Music + Activism: An Editorial

Like certain taboos, music is universal to almost all human cultures. It’s interesting, then, that music has the power to help us collectively overcome our inhibitions. Louis Armstrong’s popularity as a musician made him the first African American to be allowed in many white Americans’ living rooms – even if it was just on their TVsets. And where would popular culture be without Elvis shaking his hips?

So it’s no surprise that music can play as large a role in defining our lives as our lives do in shaping music. The 60s stand out in American history as an era during which music was an especially powerful force: it helped incite a cultural revolution. Look at Woodstock for example: for four days and nights, hundreds of thousands of people came together and essentially set up the ultimate hippie commune, an ideal state if there ever was one. And they were all brought together by their affinity for an exceptional group of musicians, artists who used music as a means of expressing their views and ideas. It’s no coincidence that much of that music was political in content.

The message of a song need, by no means, be explicitly political in order for the song to be socially or culturally relevant: I imagine that, from the 20s through the 50s and 60s, merely appreciating Louis Armstrong’s music was something of a political statement in itself. Many artists, however, do inject overt political and social commentary into their music. This is such a common practice that music today is one of the chief places where young people look to find attitudes and ideals with which they can identify. The world around the musician causes them to express their self in a certain way; the music surrounding the audience causes them to see the world in a new light, thus guiding their vision and actions toward new horizons; and the circle is complete.

An examination of one half of that cycle is the stated purpose of this series of articles. But of course, in publicly discussing the impact music has had on our political identities, we’re really seeking to create a forum in which others may make new discoveries, and possibly even find for the first time an artist that will turn them on to a whole new world.

--Michael Gaworecki, WireTap Guest Editor

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Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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