Monday, April 4, 2011

Music and Politics

Music and Politics.

That phrase looks just as awesome to me today as it did nearly four years ago, when I first saw it as an incoming Lehigh freshman. In the College of Arts & Sciences, every freshman is required to select a "freshman seminar" to take during their first semester at school. Now these "classes" cover a ridiculously wide spectrum of human knowledge, letting freshman who have yet to experience their first college class choose from subjects like "Intro to Theater," "Prehistoric Religion, Art and Technology," and even "The Drugging of America." In high school, all my classes had dry, academic sounding names like U.S. History, or AP Statistics, so the prospect of taking a class all about the "Lives and Legacies of Great Explorers" was pretty exciting. But there was one class in particular that really caught my eye: Music and Politics. My mother, who majored in music in college, instilled a love for music in both her children at a very young age. And growing up just outside the beltway (AKA Washington D.C.) meant I was no stranger to politics, at least from an observational standpoint. But I had never really considered that there was any link between the two subjects until I found them juxtaposed so boldly against each other in my freshman orientation packet. So, curiosity piqued, I chose Music and Politics as my first choice for a freshman seminar.

Taught by the award-winning, internationally renowned concert pianist and conductor Eugene Albulescu, Music and Politics proved to be everything it suggested and more. For starters, Professor Albulescu (who will hereafter be referred to as Eugene, as he insisted we call him in class), plays the piano so beautifully that he must have made a bargain with the devil at some point, which made class more of a privilege than a responsibility. And our class discussions were constantly teaching me new things about artists I thought I had known. For example, I found out that Richard Wagner was a virulent anti-semite, even going so far as to publish an essay called "Das Judenthum in der Musik" (Judaism in Music) to 'helpfully' explain why Jewish composers such as Felix Mendelssohn are biologically incapable of producing song or music (the Flight of the Valkyries sounds much more sinister to me now than it used to). I also found out that the Bob Marley classic "Buffalo Soldier" was meant to be a rallying cry against racism in America. But what fascinated me most about the role of music in political discourse was its ability to subvert the rules and norms of society in order to create change. Whether you're talking about Woodstock, The Concert for Bangladesh, or Live Aid, musicians have time and time again proven that they can use their voices to usher in real, positive societal change, in addition to simple entertainment.

So when I read "Taking on the System" by Markos Moulitsas Zúñiga, aka 'Kos,' I was immediately drawn to the idea of using music to bypass, crush, and influence the 'gatekeepers.' Gatekeeper is Kos' derisive term for people in positions of power and control (think Marxism and its fascination with the individuals who control the means of production). Now don't get me wrong here, despite his ambition, popular success and organizational prowess, Kos is certainly no Saul Alinsky. "Taking on the System" reads more like a history of successful progressive community organizing efforts than a manual for radical protest. And I'm sure that while some people would be interested that the writer of the self-proclaimed "most influential political blog in the nation" can cite example after example of successful political campaigns, most were expecting a bit more pragmatism out of what Kos has dubbed the "Rules for Radicals of the digital age."

But the gatekeepers idea is interesting to me, especially since Kos used the music industry as an example to explain his point. Eugene's class was my first educational brush with music and politics, but it wouldn't be my last. In my sophomore year, I was introduced to international hip-hop when I read Heavy Metal Islam- Rock, Resistance and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam for an Anthropology class. The book is a travelogue of sorts, written by heavy metal musician and Middle Eastern history professor Mark LeVine. The title alone was enough to draw me in, but the stories I found inside provided a unique, first hand perspective of hip-hop in a different country that I had never seen before. Below, I've included my first impressions of Heavy Metal Islam. They were written for another blog I wrote on international hip-hop when I first read the book, before I was blessed with the wisdom of J325, but I think most of the insights still hold true.

Now despite being a white kid from the suburbs of Washington D.C., I've always loved hip-hop. When I first discovered the genre, I was fascinated by the way artists sampled and blended different bits and pieces of music together to create a mélange of music. I was a big fan of all kinds of hip-hop, and I even hosted my own radio show freshman year for two hours every Friday. So when I read Heavy Metal Islam, LeVine's description of the ways that artists communicate and collaborate in the Middle East amazed me.

“Our whole life is inside,” describes a musician from a popular Iranian metal band, “Inside you don’t need to wear your veil, you can blast your music, dance… and otherwise feel free" (176). This is a common sentiment among artists. In Iran, musicians are restricted mostly by the Islamic government. All music must be approved by the Ministry of Culture, which screens for anything from rebellious lyrics to guitar riffs that are just a bit too edgy. Cassette tapes, which were banned by Khomeni after the Iranian revolution, are bought and sold by fans like illegal drugs. Public concerts are regularly shut down and heavy metal artists are reduced to playing “metal theatre,” where patrons must be seated, and cannot headbang or dance. So in repressive cultures like this, how do artists collaborate to put out decent music, and create communities where they can share this music and their culture? One word: Internet

"Hanging around the internet has become the equivalent of hanging out on the street corner,” LeVine declares (18). And it’s true, the internet has proliferated most countries in the Middle East to the extent where almost any city dweller can afford an hour at an internet café to link up and share information across national and cultural boundaries. Indeed, the very existence of LeVine’s text owes thanks to the internet, without which he would have never met all the musicians and politicians that he did. He met Reda Zine, one of the most influential figures in Heavy Metal Islam, through the internet. In LeVine’s own words, “It was just a matter of time before [they] went from chat rooms to rehearsal rooms, the recording booth, and ultimately to sharing the stage” (25). What is even more important is when the power of the internet to unite people goes beyond these transnational bridges, and establishes local bonds. People who live under oppressive governments, where finding a public space to perform and share non-traditional music is difficult, have turned to the internet to create local communities based around musical movements. The web magazine Tehran Avenue has succeeded in creating a “means of bringing the vibrant underground scene of Tehran aboveground” (192). The magazine hosts regular web based music competitions where local artists can share and discuss their music. This allows musicians and fans who would otherwise be oblivious of each other a chance to communicate and establish a common community. These communities are even beginning to gain the courage to speak out against the government. LeVine talks extensively about the flourishing blogger scene in Egypt, and how it has become one of the primary outlets for activists who want to voice their opinion. They are even training other activists in technical matters and blogging techniques. The members-only metal community (no longer exists) is another place where artists and fans alike can speak out about politics with lessened fear of government backlash. The ability to have anonymity on the internet and garner widespread report even allowed the web site Marock Sans Frontiers (Morocco without Borders) to post an open letter challenging the Moroccan King, which is a definite no-no in Morocco. The internet has provided a ground-breaking forum for citizens to assemble and create public communities, complete with a public group identity.

In Egypt an artist’s popularity is heavily dependent on their MySpace page. In Lebanon, the rap duo Soap Kills has chosen to distribute their music online to avoid corporate restrictions and reach a broader audience. In Iran, rapper Peyman-Chet uploads his raps to the internet to be downloaded by thousands of people worldwide. Does any of this sound familiar? It should, because all over the world musicians are using the internet to disseminate their music and create virtual communities. Here in the United States, the artist Girl Talk and the band Radiohead both chose to release their most recent albums online for free. Hip hop in America is heavily reliant on mix tape sites like where artists, beat makers, DJs and lyricists can collaborate across the world. The internet is one of the musician’s greatest tools, and it allows music to travel to places where it can attract brand new audiences and bring people together despite cultural boundaries. Slowly, cultural revolution is coming to countries which are in desperate need of change. Iranian rappers are beginning to reclaim public space through internet advertised rap battles in the park. Young people are traveling through the cities of the Middle East blasting hip hop and heavy metal they downloaded off the internet through their car speakers and iPods, while tagging their favorite artists’ names on the walls of the subways and buildings. Hopefully, if the movement continues, the internet will allow those people in the Middle East who have been forced to build online societies to enact real change, and eventually, bring their public, group identities back into the real world.
In hindsight, I'm pretty proud of this post. I, like Kos, cited Radiohead's free "In Rainbows" release as significant because the band subverted the typical gatekeepers by giving their album to the fans, rather than the record companies (although I now realize that Girl Talk only released his album for free because you can't legally profit off an album composed entirely of samples under copyright laws). And in February, LeVine wrote an excellent editorial for Al-Jazeera about how young people in the Arab world have ignored the typical gatekeepers of the western world in favor of a people-powered revolution.

But music, much like twitter or facebook, is not responsible for causing revolution or change (despite what CNN says). Music is simply a tool, or maybe even less than that, music is an issue. It's something that people can gather around, a simple, concrete goal that effects change (COUGHSUCCESs modelCOUGH). All it takes to create a great song is an idea, a couple voices and some enthusiasm. Add in about $3000 and you can even create an international music sensation overnight. And that's why "Taking on the System" isn't a total waste of time- it's about the stories, not the rules. While I wouldn't give Kos the "most influential" title, it would be foolish to say that he hasn't inspired some pretty big political movements. He reinvigorated "people power" in a country that has all but given up on it. And I'm certainly a fan of that.

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