Five Alarm Funk. Photo Credit: Leah Gerber.
“I think beauty will always, eventually, overcome hate. Life is always about ebb and flow. There are prosperous times and there are lean times and it’s all about just riding the wave.”
That was the Albertan rapper Cadence Weapon’s view on the Hillside community music festival’s theme for 2018: Counter Hate with Beauty. Hillside asked questions such as, “What is the role of the artist in challenging hate?” and, “How can art bring people from different walks of life together?”. On their website, they explain how “Hillside 2018...celebrat(ed) expressions of positive creativity, affirmative resistance and belonging by offering artists who shine light instead of shame and revel in beauty instead of hostility.”
Fairy lights light up the Hillside grounds at night. Photo Credit: Karin Lee.
Instead of focusing on a theme such as activism, as Hillside has done before, they looked at how artists can offer other forms of resistance during troubled times. The word activist often brings up negative and extremist associations, and the synonyms given when you look in the thesaurus include militant and zealot. Artists are rebels of a different kind.
Consider this excerpt on art taken from the last collection of essays by the late Kurt Vonnegut, the classic American writer best known for his satirical novel Slaughterhouse Five:
“If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practising an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.”
In times of political uncertainty and global turmoil music can offer us peace and beauty in an incredibly accessible way. It is a way of connecting with others and stepping into their shoes, while reminding us that life is worth living.
The musicians, including Iskwe and Cadence Weapon, pose for a group photo. Photo Credit: Leah Gerber.
Consider an artist such as Cris Derksen, who is of mixed Mennonite and Indigenous descent. She discusses her struggles within herself, and her identity, in her music. She told us, “choose your own battles. I’m queer, I just got married to a woman - there’s totally enough that the Mennonites have to grapple with that sometimes I don’t really bring it up, the Indigenous stuff.” For her, music is a way to share her story.
Cris Derksen performs. Photo Credit: Leah Gerber.
The cliché conflict in the arts is always whether an artist ought to make art as a reflection of themselves, or as a reflection of the times in which they live. But are we not a product of our times? Our fears and our values are influenced by the world around us. When that world is troubled, music can give us the strength to resist by rooting us in community. Five Alarm Funk told us that, “It’s a small thing that we do, we play music, there’s obviously people making a much bigger difference.” But for the band, “There’s a really immediate reward to stepping up on stage, playing for people, and having them just light up...” Recall President Barack Obama’s eyes tearing up when Aretha Franklin performed at the Kennedy Centre Honors, or his facial expression when Lin Manuel-Miranda performed “One Last Time” from his hit musical “Hamilton” at the White House. Their music connected him to his community, and it reminded him of his humanity, as he faced the struggles of his presidency.
We are seeing a return to music that is political simply by offering hope. Tim Baker, lead singer of the now-ended band Hey Rosetta, asked A/J the question, “it’s hard to fight hate with hate, it doesn’t really work, right?” So what can resist hate? Martin Luther King answered the question long ago: “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Coincidentally, A Tribe Called Red offered similar advice: “You gotta give yourself a chance to love, you gotta give yourself a chance to enjoy the positivity, even if you’re surrounded by negativity.”
Reverend Sekou’s performance. Photo Credit: Leah Gerber.
So it is our music that is offering us hope. It is offering us a way to opt out of hatred. Despite the threats of nuclear war, climate change, economic troubles, and whatever else might be wrong with the world, music offers us a way to ground ourselves and connect us with other people, even as we wonder what we can possibly do. Music has an answer. Music, and the arts in general, offer an exercise in listening. If you ask Cadence Weapon, he will tell you that “the most important thing to do is listen. I think we can listen to other people, but also listen to ourselves more. People ignore their own feelings as much as they ignore other people’s feelings.” Ladies and gentlemen, the music festival has ended, but the listening has only begun.
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