This column originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Canadian Musician magazine.
By Ron Hawkins
The revolution will not be televised. And it sure as hell will not be broadcast on terrestrial radio!
So, what makes an artist decide to paint “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitar, or to sing, “When she talks, I hear the revolution / In her hips, there’s revolutions!”? Well, you’d have to ask Woody Guthrie and Kathleen Hanna.
But from the electro-shock opening sequence of Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” to the spit and power chords of Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls On Parade,” it’s clear there is a path less trodden. And there have always been artists willing to risk commercial black listing in order to sound the alarm.
But why? What’s in it for them?
Don’t get me wrong; Sisyphus is a great name for a metal band, but it’s a bad business model if your intent is to one day float on an inner tube in your L.A. pool – dick in one hand and a bottle of Jack in the other.
The business side of the music business has always been akin to selling cars. Most pop music is at best a type of escapism and at worst just another form of thinly veiled commodity fetishism. But now and again the music side of the music business experiences a revolt, an insurgency of punk warlords and hip-hop guerrillas. And they wanna fight… for their right… to build a party! They take something akin to a Hippocratic Oath, throwing themselves into the struggle with a guitar or microphone in hand. After all, the revolution needs marching songs!
But manifestos don’t make revolutions; people make revolutions.
Lyrics alone are not enough to get people off their phones and out into the streets. Rhythm is a pulse like the one in your chest, and melody is a kind of Morse code that bypasses your left brain and transmits a message straight to your soul. There are flash-points for every artist who has taken to the barricades and it’s usually another artist who lights the fuse.
Agit pop-er Billy Bragg speaks about being immersed in a crowd of thousands at London’s Victoria Park during the 1978 Rock Against Racism rally. The organization was formed to fight the rise of the Neo-Nazi “National Front” in England in the late ’70s and The Clash were headlining. Billy has often testified how the rush of electricity and the furious solidarity that came from that stage and crowd jump-started his burgeoning political folk-punk career.
And I can personally attest to the communion I felt standing on the creaking floorboards of the Masonic Temple in Toronto, once a summer in the ’80s, religiously attending a Billy Bragg show. Every punter left those performances jolted alive by Billy’s energy. And Bill didn’t want you to just go invest that inspiration into buying his t-shirts and cassettes; he challenged you to go out into the streets and be the best, most actualized version of yourself you could be – the best
bicycle repair worker, the best baker, and, okay, maybe the best socialist as well.
The idea was not to leave the show and return to some lonely solitude but to immerse ourselves in the great flow of life. To be a healthy blood cell fighting the malignant ones in that giant organism called humanity.
Often, political artists aren’t telling us anything we don’t already know. “Fuck tha Police”?! Obviously. “Fight the Power”? Where do I sign up? But they are often the key to awakening these existential ideas from the deepest, sleepiest parts of our subconscious and putting them into action.
And these are just examples of potential cultural and commercial suicides. Then there are those guerrilla artists who are such true believers that they risk their very lives by simply singing the truth.
In the ’70s, Victor Jara, a Chilean folk artist, political activist, and communist supporter of Salvador Allende’s Socialist government, was captured by soldiers who supported Augusto Pinochet’s right-wing coup. He was taken to Chile Stadium where other leftists and activists hostile to Pinochet were held, tortured, and executed. The soldiers broke his fingers and taunted him to play his socialist folk songs. Legend has it they cut out his tongue and still he continued to sing until they shot him dead. They left his corpse in the street as a warning to other political opponents.
It’s easy to feel too insecure or self-deprecating to turn one’s pen into a sword. Who am I to preach? What do I have to offer?
That’s all just static. You have a unique perspective and it is your duty as an artist to share that perspective with the world. So you “better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone” cause “sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.” It’s a simple equation: one part piss, one part vinegar. Stir. Repeat.
Your grandchildren will thank you when the airwaves are a force for change instead of just another capitalist wish list of fashion brands, champagne labels, and misogyny.
Songs may not make a revolution, but they are the soundtrack to a world worth igniting a revolution for.
Ron Hawkins is a singer, songwriter, and guitarist from Toronto. His band Lowest of the Low was a fixture of the “indie explosion” of the early ’90s and, along with his solo work and bands The Rusty Nails and The Do Good Assassins, he has released 17 studio albums. For more information, visit www.ronhawkins.com and www.lowestofthelow.com.