"We are the 99 percent."
This slogan has served as the rallying cry for one of the more significant recent social movements, Occupy Wall Street.
And like all social movements, it began with a single spark. Occupy Wall Street's fuse was lit by Adbusters. The Vancouver-based anticonsumer magazine proposed an "occupation" of Wall Street on Sept. 17 to fight against the power held by multinational conglomerates, major banks and the richest 1 percent who are, according to the Occupy Wall Street official website, "writing the rules of an unfair global economy."
In six weeks, the cause has spread like to more than 1,000 cities in the United States — including major cities such as Chicago, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Miami, down to smaller towns such as Kalispell, Mont. Occupy Wall Street has also spanned continents, with demonstrations taking place from London to Tokyo and Sydney.
Downtown at the main Occupy Wall Street camp in New York on Oct. 11, a protestor held up an altered American flag, but instead of stars there were logos of corporate behemoths. Speakers representing the "99 percent" talked about losing their homes, jobs and retirement funds, and being saddled with student debt and unable to afford health care. In between speeches, protesters danced and chanted to the beat of rhythmic drumming. There was music everywhere.
The antiwar and civil rights movements of the 20th century inspired music that both molded and reflected the rapidly evolving climate of the time. Songs such as "We Shall Overcome" instantly bring to mind peaceful marchers set upon by fire hoses and snarling dogs. In 1969 the country watched as hundreds of thousands of people sang John Lennon's "Give Peace A Chance" in front of the White House in protest of the Vietnam War. Politically minded singer/songwriters of that era created music that resonates strongly with many of the "occupiers" now protesting economic inequality. But will Occupy Wall Street, like the protest movements of yesteryear, have its own distinct soundtrack?
It appears likely as artists such as Arlo Guthrie, Talib Kweli, Tom Morello, Pete Seeger, and Kanye West, among others, have made appearances in support of Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.
Kweli was greeted by an appreciative Occupy Wall Street crowd in New York on Oct. 6. He connected with protestors because his spoken-word performance spoke to the cause's message, reflecting his revolution-friendly track record as a poet and "conscious" hip-hop artist. Less mainstream but well-respected artists such as Kweli are taking advantage of the world stage Manhattan's Zuccotti Park and other Occupy Wall Street sites offer. Unique to this movement, their live performances have spread virally through blogs, Twitter and YouTube.
"This is not a movement that needs famous people," says Morello, who is the guitarist for Rage Against The Machine and a singer/songwriter under the moniker the Nightwatchman. "It's a cooperation, everybody pitches in. I use my musical skills to help out anyway that I can."
Legendary folk singers Guthrie and Seeger joined approximately 1,000 protestors in a march on New York's Upper West Side on Oct. 21, leading a version of "We Shall Overcome."
Morello has visited five occupied cities, including Los Angeles, Seattle and Vancouver, during stops on his recent tour. Like other artists, he is performing to "keep the wind in the sails and steel in the backbone" of the protestors.
On Oct. 13 Morello performed at the Occupy Wall Street camp in New York. "My first song is for all the people who lost everything," he told the crowd before playing four songs, including Woody Guthrie's 1947 classic "This Land Is Your Land," on acoustic guitar, encircled by enthusiastic protestors.
Guthrie, a folk icon and activist in his own right, is represented by a slew of artists on the new album, Note Of Hope — A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie. Artists contributing interpretations of Guthrie's work include Jackson Browne, former Recording Academy Vice Chairman Kurt Elling, Ani DiFranco, Morello, Lou Reed, and Seeger. Reed sings Guthrie's "The Debt I Owe," a song with woeful lyrics that could be the theme song for many of today's protestors: "Several times a day, a thought comes over me/I owe more debt than I ever can pay back/More money than I'll ever see."
Morello chose "Ease My Revolutionary Mind" for his contribution, calling it "a story of love and longing in the midst of a class war throw-down." Morello draws inspiration from Guthrie for the songs that make up his Nightwatchman project, citing Guthrie's music as "a battering ram for social justice."
Politics aside, "Ease My Revolutionary Mind" has a sense of humor, and it's that same joyful spirit that Morello sees in Occupy Wall Street.
"It's not just people sitting around grousing and reading boring speeches," says Morello. "There's dancing, laughter and music. It's about trying to create a little bit of the world you want to see."
(Caroline Cooney is a New York-based freelance journalist and scriptwriter.)