What is the new protest music? On May Day in Union Square, a vague idea takes shape

Das Racist perform at May Day (David Meir Grossman)
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For around thirty seconds yesterday around 4:30 p.m., Tom Morello’s Guitarmy seemed like a terrific idea.

An idea born out of Occupy Wall Street’s Music Working Group, the Guitarmy had promised thousands of musicians marching to Union Square and joining Morello on stage for a rousing concert. There ended up only being about 20 or so guitarists on stage, but that seemed like it could be more than enough.

Wearing his usual baseball cap, Morello, founding member of Rage Against The Machine, Audioslave, and most recently his solo project the Nightwatchman and the Street Sweeper Social Club, radiated excitement as he told the story that inspired his first song: In Korea, embattled guitar-making union activists donated money they themselves desperately needed to earthquake victims in Haiti. The title of the song was “World Wide Rebel Songs.” 

But when Morello tried to quickly teach the crowd at Union Square the chorus, it didn’t go too well. So people began trying to sing a song they didn’t know the words to, but then quickly fell back on Morello’s suggestion that they just sing “na na na” instead.

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It became clear that the Guitarmy couldn’t do much besides stand around, since the stage was small and there was only one microphone to share, and Morello had a pretty good claim on it. That didn’t dampen the energy: people really liked doing the “na na na”s; Morello yelled out “motherfucker!” Then he broke a string, and caustically turned down a volunteer’s offer to fix it, explaining that he only had three more minutes left on stage. This was news to everyone in the crowd. 

The idea of an interactive concert on May Day had a wide-reaching appeal. Chuck Park, a 49-year-old union activist, came in all the way from Cleveland to play— “[the Guitarmy is] where I fit in,” he said. The chance to play with Morello “didn’t hurt,” 19-year-old Carlos Cabeza said, in making the decision to make May Day the first protest he'd ever attended. Yet the confusion that reigned during Morello’s time onstage was indicative of the tenor of this Occupy concert—a somewhat scattershot, not-quite-organized attempt to celebrate solidarity, and in doing so to please everybody.

Bobby Sanabria’s Latin jazz band took the stage next, following a few union-activist speakers. Sanabria, who was inducted into the Bronx Walk of Fame in 2006, was the one act in the lineup that seemed to come from the more multicultural milieu of the unions as opposed to the young, hip, largely white protesters, and tried to use his time to reach across the aisle. 

“If you like America’s greatest tradition, jazz, then make some noise!” he yelled, to a smattering of applause. The younger crowd, eager to represent for Occupy, did their best to try to appreciate the music, but Sanabria didn’t do himself any favors when he announced to the crowd his big goal for the day: getting them to email the Grammys to reinstate thirty-one removed categories, a demand met with blank stares. People seemed to be itching to move on to more performers, and within five minutes activist speakers were at it again, speaking over top of the strange-sounding D.J. squeaks and scratches of Das Racist’s sound check. 

Queens/Brooklyn rap group Das Racist (Himanshu “Heems” Suri, Victor “Kool A.D.” Vasquez and Ashok “Dapwell” Kondabolu) have always toyed with politics in their post-modern, hyper-referential lyrics, hinting that they knew more then they let on. Recently, they’ve let their politics show more openly, with Heems releasing “New York City Cops," ostensibly as part of a Strokes covers album but actually a completely new song bluntly listing instances of on-the-record and alleged police brutality ("In '73, there were riots in Queens (Jamaica)/ When they merked Clifford Glover, he wasn’t even a teen (a child!)"). The track would have dovetailed perfectly with the social justice concerns (and stop-and-frisk antipathy) of protesters. 

Elijah McCoy, 17, picking from an assortment of Occupy-themed bandanas being handed out with his friends, got an excited look in his eye when I mentioned the song to him. He had just finished a school project on the Free Tibet movement, and was excited at the chance to get politically involved at his age. Did he think the group would play the song, especially with the heavy police presence? “Definitely.”

They didn’t. Their two-song set was made up of relaxed versions of techo-thriller “Michael Jackson” and mixtape favorite “Rainbow in the Dark.” The fact that Heems actually used to work in finance never came up, and the group seemed, as is their wont, to be just having a good time. It was a comfort-zone set awkwardly thrust into a day of political action. Not to say that the songs weren’t very good—the trio always finds something new to bring out live, and seeing hypeman Dap barking his exhortations brought the show to life. The concert’s unannounced and unnamed handlers cut out the microphones, but Kool A.D. (who recently released his own 51 mixtape, the best thing the trio’s put out all year) finished “Rainbow” with his own shouting amplification, feeding off the crowd’s energy. Non-political music can be weighty (or subtly political tunes, "If I Had a Hammer" being just one example), but Das Racist wasn’t given quite enough time for anyone to figure out how to mobilize to something like "Michael Jackson." 

Dan Deacon, in his trademark giant eyeglasses and wearing a ball cap, cardigan sweater, and a T-shirt with a Canada maple leaf on it, rushed onstage quickly afterwards, with a clear idea of how he was going to mobilize the crowd—physical interaction. Full of energy, Deacon asked the crowd politely to get on their knees and form a circle, no easy task on crowded cement. Then he had a friend, introduced as "Greg," lead everyone in some collective dance moves. 

"Trust me on this," Deacon said. "I know I don't look like the most trustworthy person but I'll try to change that." It didn't work perfectly, but once “Of the Mountains,” a standout on Deacon’s lush, electro-dance party album Bromst, kicked in (he wasn't so much playing live as warbling into the microphone over his album tracks), the crowd got more coordinated, the moves started to coalesce. He didn’t have the same success with his next gambit, a proposed dance-off, but spirits were high enough that no one seemed to mind, and instead the circle of people ended up in a fierce but good-natured dance scrum, a few skateboards held aloft in celebration. 

Up next came a mostly older choir made up of union members, who performed a jazzy sing-along version of “Solidarity Forever,” catnip for a crowd looking for validation from older generations of activists. After that came the concert’s last and best act, Harlem rapper Immortal Technique.

There are plenty of reasons why the crowd seemed to finally find its energy during Technique’s three-song set. The hot sun was finally giving way to a cool evening, and he was proudly brandishing his politics and New York roots. He focused on songs from The Martyr, his 2011 mixtape. After Morello he seemed the most comfortable in a politically charged environment, and he didn’t have a sea of dead-weight guitarists surrounding him and holding him apart from the crowd. “Toast to the Dead,” a remembrance track with occasionally vicious turns and a J. Dilla beat, took on an electric feel, one that made the concept of solidarity click for a crowd that had been trying to live the word all day.  

A second wind took hold, and it was easy enough to wish that Immortal Technique had had more time to make his case. He had lit a fire under the crowd, the way maybe only rap can: a direct, focused intensity combined with a clarity of purpose. 

If the whole day had been a try-out, figuring out what sort of music works best for this still-new protest movement, he had to be the clear winner—no false populism, but enough interaction and back-and-forth with the crowd that as a performance it felt virtually leaderless; Technique controlled the mike but it felt like the whole crowd was involved. For at least a set, a vision of the new protest music was crystal clear. If only it had gone on a little longer.