Using Your Microphone
“Stick to singing, sweetie.”
Those words will be familiar to many musicians. Artists in every medium have long been told not to speak out about conflict and injustice. They have been told that that’s not their job, that they shouldn’t alienate their audience, that it’s somehow unseemly to bring the struggles of the world into their art. Usually, this is just code for “I disagree with the stance you are taking.” To criticize a musician for expressing their opinions is to willfully ignore protest music’s long history, and artists’ important role in social change.
Since last weekend’s events in Charlottesville, and since last year’s election, I have been grappling with what that role should be. How do I, as a musician, respond to hatred and bigotry? What can I do when I see the long-ignored fault lines in my country violently cracking open around me?
Sometimes, music’s job is simply to make people feel good, to provide an immersive experience where listeners can discard their troubles for a moment. We all deserve to find joy and respite amid the tension wherever we can, and I believe that’s important. It allows us to continue moving forward, to continue the fight. Still, I sometimes feel like I’m quite literally fiddling while Rome (or America) burns. Sometimes we can’t be distracted. No matter your political beliefs, pretty much everyone can agree that America in 2017 is a country of deep division, a country where many people are underrepresented or under attack. It can be easy to get complacent and ignore those divisions, but we have to move beyond them somehow.
I’m reminded of Kaia Kater’s recent interview with Rev Sekou, where Sekou said that “There is no understanding of American Roots music without understanding the legacy of poor people who have struggled in opposition to elites. […] They are struggling to feed their families. And when they can do nothing else, they can sing a song. And that cuts across race.” That legacy is where my music springs from, and I am beginning to see that I have a duty to continue that legacy.
I struggle to write so-called protest songs. It doesn’t come naturally to me the way it does to Kaia, or to my bandmate Mali Obomsawin, who writes beautifully about the experiences and struggles of indigenous people. But until I begin to find my political voice as a writer, I’ll use the microphone I’ve been given.
The independent online music retailer Bandcamp donated their share of an entire day’s music sales to organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Transgender Law Center, and my band joined them in donating our share as well. Last November, we donated all the money we made on CD sales to the water protectors protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.
I could dedicate several columns to my experiences as a woman in a male-dominated industry, but for now I’ll just say that I take my identity as a female instrumentalist very seriously, and I hope that I’m able to help combat sexism in music. I’ve also set a goal to spend more time amplifying the voices of other underrepresented musicians, and listening to them. On that front, I am deeply inspired by the work of my friends at Folk Fights Back, a collective of musicians based in New York and Nashville who organize multi-city concerts each month dedicated to a particular cause.
These are a few ways I’ve found to connect my music with my values. I know that I can do more, and I plan to do more. So if you disagree with my politics, just say so. We can have a conversation, and hopefully find some common ground. But please don’t tell me to stick to singing. Nowhere is it written that musicians must remain neutral, and I don’t believe that neutrality exists in times like these. Indifference is itself a political stance; it is a tacit agreement with whatever is happening around you.
I don’t know how we can overcome the rising forces of white supremacy, the dishonesty of many of our elected leaders, and the stark divisions that exist among us. I’ve been having heavy conversations with my friends over the last few days, asking questions like these: When would you employ violence or risk physical harm to defend the oppressed? How do we reconcile the America that enslaved African people and killed indigenous nations with the America where my Irish, Italian, and Acadian ancestors struggled for a better life, or the America that created jazz and bluegrass? When we call upon our communities to join and lock arms against hatred, how can we ensure that marginalized voices are included? I want to ask those questions not just in my living room or on social media, but with my music. Nina Simone said that it is an artist’s duty to represent the times in which we are living. I strive to accept that duty.