At Folk Music Gathering In Kansas City, The Future Of Protest Music Goes Global

Feb 24, 2017

What’s the future of protest music?

That was a reasonable question for the hundreds of musicians who came to Kansas City in mid-February for the Folk Alliance International Conference, the theme of which was "Forbidden Folk." Given political developments over the last year, plenty of “old guys with banjos” — as one musician put it — were fired up, but I wanted to see what younger musicians thought about one staple of their genre.

With so many musicians performing, it's ridiculous to cite only a few. But the musicians highlighted here represent a range of styles and opinions about the future of protest music. And while their opinions differed, their collective experience ultimately pointed to one clear truth.

Joe Purdy
Age: 36
From: Grew up in Arkansas, now in California

Before writing protest music:
“I wrote, like, 13 records full of sad bastard music, love songs, cowboy songs — which I love. But the new record I made last year was first one I’d ever done that was true civil rights, social justice record. I just didn’t feel like I could sit it out anymore.”

What the future of protest music sounds like:
“I grew up in Arkansas and I’m a hillbilly and I kind of felt like I was the right person for the job because while I may not agree with politics of a lot of folks I grew up with, I know them well and they all have good hearts. I’m trying to get through to people on a basic human element, just be a little more kind, a little more patient, not giving in to the temper and the anger, and tell that story through my own journey. I don’t want to be preaching to the choir, I want to get through to folks.”

Iskwe
Age: 36
From: Winnipeg

Before writing protest music:
“My first album took eight years. I moved to Toronto, then New York, then Los Angeles, and I was surviving the music industry and relationships. It wasn’t that I wasn’t a political person, but where my creation needed to be was catered to myself at that time. The album I have coming out is entirely political. I guess I grew up a bit in that time, and started to realize I needed to be part of speaking out.”

What the future of protest music sounds like:
“Protest has so many faces and so many reasons and rationales and so many people standing behind it that I don’t think there’s ever going to be one particular sound that resonates with protesting.”

Heather Mae
Age: 28
From: Washington, D.C.

Before writing protest music:
“I write mainstream pop music. I was writing that I thought would make (a record company) pick me up and sign me, like love songs. I’m queer, but I never wrote about being a lady-loving lady. My music wasn’t conscious at all. Then I got throat nodules and was silent for eight months, and I had a lot of time to think. I realized, I’ve got this big voice, this piano here, if I’m not using that for change, what am I doing? The thing that got me to become the singer-activist I am now was determination to not waste my time.”

What the future of protest music sounds like:
“It’s going to be pop, because young people — people aged 16, 17, 18, 12 — young people listen to pop music. Yes, they love underground music, but they love what’s on the radio. You can’t stand with an acoustic guitar and long hair and a flower in your hair, singing about ending the war and get people to notice you — not right now. But you can stand with a piano, in five-inch heels, with a backing band and makeup and glitter, being body positive, and sing nice and loud, pop music that makes them dance and also makes them think.”

Moddi
Age: 30
From: Norway

Before writing protest music:
“I released three albums of myself, but since I discovered this project (Unsongs: Forbidden Stories, Moddi's album of other people's music censored around the world) I haven’t written a single song in three years because it’s so much more interesting and exciting to hear other people’s voices. I’d been living a fairly normal, stable, OK life, but these are people who grew up in the saddest of circumstances, went to prison or were exiled or killed for singing a song. Discovering that became a whole new path in life for me as a musician and as a human.”

What the future of protest music sounds like:
“Even though it may feel like it for us folk musicians that protest music has disappeared, it hasn’t. It’s just shifted, taken different forms and exists in different places today.”

Ramy Essam
Age: 30
From: Egypt and Sweden

One of the people who suffered for singing a song is Ramy Essam, widely considered "the voice of the Egyptian Revolution" for his anthem urging then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to resign; Essam was arrested and tortured after singing at a rally in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring. Now he’s living in Sweden.

Folk Alliance International presented Essam with its Spirit of Folk Award for being "a symbol of social activism and a beacon of uncommon bravery in the Middle East."

I didn't interview Essam, but I went to his official showcase, a hotel-ballroom-exploding testament to the universal language of rock and roll. In his halting English, Essam explained that his final song, "Hela Hela," was a poem in honor of workers, which he had set to music. And when Johan Carlberg kicked into a transcendent guitar solo, the performance sounded like hard Southern blues sung in Arabic:

My conversations with young musicians suggested that the future of protest music is international. Unlike in the '60s, musicians and audiences can now reach each other globally and instantly.

Or, as Essam put it in a two-word commentary regarding all of the world's dividing lines as he left the stage that night: "Fuck borders."

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.