Were it not for music and the arts, everyday life would be consumed with labor, legal proceedings, payment deadlines, and medical procedures. It's a sentiment I've heard many times, and most arists have their own version of the quote. Because without art and music, and the writing styles behind them, you wouldn't have the most basic forms of entertainment like film and television, not to mention the more sophisticated forms of performed music, dance, theater, and the visual arts. Music and art represent the highest forms of human expression, and without them, life would be very dull.
Music also happens to be one of the greatest tools for social evolution.
I am primarily a Rock musician who has been playing professionally for about 25 years. Rock & Roll is, by its very nature, a form of musical resistance against entrenched power structures, and it's also one of the greatest musical forms if it's done with real intention. My career has allowed me to see and hear many other cultures around the world, including a fair bit of time spent with indigenous cultures. Those personal experiences have shaped my worldview on humanity and our natural state of balance with the Earth. It has also shown me the power of music as a force for social justice and change.
The country I have seen the most of is, of course, my own -- the United States. I love this country and her people deeply, and I have driven every major highway in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia, and some parts of Latin and South America. Sometimes it was in a van, other times in a tour bus, and occasionally on a motorcycle. I've experienced the world with my own eyes and heart, my own boots on the ground as the saying goes, and then I write about what I have come to learn from those personal experiences.
The U.S. in particular has had some extraordinary musicians and songwriters who have, over the decades, brought about great social evolution with story-songs and political messages that have moved hearts and changed minds. When Woody Guthrie sang "Roll On Columbia" about the enormous Columbia River, he was expressing his love for the natural landscape of the American West. When Pete Seeger wrote "My Dirty Stream," it was his alarm call to the industrial pollution that was destroying the Hudson River, a song that sparked the modern day clean up of the Hudson River Valley.
When Billie Holiday sang about "Strange Fruit" hanging from the trees, she was decrying the lynchings and abominations that were going on in the American South. People started to listen, and when the Civil Rights Movement started in the 1960s, Aretha Franklin brought her gospel music out into the streets with marching protestors as they demanded "Respect", and ultimately won it. Curtiss Mayfield united everyone with his epic song of hope, "People Get Ready", and Stevie Wonder continued that tradition with song after song that uplifted the American spirit. Bob Dylan wrote one of the greatest anti-war songs of all time, "Blowing In The Wind", and the Canadian Native American singer, Buffy St. Marie, offered a simialr message with her hit, "Universal Soldier."
Even the Jazz musicians used song titles and instrumental melodies to get their social and political messages across. When Charles Mingus composed "Better Get It In Yo' Soul", man, he meant it. And when John Coltrane composed the mournful melodies of "Alabama", it was in honor of the four girls killed in the Birmingham church bombings. Even with just a song title and a melody, instrumental Jazz allowed the listener to create their own storyline in their mind.
One of the greatest songwriters of all time, Bruce Springsteen, continues to tell powerful stories about the everyman/woman who struggles for identity in an increasingly corporatized and homogenized world. I often wonder, who will be the next Springsteen, Wonder, Dylan, Franklin, or Holiday? And why are we not hearing their young voices on the radio or on television today? Are we truly listening, or are they being blocked out? Or are we just all-consumed by the dancing icons of our "smartphones," which seem to be making us less smart and more docile?
One thing we do know: music in the United States has led directly to environmental action, the equality of our citizens, a movement against war and violence, and it has raised the voices of the working American. We now need to point it toward direct political action.
Powerful songs have always been the engine behind the greatest social movements -- it is the marching soundtrack that unites the people and gives them focus and resolve, and it's not limited to the U.S. In 1970s Nigeria, Fela Kuti invented Afro Beat music as a way to protest the oil company regime of Nigeria. His song "Zombie" became a global hit that railed against Nigeria's military dictators. In South Africa, the indigenous Mbatanga music helped bring about the end of apartheid and it spread a message of peace and reconciliation in that nation. In Chile, Victor Jara wrote songs about his country's struggles, sparking the Nueva Cancion (New Songs) movement that caused South Americans to rise up against their military dictatorships and replace them with democracies. In Brazil, the Tropicalia movement was created by songwriters like Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Rita Lee as a form of protest against the Brazilian military junta, which eventually fell from its own corruption and incompetence. In Australia and New Zealand, popular songs written by indigenous and non-ingenious songwriters sparked an indigenous land reclamation movement that is still active today.
The reason this works is because music gets people thinking, talking, and doing.
I cite all these examples because, frankly, I am very worried about the condition of the United States, and a political system that is rife with corruption, political incompetence, and a rising tide of public apathy. The worst kind of men have slithered into the the ranks of the House and Senate, and other places of government that we cannot see, or are not allowed to see. We have an education system that is failing miserably, a profit-before-health medical system that is making people sicker and bankrupt, and a minimum-wage economy that has had its wealth siphoned off by a predatory financial apparatus. The arts are suffering terribly because of this financial collapse, and it has made the traditional spear points of social awareness as dull as the mindless fodder on pop radio.
Probably, we need a people's revolution to change things for the better. Probably, Thomas Jefferson would be screaming for it, were he alive today. We should be looking for the next wave of musicians, songwriters, and artists to show us the way. Have the courage to stand up and sing it, write it, speak it. We are waiting, listening for your voices.