April 13, 2017 | by Denise Sullivan "Spirit of 2017" illustration by Mark Armstrong
The world's a mess, and our music, once the great unifier among the wild, the beautiful, and the damned, would appear to be not even close to a solution toward helping bring people together as it did in other epochs of political and moral catastrophe. Perhaps our beacons are in hibernation, TCB, preparing to slap us silly with a metallic KO. Or maybe they've caught a bad case of the nerves.
Take the confusing weeks prior to inauguration and post-election: This was around the time Little Steven Van Zandt went off on the cast of Hamilton for using the hallowed theater as a place to resist, then suggesting an apology be issued to theatergoer, Mike Pence. Now, Miami Steve, as he's sometimes known, is a tough guy and otherwise reasonable champion of art's aim to make change. In that moment, it's possible he forgot lessons learned from theater's past and artists like Antonin Artaud, Bertolt Brecht, Judith Malina and Julian Beck, August Wilson, Ntozake Shange, Tony Kushner, Eve Ensler, and others whose work in and outside its walls remind us that the stage is exactly the right place for these dialogues. Wisely, Little Steven has since taken a break from talking politics out loud, at least for now.
Then there was Kanye, who in great Kanye fashion enjoyed a photo op at Trump Tower, then weeks later told an LA audience he didn't vote, but if he had, he would've cast his for this man. A couple of months later, following the executive order toward a Muslim ban, West deleted all tweets in reference to his bromance with the President. Adding to the dissonance, both West and Van Zandt in the wayback machine had each done some major anti-racist advocacy, in rhetoric and action: Van Zandt organized Artists Against Apartheid in South Africa for the Sun City project, and West called out then-President George W. Bush on his lack of response to the Blackest wards of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
And what about Bruce Springsteen, who made the overseas in-concert declaration, "America is a nation of immigrants" on the weekend of the airport protests? Indigenous people and descendants of slaves understandably had some problems with that remark, and so it kinda became a thing on the internet. Of course, the Boss — a longtime man of the people who's stood up for labor and immigrants and against police violence and LGBTQ discrimination in songs and deed — knows the truth of the matter: He'd be the first to tell you about Woody Guthrie's "Old Man Trump," the original protest song about that family's relationship to real estate and racism. So when Lady Gaga's performance of Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" during her Super Bowl appearance got quarterbacked in real time online as a non-political event, when in reality it had been the immigrant ban protest anthem at demonstrations across the nation, I don't know about yours but my head was exploding. By the time the tweetstorm of body-shaming began (too fat? too thin? not sure? me either), I understood the Gaga brouhaha to be just more trolls alternatively factualizing. Confused yet? One hopes so, because that's the point: All systems are down, lines are jammed, and mama, we’re all crazee now.
What seemed meaningful and fresh at this year’s Grammys (Busta Rhymes calling Trump Agent Orange, Q-Tip shouting "Resist, resist, resist" while the rest of the stage busted moves straight out of Public Enemy's late '80s playbook) is now a distant memory. Since that performance, much has occurred (Russia, Gorsuch, climate change denying, Ryan and Affordable Care, missile attack on Syria), but hopefully, we have learned this much: Staying woke ain't just for seasonal spectaculars and emergency relief situations, it's a 24/7 job because the Man, as the kids used to say, is working in the heat of the middle of the night and so are we: We are the robots when I thought we were supposed to be rock 'n' roll.
The folks who specialize in studying, analyzing, and organizing, despite the spectacle, are not at all surprised by the state of things: They knew that evil clowns were in the pipeline and have been warning us of encroaching fascism for years now. They also know that the rise of one party generally has to do with a split in the opposition's ranks, that the world did not just up and turn inside out, that the nut jobs across the aisle have plans for the rest of us, and rock ‘n’ roll’s got very little to do with any of it. Nevertheless, I'm left wondering how this music, our music — founded on unruliness and accidentally encouraged desegregation, miscegenation, celebration, and liberation — has become an ineffective and mundane resistance to the system and the man.
Since November, there has hardly been a cohesive statement, an action, or a song of some consequence from our people that could possibly deliver those of us on the freedom side from this new brand of twisted. That alone could lead to the unfortunate conclusion that rock 'n' roll — once a real source of aggravation to the system and the key to survival for self-proclaimed outsiders — has finally come undone, lost its magical properties, and maybe even lost its mind. At the very least, our kind are showing signs of feeling deeply challenged, smote by life, or a tad irrelevant. And while it might not be on rock's back to fix this, it definitely has a stake in the freedom of expression game, not to mention the racist, sexist, police state of things. Chuck Berry leaving the building in March was not a good omen, though let him be the inspiration for us to carry on in his name.
"Everybody from Sex Pistols to Clash to Dead Kennedys to Bad Brains were all fully formed in music and vision before Reagan or Thatcher ever seized power,” Jello Biafra told Rolling Stone in January. “The common denominator of most of us is we were anti-corporation and anti-corporate culture, especially the way it was polluting and dumbing down our music."
Oh, I realize there are people who don't like their politics mixed with their music, but I'm not one of them. I'm also aware there are plenty of artists with a meaningful song here or there or who are practicing art for art's sake: That's terrific. There will also be others who will succumb to addictions and poverty and suffer at the hands of law enforcement, because their creative spirits and loving hearts will not be reconciled with a world gone so damn wrong. Still others will die in the name of your right to rock. Folksinger Phil Ochs was so troubled by our constant state of war that it interfered with his mental stability. Same could be said of Nina Simone and her frailties, exacerbated by systemic racism. Father of freedom singer Paul Robeson was poisoned by counterintelligence operatives, and I'll say it plain: John Lennon was murdered for waging peace.
Back in 1977, 100,000 people marched the streets of London to protest the National Front, a hate group that exploited the working class by preying on its fear of immigrants, while working at rescinding rights for women and the LGBT population. Following the march, the Clash headlined a Rock Against Racism (RAR) concert on a bill with reggae band, Steel Pulse, the women-led X-Ray Spex, and the glad to be gay Tom Robinson. RAR also aimed to push back against old guard rockers (like Eric Clapton and David Bowie), who had gotten so unhinged on drugs while working under the pressure of waves of cultural nationalism that they may as well as aligned themselves with fascism.
Enter the young and idealistic Clash, who had already recorded material like "Revolution Rock," "Police and Thieves," "White Riot," "White Man in Hammersmith Palais," and other original and cover songs that let you know exactly where they stood. If you were a teenager and saw a late night television performance by them, you might be forever changed by it; at the very least you'd know which side you were on. Of course, the era of Thatcherism and the rock band behaviors of the Clash were a bit more complicated than that, and though the National Front never claimed representation in government, nor held the highest office in the land (hello present day USA), England’s hate party eventually collapsed under the weight of its own infighting, and rock ‘n’ roll played its role in defaming it.
Rock music has walked hand in hand with cultural and political upheaval since its inception at the dawn of the Civil Rights era; it was there at the fall of the Berlin Wall and during the Velvet Revolution; it was in the air during the Arab Spring and has been targeted in Putin's Russia. You could argue its peaks and valleys in America occurred in the post-folk rock and Afro-centric soul eras of the late '60s and early '70s and that the birth of punk and hip-hop were the apotheosis of its meaningful years. Music for change may've gone stealth or retrograde, but in a country with a history tied up in genocide and slavery, songs of resistance are always in style... that is, until all of us are free.
That’s why, when situations demand it, the people and the people's music are expected to act up. Lucky for us, there are experienced voices to stand with us and lead, those who know well the wages of forming a more perfect union and who have remained deep in the trenches while the rest of us have taken our beauty rest. I'm talking about exemplars for rock justice like Wayne Kramer, Joan Baez, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Yoko Ono, Jackson Browne, Chuck D, and Biafra, among others. David Crosby, Graham Nash, Ben Harper, Michael Franti, Ani DiFranco, and Talib Kweli, heavy lifters all: To them I say thank you, as well as to new voices like the Kominas, Fea, and Chicano Batman* who are presently adding substance to their indie rock songs, representing for the Brown communities currently under siege. And more than an honorable mention to Snoop Dogg, an unexpected player in the protest game but standing fearless and strong, calling out the clowns. None of these artists should be expected to stand alone.
*(Guthrie sung to the tune of a corporate sponsor is another column for another day, OK?)
Who are the musicians working directly with the leaders of the social, economic, and racial justice movements of the present? Will a new version of what MLK Jr. did with Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez — and their artistic and intellectual peers James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, and Maya Angelou — emerge from this current crisis? Could we accept the guidance of Bernie Sanders, Killer Mike, and Cornel West, each of whom has opened the door to that kind of coalition building? And if not, what do we as a community, who fly the flag for rock, roll, and all the freedoms and freakdoms it fought for and won for over 50 years, do to get into it and get involved? Moreover, what can we do to disentangle ourselves from enemies of the people like Ted Nugent and Mike Love?
Rock 'n' roll, from Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen to M.I.A., offers us a ticket to the promised land. We may not get there with it, but it still seems important to find a reason to believe we will.