“¡Respond / React!”

“¡Respond / React!”

A Call for Musicians’ Renewed Political Focus in this Fateful Age

To use a Zoomer-ism, the human species is owning itself, and quite fatally. A decent case can be made that, barring profound and immediate political, cultural, and economic transformation, the modern era might well be the end of the human species. A perfectly horrible storm of ecological devastation, climate chaos, nuclear war, artificial intelligence, worldwide impoverishment, and resurgent fascism could wipe most or all of us off the face of the beautiful planet that Chance has lent us within this very century.

For obvious reasons, we shouldn’t chump out on each other or our lovely, if-perilous-to-live-on, planet. If you’ve ever loved, enjoyed, or been even faintly intrigued by anyone or anything in your life, you have a stake in Not-The-Apocalypse, let alone a restored Earth and a just human civilization. The obvious and terrible question is: how do we beat back these horrors? How do we protect and restore ourselves and our communities, especially those that have been historically the most brutalized, such as indigenous peoples, communities of color, queer communities, the poor, and others?

Every kind of human soul, each with its own aptitudes and limitations, has a part to play in this critical fight. If we’re going to restore ourselves (not to mention the millions of other kinds of Earthlings, all of the non-human species whose survival is also threatened), the mathematicians have to math, the scientists have to science, the teachers have to teach, and so on, for a shared vision of restoration. What, then, is the job of the musician in this critical era?

An artist must respond to the commands of her or his own soul.

First, let’s make a simple point about what we musicians shouldn’t do: we shouldn’t force ourselves to write protest songs if our Muses demand we write about other things. An artist must respond to the commands of her or his own soul. It would be almost another injustice to try to be a low-grade Jello Biafra if our Muse tells us to do otherwise. If an artist’s Muse commands her to write overtly political joints, then that is her job. If her Muse commands her to write about something else, then she ought to write about the Something-Else. The content of the songs we write, record, and perform is not really negotiable.

// Photo: Averie Cole

// Photo: Averie Cole

However, in a limited but real way, we can and should try to define the political situation in which our music is shared. Though plenty of music is not overtly political, there is no “non-political music,” because there are no non-political human interactions. All human interactions are negotiations of power. Within a certain sphere of influence that Chance, our society, and our own actions have lent us, we are all spontaneously improvising our political fates. We are all deciding (in an unfortunately unequal way) who has what kind of power, how much of it she or he has, to what end we should use it, and how we should use it.

If I am a solo folk-singer who writes only love songs, eternally heartbroken by one lost love, the memories of her name, face, voice, I can’t—nay, won’t—let go of (I refuse!), I can still successfully perform a simple political act with the musical situation that I create: I can stick a sign on the wall next to my stage that reads, “Abolish I.C.E. now!” The sign could also read, “Restorative justice for the imprisoned!”, “End all wars immediately!”, “Keep the fossil fuels in the ground!”, or really any darn thing. I can pick the horror I want to challenge and challenge it with a sharpie, a 1’x2’ poster, and my 30-minute alt-country solo set of love songs.

This is not a trivial act. Any time the public square is used in the interest of justice, however small, that use of the public square is, in itself, a political success. We certainly need more than statements and signs. We need radical systemic change. But if the news is not talking about these in any serious way (and it’s not), [1] people must talk to each other about them.  

Tossing off this disastrous cruelty and cynicism, let us guide ourselves with a very simple principle: be true to our Muse, whatever she demands, and stand in solidarity with the oppressed, however and as best as we can.

Let us musicians (and artists generally) slough off the cool-kid anti-politics of the 90’s that still, to some extent, define our modern ethos. Funny as it is, Portlandia is wrong. [2] In the 90’s, Woodstock soaked itself in rape and violence. In the 90’s, it was cool for pop-punk bands to make homophobic slurs to their teenage audiences. In the 90’s, it was super-hilarious for Trey Parker and Matt Stone to feed bacon to a pig. All this madness has only expanded exponentially through the era of the terroristic “war on terrorism,” the continued devastation of the planet, the expansion of the carceral state, and so on. Tossing off this disastrous cruelty and cynicism, let us guide ourselves with a very simple principle: be true to our Muse, whatever she demands, and stand in solidarity with the oppressed, however and as best as we can.

If our folk-singer friend has the success we hope he does, both with his love-songs and his sign, some folks will ask him about his politics after the show. He can talk to them if he likes, but he can also simply refer them to the bazillions of grassroots organizations dedicated to economic, social, and environmental justice that are on the front lines of these necessary fights.

He might also be met with a different audience member: an idiotic and idiotically cruel Stephen-Crowder-wannabe bozo, a horde of them, or even the failed comedian [3] himself. Let us remind our noble singing man that he doesn’t need to pay them any mind. Ignoring them and putting his things away after he finishes his set, it is enough for him to say to himself, “Bah to these proudest of little boys. I write, record, and perform my songs, and I stand in solidarity with the oppressed, however and as best as I can. That is my job, now as always, until I die, however I die.”

The day after, he can take a break from the usual throes of the ego that we artists get caught in, go outside with the sign he has made, march through the streets, and claim them for justice, on his own or with a crew in solidarity. That is all the hope we have, after all. Let’s use it, musicians and everyone else. It’ll be better late than never—and it’s now or never, too.

Ecce Shnak

[1] In one interview with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, millionaire newsman Anderson Cooper, staring blankly through his Warby Parker glasses, seemed to claim that the fact that we would have to raise taxes on the rich to fund the Green New Deal is reason enough to reject the congresswoman’s critical plan. Unsurprisingly, CNN has not featured any coverage of the kind of catastrophe an even 1.5-degree-rise in global temperatures will create. Meanwhile, we are well on-course to blow significantly past a 1.5-degree rise.

[2] It is a sad coincidence that Portland has been a primary scene of resurgent fascism in the past several years.

[3] See podcaster Matt Christman’s take on what motivates this despicable person.

For the Record Bio Photo - Ecce Shnak.png

About Ecce Shnak

New Haven, CT-born, now New York City-based David Roush is living proof of that adage with his own musical project Ecce Shnak (pronounced Eh-kay Sh-knock) – the name taken from both Frederick Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo (“ecce” meaning Latin for ‘Consider” or “Look At”) and a word derived from the Yiddish schnockered, meaning inebriated, but repurposed as a teenager for anything he needed it to describe.

That may well be the best way to describe Ecce Shnak’s unique mash-up musical universe, a world of his own design he describes as Chamber Punk -- “one part popular music, another part classical and a third part punk” with songs “about love, death, sex, change, bravery and food.” Having established Ecce Shnak six years ago with fellow students at Temple University, lead singer and creator Roush now has a steady, seven-person outfit – two guitarists, two “chamber singers,” a bassist and drummer – to play the music he composes almost entirely note-for-note. This musical mash-up offers a host of influences, including Gogol Bordello, Bjork, Deerhoof, Bad Brains, the Clash, and the Roots. He dips is toes in grindcore and metal here and there, and also counts some titans of classical music as his teachers: Claude Debussy, Franz Schubert, Benjamin Britten, Igor Stravinsky, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and Leo Brouwer, among others.