Radical Music: Paris & beyond

IssueDecember 2015 - January 2016
Comment by Penny Stone

‘Take a stone in your hand and close your fist around it until it starts to beat, live, speak and move.’ Áillohaš (also known as Nils-Aslak Valkeapääs), Sami poet

As I’m sure most people are aware, the Paris climate talks are coming up and it is more crucial than ever before that we make bigger collective commitments to limit our impact on this earth that sustains us. But what has music got to do with that? Well, in my world, quite a lot. Music has the power to reach people more immediately and more deeply than scientific facts often can, and that’s why activists are using music to try and make the climate chaos we are facing hit home, particularly to those of us living in the wealthier half of the world, so that our movements can grow and those holding the power will hear us in time.

A Sami singer called Sara Marielle Gaup Beaska has taken the opportunity to share a little of her own culture by putting a call out for people to listen to, learn, and sing her yoik (a type of Sami song) ‘Gulahallat Eatnamiin’ (‘We Speak Earth’). She is asking people the world over to sing this song to highlight the disproportionate impact climate change is having upon indigenous peoples. In a campaigning video on 350.org, she explains a little of where she has come from and the very real potential for her people’s homeland to disappear as a direct result of climate chaos. She then shares her song and ends by picking up a stone from the water. She will carry that stone, that little piece of her home, to Paris to show the world what these talks really mean to her. Home. Sara belongs to a culture that interacts with the earth fundamentally differently than our more industrialised society. There is a more guttural connection with the land which you can hear in her yoik.

The disproportionately wealthy western music business offered its own song in the run up to Paris, in the footsteps of other such mildly offensive charitable singles. ‘Love Song to the Earth’ lacks any kind of analysis or poetry and boasts famous names such as McCartney, Bon Jovi, Crowe and Fergie. The proceeds from this song go to Friends of the Earth and the UN Foundation, so there is practical merit in that.

Unfortunately, the message is pretty vague with lyrics such as ‘keep it safe, keep it safe, keep it safe, ’cause it’s our world.’ However, this song wasn’t aimed at activists like you and me, and aside from raising some much needed cash for environmental campaigners, it will no doubt have alerted some people who wouldn’t otherwise have heard that the Paris talks are happening, and that engagement with political processes on this issue is important if we care about the future of our planet.

Earlier this year, Greenpeace used singing and music as part of their presence outside Shell’s headquarters premiering Requiem for Arctic Ice, a string quartet written by four separate composers in response to Shell being granted permission to begin drilling in the Arctic. They hoped that using music would reach that little bit further to touch the hearts of those business people working inside, to help them be more open to the message they have to share. Charlotte Church, known for her social activism, used her fame to help bring more of the media spotlight to this Greenpeace action.

On 28 and 29 November, there will be many campaign choirs singing as part of national demonstrations in Edinburgh and London. During this same weekend, there will be over 2,000 demonstrations being held on every continent to show just how much people care about this issue, and just how important real action to cut carbon emissions is. And on 12 December, there will be people joining in solidarity to sing, in Sami, ‘We Speak Earth’, alongside other musicians and voices for change as well as massive actions of civil disobedience in Paris.

Why music? Because it enables us to come together from far and wide and connect immediately with each other, while communicating something of what we are about to those passing by. It is easier to turn away from an image on a banner than it is to tune out the songs sung by a group of people. Imagine you are just walking past one of our singing demonstrations, that you don’t know what we’re campaigning about. Before you’ve heard our message, you might find yourself tapping your foot, and after you’ve passed by and got on with your day, you might just find yourself humming that tune we were singing to you. ‘Now what were those words, and why were they singing them?’ you might ask….

See more of: Radical music