What happens when music fails to inspire, but instead only entertains? Is such a thing possible, and is it happening now?
Social justice, politics and music have always been intertwined, yet in this age of celebrity addiction, personalities seem to drown out principles, especially if the personality happens to be a hunk or a babe.
The US attention span grows shorter by the second. However, some can still remember back to 2008 when, led by young people – many first-time voters – the nation was in a furor about the war and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the shrinking middle class. There was a populist swell based on humanistic principle, bringing about a brief time when civil rights attorneys were on TV regularly, ranting about then-President Bush’s warrantless wiretapping programs and other civil liberties infringements, to say nothing of the financial collapse.
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America was outraged. We were sick and tired of being sick and tired. We wanted change and we used our voices to demand it.
People were in the streets often, speaking out with slogans, chants and songs, sure that change would soon come along; not that it would magically appear, but that it would be realized, because the public was willing to work for it.
Or were we really?
Then, along came this handsome guy with a funny name – Barack Obama, who was himself a civil liberties attorney. And low and behold, this Obama fellow appeared to be everything the disenchanted majority had dreamed of. Then a new, young senator running for president, Obama declared his loyalty to the people, and pledged his allegiance to progressive ideals, should we elect him to our highest office. America’s premiere political family, the Kennedy’s, embraced him as one of their own.
As a collective euphoria swept the nation, a group of high-ranking Republicans crossed party lines to endorse Obama’s run, creating a website called RepublicansForBarack.org. The whole affair was seemingly too good to be true, but there it was in front of our eyes. And being that Obama was bi-racial, there it was, literally, in black and white.
Picking up on Obama’s iconic campaign slogan, the masses sang “Yes We Can.” A YouTube video was made of this song, featuring celebrities of every sort.
Like every wave of generational change, the “Yes We Can” song and slogan was born out of anger, pain and frustration, but the music channeled that negative energy into positive change, reconciliation and coming together. When, as a nation fighting for civil rights for blacks forty years prior, singing “We Shall Overcome,” when Senator Obama became President Obama, as a people, we found ourselves singing in unison again, knowing that hope was on the horizon.
Trusting that we could indeed overcome the brutal Bush legacy, we sang “Yes We Can,” believing in Obama’s beautiful words of inspiration.
But had we overcome, really?
President Obama is a guy who has enough charm to turn Oscar the Grouch into a choir boy. He’s a man who also has matching wit and intelligence – pecs and pearly whites to put you in a trance. However, far from being progressive, more and more it seems the Left is complaining that Obama acts more like a Republican – what we’ve been trying to get away from, like George Bush and Dick Cheney.
And yet, we still like him.
Michael Moore, one of the most liberal movers and shakers in the nation, went so far as to gush and declare so. “I like Obama” he said earlier this year when interviewed by Wolf Blitzer. While in that same conversation, Moore said Obama’s health care plan was a joke, and also spoke about how disappointed he was in Obama and the Democrats – their failure to deliver on all those high-minded campaign promises that he and many others so believed in.
Weeks before that, Moore sat with Amy Goodman and Democracy Now!, outraged at the President’s leadership and the Democratic Party, demonstrating how very torn he was; in love with the personality – hating the principles.
However upset he was, Moore still had hope.
But as much as the President’s constituents and fans seem endlessly forgiving and adoring of him, are we to give him free pass after free pass when he promises Medicare for all, but instead delivers a mandate that all citizens must purchase private insurance? He promised the closure of Guantanamo Bay, the US gulag in Cuba, but a year and a half later the stench of torture still waifs from the Caribbean; are we to turn a blind eye as well?
When he accepts a Nobel Peace Prize, then days later order more guns and bombs to the lands of desperately poor people, where too many civilians have already died, what’s the appropriate response? And when congress bails out a handful of private banks with more cash than one can count, but fails to resolve this nation’s chronic unemployment problem and its horrific foreclosure travesty that continues to sink us all, is there to be no outrage, accompanied by musical protest?
Of course, to speak of outrage, the multi-million gallon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico certainly qualifies for that.
On the campaign trail, Obama railed at his opponent, John McCain, over McCain’s endorsement of off shore oil drilling.That was in 2008, but by this year – less than a month ago – he declared his own support for the process, firmly expressing a viewpoint that offshore drilling is sensible and safe. Yet right now, hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil continues to spews into the waters off the Gulf Coast each day, directly as a result of unsafe offshore oil drilling.
Of course, the government is not to blame for the actions of the private companies responsible – BP, Transocean and Halliburton. Or is it at least in part as a collaborator by providing ample opportunity for disaster through weak or non-existent regulation – rubber-stamping hazardous practices?
40 years ago, when folk goddess Patti Smith, who helped pioneer punk in America, sang “People Have the Power”, she wasn’t just trying to land a new record deal. Smith was speaking truth to power, knowing that she’d be brandished as an outsider, no matter how good-looking and charismatic the leader she was protesting was at that time.
Last year, when Jamaican-American Grace Jones, a gender bending disco-punk diva, sang “Corporate Cannibal,” she wasn’t sitting around waiting for a golf-date invite with the President and his Wall Street friends. She knew exactly what trouble she might get in when she released her title track referring to corrupt bankers and traders as “digital criminals.”
Most American’s have probably never heard of Jones’ song, but were we all fully in touch with the horrors of this moment, seizing it as a creative zenith – a chance to act and empower ourselves, we’d all be singing her song in the streets right now, referring to it often in emails and tweets. Because here’s what she says, singing out loud the hidden thoughts of crony elites, doing so with startling lucidity:
Pleased to meet you, pleased to have you on my plate
Your meat is sweet to me
You’re my life support, your life is my sport
I’m a man-eating machine
Corporate cannibal, digital criminal
Corporate cannibal, eat you like an animal
I’ll make you scrounge, in my executive lounge
You pay less tax, but i’ll gain more back
My rules, you fools
Sanatize, homogenize, vaporize… you
I’m the spark, make the world explode
I’m a man-eating machine, i’ll make the world explode
In addition to calling out the plutocrats, a message of unity and love is also important, lest we forget Michael Jackson’s “We Are The World” and the Beatles “All We Need Is Love.” Creative transformation also requires an engaged imagination, as in John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
America stands yet again at another crossroads, this time seemingly at odds with someone we adore. Nevertheless, if we are to survive hard times, we must decouple personality from principle, holding leadership accountable before the world explodes.
This may be a bitter pill to swallow, but as tempting as it is to heap the blame of our current ills on George W. Bush, we are well into Barack Obama’s presidency at this time, and everything that happens now happens on his watch.
The US must sober up from being drunk with celebrity, remembering that it’s we who have the power. We have been warned, we know this script, and already in the short history of people-powered activism, far too many, both living and dead, have sacrificed too much so that we might enjoy the freedoms now eroding before our eyes.
Artists of all kinds, but most of all our song makers, need to reinvigorate the front lines of dissent in lyrical revolt against current transgressions, rising again as a people, using music as our weapon of choice. Because as Henry Giroux so well said in a recent speech, “Democracy Has Taken A Major Hit,” And to remedy this malaise, whether addressing the environment or the economy, we should arm ourselves with guitars, not guns, making peace not wars – returning our communities to places of sanity, equality and abundance.”
This may seem a long road to travel, aiming for an ideal that’s seemingly always out of reach, while in truth what history has taught is that as long as there is resistance, there is hope, which begets lasting change in the right direction. But this such a gateway to empowerment, can only be flung open when artists use their intelligence to become effective social critics and advocates – a concept which is best stated by Tolu Olorunda in “Meditations on Hip Hop: Of Disposability, Death and Destiny (Part III)“, where he says in part:
Artists bold enough to claim their function as intellectuals must rise up without fear of consequence, without dread of loneliness, and stay committed through this long distance fight for restoration of hope…they must understand their moral responsibilities as firing up dreams of a better tomorrow and an unfinished today.
Noted peace activist and full-time protester Cindy Sheehan, whose son died fighting in Iraq, said last year at a rally, “Even though the facade has changed in Washington DC, the policies are still the same.” Going on, she said, “We have to realize, it is not the president who is power, it is not the party that is in power, it is the system that stays the same, no matter who is in charge.”
As a fighter for peace, Sheehan speaks the truth.
Tools of liberation need not be death-creators, or serve as any type of instrument of violence. Instead, we must reclaim individual and collective power by first fighting for mind-space, shrugging off scripted herd-though sent down from on high. And picking up guitars, microphones, keyboards, trumpets, drums and tambourines, alongside other activists, artists must shake and stir the soul of this nation, and remind us all that we the people have always had the power.
Sure, we might allow it to slip from our hands from time to time, but know this we can always claim it back, anytime we like.