The stadiums are empty. The clubs are closed. The Pepsi Center has turned into a COVID-19 testing facility. And for more than a week, thousands of people have filled the streets of downtown Denver, where brass bands are blasting their music, drummers are rat-a-tat-tatting, chants are erupting, and all the energy of the best concerts is being funneled into a mass demonstration against police violence.
But a troubling question looms: If concerts and cultural events were happening, would so many people still be in the streets protesting police violence? Or would they be in the arenas, clubs and theaters, paying artists to siphon off their rage, to give them catharsis, to create subcultures that feel like sites of resistance but are actually just expensive echo chambers in which capitalists make a profit off of radical sentiments?
Denver has seen massive and sustained protests against the murder of George Floyd for over a week, as people rage against the racist violence of the criminal justice system. No doubt this is a just rage, an earnest expression of solidarity from one city with a record of brutal law enforcement actions to another. These demonstrations are a culmination of years, decades and centuries of kidnapping, beating and murder that the white leadership of the United States has all too often made official policy, from slavery to the prison industrial complex to racist policing.
But is all this protest also the product of a population that’s been bored at the end of a mass shutdown, cooped up and eager to break free from a pandemic?
Because here in Denver — where we’ve witnessed law enforcement killings of people like Jessie Hernandez, Michael Marshall, Marvin Booker and countless more, where the city has paid out millions in settlements with the families of the dead — the streets have rarely been this full for so long.
Where were the thousands we see today after those victims of killer cops died: Red Rocks? The Pepsi Center? Broncos Stadium? A multiplex?
It’s unlikely that these particular social circumstances, in which live entertainment is shut down nationally, will repeat themselves in our lifetime. We are witnessing what happens when a population can’t go out, when consumerism and entertainment don’t dominate our lives, when we aren’t wildly distracted from the brutal social and political conditions in which we live, when we can't cheer because an artist finds a new way to say fuck the police.
This is not to say that music and art can’t be a part of social movements. The Brothers of Brass, who are often found outside massive concerts and theater events, making their living playing to the crowds, have been an inspiring presence at these protests, leading marches. They were some of the dozens of musicians, from rockers to rappers, who gathered at the Denver Performing Arts Complex to demand an end to Mayor Michael Hancock's urban camping ban almost a year ago. The music of Kendrick Lamar has long been used as a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement: “We gon' be alright.” The chorus "Fuck Donald Trump" has rung out in the streets since that racist reality-TV real estate mogul was elected.
With music and dance parties erupting, brass bands leading demonstrations, and singing and chanting, we are seeing a different and compelling use for music — one that is not just catharsis, but a public expression of rage and political disgust, a tool for both keeping calm and drumming up fury, an instrument of loud critique and unity, of black liberation and solidarity.
Musicians can be a part of direct action. They can do more than just raise funds for the cause or spread a message. They can use their craft to intervene in the streets, to disrupt public space, to inspire direct action and to bring joy, love and righteous anger to demonstrations where the police use the sounds of gunshots and sonic devices, screams and insults, proclamations about curfews and demands for dispersal to stifle political speech.
With the entertainment industry shut down, musicians — basically out of work and with nothing to lose — have a chance to explore new possibilities of creation and performance, more urgent reasons to play.
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