Music as a Tool for Activism

Music is the universal language. 

That being the case it has long been used as a tool to expose social injustice and to spur community activism. From Sam Cooke’s, “A Change is Gonna Come” to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin On” to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, the power of music and song as tool to protest injustice and spur change is enormous. Music provides a framework and platform through which to package and present an idea or point of view. As a result, music can serve to open up conversations and spur reflection and action relating to the issues of the day. 

While some are inclined to dismiss or ridicule musicians when they speak out regarding anything other than music (“Shut up and just entertain us!”), the fact is, musicians often serve as our society’s conscience. And in times of social and political strife a musician’s role in this regard becomes particularly important. Given the current social and political currents swirling in America today, now more than ever, musicians are going to have to seriously consider how they can best wield and leverage that power to illuminate not only social injustices but many other issues and concerns. 

There is one issue in particular that has come to the forefront of our national dialogue that musicians are uniquely positioned to exert their influence. Specifically, the mounting attacks on the role of, and access to, educational opportunities in the arts.

It has been reported that the Trump administration is seriously considering eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) as part of a plan to dramatically slash government spending. The NEA supports participation and scholarships in the arts, works to ensure equal access to arts and culture for all Americans and partners with state and local leaders to support creative initiatives at the local level. It’s no exaggeration to claim with almost absolute certainty, the average citizen has been exposed to or experienced an NEA related arts event within the past year. The administration’s argument is extremely disingenuous as the NEA is .003 percent of the national budget and abolishing it will do little to curb spending. 

Why is this proposed cut so shortsighted and self-destructive?

The intrinsic benefits of music to the individual are well documented. Music can provide an individual with pleasure and emotional stimulation. And research regarding the benefits of participation in music as it applies to specific intellectual and academic skills such as math, reading, language and logic continues to accumulate. 

But the societal benefits of music are also significant. We live in an age where the challenges facing our society, whether at the local, state, national or international level, whether relating to health care, the environment or global politics, are becoming increasingly complex. In order to effectively address these increasingly complex issues and challenges, we must develop in our populace, a corresponding increase in creativity. And research tells us that the most effective tool in our educational and community arsenal to teach creativity is music and the arts. In such an environment, we should be investing more in programs in the arts. And musicians should be leading the charge in actively advocating for such increased investment.

But that’s not the only issue musicians can use their talents and visibility to spur community activism. In the current political climate there is plenty of need for increased activism on issues such as the environment, income inequality, health care reform, a wide range of civil rights and voting rights concerns, among many other issues. The stakes relating to all of these issues are particularly high and seemingly are getting higher by the day.    

For example, music is also a powerful community-building tool as its universal nature allows for cross cultural connections and understanding. Music’s power and potential in this regard can be applied to another burning issue - the administration’s travel ban on refugees from various Muslim countries and general crack down on immigrants.  

When people of different races or creeds, despite language and cultural differences, can share and enjoy music together, it opens possibilities to bridge cultural divides. In an age of increasing balkanization, walls, bans, stratification and separation, rather than defunding arts programs we need to radically increase investment in activities that bring people together. In an increasingly diverse world, we need tools that are universal in nature that serve to bind rather than separate people. 

In the case of accepting and integrating refugees, music can be an effective tool in fostering their integration into their new communities. And refugees, in a strange, new country, can seek solace and comfort when they play music from their culture. 

Lancaster, PA recently bore witness to music’s power in this regard during a recent concert to raise awareness and resources for an organization that settles refugees. Not only did a very diverse crowd come together around a shared musical experience, it also offered a glimpse into the cultures of the various newly settled refugee families when several of the refugees performed songs from their culture. It was a powerful community-building experience.                         

In short, today we need musicians more than ever to leverage the power of music as a tool to educate, inform, enlighten and inspire. 

It’s no time for musicians and artists to be shy about speaking up through music and song. And yes, one person or one band can make a difference. It’s time to tune up your guitars, plug in your amps, revamp your set lists to include the likes of Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye or Public Enemy or compose some songs of your own that speak truth to power.

The power of music to help create meaningful change is in your hands.

Justin Rule

creative director