21st Century Protest Music: Will There Be Another Dylan? Should There Be?
Originally published on Thu November 8, 2012 2:23 pm
The other day I posed a question on my Twitter feed: What is the music of Occupy Wall Street? As a veteran of many street protests and an amateur historian of popular music rabble rousing, I've been waiting for someone to grab center stage in Zuccoti Square and emerge as a new Bob Dylan or Joan Baez. This political movement gone viral, which some identify as the leftist version of what the Tea Party wrought a couple of years earlier, has no leading musical voice. Who will emerge to take up the challenge, to write the 21st-century version of the great hymn of the labor and civil rights movements, "We Shall Overcome"?
The footage of Dylan and Baez strumming and singing for thousands at the 1963 March on Washington remains the starting point for many discussion of political music, even after nearly 50 years (I've gone there before). Sharing space with the miraculous gospel voice of Mahalia Jackson and, eventually, a throng of 300,000 people singing together, Dylan especially found a way to step into the role of generational leader at that moment. His music served a cause, and the cause made him more than he'd been before.
A similar opportunity could arise for an artist at Occupy Wall Street — or so it would seem to anyone used to the 20th century model of grassroots activism. Yet when I put out my query on Twitter, the responses I received were either old-school suggestions (The Clash, Public Enemy), wry jokes (Ray Charles' "Busted," jams by right-winger Ted Nugent) or hopeful artists' bids for attention. A few folks made playlists. One advised me to simply listen to Democracy Now.
One response stuck with me, though: Sara Marcus wrote, "The human mic?"
The human microphone is the term that's evolved for the system of call-and-repeat that the Wall Street group's loose leadership has come up with to deal with a police ban on any amplification.
When someone needs to announce something, he or she does so and then whomever is within earshot mirrors the words. In a strange way, it harkens back to the most fundamental practice within the gospel churches that fed the civil rights movement: call and response, the method through which one preacher's voice would enthrall a congregation.
But really, it's more like a Twitter exchange: a phrase goes out, people latch onto it and eventually it coheres into a narrative. The music scene in Zuccoti Park, and at similar sites all over the country, is evolving in that way.
Not that there haven't been moments when it seemed like a star or two would descend. The biggest pop-culture rumor to hit the area was that Radiohead would play a free concert last Tuesday, after its weekend Hammerstein Ballroom shows. That didn't happen. Instead, artists' visitations have been modest, unannounced and highly participatory. Cult favorites, not major luminaries, have made the scene.
Most famously, Jeff Mangum of the rock band Neutral Milk Hotel strolled down to Lower Manhattan Wednesday to play a short acoustic set. This was newsworthy, in part, because after making one of the most beloved albums of the late indie rock era — In an Aeroplane Over the Sea, in 1998 — Mangum basically retired, uninterested in the pursuit of any kind of celebrity. His Occupy Wall Street set was not a bid for new-Dylan status but a simple gesture of connection. Of course, it was captured on a few iPhones and became a sensation on the Internet.
Other artists have made brief appearances. The New York rapper Immortal Technique spoke a few words and performed "A Toast To the Dead". Spearhead leader Michael Franti, a fixture within progressive circles, played the same night Mangum did, sharing songs that have served him well in several other political arenas. Talib Kweli debuted a new jam and offered one by his duo with Mos Def, Black Star. Jazz trombonist Steve Swell gathered some friends and headed down to make a ruckus.
Mostly, though, the music of Occupy Wall Street has been generated not by known performers or even people who necessarily call themselves "artists." It's emerged from the cloud that's spread on the ground. The same 21st-century style organizers who've been holding twice-daily meetings to come to consensus, privileging process over a set of clear objectives, are engaging in the kind of culture-making that dominates the Tumblr-loving, home recording-making, music industry-scorning future thinkers taking pop into its next phase.
Drum circles may seem quaintly hippie-ish (Jon Stewart, for one, compared the scene downtown to the jammy festival Bonnaroo) and characters like Gio Safari aren't far off from Wavy Gravy. But Web 2.0 has always been partly about curating the best from the past. What it's not about is anything identifiably top-down. And that's why the voice of this generation turns out to be a chorus.
At the Occupy protests from New York to San Francisco, people do their own thing and find themselves coming together. Chants break out — some obscene, some in Spanish, some lifted from the surf of pop history. The one that struck me arose right before the mass arrests that brought the New York gathering fully into the national spotlight. On the Brooklyn Bridge, those on the move busted out some Beastie Boys: "No sleep 'til Brooklyn!"
It's new for many observers, on the left and the right, to grasp how a movement might unfold without a clear agenda, set of leaders — or even one anthem. Many people find the non-hierarchical structure of Occupy Wall Street frustrating. Among the presumptions it overturns is the one that leads us to expect and emblematic musical performance: that new Dylan or Baez or Mahalia Jackson lifting every voice toward song.
Instead, we get a field full of freestyles. It's still possible that one will best the rest. But is that even what we should be listening for?
AUDIE CORNISH, host: In New York, the defining sound of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations has been that of the never-ending drum circle.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS AND CONVERSATIONS)
CORNISH: That's in marked contrast to the musicians who dominated the soundtrack of '60s protest music like Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and, of course, Bob Dylan.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGING")
BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Come gather 'round, people, wherever you roam...
CORNISH: Figuring out a leading musical voice for today's protests isn't so easy. Are there any new Dylans? Has any new anthem come out of the Occupy Wall Street protest, or any other recent political movements?
Ann Powers, NPR's music critic writes about that in her new column on the NPR blog, The Record, and she joins us now to talk about what her readers had to say.
Hey there, Ann. How are you?
ANN POWERS: Hey, Audie. I'm doing well.
CORNISH: So what kind of responses did you get to that? 'Cause I saw you tweet this out a few days ago. And what did you hear back?
POWERS: Well, Audie. I really wanted to know what was actually happening, what music was coming out of these protests. Instead, I got people making suggestions of what they'd like to hear. So I got classic political music, like The Clash, Public Enemy, Patti Smith. Some people made jokes or posed whimsical ideas, like somebody said Ted Nugent. Another person suggested that Ray Charles's "Busted," which is about having no money, would be a good anthem for Occupy Wall Street.
CORNISH: What are we seeing there?
POWERS: What I've figured out is that the music of Occupy Wall Street is very similar to the political organizing methods of this nascent movement. In other words, it's viral. It's grassroots. It's on the ground. We're in a different era and protest music is having to adjust to this new era, as well.
CORNISH: One thing that comes to mind maybe is the human microphone. First we have to explain to people, yeah, what is the human microphone?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
POWERS: What is the human microphone? Well, in a sense it's very connected to the history of American music because basically it's a form of call and response, which we've heard in American music since the days of the gospel church.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATORS)
POWERS: But it's call and repeat.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: These are positions of power.
CROWD: These are positions of power.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: They have the power to tell us we can't talk.
CROWD: They have the power to tell us we can't talk.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: They lead this discussion...
CORNISH: Wow. It's basically like live Twitter.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CORNISH: Like one person says something, everyone repeats it.
POWERS: It's totally live Twitter. And all I want to hear is like somebody to put a beat below that. It could be a huge hit.
CORNISH: Oh, it's only a matter of time.
POWERS: We also have individual people with guitars or other instruments just playing. We have musicians coming down. Rappers, freestyling - just coming down and freestyling a rhyme - some of them kind of well-known rappers, in fact.
CORNISH: Oh, yes, this week actually Talib Kweli showed up.
TALIB KWELI: (Rapping) ...culture, scavengers feasting on the dead like a vulture - snacking. How you keeping up with my rapping? You barely keeping up with Kardashian, you caught up in distraction....
CORNISH: And, Ann, we found video online. And what's interesting is he's just standing in the middle of a crowd. It seems like these aren't concerts. You know...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CORNISH: ...that the people who are showing up are just kind of playing to the little section of the crowd they happen to be in.
POWERS: Exactly. I mean isn't that, Audie, sort of like the way rap started in the Bronx? Right...
CORNISH: That's true. That's true
POWERS: ...in the projects.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
POWERS: We're going back to the root.
KWELI: (Rapping) Deep cuts way above your minor fractions. Talk to people like children 'cause that's how they're acting. Holding hands like...
CORNISH: There were rumors that Radiohead was going to show up at Occupy Wall Street which today, in the end, I did not. That didn't pan out. Who did show up, I guess, from the rock world?
POWERS: Radiohead, a cult band who's also a mainstream band, chose not to play or maybe never were planning on playing - it's unclear. But Jeff Mangum, of the band Neutral Milk Hotel, who's definitely a cult figure, came down with his acoustic guitar and gave a little mini set.
JEFF MANGUM: (Singing) They keep themselves hidden away. They keep themselves upon the hill, afraid of the day they'll have to pay for all the crimes upon their heads. And all those men who've learned to hate them...
CORNISH: Well, Ann, I mean in the end who would you want to sort of take the helm? I mean obviously there's not going to be a new Bob Dylan popping up anytime soon. But do we want one?
POWERS: I don't think a Dylan figure is really appropriate for this particular political event. What I think is going to happen, if anyone emerges, is that it's going to be someone we've never heard from before; someone who's not being set up by the industry as, in some ways, Dylan was because he already had a recording contract. He had the support of people like Joan Baez.
If someone bursts forth, it's going to be a huge surprise; probably someone out of hip-hop, maybe it'll be a 15-year-old girl - I would love that.
CORNISH: Ann Powers writes for the NPR music blog The Record, and she joined us from our member station WUAL in Tuscaloosa.
POWERS: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.