What's A Protest Song? Kansas City And International Musicians Speak Out
When Folk Alliance International decided last spring on "a clenched fist of resistance against the struggle," as executive director Aengus Finnan described the poster art for its 2017 conference, organizers couldn't have predicted how relevant the theme Forbidden Folk, "celebrating activism in art," would resonate almost a year later.
Just days after the November 2016 presidential election of Donald J. Trump, thousands of people demonstrated by taking to the streets across the country. Worldwide marches and rallies followed the day after Trump's inauguration in January. With spontaneous protests at airports in response to executive orders and demonstrations at legislative offices, clenched fists of resistance have in fact risen.
But what defines a protest song? On Wednesday, as the Folk Alliance International Conference got underway, KCUR's Central Standard invited folk musicians Danny Cox and Andres Ramirez of Kansas City and singer-songwriter Moddi (Pål Moddi Knutsen) of Norway into the studio for a conversation.
Cox has a long history as an activist. He grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was first arrested as a teenager protesting in the Civil Rights movement. Cox told host Gina Kaufmann that Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," inspired by a photograph of a lynching, provided his introduction to a protest song.
"Remember I'm 74 years old (now)," said Cox, who's also African-American. "So when I was a kid, you could be lynched. And not only would nobody do anything about it, but a crowd would come to watch it."
For Cox, who moved to Kansas City, Kansas, in 1967, protest music "starts off with one charismatic leader who has a concept and he speaks it."
But, he adds, it's when people come together that they're able to "find the words, eventually put them together, that gives us all the strength" to address an injustice.
"Strange Fruit" also marked a connection between the 74-year-old Cox and 29-year-old Norwegian Moddi.
Moddi's most recent album, Unsongs: Forbidden Stories, explores songs, such as Holiday's, that have been banned or censored.
The project got its start in 2014 after Moddi struggled with deciding whether to play a concert in Tel Aviv; after receiving messages of support as well as condemnation, he ultimately canceled the performance. Norwegian folk singer Birgitte Grimstad reached out and shared that in 1982, on tour in Israel, she was pressured not to perform the song "Eli Gava," about an Israeli officer during the Lebanon War — and she didn't sing it for decades.
"And that's where to me a long, long, long journey started with collecting other songs that for one reason or another haven't been sung at some point," Moddi said.
On the album, Moddi re-interpreted twelve songs from countries including Chile, China, and England. When he started the project, one of the first bands he listened to was the Russian punk band, Pussy Riot.
"It's noisy, it's uncomfortable to listen to ... To be honest, I thought of it as more protest than music," he said. "But when I started digging ... I was amazed by how much poetry there is in this. This 'Punk Prayer,' it is more prayer than punk really."
Percussionist and vocalist Ramirez, who grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico, also started protesting as a teenager.
“For many years, I grew up to try to fit in to society and forget about my indigenous culture, my indigenous roots,” he said. “It’s just like swimming against the tide all the time. You can try to fit in a society – but, in the end this is how you look. This is how I look.”
Ramirez is part of the group Danza Mexica Calpulli Iskali, which focuses on indigenous practices of Mexico, and in recent years he's turned his attention to playing at protests against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline.
“I get to collaborate with musicians who are in the struggle,” he said. “It’s personal for all of us especially because we live right by the (Missouri) river. It should be personal for all of us.”
Listeners also called in with recommendations:
Listen to the entire conversation here.
Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @lauraspencer.