Panel explores role of music in social movements

Lauren Garczynski

The School of Journalism and Mass Communication (JMC) and the College of Communication and Information hosted its inaugural panel in a series of conversations discussing media in movements in Franklin Hall on Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017.

“You Say You Want a Revolution: Does Music Matter to Today’s Social Movement,” was organized by Professor Stephanie Smith and inspired by the JMC course she instructed, “Rolling Stone @ 50.”

During the conversation, panelists examined the impact and role that music has on social movements including Black Lives Matter, sexual assault and destigmatizing mental illness.

Featured panelists included Malcolm X. Abram, a pop music writer for the Akron Beacon Journal; Hana Barkowitz, a senior public relations major and student activist; Madison Indre, a freshman public relations major and local musician; Jason Prufer, an author and senior library associate; Mike Shea, the founder and CEO of Alternative Press Magazine; and Gene Shelton, a Kent State professor and former Motown Records publicist. The event was moderated by Evan Bailey, an associate professor of journalism.

Prufer identified how the Beatles brought about a shift in an entire culture in the 1960s and initiated a step toward incorporating music in social movements like no other entity had before.

“The music of the Beatles effected an entire generation,” Prufer said. “They were easily one of the driving forces of the ‘60s and caused a rift between two generations.”

Social movements hold a rich history at Kent State with the May 4 Visitors Center serving as a regular reminder. May 4 and the protest music that followed formed a foundation in the connection between music and social movements.

Shea believes, however, the ability to measure the impact that music has on social movements has become harder to track as time has passed.

“Now everything is so fragmented it’s hard for a movement to get too far these days,” Shea said. “Everything is changing so fast it’s hard to grab onto one particular message.”

The world has developed and changed radically since the first instances of social activism, but Barkowitz thinks there is still an incredible impact on social movements being made by today’s music. She cites artists like Kendrick Lamar as playing a huge role in the Black Lives Matter movement and thinks artists like him have mobilized people to take action.

“He means so much and encompasses so much,” she said. “I think when artists bring really important movements into their music, the movements have more leverage than they did before.”

Hip-hop and rap artists like Lamar have made significant strides in galvanizing their fans toward recognizing the importance of being involved in social movements. Artists like Jay Z and Beyonce took a firm stance during the 2016 presidential election; signifying a new era as music and immersion in activism are becoming more conjoined.

Shea also noted the prominence of musicians in political races and cited the impact that song choice played in the 2012 election.

“Back in 2012, politicians were deliberately using some artists to make them make a statement,” he said. “It almost became a sideshow to see how musicians are being pulled into a political fight,” Shea said.

Sexual assault has become an increasingly prominent issue as high-profile women have been coming forward with stories of assault from men in positions of power. Just as recent as this week, hip-hop artist Drake confronted a concertgoer after sexually harassing a woman at a show of his.

“Drake called out a young man for harassing a woman,” Shelton said. “This is something you see an artist do, they see what is going on in the world and respond.”

Shea also recognized the dark side of musicians becoming involved in political social movements. While the side effects of being politically active haven’t been negative for hip hop performers, he brought up the toll that promoting a different viewpoint can take on artists.

He recalled the backlash the Dixie Chicks faced after publicly protesting President Bush, and how they, “got banned by country stations nationwide.” However, he notes that now, “people are breaking outside of their mold in everything,” and that the stereotypes that entrapped performers with niche audiences, like country artists, are diffusing.

The role country music has in social movements is very distinct as many country artists choose to refrain from speaking out. Recently, the Country Music Awards issued a release stating that there would be no discussion on issues related to guns or politics. Though the award show later retracted the statement before the ceremony, it left a sharp impression on what it means to speak out as a country artist.

“It’s irresponsible of the CMAs to say not to talk about this,” Barkowitz said. “Country artists have a big voice to speak to people and have a right to use that voice.”

Malcolm X. Abrams touched on previous attempts made by country artists in getting involved in social movements.

“I don’t think you can use a paintbrush to say country artists are this or that,” he said. “Brad Paisley and L.L. Cool J. attempted to do a song about racial relations, it sucked but they gave it a shot.”

Recently, music has started to delve into other social issues that have only just experienced growth as a movement itself, proving that music may not only have a place in social movements, but belongs in them.

“Music is one of the strongest ways to create movements,” Idre said. “Lyrics can say what speaking can’t, music is very powerful in creating a movement.”

Shea recognized this in the impact that music has on the LGBTQ community through bands such as Panic! at the Disco and Laura Jane Grace of Against Me, specifically on the transgender community.

Shea said his own experience realizing he was gay in the 1980s was entirely different than the culture of support from music today.

“The LGBT community in music right now is super hot,” he said. “All these younger kids are way into that, coming from 1984 when I was supposed to die – it’s the most beautiful thing.”

Issues like mental health and sexual assault and are reaching music’s radar as well and becoming part of a larger conversation among artists. Through the influx of public support in the movement toward eliminating stigmas attached to mental illness, music has become more influencing in spreading this message as well.

“Mental health can be difficult to talk about, but it is important to talk about,” Indres said. “Every concert I’ve been to this year, the performers have talked about it.”

As a student and political activist, Barkowitz realizes there is no simple solution to combat the world’s most drastic problems. Though she acknowledges the fact that music will not fix social issues, she is not ignoring the impact it has on them.

“The world isn’t perfect, America definitely isn’t perfect now,” Barkowitz said. “I think that music is a way for us to share a voice and unify a message we care about.”

Lauren Garczynski is the College of Communication and Information reporter. Contact her at [email protected].