(This is an exerpt from my book, SHOTGUN SAMURAI VAMPIRE HIP HOP, though here it's a bit expanded and revised. Figured I'd post it here, even though i might lose a few million dollars in book sales. Feel free to add on too; these are just a few ideas).
I know first-hand that it can be a challenge to balance being an artist with being an activist. As one becomes more successful on one front, the other has to play the background; doing a good job at either one is a full-time responsibility. So I’ve done a lot of thinking about the role of art in social movements, and here’s what I’ve come up with.
I know some people think that music is this all-powerful entity and that if we all just held hands and sang “What’s Goin’ On” the Pentagon would turn into a giant sunflower, but I never really bought that. I think music can be inspirational, educational and powerful, but only in the right context. Art, I believe, has to ultimately play a supplementary role in “the movement.” If we’re just singing songs about injustice, that’s great, but the only way to really make change is to organize.
Here are seven things artists can do to support that organizing process:
Fundraisers are always great because everyone ends up happy: the fans get a good show, the organization gets some much-needed cash, and the artists get good press and possibly exposure to a new audience. It’s always kind of amazed me that so many indie artists stick to the “three bands at a club and we’ll split the door” model of gigging night in and night out. Sure—that’s how you make money, especially if you’ve got a decent following, but a lot of acts could stand to gain by doing that less and considering more benefit shows, maybe even just once every few months. And for certain community organizations, one show, a few hundred dollars, could make a huge difference. The first step is really just networking with organizations, sending a few emails. The rest is easy.
2. Benefit Compilations
Related to the first point, this involves pulling together an album (perhaps from donated songs from artists you know) and putting all the proceeds toward a good cause. Again, everybody wins. It’s a little more work, but most bands and rappers and poets have at least a track or two laying around that didn’t make their album. Sometimes these discarded tracks are real gems too—compilations are great for compiling them.
3. Workshops for Youth
Many cities have arts programs set up either as in-school or after-school clubs and meetings. Get involved! If your city doesn’t have anything, set up a meeting with the relevant people (principals, teachers, youth activists, etc.) and make it happen. Youth really need more outlets for their creative energy—we all know how school can suck the life out of us. I’ve done all kinds of writing and performance workshops, both hip hop and poetry-based, and they’re always rewarding experiences for everyone involved. And it’s not just hip hop or poetry; you can teach kids to play guitar, or sing or whatever.
4. Using Performance Space as Activist Space
Even if your shows aren’t always fundraisers, they can always be political and activist-oriented. Make friends with local organizations you support and let them table at your events. Have flyers promoting the next big march or rally or teach-in next to flyers promoting your next show. Make announcements on stage about candidates you support or referendums people should vote for or events they need to attend.
5. Sharing Your Networks and Promotional Skills
As artists, we all have email lists and thousands of friends on MySpace, good connections with the local media and a whole lot of experience promoting events, putting up flyers and getting the word out. We can use that networking power for more than our own shows. Again, make friends with good local organizations and offer to help them out on the promotional front.
6. Put Your Mic Down and Go to a Meeting
As much as music can take over your life, it’s important to make time for the issues you care about. Singing songs about Darfur isn’t going to do much. We can be more effective as “artist/activists” than we can as “conscious artists.” We all have causes we care about; it’s usually just a matter of finding other like-minded people and getting to work. For those of us who are “professional” artists and have very little free time, consider the other points on this list, or come up with new, creative ways to work on the issues that are important to you without torpedoing your career or driving yourself insane.
7. More Thoughtful, Challenging Songwriting
For those who do insist on writing political material, just keep in mind that you’ll probably be preaching to the choir. So to me, that means that if you want to make any kind of real impact, you have to challenge people. Don’t write a song about how “racism is bad,” write a song about how even well-meaning people can commit racist acts. Don’t rap about “revolution,” rap about the importance of community organizing and why voting isn’t enough. Don’t try to cram every injustice in the world into a three minute poem—pick one and tell a story about it, humanize it.
Though I write a lot about how art can’t save the world, it CAN have an impact—I don’t want to understate that. Poetry is elevated language—we should have elevated ideas to reflect that language. More on all that here, in a previous post.
All in all, everyone needs to balance their activism with their lives. As artists, we're lucky-- our lives are uniquely suited for a kind of synergy-- finding time to work on important issues doesn't necessarily have to take time away from playing shows and networking and all the stuff we have to do every day anyway. It just takes some creativity.
And it can be easy to do this poorly or ineffectively. I love the idea behind, say, "Punk Rock Against Global Warming" or whatever, but i think it's important to think about the events we produce-- is it all about the name, or are we building bridges and opening up lanes of communication for something deeper? Are we doing something that really makes a difference, or are we just "making people think?" Not that there's anything wrong with the latter, but we can't forget about the former.
Check out SUBSTANCE, a great organization in the Twin Cities devoted to social justice and the arts. They're going to be promoting a bunch of events this spring and summer.