Singing in solidarity

A Tribe Called Red found themselves pitted against their predominantly Caucasian fan base as they stepped onto the stage at the Electric Forest Festival in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was the summer of 2013, and a disturbingly large portion of the audience was wearing Native American headdresses in an unsuccessful attempt to integrate with the show’s Indigenous themes. Those responsible for playing “Indian” dress-up seemed unaware of their obvious racism in doing so, and, in the process, managed to take a step backwards in the uphill climb that is race relations for Indigenous people in North America. Collectively, we cringed.

A Tribe Called Red is a Canadian EDM collective that consists of three members, all of whom are of Aboriginal descent. They are one of many Indigenous musical acts that have been politically outspoken in their music, and have joined forces with Idle No More and other political movements to help bring some resolution to the Aboriginal situation in Canada and the United States.

The genesis of Indigenous protest in music seems to come from artists like Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Cree singer/songwriter active in the latter half of the twentieth century, but is neatly summed up in five minutes by a former Indigenous hip-hop trio from the late ’90s called War Party. One of their most popular songs, “Feeling Reserved,” spells out their struggle and responsibility to take action in the song’s chorus: “I’m feeling reserved/Man, that’s how I’m living/I’ve gotta do with this mic I’ve been given/To try to get by, no word of a lie/We’ve got to try to restore pride.” It’s a fantastic song, stringing politically conscious lyrics over a slow and steady groove, allowing the listener ample time to revel in the song’s medley of political and melodic ingredients.

War Party’s thought-provoking song is a staple of what we can call “protest music” for Indigenous peoples, and the same goes for the works of Buffy Sainte-Marie and A Tribe Called Red. These Indigenous artists, though,  are a small sample of the long history of protest music in popular culture. Professor Joshua Pilzer, who teaches a course entitled “Survivor’s Music” for the U of T Faculty of Music, provides some context for the origins of expressing political discontent through music.  “The idea of music as protest is very old,” says Pilzer. “Much classical and religious thought, from East Asia to Greece to the Middle East, has long held that music expresses a moral order and in other words, the right relations between tones and instruments is an expression of the way things should be organized in society in general.”

Looking back at past political movements by marginalized groups of people, music can be seen as playing a significant role in their various forms of demonstration. The African-American Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s, for example, was accompanied by artists such as Mavis Staples, Aretha Franklin, and Curtis Mayfield, all of whom incorporated the ideology of the movement into their music in order to help further its reach. Later on, during the third-wave feminist movement of the ’90s, bands like Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill helped to develop a sub-genre of punk music known as “Riot Grrrls,” a genre which allowed for these musicians to be openly vocal about women’s rights in North America.

Nowadays, artists such as Pussy Riot, D’Angelo, and plenty of others are creating music to represent each of their respective revolutions. Look at any uprising of an oppressed group of people, and you’re bound to find a soundtrack as an accompaniment. This begs the question as to why music is so often used as a medium to express problems within our society. Why not protest through public speeches and gatherings, where you’re open to the public eye and guaranteed attention from the media?

According to Pilzer, much of this has to do with the creative freedom that comes with making music. “Music, conceived of as a form of entertainment, is often thought of as relatively harmless or unimportant,” he says, continuing, “So rather than speech, which is often closely monitored by states and people in power, music, in a way, is less policed. Oftentimes people make music intentionally designed to sound happy while expressing political and other kinds of criticism, so that only the initiated know about the critique. In this way, music can placate people in power while serving as a medium for political foment.”

While plenty of protest music is created with these sorts of tactics to guide them, many musicians simply speak their minds, candidly and without any sorts of boundaries or guidelines. In a 2012 interview, Sainte-Marie talks about her politically driven song “Universal Soldier” and how she went about writing it.

“Universal Soldier was just an artist speaking the obvious,” she says. “It’s obvious that we are responsible for the world we live in, so how can you give that [song] to people in a way that will motivate them instead of turn them off?”

Pilzer suggests that music’s ability to motivate and move groups of people, especially in the context of folk music from the time of Sainte-Marie, has to do with “taking music out of the exclusive hands of professional [musicians], and returning it to ordinary people.” This kind of audience-inclusive music is exemplified in songs like “Give Peace a Chance” by The Plastic Ono Band, or even “Fight The Power” by Public Enemy — both of which feature easy-to-remember choruses that send a clear message to those listening.

As A Tribe Called Red experienced, the primary obstacle that protest music faces is the inevitable backlash that accompanies it, whether intentional or not. For musicians like John Lennon and Public Enemy, the backlash was extreme and resulted in violence and discord between demonstrators and authorities; for A Tribe Called Red, however, the fake Indigenous headdresses were discomforting rather than provocative.

Luckily, there’s a constructive way of looking at these situations. According to Pilzer, we can learn from reactions like these and use them to help fine-tune the way in which protest is portrayed through music.

“I think these sorts of incidents are bound to happen until something dramatic changes,” he says. “However, such experiences, although uncomfortable, are opportunities for understanding the embededness of racism in culture and for transforming societies, hopefully in a peaceful way.”