First things first: Ignore anyone who says music isn't supposed to be political. It always has been, from Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring inciting a riot in Paris (read about it, it's fascinating), to the anti-war protest music of the '60s, to the overt political lyricism of '90s hip-hop; the seeds of activism and community organization all have inextricable ties to music.
On a local level, look to performance poet and musician Lyla June Johnston, who appears on Thursday Feb. 6 at the It Takes A Village mini-festival at the Alhambra Theatre inside the Scottish Rite Temple. Also slated to appear are activist Winona LaDuke and legendary folk-rock duo Indigo Girls. The show aims to support charities that center Indigenous environmental justice: Honor The Earth (honortheearth.org) and Traditional Native American Farmers (tnafa.org). Johnston (Diné and Tsétsêhéstâhese) says the causes are close to her heart, adding that she lives "to heal and support this world, which is in a lot of pain."
Performance-wise, Johnston says she's been described as "sort of a Renaissance woman," and her resume backs that up. She's a scholar, designer, community organizer, hip-hop artist and now a politician, running for a seat in the New Mexico House of Representatives.
"All of these different things are different ways of serving my community," Johnston says, adding that she doesn't identify as an activist. "[I'm a] normal person with normal concerns about water, about climate change and equality. Hip-hop is a vehicle for the voices of marginalized people."
Her music, though difficult to find and seemingly contained to a single Soundcloud profile (soundcloud.com/lylajune) combines acoustic instrumentation, powerful alto vocals and segments of spoken word that bear little resemblance to 808-dominated mainstream hip-hop. The connection to the genre comes in the form of her lyricism. As I say, politics are intertwined, and Johnston knows this well. Still, she says, her foray into the political sphere could signal an evolution of message delivery systems.
"The times are changing when a Native woman is finally able to bring her voice into the political discourse," she says, "and not fully rely on hip-hop."
Headlining It Takes A Village are another set of activists—Indigo Girls. To many, Emily Saliers and Amy Ray have been a prominent face of LGBTQ activism for over 30 years, but for the past 27, Ray and Saliers have been working (mostly) behind the scenes for Honor The Earth.
"Emily and I were doing environmental work, we heard Winona LaDuke speak, and we thought 'wow we need to be doing environmental work, and seeing things through the Indigenous lens,'" Ray tells SFR.
Honor The Earth was born, and through that lens, Ray and Saliers have consistently evolved their music to tackle some of those issues. Most notably, the 2015 release One Lost Day and the song "Texas Was Clean," a beautifully constructed ballad that might be a love letter to the Lone Star State on the surface, but which sneaks in the line "The brown and the white, the rich and the poor, taking the hit for the team."
The struggle goes beyond protecting ecosystems. There's just one planet, after all, and, according to Ray, the intermingling of causes tends to show itself as time goes by.
"If someone says to me that they don't want to do environmental work, but [they] want to work on food desert work, they're going to realize in about a year's time that there's environmental issues that they're going to be working on," Ray says. "Or if they want to work on immigration issues, they might be working with a community that's adjacent to a toxic waste dump."
Besides, calls to action don't only take the form of large-scale protests. It's often easy to forget that the best work can be done small-scale.
"You can get discouraged by our administration right now and how chaotic it feels," Ray explains, "but you can look locally and say 'look at this cool soup kitchen that's doing great work,' or a farming project that's growing hemp in an area that didn't have an economy before, and now it does."