When interviewing Brooklyn's Black Dice recently, the guitarist was asked what he felt his band's responsibility was, as artists living in a country currently revving its war machine like a hot rod at a Texas speedway. His answer went something like, "Ah, well, that's not what we're really all about. We just kind of do our thing, ya know?" Likewise, at a recent book signing at Cody's, when Dave Eggers was asked a similar question during a Q&A, the prominent local author stuttered, pointed out that it was in fact a good question, and then asked if he could answer it later.
These two incidents do not indicate that the idea of the "socially conscious artist" is extinct -- but they speak to the growing fear that perhaps he or she is an ever more endangered species. Unlike the heyday of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan -- when popular musicians were encouraged to share political views in their music -- these days most tunage is seemingly politically sterilized for our protection, which seems like a pretty big dilemma in a country more ruthlessly hell-bent on satisfying its own interests than ever.
But if there are still pockets of musical protest, then Oakland's From Monument to Masses may be employed. Instead of vocals, FMTM uses samples of voices from the past: names like Che Guevara, Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party's Fred Hampton, and Weather Underground's Bernadine Dohrn. These "guest vocalists" infuse the band's progressive post-punk with a revolutionary spirit.
Comprised of Matt Solberg (guitar), Francis Choung (drums and programming), and Sergio Robledo-Maderazo (bass and synths), From Monument to Masses formed in January 2001 to play this really bitchin' instrumental post-rock. Using a number of effects and a sampling delay pedal, Solberg layers the songs with intricate guitar riffs while Choung and Robledo-Maderazo drive them frantically up and down and back and forth, twisting and turning through song lengths upwards of ten minutes. The band's alternately abrasive and melodic sound carries echoes of Fugazi, Trans Am, and Godspeed You Black Emperor.
Politics is to FMTM as bling-bling is to most commercial hip-hop stars. During last week's practice, the first thing Solberg heard from Choung was, "Man, you missed the rest of the protest." The night before, there had been an antiwar gathering outside UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. Solberg had left early, although not before a reporter sought his opinion for the Contra Costa Times.
"I said, 'I'm from From Monument to Masses. We're a cultural-works collective -- we do events.'"
What seems like a cheeky plug is really the truth. Solberg works for the magazine War Times; Robledo-Maderazo works with organizations like the League of Filipino Students, Filipinos for Global Justice, and other youth-based community organizations; and Choung makes digital movies, like his politically charged Spirit of '68.
"I love music for music's sake," says Solberg. "But we were just at a point where we wanted it to mean more to us, to our community, so it became a merger of activism and music, a way of using music not just as personal expression but as a vehicle."
Don't get the wrong idea. This isn't Rage Against the Machine. FMTM isn't interested in beating you over the head with its ideology. "We've all had some experience in the hardcore and political punk scenes," continues Solberg, "and having been through that, while it's really powerful music, there's sort of a didactic way of preaching -- there's sort of a checklist of ideas and ideologies that [fans] can use to say this is what makes me punk."
Okay, so didactic is bad -- but if you're a politically minded band, how do you get your point across?
"Is our role as artists to enlighten the masses?" says Robledo-Maderazo. "No. We need to go where people are at, organize them on the ground, meet people, build connections with people, join organizations -- do the work! Do the grunt work. We can't be playing guitars the whole time. We gotta be doing something else."
In other words, a bumper sticker isn't gonna cut it. Thirty years ago, Country Joe and the Fish could yell at crowds to tear up their draft cards, and people actually did it. These days, talk is cheaper than Enron stock, thanks to an overwhelming media barrage in which emotions and ideologies are reduced to plot points and one-liners. Hearing Zack De La Rocha scream "Bullet in the head!" is one thing. Taking it to heart is quite another.
"I can even say I've [been] guilty of it," says Choung. "It's just like appeasing your conscience by going to a few shows or going to a rally or so and feeling like you've done your part [while] not really contributing that much at all. It's something that I struggle with because it's easy to become really passive and just sort of float along and be on the sidelines saying, 'That's right, I champion that. Right on!' but not really be a part."
Perhaps that is what happened to activism in music: It exists as the rage of an Audioslave song, as the bombast of an Eminem track, something that's there to grab kids' attention and appeal to their sense of rebellion, but not obligate them towards some kind of a cause which, after all, would require actual effort that may prevent them from playing Grand Theft Auto 3. If this is the case, there's no sense in a band like From Monument to Masses trying to compete at all. But while the Billboard charts and Hollywood box office reports may indicate that apathy is at an all-time high, Robledo-Maderazo insists that we're not in that bad shape.
"Our music and our message is not a gigantic slap in the face," says Solberg. "We totally want to turn people on to certain things -- make people dance, make people move, excite their brains -- and if they care about the music, if they want to know more about it, then we can talk about that, we can talk about where it's coming from. But just to get that spirit going in the audiences that we're playing to -- because the spirit can translate to the work."
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