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A folk song is what’s wrong and how to fix it or it could be
who’s hungry and where their mouth is or
who’s out of work and where the job is or
who’s broke and where the money is or
who’s carrying a gun and where the peace is.

—Woody Guthrie

In affecting change, we can never forget the inspirational role the arts play—from providing commentary on social and environmental issues to speaking truth to power. I have seen organizations and issues animated by creativity, bringing more meaning to their efforts through the visual arts, the written word, theater, film or music.

Music in particular has played a strong part in shaping our cultural understanding of social change. Whether through the tradition of the folk song, or in the raw energy of punk, the off-beat of reggae or the power of hip-hop or rap, music is able to capture the realities and inequities of our world and issue a call for change. Two recent movies I’ve enjoyed that highlight the connection between music and social change include Marley, a paean to the life of the reggae superstar, and The Art of Rap, a look at the origins and impact of hip-hop.

We have often seen music tied to movement-building—in the soundtrack that punctuated the sixties, the advent of large benefit concerts for particular organizations and issues, and in the personal activism of musicians themselves. Just a few examples of this include the support for Tibet by the late Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, Lila Downs raising social justice issues tied to indigenous people and immigration, Willie Nelson’s calling attention to the plight of family farmers and the need for a more sustainable agriculture, and Michael Franti’s global peace activism intimately tied to his music.

While much of the music industry has always been focused on profits, many artists continue to find ways of tapping into a broader desire for change and express this in the music they create and where they are able to focus their attention and celebrity. A next evolutionary step for music in movement building might be to explore ways we can democratize its power and re-introduce it as a tool for shaping organizational and community cultures. Singing together is a tradition that buoys people while they work in many African communities while in Western cultures, music seems to be more of an individual pursuit or its enjoyment happens outside of the workplace.

Harnessing the message—and the inspiration—from music and other arts has the potential to transform our social change practice by accessing different ways we think and feel about the work we are doing. Try listening to a song that inspires you when you start the day or before starting on a project, play a clip of some music before a meeting, or take a break in your work during the day to recharge, using some music you love to remind you of the importance of the work you are doing.

Here’s some music from the Black-Eyed Peas that started my day today. Enjoy! (apologies for the unavoidable ad at the start)

The Black Eyed Peas - Where Is The Love?

FEATURED RESOURCE:  Playing for Change

Playing for Change is an extraordinary effort which asks people all over the world to share their music as a way of inspiring and connecting folks across cultures. I invite you to learn more about their story and enjoy some of the songs they’ve captured.

FEATURED “POEM”: See How We Are by X

This month’s “poem” is a long-time favorite song of mine which poignantly highlights the external and internal obstacles we face in addressing social change—I’ve always found this to be a stark reality check while being hopeful and calling out for deeper change in ourselves and our world.

If you like, you can also watch a video of Exene Cervenka and John Doe of the legendary proto-punk band X performing an acoustic version of this song:

X - See How We Are.


See How We Are

There are men lost in jail

Crowded fifty to a room
There’s too many rats in this cage of the world
And the women know their place
They sit home and write letters
And when they visit once a year
Well they both just sit there and stare

See how we are
Gotta keep bars in between us
See how we are
We only sing about it once in every twenty years
See how we are
Oh see how we are

Now there are seven kinds of Coke
500 kinds of cigarettes
This freedom of choice in the USA drives everybody crazy
Down in Acapulco
Well they don’t give a damn
About kids selling Chiclets with no shoes on their feet

See how we are
And the Mexico City tourist says to the Indian: “Get the fuck outta my way”
See how we are
We only sing about it once in every twenty years
See how we are
Oh see how we are

Now that highway’s coming through
So you all gotta move
This bottom rung ain’t no fun at all
We got fires and rockhouses and grape-flavored rat poison
They are the new trinity
For this so-called community

See how we are
Gotta keep bars on all of our windows
See how we are
We only sing about it once in every twenty years
See how we are
Oh see how we are

Well this morning the alarm rang at noon
And I’m trying to write this letter to you
About how much I care and why I just can’t be there
To draw your bath and comb your hair

Last night in a nightspot
Where things aren’t so hot
My friend said, “I met a boy and I’m in love”
I said, “Oh really… What’s this one’s name?”
She said, “His first name is Homeboy”
I said “Could his last name be Trouble?”

See how we are
Homeboy… Isn’t that a South Central gangster name?
See how we are
We only sing about it once in every twenty years
See how we are
Oh see how we are
Yeah see how we are

June 2012