The Common Good
May-June 2003

Lament, Dissent, and Dancing

by Julie Polter | May-June 2003

The movement needs a good mix tape.

I've joined in many peace vigils, rallies, and marches the past several months, and pardon me if this seems shallow, but where are the tunes? A small rally last September in Washington, D.C., did feature singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked—wonderful, but with an inadequate sound system, she seemed relegated to a side-stage opening act. Punk mother Patti Smith has brought her "People Have the Power" to major D.C. rallies, but this has been a few minutes of musical respite amid hours of talk. Endless speeches without music is like bread without yeast—a hard loaf that tastes flat and hurts if you drop it on your foot. Just a few good songs can leaven ideology with energy and inspiration. They can take issues deeper, binding the message with body and emotion and giving it a foothold in the soul.

We need music to keep ourselves alive in these days of terror and superpower bluster. In The Prophetic Imagination, biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes how the dominant culture and power of any era "consists in briefcases and limousines and press conferences and quotas and new weaponry systems. And that is not a place where much dancing happens...." It is also a place "where no groaning is permitted." Critique, grief, and energized hope—a space that welcomes both groaning and dancing—are the gifts of the prophetic imagination.

Many are decrying the lack of new protest music (the music that does play at rallies is often an oldies review, with covers of Bob Dylan's "The Times They are A-Changin'" in heavy rotation). They cite the social commentary hit parade of the Vietnam era for comparison (Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," Edwin Starr's "War," and Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," to name but an eclectic few). But is that fair? A progressive, engaged folk movement, guitar-strumming and spirituals-belting, was composing, agitating, and even getting radio play long before the Top 40 protest songs emerged: Even deep roots took time to produce mass market fruit.

Mass market dissent might be a lost cause anyway, at least if you're seeking it on your local "clear channel": The prevailing mood of caution among many artists after 9/11, auto-programmed consolidation-corp radio fare, and niche marketing all play a role in making counter-voices sparse. That doesn't mean the music isn't being made. Listen closer to the expletive-spiked hip-hop blasting out the window of the car next to you at the traffic light—it might be the Coup, an activist duo out of Oakland. Not suitable for Sunday school, but some of the smartest radical dissent you'll find, with astonishing grooves. Several artists, old school and new, rap about more significant things than luxury cribs and explicit sex, including Public Enemy's Chuck D and dead prez.

Message music isn't one genre fits all. Even if an Odetta, Pete Seeger, or Joan Baez for the new millennium were to hit the Billboard charts, they likely wouldn't be universally embraced. A mass movement for any good cause means a wide range of tastes and a wide range of approaches in message. The flute-and-synth whale-song music that coos "peace" to some drives me to distraction, as does some acoustic folk. The funk-fabulous bass lines and speed-stuttered manifestos that get my feet and mind moving would be sheer aural torture for others.

Likewise, the differences within the peace movement about appropriate tone and tactics transfer to music of dissent. This may be especially true for people of faith, who are often put off by lyrics that are too raw or pointed, just as they might prefer not to be in the vicinity of crude or George W. Bush-mocking protest signs. While I do sometimes wonder whether his disciples accused Jesus of "going negative" when he flipped the moneychangers' tables, such concerns are practical. Long-term, constant harangues are not effective either intellectually or emotionally. Biblical prophets employed a mix of rude confrontation, heart-breaking wails, and soaring poetry; each mode had function and power; no single approach summed up "the word of the Lord." Loud, angry, stomp-on-the-devil's-back music and bitter ballads have their place, but "protest" music can and does include much more.

We need laments and elegies: Innocents (and innocence) have died and will again, and the struggle to hope is hard and haunted by loss. In "Solo le pido a Dios," Argentinean vocalist Mercedes Sosa sings, roughly translated, "All I ask of God is that I don't become indifferent to suffering."

We need rants and rally cries: Anger is often what shakes us out of fear or complacency and gets us to the street or voting booth. Le Tigre, Ani DiFranco, and the Coup might do. If your thing isn't newer music or curse words, dig out Public Enemy's "Prophets of Rage" or "Fight the Power," Dylan's "With God on Our Side," or most anything by The Clash.

We need wordplay and songs that make us move: Without humor and play, we'll tire before the job is done and drive others away with our self-righteousness. Stevie Wonder's 1974 "You Haven't Done Nothin'" seems especially prescient for the current administration ("We are amazed but not amused/ By all the things you say that you'll do") and you get the Jackson 5 singing backup on the "Doo, doo wop" chorus. Or sing along with Billy Bragg on "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards": "The Revolution is just a T-shirt away."

We need to sing, even if we can't agree on the song.

Whatever the mood or genre, however hip or earnest the lyrics (if there are lyrics at all—check out John Coltrane's "Alabama"), the best "protest" music speaks up for life, mercy, and justice. To truly embrace these has always been a defiant stance. So seek out the music, old and new, that elicits groans and dancing. Ask your friends, store clerks, or the tattooed woman next door; go through those old albums in the closet; look on the Web; read about Woody Guthrie or the Freedom Singers; see the film Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony. Hold a hymn sing, punk basement benefit, or polka garden party for peace. Listen to the blues or string quartets or hip-hop or a singer with a guitar, whatever makes you feel the love and take on the issues. Dance, shout, and remember those who are lost and those who might yet be saved.

Julie Polter is an associate editor of

Sojourners.

The Beat Goes On

Seeking music of lament, dissent, and inspiration? The following albums are just a small sampling of the varied ways people have sung out for freedom and justice during the past 50 years.

Various artists, Washington Square Memoirs: The Great Urban Folk Boom 1950-1970 (Rhino)
Named for regular Sunday folk music gatherings that took place in the historic Greenwich Village park, these three CDs document one of the most significant musical—and social—developments of the last century. This is not a collection of protest music per se, but it includes several songs from the genre and places them in context. Various artists, including Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, Hoyt Axton, and many more.

Marvin Gaye, What's Going On [Remaster] (Motown)
Originally released in 1971, this concept album packed with social commentary and innovative arrangements is generally considered to be one of the best R&B albums ever made, nearly timeless both musically and lyrically.

The Clash, The Essential Clash (Epic)
This recently released set presents 40 tracks of smart, noisy music with political edge and demonstrates why The Clash was a key player in the late-1970s punk scene.

Various artists, Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony [The Soundtrack] (ATO)
Drawn from the documentary film on the role of music in the South African anti-apartheid struggle, this includes works by individual performers such as Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, and politician-turned-activist-singer Vusi Mahlasela, as well as community choirs and rally recordings.

Various artists, Peace Not War (Shock Records)
This double-CD international compilation is a not-for-profit project for protest and inspiration (proceeds will go to the UK Stop the War Coalition and equivalent groups in other countries). It includes pop, rock, rap, and dance genres and features Midnight Oil, Public Enemy, Ani DiFranco, Billy Bragg, Massive Attack, Chumbawamba, and many others. Lyrics and streaming audio are available at www.peace-not-war.org. —JP

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