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Among Folk Musicians, Protest Music's Future Is Up For Debate

Folk Alliance International Conference attendees gathered in Kansas City in February.
Jayne Toohey
Courtesy of Folk Alliance International
Folk Alliance International Conference attendees gathered in Kansas City in February.

Many people know the protest songs of the 1960s and '70s, born of the civil rights movement and the social and political upheaval sparked by the Vietnam War. Today, hip-hop has taken the lead in protesting police brutality and the injustices suffered by the poor — but a new generation of folk artists is also creating music that might not always sound like the protest songs of yore.

Joe Purdy is part of that generation. With his beard, flannel and troubadour hat, Purdy looks like a pretty traditional folk musician. But in the last few years, the 36-year-old has observed a perceptible shift in his music.

"I wrote like 13 records full of sad-bastard music, love songs, cowboy songs, which I love," he says from this year's annual Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City. "But the last record I did, last year, was the first one I'd ever done that was a true civil-rights, social-justice record."

Purdy happened to be in Ferguson, Mo., a couple of days after Michael Brown was shot and ended up singing at a benefit concert. In the weeks and months that followed, his songs became more pointed and political.

Purdy is unlikely to be the only musician experiencing such a twist in their musical journey. With marchers taking to the streets in response to the Trump administration, new protest songs were inevitable. But it's been a while since ongoing political events have galvanized a generation of artists in this way. The future of protest music, while bright, is nebulous and up for grabs.

For Purdy, the goal is to get his message across without alienating half his audience. As a self-described hillbilly who grew up in Arkansas, he feels like he's the right person for the job.

"While I may not agree with the politics of a lot of folks I grew up with, I know them well and they all have good hearts," he says.

Folk has historically been associated with protest, but what's different this time around is how folk musicians are seizing this political moment to redefine and expand their genre. Take Iskwe, a 36-year-old Cree singer from Winnipeg. She knows her music sounds more like what you'd hear in a dance club — but for her it's still folk music in the sense that it's music of the folk, the people.

Iskwe, a Cree singer from Winnipeg, makes folk music for the dance floor.
Megan Wilson / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Iskwe, a Cree singer from Winnipeg, makes folk music for the dance floor.

"[That's] partly because I'm indigenous and content that I speak on is rooted in things that are happening in my culture and community, but also more global issues like the environment," Iskwe says. "So with things like pipelines, and caring for our earth and our waters."

Because protest must be multi-faceted, she notes, the music must follow. "I think that protest has so many faces and so many reasons and rationales and so many people standing behind it that I don't think there's ever going to be one particular sound," she says.

Not everyone agrees, though. The form future protest music will take is clear to Heather Mae, 28, of Washington, D.C.: It's going to be pop, the music that young people listen to.

"You can't stand with an acoustic guitar and long hair and a flower in your hair and get people to notice you. Not right now," Mae says. "But you can stand with a piano in 5-inch heels with a backing band and makeup and glitter, and [be] body-positive and sing nice and loud — pop music that makes them dance and also makes them think."

No matter what the music sounds like, one thing does seem clear: The issues protest music tackles will be global, especially since artists and audiences all over the world can reach each other online instantly. The work of Norwegian musician Moddi exemplifies this global interconnectedness.

For his latest project, he recorded songs that have been censored over decades and across borders, such as "A Matter Of Habit," a song by Israeli musician Izhar Ashdot. Moddi says it seemed to him as if protest music had died in his native Norway, so he wanted his project to honor musicians who've never stopped speaking out.

"Even though it may feel like it for us folk musicians that protest music has disappeared, it hasn't," he says. "It's just shifted, taken different forms and exists in different places today."

And protest singers in the U.S. of different stripes and backgrounds, all faced with a unique and pressing political moment, no doubt know this better than anyone.

Copyright 2017 KCUR 89.3

C.J. Janovy