Among Folk Musicians, Protest Music's Future Is Up For Debate Galvanized by current political events, artists at the Folk Alliance International Conference discuss the ways they see protest music evolving — and folk itself expanding.

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

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Here's another story about changing trends in music. On this Fourth of July weekend, we wanted to spend a few minutes looking at a new generation of musicians who are creating music in response to the political climate. C.J. Janovy of member station KCUR reports that some of these protest songs can sound very different from what you might expect.

C.J. JANOVY, BYLINE: Joe Purdy is 36.

JOE PURDY: (Singing) People, what will you do?

JANOVY: With his beard, his flannel and his troubadour hat, he looks as traditional as he sounds.

PURDY: (Singing) People, what will you do? For Judgment Day is coming.

JANOVY: Purdy says events of the last couple of years forced him to change his songwriting.

PURDY: I wrote like 13 records full of sad bastard music and love songs, cowboy songs and stuff, which I love, but the last record I did that I made last year was the first one that I'd ever done that was a true civil rights, social-justice record.

JANOVY: Purdy happened to be in Ferguson a couple of days after Michael Brown was shot, and he ended up singing at a benefit concert. In the weeks and months that followed, his songs became more pointed. He says his goal is to get his message across without half his audience walking out.

PURDY: I grew up in Arkansas. And I I'm a hillbilly. And I kind of felt like I was the right person for the job because while I may not agree with the politics of a lot of the folks that I grew up with, I know them well. And I know they all have good hearts.

JANOVY: But young roots musicians aren't just wearing denim and plaid. Their protest music can be electric. It can also be electronic.


ISKWE: (Singing) I won't be afraid. No, I won't. I won't be afraid. No, I won't. I won't be afraid. Lay me down in the shade. Nobody knows. Nobody knows where we've been and where we go.

JANOVY: Iskwe is 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 - as in, music of the folk, of the people.

ISKWE: Partly because I'm indigenous, and so the content that I speak on is rooted in things that are happening in my culture and in my community but also more global issues like the environment, so with things like pipelines and caring for our earth and our waters.

JANOVY: And because the issues are so broad, the music is wide open.

ISKWE: Because I think that protest has so many faces. And it has so many reasons and rationales. And it has so many people standing behind it that I don't think there's ever going to be one particular sound.

JANOVY: Not so, says Heather Mae of Washington, D.C., who has strong ideas about future protest music.

HEATHER MAE: It's going to be pop because young people - 16, 17, 18, 12 - listen to pop music. Yes, they love underground music, but they love what's on the radio.


MAE: (Singing) I've spent too many decades underneath the covers covering up my curves for myself in black, but this body wants some glitter. This body wants a night. Going to put my hands up because I am enough. I am enough. I am enough.

JANOVY: Mae is 28 and describes herself as a plus-sized-lady-loving lady. She has no use for old-fashioned stereotypes about what a protest singer should look like.

MAE: 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. But you can stand with a piano and 5-inch heels with a backing band and makeup and glitter and body positive and sing nice and loud pop music that makes them dance and then also makes them think.

JANOVY: No matter what the music sounds like, the issues it tackles will be global. Artists and audiences can reach each other all over the world now instantly online. For his latest project, the Norwegian musician Moddi recorded other people's songs, songs that have been censored over decades and across borders like this one from Israel.


MODDI: (Singing) Learning to kill is a matter of habit. The more you've done it, the better you're at it.

JANOVY: Moddi says it seemed as if protest music had died in his native Norway, so he wanted his project to honor musicians who've never stopped speaking out.

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

JANOVY: So protest singers in the United States might have some catching up to do, but some are probably laying down tracks as we speak. For NPR News, I'm C.J. Janovy in Kansas City.

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