Tag Archives: journalism

Ryan Harvey (interview)

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.

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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.

The trio 2
Kareem, Shireen and Ryan

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.

Ryan in Lesvos
Ryan in Lesbos, Greece.

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.

 

The Four Fathers (interview)

According to the code of ethics of various journalist groups around the globe some of their main tasks are to be vigilant and watch over its societies. Journalists and media shall honor the responsibility their voices hold and lend those voices to the voiceless part of the population. They shall hold the ones in power to account and be courageous in seeking the truth.

Musicians do not bear the same responsibility exactly although it can be argued they have a powerful voice that often reaches across international societies. So it can likewise be argued they shall use that voice responsibly. Some musicians hide their socially conscious message for they believe in creating music solely upon feeling and heart. Others are more explicit in their lyrics or performance and send a strong message of protest out into the ethos in every single song. The Four Fathers are of the latter type.

The band hails from the UK, where there has never been any lack of protest music. The band recently released their second album entitled How Much Is A Life Worth?. The band’s main songwriter, Andy Worthington, is (besides being a musician) a journalist and an activist and a source on various issues such as Guantánamo and the so-called war on terror. I contacted Andy and inquired further about the band’s new album, his activism and his take on the protest music of today.

 

For those not familiar with your music, who are The Four Fathers?

We’re a group of fathers, from the borough of Lewisham, in south east London, and we got together in 2014 because we had all had various musical endeavors in our youth, and wanted to revisit them. We started off playing covers, but I soon started writing new material, and pretty soon my political consciousness found songs to be a useful vehicle for musical storytelling; protest music, essentially.

You are a journalist and an activist as well as a musician. How about the rest of the band?

We’re a mixed bag — a gardener, a teacher, an architect and a full-time dad. Fortunately, we’re all left-wing politically, and the other band members have been happy to follow my forays into topical political songwriting.

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The Four Fathers performing at the ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ gig that Andy organised at the Birds Nest in Deptford, London SE8, November 2017

You recently published your second album. Can you tell us about the production process?

We found a local studio for our first album, ‘Love and War’ — Perry Vale Studios in Forest Hill, and liked it, so we returned there for our second album, ‘How Much Is A Life Worth?’ We recorded the new album over several weekends in 2016, mixed it in early 2017, and then released songs as online singles until the album’s release in November.

How does the state of the world affect your songwriting, i.e. do you find it hard to strike a balance between releasing a song in time with a current issue and releasing it when it is ready as a piece of music?

I think there’s something to be said for being very topical, but we don’t have the facilities for that, and, in general, it takes me some time to come up with the lyrics, once I have the tune. (I don’t know where the tunes come from, but they generally come to me while cycling around London on my bike). To give two new songs as examples, one, ‘Grenfell’, was inspired by the terrible and entirely preventable fire that engulfed Grenfell Tower in west London in June 2017. The tune — and the lyrics for the chorus — came to me quite quickly, but I spent the summer working little by little on the rest of the lyrics. For ‘I Want My Country Back (From the People Who Want Their Country Back)’, which is about Brexit, the tune — and, again, the chorus — came to me quite quickly after the referendum in June 2016, but I decided the lyrics were too literal, and I wanted something slightly more poetic, and that took me many months to work out. A video of us playing ‘Grenfell’ live for a German film crew is here, by the way, and we hope to record both songs in a studio soon.

What came first for you, the music or the journalism?

I was going to say the journalism, but in fact I’m from musical family, and was in choirs as a child, and in bands as a teenager and in my 20s. I also did some studio-based work in my 30s. I began working seriously as a writer in 2002, when I began writing my first book, Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion, about Stonehenge and the British counter-culture, which was published in 2004, and I then followed up with a related book, The Battle of the Beanfield, in 2005. In 2006, I began researching and writing about Guantanamo, which I continue to do to this day, along with other writing and campaigning, and it was alongside this that I got involved with my friends in what became The Four Fathers.

What made you want to use these two mediums to tell stories?

Guantanamo
Andy’s book about the detainees at Guantánamo.

I suppose telling stories and/or the desire to communicate take many forms, and people find whatever vehicle suits them. For some people, that’s just one field, but I’ve always been interested in different forms of expression — writing is a big thing for me, of course, and it’s liberating that writing lyrics is in some ways different to journalism, but I’ve always loved singing, I’ve played the guitar since my 20s, I’ve also loved photography all my adult life, and continue to do that in various ways, and I’ve also engaged in other media — in film-making, for example, as the co-director of a film about Guantanamo, ‘Outside the Law: Stories from Guantanamo’, and recently as the narrator for ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, a documentary film about the destruction of social housing in London, and the residents who are resisting the destruction of their homes. See: http://concretesoldiers.uk

What are some of the stories you care about?

I care about human rights and social justice. I want to see Guantanamo closed, as an icon of lawlessness in the “war on terror,” I want to see the rise of racism and xenophobia challenged, and I want to see the horribly greedy and aggressive form of current capitalism that has degraded the world and that is currently beginning to cannibalistically devour all but the rich in the western countries of its origin to be resisted and broken, so we can have a better system. That’s what my involvement in social housing campaigns is about, but it’s just as important here in the UK for people also to find way to, for example, save the NHS, the greatest achievement of the UK, from being destroyed by the Tories.

What are the main differences you find between writing a book, a media article or a song lyric?

Well, a book is a huge project, in general, and a real challenge — although it is one I hope to do again. As for media articles, because I’ve been writing them for over ten years, often on a daily basis, I find them generally easy to do, especially as I largely self-edit my work, but lyrics are definitely more elusive.

Besides the writing, journalism and music, do you partake in other activism or social engagement?

I’m involved in various forms of campaigning, as well as writing and playing music, and since 2012 I’ve also been cycling around London on a daily basis taking photos across the whole city. Since last May, I’ve been posting photos once a day on Facebook, on a page called ‘The State of London’, and I hope to expand this project this year.

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The Four Fathers performing at Lewisham People’s Day, London SE13, July 2017

Performing protest music such as yours, do find that it lands on deaf ears so to speak or do you feel there is willingness to take in music with a message?

I don’t think that there is, in general, an interest in protest music as there was when I was growing up. As a child of the 70s becoming a young man in the early 80s, politics was everywhere — the Sixties, and the protest music of the likes of Bob Dylan, was like the recent past, and a heady source of inspiration, and in my own teenage years the punk scene exploded into life, with its interesting crossover with the roots reggae scene. Both the singer-songwriters of the 60s and the 70s, aspects of the punk and post-punk scene (the Clash and the Two Tone movement, for example), and the roots reggae music of the late 70s, which I particularly love, and which was, of course, often militantly political, provided the direct inspiration for what I write for The Four Fathers, but I find that in general political protest has been cynically expunged from most modern-day music. It can still be found in aspects of youth culture — in the grime scene, for example — but there’s very little crossover in general between different scenes, so the general situation would seem to be one on which politics have been marginalized by self-censoring rock bands, by a bland corporate pop world, and by a juggernaut nostalgia industry, safely peddling people an aging facsimile of their youth. As a result, we’ve been trying to move more towards taking part in political events, where there’s a guaranteed audience that is probably prepared to listen as well be entertained.

Do you find that there is an abundance of protest musicians out there today or on the contrary?

There are many, but they tend to be scattered around the country — and around the world. However, I’ve started to try getting some of them together, and in November, at the Birds Nest Pub in Deptford, a celebrated music venue, I put together an evening, under the heading ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’, featuring three bands (including The Four Fathers), two spoken word artists, a rapper and a socialist choir, and it was a huge success, and a clear demonstration that you can be both entertained and politically aware. I hope to do more gigs along the lines throughout 2018.

Who are some of your favorite protest singers or socially conscious artists?

I still listen to many of the artists I grew up listening to, so lots of roots reggae and West African music, which I’m a huge fan of. I love Fela Kuti, I love Bob Marley, and numerous Jamaican artists from the same period, and I also love the conscious musicians of America from the same time — Gil Scott-Heron, for example. Currently, I have a lot of time of some of the spoken word artists I know here and in the US — Potent Whisper here in the UK, who tells complex political stories in rhyme, and the Peace Poets from the Bronx in New York, who also perform uplifting spoken word pieces rooted in political struggle. I know them from my Guantanamo work, and my annual visits to the US to call for the closure of the prison on the anniversary of its opening, every January.

“If everyone who claims to care about the state of the world actually did something, it would make a huge difference. But you have to believe it, shake off your apathy, stop shopping and screen-watching all the time, and actually do something. Remember: we are many, and they are few.”

What is on the horizon for The Four Fathers and for you?

More playing, wherever we can find what we hope will be appreciative audiences. And more recording, as we start work on our third album. We are always open to invites and suggestions.

Thank you very much for participating and for the music you make. Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?

Just my mantra from our song ‘Fighting Injustice’: “If you ain’t fighting injustice, you’re living on the dark side.” If everyone who claims to care about the state of the world actually did something, it would make a huge difference. But you have to believe it, shake off your apathy, stop shopping and screen-watching all the time, and actually do something. Remember: we are many, and they are few.

Check out Andy and The Four Fathers at the following sites:

https://thefourfathers.bandcamp.com
http://www.andyworthington.co.uk