Why Occupy Wall Street's Racket Is the Folk Music of Our Time

PHOTO: Occupy protest.Seth Wenig/AP Photo
Protesters associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement march in protest of the natural gas drilling technique known as "fracking" in New York, Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012.

On November 20, 2011, five days after Mayor Michael Bloomberg evicted Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park, protestors brought their sleeping bags and musical instruments uptown to camp outside of his Upper East Side home in Manhattan. Residents on East 79th Street could hear the sounds of snare, bongo, and bucket drums; a few wind and brass instruments; and the banging of pots and pans.

Music has played an integral role in the Occupy movement and the culture of other protest movements throughout history, mobilizing activists, setting the cadence for marches and sustaining morale and energy. The constant drumming -- sometimes in beat and at other times spontaneously out of rhythm -- may have irked some Occupy detractors, but as the movement celebrates its first anniversary this week, protest music could help supporters reconnect with the communal spirit that surged from Occupy encampments around the world and renew alliances with other movements like 15-M in Spain and Yo Soy 132 in Mexico.

Music can make people aware of their primal needs, switching something on inside listeners that awakens their minds and bodies and compels them to reconnect with their environment. A song or rhythm can move people in a specific direction, spread an important message and inspire them to come together in a movement that supports a common objective. Music can also give activists a greater presence, vocalizing their discontent or disapproval to larger audiences and resonating with different peoples and cultures.

During the 1960s, protestors used music to denounce the Vietnam War and the lack of civil rights for African Americans. These songs also channeled the frustrations of American youths who no longer identified with the "hollowed" values and institutions that represented older generations. Paul Simon's 1964 song "The Sound of Silence" describes a fragmented society after President John F. Kennedy's assassination, where people feel disconnected and inhibited by silence:

'Fools', said I, 'You do not know/Silence like a cancer grows/Hear my words that I might teach you/Take my arms that I might reach you.'/But my words, like silent raindrops fell/And echoed/In the wells of silence.

Similarly, musicians from Occupy Wall Street call on listeners to vocalize their demands and pressure political and economic institutions today to focus on the growing number of Americans who need homes, schools, jobs, healthcare and other community services. The Hawaiian slack guitarist Matthew Swalinkavich, known to his fans as Makana -- a Hawaiian word for "the gift," evokes Bob Dylan's stark and folky narrative style in some of his music. In his 2011 song, "We Are the Many," Makana's lyrics are specifically reminiscent of Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin," which compels senators and congressman to heed the call of disenfranchised constituents:

From underneath the vestiture of law/The lobbyists at Washington do gnaw/At liberty, the bureaucrats guffaw/And until they are purged, we won't withdraw./We'll occupy the streets/We'll occupy the court/We'll occupy the offices of you/'Till you do/The bidding of the many, not the few.

Other Occupy musicians capture the widespread criticism of the U.S. government's economic policy in recent years, which Occupiers say "privatized profits" and "socialized risks." Hummingbird Thunder's "One Demand" is a powerful hip hop anthem denouncing the influence of money in politics:

This is our One Demand/we represent the 99%/No more inequality/raining down from Wall St./All of us united take a stand.

Many young people were attracted to Occupy camps because they felt alienated in their cities or towns. And both technology and music encouraged them to join online and human networks that made them feel closer to their environment, and have a direct influence on the decisions that determine their nutrition, health, education, and politics. When these youths settled in the Occupy camps, some of them felt a vital connection for the first time that linked them with other people -- they were no longer outsiders or loners, but members of a community. And soon, activists who had endured similar types of disenfranchisement in countries like Argentina, Chile, Greece, and Spain, among other nations, found themselves working together in common causes around the world.

At Occupy encampments, the music of protest wasn't limited to musicians and their instruments. Even activists who did not have a background in music grabbed different objects at hand to make sounds or replicate rhythms that amplified the message of their movement; they rattled paper, banged sticks on the pavement and played on aluminum pots and pans. These popular beats enabled listeners to understand intuitively the outrage and frustration that drove hundreds of youths around the world to unite in favor of greater equality. It also made music more accessible to everyone -- with almost any object, and a bit of creativity, you can make yourself heard.

When it comes to rallying people together, music is unmatched as a medium for protest. And at a time when partisan politics focuses more on differences than similarities, Occupy musicians use their talents to compel listeners to find something universal. "The most powerful weapon in society today isn't a gun or a bomb, but music and art," said hip hop musician H├ęctor Guerra from the progressive Latino band Pacha Mama Crew. "Each song is an act of conscience that revolutionizes your soul." Guerra points out, like other Occupy musicians, that culture moves people. And music reminds listeners that Occupy is a living idea that seeks to reconnect humanity with higher values.