The music is the message!

historyI wrote about Aesop Rock’s Labor Days a few years ago here. It’s one of the best albums I’ve ever heard; it’s kaleidoscopic and inventive, a window into a lyrical world that no other hip-hop artist has touched. And, given the holiday, it’s spinning in my living room this morning.

On apparent American landmarks like Labor Day, I turn to the Zinn Education Project for insight into the history that brought us here. The labor movement has largely gone overlooked by mass media in the past few decades (except for those endearing moments when CNN brings on a C-list CEO to explain why $15/hour minimum wage ballot initiatives should be quashed with vigor). But the labor movement is still the backbone of America, however unsettled it seems these days. It’s a series of small changes enacted by small groups (over many, many years) for the betterment of the community, for all people. Do you enjoy things like “the weekend”?

The encroachment of corporate power is unrelenting. There’s still much work to be done.

For one sweeping example, states are trending in favor of “right to work” laws, which crush the organizing power of labor unions and, inevitably, tip the balance toward employers. There is no trickle-down savior here, of course; this is a blatant power grab, and I bristle when it’s sugar-coated as a protective measure for “the market.”

It was only the voice of the people that stopped Ohio from approving a right to work bill in 2011. Gov. John Kasich, to his credit, promised not to seek similar legislation while he remains in office. That just makes the 2018 governor’s race all the more important, of course.

Sheesh — even the Plain Dealer newsroom is facing a union-busting effort by its absentee ownership.


But beyond those examples, and bearing in mind how uncooperative most conglomerate-backed news outlets seem to be, we turn to the artists. Aesop Rock is one; Joe Hill is another, an agitator, an organizer and a songwriter who was executed by the state of Utah in 1915. (The poster pictured here hung in the office of The InterActivist in Athens, Ohio, ca. 2007. The IA was a leftist magazine backed by local nonprofit People Might; I started my journalism career as a reporter there, and I would go on to work as an editor of the publication a few years later. That’s where I learned about Joe Hill.)

I think that it’s impossible to convey the story of the working class — or the story of the people — without art and music and poetry. I’ll always laud the mechanism of journalism for community change, but it’s artistic work that will reach the audience first and most broadly. Joe Hill’s songs were sung on the picket lines outside western mines, replete with poor working conditions, and his songs were sung when workers relaxed in the small (but growing) windows of time between shifts. His songs were carried.

And his message mirrors the problems that we face today. Static wages are paired against the sheer monolith of ungirded Citizens United campaign funding. The government rhetoric against workers is damning and pervasive; service workers in particular are maligned regularly by the policies of City Halls and Statehouses across the U.S. More and more people realize once again that the labor movement must return to its musical and artistic roots. There’s a reason why music was a ubiquitous part of Occupy Wall Street collectives in 2011-2012.

The music is the message. It’s a dare. It’s a bet placed on the table against the banal and powerful, a bet that they won’t be able to shake our energy and our love and our commitment to uplifting the afflicted. With each note, we place the bet again. That’s why I can sit here and write this thing and listen to Aesop Rock and feel empowered in the wake of Labor Day.

When the prison deputy led the firing squad’s execution of Hill, he shouted “Ready! Aim!” — and then Hill interjected with his final words: “Fire! Go on and fire!”

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