Getting the word out about cultural activism
By Dave Riley
Scott M.X. Turner describes himself as a "punk rock/trad Irish/reggae guitarist and singer". The mix may seem a strange one, but Turner's approach to his music is far from eclectic. When Green Left Weekly spoke to him recently, he had just organised a "cultural activism" workshop at the Brecht Forum in New York City.
Cultural activism "is getting the word out through art", Turner explained. "Cultural activism also means firing people up. Information and adrenaline ... Cultural activism is way too big for a tidy, concise nomenclature. It's pretty much everywhere — all forms of art, advertising, information dissemination, education, conversation, someone humming a song in her head. Cultural activism informs, inspires and adrenalises people whether they realise it or not.
"We do get information, for better or worse, from culture ... More kids learned about the Zapatista freedom struggle in Mexico from the rock band Rage Against The Machine than anywhere else, and more discovered black nationalism from the rap group Public Enemy. Shit, people learned about class division from the movie Titanic.
Turner pointed to the Almanac Singers, Woody Guthrie, Public Enemy, Sue Coe, Dario Fo, Charlie Chaplin, Muhammad Ali, those who joined the cultural embargo of South Africa during apartheid days and Midnight Oil as "obvious cultural activists", adding "there are, literally, millions of cultural activists. We're out here. We have to find organisers and they have to find us. Anyone who focuses on an issue and/or works with activists can be a cultural activist."
Turner's New York workshop was titled "No more talk" because "I think we've dug ourselves some mighty deep holes by sitting around and analysing things to death ... Of course, come time for the workshop, talk we did! I feel like we talk too much and do to little.
"Cultural activism is a valuable tool to move toward a more progressive world. There's not a lot of complicated discourse needed. What kind of cultural activism, when to use it — we should analyse that and do the best we can. But heavy theorising on whether it should be part of the movement? Anytime I hear that, I feel like it's a brush-off.
"We have to stop letting regressive forces define the struggle, the issues, the style of our discourse. The leadership of movements have to say: 'Yeah, we're going to commission an anthem, we're going to have music and poetry and theatre and it's going to be vital and adrenalising. We're going to work with cultural activists to make this a real part of our culture, our hegemony'.
"I get chills hearing Silvio Rodriguez's 'Playa giron' or a song by Miriam Makeba, Fela, Victor Jara or Mary Courtney because I know that the movement in question adopted those songs as anthems, as vehicles for inspiration. We can reignite that spark, we just have to want to", Hunter enthused.
Turner agreed that national struggles "are a more obvious peg to hang our cultural activism hats on", whereas fighting for social change in imperialist countries is more difficult. "James Connolly was one of many revolutionaries able to link the national and social movements. Ireland free of Britain, said Connolly, wouldn't ever be truly free unless it was also free of capitalism. And I believe that where there's appropriate political analysis there can and should be cultural activism that adheres to and promotes a similar vision.
"Fighting for national identity, autonomy and freedom is a lucid ideal. So is fighting capitalist exploitation. But let's face it, fighting capitalism and all of its ills feels cumbersome at best and a virtual lost cause at worst.
"Where do we start? What do we target? Which pillars do we try to bring down first? When it's that massive, tailoring cultural activism to fit emerging strategies is hard.
"One way to handle it is to decentralise cultural activism. Do what you're good at, write what you know, shape it for your audience, and know that other folks are doing that for other audiences and communities, other ears and eyes and souls."
Turner does not rule out using mass popular culture as a forum for cultural activism. "The cultural activism umbrella is a huge, huge thing. A plus of pop culture is that it gets whatever message there is out to zillions of people. Its minus is that it's usually the status quo's message.
"Nevertheless, when the message is good, if it's delivered via pop culture, it's that much more accessible — and that doesn't mean it has to be the 'lowest common denominator', a term coined by some elitist pundit who couldn't get a gig."
Scott Turner can be heard on Snipers In Derelict Houses, a benefit CD for the Pat Finucane Centre, a human rights organisation in Derry, Ireland. The 18-song album features Turners' band, the Devil's Advocates, and the United 32s. E-mail <firstname.lastname@example.org> for more information, or send a cheque for US$15 to Triage Records, 199 Prospect Place, Fourth Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11238, USA.