This blog is part of a four-part series from the Renaturing Cities:…
Selecting transition music is inspirational, because listening to songs about change can sometimes be more insightful than reading several shelves of books. At the same time selecting music about change is quite challenging because these songs can easily become too cliché or too moralistic. For me, songs about change are strongly tied to universal struggles for social justice, equity, and coping with the powers that be. The struggle of Afro-Americans and in a broader sense racial and socio-economic conflicts are some of these ongoing struggles that has offered the most fierce and creative music. Although my contribution to this Transition Radio Series is not specifically about theses historical processes, it does offer an insight into some ingredients for radical change. Ingredients that contribute to a sensitivity to these ongoing struggles.
SENSE OF AWARENESS
We start this journey with the blues. The blues refers to a state of awareness of your own life and the world that is surrounding you. That you experience hardship and start to asks questions about certain injustices. It’s the consciousness that something is not right, which can lead to a melancholic state of mind. The challenge is turning this low spirit into something creative, which is exemplary for the blues. And one of my all-time favourite blues artists is Skip James (1902 – 1969), who is an expert at singing about hard times.
SENSE OF URGENCY
This sense of awareness is where it all starts. But then one asks him- or herself if these hard times in the lyrics of Skip James could be systemic. The feeling that the game is or could be rigged, is where the seeds of change can truly blossom. This suspicion creates a sense of urgency that things have to change and leads to anger when this change is absent (or too slow). This sense is embodied by a powerful artist like Nina Simone (1933 – 2003), who captured this cry of pain and anger in her song Mississippi Goddam.
SENSE OF FREEDOM
In this anger a quest for new pathways and uncharted territory can unfold itself, which is manifested by experimenting with innovative structures and practices. This subversive, yet creative mind-set can evolve in radical action and forms the basis for a revolution. This is most apparent in jazz music against in the late 1950s and 1960s, where free and spiritual jazz musicians like John Coltrane, Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders broke with conventions and traditional standards. An artist that was perceived as a feared radical by his jazz peers was Ornette Coleman (1930 – 2015), who flew off in all directions while presenting a ‘shape of jazz to come’ in 1959, a year believed to change (jazz) music forever.
SENSE OF REVOLUTION
Almost six decades later, it’s hard to see why people were so shocked by this expressive music where freedom and improvisation were central. Yet it was a transitional moment in music, a tipping point so to say. There is no transition without struggle and conflict in combination with a sense that things can be different. Revolutionary music calls out for (reflexive) action. Or as Gil Scott-Heron (1949 – 2011) puts it: “the revolution will put you in the driver’s seat”.
SENSE OF DIRECTION
The political nature of transitions is apparent in the search for new configurations. Or to quote Gil Scott-Heron again: “since change is inevitable we should direct the change, rather than simply continue to go through the change”. And directing change is inherently political. To have a sense of direction, one has to know where she or he is coming from. A guiding vision, or sense of direction, is always connected to past experiences and knowledge, which connects it to the historical struggles. And the latter should keep one critical in experimenting with new ways of doing, knowing and thinking. As to be able to ‘not believe the hype’ (as Public Enemy put so eloquently) when discourses on innovation are becoming increasingly popular.
SENSE OF LOCAL ACTION
But where to start with a revolution? It often begins with small symbolic actions or experiences on a micro-scale, e.g. behind a computer, somewhere in your neighbourhood or city, etc. It’s on this scale where one can contribute to ongoing global struggles and where these struggles are being replicated and reinvented. For me this is Rotterdam. It is on this local scale that nothing seems to change and where change is relative and relational. It’s here where everybody spins in their own little world, but it’s also where allies can be found in a collective search for a sustainable future. On this human scale one embraces ongoing struggles and turns back and forth to their roots. This is apparent in the song ‘Lotgenoot’ (which means ‘partner in distress’) of Rotterdam based artist Winne where he raps about growing up in the city and giving props to his friends in distress.
When writing this down in a rather causal way, it strikes me that this also becomes rather cliché. But my contribution is in no way intended as a linear process where one sense leads to another sense. It’s rather that these senses are interrelated and that they interact with each other. Just like actions at the local scale, these senses are messy and contradictory. And music provides the ingredients that can guide one through these paradoxical encounters. So what makes this music so different or why does it stand out? Clichés often hide the struggles, while for me, ‘transition music’ stimulates these six senses and thus embraces the struggles and makes them apparent. This is best symbolized by a trilogy of Max Roach featuring Abbey Lincoln named Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace.
Frank van Steenbergen is a PhD candidate at DRIFT (Erasmus University Rotterdam). In his research he tries to ‘demystify context’ in transition studies by focusing on the local scale of urban neighborhoods and the politics of experimentation.