Alternative currents in the United States are in need of more creative and constructive tactics, projects, and forms of expression, broader and more inclusive cultures of resistance, and spaces for experimentation with new ways of living. Music and the arts can work to disrupt the flow of information, subvert existing systems, and inspire others. Music and the arts can transform the terrain of struggle.
Music has historical connections with struggles for social justice, freedom, equality, and human dignity. Roots reggae and jazz are two musical traditions rooted in these ideals, giving voice to collective struggles against poverty, colonialism, racism, apartheid, and other oppressive systems. These traditions, considered relics of the past by many, are alive today despite attempts to neutralize them through coercion and commercialization that detach our music from broader struggles. Unfortunately, the vast majority of creative culture is now devoted to sustaining dominant institutions, ideologies, values, and patterns of behavior.
But new life is coming from San Francisco-based international roots-reggae/jazz fusion pioneers Groundation, a nine-piece band renowned for its masterful studio albums and powerful live performances. Seven critically-acclaimed studio albums reveal the conceptual basis for their music, all connected in a linear story that seeks to interpret the historical times we find ourselves in.
The term Groundation comes from Jamaican patois and refers to the ceremonial meeting of people to discuss, reason with, and understand each other, the goal being interaction free of class, hierarchy, and domination. The band's album, Each One, Teach One, is a meditation on this concept, situating dialogue, education, and mutual aid at the center of our understanding of freedom. Hebron Gate tells the story of a great "Dragon War" descending upon the people of the Earth, unfolding over a 24-hour period of struggle and conflict, finally calling upon the wisdom of their musical elders for guidance and support. Upon the Bridge ties all their previous work together in an attempt to interpret the human search for peace and prosperity, a journey from our known world to a "bridge" of historical proportions, one we must cross—despite our uncertainties—if we are to achieve a better future. Groundation's studio work has culminated in their recent release Here I Am, described on the band's website as "a declaration of presence and a commitment to action." The following is a discussion with Groundation lead vocalist and guitarist Harrison Stafford.
HARRIS: What role do you see music playing in the process of social transformation?
STAFFORD: The role music plays in social transformation is all-consuming and undeniable. It casts spells over the human population. The composer may seek to inspire the listener through social faculties of love and compassion, or hatred and aggression. However, it is only through the quality and craftsmanship of the composition that the music affects the listener to a degree of transformation or change.
Since the birth of the music industry in the early 20th century, music's influence became a master molder of human tendencies. This multiplied music's social impact exponentially taking it from its original ceremonial tribal nature into a hugely powerful multi-billion dollar industry. Business controlled the focus of the music and directed music's social impact into a more consumerist, cookie-cutter, market-based industry.
So today, when music has the greatest opportunity to exert a positive influence on our lives, it is used to distract people into a more foolish and vain society.
I see music's effect on future social change in two stages. First, it will continue the current trend of distraction through the continued simplification of song forms and consumer-based lyrical content. This will only last to a point. Just as corporate greed and political manipulation will one day hit its wall, music, too, will have to be confronted with a steadily growing population that will burst the mold and force the music to change to represent their times. They'll want music that represents the essence of positive social change.
Music and the arts can expand and connect different cultures of resistance, generate collective action, and transform immediate social realities while imagining new ones. In Greece, for example, free public concerts have been integral to major mobilizations in recent years, from the occupation of public space to general insurrection. What do you think of conceiving of music and the arts in such powerful terms?
I think that it is important for all artists to see their creative work within the context of this greater struggle. Music is undeniably powerful in its ability to motivate, focus, and concentrate people towards direct action for their political and social well-being. For musicians, there is a sense of belonging to a heritage or family that dates back to the beginning of human civilization, which has pushed us forward in our quest to define the rights of people. An example of this came from the African American population of the 1920s-1930s in its frustration of being treated as second-class citizens—jazz.
Despite huge international acclaim, American audiences are far less receptive to the Groundation sound and the ideas behind it. What do you feel are the reasons for this gap?
As Groundation, we ignore the music industry. We are committed to making challenging music in both lyric and composition. To inspire people to continue creating, stretching, reaching for something new, and, while we hope it will touch everyone, we are not willing to bend in our commitment.
We play a fusion one-drop roots reggae music with elements of polyrhythmic modern jazz. A writer once described our sound as "John Coltrane meets Burning Spear." Looking deeper at jazz and reggae you would find that they are two musical styles of the same root: revolution and crying out for justice. When Miles Davis was getting beat by police in Chicago, he left America and was treated like a prince in Paris. Bob Marley, the king of reggae, never sold a million records in America until after he died. But in Europe he was a multi-platinum selling artist throughout his career.
MTV, the largest music outlet in the world (back when it had music videos), never had an hour show for reggae music, never had an hour show for jazz. This is because jazz and reggae's influence over society has a deep connection to freedom of thought and action. Ideals of money, wealth, and ego are replaced with knowledge, confidence, and the goal of equality. Reggae music has no radio stations in America (unless paid for on digital formats), no national magazines, no real infrastructure to "get the word out" on new music and artists. Radio stations and TV want three minute songs, while our compositions run more like five, six, or seven minutes—too long for rotation. Is Groundation going to walk around lip-synching and acting as if we are performing a song as we dance down the street? Let's face it, what we as Groundation do, both live and on record, just does not work in the "format" for what is selling in America. But who could say what tomorrow may bring?
In order to create a truly independent, liberating culture we need an organizational infrastructure that can help build and sustain a movement of the arts. Any thoughts on getting independent artists more engaged in this type of process?
The Internet is the number one tool of the underground movement for positive social change for this main reason: resources. When it comes to "organizational infrastructure" it takes resources to achieve this, and that is one thing independent artists lack. For instance, years ago I dreamed of CTV, Culture Television, and it had everything I loved, reggae, jazz, professional soccer, and hourly shows featuring guest politicians, musicians, writers, activists, etc. A place of knowledge and inspiration. Today, to create and sustain a movement requires commitment, energy, resources, and money.
In your music you seem to be constantly drawing lessons from history, using the past to inform the present. From Babylonian captivity, oppression under the Roman Empire, to contemporary Israel-Palestine. Why is that? How does your understanding of history shape your songwriting and live performance?
Like the philosophers of the past, if you don't know where you are coming from, then you don't know where you are at, and you cannot know where you intend to go. So within the lyrics we are philosophizing, through reason and logic we get a better sense of our direction. When we perform as Groundation, our collective ensemble, we are very aware of the importance of history and the influence it has on our creativity. As our university professor, [jazz bassist, composer and educator] Mel Graves tells us day after day, you must study the music of the past. If not, you will never know when something you have created is truly original.
Live music establishes a field of energy between the artists, the crowd, the rhythms being played, and the environmental surroundings. There is a pivotal space that music can facilitate, a nexus point of consciousness and vibrating energy. Groundation creates such a space for communities all over the world. Do you think this space can be used as an entry point towards lasting fundamental changes in our personal and collective lives?
For us, seeing the crowds of people coming out and singing the words to our songs all over the world gives us strength and courage that we are on the right path and that all our life's energy is worthwhile. Similar to a pat on the back, the people are telling you, "Yes, you are right, and you are not alone, we are with you." Also for those individuals that come to see Groundation they can see that they too are not alone, and that their ideas of hope for a positive change are real and in fact they are right to want more from their leaders, their countries, and their own lives. The live performance is where the music meets the individual to reveal a collective feeling or emotion and this is very empowering.
Your most recent studio album Here I Am addresses issues of war, poverty, profit, health care, education, environmental destruction, peace in Israel-Palestine, and other major concerns. You're clearly making demands and putting forth ideas that have political implications, insofar as they effect social relations and the distribution of power. Yet I often hear you claim that your music is not political. Are you trying to distance yourself from something or just transcending the divisions that permeate the political realm?
Yes, we are trying to distance ourselves from the political arena and appeal to the universality of the human condition. The words and music of Groundation are demanding justice for the people of the world—for all people. Like organized religion, politics divides people into an "us and them" mentality, and we believe only in "us." So when we speak out declaring that our music is not political and not religious we are stating that we are opening the doors and welcoming all people to our musical conversation.
Groundation has never recorded a song to back a political leader or political party or any government for that matter. Concepts such as universal health care and education make sense, and they are logical within the basic framework of the rights of humans. Unfortunately, I have never known a government to do the right thing for the welfare of its people. There have been those that have talked a lot about all the progressive things they were going to do, but in the end little, if anything, was ever really accomplished. As artists, as musicians, as Groundation, we feel a need to speak out about those things and to do so freely and without obligation.
Any final thoughts?
Only that we need to stay positive, that change may be frustratingly slow, but it can happen. As the song says, "the world can be a better place," but it is up to each of us to do our part to make it happen, and music can play a major role. That is the vision of what we do as Groundation. That is Groundation in action.
Collin Harris, a graduate of the University of Illinois Chicago and the 2010 Z Media Institute, has researched and written about NAFTA and the political economy of Mexican immigration, participatory society, and the application of social movement theory to movements in the South.