The Power Of Music In Political Struggle (Part 4): Recruitment And Mobilisation

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This is the fourth and final part of a series by writer Simon Gall published on National Collective on the power of music in political struggle across history.

Conversion and Recruitment

We have already touched on many of the aspects that could be covered in this section above, such as group formation and collective identity, both of which are central to the matters of conversion and recruitment but there are other ways is which music can assist in changing minds and garnering support for a cause.

Direct Recruitment Tool

The songs of the IWW’s ‘Little Red Songbook’, according to one recent convert, were a key recruitment tool as they helped “break the monotony of long-winded speeches” and were “a hard blow to those who believed that the theory of industrial unionism could only be explained by pamphlet and book couched in language beyond the average workingman’s comprehension.” [5]

Indirect Recruitment Tool

In an interview, Rage Against the Machine’s (RATM) guitarist Tom Morello said:

“What we would hear constantly from the local grassroots organisations who kind of coat tailed around with us was that there had never been anything like it. It was an unprecedented opportunity for the Left to burst into Peoria, Illinois, and, you know, sort of challenge the way things worked.” [5]

In this sense, RATM concerts act as a sort of musical trojan horse where a popular left-wing band create a space where all sorts of conventions are challenged. The idea is that the music will draw a crowd that will, whether willingly or unwillingly, be exposed to something quite oppositional to mainstream culture. Those attending RATM concerts would be exposed to local Left groups flyering the event, political stalls, left wing activists etc, not to mention the challenging aspects of RATM’s sound and the between-song speeches by Zack de la Rocha.

Inspiration

On a similar note, following a band or performer because of their political convictions can be inspirational to the point of taking action. Many young feminists, for example, have cited Ani DiFranco’s music as key to their political awakening.

“Seeing Ani DiFranco perform live was one of those life changing experiences that crept up on me when I wasn’t looking… her songs introduced me to topics and viewpoints to which I had never been exposed.” [5]

This pivotal cultural experience could lead to engagement with feminist politics and a thirst for more knowledge about the movement.

Enacting the Collective

“One way of urging […] allegiance is to tie a group or movement to an earlier tradition that people feel is theirs.” [5] This happened during the civil rights movement in the US. According to Rosenthal and Flacks, the shared performance of political spiritual songs (the lyrics were sometimes changed to reflect current affairs) provided familiar sounds and a physical space where activists could assemble and feel safe. Spirituals, and the collective performance thereof, was seen as a shared heritage of the black population, as it was in Peru, and thus acted as the element that both attracted newcomers and reinforced the mutual solidarity among the committed. Spaces for collective music-making were also a place in which those curious about the movement could come to ‘try on’ a new identity in a supportive and friendly environment. In doing so, potential recruits were able to feel the power of collective singing and the emotion of others who are already committed. The experiencing of emotions in this context is important since they can help establish “in and out group boundaries” and are “key causal factors leading to social movement.” [14]

Mobilisation

Music, it has been argued, can also be an important factor in influencing people to go beyond mere support of a cause to act on its behalf: something which could be termed mobilisation. At the beginning of the series, I discussed the case of Rwandan artist Simon Bikindi and how his songs were said to have influenced the behavior of the Hutu population. It could be said that his music was an important catalyst in the awful political act of genocide and that his music, in some way, mobilised the Hutus.

A positive example of mobilisation through musicking is the case of Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and oil company BP Amoco. At a concert in Chicago Eddie Vedder announced from the stage that he had heard of plans for oil company BP Amoco to dump waste from a refinery into Lake Michigan. He urged people to boycott the company until it changed its policy and played short song about the situation. The lyrics, delivered in the style of a chant, went as follows:

Don’t go BP AMACO

Don’t go

This component of collective musicking (a chant) may well have had the effect of fostering a unity and temporary collective identity among the crowd that ultimately lead to mobilisation in the form joining the boycott campaign. The plans were overturned due to pressure from politicians, activists and musicians, and the company promised not to dump excess waste into the lake. [15]

Outlined above are some of the ways in which music and musicking have been used in history to effect positive change. It is clear, I think, that music, as a cultural tool for building a better world, should not be ignored or underestimated. If Gramsci was right, and the status quo is maintained by a cultural hegemony of the elites then it is our duty as artists to challenge that hegemony & offer up alternatives. I hope the information provided above will be useful to politically engaged musicians in their endeavour to create the better world we all know is possible. After all:

Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it”

Simon Gall
National Collective

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About Simon Gall

Simon Gall is a musician and music teacher. He plays piano with Salsa Celtica and Son al Son and is a singer-songwriter, arranger and part time promoter. He teaches music in community settings for local authorities, arts charities and community centres. He has a keen interest in music and politics and in particular, the places where the two overlap.

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