Music Notes is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Every month, this column has reported on the response of musicians to serious political, social justice, and environmental issues, and on music industry developments that directly affect both artists and the general public. There are thousands of musicians around the world – some famous, most not so famous – who make public statements on crucial issues that affect working people; who compose music to educate and inspire progressive change; and who organize and perform at solidarity concerts both large and small. Here then is a list of ten musicians – a rather arbitrary list – who have stood out for me as I look back over the past decade.
English socialist musician Billy Bragg established himself in the 80s as a post-punk solo artist. He experienced his political awakening at a 1978 Rock Against Racism concert, organized to build resistance to England’s fascist National Front. In addition to his many albums, Bragg, who’s now 61, is author of a fascinating book: “Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World”.
North Carolina singer, violinist, banjoist, composer, and musicologist Rhiannon Giddens is a compelling voice in American music. Co-founder of Grammy-winning African-American string band The Carolina Chocolate Drops, she emerged as a solo artist with her albums “Tomorrow Is My Turn” (2015) and “Freedom Highway” (2018). Giddens has the talent to blend seemingly eclectic influences and an appealing ability to subtly educate while she entertains.
American singer-songwriter and activist Si Kahn has combined music with grassroots organizing for more than 40 years. He’s composed classic working-class songs, published acclaimed organizing manuals, and participated in countless popular struggles since the civil rights era. Lately he’s been the driving force behind Musicians United to Protect Bristol Bay, a unique solidarity group that’s fighting to stop Alaska’s Pebble Mine project, which threatens the world’s most abundant wild salmon fishery with mine-generated pollutants.
Ukrainian-American born pianist Valentina Lisitsa ould not be silenced when the Toronto Symphony cancelled her concert with them because she dared to criticize the U.S.-backed regime in Kiev for its military campaign against Russian-speaking peoples in East Ukraine. Her defiance included a 2015 concert in the besieged city of Donetsk and a critically-acclaimed concert at Toronto’s Koerner Hall a year later.
Guitarist-singer Tom Morello is co-founder of two popular left-leaning rock bands: Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. In 2011, he founded Soundstrike, a musicians’ campaign against racist legislation in Arizona. Morello was prominent during the 2011 uprising in Wisconsin against far-right governor Scott Walker. In 2016 he and rapper Chuck D formed Prophets of Rage. The band defied prison authorities who had cancelled their concert by carrying on with the show outside the penitentiary walls.
Faith Nolan has been inspiring working people across Canada for decades. Born in Halifax of African, Miqmaq and Irish heritage, the singer-songwriter and activist grew up in Toronto’s Cabbagetown district. She’s organized labour choirs – like the CUPE Freedom Singers – and coordinated music programs for women prisoners in Ontario’s penitentiary system. Nolan’s socialist, anti-racist, and queer-positive message is delivered with sharp wit and an engaging style that’s challenging and entertaining.
Singer-songwriter, playwright, and theatre director, Evalyn Parry, is an artist whose work examines political and historical themes, including global warming and the colonization of the Canadian north. In 2014, she sailed the Northwest Passage with climate change scientists. Out of that came “To Live in the Age of Melting: Northwest Passage”, a work that combines original music with narrative passages that reflect upon Canadian folksinger Stan Rogers’ iconic song “Northwest Passage”.
American troubadour David Rovics has criss-crossed North America and Europe many times over the past 25 years, playing for audiences large and small at cafes, pubs, universities, union halls, and protest rallies. This hard-working artist has documented and celebrated scores of local struggles with his politically-astute topical songs, most of which can be downloaded for free on his website.
Buffy Sainte-Marie was born in 1941 on the Cree First Nation in Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan. Since achieving international acclaim during the folk boom of the sixties, she has sustained her career as a musician, visual artist, educator, and champion of indigenous rights, the environment, and women’s equality. Her 2015 album “Power in the Blood” won the 2015 Polaris Prize for best Canadian music album.
As the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) campaign gains more sympathizers around the world, the Israeli state is intensifying its campaign to characterize it as anti-Semitic. A prime target is British musician Roger Waters, a long-time pro-Palestine activist and founder of the renowned rock band Pink Floyd. Given his outspokenness, and the size of the crowds at his concerts, everywhere Waters performs is a front-line in the BDS campaign.
These are just ten musician activists. There are countless more.