What's So Funny About Peace, Love, and the Power of Music?

Image from the cover of Keep On Pushing: Black Power Music from Blues to Hip-hop (2011)

Denise Sullivan represents the insider intellectual stamina of rock 'n' roll journalism without the pomp and pretense. She is the past and future of the form, rolled into one uncanny style.

As editor for Left of the Dial magazine, I proudly published a few selections from music historian, journalist, and exquisite fan Denise Sullivan, whose work mixes the vibe of antsy-fingered collectors, insider fan scoops, and old-fashioned thought-burrowing criticism. She pushes readers to think broadly about how music hoists culture on its shoulders, how it becomes accurate antennae for our social consciousness, and how it supplies a common humanity that melts borders, even when it doesn’t try. Over a few email exchanges with her, I probed her previous books, asked about the uncertain future of new media, and wanted to know what music still makes her heart shudder.

Book: Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music from Blues to Hop Hop

Author: Denise Sullivan

Publisher: Chicago Review Press

Publication date: 2011-07

Image: thing that struck me in Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music from Blues to Hop Hop is the outright sincerity of the performers -- the honest belief in the possibility of change. Now that we are deep in the age of irony and cynicism, did you find their perspectives both refreshing and challenging to our own age?

I understand the irony and cynicism of our age, but I do not subscribe to it. I chose the artists I did because I dig where they’re coming from and the positive light they shine; also, they aren’t afraid to speak the truth. They aren’t afraid of anything. My investigation was partly in the name of finding out how these performers keep their courage and faith in change and in their fellows, even in the face of extreme disappointment, obstacles and as you say cynicism. I went in search of their secrets.

How do you keep up courage and faith in both the sense of political process and music as a venue for political discussion and insight?

I'm essentially an optimist. I try to stay open-minded and engaged in my own search for beauty, truth and meaning in life. As I seek, I often gather faith, from people doing good works. Some of those people are artists and musicians, some of them are activists and journalists, some are scholars, philosophers and theologians, and some of them are my friends, my neighbors and simply members of the human family.

I have faith in today’s students on the move and in the millennial generation -- they seem to see things pretty clearly. The Occupy movement brings light not only to income disparity but the whole complex of economic injustice; it's an extraordinary leap of faith, given the forces it’s up against. Musicians like Talib Kweli, Lupe Fiasco, Tom Morello, Michael Franti, Jeff Mangum participating in OWS, as well as the previous generation of freedom singers, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne and Joan Baez, among others, bring their insights and sensibilities to the discussion.

Music has historically been a part of every political and social movement, and I believe we’ll begin hearing more songs and musicians advocating for human rights now. Music will certainly be playing a role in keeping my faith this election year. Patti Smith's "People Have the Power" is one that comes to mind.

Some critics of pop culture deride political music as a kind of spectacle, or perhaps no more than a conceit or rhetorical stance. Do you believe that pop music can propel real participation and engagement?

The pop culture and the critics who bother to defend it are the spectacle. But yes, I do believe that pop music can propel real participation and engagement—if it’s substantive.

Exposure to the arts and humanities is an important component to education of all people -- it serves to help them think and feel. The music of the ‘60s and ‘70s changed people’s minds and hearts, while punk rock and hip hop, in their conscious forms crossed over into shaping ethical lifestyles. Certainly there are jazz lives and blues people—music for all concerns and everyday people--who are carried by songs, like prayers, throughout the day. But when music of conscience crosses over into pop, it can truly make a difference, no matter how fluffy it might sound.

Book: Rip it Up!: Rock 'n' Roll Rulebreakers

Author: Denise Sullivan

Publisher: Hal Leonard

Publication date: 2001-06


“Born This Way” is an example of a song like that, and so are "We Are the World" and "That's What Friends Are For". Underground anthems like "Kick Out the Jams", "God Save the Queen" and "Straight Outta Compton" also did what they were meant to do, inasmuch as they created a stir, maybe even moved people, and stand today as part of the pop lore and culture tied to movement.

When I think of tunes like "Strange Fruit", "War," or songs by Marvin Gaye, they appeal to diverse, multicultural crowds and remain, I suppose, ever-potent. I agree that both early punk, hardcore, hip-hop, and gangster rap produced a bevy too -- but have you discovered more recent songs that achieve a similar kind of status?

The status enjoyed by “Strange Fruit” as popularized by Billie Holiday, Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield's "War" for Edwin Starr, and Marvin Gaye’s political records took years to achieve and they remain potent precisely because the problems remain: racial violence and injustice persist, urban and environmental devastation are continuous, as is war.

Twenty some years ago, Public Enemy conceptualized an album around social and political issues facing black America: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is a perennial because the same problems Chuck D was talking then remain today—prison and housing conditions are in fact worse. So, until things improve for all the Earth’s people, there is reason to sing freedom songs, anthems that are known and handy, whether by Woody Guthrie, Lady Gaga or Public Enemy.

But in answer to your question, I think “Paper Planes” by M.I.A. is a terribly important song about forgotten people, though it’s frequently misunderstood because there's no meaningful dialogue in the contemporary culture about the songs, and there's no real media platform for them to be heard or sung together which fosters the confusion. Where are you going to hear or see Talib Kweli’s “Distractions” for example?

I try to create a dialogue about songs in my Origin of Song column, but what I'm trying to say is, you have to seek out this stuff (and in the case of Kweli, I recommend that you do) because the songs are out there, though sometimes it takes work to find them because of the fracturing and fragmentation of our listening styles. Where, for example, am I going to hear something like MEN?

I’m not an indie rock person, and these aren’t the days when you can turn on MTV and an all-star cast is singing about “Sun City”, raising awareness and increasing momentum toward dismantling apartheid. Not that I’m a fan of MTV -- it became a part of the problem -- but at one time it had a relationship to the solution and to music; for about a minute, it seemed like it was a force for good and played a role in connecting people.

Listen to NPR and you won’t hear it delivering message music to the people, though you will find it on college radio and Pacifica Radio. You have to be tuned in to the right sources to get the message, and mostly, I get my leads from people; I certainly don't pay any mind to what websites tell me I'll like; I know what I like, and usually, that ain't it!

Next Page

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.