Amid the shouts and sirens that hang in the air of Dewey Square in downtown Boston, the occasional hesitant “Check, check, one, two” resonates throughout the tents and booths that were erected at the beginning of October. Almost every day, amateur and professional musicians have been performing at the informal stage on the square for camped-out protestors, pedestrians on their way to work, and passersby who simply take a moment to stop and listen.
Music might not be the first thing one associates with the Occupy Boston movement, a protest inspired by the ongoing Occupy Wall Street demonstration against corporate greed and income inequality. But music has become both a unifying factor and an inspiration for demonstrators from every background imaginable, and has been used to call attention to issues ranging from union rights to the wars in the Middle East.
“We have lots of different people from lots of different diverse communities that come down during the week, and what I’ve seen is that [music] lifts spirits and makes people happy. Music is music,” says entertainment organizer Kelley P., who wishes to keep her last name private. “It’s something that we can all relate to, vibrationally at least.”
The diversity of the demonstrators themselves is reflected in the assortment of genres represented by performers requesting a time slot. “I’ve got everything from international African drumming, classical acts, jazz, rock, acoustic, Americana to country,” says Kelley. “The diversity is huge.”
So is the demand for a performance time slot: local, regional and national groups have been bombarding organizers with requests to book the stage, especially in the past week. With its large built-in crowd, heavy media attention, and plethora of issues to which the performers can speak, the event offers an ideal spot for a show. However, those organizers are only encouraged by the increase in demand.
“[Music] boosts morale and builds community, especially on rainy days,” media representative Philip J. Anderson says. “Music is just one of those things that can galvanize movements—especially with songs that everyone knows and can connect with.” The sentiment is evocative of the ethos behind various civil rights movements of the ’60s, many of which found a voice and ally in the musical figureheads of the time. Kelley finds a distinct parallel between Occupy Boston and important protests and movements of the past. “Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Simon and Garfunkel—a lot of these artists had a lot of great things to say during the events that came before us,” muses Kelley. Though the times have changed, many musicians’ desires to perform for a movement they believe in have not.
“[Performers] are fighting for the same causes and the same rights that we are. It’s not as easy for a band to get nationally signed to a worldwide record deal anymore. The music industry has changed so dramatically and a lot of these artists struggle with their art and their music,” she adds. “They write songs about situations like these and they’re there [at Occupy Boston] because they are part of the 99 percent.”
Kelley has already heard four songs written for and about Occupy Boston, while demonstrator Barry A. Knight agrees that protesters may be inspired to contribute creatively to the protests. “I’d love to see some new music come out of this. People have been writing their own songs here, even if I haven’t seen them yet,” says Knight. “I’m not a musician as such, but I can write. I might write a couple of tunes while I’m here.”
Indeed, the relationship between the movement and the live performers seems to be a reciprocal one. While both established and amateur performers have been stimulated to produce new material, the music they perform deeply inspires the demonstrators who constitute a significant portion of their audience. Knight, who has been at Occupy Boston for over a week, was particularly uplifted by a female singer accompanied by acoustic guitarist.
“I am not an emotional person by any stretch of imagination, but listening to that woman play, and remembering what this whole thing is about, I actually shed a tear,” says Knight. The emotional power wielded by performers is made even more impressive by the spartan stage set-up, which consists solely of a limited PA system and two microphones.
That performances still go on consistently shows that demonstrators at Occupy Boston find value not in light shows or in heavy production, but in the messages that live musical acts spread, as well as the sense of community bolstered by musicians who are as much a part of the 99 percent as the protestors are. As the range of issues raised by the group expands, one thing will remain static: the stage in Dewey Square, where performers and protestors maintain a connection just as significant as the ongoing chants in Boston and around the world.