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

Alexander Billet
Image (partial) from OWS poster by Nicolas Floyd

Forty years from now, people will be writing books on the art and music, literature and culture that came out of the Occupy Wall Street / Occupy Everything movements.

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.

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