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8 Musicians Making New Music to Occupy Wall Street

And people say there's no more protest music. Wrong!
 
 
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Contemporary musicians are always being accused of not being political enough. They aren’t Bob Dylan or Nina Simone or Woody Guthrie, the complainers grouse, or Joan Baez or Joe Hill, the author of all those famous Wobbly songs. Particularly in times of strife—say, 9/11 up to now—there is a warped perception that today’s songwriters simply aren’t concerned with contemporary events, and that the alleged narcissism of this generation has rendered political music moot. In the last 10 years, there have been approximately 2,000 thinkpieces written about this non-fact. It’s true, Google it. (Et tu, Ziggy?)

But the idea that there is no political music today is, if I may say so, propagandist BS. There are political musicians, and there is political music—it’s just that the best kind doesn’t necessarily mimic the modes of 50 years ago (goodbye, folk) and the people spewing forth such nonsense aren’t necessarily looking in the right places (hello, hip-hop). Granted, they aren’t exactly populating the top 10 (although here’s a good attempt at chronicling some of the more mainstream), but if you’re not wearing blinders, you can find it—and it totally doesn’t have to suck! Indeed, the Occupy movement is pulling musicians out of the woodwork, with many artists big and small dropping by to show support and perform. With that in mind, here are the best, most political songs by some of our favorite musicians who’ve lent their support to Occupy Wall Street et al. Proving that bashing working musicians as apolitical is not just dunderheaded, it’s straight up wrong.

1. Katy Perry, “Who Am I Living For?

Perry joined her husband Russell Brand and life magnate Russell Simmons at Occupy Wall Street a few weeks ago, but it wasn’t the first time the pop superstar has made explicit her political leanings, which top Lady Gaga’s by a landslide. No, we’re not talking about the misstep that was her tokenist girl-kissing song. In June, she spoke up for universal health care, telling Rolling Stone:

I think we are largely in desperate need of revolutionary change in the way our mindset is. Our priority is fame, and people's wellness is way low. I saw this knowing full well that I'm a part of the problem. I'm playing the game, though I am trying to reroute. Anyway, not to get all politically divulging and introspective, but the fact that America doesn't have free health care drives me fucking absolutely crazy, and is so wrong.

Certainly the revolution she was looking for is represented in OWS, which she promoted on Twitter to her more than 11 million followers. But this is not a totally new development, and her candied pop hits aren’t completely devoid of political undertones, either. In “Who Am I Living For,” from her 2010 album Teenage Dream, over a dramatic, dubstep-influenced beat, she sang, I am ready for the road less traveled/ Suiting up for my crowning battle/ This test is my own cross to bear/ But I will get there. And the chorus? I can see the writing on the wall/ I can’t ignore this war/ At the end of it all/ Who am I living for? Full of biblical allusions, the song is certainly about finding the courage to be part of some kind of resistance—whether or not it’s about Perry’s Christian upbringing, as some have suggested, it’s a righteous anthem for the brave souls currently sleeping in tents at Occupy Wall Street, and a great reminder that Jesus was himself a revolutionary.

2. John Legend & the Roots, “Wake Up Everybody!

For those who need their current political music to be centered in that of the past, John Legend and the Roots’ cover of the 1975 revolutionary song by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes is pitch-perfect and super-relevant. The world won’t get better if we just let it be, the chorus goes, we gotta change it, you and me. Released on the performers’ expressly political album Wake Up!(2010), it’s just an extension of a long career of outspokenness and opinion the Roots have had from the beginning—and you know that Questlove, at the very least, has been supportive of Occupy Wall Street. He told Urban Daily:

It’s taken 99% of the people long enough to finally wake up and see the power that they hold in their hands. A lot of people think revolution and change will be the next man’s fight. They want to hang back and see what happens and it doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to get your hands and knees inside the mud. You have to be a part of the change you want to see. We’ll see what happens because this is just the beginning.

Inspiring, and certainly echoes the song. The Roots’ website, Okayplayer, has had this OWS support page up for weeks.

3. Moby, “The Right Thing

Moby, the vegan electronic musician, has a long history of staunch politics, and appeared in a Musicians Occupy Wall Street video along with the Roots, Talib Kweli, Bilal and other musicians. In May, he released his 10th album, Destroyed., and in an interview with the Ibiza Voice printed earlier this year, he discussed his own issues with class, having grown up on welfare and food stamps in Darien, Connecticut—the wealthiest town per capita in the entire United States.

We were poor. Our clothes were secondhand, our furniture was secondhand and I just assumed that was the natural order of things, some people had been born to privilege and some people had not. Everyone in my family was pretty comfortable with this we weren’t social climbers my aunts and uncles are all artists and there all pretty happy being poor.

That’s one of the reasons I became a musician, I love music but I never thought it would lead to a job. I thought I would spend my life making music and maybe being a university professor teaching what I studied in school, philosophy and never having money, never having an audience and being relatively ok with that.

Destroyed is an album about the endless anonymity of touring, but “The Right Thing” is nevertheless Occupy-appropriate. A plaintive guitar track with a violin solo in place of Moby’s trademark electronic flourishes, guest vocalist Inyang Bassey sings soulfully, It’s time I do the right thing. A perfect motivator for those still on the fence about Occupying.

4. Kanye West & Jay-Z, “Made In America

Kanye West got a lot of flack for going down to Occupy Wall Street after a shopping trip in Soho (with Jay-Z and Beyonce, of course), and while wearing a very 1 percent outfit consisting of Givenchy and gold chains. While his latest album with Jay-Z, Watch the Throne, is essentially all about being part of the .5 percent, if not the 0.25 percent, we can’t help but contextualize it: a lot of those songs are based in triumph about being formerly impoverished African American men who became wealthy and successful in the face of impossible odds, particularly considering blacks are poorer and more likely to be unemployed than whites, Asians and Latinos in the US.

Still, not all of the album is ridiculous name-dropping and ballin' out of control (which gets quite annoying after about two songs): “Made in America” tells their tale in a more sympathetic fashion, with no small thanks to ebullient singer Frank Ocean, whose hook—Sweet baby Jesus, we made it in America—sounds mournful, incredulous and thankful all at once. The rappers’ brazen brags about their lifestyle are tempered by their narratives—that West went from struggling with his beats to lacing up his mother with a nice car, and that Jay-Z was a young gun cooking crack, but now hopes to pass on his legacy to his unborn child. So maybe it’s not riot music, but it represents the aspirational undertones of most rap music from its very beginnings—far from what out-of-touch people call “bling,” the fetishization of consumer goods in rap is so prevalent precisely because so many of its practitioners, or the people it represents, have so little. In that sense, we’re gonna go ahead and let Watch the Throne be a 1 percent album dedicated to the 99 percent.

5. Tom Morello (as the Nightwatchman), “World Wide Rebel Song

Morello’s the guy most people out here know, a modern saint of political music and recent recipient of MTV’s newly created O Award for Occupy Wall Street. The Rage Against the Machine guitarist has been outspoken about the movement, and has showed up at Wall Street and Occupy LA—in fact, he seems to appear at any significant progressive political protest, making his folk alter ego, the Nightwatchman, into a sort of Woody Guthrie type for our time. Speaking of Guthrie, that’s exactly who he covered on October 13 in Liberty Plaza, doing “This Land is Your Land” for an enthusiastic crowd, before launching into his class war anthem, “The Fabled City.” But a more recent call to protest comes in the form of “World Wide Rebel Songs,” off his 2011 album of the same name (whose cover art shouts out Phil Ochs): Pirates, blood suckers and bank men/ Got us picking through the crumbs/ Raise your voices all together/Motherfucka here we come!Which is just SO fun to sing, and underscores a fundamental truth: protest music is at its best when it’s a good time.

6. Lupe Fiasco, “State Run Radio

This political rap star has been at Occupy movements all around the US as he tours this fall, and has donated (and personally dropped off) supplies in Chicago and New York. His latest album, Lasers, depicts the A in the title as an anarchy sign, and that’s about what you get when you talk to him about politics. (There is, for example, his infamous “Obama is the biggest terrorist” statement.) “State Run Radio” both alludes to the end of his record contract and the dependence of corporate radio stations on major labels (and vice versa), and uses the concept as a prescription for class war, rapping, We interrupt this broadcast/to bring you this special message about the forecast/ the future’s cloudy and it’s rainin on the poor class. See you in the trenches, Lupe.

7. Jane’s Addiction, “Idiots Rule

Perry Farrell, leader of Jane’s Addiction, pulled his kids out of school to take them to Occupy, though he didn’t perform. And in honor of the band’s reunion (and because we haven’t had time to fully ingest the political content of their latest album, The Great Escape Artist, which came out October 18), it seems appropriate to pull out a classic jam from their back catalog for this list. Hey, the ‘90s are back, right? “Idiots Rule,” from their debut album Nothing’s Shocking, expresses just the right amount of sarcasm for the Internet generation: a sassy, upbeat sax, jovial slap-bass, and Farrell gleefully singing about the yahoos who comprise much of government. And they wrote it in 1985! Some things never die... yet.

8. Talib Kweli, “Distraction

The ever-political rapper from Brooklyn actually freestyled “Distraction” at one of his Occupy Wall Street visits, making it perhaps the first song that was actually born in the movement. He used his first visit there in early October—which he later said made him “proud to be an American”—to rail on rappers he perceives as misguided, celebrity-worshiping culture, and the ironic colonial impulse of Anglo-Saxon America (Steal the land from the Native American and make our missiles Tomahawks, touche Talib.) But it really is a good rap on paper, in which he flips his lyrics quite cleverly: The people so thirsty, what they seeing is mirages/ But this passion Photoshopping and your YouTube collages/ Coming through like Collossus/ Exposing the false prophet. And to double the irony, we will direct you to his performance of this freestyle with a link to YouTube.

There are plenty more where that came from, as these are just the folks who’ve made it to Occupy so far—but hey, if people down at Occupy Oakland or Occupy London are playing Rihanna, doesn’t that automatically make it protest music? It’s about what gets people motivated to fight.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.