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Why the US election has made us hopeful about music as social action

2020 has felt, at times, like a challenging hike across rocky terrain. No sooner does a patch of sunlight illuminate the pathway ahead than it is obscured by a cloud of grim world news, and we descend, once again, into frustration and despair.

It is easy to mistrust our memories of this sunlight and the clarity we experienced. So, catching hold of one such moment, this post reflects on the recent US election and what it has shown us about the positive ways that music can support social movements.

The #GOTV (Get Out To Vote) voter registration movement has catalysed a wealth of artistic activism over the past months. Social media feeds have been full of inspiring artist-created content. Take, for example, the Movement to the Ballot Box art series created by The Centre for Cultural Power.

Despite the current challenges of live performance and social distancing, musicians have also found innovative ways to act in support of this movement. (Here is a great article by Sarah Rebell that profiles eight female musicians and their actions.)

In New York, activist orchestra, The Dream Unfinished, dedicated its 2020 season, The Red, White and Blues, to using “classical music to spark dialogues on voting rights and voter suppression, and promote greater civic engagement throughout NYC.” This season included Music on the March, a synchronised live and virtual concert that took place across all five of New York City boroughs on Saturday 24 October, as well as a series of activities on social media.

In October and early November, San Francisco-based ensemble The Kronos Quartet published via social media a series of videos of seven Campaign Songs composed by Michael Gordon. These videos highlighted issues of racism, inequality and inequity (#1 & #5), historic voter suppression and intimidation (#3), protection of first nations land rights (#4), climate change (#6), and Covid-19 (#2 & 7).

While we’ll never know the impact of these initiatives, perhaps impact evaluation isn’t the point. What we know is that these musicians participated in collective action in support of a social movement that has had an impact on the 2020 US election. #GOTV has made history. It has helped to achieve an historic voter turnout rate, and resulted in a record turnout among Black voters, in particular young Black people.

#GOTV has demonstrated that social movements are powerful mechanisms of social change. They can lead to moments when people “ordinarily living their individual daily lives, come together to make history” (Johnston, 2014, p. 5). #GOTV has demonstrated that a big, change-oriented idea that acts in resistance to the historic status quo has the potential to drive collective efforts toward a more just and equitable world.

And for those of us who believe that music making can play a role in social change, #GOTV has delivered both evidence and clarity. It has shown us that music can help to mobilise action and bring people together in solidarity with a social movement. Importantly, #GOTV has shown as that when we use music to take action within a social movement, our music making takes action upon society.

To adapt a question posed by Rob Rosenthal and Richard Flack in their book Playing for Change: Music and Musicians in the Service of Social Movements (2010), #GOTV has shown us under what conditions, and in what ways, music can contribute to social change. And it helps to clarify what this rather vague term “social action” might look like. In short, it’s a powerful example of how music as social action works!

References

Johnston, H. (2014). What is a social movement? John Wiley & Sons.

Rosenthal, R., & Flacks, R. (2015). Playing for change: Music and musicians in the service of social movements. Routledge.

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