Activism Through Music

From the Nov/Dec 2019 PNL #869

with Colleem Kattau

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Colleen is a CNY-based bilingual vocalist and performer. Colleen has shared the stage with Holly Near and Pete Seeger. She interprets songs from the nueva canción tradition of artists such as Violeta Parra, Victor Jara, and Silvio Rodriguez. Colleen believes in the transformative power of song to create a more just and beautiful world. She has created 6 albums and 3 successful benefit compilations for environmental and peace actions. Colleen is also an organic gardener on a rural land trust.


Image: Graffiti attributed to the infamous street artist


What role does music play in social justice movements

Colleen: Music speaks to the heart and soul. It makes us human. We are more free to expDownload a pdf of this articleress our emotion and reason through melody and lyrics. Throughout social movements, music has been atthe forefront. Music and lyrics are important because they tell stories that otherwise would not get told. Amazing songs come from the labor, women’s rights, and civil rights movements. Music isalternative history and documents the heroes and she-roes.


What can it do for activists and organizers?

Colleen: Music can be reaffirming to the collective vision that organizers share. Music is nuanced and gives us direction toward justice. It creates community through interpretation, which can be playful or contain irony. (Jolie Rickman, a local singer, was so good at that.) It reaffirms and articulates the values and goals for a good and just society. We will always have music. No one can take that away from us. A singer like Victor Jara, a true progressive singer- song writer for Chilean poor, who was tortured and killed during the dictatorship of Pinochet- left us a legacy and his music lives on for all of us.


How does music inspire people to act?

Colleen: Take the song “We Shall Not be Moved”: [it] affirms that one must act to decry the injustice. It reaffirms our right to speak and says we are not going to move. You realize you are not alone. Singing is therapeutic and, through breathing, allows one to get in touch with the body. It’s primordial and physiological, getting in touch with the space in your body. It transforms your mind. When you sing, it stays with you and helps to sustain spirit, commitment, and determination.


What are some common elements addressed through music?

Colleen: Some people hear the music while others hear the lyrics and understand the metaphors used. The music of Mercedes Sousa, the voice of Latin America, uses metaphors and makes social justice real. And activists’ music does exactly that—makes experiences and life real. There’s a beautiful love song by Violeta Parra used by young people to protest [against the] jail[ing of] victims in Latin America. Songs can be interpreted in a different context. It’s all about resonance; some things are not obvious.


In the 60’s and 70’s, music was significant in social inspiration. Is it true that social media has diminished the role? How would you describe the situation then and now?

Colleen: One must look at where and when music is produced. There are layers to music production. The hierarchy prevents the grasp of all music produced. Sometimes we don’t see it. For example, Neil Young sings many protest songs and once wrote that no one is singing about a particular social problem. But I and others were. It’s just that in the hierarchy of musical production, Neil wasn’t aware of this. Hierarchy prevents people from getting the whole picture. Streaming is good for dissemination, especially for independent artists, but it can be devastating. Listeners can listen but incomes of once successful social activist musicians can plummet. But the inspiration of the 60’s and 70’s is still there. Look at Puerto Rico: the women singing in the Latin American tradition led the way with lyrics that eventually helped topple the governor of Puerto Rico.

Are there any musical groups or artists that inspire your activism or musical style?

Colleen: Definitely! Joni Mitchell- I love her sophistication and musical genius. We don’t think about her as a social justice singer, but she was very progressive and wrote about women’s experiences. And Carol King, whose music exudes love and was about being real and the strong values we all appreciate. I listen to all sorts of music including jazz, music of struggle, and women artists such as Holly Near and Violeta Parra- so inspirational- and artists singing Nuevo Cancion, a Latin American style. I never had lessons with the guitar and still struggle with it, [but] I was always singing and now I listen to all kinds of music- Johnny Cash, Buffy St. Marie, Patti Smith, and more.


Who are you behind the music?

Colleen: I love to sing. If I feel the music, I can sing it. It must be meaningful to me. It has to be real or I am not able to interpret the music lyrically or melodically. I can’t mimic it. Maybe some musicians can do those things, but I can’t.


How would you describe the connections of social activism in music in the past, present, and future?

Colleen: Well, there are different “musics”. One is topical music- “in the present moment” music. Charlie King writes topicalmusic like his songs of the Iraq war when George Bush was in office. But there are songs of the past that live in the present and into the future.There are many social movements going on now; songs like “Which Side Are You On?” propel us. Social justice responds to the times and createsan awareness. Music, like art, often precedes ideas. It’s visionary; naming and creating more awareness. We see into the future and we express itin our music and art. The future of music is expansive and there is an explosion of music now. We need a lot of music. But much of folk music nowis not political, not moving us to action. Music can celebrate and mourn ideas, like climate change. We sing what is good and what is hard in our lives.

What is the benefit of music over demonstration or protest? 

Colleen: It’s more interesting! It’s participatory. For example, Pete Seeger in the Close the School of the Americas Movement. Pete loved it. He called it the “singingest” movement. We are creatures of variety and we may just want to dance into the revolution as Emma Goldman said.


Colleen is generous with her voice, performing regularly at community events,
demonstrations, festivals into the future and house concerts, often donating
her time and collaborating with other musicians (l to r: Mike Brandt, Colleen
Kattau, Jaime Yaman. Photo: Kristen Mosher.
Photo: Kristen Mosher.

Do you think music crosses the lines of gender, education, income levels, cultures, etc.?

Colleen: It tries to. Sometimes it succeeds, but there are large generational differences. In our generation there was set known music. Now there are pockets of music. Frames of reference are different. But it is up to us to sing the social justice songs. World music does cross cultures both ways. As for income levels, I am not sure. I am not singing to the wealthy. Colleen is generous with her voice, performing regularly at community events, demonstrations, festivals
into the future and we express it and house concerts, often donating her time and collaborating with other musicians (l to r: Mike Brandt,
in our music and art. The future Colleen Kattau, Jaime Yaman. Photo: Kristen Mosher.



What is the role of music in healing when it comes to violence and injustice?

Colleen: It plays a major role in healing the oppressed. All oppressed people have their music. Music brings people together in community. It names the injustice and that makes it effective. Music eases our tension. It is uplifting and poignant and offers an alternative as it inspires us to get on with it.

How would you describe the role of your music in the community?

Colleen: It is important to stay connected to community, to know what the community is and to work in the community. Everyone has skills. I like to sing and I offer it, along with spots of hope. I try.