The Revolution Will Be Amplified: Is the Occupy Movement Liberating Music?

[22 November 2011]

By Alexander Billet

The October 22nd edition of The Economist carried the headline “Rage Against the Machine”. Pictured on the cover was a young man with a $20 bill taped over his mouth. Written across the bill was the hashtag “#Occupy.” The Economist is hardly a radical magazine; the article read, unsurprisingly, more as a primer for the economic elite on how to deal with the protests now sweeping the globe. It seems notable, however, and oddly fitting in some ways, that in an attempt at journalistic snark its editors ended up name-dropping a phrase most associated with that most well-known of anti-capitalist bands.

This is hardly the only place where music and politics have collided in the short weeks since a few hundred protesters set up camp on Wall Street. The month of October saw Occupy go from a media curiosity to an unavoidable cultural and political force, a worldwide movement gripping urban centers from Los Angeles to Johannesburg to Hong Kong. For music in particular, it’s become a rallying point.

Keeping count of the artists who have visited or performed at these occupations or sent messages of solidarity is simply impossible. This writer, attempting to keep count for a few hours, stopped after reaching around 400. Old and young, underground and mainstream, rap, rock, punk, electro, soul, the amount of artists inspired to lend their support is mind-boggling. In some cases, the simple addition of music has transformed these encampments of protest into full-on festivals of the oppressed.

Veteran activist and author Mike Davis, writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books, asserts that the “genius” of the Occupy Movement “is that it has temporarily liberated some of the most expensive real estate in the world,” and turned countless areas heretofore under control of the world’s rulers “into a magnetic public space and catalyst for protest.” It begs the question: if our public spaces are possibly on the verge of being “liberated,” placed back into our own hands, then might our music be, too?

Free Culture?

But who says that music is in chains in the first place? Not our most visible outlets. Not MTV or VH1, not terrestrial radio (or satellite for that matter), not the pages of Rolling Stone. And certainly not the “Big Four” record labels who account for over 70 percent of the world’s music sales. After all, these are the same institutions that blacklisted 160 “questionable” songs after 9/11, have deemed avant-garde music “unmarketable” and broadcast videos from M.I.A. and System of a Down only during the most off-peak hours. And, of course, nobody needs to be reminded what the RIAA have attempted to do to those ordinary citizens whose love for music has outstripped their purse-strings.

It seems then that there are common speaking points between those who claim our culture to be “free” and those who proclaim a publicly funded park can only be inhabited during certain hours (as Mayors Quan, Emanuel and Nutter all appear to believe). Free culture? Public domain? Only for those who can afford it.

This reaches back to the center-point of the Occupy Movement: that our right to a fulfilling life shouldn’t be reserved for the better off. Jobs, education, housing, health care; these are just the beginnings. Several occupations (including in my own sweet home Chicago) are discussing demands to keep libraries open, more community centers, parks and expanded funding for school arts programs. If “another world is possible” has become one of this movement’s slogans, then the young activists pushing it forward clearly mean the whole world.

It makes sense, then, that Occupy has garnered the support of those legendary artists who already radically shaped our culture. Pete Seeger, possibly the last remaining link to the communist-led folk movement of the ‘30s, proudly marched with Occupy Wall Street and performed a free concert in Washington Square Park on 23 October.

Likewise, it’s unsurprising that Peter Yarrow, instrumental in the folk revival of the ‘60s has come down to perform at OWS. His contemporary Joan Baez has lent public support. So have Carlos Santana and the MC5’s Wayne Kramer, and it’s not hard to imagine dearly departed legends like Gil Scott-Heron or John Lennon doing the same (alas, we’ll have to be content with Lennon’s son Sean).

These are only some of the luminaries who, during that turbulent decade, made music what it is today. To be fair, they had help. This was a context aptly described by British New Left veteran Tariq Ali as one where “the entire culture had become radicalized.” He would know better than many others; he cultivated a friendship with Lennon during the artist’s most radical years. Legend has it that it was Ali who inspired Mick Jagger to write the lyrics to “Street Fighting Man”.

This broad radicalization of the culture included a lot more than the day’s most famous artists penning themes of revolution into their music. The Civil Rights and anti-war movements, with their radical notions of equality and a fundamentally different world, cracked the stultifying edifice of McCarthyism and brought with them the force of new ideas about music and culture; what had previously been fringe was pushed center-stage.

The grip of Broadway and Hollywood was decisively broken and replaced by the insurgent sounds rock, soul and folk music. Even jazz, written off as stodgy for some time, reclaimed a place in the avant-garde with artists like Charlie Haden, Archie Shepp, Abbey Lincoln, Carla Bley. Kids sick of the conformist establishment switched their radio dials from corporate-conservative AM to local, more experimental FM stations.

Mat Callahan, another veteran of the ‘60s and accomplished musician in his own right, sums up that connection between musical innovation and revolutionary fervor:

“Not only did Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles have to be ‘taken seriously’, nobody cared much about what ‘serious’ art critics had to say. The irrelevance of bourgeois art and its claims to superiority in aesthetic and social terms had become an established fact.”

So it looks today. It took the mainstream (bourgeois) press two weeks to start reporting the Occupy Movement with any kind of regularity. By that time the rumors that Radiohead were about to play a free gig at Wall Street had come and gone. Other artists known outside the avenues of big-time fame for their experimental sounds had been attracted, however. Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel had already made an appearance to perform a couple of songs. So had another indie experimenter, Kyp Malone of TV On the Radio. Though he didn’t perform any songs, Malone did have a chance to speak with the Village Voice about his take on why so many demands have been raised by the Occupy Movement: “It’s not that the message is diffuse; it’s that there isn’t one of these aspects that doesn’t have to do with the central problem: an unsustainable economic order that we’re constantly told is the highest stage of our evolution.”

TV On the Radio is hardly considered a “political” band; their radicalism is normally confined to the abject juxtaposition accomplished in their sound. And yet there was Kyp Malone, articulating an analysis that could have come from that most veterate of anti-capitalists! To be sure, Malone also grew up in San Francisco and ran in an activist milieu during his youth; his own political beliefs however have, at least in most interviews despite the notable profile and consistent critical acclaim for his music, never come up.

In some sense, however, Malone’s own radicalism (or at least progressivism) fits his music. TV On the Radio have always skated that razor-thin line between a sizable profile and acclaim from even mainstream outlets on one hand while aggressively testing the limits of musical aesthetics on the other. Even something as simple as deciding which bin their CDs are placed in the record stores has proven something of a challenge—not quite soul, not quite electronic, not quite post-punk, something altogether different.

Looking at them within the broadest context, it’s not hard to find a parallel between what TVOTR have aspired to and other ‘60s era artists like Henry Cow and Captain Beefheart, artists whose conscious attempts to integrate their radicalism into the actual sound of their music led to deliberately sticky relations with the record labels. Are Malone and the rest of TV On the Radio’s members closet militants whose own political confidence is only beginning to match that in the studio? Are there perhaps more daring, iconoclastic artists like them waiting in the wings of Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Chicago or Occupy L.A.?

The answer, at least to the latter of the two, is an emphatic yes. Committees dedicated to building connections between artists and the Occupy Movement have been popping up in city after city. Facebook groups named “Occupy Art NYC” and “Occupy Daytona Beach Musicians Alliance” have sprung up and gained significant numbers of followers. Mini festivals like “OccuStock” in Providence have been slapped together from nothing but passion and donated labor. Many of the people spearheading these groups are young art students or community artists, individuals who have imbibed the subversive aesthetics of Dada and constructivism, No Wave and Jean-Michel Basquiat, psychedelia and graffiti art; they’ve dreamed of meaningful ways to push the boundaries of art itself and are now finally presented with an opportunity to do so in a collective atmosphere.

One such young person is Brian, a Chicago socialist and experimental noise artist who, since Occupy took off, has had a lot of his, shall we say, more unorthodox ideas on music confirmed. “I am impressed with the creativity of occupiers but not any more than I see in the creativity of any human being engaged in attempting to recreate its social forms.  Of course cool, inventive slogans, posters, art always springs from the combination of people engaged in work together that is productive and not exploitative.”

Brian was one of the 175 some odd occupiers arrested by Chicago police in the early morning hours of 23 October for attempting to “illegally” camp in Grant Park. His own experience—that of finding something to create with, even in the stultifying atmosphere of Chicago’s unsanitary, overcrowded jails—isn’t just telling, not even just merely entertaining, but downright admirable:

“So when I was moved to a solitary cell at about four something in the morning… the thing that first made me want to start a percussion number was the fact that upon entering the cell I thought, ‘fuck, there is nothing at all in this cell; it is a cement box.’  Knowing that I was going to be there a long time I began tapping the rhythm of ‘Show me what democracy looks like’ on the walls so that the people around me could hear it…

“Then I found that the steel sink had amazing resonances and tones, deep basses and high pinging notes resembling a doumbek [an Arab goblet drum]. So I started hammering away just fucking crazy rhythms and decided it was appropriate not just for passing the time and entertaining my other comrades who were sitting in their own cells, but because drums at Occupy Chicago have played such a central role, perpetually knocking out the heartbeat of the struggle. It was fitting now that we were ‘occupying’ a jail that our struggle there be marked by a similar cadence.”

This is a commonly forgotten trope when we are taught about the music of the ‘60s and protest music in general: that, rather than artists leading the people, it is a widespread, deeply rooted social movement that buoys erstwhile “fringe” artists out of isolation and into a position of greater confidence and collaboration. When that kind of confidence and momentum gains enough steam, sometimes even the calcified structures of the music industry have to take notice.

I Believe in the People

Maybe then we shouldn’t be surprised that even the most embedded, mainstream music figures are visiting the Occupy protests. Cynics might sneer at the notion of Russell Simmons, Kanye West or Katy Perry show up to rub elbows with the tent-dwellers in Zuccotti Park, or turn their nose up to how “cool” it’s become to protest.

But that, actually, is the point. These are arguably the artists and personalities most beholden to the powers that be of the music industry (an industry that, once again, is controlled by the one percent). Perry and Simmons may have nothing to lose by strolling for a few photo ops among the masses, but there’s an air of it that also smacks of biting the hand that feeds you. If these artists are gaining the confidence to be out there in the first place, it means that the tectonic plates of our cultural are opening wide enough for real musical rebels to show their true colors.

It’s times like these where the ever-shifting lines between “mainstream” and “underground” become even more blurred. For the past several years that line has probably been the boldest in the world of hip-hop, where enough new labels are spun off every few years to give the true head an ulcer. The division between “conscious”, “bling”, “gangsta”, “backpacker” and all the rest have always said more about the needs of business than the needs of music anyway, but the unity displayed by rappers around the Occupy movement may signal that these distinctions are finally headed for the dustbin.

Two particular heavy-hitters in the underground (“conscious” is too tame a label; “militant” might be better), have already been moved to release mix-tapes primarily inspired by Occupy. #OccupyTheAirwaves, released in mid-October by Bronx duo Rebel Diaz, is what one familiar with their work would expect: thick, eclectic beats overlaid with deftly overlaid with lyrics channeled through their own Chilean revolutionary upbringing into supporting the burgeoning movement. Meanwhile, Immortal Technique, who has been a regular fixture at Occupy Wall Street since its inception, has released The Martyr, a mix-tape dripping with his signature sneering rage directed against “The Rich Man’s World (1%).”

Both mix-tapes have received almost overnight popularity—not just from the wide circuit of hip-hop sites, but from outlets who before turned a blind eye to these artists’ impressive work. On October 17th, David Mongomery of The Washington Post (whose music coverage can hardly be called “cutting edge”) featured Rebel Diaz in his piece on songs inspired by Occupy and quoted lyrics from their track “We the 99%.” The very next day, as if to highlight just how out of touch and confused the mainstream media have become, The New York Times published an article where author James C. McKinley chortled on about how Occupy Wall Street “[has] yet to find an anthem.”

For his own part, the buzz drummed up by The Martyr on the hip-hop and indie music blogs landed Immortal Technique an all-too-rare interview with MTV News where he shared a take on today’s hip-hop—and indeed the world in general—that may have made a few of the network’s execs squirm:

“As a revolutionary, there are certain aspects of the ego that have to die. We have to lose this sense of ‘self, self, self’ all the time, which is very hard because hip-hop in itself as a genre is really centered around one’s self. Like ‘I’m the best person in the world, I’m the best rapper, I’ve got more money than you.’ You know? It’s interesting to see the public’s reaction to that; they’re singing along with the lyrics like they’re the richest person, like they have money too, and then they go home to, like, a hovel!”

If Occupy has provided a platform that’s lifted hip-hop’s underground soldiers into the limelight, then so has it given mainstream artists dissatisfied with their own chains a forum with which to speak out. The best glimpse of this came not from Perry, Simmons or Kanye, but still, more than a month later, from the example of Lupe Fiasco.

A year ago, Lupe didn’t have much of a voice at all. Sure, he had Grammys under his belt and The Cool had gone gold. But he had also been battling with Atlantic Records to even get a release date for his next album. Label executives had always been clumsy at handling Lu; a straight-edge Muslim whose rhymes have always reflected his parents’ anti-establishment Black Panther politics doesn’t exactly fit with their conception of what sells, and they had repeatedly rejected the material he put in front of them. It was only after fans threatened to protest outside Atlantic’s headquarters that a March release was announced. Even then, Lupe was open about how unhappy he was with some of the material on what became Lasers.

What was seen on 11 October at the BET Hip-Hop Awards, however, was a fundamentally different Lupe Fiasco. Like The Economist, like MTV and the New York Times, BET is obviously no bastion of radicalism. In fact, there are those who argue that if any force in popular culture as come close to completely sterilizing hip-hop’s rebel spirit, it’s been Robert L. Johnson’s multimillion dollar TV empire.

And yet, somehow, in the midst of this enemy territory, Lupe managed to perform “Words I Never Said” (a song that already stirred some controversy for its unblinking criticism of Obama’s silence during the ‘09 bombardment of Gaza). Not only was he wearing a t-shirt with “#Occupy” emblazoned across the front, but with a Palestinian flag-scarf hanging from his mic stand. In the background hung a jumbo-tron bluntly flashing words like “War on terror… Bull****,” “Ghetto” and “Take Your Home Away.” And just for good measure, instead of Skylar Grey, the song’s hook was sung by Erykah Badu wearing that most villified and misunderstood symbols of post-9/11 America: a burqa.

No doubt that pulling off a performance like this takes some guts. It’s entirely possible that Lupe was planning on performing “Words I Never Said” anyway, but closer look at the song’s lyrics, however, reveal timeliness:

“I really think the war on terror is a bunch of bullshit
Just a poor excuse for you to use up all your bullets
How much money does it take to really make a full clip
9/11 building 7 did they really pull it
Uhh, And a bunch of other cover ups
Your child’s future was the first to go with budget cuts
If you think that hurts then, wait here comes the uppercut
The school was garbage in the first place, that’s on the up and up
Keep you at the bottom but tease you with the upper-crust
You get it then they move it so you never keeping up enough”

More than just a few quibbles here and there, this song attempts a worldview that blames the whole system from top to bottom (even seemingly drifting toward conspiracy theory with the “building 7” line, which Lupe has clarified he included to provide a context of mistrust, not because he actually buys what the 9/11 Truthers have to say).

Here, in the midst of so much corporate banality and spectacle, were the artistic and political margins being thrust back into the center. What a mere year ago might have been a place where artists like Lupe Fiasco sought to tone it down became a place to say “screw it” and let his flag fly… literally. After donating fifty tents to Occupy Wall Street, visiting several other occupations and defending them repeatedly in the media, there’s no doubt that the movement has his back, and the inspiration swings both ways.

Speaking with AllHipHop.com’s Chuck “Jigsaw” Creekmur, Lupe said: “[w]e always have these kinds of eras or these philosophies or these events that we kind of hold dear to and always go back to as we start to try and plan our future, what we use as kind of a precedent to make our decisions upon. I think the Occupy movement is going to be that… This is a new flag, representing the new kind of era or a new generation. The youth of the generation to come is going to use this as a precedent to deal with the way they live their lives.”

Self-aware as he is, Lupe certainly knows that this current generation stands on the broad shoulders of yesterday’s cultural revolutionaries. Forty years ago, while serving a sentence for possession in Jackson Prison, John Sinclair, manager of the MC5, UP!, Rationals and other radical rock bands of the ‘60s, wrote about the groundbreaking potential of soul and rock music: “I mean the music says it all, it’s a precise metaphor for the situation and just to hear Richard Penniman scream ‘Womp-bob-a-loo-momp-a-wompan-bam-boom!’ into the face of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles and the New York Yankees is enough to get the whole rest of the picture.”

Even in Sinclair’s far-out, hippie-fied language, it’s not hard to get exactly what he means. Art, after all, can’t make a revolution by itself, but it’s also impossible to have a revolution without art. Only time will tell where exactly the Occupy movement is headed, but even at this early hour it’s already become an indisputable part of our culture. No matter what one thinks about Occupy Wall Street or its nationwide counterparts, there can be little doubt that its very existence represents a “before” and “after” kind of moment.

There’s a reason we remember these moments in such a holistic way, why it’s impossible to think of Civil Rights without Odetta or Vietnam without Santana. It’s because during these great upheavals, when people cross that line from being spectators to actors, culture in general takes on a more vital, immediate and dynamic existence. It’s because in moments like these, everything means so much more than it once did, and the people who might have once shrugged their shoulders now believe they have an ability to re-shape the world in their own interests. In the broadest sense, that’s what Occupy is.

Forty years from now, people will be writing books on the art and music, literature and culture that came out of this moment in time. They’ll be able to do so because a movement of ordinary people made it possible.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist based in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He’s a founding member of Punks Against Apartheid and is on the Arts & Recreation committee for Occupy Chicago. He can be reached at rebelfrequencies@gmail.com.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/151288-the-revolution-will-be-amplified-is-the-occupy-movement-liberating-m/