Radical politics and musical expression are hopelessly intertwined throughout history and revolutions. The political unrest of many generations is echoed in the music of their respective times: Bob Dylan’s folk is woven within the cultural revolution of the ‘60s; Tupac’s lyrics capture the complex experience of a black man in a crucial time and place in civil rights history.
Social justice and political revolutions are almost inherently demanded and enacted by those on the fringe — those disenfranchised groups who don’t benefit from mainstream powers. And no form of self-expression is more democratic or more accessible to those marginalized groups than music; nearly every genre is rooted in the working class and is an organic expression of unrest, anger or dissatisfaction with structural subjugation. And music is a highly logical tool for demanding action toward a cause; it speaks loudly and unapologetically. It permeates our brains and refuses to be forgotten. It is a space that people of color and of poverty have historically been able to access. Both music and political sentiment have the capacity to trigger deep emotion and gut-wrenching relatedness, to rally people behind something greater than ourselves, to activate the heart and mind in a way that feels essentially human, elevated, and profound, and inspires the action necessary for social change.
The Bay Area has long been a pivotal site for social and civil unrest. UC Berkeley was the epicenter of the Free Speech movement; huge groups of young progressives moved into the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco in the ‘60s and ‘70s. North Beach housed prominent revolutionary writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg; massive anti-war protests were staged in San Francisco during the Vietnam War, race riots occurred in Hunter’s Point in 1966 and 1967. Social movements and progressive action spurred by civil unrest are sewed into the fabric of the Bay Area. Contemporary activists draw upon a powerful legacy of revolutionaries who shaped the city before them.
Sam Gabel is a 20-year-old rapper raised in San Francisco, the son of a union organizer and a law professor. His political interest began at a young age; he attended his first picket line at the age of 2. “That’s where I get a lot of my ideas about resisting ‘the man’ and protecting workers,” he says. He is actively involved in movements protesting police brutality and gentrification in San Francisco, as well as being a member of a rap collective that brings young artists and activists together to, in his words, “uplift the consciousness of the human race.” He explains that rap is an effective tool for articulating his political views because it allows him to think about what he’s going to say before he says it; in a world where reporters often manipulate quotes, rap lets him control the conversation. Unlike a speech, “It might not click with the listener right away. … But music is supposed to be a little bit cryptic. It makes people think and develop their own opinion about what I’m saying,” he said. “Rap is a good voice and soundtrack for a movement … because it comes from struggle. It’s the result of deep pain and that’s why it’s so powerful.”
“Rap is a good voice and soundtrack for a movement … because it comes from struggle. It’s the result of deep pain and that’s why it’s so powerful.”
Rap is almost intrinsically political in that it originates from black Americans, a group that have otherwise been historically silenced. The roots of rap and hip hop are traced back to black teenagers living in the South Bronx, who were forced into poverty and squalor by the “urban renewal” projects of the 1970s. The construction of an expressway that sliced through the middle of the neighborhood pushed many families out and left a once thriving community in ruins; the resulting anger and instability was one element leading to the development of rap and hip hop culture. Ultimately, however, music in and of itself has an ability to move people to action. “Music has the power to make people relate to a situation or a feeling,” Gabel said. “Certain people relate to certain music differently, but that’s why there’s so much music. There’s music for everybody.” What is it about music, though, that so effortlessly unites people like no other force? How can music conjure that incredible sense of purpose, togetherness and unity that inspires awakenings and moves revolutions? “Music is a particularly good way to organize and uplift people because it feels good.” He pauses briefly, staring into the distance. “I mean, it feels bad too, but it feels like something.” Perhaps this is the key — the lifeblood of social movements are the feelings, the raw and human emotions that drive us to empathize with one another and demand that it be better for our fellow man.
Boots Riley, of the hip hop group the Coup, has been a community organizer and revolutionary activist in Oakland since the mid ‘80s. He joined the radical groups the Progressive Labor Party and the International Committee Against Racism, or InCAR, at the age of 14 and was a prominent force in the Occupy Oakland movement in the mid 2000s. The music of the Coup is distinctly political, often a call to action. “Music is the words between the words,” he says. “It communicates a lot more than what the lyrics say. It gives folks a basis, a feeling of unity. You listen to a song that resonates with you, and you know at the very least that you’re not alone. And you end up realizing if you relate to that, there’s hundreds, maybe millions of people that feel the same way you do. Music is able to be a rallying cry.”
Riley came to this realization at about 18 years of age, when he was doing work with InCAR in the early ‘90s. At that time, the group passed out fliers in San Francisco’s Double Rock projects every weekend. One Saturday, before the group arrived, a woman named Rossi Hawkins and her twin sons were badly beaten by police. The cops had accused the 8-year-old boys of dealing drugs. Two weeks prior, police had beaten another man, put him in the back of the police car, and, rather than taking him to a hospital, drove around aimlessly until he died. “People didn’t want this to happen again,” Riley explained, “so the whole Double Rock projects came outside — hundreds of people — to try to separate Rossi and her kids away from the cops and take them to the hospital themselves.” In response, the officers shot into the air, and the terrified crowd began to disperse. But at some point, the crowd turned around and ran back. By the end of the night, police cars were turned over and the cops had run away, some without their guns, but the neighborhood had brought Rossi and her children to the hospital. Riley says that nothing was put in the newspapers or reported at all, but the witnesses agreed on this account of events. “The other thing that everyone agreed on is what made them turn back after they started running away,” Riley said.
“This was the summer of 1989 and one of the number one songs, at least on black radio, was “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. So when everyone ran away because of the cops shooting, somebody started chanting, ‘Fight the power! Fight the power! Fight the power!’ And that made them understand that they were there for a reason. They were able to have a unity of thought that turned into a unity of action. And that’s what made them turn back. So right then is when I realized that music can be a rallying cry. It can unify people around these thoughts in a way that just organizing without art can’t do.”
Riley has used his music to tell stories from his life, stories that draw listeners in and make them relate to him as a person. When he imparts ideas about how the system works around his life, “People are following the story. It’s like what a good organizer does,” he explained. “A good organizer is not somebody who just organizes for events and rallies; it’s somebody who people in the community know. And they’re organizing around people’s daily survival. So that when you’re having a discussion about ‘Are you gonna join this strike?’ it’s not just theoretical. That’s what music does; it pushes past the theoretical, because you have a connection with the artist.” Furthermore, Riley argues that music must have an element of positivity to inspire action in listeners. “It isn’t just about exposing the truth; that doesn’t get people to do anything. What gets people involved is the thought that they can do something. That optimism is built through understanding the way the system works and understanding where the power is. And because I have that understanding, it makes my music more funny, more lighthearted, more optimistic. I try to get people involved based on that realization.”
“So right then is when I realized that music can be a rallying cry. It can unify people around these thoughts in a way that just organizing without art can’t do.”
Activism that demands justice, that fights for a revolution, that uplifts workers and people of color, is rooted in a higher power. This higher power is derived from the sheer strength of passionate individuals aligned in purpose, as this becomes a force so much greater than one consciousness. Perhaps this is the ultimate human experience: Being one among many, being a small part of something so much larger than oneself. Why else do people chase love, highs and spirituality? Because it feels so good to let go of trivial fears, self-centeredness and self-doubt, and lose it all in a deeper, truer consciousness. It makes you feel present. It makes you feel real.
Music is also a catalyst to this sensation; Riley says, “Music is consumed in a way that is particularly powerful. It’s something people take in; they soak in that experience; it becomes part of their philosophy. It makes you feel in the moment and feel alive. It makes you feel like, okay, this is now. It makes you feel connected to people, like this is the moment, this is life, and I’m really living.” It’s unity that we’re all chasing. Unity and a sense of connection, a sense of being alive in the truest sense. What is more united than fighting for the rights of your fellow man? And what, but music, makes us feel more strongly the nostalgia, love and despair, the heartbreak and brimming joy, the complexity and honor of the human experience?
Contact Ellie Ridge at [email protected]