May Day, the international day of revolution is here, and musicians are part of the battle cry emanating from Occupy sites across the globe. From Tom Morello’s Guitarmy to the Occupy album, artists are giving expression to the spirit of individual freedom that the day signifies. And it’s always been like this — from Day One in Zuccotti Park, music has been a medium for channeling the frustrations of the otherwise voiceless. Then, for artists who have the visibility to grab press attention, Occupy has been an opportunity for them to use their pulpits to demand social change. Musicians have taken to the streets during the course of Occupy’s grassroots history, in protest and in song. In honor of May Day, here’s a sampling of Occupy, through music.
Artist: Kanaska Carter
Occupy Cred: The first one on the scene
Ottawan Kanaska Carter was a Day One Occupier, and she stayed for months. Rumor has it that her acoustic performance was the first song of the movement. It makes sense that her song is about discovering her own sense of responsibility: I was the only person to blame.
Occupy Cred: Told off the leaders of the free world in song.
On Nov. 12, at the APEC summit dinner in Honolulu where President Obama was dining, Hawaiian singer and guitarist Makana played a charming set of Hawaiian melodies. But in the middle, he opened up his button to reveal his shirt, which said “Occupy with Aloha” and serenaded the representatives of the world’s leading economies with We’ll occupy the streets, we’ll occupy the courts, we’ll occupy the offices of you, till you do the bidding of the many, not the few.
Artist: B. Dolan, Toki Wright and Jasiri X
Occupy Cred: Built a hip-hop tutorial on how to police the police in “Fight the Police.”
Some enterprising rappers out of Philadelphia, B. Dolan, Toki Wright, took the classic anthem “F*ck the Police” by N.W.A. and updated it for the Occupy generation. Of course, this revolution is being televised, and tweeted, and caught on cell phones — which is the message behind B. Dolan et. al’s rhymes. Occupy’s struggle against the corrupt banking system re-energizes the long-standing battle between communities of color and the police, and here we see it on fire, and using digital media.
Artist: Rejectionist Front
Occupy Cred: In addition to performing and being on the Occupy album, their frontman heads several Occupy working groups and is pretty much trying singlehandedly save the world. (Seriously. Before Occupy he was involved with Save Darfur.)
Artist: Global Block
Occupy Cred: As an MC/potential U.S. elected official, the George Martinez was Occupy before Occupy existed.
“Occupation Freedom” is as much a product of the movement’s collective spirit as it is an expression of it. Spearheaded by the Hon. George Martinez, a rapper, sometime Representative to the U.S. House, and CUNY poli-sci professor, the song was a project of his non-profit Global Block, hip hop culture to unify communities all over the world. The video was produced by Grounded TV Networks. The song, rapped by George and his wife Sylvia Guerrero, is a hip hop anthem for the movement.
Artist: Jackson Browne, Chavonne Stewart, and Alethea Mills
Occupy Cred: The last generation’s pop protest music retrofitted for today.
On December first, just weeks before police shut down Occupy Wall Street, Jackson Browne showed up at Zuccotti Park. With an acoustic guitar, the band Dawes, and two vocalists, he inspired the protesters with his 1986 anti-war classic “Lives In the Balance.” And true to the spirit of Occupy’s bottom-up democracy, backup singers Chavonne Stewart and Alethea Mills got the limelight:
Occupy Cred: For braving police who tried to shut down her performance of “Vagabonds in Power,” a searing critique of Nigeria’s ruling class.
Not only is Nneka a soulful diva, she’s becoming the face of a young and proud Africa. She’s let her true political colors fly as a participant in Occupy Nigeria. For the activist artist, who’s had concerts shut down by state security police, the January protest and Occupy are the beginning of something new. “It’s the first time people of different class come together and let go of their frustration,” she says in a short documentary about Nigeria and the oil industry. Vagabonds in Power, take heed:
Artist: Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly.
Occupy Cred: Tracked police ejections of London protesters via Twitter.
From October 15 to February 28, Occupy London camped out at the foot of St. Paul’s Cathedral, demanding that the city democratize municipal politics, in which the financial districts exercised almost complete control over their areas. Liam Duckworth aka Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly taught workshops in the School of Ideas located in the camp. When the community was dismantled in February, he livetweeted the entire event, saying, “This camp was the most inspiring place I’ve been to in my short time in London. So sad to see it end like this.” Get Cape sends up that kind of aggression in his music video for ”The Real McCoy,” where beefy wrestlers headlock each other:
Artist: Seun Kuti
Occupy Cred: Took the streets of Lagos to protest government policy.
In January Occupy Nigeria staged a city-wide protest in response to President Goodluck Jonathan’s decision to take away fuel subsidies, hiking the already high price of oil. And Seun Kuti, musician and son of Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti took to the streets against economic inequality, announcing in a CNN editorial that “We the people no longer want to be the doormats on which our politicians wipe their feet on their way into luxury and comfort.”
Occupy Cred: From putting out radical music to covering Columbus Circle in fake police tape.
Merrill Garbus sums up the sentiment of Occupy Wall Street in “My Country,” where the freak folk upstart sings When they have nothing, why do you have something? This February, after playing Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series, she exercised her American right to protest by occupying Columbus Circle. Living up to the DIY spirit of Occupy, she’s started a Kickstarter campaign to help fund a lending library for a performing arts school in San Francisco, some of whom co-starred in her video: