Future Weapons

Welcome to The Mantle’s third virtual roundtable, and the second in our series on the roles of individuals in times of conflict. In our previous discussion, "Pens and Swords," three talented writers addressed their roles in the face of violence. In "Future Weapons," we pose the same question to four musicians from around the world whose music cuts across not only genres, but also transcends boundaries and cultures.

The musician plays a unique role in times of conflict, a role that is not always obvious. The approaches musicians take in the face of conflict are unique to the person and to the situation, as Omékongo Dibinga (USA/Democratic Republic of Congo), Obaash (Tehran, Iran), Sheba (USA/Ethiopia), and Aaron Shneyer (Jerusalem, Israel/Palestine) attest. As we shall see, conflict is not always marked by bullets and bombs. Structural violence caused by unseen forces and tension amongst people forced to live through difficult circumstances represent conflict of another kind. But this conflict hardly escapes the mind of the musician.

The backgrounds and experiences of Omékongo, Obaash, Sheba, and Aaron may differ, but they all share the conviction that a musician cannot stand idly by in the face of injustice. They must do what musicians do best: with their beats and lyrics they move the masses on the dance floor, lift spirits, and hopefully move them to become better actors in society.

To follow the roundtable that asks, “What is the role of the musician in a conflict zone?” see my introductory remarks below. Then click on each of the participants to read their essays and responses. At the bottom of this page you can view my concluding remarks. Letters regarding this roundtable are welcome and can be sent to letters [at] mantlethought.org (subject: Letter%20re%3A%20Future%20Weapons) (letters(at)mantlethought.org).

As an added bonus, MP3s of music by all of our participants (and special guest Bob Marley) can be heard here.

Enjoy!

- Shaun Randol, Editor in Chief. October, 26, 2010

illustrations by Sarah D. Schulman

Moderator's Introduction

What is the role of the musician in a conflict zone?

The very question assumes that a musician has a duty to act during a time of conflict. That is, asking a musician about his or her role in a conflict zone assumes that there is an artistic, rather than just a civic, role to play. There is something special about music that speaks to what it means to be human in this world, in times of both peace and conflict. In regards to the latter, Bob Marley and Fela Kuti provide a precedent as to how a musician might react when faced with difficult circumstances. In contemporary times, such likenesses could be drawn on Bono, Angélique Kidjo, Youssou N'Dour, and even Michael Jackson and Shakira.

Musicians have microphones and amplifiers; they are meant to be heard loud and clear across distances. Radio and television, and now online venues like MySpace and YouTube, increase their audiences—and their influence—vastly. When conflict emerges, then, the musician occupies a unique position in culture and society. Should their music and lyrics reflect the upheaval and anxiety that surrounds them and larger society? Or, no matter what they sing about, does the musician's very presence on stage become an act of courage, or disobedience, or leadership?

But, must they act at all? Musicians are meant to be heard, after all. Could the muting of a microphone and the ushering in of a deafening silence have a much greater impact in the face of adversity? Perhaps the more significant act a musician can take is to take no musical action at all, to enact a protest of silence.

Thanks to Omékongo Dibinga, Obaash, Sheba, and Aaron for tackling this provocative issue. The floor is theirs.

(Don't forget: MP3s of music by all of our our participants and special guest Bob Marley, can be heard here.)

(Shaun is the Founder and Editor in Chief of The Mantle, as well as an Associate Fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York City).

  • The Mic is More Powerful than the Gun

    Aaron Shneyer

    On September 21, 2008, Heartbeat Jerusalem,* a community of Israeli and Palestinian musicians using music to build understanding and create change, held its first concert ever. For nine months our first group of 12 Israeli and Palestinian musicians, ages 13-18, defied the status quo of separation, hatred, and fear. We met once a week for eight months to study and create music together. Over 300 Palestinians, Israelis, and internationals attended their debut concert at the stunning YMCA-Three Arches Concert Hall in Jerusalem.

    Read essay »
  • Music is a Balancing Act

    Obaash

    Throughout history we have seen that some of the greatest works of art were created under pressure. Take, for example, rock and roll music during the 1960s and 1970s while the United States was at war with Vietnam, or great literature produced during World War II.  Some of this artwork was more effective in fighting a cause than social and human rights activists were. Why?
     

    Read essay »
  • The Fight for Freedom

    Omékongo Dibinga

    The American rapper Bomani “D’Mite” Armah once said that “music is the language of spirits.” In a conflict zone, however, music can literally be the language of life and death. Conflict can take many forms. Many in the realm of social justice are most likely to think of conflict zones as war zones such as those in Sudan, Burma, or the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.). The truth of the matter is that the term “conflict” applies to many aspects of society.

    Read essay »
  • To Be the Spark

    Sheba

    Life is a dangerous proposition. At any moment in time, any number of unfortunate things can cut us down and end us in an instant. This unpleasant reality is something we human beings would like to distract ourselves from. That is perfectly reasonable (who wants to think about that?). But the uncertainty of our lives is a truth. Ultimately, there is not one aspect of our lives that we can be certain of; this is the conflict that lies at the essence of humanity. It is why we bother fighting for our food.

    Read essay »
Moderator's Conclusion

Speaking on the importance of art in a social struggle, the eminent philosopher Cornel West explains that artists use bits of reality in their work to get people to see reality in a new light. "It's about vision by means of imagination," he opines. "It's about empathy in terms of looking through this world and seeing the possibilities of a new world, a better world, a more decent, a more compassionate world."

Art is inseparable from politics. Successful artists (in this case musicians) that emerge from and transcend conflict (of whatever manifestation) do so by empathizing with the pain and suffering of the downtrodden and the afflicted, and then using these experiences to create a powerful musical piece that uplifts heavy souls and aspires to a better world. The four musicians in this roundtable, still young in their musical careers, embody this spirit of empathy and this practice of re-imagination. Each of them seeks to leverage their emotional ties to challenge the oppressed to overcome their torments and to create better realities. They seek, also, to educate the uncaring or the unaware and to move the complacent into action. Ultimately, these musicians seek to lift the spirits of us all into a better world.

With varying backgrounds, each of the musicians here approaches the question, "what is the role of the musician in a conflict zone?" from differing perspectives and offers unique answers to a vexing issue. While Aaron and Obash discuss issues of conflict emanating from the same general region (the Middle East), the realities of Jerusalem and those of Tehran are distinct. Each conflict demands its own attention, and each demands separate approaches. Both speak eloquently of the exasperation they face in their beloved cities of Jerusalem and Tehran, but to think that the role of the musician in each of those conflict zones is similar would be mistaken.

Omékongo, for his part, in speaking about an American inner-city experience and then about the violence of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is able to transcend continents and conflicts, but his message remains the same: music is the best way to give voice to the voiceless and inspire action. While Omékongo sees music as a vehicle to amplify voices, Sheba hopes that her music will help to provide comfort for the less fortunate. Again, two ways of seeing the power of music and song.

Bob Marley, rightly so, is held to be the standard bearer of the role of a musician in a conflict zone. His lyrics are political. His music transcends cultures. Marley even took to the stage for political causes. The words from his powerful anti-war anthem, "War," remain powerful today:

Until the philosophy which holds one race superior

And another

Inferior

Is finally

And permanently

Discredited

And abandoned,

Everywhere is war*

The difficulty I had during this discussion, however, was in coming up with musicians of Marley's stature. Bono is the only one who comes close. There's no trouble in naming artists in previous decades who played the part of active musicians in times of conflict. Simply mentioning 1960s and '70s rock and folk music conjures an entire catalogue of such artists and bands. Today, efforts like Woodstock 2 and Live 8 pale in comparison to the political and social heft that the likes of Woodstock and its associated musicians brought to the socio-political scene of the United States, an effort that had global reverberations.

Where is the next generation of politically engaged musicians? Where are they in the face of unfolding injustice and violence in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, Burma, Uganda, and a myriad of other places around the world? The answer, of course, is that they are in those very places. They simply lack the amplifiers necessary to get their music heard. Hopefully the participants in this roundtable represent a sample of a new, desperately needed vanguard of politically-motivated musicians. Let freedom sing.

*After this roundtable was published, it was brought to my attention that Bob Marley borrowed the words for "War" from a famous speech given by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie on October 6, 1963 in front of the United Nations. The speech is profound. You can read the full text here, and listen to the full audio here. As an added twist to this discovery, it turns out that Emperor Selassie was a cousin to Sheba, one of our very own roundtable participants. [S.R. 10/26/10]