefit concerts and albums have become part of the star-making machinery. Bono, our Superliberal, trots the globe. Yet political songs rarely make it onto mainstream radio, and when it’s time to focus on an anthem, too often what we all know is vintage 1968.
Dissent became all the more complicated after 9/11. The mainstream pop world responded to the World Trade Center attacks by waving a distinctly red-white-and-blue freak flag; the performances featured on various televised benefits exemplified the shock-induced patriotism of the moment. Eventually, dissent seemed like a possibility again, but with a few notable exceptions (the aforementioned Earle), most artists still display an uncertain step as they venture into the arena.
How can musicians respond to such confusing times? The Nation poses this question to five artists known for their outspoken views and powerful, activism-inspiring music. Boots Riley of the Oakland hip-hop duo the Coup may be best known for a terrible coincidence–the cover for his group’s latest CD, Party Music, was recalled because the design, created long before September 11, showed Riley and DJ Pam the Funkstress blowing up the World Trade Center–but he has been an activist since his early teens and may be the most cogent political rapper working today. Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam has worked for many causes, from the band’s historic stand against the Ticketmaster monopoly to his tireless stumping for Ralph Nader in the 2000 election. Tom Morello, now of the band Audioslave, played guitar for Rage Against the Machine, the most visible leftist rock group of the 1990s. In the Indigo Girls and on her own, Amy Ray has established herself as a foremost advocate for Native American rights, feminist causes and environmentalism. And with Sleater-Kinney, Carrie Brownstein helped reshape the sound of feminist rock.
These interviews were conducted separately, but each artist expressed great camaraderie with the others participating. Perhaps there could be a benefit concert in this…