Music for action: Why am I an activist?

February 16, 2015

Profile photo of James North

Administrator

Why am I an Activist?

As we launch our new community-focused website we’ve been asking the question above, and discussing what makes us want to tell #adifferentstory

When I think about this, the simple answer for me is music.

Sure I can trace my activism back to student politics, sit-ins and protests about the introduction of tuition fees then after university to protests against the wars in Afghanistan and then Iraq right up to where I am now, but the thing that introduced me to radical ideas and fired my passion to try and change things was the music I listened to.

Not just the general anti-authority stance associated with rock music in general but specifically the underground punk music scene with it’s rejection of mainstream culture and the belief that major label money was a corrupting force.

Listening to all this music as teenager I wanted to be in a band, and then in college I was in a band, and the very first song we performed was an embarrassingly-bad song called “We are the Children of the Thatcher Years”. It started with the line “We are the children of the Thatcher years, force fed on freemarket values”, there was supposed to be an echo on the word “values”, but we didn’t know how to do that so I just had to repeat the word pretending it was an echo. The song went on to a rap about George Soros causing the Asian financial crisis by predatory currency speculation. We didn’t lose the sentiment, but needless to say, we never performed the song again. I really can’t emphasise enough how terrible it was. By the time the tuition fees protests were in full swing a few hundred of us occupied the Divinity School at the Bodleian Library for a couple of days and a few of us set up a stage and performed our brand of drum-machine-backed post rock through the night.

I learned more that informed my activism through music than through reading Chomsky and Naomi Klein as a student, in fact it was the music that got me interested in reading them in the first place, and I certainly learned it in a more visceral way than any book could teach.

Action Music

What follows is not necessarily a list of my favourite musicians – although they are up there. Nor are these necessarily my favourite songs by these artists, or even my favourite political / protest songs, but they are among the songs that inspired me to become an activist in my teens and early 20s.

Radiohead – Electioneering:

It’s not like Radiohead were ever shy about their political inclinations – the title of their 2003 album “Hail to the Thief” was a protest slogan about George W Bush stealing the presidential election in 2000.

However this song, “Electioneering”, from 1997’s “OK Computer” deals with the more global problem of structural adjustment programmes and the role of the IMF in keeping people poor.

Riot shields, voodoo economics
It’s just business, cattle prods and the I.M.F
I trust I can rely on your vote. tweet

 

Neil Young – Ohio:

There are so many political songs by Neil Young to choose from, whether he’s singing “Look at Mother Nature on the run in 1970s” on After The Gold Rush or railing against colonialism on “Cortez the Killer”.

However, Ohio – about the death of four Vietnam war protesters at the hands of the National Guard at Kent State University – is probably my favourite protest record of all time.

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio. tweet

R.E.M. – Ignoreland:

R.E.M. spent much of the 80s as darlings of the underground scene with a whole host of songs about Reaganism and it’s failings – U.S. policy in Latin America (“The Flowers of Guatemala”) or destruction of the environment (“Cuyahoga”)

By 1992 they were signed to a major label but their politics had not softened. Ignoreland is an angry critique of Reaganism and the rise of neoliberalism.

These bastards stole their power from
the victims of
the Us v. Them years,
Wrecking all things
virtuous and true
The undermining social democratic downhill slide into abysmal
Lost lamb off the precipice into
the trickle down runoff pool tweet

Jimi Hendrix – Star Spangled Banner:

If you liked rock music you kind of had to like Jimi Hendrix. I remember a friend’s older brother explaining to me just why Hendrix’s irreverent rendition of the U.S. national anthem at Woodstock was so subversive as it decends into noise – the noise of of U.S. bombers in Vietnam.

Joni Mitchell – Woodstock:

Speaking of Hendrix at Woodstock brings me on to the anti-war anthem of that festival. The CSNY version may be better known, but I prefer Joni Mitchell’s original.

By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration
And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation tweet

Sleater Kinney – Combat Rock:

There are so many songs to choose from Sleater Kinney and the whole Riot Grrl genre that could fit here. Combat Rock deals with the run up to the Iraq war in the U.S. It’s hard to pick just one lyric from this song though.

Where is the questioning where is the protest song?
Since when is skepticism un-American?
Dissent’s not treason but they talk like it’s the same
Those who disagree are afraid to show their face tweet

Fugazi – Smallpox Champion:

Fugazi epitomise the underground disdain for all things corporate, refusing to play any events with corporate branding and distributing their work themselves at the lowest possible cost. On “Smallpox Champion” they take on the genocide of indigenous peoples as Europeans colonised what is now the U.S.

Bury your heart U S of A history rears up to spit in your face
You saw what you wanted
You took what you saw
We know how you got it
Your method equals wipe out tweet

Dead Kennedys – Stars and Stripes of Corruption:

This probably won’t be to everyone’s taste, but the Dead Kennedys were always extremely political. Front man Jello Biafra even ran for Mayor of San Francisco in ’79 on a surreal anarchist ticket with the following policies:

  • Requiring businessmen to wear clown suits within city limits
  • Holding elections in which police would be voted into office by the neighborhoods they patrolled
  • Legalizing squatting in vacant, tax-delinquent buildings
  • Paying the unemployed to panhandle in wealthy neighborhoods
  • Banning cars citywide, and
  • Erecting a statue of Dan White (who assassinated former Mayor George Moscone and Sup. Harvey Milk the previous year) and having the parks department sell eggs, stones, and tomatoes with which to pelt it.

“Stars and Stripes of Corruption” is probably their most sustained attack on U.S. government. I’m going to have to pick two lyrics here as there are just too many to choose from. The whole song reads like an angry manifesto for remaking U.S. society from top to bottom.

Of the stars and stripes of corruption
Makes me feel so ashamed
To be an American
When we’re too stuck up to learn from our mistakes
Trying to start another Viet Nam
Whilke fiddling while Rome burns at home
The Boss says, “You’re laid off. Blame the Japanese”
“America’s back,” alright
At the game it plays the worst
Strip mining the world like a slave plantation tweet

No wonder others hate us
And the Hitlers we handpick
To bleed their people dry
For our evil empire tweet

But what can just one of us do?
Against all that money and power
Trying to crush us into roaches? tweet

We don’t destroy society in a day
Until we change ourselves first
From the inside out tweet

We can start by not lying so much
And treating other people like dirt
It’s easy not to base our lives
On how much we can scam tweet

Rage Against The Machine – Know Your Enemy:

Rage Against The Machine actually became more political as they went on, but even here on their first album they were uncompromising.

Come on!
Yes I know my enemies
They’re the teachers who taught me to fight me
Compromise, conformity, assimilation, submission
Ignorance, hypocrisy, brutality, the elite
All of which are American dreams tweet

Asian Dub Foundation – Rebel Warrior:

Another group who became even more radical as time went on. “Rebel Warrior” takes on neo-colonial aggression.

Ami bidrohi!
I the rebel warrior
I have risen alone with my head held high
I will only rest
When the cries of the oppressed
No longer reach the sky
When the sound of the sword of the oppressor
No longer rings in battle
Hear my war cry! tweet

What are the songs that inspire the activist in you? Let us know in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “Music for action: Why am I an activist?”

  1. John says:

    What? No “Fortunate Son”?!?!

    1. James North says:

      Good choice. There were so many I could include though…

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Trump: Join us in connecting the dots

The election of Donald Trump has left millions, maybe even billions of us in shock. Although we may be looking with bewilderment at the US today, we should remember that he is not an isolated phenomenon. He is a symptom of a sickness that is raging all around the world. People are hurting, disillusioned with mainstream politics and increasingly angry at a neoliberal economic system that is destroying lives and the planet with increasing ferocity. And in their desperation they are willing to consider extreme measures to make themselves heard.

Demagogues thrive amid fear and insecurity, which is why they paint the world in such dark terms. It’s a strategy that has put right-wing populist leaders in power in an Axis of Egos: from Brazil to Turkey, the Philippines to Russia, authoritarian strongmen like Trump are on the rise. Meanwhile, many centrist liberals, like the Democratic Party in the US, have been so intent on rejecting left-wing populist solutions, and so sure of their ability to beat anyone running on a white supremacy platform with its misogyny and homophobia, that they opened the door for Mr. Trump to walk straight through. Their preference is always to maintain the status quo that has served them so well.

As dangerous as the election of Trump is for the world, we can also see in this moment the truth that we simply cannot rely on the electoral political system to save us, because it is designed to prevent the fundamental change we need. Its own survival is at stake and it will marshal all its champions and resources to defend itself and stop the emergence of a new system. But when we work, or continue working for change from the ground up; when we build or keep on building new ways of living and being with each other where we live; when we construct or keep constructing the future we know is possible with our own hands, rather than hoping distant leaders will build it for us, we find our true power. Finally, when we combine that with the unbending hope that has powered change through the ages, we know our power has meaning.

A 400-year-old economic system is dying and another is struggling to be born. Change on this scale is not going to be smooth or easy. We should not be surprised, then, that moments like this — where the establishment is dealt a body blow — become more and more common. We can despair when that blow comes in the form of right-wing extremists, or we can step-up. We are the ones we are looking for, who can and must grasp the opportunities in these crises that are undoubtedly there.

So it’s time to come together, taking time to remember the earth. Remember all the successful struggles for justice that came before us, and imagine all those to come. Remember that social movements are growing all over the world and realising the common struggle. Remember life. Then, organise. Find each other and help midwife the inevitable transition that brings forth from the ashes of neoliberal capitalism a system that works for the good of all life on Mother Earth. This is not just activism; this is our responsibility as human beings alive as this all unfolds.

This is why we are here.