Occupy Wall Street inspires a new generation of protest songs

October 16, 2011

The night before the Oct. 6 start of the occupation of Freedom Plaza, the singer-songwriting duo Emma’s Revolution stood before a packed protest-planning rally at Busboys and Poets, fiddling with chords, harmonies and a lyric sheet.

They were in town from Occupy Boston and were still getting the hang of a song they had been inspired to write on the road down: “Occupy D.C.”

Who are we? Occupy D.C.

The crowd loved it, but Pat Humphries and Sandy O weren’t satisfied. Starting from scratch, Humphries crafted new lyrics and a melody, and they worked out the harmonies. The next evening, they carried their acoustic guitars to Freedom Plaza and performed “Occupy the U.S.A.” for the first time.

Chorus:

Welcome to the U.S. occupation

To win the hearts and minds

Defend all humankind

Tell the banks and the corporations

We’re here to occupy the U.S.A.

Sample verse:

We support our unions

And our right to organize

Students, homeless, immigrants

Are strengthening their ties

We have struggled far too long

Now let this be a sign

One percent in power

Meet the other 99!

“Sometimes, we walk away after an event and think [a new song] didn’t quite get it,” Humphries says. “Sometimes, we walk away and think, yes!”

This time felt like a yes to the women, but who knows? The first singles on the soundtrack of the revolution are being written on the fly and downloaded as we speak. Every songwriter secretly hopes to compose an anthem worthy of Dylan, Odetta, Chuck D, the Clash — pick your idol — but fans and critics will be the judge of that.

For now, what’s interesting about this new movement music is the role it’s playing in the organizing and how it identifies deeper streams that seem to link disparate cultures of rebellion in the United States and other parts of the world.

The Arab Spring; the pro-union demonstrations this year in Madison, Wis.; the plight of illegal immigrants; the execution of Troy Davis, and disenchantment with President Obama are among the themes that have inspired multiple songs by various artists in recent months.

“The Arab Spring really accelerated everything,” Sandy O says. “I think the Arab Spring is why Madison happened the way it did and why the occupations are happening the way they’re happening.”

Mount Rainier-based Emma’s Revolution saluted the Arab Spring in a new song called “Rise” and addressed Madison in “Stand Together.”

The duo wrote “Occupy the U.S.A.” as “a rally song to reflect back to the people that we as activist musicians are with them,” Sandy O says. “It’s really about them, it’s for them, and it’s something we want them to use.”

David Rovics had a different purpose in mind with his fresh tune “Occupy Wall Street.”

Rovics, based in Portland, Ore., also performed on Freedom Plaza, but there he presented his Arab Spring song (“Tunisia 2011”) and his anti-Obama song (“Four More Years”) because his Wall Street jeremiad wasn’t ready yet.

He finished it last week, and that night in a hotel room in Orlando, he sang it into the video camera of his iPhone, then uploaded it to YouTube. Now he’s on tour, playing it at every occupation he can get to.

He framed the lyrics as an answer to puzzled critics who keep asking, “Why occupy Wall Street?”

Because this is where they buy the politicians

Because this is where power has its seat

Because 99 percent of us are suffering

At the mercy of the madmen on this street

Because all of us are victims of class warfare

Being waged on us by the 1 percent

Because these greedy banksters rob the country

Leaving us without the means to pay the rent

Because the last time that we had a decent government

Was about 1932

Because we the people are supposed to run the country

But instead it’s all run by and for the few

Because now we know the rich do not pay taxes

But when they need a hand it’s us who bail them out

Because we suspected we lived in a plutocracy

But suddenly of late there is no doubt

Chorus:

And so we’re going to stay right here.

“2011 is a world historic year, right up there with 1848, 1917 and 1968, the way the movement is spreading from one country to another,” Rovics says. “It’s nice to write songs about things that are really happening.”

This music doesn’t get played on the radio. Performers such as Emma’s Revolution and Rovics tour relentlessly and have small but devoted national followings, drawing crowds of hundreds, thousands.

Emma’s Revolution’s next CD, “Revolutions Per Minute,” is due in November. Rovics allows fans to download songs for free and is releasing his next CD, “Big Red Sessions,” in November, as well.

While new songs were being tried out at the Washington occupation, the political hip-hop duo Rebel Diaz from the South Bronx was exploring Occupy Wall Street.

“I feel like we’re living in a historical moment,” says RodStarz, whose partner in Rebel Diaz goes by the name G1. “There’s definitely an energy, and it’s not only here in the United States. I think folks are just fed up.”

At Occupy Wall Street, Rebel Diaz noticed that people of color were under-represented among the demonstrators, some of whom were strumming acoustic guitars. Rebel Diaz doesn’t do acoustic guitars.

“We wanted to bring hip-hop to the white liberal table,” RodStarz says. “For the first time in a long time, large numbers of young white kids are no longer benefitting from the privileges of capitalism. Maybe they’re feeling what immigrants and poor communities have been feeling for years.”

Rebel Diaz had a hook and an idea for some lyrics when a television camera spotted the duo at the occupation. RodStarz and G1 started freestyling lyrics for the camera.

Back home in the South Bronx, they polished, recorded and uploaded the new song, called “We the 99%.” It’s on their new digital mixtape, “#OccupyTheAirwaves.” After years of performing, they plan to release their debut CD, “Radical Dilemma,” in December. The pair also aims to release a remix of the song featuring performers from occupations across the country.

Chorus:

We the 99 the 99 the 99 percent

We here, we arrived and we came to represent

Sample verse:

Your daddy lost his pension

Your daughter’s school needs fixin’

Your brother’s back in prison

The lesson here ain’t kumbaya

Like overnight the change gon’ come? Nah

But what they got?

We got 99, they got 1

Problem — and it’s us!

David Montgomery joined The Washington Post in 1993. He writes general features, profiles and arts stories for the Sunday Magazine and Style, including pieces on the Latino community and Latino arts.
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