Social Change with a Soundtrack
By Joe Rihn
From their work at the frontlines of social change in Los Angeles, it’s clear that Liberty Hill’s community organizing partners are a talented bunch, but did you know that some of their talents are musical? Organizers and activists affiliated with InnerCity Struggle (ICS), Union De Vecinos, and L.A. Community Action Network (L.A. CAN), to name a few, have incorporated music into their work, and in the process created some incredible socially engaged sounds.
Hector Flores, former organizer with InnerCity Struggle recently left the organization to pursue music with his band, Las Cafeteras, but community organizing is still at the heart of what he does. Hector’s time at ICS helped shape his politics and his ideas about social change. “Before we were a band, many of us were already organizers and activists in many different movements,” says Hector, who met percussionist Jose Cano during a protest against budget cuts at Cal State L.A., and jarana player, Daniel French, at the South Central Farm. However the band really took shape at a Zapatista-inspired community space in El Sereno called Eastside Café. That’s where the band got its original name, Los Cafeteros, which the members later opted to shift to its feminine form.
“When we formed as a collective we wanted to challenge patriarchy,” Hector says. “Language can be a way to challenge oppression.” In addition to giving the band its name, the Eastside Café helped Las Cafeteras develop their sound. The band members began playing together during Son Jarocho class, where they learned about the music and culture of Veracruz, Mexico. Son Jarocho is the backbone of Las Cafeteras’s style, and the band features a range of traditional instruments, including the jarana (a small guitar-like instrument), the quijada (a mule’s jawbone that the player strikes), and the tarina (a wooden box that the player stomps on; the “heartbeat” of the music). According to Hector, Son Jarocho is “storytelling music,” and Las Cafeteras tell their story by mixing in hip-hop, rock and other influences they gathered growing up in L.A.
Although their sound could not be further from traditional rhythms of Las Cafeteras, the group of musicians and artists known as Ultra-red shares a similar outlook on the relationship between social movements and music. Founded in Los Angeles in 1992 with a focus on AIDS activism, Ultra-red is a multimedia art collective that has grown to include members in Canada, South Africa, Germany, and the UK. Elizabeth Blaney and Leonardo Vilchis of Union de Vecinos joined Ultra-red in 1997, and according to Leonardo, all of Ultra-red’s members are “connected to some struggle or movement.”
Although Elizabeth and Leonard also work with video, audio is an integral part of Ultra-red’s work, and the group has released over fifteen records since 1998. Ultra-red’s music is usually composed by making field recordings of marches, demonstrations, and community meetings, then chopping up, editing, and reorganizing the sounds into a type of collage. Often these recordings are punctuated by synthesizers and electronic beats. In 2000, they released a record called Structural Adjustments, made up of field recordings from Union de Vecinos-led actions against the privatization of the Pico Aliso housing complex in East L.A. The collective continues to involve Union de Vecinos in its work.
For both Ultra-red and Las Cafeteras, music is a powerful tool for organizing. Hector Flores’s work with InnerCity Struggle shaped his knowledge of public policy and the challenges facing L.A.’s communities. “Really understanding policy helped show the need for creative outlets and different forms of organizing,” he says. Ultra-red also sees music as a way to develop new methods of organizing. “The politics of change is very regimented,” says Leonardo. He hopes that involving the arts in community organizing will allow the process of social change to be examined, experimented with, and improved.
Operation Skid Row
Not all of the community organizing groups who use music as a tool for social justice are performers themselves. L.A. Community Action Network brought music and activism together by organizing an outdoor concert with acclaimed rapper Chuck D. and his popular group, Public Enemy. The concert, called Operation Skid Row, was conceived after Chuck D. toured the underserved downtown neighborhood of Skid Row and concluded that the music community had not done enough to give back.
The free concert, which featured local artists who are engaged in the Skid Row community—such as Crushow, Unkal Bean, and the Skid Row Playaz—alongside Public Enemy and other hip-hop luminaries, took place on Gladys Street in the heart of the neighborhood. According to LA CAN’s communications coordinator, Eric Ares, the goals were to “mobilize impacted residents” and bring media attention to the issues facing Skid Row. As for the use of music as a tool for activism Eric says, “Social movements have only existed alongside cultural movements. You can’t have popular base-building movements without tying in arts and culture. It’s the entry point.”
Bringing music out of the traditional concert venue and into the streets, like Operation Skid Row, is something Las Cafeteras and Ultra-red do in their live performances as well. Las Cafeteras has toured the country playing everywhere from community centers and churches to bars and backyards. They’ve also done gigs with artists as diverse as Juanez, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and the L.A. Philharmonic. In 2014 the band hopes to bring their music to a different kind of place: somewhere like the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles. “We’re bringing music to places where folks don’t have access,” says Hector, “Music is medicine; it needs to be for the sick.”
Ultra-red’s performances are often multimedia experiences rather than typical concerts. They’ve exhibiting their work by playing recordings and projecting video onto the side of a public housing complex, setting up a pirate radio station, and even bringing public housing residents in Los Angeles and Dublin, Ireland together for an open discussion about the challenges facing their communities.
Culture, education and impact
As these groups operate outside the world of the music industry and connect with communities, they are also adding an educational component to their work. In conjunction with InnerCity Struggle, Las Cafeteras began developing a curriculum for poetry, storytelling and anti-oppression workshops. For Hector, it’s all about getting people to tell their stories. L.A. Community Action Network also made education an important part of Operation Skid Row by including speakers addressing community issues in between musical acts. One of Ultra-red’s most recent projects, School of Echoes, takes an educational approach by facilitating conversations between artists, organizers, and activists about themes like gentrification and solidarity. Leonardo, who cites the radical Brazilian educator, Paolo Fiere, as an influence says much of the band's work is about bringing together different communities and “creating exchanges.” “In that exchange both sides learn a lot.”
When it comes to recording and distributing their music, Las Cafeteras and Ultra-red both eschew corporate record labels, choosing instead to self-publish their material. Ultra-red created their own label called Public Record, hosting free downloads of their music on the label’s website. According to Leonardo, the band wanted to resist having their music become a commodity, and instead to make their work about “an exchange of ideas rather than an exchange of money.” Las Cafeteras funded their record with a Kickstarter campaign, citing a similar desire not to involve a “corporate entity” in their musical mission. LA CAN’s Eric Ares sums up the D.I.Y. spirit saying, “You don’t have to be a multi-platinum selling artist to have an impact in your community.” For all three community organizing groups, having an impact is the bottom line.
TO HEAR EXAMPLES OF WORK BY CHUCK D, LAS CAFETERAS AND ULTRA-RED, CLICK ON THE LINKS BELOW.
[embed] <p><a href="http://vimeo.com/57948440">Operation Skid Row (1/16/12) - Public Enemy, LA CAN, and the Movement for Justice in Downtown LA</a> from <a href="http://vimeo.com/nicholasdahmann">Nicholas Dahmann</a> on <a href="https://vimeo.com">Vimeo</a>.</p>[/embed]
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[bandcamp width=100% height=42 album=980626867 size=small bgcol=333333 linkcol=ffffff artwork=false t=10]
Ultra-red: "Movement for LAX Airport (Ultra-red Remix)" from Movement for Airports Transistors Remixes[audio http://www.publicrec.org/archive/2-02/2-02-004/2-02-004-03.mp3]
Ultra-red: "Untitled" from 15 Sounds of the War on the Poor Vol. 1[audio http://www.publicrec.org/archive/2-06/2-06-002/2-06-002-15.mp3]