Wild in the streets: A look into the marriage of music and protest

October 19, 2011
This article was published more than 2 years ago.
Est. Reading Time: 3 minutes

Josh Parsons

Music Editor

After four weeks of non-stop protesting, the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations have shown no sign of letting up. In fact, the protests seem to be spreading like surface mold, already establishing presence in over 50 American cities, gaining international interest. The movement is rumoured to hit Toronto within days, and there’s even buzz around Hamilton about a demonstration of its own.

Like any typical take-it-to-the-streets protest, Occupy Wall Street has also attract- ed an impressive and diverse cast of musi- cians looking to show support for the vari- ous causes that are represented. Musicians seemed to take notice of the protests after a rumour that Radiohead would undertake a perfor- mance exploded across me- dia outlets two weeks ago. They didn’t.

But thankfully, a slew of performers took up the chance to fill that void. Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel riled up the crowd with an impromptu performance, and at the end of his set, proclaimed, “You guys have done a beautiful fucking thing.” Since then, many artists have taken the oppor- tunity show their support, including Talib Kewli, who performed, and many other ce- lebrities who made appearances.

Perhaps the most puzzling celebrity cameo yet has been the much-talked-about appearance of Kanye West. I’m left to won- der why such a notoriously arrogant and self- centered capitalist would decide to lend his face (and only his face – he didn’t say any- thing) to a seemingly anti-capitalist cause.

It’s sad that the music industry tol- erates stars such as Kanye who are willing to do anything for a bit of publicity, risking the integrity that many have invested into the event. This is especially disrespectful consid- ering that the music industry has thrived for decades on artists who see much common ground between music and protest.

The reciprocating relationship be- tween protest and music is entrenched in the Western cannon of popular music. Legendary American folk musician Woodie Guthrie was barking at the establishment well before Elvis had even hit the scene, famously slap- ping an iconic sticker on his guitar, which read, “This machine kills fascists”.

By the ‘60s, the relationship be- tween protest and music had become obvi- ous to everyone, through both the popularity of protest-oriented music festivals and, con- versely, through the government’s attempt to regulate and restrain known protest musi- cians.

One of the most famous examples was the 1968 Democratic National Conven- tion in Chicago. Promoted and supported by the counter-cultural group The Yippies, Detroit’s MC5 played for over eight hours in pro- test of the Democratic presidential candidates. The show was stopped when a riot was incited, allegedly by police pro- vocateurs. The result was the infamous arrest of the Chicago Seven.

Rage Against the Machine echoed this effort in 2008, and again rallied support by performing at the Democratic con- vention in Denver. Following its set, Rage led a massive march of over 8000 supporters, lead by the Veterans Against the Iraq War. The rally culminated in a police standoff that was relaxed when Obama agreed to enter talks regarding their demands. When combined, music and protest have the power to incite social change. But what has also been demonstrated by the Occupy Wall Street protests is the increasing tendency for celebrities to exploit such a tra- dition and revert to publicity to serve their own ends.

Whether or not you agree with the method undertaken in attempting to cata- lyze a social revolution, at least no one can deny that a free show is any music-lover’s wet dream.

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