Folk is the New Punk: An Interview with Riot Folk

July 17, 2007 at 12:23 pm (Interviews) (, , , , , )

Evan Greer Riot Folk

Folk is the new Punk: An Interview with members of the Riot-Folk collective

I first heard Ryan Harvey and Evan Greer in April 2006, in a crowded living room in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was there for the Counter Recruitment Conference organized by the Pittsburgh Organizing Group. My friend had been telling me about Riot-Folk for months, but I just never got around to checking them out. But after seeing them in the living room, I went immediately to their website and started downloading all the music they had posted there. I was in love.

Riot-Folk is a collective of nine radical musicians who live all around the United States. They each have their own identities and sounds and styles, but they often play or tour together and sometimes record songs together. More than that, they are forging a new way of making music, combining anti-capitalist and ant-authoritarian politics with art and culture. By working together to promote their music, book tours, share contacts, and share equipment, they are setting an example of innovation and creativity, putting their politics into their actions. From their website: “We are an anti-profit mutual-aid collective of radical artists and musicians. We make music to provoke, educate, heal and inspire.”

Mainly singer-songwriters, their styles vary dramatically. Evan Greer plays passionate, anthem-y songs for youth subculture, like “Ya Basta,” “Punks with Clean Kitchens,” and my favorite, “I Want Something.” Ethan Miller and Kate Boverman play more produced, traditional style folk songs. Ryan Harvey plays overtly political, amazingly insightful songs from “It’s Not Just Bush (It’s The System)” to “Open Song to the US Occupying Forces,” combined with narratives that remind us of previous struggles, such as strikes or flashpoints like the Kent State shootings.

On the whole, I find the music produced by Riot-Folk smart, political, and intensely passionate and moving. I’m even more inspired by their youth and their dedication, their work bringing culture to politics and contributing directly, not just through music, to the struggle for social justice.

I interviewed Mark Gunnery, Evan Greer, Ryan Harvey, and Adhamh Roland over email last year, and intended this to be printed in Clamor – which didn’t happen. When I ran into both Evan and Ryan at the recent U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta, I was reminded about the interview and how much I want to help them get the word out about their work. Please visit their website, Riotfolk.org, where you can download most (if not all) of their music for free.

I’m really interested in how your group is structured – I’d like to know if there was another group or groups that you used to model yourselves after, or that helped you come up with your structure? I’m talking about income and resource sharing, joint promotions, being affiliated and doing similar projects but not all working on the exact same project, etc.

Evan: It’s somewhat difficult to talk about “how we came up with our structure,” simply because our structure is constantly evolving. The Riot-Folk! that was talked about during the initial conference call that formed the group is very different from the Riot-Folk! that exists today, which is probably very different from the group that will exist next year.

To me, the way that Riot-Folk! works isn’t so much influenced by another group but by an ideology of solidarity. The corporate music industry (and increasingly the DIY — Do It Yourself — music scene has been infiltrated by this manner of thought) would like us to believe that musicians should be competing with each other. Riot-Folk has a somewhat syndicalist analysis of this; I see my fellow musicians as my fellow workers, and I see that what is good for one radical musician is good for radical music in general, and good for the movement that we are trying to build.

I firmly believe that building such structures that are different, not based on profit, etc, are essential to social change. Can you talk about this being an intentional decision for your group and how you think this fits into a larger philosophy that’s not just about putting out records?

Adhamh: Totally! If we are working within the context of a profit-driven system then we are bound by it—constricted by what it can offer us and what we offer it. We do survive on donations, but we also survive on principles of mutual aid which means that we can give and receive outside of a monetary-based structure.

I think a lot of us sing about this directly in our music and it makes sense to be creating supportive collectives founded on these ideals. Being anti-capitalist, to me, means making intentional decisions about how we live and interact and Riot-Folk is just one way that this can manifest.

Evan: What makes Riot-Folk different is that we try to embody our ideology not just in our songs, but in the ways that we distribute them. An anti-capitalist song only means so much when it’s being put out by a capitalist record label (or even a for-profit, but allegedly anti-capitalist record label, or perhaps even a record label at all…) The choices we make in how we organize ourselves as musicians are perhaps the most important aspects of the collective. Sure, people listen because they like the music, but they also listen because they respect the choices we have made as a collective, and see revolutionary potential in this model of organizing.

It would be fairly odd if an artist with our values chose to put out their music on a for-profit, hierarchically run, label. Of course, many radical artists do make this choice because they see no other options available to them.

RYAN: Creating “dual-culture” is what we are doing, with many others. Building or participating in cultures that can and wish to exist without capitalism or any other greed-driven system.

Mark Gunnery Riot Folk

Do you see Riot-Folk growing and adding more members? How would that change the group?

Evan: Since all collective decisions are made by consensus, I definitely don’t see Riot-Folk growing all that much. It’s hard enough as it is to get everyone together for a conference call!

My main hope with Riot-Folk is not that we will become the biggest and the best music collective on the scene, but that we will inspire other artists to form their own collectives, and to realize that they can distribute their music on a mass scale without relying on for-profit entities and corporations. The more collectives that form, and the more that those collectives interact with each other through solidarity and mutual aid, the more powerful our collective voices will be, and the more support we will be able to provide for the global justice movement that we are a part of. The possibilities that arise with a network of musician’s collectives working together are endless. If twenty or thirty radical musicians were to get together, we could easily purchase our own eco-friendly CD-pressing equipment, and not have to rely on companies to release our albums. We could easily open a sliding-scale-based radical recording studio, where political musicians could make high-quality recordings for whatever they can afford. We need to get older and radical younger musicians from all genres working together to support each other financially and get our message out there to as many people as possible.

I would love for you to talk about the importance of culture (music and art and things) in activism and change… ? Like, why is music important to our movements? Why is it important to make space for art at gatherings and demos? How do you see your role in change, as musicians and artists?

Adhamh: We can make art out of struggle, we can make art for struggle, and we can make art as part of a culture of resistance. Music can be a way to heal from the fucked-up-ed-ness of the world and it can be a way to create something outside of that fucked-up-ed-ness. Music has been a part of resistance for a lot of people throughout herstory and it is also a way for us to carry these (and other) stories on.

A lot of what I have been thinking about lately is how art can break us away from the mundane contexts created by a profit-driven system. Part of why Riot-Folk, and art in general, is so valuable to me is because it allows us to exist and communicate with folks on this very real, organic level.

Adhamh Riot Folk

Mark: Music is totally important to social change, and sometimes I think that the powers that be recognize that more than the people do. Look at how the government hounds people like Fela Kuti or Phil Ochs. They recognize how hegemony works. We’re all products of our cultures, and since so much of the mainstream culture is sexist, racist, homophobic, heteronormative, and eurocentric, radical people who are able to create art have a responsibility to combat that hegemony. Common has a line that says something like anyone can show you how it is, but I’m gonna show you how it is and how it could be. So in my songs, I reflect on the shitty times we’re living in, on the government, on the idea that people can dominate each other or other species or the land or the water. But I also try to show the world I want to live in, and do live in. It’s not all shitty.

Another thing about music is it gets into your head in a way that theory doesn’t.

RYAN: I think lyrical art, poetry, and music have the ability to get ideas out to folk who would never hear them in a conversation. Art opens the heart up a bit, and opens the mind. If you have something to say and you make it rhyme and play some music with it, it becomes bigger than just the idea, so maybe someone’ll dig the beat and then take the message a little more seriously. I write history songs for instance. I decided recently I want to be a history teacher one day, and I told a friend about it. He said “you are a history teacher”… so now I’m a history teacher in song.

It’s important to have art-culture in times like these, it builds collective identity with large numbers of people and allows us to capture our own experiences, histories, and stories together by ourselves. So in the future someone can hear a song like Jim Page’s “Didn’t We,” about the Seattle WTO shut-down, and learn from it the way we learn now from Woody Guthrie’s “Ludlow Massacre.”

At protests and such, no one wants to listen to speakers for a three hours. That’s how ANSWER likes it, it can be so authoritarian. Sometimes there’s an Iraq vet or something talking and everyone should listen because we have to hear that shit. But we don’t need to hear theorists or movie stars up there talking about why they personally came today or whatever. Music and art fits in there. Keep people’s energy up. Empower people. You go to a demo and there’s live hip hop, that’s probably a really good event. People are probably gonna move around a bit, get inspired and energized. Same with folk of course, though the solo-person with a guitar thing has obviously been over-done at protests.

We have a lot of roles as musicians in our position. Riot-Folk started a year and a half ago, and things happened pretty quick. We get like 5,000 or more visits a month on our website sometimes, and lots of downloads. We’ve gone through thousands of CDs as a group. So we have a lot of power in our hands… which can be good or bad. If we recognize that power and see that it’s there because we are trusted with it to use it the way we’ve been using it, then it’s fine. It’s a power derived from people’s support for us and invitations to perform at events and in their towns… But it’s easy to abuse that. We have an obligation to all of those people, as comrades or friends or cultural-spokespeople for a lot of movements, to not seize any power and become stars. It’s wild when you start touring how people treat you sometimes, and how you can act, it really brings out media-learned roles in people and yourself.

On top of that, we have a lot of ability to vocalize ideas and stories, and we don’t make that shit up ourselves. We gather it all up from our friends, things that happen to many people besides ourselves, etc. So we have a responsibility to use those things to benefit everyone involved, to build movements, to empower people, to teach, to inspire, to lift folks out of sadness or depression brought on by their activism… Because that’s who we are and that’s who we need to keep being… the “music-world” is a small place and people who leave their communities to exist in that world lose touch real fast.

Evan: I often talk about the struggle that we’re involved in as a “culture war.” Clearly, there are examples of how it is a physical war as well, and the anti-capitalist movement has been seen fighting on that front in recent years. In the end, though, no matter how many windows you smash or how often you ride your bike instead of driving, large-scale change will only come by combating the culture that capitalism creates. The most effective way to do this is through community organizing, but music and art also play a role.

We look around us and see a culture of fear—where individuals on the subway won’t make eye-contact with each other, a culture of waste—where even radical musicians cover their CDs in petroleum-based shrink-wrap, a culture of patriarchy—where men like myself are unaware of our power and privilege within an economic system that favors domination, a culture of isolation—where we do not know our neighbors, and thousands of white people in New Orleans left their second and third cars locked in their driveways as they fled the city, leaving others to drown for lack of a way out. Our goal in the culture-war is to replace that culture with one that we create: a culture of solidarity, mutual-aid, honesty, and compassion.

Art has always been a huge part of social movements, and it both reflects and drives those movements. Revolutionary art cannot exist without revolution, and vice versa. Where I see strength in Riot-Folk is in our diversity of musical tactics. Ryan writes hard-hitting in-your-face songs that give you the facts about what you need to know. Someone who knows nothing about the Free Trade Area of the Americas can pick up one of his albums and learn something. One element of the culture-war is education. I tend to write more personal songs about the daily struggles of individuals dealing with the negative effects of a capitalist society: drug-addiction, poverty, loneliness, depression. These songs don’t necessarily educate people about the state of the world, but they remind people that they are not alone, and help people involved in the struggle get through their day. Another element of the culture-war is building connections.

I can remember many times from my own life where I have felt isolated, and as if I were the only person around who really cared about the earth and what was happening to it. Being able to listen to radical music, and to know that—at least the person who was singing that song cared about the same things that I did—got me through a lot of rough periods of my life. The single most effective tactic that Power uses is to make us feel alone, and perhaps the most important blow that we can strike against it is to prove to each other that we are not. The simple act of singing with other people who care about the same things that you do is one of the most powerful steps we can take towards liberation.

I want you to talk about folk-music, and how popular or not popular it is, and why you all have chosen it as your vehicle to talk politics and change. A lot of folks I know who are in their 20’s and 30’s were radicalized by punk or hip hop, and look at folk and acoustic as being not for them. What do you think about that? Who do you want to hear your music?

Evan: I often find myself caught between two worlds. Since my music is acoustic, I sometimes find myself in the “folk” world, playing to folks three times my age. (Personally I see folk as any music that reflects people’s struggles, but here I use it in the music-genre sense). However, I just as often (if not more often) find myself opening up for a bunch of punk bands and playing to 15-17 year old kids. A lot of young kids tell me that Riot-Folk! is the first acoustic music they ever listened to. Something about it is really catching on.

There’s a really strong growing acoustic movement. It makes a lot of sense, really. As capitalism attacks public space and it becomes more and more difficult to maintain a DIY show-space, the “punk” show has moved into the basement and the living room. What’s more DIY than a bunch of kids sitting around with acoustic guitars singing their hearts out?

While I see a lot of diversity in the ages of folks who come out to Riot-Folk shows, there is a clear lack of racial diversity. I think this has plenty of roots, the first and foremost being the overwhelmingly racist society that we live in, and the way that that culture has seeped into our “radical scene.” A lot of us at Riot-Folk have been talking lately about what it means that we play “folk music” and who that limits our audience to. I think all of us are really excited about working with radical musicians from other genres, getting involved in other struggles and trying to learn from them.

Mark: Folk music is easy music to make. It just requires a voice and an instrument and a stolen melody. It’s conversational, like hip hop is, so it’s an effective way to get a point across—your message won’t be lost in a sea of distortion or harmonious beauty. It fits into the tradition of rabble rousing from soapboxes—one lone nut screaming about change. But that’s where Riot-Folk is different, in that we are 8 nuts.

RYAN: Folk music is the new punk! I was a bass player sitting around trying find a drummer when I heard Phil Ochs. So then I was a folk singer, I think the next day. I borrowed a guitar from a friend. A lot of people from the punk crowd, at least the political punk crowd, are getting into folk music, and writing it. Because the anarchist-punk bands we’re always about the message, and the anger. We’ve crafted a form of folk music, and an organizational method, that has anger, energy, ideas, and emotions.

I think we, and I mean the collective “we” of radical folk singers world-wide, are starting to re-shape folk music, perhaps reclaim it, from where it got to. In the last few decades, and even the ‘60s, had a lot of mainstream folk get further and further from the communities.

Ryan Harvey Riot Folk

Photos from Riotfolk.org

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3 Comments

  1. xRobinxBanksx said,

    Folk has been the new punk since Patrik Fitzgerald in ’76 and will continue to be til after the fall of civilization!

  2. cfear said,

    http://www.wishingwellcollective.org

    ^This is another radical collective, but it’s not limited to folk/folk-punk. Robin, you’re a part of WWC, right? Bombs and Beating Hearts? We’ve never met, but I recognize the name.

  3. Folk is the New Punk: An Interview with Riot Folk - Ryan Harvey said,

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