How Musicians and Artists Can Be Relevant to the Social-Justice Movement

Images from the Blackout Music and Film Festival, Saturday August 29th 2015 in Los Angeles
Blackout Music and Film Festival

At the first-ever Blackout Music & Film Festival, held Saturday at the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles, artists, activists, celebrities and everyday citizens convened to highlight and explore the ways in which artists are using their art to address human rights violations and injustices. The daylong festival featured screenings of 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets and Dear White People, a #SayHerName Voices for the Cause music showcase, an artists showcase and three panels that addressed topics ranging from the importance of diversity in media to criminal-justice reform.

During the social-justice panel, moderated by Marcus Hunter, Ph.D., assistant professor of social science and African-American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, artists and activists explored the relationship between art, media and activism in a contemporary context. 


Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, said that at this moment in time, we have the opportunity to reflect a “new black renaissance.” She declared, “It is our responsibility as black people in our music and in our art to reflect exactly what is happening and to vision something new.”

While the panelists agreed on the role that art plays in giving a voice to the voiceless, there was a particular emphasis on the need for artists to have accountability in their art. 


Rahiel Tesfamariam, founder and publisher of Urban Cusp, expressed concern about the way in which some artists are simply giving the people what they want because the moment demands it. “There is this new cool about activism, and the artists know that if they want to be relevant, they have to go where the people are going. So all they have to do is cut and paste and put a beat to our pain, and we’ll bump it in the club, and we’ll rock it. But if art is to imitate what we’re going through, it also has to imitate our suffering, our rage, our anger. It has to reflect the totality of where we are right now. And that’s not something you can simply manufacture.”

Artist Damon Davis, director of Whose Streets?, a forthcoming documentary about the Ferguson, Mo., uprising, echoed Tesfamariam’s sentiments when he described some music as being just like McDonald’s food: “It’s a bunch of homogenized stuff that they were told that people like thrown together in a pot, but the soul is missing.”


Panelists cited Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” as an example of how the Black Lives Matter movement is changing the music that artists are making. However, activist Ashley Yates referred to Monáe’s use of the phrase “say his name” instead of “say her name” in her song as “an appropriation” and “the exact reason we had to create #SayHerName in the first place.”

Yates expounded, “Far too often, black women’s lived experiences are not fully voiced in our own movements, so to see that from a black woman is disheartening. But it happened because we’re not actually amplifying the voices of the people who are doing the work and are plugged in enough to know that #SayHerName is a necessary and unique call.”


In response, David Johns, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, remarked, “We are too often beholden to the tyranny of ‘either-or’ versus celebrating the beauty of ‘both-and,’ and as soon as we honor the diversity among us and celebrate those connections, the quicker we can move to another place.”

While the panel discussion highlighted various ways in which art can be used to advance social-justice causes, the consensus was that art must reflect lived experiences if it is to engage in actual truth telling. 


Also on The Root:Photos: Blackout Film Festival Draws Activist Entertainers

Akilah Green is a recovering Washington, D.C., lawyer-lobbyist-politico turned TV and film writer and producer living in Los Angeles. She currently works for Chelsea Handler’s Netflix talk show, Chelsea. She has also worked as a staff writer for Kevin Hart’s production company, HartBeat Productions, and as a consultant for Real Time With Bill Maher on HBO. In addition, she co-wrote and is producing Scratch, an indie horror-comedy feature film, and is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow Green’s adventures in La La Land on her blog, Twitter and Facebook.

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