Speaking truth to power

Speaking truth to power

‘Keep on Pushing’ author Denise Sullivan, Buddy Zapata and other musical guests at Vroman’s Saturday afternoon

By Bliss 07/05/2012

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We live in undeniably restless times. Parallels can be made to the far more tumultuous 1960s, one critical difference being the lack of unifying music. The Occupy movement’s impacted pop culture but no anthems have emerged a la Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the Staple Singers’ “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)” or Edwin Starr’s “War.”

Music’s motivating role in protest movements is the focus of Denise Sullivan’s absorbing book “Keep On Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip-Hop,” from which she’ll read at Vroman’s Saturday. Five years in the making, it traces how freedom songs contributed to folk, punk and rap.

“I started by wanting to look at the music from the Black Power era, which is basically defined from about 1967 to about 1975,” Sullivan explains. “It grew into this larger survey of American resistance music, because all of that music comes out of the African-American struggle for equality and freedom.”

In following connections from blues legends (Leadbelly, Lightnin’ Hopkins) through Woodstock-era icons (Jimi Hendrix, Buffy Saint-Marie, Gil Scott-Heron) and ’70s/’80s pop stars (Marvin Gaye, Public Enemy, Bruce Springsteen) to contemporary activist/artists (Michael Franti, Tom Morello), Sullivan quotes Dave Alvin, Solomon Burke, Chuck D, Odetta, Phranc, Bobby Seale, John Trudell and Little Jerry “Swamp Dogg” Williams amidst a broad spectrum of artists.
Wayne Kramer recalls how MC5 received “intense criticism” from some who believed they should play for free. His comments feel particularly timely in light of recent controversy surrounding David Lowery’s response (http://thetrichordist.wordpress.com/2012/06/18/letter-to-emily-white-at-npr-all-songs-considered/) to an NPR intern’s essay (www.npr.org/blogs/allsongs/2012/06/16/154863819/i-never-owned-any-music-to-begin-with) asserting her peers will likely never buy music they “love.” Kramer also says MC5 wanted to make records because “it was a way to reach a lot of people.” Can music still reach and motivate large segments of the population?

Sullivan believes it potentially can, while acknowledging music doesn’t have the “currency” it had in the ’60s. She compares 1985’s star-laden, anti-apartheid single “Sun City” to recent disaster fundraisers.

“Everybody knew that song, everybody knew that video,” she says, citing “Sun City’s” MTV rotation. “We don’t have that kind of common experience. The concerts for New York City or Katrina — those were things we could experience collectively. Does it take a disaster, though, to get us all to plug into the same channel?

“A lot of artists are contributing to the Occupy effort, playing at charity efforts and all kinds of events every day. Probably now more than ever, there are musicians working at that level. Do we get a chance to hear them? Not always. You have to seek them out. It takes work.”

On Saturday, accompanied by Buddy Zapata and other musicians TBA, she hopes to create what music provides: an intimate sense of community.

“The way our lives are set up today, it seems we are less often able to gather in those kind of community spaces and have those kind of experiences. That’s how movements grew, and that’s how topical songs develop.

Denise Sullivan reads from “Keep on Pushing” at 2 p.m. Saturday at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Free admission. Info: 449-5320. denisesullivan.com

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