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!

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