Making Social Change With Music


n the 2004 election, hardly
a week went by without the mainstream media deriding an actor or
musician for speaking up against the re-election of President Bush.
Websites such as featured polls that asked people whether
they cared what their favorite actor or musician thought about social
issues. Meanwhile, TV pundits declared political matters off-limits
to anyone who wasn’t regulated by corporate media speaking
fees or invited to pontificate on the major networks’ Sunday
news programs. 

Many artists, nevertheless, continue to speak out on social justice
issues. In the music industry, however, it is still rare to find
a group that goes beyond speaking out from time to time, by weaving
its music and political consciousness together, day in and day out.
We find one of those rare examples in the folk duo Emma’s Revolution.
The group takes its name from activist Emma Goldman, who is famed
for having responded to a colleague’s criticism of her dancing
by saying, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be
a part of your revolution.” 

Comprised of songwriter Pat Humphries, who has authored the progressive
anthems “Swimming to the Other Side” and “Keep On
Moving Forward,” and Sandy Opatow, Emma’s Revolution is
probably best known for its peace anthem, “Peace, Salaam, Shalom,”
which appeared on their debut album


Recently the duo released its latest CD,

Roots, Rock & Revolution!

which  affirms the duo’s belief that music is a means
to learn, organize, and motivate.

Released in December 2006,
the CD features such songs as: “Silent No Longer,” detailing
a successful landmark case against the oil corporation UNOCAL on
behalf of villagers from Burma; “Coast of Maine,” dealing
with the gap between rich and poor in a small community; and “Living
Planet,” an environmental hymn. Among the disk’s more
iconic tracks, “Who Lies” details a Republican-controlled
government and tackles everything from war and the environment to
the suffering of the poor and Muslims: 

in a bind 


Carlyle and more 

the shelves of the 


lies, who dies 

pays, who profits 

out of gang 

to be cool 

through the lies fro 

in the schools 

up like a man 

freedom lend a hand 

the occupation of 

oil rich land 

lies, who dies 

pays, who profits 

Coast shore 

as before 

people’s lives for a 

man’s war 

services or plans 

people in need 

ignorance and arrogance an 


“Where are you now?,” a song about the chaos surrounding
Katrina, Opatow transmit’s a sorrowful sentiment that transcends
any one disaster, reminding listeners of any number of tragedies: 

are you now 

did you sleep 

you have food 

you OK 

did you sleep 

you in peace 

are you now 

held your hand 

in mine 

the tide surged 

couldn’t hold on 

love couldn’t hold back a current 


are you now 

did you sleep 

you have food 

you OK  

did you sleep 

you in peace 

are you now 

caught a glimpse 

it was you 

the crowd rushes 

pushed through 

are you bound 

will I know 

will we meet 

did you go 

said she and her partner were specifically inspired to write the
song after hearing the desperate pleas of Katrina victims being
broadcasted from New Orleans. “When we first heard about what
was going on, Amy Goodman was there pretty quickly and one of the
things she was doing was giving an open microphone so that people
could say, ‘I’m looking for my brother, here is my cellphone
number.’ ‘I’m looking for my uncle.’ ‘I’m
going to be in Houston,’ or whatever—they were just naming
all their people who were missing, who they wanted to find. It reminded
us so much of people after September 11 who put up posters that
said, ‘My mother was in this tower too, we haven’t seen
her, can you call us?’” 

Viewing attempts by the media to downplay the inherent political
import of music and art, Humphries rejects those who argue music
and current events are a mismatch. “This has been the essential
purpose of music from the very beginning,” she said. “People
always used music to tell the news.”  

Humphries insists one of her main motives as an artist-activist
is to tear away the illusion that individuals are incapable of making
a difference in the world. “We’re constantly being told
that our vote doesn’t matter, that our choices in what we buy
or don’t buy doesn’t matter, and it’s a lie. It’s
purposeful, to keep people silent and to keep people disconnected
from their outrage; to keep them from that sense of compassion that
some of us grew up more connected with.” 

progressive commentary, Emma’s Revolution examines issues of
our time the way the media should. “We’re very aware that
what we’re doing is spreading truth,” said Opatow. “And
stories of triumph, like ‘Silent No Longer,’ or situations
that still need work, like the ‘Coast of Maine,’ a song
about the discrepancies between rich and poor in a coastal area
where people are buying summer homes and many of those who live
there year round are struggling to get by. They are definitely underreported

Emma’s Revolution’s journalistic approach to songwriting
also makes a point to look at the victories and virtues of grassroots
activism. “People have short memories and we do try to remind
people of victories because everyone needs to know change is happening
and people are making a real impact against the problems that exist,”
said Opatow. 

“[The UNOCAL lawsuit] was a landmark case, the first ever against
a U.S.-based corporation for a trust that is, on its behalf, off
of U.S. soil. Right after they won that case, Senator Diane Feinstein’s
office tried to do some kind of legal change so that that law, the
way that it was won by [the organization] Silent No Longer could
no longer be used by any other corporations. 

“It was actually shouted down by thousands of people who sent
her emails saying, ‘We see what you’re trying to do. We
see that you’re trying to destroy this victory.’ When
we sing that song, in the introduction, we often say, these people
won a lawsuit against an oil corporation on behalf of 15 villagers
from Burma. And people cheer because it’s good news and they
hadn’t heard about it.” 

While some artists succeed in inspiring the indignation necessary
to prompt action in individuals, Emma’s Revolution succeeds
in the equally important task of inspiring the hope necessary to
keep the fires of indignation burning. 

Rather than simply lamenting voting debacles of recent elections,
the duo’s song, “Vote”—featuring a guest appearance
by Jethro Tull drummer Doane Perry—is an indictment of election
tampering and, more importantly, an inspiring call to arms: 

If they can count 424 billion for the war 

can’t they count our votes 

they can count thousands of bomb 

still be buying more 

can’t they count our votes? 

not done 

not tired 

won’t stop until, Donald 

you’re fired! 

The duo also offers an uplifting cover of “If I had a Hammer,”
originally written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes in 1949, which calls
for peace and unity. Explaining her reasoning for mixing somber
and elated moods on the album, Humphries said, “I think it’s
important, on one hand, to be sure to cover the subject and to cover
the gravity of the subject, and at times to keep things in that
sort of more somber frame. But also I feel devoted to the importance
of keeping people energized. People have got to leave feeling hopeful.
They need to feel hopeful and empowered. It’s the only way
change happens—if people can believe change can happen and
believe that they are an essential part of the change.” 

But singing about the issues is just the beginning for these artists.
Opatow and Humphries live their music and activist spirit, dedicating
themselves to sharing their songs and the stories and building communities
around the United States and beyond. Frequent guests at activist
events, in August Emma’s Revolution performed at the Scottish
Parliament’s second annual Festival of Politics, and in November
the duo played a vigil calling for the close of the School of the
Americas in Georgia. 

As of late, the two have been on the road playing a series of house
concerts throughout the southeast. Often seating fewer than 100,
these concerts make for a unique opportunity to build bridges between
people who are working on different issues in the same community. 

“The other piece of the community building,” said Opatow,
“is that we talk about a whole bunch of different issues. Some
people will come because they hear the peace and justice stuff and
some people will come because they hear the environmental rights
issues—then they get to meet each other. If it’s at a
big venue they may get to meet each other. If it’s a house
concert they will definitely get to meet each other. It helps make
connections between the activists in that community and we really
love helping to make those connections.” 

Summing up the duo’s purpose, Humphries said Emma’s Revolution
intends to uplift, empower, and enjoin. “The point is we really
want people to be informed about what’s going on; we want them
to feel connected to their own emotions about these things so that
they can connect to the real impact of these issues. But we also
want them to feel hopeful and believe in the power of their actions
and the power of their voices; and that they can make some conscious
decisions about what they do in this life and the impact that it
has on the world around them. We want them to be able to cry when
its appropriate to cry, and to dance and celebrate when it’s
appropriate to dance and celebrate.”

Nall is a community activist and freelance writer. He regularly contributes
to publications such as

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