St. Paul, MN–Last week as the Republicans’ trip to St. Paul was delayed due to weather, some musicians still came to town for the Take Back Labor Day concert on Harriet Island, directly across the Mississippi river from downtown St. Paul and the Xcel Energy Center, where the Republicans were going to congregate to talk about their version of change, which is funny, given that if they actually wanted change it seems like, having control of two branches of the government for six out of the last eight years, they could have made some decisions to create some change. I guess change really does take time. But I digress; the concert and the musicians is what I want to talk about today.
The concert was put on by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and was an effort to “draw attention to the issues that America’s working people care about.” On the bill for the St. Paul show was (and this is the order they played in) Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, Tom Morello (guitarist for Rage Against the Machine), Atmosphere, Mos Def, and The Pharcyde.
It quickly became clear that, coming from the direction we were coming from, it was going to be difficult to get to the island. From the west and north we would have to walk by the Xcel Energy Center. The blockades surrounding the arena were many and the organization of the concertgoers was of little concern to the thousands of police present for the RNC. Our convenience was not their top priority, though it does seem like keeping a massive crowd orderly would be of some concern to these uniformed men and women. Again, I digress. By the time we reached the island we had been knocked off schedule so much that we didn’t get to see even one song by Billy Bragg, the outspoken Englishman.
Just after getting across the bridge to the concert, riot police formed a blockade. Photo credit: Jason Doyle
I trust, given that I saw him two days later in concert, that Bragg’s set was politically charged, which given the location, the timing, and the host of the show—SEIU—one would expect. Both Steve Earle and Tom Morello (playing as The Nightwatchman) did their part to fill the air with political ideas and bring attention to labor unions. Before his song, “City of Immigrants” Steve Earle said, “It is election time again, and here I am again at the wrong convention. I think it’s fairly obvious that I’m not going to vote for any Republican.” While Tom Morello started his set off by saying, “First of all I’d like to say, it’s an insult and a crime that the Republican Convention would start on Labor Day of all days. With their long history of union busting and support of U.S.-based corporations that use sweatshops at home and abroad, I think it’s a crime, and they should be ashamed of themselves. Which is why I’m here, to help you take back Labor Day.” Later he brought out members of the group Iraq Veterans Against the War and played the classic Woody Guthrie song, “This Land is Your Land,” with about 15 members of that group standing and singing behind him.
The last half of the show was dedicated to hip hop, which I believe has been the most overtly political genre of music as of late. Hip hop artists have attacked some of the most important issues of the day; The Roots latest album, Rising Down, Brother Ali’s “Uncle Sam Goddamn,” and Mos Def’s “Dollar Day” are just a few examples of artists becoming—with the mainstream press’ refusal to do so—the Fourth Estate and speaking truth to power. Unfortunately on this day, on this stage there was little to none of this for the people in attendance.
After Steve Earle came Twin Cities hip-hop hero, Slug, with DJ/producer Ant, who together make up Atmosphere. Slug came out wearing an Obama ’08 t-shirt and the set that Atmosphere put together was obviously very intentional—meant to focus on the “working man” or the downtrodden that they often sing about. The song “Guarantees” is a well-drawn portrait of what it means to be working poor in this country and all the hardships that come with that title. Still, the message was not obvious enough and was made all the more disappointing by the fact that Slug said little to address the labor unions or the RNC between songs (Slug’s only real comment about the day was a question: “Do you think you can make enough noise to make them hear us across the river?”). It can be noble for an artist to let his work speak for him, and in this regard, Atmosphere did their duty on Labor Day. But by the time they came on many in the crowd had been “celebrating” Labor Day for a few hours and their minds may not have been working on the level needed to pick up on the underlying message; something a little more obvious—something along the lines of Morello’s, “I got a feeling this land was not made for war criminals in the White House” would have been more effective in reaching the crowd. This is more disheartening when one takes into account that year after year Atmosphere continues to add younger and younger fans to its audience, and Slug has an uncanny ability to take on something of an idol role to the younger members of his fan base, and therefore wields an immense ability to influence them. Any words spoken that day would have resonated hugely for everyone, but especially in the ears of those young people, many of whom may be voting for the first time this November. Or, as we have seen time and again with young people, may not be voting this fall.
When Mos Def came out I expected the show to get back on track politically. This is a man who was arrested two years ago for playing his song, then titled “Katrina Clap,” on a flatbed truck outside of Radio City Music Hall in an attempt to raise awareness about the poor conditions still affecting the people of the Gulf Coast as a result of hurricane Katrina. Surely, with the Republicans rushing to that area of the nation for photo-ops as hurricane Gustav descended, Mighty Mos would have something to say about the matter. But no. Instead, Mos Def was even less straight forward than Atmosphere, only telling a brief proverb of sorts about the role of the underdog throughout history. And, as far as I could tell, unlike Atmosphere’s set, Mos Def’s wasn’t particularly political.
By the time The Pharcyde came out, with the unbelievably self-conscious move of playing their videos behind them on the big screen while they preformed (“Hey, remember us? If not, remember these videos? That’s us, we swear.) and one member’s self-centered diatribe about rumors of his crack addiction, I was done. And I like The Pharcyde! Still, the only reason I was still in the crowd was in hopes that Bragg, Earle, and Morello might come back on stage for an encore.
I left Harriet Island that day disappointed by a missed opportunity. All the old hippies who came out for Bragg and Earle, and who maybe stuck around for Morello, were gone or trickling out as the second half of the concert played. Who was left were the young people, the ones who have never gotten involved in the political process. The ones who did not already go through this in the Sixties. The older audience members had seen the effect music can have on a political landscape. The people who need to stand up and take hold of politics now were all standing there until the end. And, unfortunately, these artists missed an opportunity to actually speak to them, to motivate them. It was just another hip hop concert—one that, on that basis alone, would have been very good, but given the timing and the setting, was anything but.