Kathleen Hanna, Moor Mother and more on how protest music creates social change: NPR
In times of crisis and upheaval, we have found ourselves especially grateful for music that speaks to the political and social issues of our time. This year, in the face of an uncertain future for reproductive rights, turbulent midterm elections, continuing climate catastrophe and the ongoing pandemic, we wanted to better understand how artists make music that directly confronts events. current. So, as part of Turning the Tables, NPR Music’s project on the history of popular music, we posed a question to a handful of musicians: Who taught you that music could be a vehicle for social change?
Below you will find links to all the videos we have made, featuring six visionary artists: SG Goodman, Adia Victoria, Kathleen Hanna, Sadie Dupuis, The Linda Lindas and Moor Mother. They each told us the story of a key musician who taught them that it is possible to write great songs that speak out against injustice and challenge entrenched systems of power.
S. G. Goodman on Hazel Dickens
NPR | David Gahr/Getty Images
You can watch our video with SG Goodman here.
“Hazel Dickens is my number one when it comes to understanding how music can be used to change people’s hearts and minds,” SG Goodman tells us. Goodman is a western Kentucky composer who says she has long been an admirer of Dickens’ “high and lonely sound” and how the West Virginia bluegrass pioneer infused her values into her songwriting.
“One thing I love about Hazel Dickens is that she never pointed out virtue,” Goodman said in her video. “She was on the picket lines. She was an insider in a family of coal miners. She wrote about what she knew, and I think that’s a really good track record for songwriters. -performers today, and probably always will be.”
Goodman points to the relationship between Dickens’ iconic song “Black Lung”, about the disease that afflicts coal miners, and Goodman’s song “The Way I Talk”, which includes the lyrics, “A sharecropper’s daughter sings the blues of a coal miner’s son.” She says she sees similarities in “the way the world looks at these two types of occupations” and how many people “don’t kinda understand how people are trying to make a living.”
“It was powerful for me to make sure the world knew that I didn’t lose anything when it came to what my family does for a living,” Goodman says, “nor was it lost on the people from mining communities.”
Adia Victoria on Fiona Apple
NPR | Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
You can watch our video with Adia Victoria here.
“Fiona Apple, in her art, showed me how I could burn the whole world,” says Adia Victoria. Victoria first discovered Apple Music when she was 15. “I heard the song ‘Fast As You Can’ and was stopped in my tracks,” she says. “It wasn’t quite a poem; it wasn’t quite a song; it wasn’t quite a stream of consciousness. It was all of those things and more. … [It] was exactly what I needed.”
Victoria’s music is rooted in the blues tradition, and she sees Apple’s music, with its raw honesty and direct confrontation with pain, as part of that heritage as well. Victoria specifically mentions her song “Get Lonely” – about “wanting to come back into yourself after being thrown out into the world and gradually reclaiming your own” – as having been influenced by Apple’s songwriting.
While Apple Music isn’t explicitly protest music, Victoria says we should think of it in those terms. “I see the political as the personal,” she says. “This departures in staff. So in [Apple’s] music is about owning and claiming yourself, even – and especially – when it goes against the main narrative of what a woman should be, what an artist should be. “Hearing Apple Music ‘let me own my perspective and my experience and my own subjectivity,’ Victoria says, ‘and I think that’s a massive feminist achievement.’
Sadie Dupuis on Pauline Black
NPR | Karl Walter/Getty Images for Coachella
You can watch our video with Sadie Dupuis here.
“Pauline Black taught me that music could be a vehicle for change,” says Sadie Dupuis. Dupuis plays in the group Speedy Ortiz and does solo music under the name Sad13. She says she first heard the music of Pauline Black’s band The Selecter as a child, when her parents gave her a compilation from the ska par excellence label 2 Tone Records. Dupuis was impressed with the way The Selecter blended an adventurous sound with central tenets of second-wave ska, such as gender equality and anti-racism. “It made a big impression on me – that these songs could convey these important messages,” she says, “but also have really weird arrangements that were very joyful.”
Soon after, says Dupuis, she began writing her own music. “I took a less direct, more poetic path with my lyrics,” said Dupuis, who is also the author of several books of poetry. But she’s still inspired by how bands like The Selecter were “really grounded in that history and directly responding to it, and knew that music could be a big force in getting those kinds of messages across.”
Kathleen Hanna on Normal Mecca
NPR | Erin Altomare/Flickr
You can watch our video with Kathleen Hanna here.
“Mecca Normal…made me feel like I could make political music without compromising on writing great songs,” Kathleen Hanna said. The feminist punk icon, known for playing in bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, says she first met the Canadian duo of Jean Smith and David Lester in the late 1980s while running a gallery with friends. Mecca Normal played there as part of their Black Wedge tour, which Hanna still has the flyer for; it promises “five political dynamos, hardcore poems, savage vocals, jagged guitars, radical voices crushing militarism, smashing sexism.”
Hanna says back then she was used to seeing bands whose songs were about how “their girlfriends were jerks and didn’t do everything they wanted to” – but hearing Mecca Normal address real and serious issues in his music was inspiring. Hanna was just starting to make her own music at the time and knew she wanted her songs to confront sexism, but she wasn’t sure. Seeing Mecca Normal, she says, “gave me confidence that I was on the right track.”
“When I heard Jean go up there, totally shameless,” she says, “and I knew they were putting on this amazing tour based on the combination of music and politics, I thought to myself : I can do it.”
In her video, Hanna wears a t-shirt from a company she founded, Tees 4 Togo, which raises funds for girls’ education in West Africa.
The Linda Lindas bag on Alice
You can watch our video with The Linda Lindas here.
“Alice Bag taught us how to make music true to ourselves,” says bassist Eloise Wong of The Linda Lindas. The teenage punk band considers Bag a local legend – “a very big part of LA music history and LA music culture”, says guitarist Lucia de la Garza – in addition to being a punk singer, activist, writer and, as Wong puts it, “an actor.”
Wong remembers being inspired the first time she saw Bag perform: “She makes these super catchy songs and they’re about really important things,” she says, “and she plays in such a captivating way that you don’t just can’t help, but listen to him.”
The group feels inspired by the way Bag sings about issues like sexism and injustice, and how she uplifts the community around her. Drummer Mila de la Garza mentions that Bag “always has really cool hair colors and outfits” – and that it’s significant that Bag can “not only look super cool on stage, but she can sing on really important topics while doing this”. She cites the song “77,” about wage inequality, as just one example.
Bag helped The Linda Lindas understand that “it’s okay for us to say what we think and talk about what we thinking is not OK,” says guitarist Bela Salazar. “To see a woman do that is very powerful.”
Mother Moor on Nina Simone
NPR | Ian Showell/Getty Images
You can watch our video with Moor Mother here.
“Nina Simone taught me not to be afraid, to say what I think,” explains musician Camae Ayewa, aka Moor Mother. “She taught me that anything is possible.”
Ayewa is a poet and musician from Philadelphia; in addition to her work as Moor Mother, she performs with the bands Irreversible Entanglements and 700 Bliss, is a founder of the Black Quantum Futurism collective, and teaches at USC’s Thornton School of Music.
Ayewa’s first encounter with Simone’s music was through her powerful protest song “Mississippi Goddamn”. Ayewa says she was “completely transfixed” when she heard the song. “Honestly, I just walked around and wrote every word of this song,” she says. “It was such an important moment.”
Ayewa was inspired by how “the stories of women – especially the women who come from Nina Simone’s family [and] Black women around the world” – were so central to Simone’s music. It inspired Ayewa to center those stories in her music as well, and she says her experience with Simone’s music has been a “continuous push to get that what I honor, what I care about, in the world.
Alanté Millow directed the videos in this series. The Turning the Tables team consists of: Marissa Lorusso, Ann Powers, Suraya Mohamed and Hazel Cills.