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Act Up: Bruce Springsteen appears in a new documentary about issue-based activism.

Get Up, Stand Up

Music activism doesn't stop with Nov. 2

By Karl Byrn

OK, SO we lost the presidential election. By "we," I mean the one out of every two Americans who understands that justifying such waste as the Iraq war and deep tax cuts for the megawealthy is grossly unsound double-speak. By "we," I mean the 70 percent of Americans who recent polls now show believe that the Iraq war is a mistake, a majority that's up from 48 percent a mere six months ago.

But what I mostly mean by "we" are the participants in the culture of rock and pop music, where a huge swell of anti-Bush campaigning—rock's biggest spike in activism since the mid-'80s benefit craze—was 2004's musical trend of the year. Dozens of anti-Dubya discs hit the shelves from diverse music genres and from major and indie labels alike. Big-name mainstream acts toured swing states in pro-Kerry fundraisers. The movement preached the theme of Bush as a lying, anti-people, pro-corporate elitist. Some of the music was fact-based, some full of artistic license, some thumped for leftist and mainstream organizations. Mostly, these efforts championed the theme of getting out an alternative vote.

The surge in young voter turnout this fall indicates that the momentum of rock's renewed activism has the power to stay strong. It's important for the progressive music community to remember that the 2004 right-wing election victories were slim. The unbalanced ills created by the Bush administration will inevitably spiral into greater public dissent, and thus rock's activism will continue, facing multiple challenges. But to stay on track for real reform, it's essential for rock and pop musicians to shift from election-based activism to issue-based activism.

If all the punks, rappers, folkies, DJs and indie- and major-label acts who were so inspired to rally against re-electing Bush could redirect their energies into fighting for alternative policies, there might be progress yet. Fat Mike of the Northern California punk stalwarts NOFX could continue his Rock Against Bush series of contemporary punk collections as a set of Rock Against the Iraq War presentations (which would likely be an unfortunately long series). Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Pearl Jam, the Dixie Chicks, R.E.M. and their mainstream friends could revisit their Vote for Change tour to rally voter support for the ongoing battles over health-care reform, workers' rights, reproductive rights and the rebuilding of public education.

One example of musicians' efforts that are focused on actual issues is the new short video Everybody In, Nobody Out, available from the music activist organization Rock A Mole Productions. The film is a call for a universal health-care system, a concept that polls show almost two-thirds of Americans favor. Blending speakers, backstage interviews and concert footage from a recent Southern California rally for the California Nurses Association, the film suggests a natural connection between musicians and the struggle for health-care reform.

Everybody In, Nobody Out points out that in a profession where health insurance is nonexistent or ridiculously costly, musicians already do more than 1,000 medical benefits nationally each week for other musicians. Without laying out a road map, the film proposes that if these efforts could all come together in a larger cause, a musicians' rally to affect a reinvention of our medical system would make those 1,000 weekly benefits unnecessary.

In 2002, Rock A Mole made The Ultimate Song, a film about issue-based music activism featuring such notable artists as Springsteen, Ice-T, Jackson Browne, Tom Morello and Steve Earle in a look at the connection between music and activism in the ranks of the poor. The organization also regularly produces cultural festivals promoting the music, art and poetry of disadvantaged artists.

With Everybody In, Nobody Out, the musicians at Rock A Mole have also made the important implication that grassroots work for music activists shouldn't end with the election year or elected officials. The film insists that musicians continue to be a loud voice for popular ideals. Everybody In, Nobody Out is a forward-looking reminder that the campaign that continues really isn't about Bush vs. Kerry, or Republicans vs. Democrats—it's about uniting for changes that benefit a greater community.


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From the January 12-18, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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