Ryan Harvey has been writing and performing protest music since the turn of the century. But as he explains in this interview he considers himself an activist and an organizer first and musician second. Furthermore, Ryan is also journalist, so naturally I was thoroughly excited about picking his brain about activism, journalism and music and the blurred lines between them as that is what the Shouts project is all about.
For those not familiar with your work, who is Ryan Harvey?
I am a song-writer, folk-musician, activist, and journalist from Baltimore, MD, USA. I have been a carpenter/builder for over a decade to subsidize my music and touring life, and I recently launched a small, politically-radical “label” with Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine et al called Firebrand Records. I say “label” because we aren’t exactly just a label, we’re also evolving as we venture further into the modern music industry and try to find a way to play a positive role for the artists we work with. It’s certainly a challenge and we’ve made mistakes for sure, but, again, we’re a pretty tiny thing right now.
How did you get into making music?
I first got into punk through a neighbor from childhood, thankfully, the Dead Kennedys was one of my earliest bands that I got into. That led to many good things, including Rancid. It was actually through Rancid that I first heard of Billy Bragg, from their song “The War’s End.” I then got into Billy Bragg, and through him I heard the name Phil Ochs. Once I heard Phil Ochs, I bought a guitar (literally, that week) and began writing political folk music. I had played bass as a kid, trying to be in a punk band, but was new to the guitar. That was in 2000 and was really involved in the anti-capitalist wing of the “anti-globalization” or “global justice” movement.
I’m still very much a punk and punk-listener, but I can be found listening to hiphop, Arabic instrumentals, first-wave Ska and Calypso, or Latin American leftist folk-music just as easily. Politics-in-song really speaks to me, but any musical form that grows from a cultural struggle or serves as a foundation for survival amidst hardship tends to find my ears.
Have your political and social surroundings always been a driving force for your music?
Yes. I was pretty young when I got politicized by the world around me. It was 1999 and the world was on fire with rebellions against neoliberal capitalist institutions and trade agreements. My early songs were all from that movement, and George W. Bush soon got elected. So I was writing songs in the aftermath of 9/11, the lead-up to the war in Iraq, and then from within the anti-war movement. I worked really closely with a group called Iraq Veterans Against the War and founded a group called The Civilian-Soldier Alliance that tried, together with the veterans, to organize active-duty soldiers to resist the wars. I wrote a lot about that (my albums “The Violence of War” and web-release “Soldier By Soldier”). I have tended to see myself as an activist/organizer first and a musician second (or third).
More recently, I have been writing a lot about the post-2011 world, the Arab Spring revolts, the refugee crisis, etc. My trio with Kareem Samara and Shireen Lilith grew from these songs. Kareem is Palestinian and has more immediate family roots in Egypt (they were refugees from 48, driven out by the earliest Israeli terror-gangs). Shireen’s from the Netherlands with roots there and in Turkey, and back when I was writing a lot of the songs we sing together she was one of many Dutch squatters helping Iraqi refugees with public square protests. I was traveling through Europe (including a stop in Iceland) to learn about the recent protests and uprisings and to share my songs when we all started making music together. We all were acutely aware of the situation both in our regions and in the world at large, and we were inspired and injured by many of the social uprisings taking place. So, we wanted to try to capture this new world political situation and its spirit in song.
How willingly do you feel people are receiving political music these days? Especially if you perform at non-protest venues?
It’s strange. The world is extremely political right now, especially certain places where I’ve performed (like Egypt and Greece). Other places (especially parts of the US) are sadly quite contained. But honestly, I think so much music today is political, because the generation that is listening to so much of the new music is political. Performing in Europe, for instance, and singing about the refugee crisis, is something that almost everyone understands, because the situation is simply impossible to ignore. Here in the US, those songs don’t carry the same weight. Singing songs about the US outside of the US is already interesting to the listener, because I’m bringing stories they aren’t always really aware of.
Compared to me singing my songs ten years ago, the soil is a lot healthier, let’s just say. But, with the new leftist-surge has also been the far-right. So, healthy soil can grow different plants…
What do you hope to achieve with your music?
I have always written songs to change the world, and I intend to continue doing that. Changing the world isn’t one big goal, it’s a million little goals. It can be an individual, a behavior, an emotion. I have changed people’s lives as my life has been changed by the music of other people, friends and people I’ll never meet alike.
I also aim to educate, to use my performances as a professor uses the classroom, but without all the grading and homework, but for real, I learned about the Vietnam war through Phil Ochs, the depression through Woody Guthrie, and the Falklands War through CRASS. I learned a lot about post-colonial struggles through Zeca Afonso, Victor Jara, Bob Marley, and so many others.
Education, like music, ignites my heart, and I want to pass that flame on. If you can write a song that makes the listener want to learn more about the subject, you’re doing a good job, and that’s what these artists did for me.
What advice do you have for young protest musicians who want to get their voice and message out into the cosmos?
First off, just start writing and singing. I sucked when I started, and I’m really not a very good singer. I’m not even a very good guitarist honestly, I just have like two styles really that I sort of coined, and that’s what I’m good at. But I wrote like 5 albums before I was even half-decent at holding a note.
Looking back, I write a lot as an observer, like a journalist passing through a significant area and feeling that burning need to attempt to make sense of their snapshots to other people. If you have 10 people that will listen to you, then write for those 10 people. Think about your audience, who do you want to be singing to? Who are you singing to? Be aware of these questions. I have always written songs with an audience in mind, and that has changed my songs. When I was singing acoustic a lot with no microphone and often at protests, I was writing louder, faster songs. Recently, I’ve been able to tap into some softer, more vulnerable parts of my voice and emotions because I’ve been performing in venues with better sound systems. This has allowed me to write different songs on different subjects as well.
Also, innovate! Do some new shit. I see a lot of young dudes who really try hard to look the part of the “folk singer” and sing songs about their “hard travels.” In the folk-punk world, it’s even more monotonous. To be real, we don’t need another Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie. We need new folks with new songs, singing about the life they are actually living. Be honest. If you are just an observer of other peoples’ struggles, that’s ok. Sing a song as an observer. Be yourself and be honest. Bring new musical influences to the genre, expand it, re-define it. Of course, it’s also ok to play the old styles and enjoy them, but don’t become trapped by them.
The world is changing rapidly right now, our job is help those we come in touch with to understand those changes, deal with them emotionally, and prepare themselves to fight to ensure those changes happen in a way that radically alters power and improves the lives of the majority of the world’s population. That’s a big job, but it happens in small parts. If you have ten folks in a basement, that’s your job tonight, to bring those ten people to a different place than they were when they came down the stairs. Tomorrow, repeat.
And remember, there’s a lot of us out there doing the work, so be humble, but don’t ever think you’re the only one out there.
One main focus of the Shouts project is the research into journalism vs. activism and the objectivity line between them that often gets blurred. Seeing how you are a journalist involved in political activism, can you tell us your take on the subject?
Oh, what a subject! I mean, I could write a book about this (if my ADD allowed such focus). I have done journalism since 2006 or so, and was first published I think in 2008. I have written about political music, I’ve done investigative journalism, I’ve done many interviews, photography, and I’ve made some videos.
I also use music as journalism. And as activism. I think the lines between art and journalism have increasingly blurred both with technology but also with this generation’s ways of processing information. We have perhaps returned to the days of the traveling music bringing news from town to town, or the Calypso artists using the theatrics of performance to spread subversive ideas among the people. Only, it’s happening through the internet really, really fast.
In recent years, the political space has opened so much, to where mainstream artists are kind of looked upon as uncool if they don’t have some edgy political track. That’s got its downsides too (like really watered down ideas often passing as political radicalism, or folks thinking there is not protest-music until a big artist does something), but, all-in-all, we want to change culture and pop culture is an indicator of where we’re at.
Besides the music, journalism and activism, you co-manage a record company. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Yeah, it’s a weird thing to go from being a very “anti-label” artist to suddenly coming out with a record-label with a really famous musician. But that’s just a sign of the times isn’t it? We need to do big things and small things, and I’m doing both.
Firebrand hasn’t been a big success story as a label, which in a way is a good thing. We haven’t seen the numbers we’d like to see to be able to really offer radical artists a fast-lane to getting bigger, which sucks. At the same time, we’ve been real about what we’re doing. We don’t like big labels and we don’t really like how they’ve operated in relation to artists. Tom and I are both artists, so we see the music world differently. Over our first few years we’ve signed contracts, we’ve scrapped contracts with artists that wanted to pursue either new labels or wanted to go back to being indy. That’s fine, we see no problem here honestly, though I wish we could be a better home for folks. The truth is, we haven’t gotten there yet. We’re still an experiment, and we’re still regularly discussing how to take a better shape.
This year we’ve got some new music coming out from my trio, Son of Nun, and Built for the Sea, some fresh ideas and really, really good tunes.
What would you sing about if all of a sudden everyone just got along and was kind to each other?
I don’t think that will happen but, I don’t know if I would sing nearly as much as I do. I like singing, but I don’t just like, sing for no reason. The political intentions of a song are usually my motivation. But there’s beautiful songs about life, love, loss, growing, and the general complications of life that I am drawn to. Life will never be a simple story, so there will always be songs about living.
To flip an old Bertolt Brecht quote, in the good times, we’ll sing about the good times. And we’ll probably sing old songs to remind ourselves of the harder moments and how we survived them.
What is on the horizon for you?
My trio with Kareem Samara and Shireen Lilith is my main focus right now. We’re combining Arabic and American-style protest folk music together over international political themes for our first album(s), of which we’ve already released the first part (“Thin Blue Border – Vol. 1”).
Volume 2 is already finished and is getting mastered soon, then it’ll come out too. Part 2 is a real departure from what I have been producing, it’s got a lot of different instrumentation on it. Our friend Carl Restivo produced both Eps in LA, and we recorded with friends in London and Amsterdam too. So we gathered some flavors from different places in that process. Kareem and Shireen have added such distinctions to the songs, I think we’ve really developed something new. And we’re hoping to take our music to totally new places for whatever we do after that.
I’m also hoping to do a more folk-punky album again soon solo, with a bunch anti-fascist songs on it I’ve been writing. We’ll see what I do with those…
Thank you very much for participating and for the music! Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?
I think that’s all! Thanks for reading and thanks to Shouts – Music from the Rooftops! for giving me and many other radical artists a platform to speak about what we do.