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21st Century Protest Music: Will There Be Another Dylan? Should There Be?

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21st Century Protest Music: Will There Be Another Dylan? Should There Be?

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21st Century Protest Music: Will There Be Another Dylan? Should There Be?

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In New York, the defining sound of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations has been that of the never-ending drum circle.


CORNISH: Well, that's in marked contrast to the musicians who dominated the soundtrack of '60s protest music like Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and, of course, Bob Dylan.


CORNISH: Figuring out a leading musical voice for today's protests isn't so easy. Are there any new Dylans? Has any new anthem come out of the Occupy Wall Street protest, or any other recent political movements?

Ann Powers, NPR's music critic writes about that in her new column on the NPR blog, The Record, and she joins us now to talk about what her readers had to say.

Hey there, Ann. How are you?

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hey, Audie. I'm doing well.

CORNISH: So what kind of responses did you get to that? 'Cause I saw you tweet this out a few days ago. And what did you hear back?

POWERS: Well, Audie. I really wanted to know what was actually happening, what music was coming out of these protests. Instead, I got people making suggestions of what they'd like to hear. So I got classic political music, like The Clash, Public Enemy, Patti Smith. Some people made jokes or posed whimsical ideas, like somebody said Ted Nugent. Another person suggested that Ray Charles's "Busted," which is about having no money, would be a good anthem for Occupy Wall Street.

CORNISH: What are we seeing there?

POWERS: What I've figured out is that the music of Occupy Wall Street is very similar to the political organizing methods of this nascent movement. In other words, it's viral. It's grassroots. It's on the ground. We're in a different era and protest music is having to adjust to this new era, as well.

CORNISH: One thing that comes to mind maybe is the human microphone. First we have to explain to people, yeah, what is the human microphone?


POWERS: What is the human microphone? Well, in a sense it's very connected to the history of American music because basically it's a form of call and response, which we've heard in American music since the days of the gospel church.


POWERS: But it's call and repeat.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: These are positions of power.

CROWD: These are positions of power.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: They have the power to tell us we can't talk.

CROWD: They have the power to tell us we can't talk.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: They lead this discussion...

CORNISH: Wow. It's basically like live Twitter.


CORNISH: Like one person says something, everyone repeats it.

POWERS: It's totally live Twitter. And all I want to hear is like somebody to put a beat below that. It could be a huge hit.

CORNISH: Oh, it's only a matter of time.

POWERS: We also have individual people with guitars or other instruments just playing. We have musicians coming down. Rappers, freestyling - just coming down and freestyling a rhyme - some of them kind of well-known rappers, in fact.

CORNISH: Oh, yes, this week actually Talib Kweli showed up.

TALIB KWELI: (Rapping) ...culture, scavengers feasting on the dead like a vulture - snacking. How you keeping up with my rapping? You barely keeping up with Kardashian, you caught up in distraction….

CORNISH: And, Ann, we found video online. And what's interesting is he's just standing in the middle of a crowd. It seems like these aren't concerts. You know...


CORNISH: ...that the people who are showing up are just kind of playing to the little section of the crowd they happen to be in.

POWERS: Exactly. I mean isn't that, Audie, sort of like the way rap started in the Bronx? Right...

CORNISH: That's true. That's true

POWERS: the projects.


POWERS: We're going back to the root.

KWELI: (Rapping) Deep cuts way above your minor fractions. Talk to people like children 'cause that's how they're acting. Holding hands like...

CORNISH: There were rumors that Radiohead was going to show up at Occupy Wall Street which today, in the end, I did not. That didn't pan out. Who did show up, I guess, from the rock world?

POWERS: Radiohead, a cult band who's also a mainstream band, chose not to play or maybe never were planning on playing - it's unclear. But Jeff Mangum, of the band Neutral Milk Hotel, who's definitely a cult figure, came down with his acoustic guitar and gave a little mini set.

JEFF MANGUM: (Singing) They keep themselves hidden away. They keep themselves upon the hill, afraid of the day they'll have to pay for all the crimes upon their heads. And all those men who've learned to hate them...

CORNISH: Well, Ann, I mean in the end who would you want to sort of take the helm? I mean obviously there's not going to be a new Bob Dylan popping up anytime soon. But do we want one?

POWERS: I don't think a Dylan figure is really appropriate for this particular political event. What I think is going to happen, if anyone emerges, is that it's going to be someone we've never heard from before; someone who's not being set up by the industry as, in some ways, Dylan was because he already had a recording contract. He had the support of people like Joan Baez.

If someone bursts forth, it's going to be a huge surprise; probably someone out of hip-hop, maybe it'll be a 15-year-old girl - I would love that.

CORNISH: Ann Powers writes for the NPR music blog The Record, and she joined us from our member station WUAL in Tuscaloosa.

Thanks, Ann.

POWERS: Thank you, Audie.

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