Friday, December 13, 2013

NC musicians raise voices in protest on new album

Two days before Thanksgiving a group of North Carolina musicians called the NC Music Love Army released “We Are Not For Sale: Songs of Protest.” The collaboration between Charlotte’s Jon Lindsay and several triangle area musicians like Caitlin Cary, who spearheaded the project with Lindsay, is a direct result of their involvement in Moral Mondays and the direction NC politics have been heading since Governor Pat McCrory took office.

Writing protest songs is no easy task. It can be difficult not to rely on slogans, but the NC Music Army does an impressive job. That job was probably made easier by the fact that the topics are current, relevant, and close to home. This isn’t a guy in New York writing about soldiers in Vietnam. The issues they’re singing about directly concern the area these musicians live in. Many of the songwriters were spending time on the frontline of the movement in Raleigh and even performing their songs there. 

“We Are Not For Sale” starts with the Django Haskins’ song that gives the album its title and actually prompted the project. Cary and Lindsay began talking about what they could do after Haskins (of the Old Ceremony) posted a video for the track online. Lindsay wrote his own response to the NC legislature and he and Cary began asking friends to do so as well. “We Are Not For Sale” is a classic, inspirational protest song that tries to makes its opponents in government accountable.  It covers everything from frakking to jailing protesters to money-hungry politicians. It’s easy to see why it lit the fire.

Although these songs were written simply and quickly with the folk-based tradition of protest music in mind, they cover a lot of ground. Having disparate artists working together makes for an interesting mix of styles and approaches. Some of the tracks hit you over the head. Billy Sugarfix’s “Abraham Lincoln in His Grave” takes a direct, critical approach. There’s no metaphor, much like Country Joe and the Fish's Woodstock sing-along "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag." Sugarfix lays it out there and names names. 

Rapper Shirlette Ammons’ hip-hop duet with Dasan Ahanu “Get Free” and the countrified “North Carolina We’re Better Than This” by Britt Harper Uzzell and Snuzz take a similar direct approach. Lindsay, who grew up the son of a minister, asks “Is This Here What Jesus Would Do?” in his all-star contribution. It raises particularly interesting questions for an opposition that uses religion in its arguments. 

Cary teams with Ammons for “My Body Politic,” which alternates between hip-hop verses and a big, `70s-style sing-along chorus complete with horns. It’s a strange marriage, but it works.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Rhiannon Giddens takes a revival-raising gospel approach with the layered, a cappella “We Rise.” Instead of presenting an argument, it centers on unity and community. It’s a stirring, pro-sisterhood anthem that could lend itself to all sorts of movements. Like “We Rise,” Laurelyn Dosset’s “My Beloved Enemy” and M.C. Taylor and Hiss Golden Messenger’s “Every Knee Shall Bow” extend beyond NC politics. Those songs seem more universal. It’s easy to imagine Dosset's, for instance, closing out an episode of “Sons of Anarchy.”

What “We Are Not For Sale” says to me is that there are still people out there willing to speak out and spend their time and art to try to battle injustice in some form. It also shows that protest music can be good and creative. I enjoy punk rallying cries a la my favorite protest band Naked Aggression, but the people that need to hear those opposing messages don’t always hear them through the shouting.  

The first five songs on the album were recorded in a day at Pershing Hill Studios in Raleigh by 25 or so NC musicians. Those songs were intended for an EP, but the project grew into a 10-track album as interest escalated. The second side features original tunes submitted to the project. Both sides are well done and well produced. There are many more musicians than the ones listed in the liner notes involved in the project (just take a look at the website of the above video). Another release may be in the cards. The group also held a concert in Chapel Hill following the release. I'd love to see that idea expanded on locally. 

“We Are Not For Sale” is available on CD, LP, and digitally. You can learn more about it here. Proceeds benefit Progress NC and Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina.