How A Few Albums And 1,000 Guitars Might Rejuvenate Occupy Wall Street
Since Occupy Wall Street protesters took over Zuccotti Park for the first time about seven months ago, mainstream support has definitely waned. Permits are harder to come by, conventional press has moved on, and what was once a surprisingly popular movement across the board has been dismissed by some as a goalless hippie fest pocked by police raids.
It’s in this not-so-welcoming climate that core supporters, namely, musicians, are trying to drum up widespread excitement around the movement again — and between today’s May Day antics and a new, A-list music compilation featuring the likes of Jackson Browne, Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, Mogwai, and a singing Michael Moore (yep!), the future of the movement seems a little brighter.
…Or a little more annoying, if you’re just trying to commute around New York today — in which case, you won’t be able to miss the May Day city shutdown bedlam. As part of a partially-permitted massive protest that will attract anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000+ people, Occupy’s Music Working Group has arranged for Tom Morello formerly of Rage Against the Machine to lead an army of 1,000 guitars in Bryant Park in an event cleverly called “Guitarmy.” Das Racist, Dan Beacon, and Immortal Technique will also make appearances on a main stage in Union Square Park later on.
While musicians like Kanye and Russell Simmons have famously made appearances at Zuccotti in the past, but Goldi argues it’s not enough.
“Music is an outreach tool we’re using,” says Goldi, co-organizer of the music group. “I’m angry at music for not doing more — especially the really talented folks….we are on the majority’s side, and if we can’t do it, pop culture can do it.”
To set the tone of May Day, Occupy Music Working Group will release a free mixtape called Shut It Down, filled with artist-submitted tracks pertaining to the Occupy Movement, available for download.
“Some Occupy groups hit the street and risk arrest, in our group we put out a mixtape,” Goldi says.
But Occupy’s May Day music spirit will go well beyond today. On May 15, the new record label Music For Occupy will release an unprecedented 99-track compilation (re: the 99%) called Occupy This Album, featuring all-stars like Debbie, Patti, Jackson Browne and David Crosby & Nash, coupled with unknowns and lesser-knowns. It will be one of the first big movement-driven albums since Woodstock.
The idea was borne of an activist and producer named Jason Samel, who, during the height of the Zuccotti protests, came across a young Baltimore musician named Matt Pless and was blown away by his lyrics. When Samel asked the young man for his info, Pless, who would later appear on Occupy This Album and design its cover, handed Samel a tiny piece of paper with his info scrawled in brown magic marker.
“I thought, ‘people have got to hear him,’” Samel says, “and the other musicians at Occupy. There’s got to be something better for him than this one-inch by a quarter inch piece of paper.”
Samel decided to make a compilation album, but he needed A-list support if he wanted it heard.
“We needed people who could really get the message out there. And the youth can’t do it alone,” Samel says. “We need the baby boomer generations, the ones who marched in the 60s. I’d like to re-open their eyes with music again.”
The first person to bite, however, wasn’t a musician — it was liberal watchdog and OWS advocate Michael Moore, who knew Samel previously through the movement.
“Michael told me ‘The only way I will do this album is if I can sing ‘The Times They are A-Changin’ by Bob Dylan,” recounts Samel. “I said, ‘uhhh sure!’”
(Side note: turns out, Michael Moore is actually an alright singer!…But, just alright.)
As artists like Warren Haynes got involved with Occupy This Album, the celebrity appearance ball started rolling. Samel also did some networking and Twitter stalking of his own, trying to get artists to contribute one of their more politically-charged tracks.
“It meant a lot for us to make sure the album was reflective of the issues, that there’s a song about women’s rights, about losing your job, about losing your home,” Samel says, “And we wanted it to be heavyweights, but not too heavyweighted. We wanted to make sure real occupiers were on there too.”
In fact, the album is about 50 percent unknowns, and some lesser-knowns like the more insidery group My Pet Dragon.
“Our track is right next to Patti Smith’s!” exclaims lead singer of My Pet Dragon Todd Michaelsen, whose track “Love Anthem” was selected for the album. “Are you f***ing kidding me?!”
As ever with Occupy Wall Street, the answer to the question “why are you here?” changes from person to person. After interviewing several of the Occupy This Album artists by phone and at a listening party at the Gibson Guitar Showroom this weekend, I noticed their overall involvement in the movement varied greatly, but their messages didn’t seem to stray too far from financial inequality. For Michaelsen, it has a lot to do with personal experience.
“My father is in a union, and every few years he goes through hell to keep retirement and health benefits,” he says. “Occupy Wall Street is about the working class, not about people asking for a handout.”
Post-rocker Stuart Braithwaite from Mogwai has been busy on world tours and living in rural Scotland — which has certainly experienced its own political unrest in the last few years – but the OWS movement rang true to the group at a distance.
“[Occupy Wall Street] seems like an awakening against problems endemic in modern society,” Braithwaite says. “The mathematical equation of how few people own so much really struck a chord with me.”
Mogwai’s unreleased track “Earth Division” is the first streaming preview of Occupy This Album.
Another interesting artist on the compilation is rapper George Martinez, who runs the non-profit hip-hop-driven charity Global Block. Unlike many of the bigger artists on Occupy This Album, Martinez has been involved with the movement since day one, and was present for the famous Zuccotti raid.
Oh, and he’s running for New York Congress in November.
“It’s important for the movement to be able to move forward through music and culture,” Martinez says. “The power of taking the streets with direct action can affect the electoral outcome.”
Watch Martinez MC in “Occupation Freedom,” filmed at Zuccotti.
But the most telling part of the Gibson Show Room Occupy This Album listening party wasn’t one artist’s political stance — it was the very candid, probably alcohol-fueled moment when the display room grew full of musicians from Occupy Wall Street just jamming out. Street guitarists playing with My Pet Dragon, playing with Global Block, playing with poet Paul Smitz and Greg Smith and Gabriel Aldort — if Samel or Goldi were searching for the organic hope fostered during the 60s, this was it.