Watching the Democratic and Republican National Conventions each election year is a lot like sitting through a festival of Elvis impersonators. There is guaranteed to be plenty of flash, plenty of slick moves and smooth voices, plenty of nostalgia for some fictional “better times,” but ultimately you’re served nothing you can really relate to in the here and now. Put aside the rhetorical flare of Barack Obama and the lipstick-laden metaphors of Sarah Palin, and the conventions of the two most powerful political parties in the world have all the immediacy a sequined jumpsuit.
The choice of music and entertainment at these conventions speaks volumes. The Democrats had Kanye West, a significant choice considering this is a party that still seeks to keep rap’s more controversial elements at arms’ length. But West’s own limitations mirror those of the Democratic Party all too well: too star-struck by the system to really do anything about it.
As for the Republican Convention, they were entertained by Styx. That’s right . . . Styx! The power-ballad dinosaurs who have never been afraid to inhabit music’s lowest brow for the sake of making money. For the Republicans, a better choice could not have been made!
Compare these artists to those who played for the unwashed masses outside. While politicians hobnobbed with corporate executives and turned the dreams of the American electorate into so much political chum, students, workers, artists and musicians were raising their voices to bring real immediacy to the issues of war, racism, poverty and inequality.
The sheer diversity and dynamism of these musical acts make the “official” entertainment look like a yawn-fest. Punk, hip-hop, soul, reggae, folk, indie-rock — the multitude of genres was almost too much to keep track of. From the indie reggae-rock of State Radio to the jazz-funk inflected rap of the Flobots, to the ubiquitous presence of Rage Against the Machine.
The large amount of varying acts at these protests shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. The past several years have seen an increase in political music from artists both established and up-and-coming; musicians who, like most in this country, think the world is heading down an increasingly unequal and dangerous path. If the protests are any indication, then there may well be many more artists to come who are willing to give new meaning to the term “popular music.”
Convention season opened with the certainty that the Democrats would nominate their first African-American presidential candidate — a historic announcement that has inspired a lot of hope past the mere personality of Obama. And so, protesters were of all different mindsets about a candidate whose rightward shift flies in the face of his slogans for “change.”
Veteran rocker and radical Wayne Kramer, who remembers when his own group the MC5 were caught up in the police riot at the ’68 convention in Chicago, said in an interview that he plans to vote for Obama, but wants to hold his feet to the fire: “I do this [protest] out of a sense of participating in democracy,” Kramer proclaimed. “Democracy requires participation, it’s not just a theory.”
Kramer’s presence wasn’t the only thing reminiscent of those heady days forty years ago. Organizers were aware of the deliberate resonance with the ’68 protests. Indeed, one of the slogans thrown around the most at the protests was “Recreate ’68.”
In that vein, there was an effort to recreate that same spirit of resistance that reached into every aspect of culture during that red-letter year. Throughout the convention activists participated in the “Tent State Music Festival,” which treated attendees to an eclectic lineup: Kramer, State Radio, Son of Nun, radical folk stalwart David Rovics, the genre-bending Michelle Shocked, Jill Sobule, The Coup and Jello Biafra were just a sampling of the artists who participated during Tent State.
Certainly not all these performers were of the same mind about voting Obama, however. One of the most recognized radical hip-hop acts of our time, dead prez, performed in front of the Colorado state capitol in downtown Denver right in the thick of the protests, where both stic.man and M1 made their thoughts on the elections very straightforward in a freestyle later posted on YouTube:
“You expect me to vote for the lesser of two evils? Never!
It’s more the evil of two lessers
That’s like saying to M choose your oppressor
Pick one: Jeffrey Dahmer or Hannibal Lecter
You want crack or coke, Pepsi or Dr. Pepper?
They’re all fucked up and neither one of them better!”
Whether those marching and bobbing their heads were planning to vote Obama or not, the one thing unifying every voice on the streets was the idea that no matter who is in office, they must be held accountable by pressure from below. That was made very clear on the final night of protests as Tent State was given a send-off by Rage Against the Machine.
Thanks to a lot of overblown hype from the mainstream media, it’s feasible that Rage were the most high-profile aspect of the DNC protests. It was a frustrating development considering that their show, which also featured the Flobots and other artists, was intended as merely a prelude to the march lead by Iraq Veterans Against the War. Nonetheless, RATM was willing to put actions behind their words when they brought members of IVAW onstage with them before beginning their set.
By all accounts, the show was electrifying. More importantly, the IVAW march perfectly displayed the kind of strength that veterans can have in this movement. Directly defying orders not to approach the Pepsi Center, the vets and the thousands following them simply walked right through the line of police, who stepped aside rather than risk the embarrassment of having to beat up a former soldier.
Police On My Back
It was in St. Paul, however, that the police showed their true colors. Given the amount of physical repression doled out to activists at the RNC, there’s a certain amount of irony in activists’ application of the “Recreate ‘68” slogan to the Democratic convention.
A doubly sick irony was that the Republicans kicked their soiree off on Labor Day. Given the eight-year onslaught on workers’ living standards overseen by the Bush White House, choosing this date seemed to be rubbing it in the face of those anyone who has worked hard for so little.
Protest organizers saw very little humor in this. That same night the “Take Back Labor Day” concert took place on the south bank of the Mississippi River. Once again, the night brought a varied bunch of highlights. Billy Bragg lead the crowd in “There is Power in a Union.” Tom Morello, in his Nightwatchman alter-ego, brought anti-war vets onstage to sing “This Land is Your Land” (including the much more explicit “lost verses”). Mos Def dedicated “Undeniable” to New Orleans, possibly besieged once again by the specter of Hurricane Gustav. A recently reunited Pharcyde performed all their classics.
Even as attendees departed this relatively calm event, cops were still waiting to hassle them, even shutting off bridges to the mainland until finally and inexplicably letting people pass. This kind of craven intimidation characterized the whole convention. Democracy Now! journalist Amy Goodman was arrested along with her crew while covering the protests. Innocent bystanders were often brutalized and arrested as cops and protesters clashed. And of course, there were the ridiculous charges of “terrorism” leveled against activists arrested the night before the events even began!
Sure enough, musicians were also caught up in this atmosphere of heavy manners. At the IVAW conference held in the days running up to the RNC, Baltimore political MC Son of Nun was among many activists harassed, and was even singled out by police himself after being tailed by a hotel manager. As it played out, eight officers held him for a half-hour before letting him go, but it was a blatant example of racial profiling and police repression that smacked more of the Jim Crow south. As SON himself put it, “I’ve never been kicked out of a hotel before.”
The crackdowns extended throughout the whole weekend. At a rally/festival that Tuesday, as Anti-Flag finished their set, the rumors that RATM would also be playing at this demonstration were quickly dashed by the police, who fallaciously claimed that the permit for the park had expired. The entire crowd erupted into a defiant chant of “fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” Not to be deterred, Zack De la Rocha and Tom Morello took the stage nonetheless to perform an a-capella version of “Bulls on Parade” that humorously featured Morello mouthing his iconic guitar part into a megaphone before joining the march to the convention center.
The Sound of Rebellion
When asked by Rolling Stone why he participated in the march, Morello simply stated, “I think it’s important to call out the economic crimes at home and the war crimes abroad while they’re [the Republicans] are here… Not to let them get away with it while the media is focused here. It’s important to get that message out . . . to have that amplified alongside the B.S. messages being spouted from the podium.”
In the days of and directly following the RNC, newspapers were filled with all manner of B.S. Those arrested were written off as “anarchists,” “violent.” Mainstream media treated protesters and musicians with either indifference or contempt. To some, the large amount of radical music acts was simply proof that these activists weren’t “serious,” and were only there to “cause mischief.”
It wasn’t only a slander against the already bruised and battered protesters, but a slight against the role music can play in movements. More than a hundred years ago, Wobbly songwriter Joe Hill famously explained that “a pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once. But a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over.”
In the thick of protests, with the urgency of injustice passionately felt by all the participants, and the threat of violence and repression looming overhead, the strength and inspiration that can be gleaned from these songs can be almost as important as the ideology and tactics.
By now, it’s obvious to all but the most cynical of commentators that people are fed up with the direction of this country, and growing numbers are willing to put real action behind this frustration and anger.
Where this goes past the election is anyone’s guess, but one can hope that these protests are only the early rumblings of something bigger. If that’s the case, then popular rebellion can’t help but bring large sections of the artist and musician communities with it.
Truly popular music. What a concept.