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Making Social Change With Music
I n the 2004 election, hardly a week went by without the mainstream media deriding an actor or musician for speaking up against the re-election of President Bush. Websites such as MSN.com featured polls that asked people whether they cared what their favorite actor or musician thought about social issues. Meanwhile, TV pundits declared political matters off-limits to anyone who wasn’t regulated by corporate media speaking fees or invited to pontificate on the major networks’ Sunday news programs.
Many artists, nevertheless, continue to speak out on social justice issues. In the music industry, however, it is still rare to find a group that goes beyond speaking out from time to time, by weaving its music and political consciousness together, day in and day out. We find one of those rare examples in the folk duo Emma’s Revolution. The group takes its name from activist Emma Goldman, who is famed for having responded to a colleague’s criticism of her dancing by saying, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution.”
Comprised of songwriter Pat Humphries, who has authored the progressive anthems “Swimming to the Other Side” and “Keep On Moving Forward,” and Sandy Opatow, Emma’s Revolution is probably best known for its peace anthem, “Peace, Salaam, Shalom,” which appeared on their debut album One .
Recently the duo released its latest CD, Roots, Rock & Revolution! which affirms the duo’s belief that music is a means to learn, organize, and motivate. Released in December 2006, the CD features such songs as: “Silent No Longer,” detailing a successful landmark case against the oil corporation UNOCAL on behalf of villagers from Burma; “Coast of Maine,” dealing with the gap between rich and poor in a small community; and “Living Planet,” an environmental hymn. Among the disk’s more iconic tracks, “Who Lies” details a Republican-controlled government and tackles everything from war and the environment to the suffering of the poor and Muslims:
People in a bind
Halliburton, Carlyle and more
Emptying the shelves of the
Who lies, who dies
who pays, who profits
Staying out of gang
trying to be cool
seeing through the lies fro
recruiters in the schools
stand up like a man
for freedom lend a hand
join the occupation of
an oil rich land
Who lies, who dies
who pays, who profits
Gulf Coast shore
same as before
poor people’s lives for a
rich man’s war
no services or plans
for people in need
just ignorance and arrogance an
In “Where are you now?,” a song about the chaos surrounding Katrina, Opatow transmit’s a sorrowful sentiment that transcends any one disaster, reminding listeners of any number of tragedies:
Where are you now
where did you sleep
do you have food
are you OK
Where did you sleep
are you in peace
where are you now
I held your hand
firmly in mine
then the tide surged
I couldn’t hold on
My love couldn’t hold back a current
Where are you now
where did you sleep
do you have food
are you OK
Where did you sleep
are you in peace
where are you now
I caught a glimpse
thought it was you
then the crowd rushes
guardsmen pushed through
where are you bound
how will I know
where will we meet
where did you go
Opatow said she and her partner were specifically inspired to write the song after hearing the desperate pleas of Katrina victims being broadcasted from New Orleans. “When we first heard about what was going on, Amy Goodman was there pretty quickly and one of the things she was doing was giving an open microphone so that people could say, ‘I’m looking for my brother, here is my cellphone number.’ ‘I’m looking for my uncle.’ ‘I’m going to be in Houston,’ or whatever—they were just naming all their people who were missing, who they wanted to find. It reminded us so much of people after September 11 who put up posters that said, ‘My mother was in this tower too, we haven’t seen her, can you call us?’”
Viewing attempts by the media to downplay the inherent political import of music and art, Humphries rejects those who argue music and current events are a mismatch. “This has been the essential purpose of music from the very beginning,” she said. “People always used music to tell the news.”
Humphries insists one of her main motives as an artist-activist is to tear away the illusion that individuals are incapable of making a difference in the world. “We’re constantly being told that our vote doesn’t matter, that our choices in what we buy or don’t buy doesn’t matter, and it’s a lie. It’s purposeful, to keep people silent and to keep people disconnected from their outrage; to keep them from that sense of compassion that some of us grew up more connected with.”
Emma’s Revolution’s journalistic approach to songwriting also makes a point to look at the victories and virtues of grassroots activism. “People have short memories and we do try to remind people of victories because everyone needs to know change is happening and people are making a real impact against the problems that exist,” said Opatow.
“[The UNOCAL lawsuit] was a landmark case, the first ever against a U.S.-based corporation for a trust that is, on its behalf, off of U.S. soil. Right after they won that case, Senator Diane Feinstein’s office tried to do some kind of legal change so that that law, the way that it was won by [the organization] Silent No Longer could no longer be used by any other corporations.
“It was actually shouted down by thousands of people who sent her emails saying, ‘We see what you’re trying to do. We see that you’re trying to destroy this victory.’ When we sing that song, in the introduction, we often say, these people won a lawsuit against an oil corporation on behalf of 15 villagers from Burma. And people cheer because it’s good news and they hadn’t heard about it.”
While some artists succeed in inspiring the indignation necessary to prompt action in individuals, Emma’s Revolution succeeds in the equally important task of inspiring the hope necessary to keep the fires of indignation burning.
Rather than simply lamenting voting debacles of recent elections, the duo’s song, “Vote”—featuring a guest appearance by Jethro Tull drummer Doane Perry—is an indictment of election tampering and, more importantly, an inspiring call to arms:
If they can count 424 billion for the war
why can’t they count our votes
if they can count thousands of bomb
and still be buying more
why can’t they count our votes?
We’re not done
we’re not tired
we won’t stop until, Donald
Rumsfeld, you’re fired!
The duo also offers an uplifting cover of “If I had a Hammer,” originally written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes in 1949, which calls for peace and unity. Explaining her reasoning for mixing somber and elated moods on the album, Humphries said, “I think it’s important, on one hand, to be sure to cover the subject and to cover the gravity of the subject, and at times to keep things in that sort of more somber frame. But also I feel devoted to the importance of keeping people energized. People have got to leave feeling hopeful. They need to feel hopeful and empowered. It’s the only way change happens—if people can believe change can happen and believe that they are an essential part of the change.”
But singing about the issues is just the beginning for these artists. Opatow and Humphries live their music and activist spirit, dedicating themselves to sharing their songs and the stories and building communities around the United States and beyond. Frequent guests at activist events, in August Emma’s Revolution performed at the Scottish Parliament’s second annual Festival of Politics, and in November the duo played a vigil calling for the close of the School of the Americas in Georgia.
As of late, the two have been on the road playing a series of house concerts throughout the southeast. Often seating fewer than 100, these concerts make for a unique opportunity to build bridges between people who are working on different issues in the same community.
“The other piece of the community building,” said Opatow, “is that we talk about a whole bunch of different issues. Some people will come because they hear the peace and justice stuff and some people will come because they hear the environmental rights issues—then they get to meet each other. If it’s at a big venue they may get to meet each other. If it’s a house concert they will definitely get to meet each other. It helps make connections between the activists in that community and we really love helping to make those connections.”
Summing up the duo’s purpose, Humphries said Emma’s Revolution intends to uplift, empower, and enjoin. “The point is we really want people to be informed about what’s going on; we want them to feel connected to their own emotions about these things so that they can connect to the real impact of these issues. But we also want them to feel hopeful and believe in the power of their actions and the power of their voices; and that they can make some conscious decisions about what they do in this life and the impact that it has on the world around them. We want them to be able to cry when its appropriate to cry, and to dance and celebrate when it’s appropriate to dance and celebrate.”
Jeff Nall is a community activist and freelance writer. He regularly contributes to publications such as Online Journal and the Humanist .
Z Magazine Archive
AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; https://nato5support.wordpress.com.
MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
Contact: WisCon, ? SF3, PO Box 1624, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://www.wiscon.info/.
ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
Contact: SWCHRS, 3200 Marshall Avenue, Suite 290, Norman, OK 73072; 405-325-3694; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ncore.ou.edu.
MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
RADIO - The 38th Annual Community Radio Conference is schedule for May 29-June 1, in San Francisco, CA, with discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1101 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20004; 202-756-2268; email@example.com; http://www.nfcb.org/.
BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduated Center, ? Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; firstname.lastname@example.org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.globaljusticecenter.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.socialismconference.org.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.peacestockvfp.org.
CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.childrensdefense.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://yeacamp.org/.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
Contact: email@example.com; http://east.usworker.coop/.
WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
Contact: 747 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-864-1278; RadicalWomenUS@gmail.com; http://lynnestewart.org/; http://www.radicalwomen.org/.
HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
Contact: 121 West 27th Street, #301, New York, NY 10001; 212-627-0444; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.madre.org.
SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
Contact: http://www.falconridgefolk.com/; email@example.com.
WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
Contact: 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012; 212-228-0450; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.warresisters.org.
POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
Contact: Center for Popular Economics, PO Box 785 Amherst, MA 01004; 413-545-0743; email@example.com; www.populareconomics.org.
VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
Contact: email@example.com; http://occupynationalgathering.net/.
COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.