The Soundtrack of the 21st Century Civil Rights Movement: Music That Tells a Different Story

By Eric K. Ward

Gangstagrass performing on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent”. Rench (second from right) is a leader in our Inclusive Democracy Culture Lab.

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster….”

~ Friedrich Nietzsche

What I read in the headlines every day is cause for great concern. But what I hear in my earbuds tells a different story.

The headlines in my news feed are an exercise in refusing to look away. Political violence and hate violence, ideological bias in law enforcement and conspiracy theories: these threats to inclusive democracy are not going away. In fact, we are seeing alarming upticks across the board in a country stressed by ongoing climate and COVID crises and backlash to the gains made in racial and gender justice.

As the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol begins its hearings this week, we’ve seen more than 500 people charged by the Department of Justice for their role in the insurrection — but arrests aren’t the same as accountability. As Tommy Chong pointed out in response to the first defendant getting sentenced to only eight months, “Damn, I got 9 months for selling bongs.”

Now, I don’t wish jail time on anyone — but for the first case involving a nationally televised attempted overthrow of the U.S. government? A lesser penalty than for generations of kids caught with pot in their pocket or failure to pay fines? Come on.

This is why I try to spend as much time listening to music as watching the news. I’m not talking about escapism — the old tune in, turn on, drop out strategy. I do love my summer jams. But this is about something other than drowning out bad news.

Music That Tells a Different Story

The music I want everyone to hear is the music that tells a different story than the one we read in the headlines. It’s not tone deaf to what’s going on. Like Matthew Ryan’s exquisite ballad, Song for a Hard Year, it may mourn and lament the trouble we are in. But it doesn’t stop there. It gives voice to the values that might bring us together. It imagines the world we might yet make. It defies the cynicism of disinformation by tapping into deeper, shared truths.

Music connects us to our humanity. It’s too easy, in tense moments like these, moments of fighting monsters (to paraphrase Nietzsche), to become monsters ourselves.

The music that we need right now reminds us of the humanity of those we struggle against, lest we lose our own humanity along the way. It reminds us that our work as organizers and culture makers is not about supplanting one hegemonic vision for another. It’s about opening up the abundance of possibilities and perspectives.

I’m talking about the soundtrack for a 21st century civil rights movement.

I’m talking about Rench of Ganstagrass on America’s Got Talent telling over seven million viewers, “I had a vision of using quintessentially American music to show people that we have some common ground and there’s no better place for us to come and prove it. We’re here to win because we want to tour the country, bringing that message around: We’re better together.” Vocalist Dolio the Sleuth told the AGT judges, “These are my brothers up here. This is my family.”

Rench is one of the musicians in the inaugural cohort of our Inclusive Democracy Culture Lab, the innovative culture shift work described on pages 16–17 of our 2020 Report to the Community. (Check out samples from the cohorts on #thecohort playlist on Spotify.)

Earlier this year the Chronicle of Philanthropy published my rationale for why we at Western States Center are investing in this critical segment of civil society, With Philanthropic Support, Artists Can Help Rebuild American Democracy One Song at a Time (sign up for a free account to access the article).

Refusing to Abandon the Common Good

As the bad news just keeps coming, these artists are producing work that refuses to abandon the common good and insists on rebuilding from common ground.

If I could co-sign one song in 2021, it’s Asshole in Space, Peter Mulvey’s brilliant critique of Jeff Bezos who “could have paid everyone who ever worked for him/ a living wage and still been rich enough to buy a rocket ship/ but no/ no, he’s an asshole/ an asshole in space.”

Peter could have stopped at the obvious but he uses Bezos as a mirror reflecting back a shared (and humble) humanity: “…people, they are what they are/ and I would probably have acted just like that little shit/ and that motherfucker Jeff Bezos/ he might have been a folksinger and writing songs/ about how bad I treated all my people/ and it’d be true….”

Bezos is an easy (and legit) target for our disdain. It’s harder to take responsibility for failing to “[move] the world before he came back down” because “we were too busy ordering a tripod.”

“Somewhere there’s a kinder world than this one,” Peter sings. And that’s what Ana Egge shows us in the video for her latest release, Wait a Minute. The celebratory, all-improvised dance party captured by director Marta Renzi depicts the joy of connection we’ve been denied — but Ana’s lyrics are far from utopian. “If you want to move/ You have to get uncomfortable,” she reminds a locked-down nation.

“Wait a Minute”… acknowledges how difficult it is for us to move from our deeply-held views on politics or even love. The first steps are to slow down, embrace discomfort, and start moving in ways that allow us to cross boundaries smoothly and fluidly. If you’re not smiling and moving across the floor as soon as “Wait a Minute” starts, then it’s time to take a look at your heart and recover your soul.

~ Folk Alley’s review of “Wait a Minute”

Ana says, “Often times things can be worked out if we take the time to slow down together and talk and listen. And we need to do that in order to stop reacting to each other. When we’re just reacting, we’re still stuck in ourselves.”

In other Inclusive Democracy Culture Lab cohort member news, watch for Ana along with cohort-mates Maya De Vitry and Michaela Anne at Americanafest in Nashville this fall. Listen to Eilen Jewell’s incredible homage to “the spirit of those free-flowing summer festival days and nights” that’s been “so imperiled” along with “our own future as touring musicians” in the “Green River” cover featured on The Bluegrass Situation; “we can keep that spirit alive until rosier days,” Eilen says, “and pass the torch to the next generation to keep it lit.”

Cohort member Sara Hickman brought another inspired cover treatment to these COVID times. Check out her Hard Working People Project’s rendition of the Rolling Stone’s “Salt of the Earth,” combining 130 tracks from 30+ musicians to tell front line workers: “we see you, we hear you, we love you, we are you. We are all in this scary time together and music can bring us hope, healing and love.” Catherine Irwin is preparing to release an album showcasing a collaboration between Freakwater and the Mekons, connecting across their coal mining roots in Kentucky and Wales.

Creating Models of Inclusive Community

Inclusive Democracy Culture Lab artists are also connecting with other artists to model the role of artist as organizer. In addition to making music, Rebecca Gates is lead author of a toolkit the inaugural cohort is producing to distribute as touring resumes. With Outer Voice host and multidisciplinary artist Clay Steakley serving as thought partner and design lead, the toolkit will offer cohort insights, case studies, and concrete pro-democracy, anti-hate actions artists and industry leaders can take.

Our partnerships with these artists are opening conversations with resilient communities that have critical organizing lessons to share and stirring stories to tell. The Center for Inclusion & Belonging, a core project partner, has shared research-driven approaches and messages built around inclusive values with our Culture Lab artists.

One prominent artist is tapping Western States Center’s connections to help inform a prison-based music project. In another instance of modeling support for artists and their projects, we’re investing in Music City Bands Together, a Nashville-based initiative flagged for us by Matthew Ryan. Through large-scale, multi-artist concerts, the project will invest ticket sales revenue into local music and restaurant industries; affordable housing, food security, and racial justice non-profits; and other community priorities.

All these ripples from the pebble in the pond of our inaugural cohort.

What’s next? In addition to planning a second national Culture Lab cohort focused on artists of color, we’re getting ready to launch two regional cohorts: one based in New York City (led by Ana Egge); the other, in the California Bay Area. Our Common Good Masterclass for Artists & Culture Workers, a 14-week on-line series focused on the relationship between anti-Black racism and antisemitism, will learn together in Poland later this year (travel permitting). That 20-person cohort includes three members of the inaugural Culture Lab: Ana, Rebecca, and Michaela Anne.

When I think about the soundtrack for the 21st century civil rights movement, it’s got some good beats. It’s danceable. It’s got room for a punk edge, for melodic ballads, for every flavor in the inclusive American palate. But most of all, it tells a story.

Stories like the one I tried to tell in Kentucky Nights: A Story of Unexpected Endings. Stories of courage in the face of terror, stories of resilience and redemption.

Our stories help us to remember each other’s humanity. Our stories connect us to each other and to all those who came before us who survived the unimaginable. These stories, this music, just might save us from becoming the monster we’re fighting.

Listen to more of these stories on the Kentucky Nights playlist and #thecohort playlist on Spotify.

Based in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain States, Western States Center works nationwide to strengthen inclusive democracy.