Music Activism Makes Waves at Oberlin, Beyond

Julia Peterson, Arts & Culture Editor

Since the founding of Oberlin Conservatory in 1865, music has been one of the Oberlin community’s most powerful attributes. Now, with sociopolitical tensions from Standing Rock, ND, to the White House coming to a head, music stands to join both faculty-led and student organized conversations and movements as it becomes an increasingly potent form of activism. Last Wednesday’s teach-in, “Music Activism,” discussed this trend, and Saturday night saw another example with a student-run event called “Water is Life: Benefit Fest for Standing Rock Sioux,” which raised nearly a thousand dollars that will be donated to the Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council.

On Sunday, the Army Corps of Engineers denied Energy Transfer Partners an easement permit that would allow them to route the pipeline through Standing Rock. Though the Corps promised to find an alternate route, ETP is likely to fight this decision, which means that the funds raised by this event and others like it will still contribute to the affected population of the North Dakota reservation.

For College senior Izzie Levinson, who hosted the event at her home, the show’s evolution from an ordinary performance to a fundraising event — and its ensuing success — came as a surprise. After the idea to raise money for Standing Rock via an entrance fee became a reality, the event’s organizers decided to let bands continue to play for as long as they kept coming — and come they did. Initially, bands were scheduled to perform from 7–10 p.m. In the end, so many bands and musicians were interested in taking the stage that the event lasted well into the early hours of the morning. AJAMINA, Tom from the store, Thee Hundos, Sammy Mellman, The World All Around, Hypno, Julia Julian, Zink + Xuan Rong and Sarah Snider each played a set.

To double-degree senior and event organizer Griffin Jennings, the benefit was particularly timely in relation to the recent surge of activism in the wake of the U.S. presidential election.

“Right now is a time that musicians and artists should devote their work to activism, Jennings said. “Especially Con musicians. If you want to be an active contributor to society, you shouldn’t think of yourself just as somebody who upholds an artistic tradition. You should think of yourself as part of society.”

Jennings’ position reflects the broader discussions taking place within the Conservatory about the meaning of music as a form of activism in 2016 and beyond. Conservatory professors Jennifer Fraser and Fredara Hadley, along with Associate Dean Chris Jenkins, hosted the “Music Activism” teach-in last Wednesday. The group organized the event in the wake of the election, in response to students searching for advice and direction about how to affect social change through music.

The main goal of the teach-in was to gather the collective knowledge and experience in the room into a document to be shared with the wider community called “Music Activism: What Can We Do?” The document contains specific suggestions for actions that musicians can take to actively address, make sense of and survive the current political climate. It also includes thoughts on effective strategizing and allyship, music as catharsis and the various forms of musical activism.

When the organizers of “Music Activism” learned about Saturday’s benefit, they expressed enthusiasm about the event as one example of how music and activism can intersect in the Oberlin community.

“A lot of the organizing comes from the student angle,” Fraser said. “I’m really delighted to know that students are out there mobilizing outside of class.”

Hadley agreed, adding that popular conceptions of mobilization tend to focus exclusively on the importance of coordinated efforts.

“It’s people doing what they can, where they are,” Hadley said. “If you have an idea like [having] a party, which you were probably doing anyways, and [using] that for someone else’s benefit, … that’s activism.”

She was adamant about framing musicianship as a political act, regardless of whether a musician is undertaking a project that they specifically think of as activism.

“I tell students all the time, … you don’t just practice to sharpen your technical ability with your music,” she said. “You also practice your politics around music. You don’t just wake up one day and decide, ‘I’m going to have politics around music.’ … You are deciding where you play, who you play with, the repertoire you play, the music you compose, if you choose to participate in fundraisers or not. All of those things are choices.”

College junior Ellie Lezak, who attended the benefit, traveled to Standing Rock for seven days just before Thanksgiving break. After voicing her support for efforts like Saturday’s event, she emphasized the role that music played on site at Standing Rock.

“Standing Rock itself — the camp, Oceti Sakowin — is a ceremony,” she said. “And throughout this ceremony there was music happening at all times, in all places, especially around … the sacred fire, which is a really important part of Lakota traditions. … Around this fire at all times there were people drumming and singing all these traditional Lakota songs. … Until the 1970s, it was illegal for anyone to actually practice them because the U.S. government was systematically trying to extinguish Native American culture and history.”

Hadley voiced a similar perspective on the contextual importance of past oppression, asserting that the past is the key to present activism even as modern political events have given causes like that of Standing Rock an increased sense of urgency.

“We have seen moments where musicians were compelled to act in a sustained way before,” she said. “I think about the LGBTQ movement in the ’90s — you had a series of pop musicians finding different ways to display their advocacy for that movement. You had the Civil Rights movement, the labor movement, the anti-war movement — so we’ve had moments of this surge of political activity before. If history is an indicator of what will happen now, I do believe that we will see a prolonged and sustained effort.”

College sophomore Emma Doyle, who helped organize the Water is Life benefit, is similarly optimistic about the future of musical activism at Oberlin. She believes that our vibrant musical community is fertile ground for the effort that Hadley described.

“It would be nice for us to look beyond our tiny town and try to put it to good use,” she said. “The two dollars at the door that was asked for … was not that much for everybody, but it made a big impact.”