Music is the Message

The author reflects on his personal introduction to the intersection of music and nonviolence, starting with the hardcore punk subculture of the 1980s.

If as an average American we begin to free associate, putting together the words “nonviolence” and “music,” we might think of someone like Pete Seeger — someone who had the power to get audiences of all ages singing to songs of uplift and inclusion like “We Shall Overcome,” but who could also pen a biting antiwar song censored by CBS in 1967 (“Waist Deep In The Big Muddy”). We might think of Marvin Gaye, whose mainstream appeal allowed him to ask, “What’s Going On?” and have almost everyone say collectively, “Right on!” We might think of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, of Mahalia Jackson and Odetta — anyone, really, who became associated with the US Civil Rights movement. But according to these traditional definitions, we tend to think a protest singer has to either carry an acoustic guitar and a harmonica holder or themselves represent a group marginalized by society.

My personal introduction to the intersection of music and nonviolence, however, goes back to the hardcore punk subculture of the 1980s. Though by no means the only songs of that genre dealing with social and political issues, a few that reached my tape player were compositions like “Bottled Violence” by Minor Threat and “Holiday In Cambodia” by Dead Kennedys. A bit later I was exposed to tunes written in reaction to the first Gulf War, such as “Face The Flag” by 411 and “Facet Squared” by Fugazi, both touching upon the absurdities and dangers of patriotism and blind adherence to ideology. Though the lyrical content was perhaps familiar to fans of earlier protest songs and opponents of earlier wars, traditional folk music this was not.

So I’ve always been quick to admit that loud, guitar-based music typically accompanied by slam-dancing and stage-diving is not the first thing people think of when they contemplate the ways in which nonviolence and music can be combined. Yet therein lies the beauty of the art form. Virtually any style of music can be used to convey social and political messages, just the way virtually any visual medium can be used — theater, film, poetry, graffiti, even dance. One need look no further than Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem” or the Philip Glass opera “Satyagraha” to see how traditional European music can be molded in this direction. Or if you prefer jazz, Max Roach’s “Freedom Now Suite” and Les McCann’s “Compared To What” are both equally powerful.

When well done, music can affect us in a great many ways: gutturally, emotionally, cerebrally. It can even encourage lifestyle changes. My own experience as a teenager is instructive: within the tradition of hardcore music there are a handful of songs that discuss issues surrounding vegetarianism and animal rights. Two early compositions that affected me deeply were “Cats And Dogs” by Gorilla Biscuits and “No More” by Youth Of Today, both New York-based bands from the late 1980s. I made the decision at age 15 to become a vegetarian, and those two songs helped keep the ideas in my head as I was making up my mind. This was a concrete lifestyle change, and it happened to me personally, so that’s how I’ve always measured what kind of an impact a musician is capable of creating.

And in a nutshell, this is how I came to protest music, and protest art in general. Over the years I’ve realized that the style of music is actually not important; that there exists a socially conscious strain within virtually every musical genre, in many places even more so than in the US. From Nigerian afrobeat to Jamaican reggae music; from Brazilian tropicália, Irish rebel songs and Tunisian hip hop to calypso; nueva canción, and in some instances even flamenco, oftentimes political content is the norm. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to really appreciate and seek out this diversity in politically and socially conscious songs.

The fact of me personally not belonging to any marginalized group didn’t necessarily have to be seen as stifling. Like anyone, I should be writing songs about what’s real to me. Without appropriating anyone’s culture or struggle, or in any way insinuating that a group is incapable of advocating for themselves, I realized that I was entitled — some might even go so far as to say, required — to question the way my own government’s policies and actions impact the lives of billions of people every day. What could be more real to me than writing songs against the American empire, or against the economic and political systems in place around the world, set up often at the behest of a so-called democratically elected US government, that make the implementation of empire so ruthlessly effective? The potential subject matter to choose from within this domain is wide and painfully diverse.

So I began to turn my longstanding fascination with music that carries a message towards my own social and political ends in the form of the band Lokashakti. The songs are anti-imperialist to the core, and they exhibit conscious influences from a diverse array of genres. Upon recording and planning to release our first EP, “Three Stories,” it seemed to make sense to create a record label at the same time. The band was already part of a nonprofit organization, also called Lokashakti, and having a record label would give us the option of promoting other people’s socially conscious music as well. Since there didn’t appear to be much out there expressly aiming to put out this kind of music, creating a record label was an easy decision to make.

Lokashakti Records grew out of a desire to create music with a revolutionary message that could also have a chance at finding a large audience. There have been innumerable politically trenchant critiques set to music in recent years, and yet most protest songs are never able to reach the mainstream. It takes a great amount of skill as a lyricist to insert political messages that are neither so obvious that people feel like they’re being beaten over the head, nor so vague that no one’s really sure what the song’s about. The trick while composing protest music is to find that middle ground, and our record label is designed very specifically to promote artists who are able to achieve that goal, all while crafting the highest quality music.

We’ve only just started our journey at Lokashakti Records, but we have high hopes for the future. Although the record industry today is a vastly different place than it was even just 20 years ago, we’re confident that we can make a positive impact promoting talented, socially aware musicians from around the world. And even though as an organization we have nowhere near the support necessary to be able to promote anyone yet the way we’d like to, we’ve become part of a truly amazing community of activists and musicians engaged in some of the most promising efforts you could imagine at that intersection of music and nonviolence.

Commissioned by friends at the Metta Center for Nonviolence, this piece originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Emergence (Vol. 7), and later at Nonviolence Magazine (www.nonviolencemag.org)