Music, Art and Activism: Giving Voice to Social Injustice

by Josh Clark

Musician, writer

The relationship between community effort and the effectiveness of any type of activism has been the determining factor of overall change in almost all of human society. However, to maintain a healthy such relationship, the arch of social and political advancement is held up by the keystone of healthy communication. Now if you were to take a look at the current events surrounding us in the present day, you might notice that we’ve conjured a very special type of very unhealthy communication. This is the most evident on the political front, as we as a nation have reached a particular ethical hot spot in our need to identify what is right and what is wrong.

Events taking place on earth at this moment (i.e. acts of terror, acts of legislature, acts of protest etc.) are striking up conversations, and everyone has to take a particular stance and verify which side they’re on…or do they? Is there another more universal form of communication we could use that might allow us to relate to one another more effectively? One that might make us realize that the binary of common political and ethnic views may not be the best way to handle these ever growing issues?

During high school – first semester of the 10th grade – I was introduced to the idea of the protest song. I remember the idea of fusing music and the expression of personal values manifesting itself in my head. The idea wasn’t necessarily foreign but I had not considered how music could be used to convey an ethical, social, and/or political stance. Entire albums I’d listened to before made an entirely new type of sense to me. The Beatle’s track “Piggies,”  off of The White Album now struck me in a different way, as I was now able to fully understand the metaphoric significance of the lyrics referring to the “bigger piggies” and their clearly enhanced form of living compared to the “little piggies.” This is a prime example due to its simple and relatable message: “The distribution of wealth in this world is not even in the slightest proportionate.” This track gives off a bleak, hopeless understanding of the state of things, a protest song on an informative, yet pessimistic front.

 

Piggies by The Beatles

“Have you seen the little piggies?

Crawling in the dirt

And for all the little piggies

Life is getting worse

Always having dirt to play around in

 

Have you seen the bigger piggies?

In their starched white shirts

You will find the bigger piggies

Stirring up the dirt

Always have clean shirts to play around in

 

In their sties with all their backing

They don’t care what goes on around

In their eyes there’s something lacking

What they need’s a damn good whacking

 

Everywhere there’s lots of piggies

Living piggy lives

You can see them out for dinner

With their piggy wives

Clutching forks and knives to eat their bacon?”

 

This type of story telling in songs is also evident in a track performed by The Band.King Harvest (Has Surely Come)  rattles off the tale of a farmer, who essentially loses everything; he endures becoming homeless to become a union farmer by the end of the story. This story is a reference to the sharecropper’s unions formed in the late 1920’s to mid 1930’s. The lyrics in this song is one of the earliest forms of modern political opposition. This original, by The Band, is a more vaguely poised work – as the character, the farmer, is still uncertain of his involvement with the union. The farmer goes on to say: “I’m glad to pay those unions dues,  just don’t judge me by my shoes.” This lyric shines in contrast to the opening lyric from the first verse.

“I work for the union, ‘cause she’s so good to me,

And I’m bound to come out on top, that’s where she said I should be.”

This is a subtle contrast that is representative of the sharecropper’s inner struggle. The decision to defy an unfair employer may be met with termination of all work-flow, however, the union offers social protection for the sharecropper. The sharecropper character speaks highly of the union but does not necessarily give all of his trust to it. This gives the listener a perspective that stimulates thought on the topics of worker’s rights and union ethics, without throwing its bias to one particular side.  

sharecropping
Sharecropping developed throughout the South following Reconstruction and lasted until the mid-twentieth century. Under this arrangement, laborers with no land of their own worked on farm plots owned by others, and at the end of the season landowners paid workers a share of the crop.

Both “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” and “Piggies” attempt to bring light to increasing human compassion in light of the interaction between the characters in the songs who serve as avatars for different groups in society.

This may seem like a simple deduction nowadays, but at the time, especially as an artist, it was completely eye opening for me. This is the universal form of communication that the human race has developed over the centuries. It made immediate sense to me; this is something that opens various “doors of perception” so to speak, as the application of art to convey ideas of increasing importance rises throughout our lives, no matter how artistically talented one person may feel.

So what does this have to do with activism?

In truth, almost any facet of activism one could think of can be conveyed with exceptional accuracy through art. Art allows for the ease of the communication of complex thoughts and arguments. This is because the nature of art allows for the softer delivery of political/ethical/social stances. Even the most blatant, “down with the man,” folk banger has been crafted with intent, whereas, sentences shouted at the picket line are often spur of the moment statements.

This is not to say that traditional gathering of protesters isn’t effective or unnecessary, however we human beings continue to foster this unhealthy communication through subconscious mechanisms that lie within each individual’s moral bias. Examples of this exist primarily on a litany of social media outlets, as the shroud of the internet allows people to utter insults at one another rather than encourage a meaningful conversation. Real-world examples of this occur as a result of people listening to respond, rather than listening to understand.

“Real-world examples of [unhealthy communication] occur as a result of people listening to respond, rather than listening to understand.”

The accessibility of art as a form of activism is due to its chief strength in regards to those of all artistic media, and most importantly, skill-level. Art is often seen as a sort of meritocracy; those who don’t have a special skill or talent can be seen as irrelevant. However, this is a delusion that lies within all artists; it chooses to manifest itself in various ways (i.e. not performing, feeling insecure about their work or its impact.)

This sensation is almost identical to that of the aspiring activist. They fear that they haven’t the momentum to pursue any type of activism. Cemented, or well-known, activists – their likely inspirations – make it look so easy, and yet the amount of effort they’ve put in is so daunting, it’s difficult for one to select a starting point. This is where art has its place in activism, as its accessibility and relative ease of conveyance through numerous media, be it music, visual art, theatre, performance art, dance, or literature.

Art serves as the vehicle for human expression and, thus, is by far the best means of producing a message that can be understood by large populations. Some pieces of art fail to accomplish this, but their messages still offer a point of conversation amongst the masses. At the end of the day: Music, art and activism allow for a more refined form of healthy communication to prevail over misunderstanding.

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