To Sin By Silence
To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men.
—Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Many musicians have used their art as activism and protest, many musicians have translated their will into song, have incited, sped, struck, and declared. Many musicians have responded to the times and have given voice to the unspoken and many more will. Protest and activism are more than angry fists against “The Man”, or the apparent wicked ways of “The System" - they are acts of complete honesty and vulnerability. Protest is an open mouth aimed at the terrible things we do to each other.
From immigration to Planned Parenthood, walls, women’s rights, police violence, and state corruption, there will always be people who will move the hearts of others with song. Music has the unique ability to immediately break through that nearly impenetrable armour we wear in defence of the world and its order, and to stop and stay there: “Music, when soft voices die, / vibrates in the memory”. I think of Credence Clearwater Revival, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd, The Cranberries, Grace Petrie, Green Day, Amanda Palmer, Death Cab for Cutie, Father John Misty. The list is endless. The people who dedicate their musical art to the betterment of humanity are endless.
Sometimes this fight needs to be violent when it comes to the eradication of inhumane ways of interacting with the world. Shortly before the Trump presidency, for instance, Amanda Palmer declared:
If the political climate keeps getting uglier, the art will have to answer. We will have to fight. It’s already happening – the artists in my tribes have been like, ‘Alright. This is not good.’ We are sharpening our knives for a large buffet.
And what a buffet it has been. In Amanda’s own recent cover of Pink Floyd’s “Mother” with jherek bischoff, we see a group of mothers subduing political figures and finally, Amanda mesmerizing and breastfeeding the likeness of the American President. Motherhood, like all tender yet vicious human faculties, is being threatened and hushed - and who but mothers and daughters and selfless soldiers are to enter the Wolfschanze?
Every now and then we are informed that hip-hop or rock or opera is “political again” when all music, really, is political. The Black Eyed Peas, for instance, have been asking where the love is since 2003. Pink has been asking the president how he sleeps while the rest of us cry since 2006. They’ve been asking so that we’d all see the empty spaces where our reciprocity once was.
And with the rapid rise of popular media, we’ve come to know a world in which the news and entertainment industries are so entwined that we sometimes miss the difference between the two. This also makes it easier for atrocities to slip through. When something is unbelievably wrong, it is quickly dismissed as such - unbelievable. It must be a gimmick or an act or a wild new form of art, because how can it sit firmly within the fabric of reality? In U2’s most recent album, we are warned of this grave fate:
Statues fall, democracy is flat on its back, Jack We had it all, and what we had is not coming back
When looking at ourselves this far into our human quest on Earth, it is heart-wrenching to think that this is it. As Father John Misty reflects in their recent album Pure Comedy:
The only thing that seems to make them feel alive Is the struggle to survive But the only thing that they request Is something to numb the pain with Until there's nothing human left
So protest, protest art, and protest music is not just for the overtly political and the brave - it is for us all. We need the rebels and the rebel rousers to keep us from the anaesthesia of crazy men, to keep us from going cold for the last time. Protest is for everyone, because the chimes of freedom ought to be flashing for everyone. It ought to be as Bod Dylan exclaimed:
Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight An’ for each an’ ev’ry underdog soldier in the night An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing
There is no difference between the forces that we fought a hundred years ago and the forces we fight today. Of course, the names have changed, the weapons have intensified, the TV can now show you death in colour and HD - but the hate and the war are still one and the same. And if I could point your soul in any direction, I’d introduce you to Roger Waters. The former Pink Floyd vocalist continues to voice his important message of freedom and love, though he has received critique for the political nature of his 2017 album Is This the Life We Really Want? Let me quote Mr Rogers:
And every time a student is run over by a tank
And every time a pirate's dog is forced to walk the plank
Every time a Russian bride is advertised for sale
And every time a journalist is left to rot in jail
Every time a young girl's life is casually spent
And every time a nincompoop becomes the president
Every time somebody dies reaching for their keys
And every time that Greenland falls in the fucking sea is because
All of us, the blacks and whites
Chicanos, Asians, every type of ethnic group
Even folks from Guadeloupe, the old, the young
Toothless hags, super models, actors, fags, bleeding hearts
Football stars, men in bars, washerwomen, tailors, tarts
Grandmas, grandpas, uncles, aunts
Friends, relations, homeless tramps
Clerics, truckers, cleaning ladies
So, every time the curtain falls
Every time the curtain falls on some forgotten life
It is because we all stood by, silent and indifferent
We must ask ourselves: is this the life we really want? We make cowards of ourselves when we stay silent at times when we should protest. And these times are always, here, now, and still. Despite all hostility, despite our great dictators, despite our deep-seated fears, we must keep from sinning by silence. Our music and empathy intertwine, and this is the way we flourish.