The Occupy Movement and Music

Music is inseparable from its time in history and watershed events often leave their own legacy.  Revolutionary fervor produced “The Liberty Song”, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was used to drum support for Union soldiers during the Civil War; and “The Suffrage Song” encouraged women ’s rights in the early 1900s.

In addition, the labor and peace movements of the past have created some of the most enduring music, with such artists as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Bob Dylan. “We Shall Overcome” was born during a strike in 1945; based on an early 20th century gospel song, it became the theme of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Meanwhile, anti-war sentiments flared in such songs as “All Along the Watchtower,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Give Peace a Chance” and “What’s Going On?”

Today, music is finding its way into protest lore history with the Occupy Movement. The reasons may not be hard to find.

By all accounts, there is a huge wealth gap currently taking place in America, where some studies show that 1% of the American population controls as much as 95% of the wealth, leaving the remaining 5% to be fought over by the remaining 99%. In addition, and according to the Congressional Budget Office, between 1979 and 2007 the incomes of the top 1% of Americans grew by 275%. Since 1979 the average pre-tax income for the bottom 90% of households has decreased by $900, while that of the top 1% increased by over $700,000. Statistics like this fuel resentment, and the current state of the economy makes matter worse. Besides, many banks and Wall Street firms have been perceived as the culprits of the recent financial meltdown and they were later saved by taxpayer contributions.

Musicians have been fired up in the current juncture. There may not yet be a single anthem that defines the cause, but notable for its support is the collection Occupy This Album.  Many of its songs are inspirational, and contributing artists include Jackson Browne, Crosby & Nash, Stephen Jenkins of Third Eye Blind,  Lucinda Williams, and Toots and the Maytals.

Artists are involved in the movement in other ways too. Ginny Suss and Vanessa Wruble requested signatures online at to support the petition that  ‘the undersigned musicians and all who will join us, support Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy Movement around the world ‘. At least one thousand musicians have signed so far; among them, are many performers, sound engineers, producers, DJ’s, instrumentalists, composers, and lyricists.

There are many other artists working around the country as well. At Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, Sean Lennon and Rufus Wainwright performed in solidarity, while Rage Against The Machine guitar player Tom Morello was given an MTV online music award for his performance of “The Fabled City”.  The prominent folk legend Joan Baez, both an activist and a pacifist, also sang at the park, as did David Crosby and Graham Nash. Atlanta student and activist Ariel Root Wolpe was covered by CNN for her song “Occupy”.  Finally, an Occupy app of related songs and music videos, links for media, addresses of performance dates and spokespersons, seems likely.

Of course, piggy backing on a newsworthy cause may suit artists. While Miley Cyrus has remixed her “Liberty Walk” song to show her support for Occupy, and has used footage from the protests to create a video montage, her efforts have not been entirely appreciated by the co-editor of The Occupied Wall Street Journal. He suspected a pecuniary motive (instead, the opinion leader of the Occupy movement has used Anne Hathaway as a better example of celebrity involvement). Music mogul Russell Simmons, who has thrown his weight behind the Occupy Wall Street movement, has also received criticism. He was questioned publicly about his understanding of Occupy and the sincerity of his views (in part, this has been because while claiming an allegiance with the people, his business relationship with the pre-paid Visa credit RushCard, marketed to low-income clients, exposed him to allegations on high usage fees).

Even with the powerful influence of Billboards Top 40 chart songs, which cover money, cars, and heartbreak, it seems that socially conscious music has not gone away altogether. Artists can lend their voices to social issues and it is both a reassuring and welcome change that they make a muse out of injustice.

by Zosia Boczanowski



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