by Detroit Red and Jimmy Higgins
May 1, 2012
With May Day upon us and the semi-official Occupy! Spring Offensive starting. the two of us–Detroit Red and DJ D–have teamed up to crank out this overview of the music of OWS! Occupy! has no single anthem, no “We Shall Overcome”, no defining musical voice of the movement. Instead there has been a flowering of DIY music videos, Joe Hill-esque re-writing of pop songs, spontaneous rap battles in the encampments, and a parade of established musicians showing up at protests unannounced to lend their songs and support. Hell, even Miley Cyrus made a music video for Occupy Wall Street!
The two of us are stone revolutionaries–and deep-fried music geeks. We are both longtime activists, though from different generations— DJ D is 62, Detroit Red 34. Both of us have been totally jazzed by the transformation that the eruption of Occupy Wall Street! has already wrought in the political life of this country and in the tired, aging US left. Each of us took five songs (with a bit of dickering to avoid duplication) from among scores of worthy possibilities, five which we found particularly deserving of attention and comment. Then we wrote a short introduction and made some comment on each.
This list also appeared over at Fire on the Mountain, DJ D’s blog.
[Note: for those unfamiliar with current musical culture, that “versus” in DJ D vs. Detroit Red doesn’t mean we are enemies—it is used to label collaborative projects and mash-ups as well as musical throw-downs.]
DJ D drops his five
One of the things that has most pissed me off about the movement against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan was all the folks, admittedly mainly ‘60s types like myself, always grousing about where are the anti-war songs. Damn, Neil Young started a page on his website which now has well over 3400 posted! (At, let’s call it 4 minutes per song, that’s more’n two weeks of listening 24/7, just to hear ‘em all once.)
At least anyone with the faintest actual acquaintance with Occupy Wall Street! and the Occupy! movement isn’t about to make that complaint! Even leaving aside the notorious drum circles, OWS! has been awash in music, with visits from famous artists and all kinds of playing and singing, planned and impromptu, at every encampment I know about.
A few days before Crispness, I went to fenced-in, rent-a-cop-ridden Zucotti Park in the middle of the night to show the flag, and of the dozen or so people there holding the fort, one was a guy–Jim, I think his name was–strumming a guitar and working out the lyrics to a song about the struggle. It was he who first inspired me to do a little writing about the music of the occupations.
With that, here are my five.
Rhiannon Giddins—”The Bottom 99″
A remarkable a capella performance by Giddins, who is part of the stellar Carolina Chocolate Drops, a key force in the ongoing revival of the nearly lost tradition of the Black string band. This, however, is based directly on a tune credited to the late Ewan MacColl, and it clearly derives from the old Scots/English folk tradition which constitutes the taproot of country music.
The unaccompanied vocals are reminiscent of Appalachian singers like Almeda Riddle, and the lyrics are sharp as a tack. YouTube also has a video of Giddins doing one called “We Are The 99” in Zucotti Park via the People’s Megaphone, which is well suited to the unaccompanied voice, of course. Still I find this to be richer and easier to follow—and that voice! Note the early date, October 13. She composed and was performing this within weeks of the initial occupation there.
Jasiri X—”Occupy (We The 99)”
Hip Hop has been an integral part of the Occupy! movement from the start. Lupe Fiasco donated fifty tents during the first week and wrote a poem “Hey Moneyman” about his visits to the encampment before it seized national attention. Immortal Technique, too, came down to Zucotti Park early on and denounced police attacks on the occupiers. Mayor Bloomberg, IT pointed out, “is closer to Wall Street than America is to Israel.” Boots Riley from The Coup has been a day-to-day leader in the militant Occupy Oakland movement (though my bud Mirk notes that media attention on him has tended to eclipse the central role of other (female) core activists in the struggle there).
I picked this cut by a less well-known conscious rapper, Jasiri X, because he is based in Pittsburgh and has been an active supporter of Occupy Pittsburgh!, because he has stood up to efforts to censor this song out of his paid performances, and because it has a nice anthemic quality to it, with an eminently chantable tagline/chorus. Plus which, his video is one of the best of the collage-of-video-clips style that’s so prevalent here, with a sharp focus on police brutality and the national and global breadth of the Occupy! eruption.
Garfunkel And Oates—”Save The Rich”
This comedy duo has one of the best band names evah and their rip on Pat Robertson–“Sex With Ducks”,” in case you missed it–may never be topped. A sense of humor is a vital part of any real social movement. Some of the best-known protest songs of the Vietnam era were saturated in this kind of mirthful irony. Phil Ochs’ “Draft Dodger Rag” and Tom Paxton’s “Lyndon Johnson Told The Nation” leap to mind (and that’s not counting the unintentional humor in, say, “Eve Of Destruction.”)
And don’t dismiss this tune and its nifty new video as merely an obvious joke. In two short minutes, Kate “Oates” Miucci and Riki “Garfunkel” Lindhome savage the greed of the 1%, mock their self-identification as ‘job creators,’ vent some genuine anger at their crimes and close by reminding us what the Occupy movement broke with:
Save the rich
By doing nothing at all
Deny all sense and logic
And just think really small
You should think really small
Or just don’t think at all
And save the rich
Dave Lipmann—”Occupation Is On”
Sorry, the live and unplugged at Zuccotti Park version of this seems to have vanished from YouTube, but click right here and a nice folk-rock version’ll play for you. This is in many ways a typical—better, archetypal—OWS! song.
First I’ll deal with the typical part. The legal ban on amplification at Zuccotti Park (and elsewhere) combined with what has long been the cultural norm for protest movements in the US, means that folk-type songs like this, performed on guitar and perhaps other acoustic instruments make up, along with hip hop, the majority of OWS!-related music.
That said, this, like the Rhiannon Giddins number above, is a reworking of an older song. Fittingly, Dave climbs under the hood of an obscure but brilliant Depression-era tune, “The Panic Is On” by Hezekiah Jenkins (“All the landlords done raised the rents/ Folks that ain’t broke is badly bent”) to do his tinkering. In keeping with the more optimistic theme, he hits the beat a little harder and a little faster. The folk process at work, 70 years after Woody retooled “Wildwood Flower” into “The Sinking Of The Reuben James.”
Besides its great rhythm and easy-to-yell-when-it-comes-along tag line, “Doggone, occupation is on,” a striking thing about this one is its good humor. Some of this may derive from Jenkins’ amusing record, but it also reflects Dave’s professional role as an lefty singing entertainer—he currently performs his parodies and originals in the character of bankster Wild Bill Bailout. Lastly, the lyrics are both witty and broad in scope:
We communed in Paris in ’68
Teamsters and turtles had a fine blind date
Now the bankers are trying to grab it all
After the Arab Spring comes the American Fall
Doggone, autumn is on
Chloe Cornelius—”I’ll Occupy”
This is my own personal favorite Occupy! song. This week, anyhow. Chloe Cornelius is a young woman who has recorded her own songs and song parodies and posted them on YouTube over the last year or so, something untold hundreds of thousands around the world have done, Like most of them, her following has been, shall we say, modest, despite a voice which is as good as those of a number of current pop stars I could name.
This number, which she bills as a “recruitment song” for the movement, has grabbed her widest audience by orders of magnitude, and deservedly so. Cornelius’s master stroke was to rework Gloria Gaynor’s disco era smash “I Will Survive,” which rapidly became a feminist anthem upon its 1978 release. Its attitude of gritty determination transfers perfectly into the OWS! setting.
In place of the historical context offered by, say, Dave Lipmann, Cornelius is plugged right into the cultural moment, and thus the features which distinguish OWS! from any movement that’s gone before, as when she defies the po-po:
You think that your batons are going to get us to go home
Go on and hit me, I’ll just upload it from my phone.
In fact, right in the lyrics she’s singing, Cornelius appeals to her listeners/viewers, “and it wouldn’t hurt to take/ a minute to repost this song.” Damn skippy, I say. Get with the meta, listen and spread it!
Detroit Red rocks his picks
Many folks my age or younger (I’m 34) have barely even heard of unions or seen a protest on the streets of their town. I’m probably not alone when I turn on the TV, see images of general strikes and bubbling class anger from Athens to Seoul, and think, “I wish I lived in a real country.”
That was before 2011. That was before Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker—backed to the hilt by billionaire financiers—tried to liquidate Wisconsin public workers’ right to bargain collectively and in doing so filled Wisconsin’s capitol city—and the State Capitol building itself!–with union members, students and their teachers, farmers with picket signs on their tractors, and thousands of supporters from across the Midwest. Labor and its friends occupied Wisconsin.
Come Fall, we occupied Wall Street.
No one saw it coming. Not even your most ear-to-the-ground, deep-in-the-movements, finger-on-the-pulse lefty activist friends thought that a vague-sounding, open-ended protest in a tiny park, initiated mostly by internet institutions was going to spark a prairie fire against “the 1%”. But the dry brush was all in place—three years of the Great Recession, record profits reaped by bailed-out “job creators” while unemployment stayed sky high, public outrage against the racist state murder of Troy Davis after years of struggle to free him, and no “hope” or “change” in sight.
Before the media set out to discredit Occupy Wall Street!, it tried to ignore it. But the idea of The 99% versus The 1% traveled across the U.S. faster than a Youtube video of cute cats. However rough and problematic, this meme is class consciousness for beginners, in soundbite form. And thanks to the slogan’s elegant simplicity it can be easily gasped and reshaped: homemade signs, pop songs, viral videos, dancing flash mobs. “99%” has made class consciousness culturally contagious.
Here are my 5 favorite Occupy Wall Street songs, although frankly the sound of hundreds of thousands of people voicing their anger at the 1% is in itself music to my ears.
Ry Cooder–“The Wall Street Part of Town”
Divide and rule, that’s always been their plan
We’re in trouble again, but this time we got friends
Ry Cooder has been a widely respected guitar wunderkind and pan-roots music alchemist since the 1960’s. In recent decades his progressive, pro-working class politics have increasingly come to the fore. He bought his guitar magic and production skills to Mavis Staples’ reworking on Civil Rights Movement songs on her LP We’ll Never Turn Back (2007), recorded a concept record about the demolishing of a Chicano neighborhood in LA in the 1950’s (Chavez Ravine, 2006), and wrote a song cycle from the point of view of a house cat who is also a union organizer (My Name Is Buddy, 2007). So it should surprise no one that Ry Cooder sides with the 99%.
Recorded at the height of the occupation of Zuccotti Park in NYC, “The Wall Street Part of Town” absolutely brims with optimism and resolve. The songs narrative brings to mind sun breaking through a rain storm, with rays of solidarity and defiance warming your face. You’ve been waiting you whole life to stand up to the banksters and CEOs, you’ve been waiting your whole life to link arms with people in the same sinking boat as you, and now–finally!– if you can just navigate the canyons of New York’s financial district–you’ll get your chance. The act of walking to Wall Street with butterflies in your stomach and your fists clenched is both literal and a fitting metaphor.
Cooder sounds relieved and energized. Relieved that corporate rule is finally being challenged in the streets and energized because, well, taking over the streets with the 99% feels pretty good. And of course the song has a loose, country-fried groove with a subtle but infectious guitar riff…because that’s what Ry Cooder does.
Ten Ton Shoes–“One Percent”
When it comes to protest songs these days we have come to expect folk and hip hop to lead the pack. Folk music because it’s easy to play and is already associated with social change, based on the role it played in the radicalizations of the 1930’s and 1960’s, hip hop because it is the lingua franca of working class youth and of course has a political tradition all its own. But Occupy Wall Street! has produced such a flowering of protest songs that nearly all genres are represented.
So it is with great delight that I discovered this alt.country/rockabilly screed against the 1%. In the spirit of Mojo Nixon, Dead Kennedys’ twangy side, and psychobilly, Ten Ton Shoes gives us a snarling, jacked-up, countrified take on class rage circa 2011. They’ve watched the rich get richer while their neighbors lost their homes and jobs and, frankly, they’re sick of it. So pissed they can barely sing, in fact the vocals here sound more like a laid off worker loosing his cool at a shareholders meeting than those of a Country singer. “Some say tax the rich, I say jail the rich,” all sung to a scuzzy rockabilly guitar line that would make The Meteors proud. If you ever wondered what it would sound like if caustic comedian Bill Hicks fronted 1980’s cowpunk pioneers Jason & The Scorchers, this song comes wonderfully close.
Rebel Diaz–“We Are The 99%”
For the people, for the teachers, for the students
If we knew that just 1% of these dudes own 2/3rds of the US of A
American way, they lock our youth away
Practice the same crimes, tell the rest to eat cake
In France they burn cars, in London they set it off
Well over here it’s time we start building a mass consensus
Your daddy lost his pension, your daughter’s school needs fixin, your brother’s back in prison
The message here ain’t “Kumbaya,” like overnight the change gonna come, nah
But what they got?? We got 99, they got 1…problem, and it’s us
If we wake up that number makes more sense to us all
Some small group of bankers whose wealth goes back ages
Stage one is enslave us, divide and contain us,
Make us strangers with anger, divide us against our neighbors
But in the face of hatred we’re showin’ love to change things
The 99, the 99, the 99%
We’re here, we’ve arrived, and we came to represent
For the 99, the 99, the 99%
This song is the perfect snapshot of the energy and spirit of resistance that pulsed through the Occupy Wall Street! encampment and through the dozens of spin-off mobilizations that rocked New York last fall. Rebel Diaz are an incendiary activist hip hop group from the Bronx. The entire reason they formed as a group was to use music to energize and organize radical social justice movements. This is what they live for. So you can expect to see them down at Zucotti Park, in the mix with everyone from unemployed youth to union militants, doing impromptu performances of topical songs that are so new they probably wrote them on the train ride downtown.
“We Are The 99%” was captured live on the street in the financial district. The song itself ties together so many of the themes of Occupy! and the bridges Occupy! could potentially build: class disparity, unemployment, bank bailouts, incarceration of youth of color, and beyond. The song also connects an analysis of white supremacy to the Occupy! message better than Occupy! ever has. It mentions Troy Davis, whose execution generated immense popular disgust and despair, the still-living rebel spirit of Malcolm X, the recent rebellion against police abuse and austerity in Britain, and the urgent need to “de-colonize.” The song is fresh as hell, in both uses of the word. You can feel the excitement of a movement being born.
Brooklyn’s Talib Kweli was been a political voice in Hip Hop since the mid-1990’s. His group with Mos Def, Black Star, helped kick off “conscious” rap. His song for Occupy Wall Street! takes aim at the plethora of ways that our corporate rulers keep us distracted. Celebrity gossip, fashion, status, pop music—anything to keep us from seeing that the 1% are robbing us blind. The aspect of Occupy! that seems to inspire Kweli the most is its ability to tear through the facade of the media and pop culture and present a more true picture of what’s actually happening in our society: wars fought for the rich, poor people in prison, opulence for those at the top while the ‘hood crumbles. That’s what’s really happening. All this talk about which sunglasses are hot and what Kim Kardashian is up to is designed to keep you blind and immobile. Distractions.
Like many of the artists profiled here, Kweli shot a video for his song at Zuccotti Park. As he breaks down capitalism’s elaborate smoke-and-mirrors tricknology, we see footage of thousands of everyday people with homemade signs that offer proof that the 99% is waking up. Not only is the music video captivating, but readers should search Youtube for amateur footage of Talib Kweli’s live performances at Occupy’s General Assembly.
Makana–“We Are The Many”
Poor One Percenters. They just couldn’t get a break in 2011. When heads of state and CEOs gathered in Hawaii for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation confab in November they were likely expecting a nice weekend of discussing the exploitation of the working class with their fellow kleptocrats. There was even a gala banquet planned with all the fixings, including a Hawaiian folk musician hired to give this thieves’ ball a touch of local color.
But that musician had something else in mind. When he took the stage to sing and play his guitar he unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a message. “Occupy Honolulu” it read, but his statement has just begun. Instead of softly singing a Hawaiian folk song, Makana sang a song he had written specifically for the Occupy Wall Street movement, “We Are The Many.” Like every other artist on this list Makana took the basic concept of the inherent antagonism between the 99% and the 1% and put it in a song. “We Are The Many” is simple, powerful song about the needs of the many being sacrificed for the needs of the few.
The time has come for us to voice our rage
Against the one who trapped us in a cage
To steal from us the value of our wage.
His voice has a sweet timbre, the guitar riff is airy, but his message is as stark as a clenched fist. Don’t let Makana’s smooth, acoustic aesthetic fool you. This song is more Rage Against the Machine than it is James Taylor. Like so many of the best protest songs, “We Are The Many” contains both a seething contempt for oppression as well as a steadfast insistence that justice is on it’s way.
In a sense, Makana used music to pull a political stunt that made Obama & Co. cringe in their seats. But his real audience was the 99%. With his guitar, his homemade t-shirt, and his unassuming self-penned song, Makana mic-checked the 1%. And if you think that the songs message might have been lost over the clamor of corporate palm-greasing, arm-twisting, and back-slapping, you’d be wrong. Makana sang the song over and over and over, for 45 minutes.