The Power of Music
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...
This is a strange moment for political music in rock. Big stars like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty are making music about issues, but as far as countercultural protest music goes, there's not much on the radar. You're all pretty explicit about your views--how's that going over on the road?
Right after September 11 I got really pessimistic. Then we went out on tour. I wanted to go out there and make statements against the war [in Afghanistan]. We went all over--Iowa, Indiana, Florida, Alabama--and in every place the overwhelming majority of the crowd was in favor of my antiwar statement. On some dates we were headlining, so it was our crowd. On others, though, we were opening up for the X-Ecutioners, who have an MTV hit with Linkin Park. There was a big mixture of musical tastes at those shows, people coming from different political backgrounds, and we still got an overwhelming, positive response.
As a touring musician, I would play thirty places in Europe in five weeks and not just pass through or see the sights but actually have an exchange with people. Everything I probably missed out on by not going to college as far as geography, history, world social studies and religion I feel like I've kind of made up for by just being alert on tour. That puts you in a sensitive place because you come back to the United States and you're happy to be back, but at the same time you feel like sharing what you've seen with other people. You want to say, you know, "I've seen some examples where things work a little better as far as healthcare, gun control, the modern-day prison system, the war on drugs"--you want to be able to share that and not feel like you're being unpatriotic or extra critical.
Tom, you've recently found a new way to get messages across on tour. Tell us about Axis of Justice, the organization you founded with Serj Tankian of System of a Down.
Axis of Justice feels like the most concrete political event that I've been involved in. It's an installation that will go out on band's tours, a tent that brings together representatives from various activist groups to exchange information with concertgoers. Having been in progressively minded bands, I know that it's not easy to help build a bridge between your audience and the causes you support. Axis builds that bridge. It essentially works as a referral service. When we play in your hometown we bring the installation and it's divided by subgroupings, so whether you are personally a victim of physical or sexual abuse, or whether you are interested in labor issues and globalization, or antiracism or peace issues and the war with Iraq, you will be able that night to belong to an organization or meet with others who are interested in forming one.
The response on the Ozzfest tour was unbelievable. These are metal kids who are often disparaged as being apolitical or right wing. Now, when we send Axis out on tours, it can hopefully be a very unifying, galvanizing force. We offer it to artists to take out, free of charge.
Many of you have balanced music and activism by somewhat separating the two. Is it just too hard to actually integrate them?
For me it's always been a struggle. Either I'm really into the organizing or I'm really into the music. As I've been going I've been able to figure out ways to even it out a little more. But the way the industry is set up, you have to record an album and then promote it; you can't just be like "we got these two cool songs, let's put them out." That's just not the way that the market is set up. It can become alienating. Then, if I do get involved with an organization or a campaign, I'm able to maybe bring some more exposure to it, but that exposure isn't necessarily helpful to building the organization. Because what I do is hip-hop and that's sexy, and my role is played up to be more than it is. But really, to organize you have to be able to build leadership in each other.
Eddie, when you were working with Ralph Nader, you basically did that as a private citizen, right? A volunteer?
Well, a private citizen with a guitar. I went down to [the first rally he attended, in Seattle 2000] to just kind of watch. But I've been following Ralph for such a long time. When I was a kid it seemed like there were civic heroes, growing up in a part of Chicago where two-thirds of the school was African-American and Martin Luther King was as big as Michael Jordan. Before I was a teenager, I knew Ralph Nader's name and knew him as kind of a civic hero. You know, to have someone who's such a great candidate and such a legitimate candidate as far as his record compared to a bumbling fool from Texas--I think it's essential that we get him in the debates.