“The note of hope is the only note that can help us or save us from falling to the bottom of the heap of evolution because, largely, about all a human being is, anyway, is just a hoping machine” – Woody Guthrie
I’d really like to excuse myself from the political Gravitron we’re all on right now. Sure, it’s fun to laugh along with friends, but I don’t trust the nuts and bolts to not give out any minute now. Unfortunately the tin pot ringmaster and his carneys aren’t leaving town anytime soon. SAD.
Music and art are never going to be the political antidote of the cynics, but it might just be what the rest of us need right now. You’d be forgiven for thinking the humble protest song or “movement music” was a relic of the past, say, like the Gravitron, current political discourse, or the mother of all relics, #45 himself.
On one hand, you’d be right. Pete Seeger left us in 2014 at the age of 94, Woody Guthrie’s been gone for 50 years, and Bob Dylan unceremoniously abandoned his “voice of a generation” label with an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival 40+ years ago.
The retrograde climate we’re waking up to is ushering in a new era of protest music, however. Artists like, Angel Olsen, Father John Misty, and Arcade Fire are stepping out from behind scrambled messages and alternative facts, to deliver powerful messages of political resistance and solidarity. This of course, is one particular narrative.
Protest music never really went away. It may not look or sound like the folk singers of the 1950s and 60s, or even the political punk rock of the 1970s and 80s, but it’s remained alive and well in the lyrically charged genre of rap music. From N.W.A. and Public Enemy to Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac, De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest, to Lauryn Hill, Beyoncé, and Solange; Community-driven narratives expressing the struggles of the Black community have always been central to rap and R&B.
The role of protest songs is not to “win,” but to unify, and give hope and reassurance when we most need it. When times are good only the ideologically faithful remain committed to writing protest music. It’s when times are not, that there’s a personal sense of urgency, and civic duty to speak out. If protest music is a barometer, or reflection of society and social unrest, it’s clear it’s been good times, or better times, for some of us much more than others.
For those of us deeply troubled by current political discourse and developments, finding community and buoyancy in music and art (both in creating and supporting it) will be crucial in the coming years. Not in co-opting messages of political resistance or unity, but rather, in joining them, in reflecting on the individual within the broader community and movement.
It’s in this spirit that St. John’s musicians and artists will join together for a night of political music and prose at the Rocket Room, Saturday, March 11. Host Elisabeth de Mariaffi will welcome an array of writers and musicians across genres to share uplifting and provocative songs, poems, and stories, followed by an FAF (Feminist as F**k) dance party with DJ Slaylist. Tickets are available in advance for a suggested donation of $15, with proceeds benefiting our local chapter of Planned Parenthood.