With the country gripped by raging political fever, it seems an apt time for protest songs. Not that artists are keeping silent; Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, Drive-By Truckers, Father John Misty, Fantastic Negrito, Margo Price, Prophets of Rage, Eminem, and Hurray for the Riff Raff are just a few who have protested injustice, gun violence, environmental devastation, and the Trump administration in song. But not even Childish Gambino’s viral “This is America” has achieved the mass traction of protest songs by Buffalo Springfield, the Chambers Brothers, Bob Dylan, Curtis Mayfield and the Staple Singers that, during the 1960s, served as rallying cries for the civil rights and antiwar movements.
Friday night’s “Now More Than Ever” concert at California Plaza aims to revive that protest song tradition. The brainchild of Grand Performances Director of Programming Leigh Ann Hahn, the event will be led by I See Hawks in LA, who will back various guests, including actor Roger Guenveur Smith, soul-jazz vocalist Nailah Porter, R&B singer Ivan Kady, hip-hopper Dice Raw, and Grand Performances Executive Director (and nueva cancion veteran) Mari Riddle. Hawks bassist Paul Marshall will lead a miniature harmony workshop with the audience; the goal, per Hawks guitarist Paul Lacques, is to “get everyone up and singing.”
“The idea is to jumpstart the tradition of songs helping lead social and political change,” he explains. “The song was the newspaper, going way back, especially for underground sources of information. In the 1960s it came to this amazing blossom.”
Songs will range from labor and social justice anthems “El Picket Sign” and “De Colores (In Colors)” to Peter Gabriel’s “Biko,” Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” and classics by Dylan, Woody Guthrie, John Lennon, Nina Simone and Neil Young. All have folk roots in earlier struggles for equality and justice. The Hawks will also perform originals upholding that tradition; sociopolitical consciousness has defined the substance of their music since their first, self-titled album in 2001, particularly with regard to environmental issues. That extends to the just-released “Live and Never Learn,” whose lead song “Ballad for the Trees” they’ll perform Friday.
“I do hope the protest movement gathers steam,” Lacques says. “We need it badly. Humanity has reached a crisis point. But for me personally, the big issues are still eco issues. There’s seven-and-a-half billion people on Earth and something’s gotta give, and all the noise right now is absolutely ignoring that fact. I feel like we’re on the beach arguing about sand castles and there’s this 100-foot wave on the horizon.”
They’ll also perform the bittersweet “Hope Against Hope,” which, like most of their work, tempers anger with humor and melodic uplift. Lacques can be blisteringly cynical about politics, but when it comes to young people he expresses genuine hope.
“They’re less deluded,” he notes. “They’re more aware of what’s really happening, and the stakes for them — because they’re gonna live through more of whatever’s coming than we are. I just hope they can translate that into meaningful action.”
Grand Performances presents “Now More Than Ever: Protest Songs Sing-along” at California Plaza, 350 S. Grand Ave., Downtown LA, at 8 p.m. Friday, July 13; free admission. Info: (213) 687-2190. Iseehawks.com, grandperformances.org