"I grew up reading and collecting the X-Men comic books, says Sergio Robledo-Maderazo. I had a tendency to read politics into them."
Robledo-Maderazo, who plays bass and synthesizer for the Bay Area-based sonic collective From Monument to Masses (FMTM), is wearing a United Farm Workers button with a black defiant eagle on his jacket that might remind many of recent incarnations of the X-Men.
For many, it is hard not to identify with the plight of the X-Men. They were a group of tightly-knit individuals, made outcasts by a society bent on hate and consumption, who employed their advanced powers to defend the marginalized and continue the struggle for justice. Likewise, the members of FMTM possess their own superpowers. They too, use them to encourage and fuel and inspire those who fight against inequality, exploitation, and hate.
Their power has two sides, however. The first, their music, became known when the trio formed in 2001, in a "let our powers combine!" type, Captain Planet-fashion to create very assertive, socially conscious instrumental post-rock. The group also threads samples of the voices of activist and leaders such as Mario Savio, Che Guevara, and Black Panther Fred Hampton over a recurring riff, synth, and beat motorcade.
"The samples are the singers, they are the voice, the past, present, and future," says Francis Choung, who plays drums for the band.
The second side of the group's work informs the members' performances, but might require more humility. Choung works for the Korean Solidarity Committee (KSC) and portrays the struggle of the oppressed through his own documentary films. Matthew Solberg, who plays guitar for the band, works for a child care collective, allowing organizers of color who are also parents more time to do activist work. Robledo-Maderazo teaches in San Francisco, Ca. and advises the members of the Filipino Club at a local high school, where he says he hopes to empower youth to respond to issues in their communities.
FMTM does not force a prescribed message on its audience. Instead, the group hopes that everyone from their fans, to activists, or passersby might be encouraged to have the kind of politically radical ideas that might not be welcomed in other venues. One of the band's goals is to make space in their music "for someone who is coming into consciousness and exploring these ideas. This way, adds Robledo-Maderazo, they will know that there are other people who are thinking about these same things."
From Monument to Masses offers history raw. The band works to supplement the average textbook with primary audio sources. This approach to the history of social justice is a well-received supplement to an education system that tends to present politics as both cut-and-dry and sterilized in a way that does not encourage participation.
"Kids will come and will say, 'I'm really down with the politics, Choung elaborates. Then they'll ask about the samples, and inquire about who that was and what they were saying."
Solberg adds that he hopes "people can see some potential not in just the music, itself, but in the idea that there is a connection between music [or art in general] and politics."
The band doesn't directly call upon its audience to join social activism, but hopes that the urge to respond to ongoing injustice locally, nationally, and internationally might be instilled in their audience. So it's not rare that someone comes up to the band after a show asking to be connected to community organizing.
Solberg has often given out the contact information of groups and organizations in the area to those who are interested in getting more involved, in applying the message in a real context. Along those lines, Choung says, "we've done a lot of directing as far as what other possible people we use [in our samples] and they are people they can listen to and read about as well. It's sort of pushing in a certain direction, he adds, "but ultimately we let them explore it for themselves."
Some might argue that putting the images and words of activists into more hands also poses the threat of diluting the message. When the image of a revolutionary such as Che Guevara appears more often on t-shirts, one might wonder to what extent is an individuals sincere about social change? Is it just cool to be radical?
Although FMTM realizes that there is some danger in popularizing the words and faces of protest in that these messages and icons can be taken out of context and stripped of their meanings, they believe there is much more to gain by introducing people to radical politics, "You know, if a person bought a Che shirt and went to see [The Motorcycle Diaries], I'd be really happy that they wanted to understand who this person was in history and how this person was able to grasp the conditions of his people, the people of Latin America, and how he became the person we know on the T-shirt," Robledo-Maderazo explained.
Radical politics may be popular in progressive communities, but, as Choung adds, "It's still very dangerous and scary in much of the country. You know, it's cool here in the Bay area, he adds, but in other places, it's a very dangerous thing. It's a target on you, basically."
So, like the activist-superheroes they are, the FMTM trio will continue to fight the forces of oppression and silence by touring and recording in hopes that social change may one day become as popular as comic books. After all, Robledo-Maderazo adds, it is youth who have the biggest reason to push for social change.
"Youth come to a point where they realize that they are young and what they're working for is the future, he says. it is their future, and they have the most at stake in it."
To hear a sampling of From Monument to Masses, visit their site.