Contrary to all the social-media squeals of joy from out-of-touch former punks proclaiming that thanks to this election, "punk will get good again," music has never stopped being a radical force. Art and activism have always been intertwined, and Denver's own Tim Holland, aka Sole — a musician, tape label head and activist himself — continues to keep the conversation about present-day political issues going with his music. Earlier this week, he released "Three Way Fight," a collaboration with musician and vocalist Decomposure. Westword spoke with Sole about the song and what it means to protest in 2016.
Westword: Obviously, the election is still on our minds, but I see "Three Way Fight" as one track of many in your career where you are talking about the world around you through your music. What was the impetus for the creation of "Three Way Fight," in particular?
Sole: Honestly, I don't know. I just felt like listening to the Young Jeezy song "Soul Survivor" because I love it. I was thinking about everything that had happened in the country and in Denver over the last few weeks. There's a line in the song where originally, Akon is saying, "If you lookin' for me/I'll be on the block disobeying the law." We had just shut the highway down the night before, and that line really spoke to me at that moment. I thought, "Well, I know what I'm going to be doing for the next four years."
My wife is pregnant, and I had made the decision to back off on organizing and focus on making money and being more domestic. But with the election of Trump, I just lost it. The song was an expression of the frustration I was feeling, but also the hope I was feeling about the prospects and new possibilities opening up now because everyone is under attack to one extent or another. That kind of pressure opens up possibilities for resistance and revolution.
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There's no way to say, "the bright side" or what "good" could possibly come from this political nightmare, but what I have seen is a mobilization of folks who were never engaged as activists or with activism before. With that mobilization comes a lot of people who don't know what to do or what they can do. Can you talk a little bit about what it means when you say "organizing"?
I've done a number of different things over the years, and I wouldn't really call it organizing — a lot of it is just protesting. In the context of Trump, organizing means creating communities of self-defense, creating networks of support and mutual aid. We're hearing stories about Latino neighborhoods being covered with fascist symbols; we need to be able to respond to those things. We need to have people ready to go to those places and tear the posters down and put up better posters — have a visible presence in those communities. We need reach out to the people who are being disaffected and not on some white-ally bullshit — real solidarity through building networks.
We need to be able to create a material force that can actually shut the city down. Being able to galvanize thousands of people so when ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] comes to remove families, they can't get off the highway. That's the only chance we have. In a city like Denver, where something like only seventeen percent of the people in the city voted for Donald Trump, that means the other 83 percent of people who voted are kind of close to being on the same page. It's everything from small-scale getting to know your neighbor and developing communities within your neighborhood to being able to meet our own needs so that when the state tries to take these things away, we will have them on our own.
One example I've put forth is health-care co-ops. We dumped millions and millions of dollars into the election campaigns. What if we instead funneled that money into building our own institutions that can't get voted out? There are numbers of lessons in history that give people examples — the Black Panther Party or the IWW [International Workers of the World]. There was no Free Breakfast for Children program before the Black Panthers started feeding people breakfast. Later the state came in and took on the program.
Here's the thing: Cops voted for Trump. They told us that the other night as we were protesting. They are more emboldened now to shoot black people than they ever were.
Speaking of cops: At the first big rally after Trump's election, protesters were thanking police officers (see Westword's Reader: Denver Police Were Great at the Protest — Some Gave High Fives!). I was floored. But I thought, "Well, here's an opportunity to talk to our fellow protesters about what the role of the police is in a post-election Trump administration." The police are supported now more than ever, and that is not what we need.
I know. Hugging cops. You know, I was supposed to speak at that rally, but the offer was rescinded after I spent two hours writing a speech. They opted for a meditation instead. That moment was frustrating — who gets to be a leader? The first person to make a Facebook event and it goes viral? Fuck that shit. That is bullshit.
I felt like when I got to that protest, there were thousands of people like me who didn't know what they could do in the streets, or what we should do. It's not about "who gets to lead," but, really — what are we doing?
What I would say to those people who were in the streets for the first time — and this is what I wanted to say at the rally — was, look: the cops aren't going to do shit tonight. Chief White knows counterinsurgency. He's not going to come out here cracking skulls, because he doesn't want to radicalize 5,000 people. He wants you to pat yourself on the back, go home and feel good about this so you can tell your kids how 5,000 people did a faux Arab Spring in downtown Denver and then everyone just went back to clicking and liking.
That's why this song, "Three Way Fight," is about how we have the fascists on one side, but we have delusional liberal, Democrat-minded people on the other side. People with no understanding of history, people who will post an image of Rosa Parks on Facebook as an example of how to do it. But it's like, what do you mean? She broke the law. She resisted. Are you talking about the real Rosa Parks, or the whitewashed-version-of-history Rosa Parks? Because Rosa Parks committed to militant, nonviolent civil disobedience, and we're going to need that and a whole lot more for what is coming.
And Rosa Parks wasn't hugging police officers. I left that rally very frustrated, because I myself didn't know what I could or should do. I thought, I've been to a few protests, and if I don't know what to do, a lot of people don't. I can't speak for anyone else, but I felt there was an energy and fear in people there who wanted to do more. Like you said, anyone can make a Facebook event. The clicking and liking of those desiring to do more can become apathy quickly.
What do we do? We trust the voice in our gut that says, "This is fucking bullshit. This is a feel-good exercise." We have to ask, "What are people doing in other cities, and how has change historically been accomplished in the United States?" I don't think women's suffrage was accomplished by hugging cops. I know for a fact that we wouldn't have the eight-hour workday if the IWW hadn't done the work that they did. The people rallying with Martin Luther King Jr. — they were committed to nonviolent civil disobedience. But they could do it because there were all of these other people saying, "We're going to have armed self-defense; we're not going to sit around and get our asses kicked anymore." We need all of it. Next time folks are in the streets, they should find the crazy people and roll with them.
In general, what people should do is educate themselves about history, first and foremost. There are a number of great resources out there. We need to look at how nonviolence protects the state and how identity politics — while we need to understand these things — when you pull all the nuance out of real life and look these concepts of allyship and privilege, I mean, there is always someone who is less privileged than someone else. It can get really complicated. There are people in this city whose entire analysis is based around that, and while that stuff is important, we have to figure out how we go beyond that to defeat white supremacy and these systems of oppression.
On the Bandcamp page for "Three Way Fight," you say, "Fuck peace." I wonder if you could expound more on this idea — that peace or being peaceful is more of a way to, I don't know, suffocate activism in some sense?
You just said it. The whole notion of "peaceful protest" — when I criticize it, I'm not out there smashing up cop cars. But again, it's this liberal whitewashing of history, and language has just been gutted. This idea of "peaceful protest" — if we just get out there and get our voices heard, some magical thing is going to happen — that whitewashes history. Civil disobedience, marching, shutting down highways, sit-ins — I would argue that no resistance is peaceful. What is peaceful is to stay at home and watch Netflix. When you are posing no threat to power, they don't care. They're content with what you're doing.
That's why when we were marching last week, they told us, "This is your First Amendment right" — but there were 5,000 people in the streets. I listened to the cops say that. But later on in the week, when people took the streets, there were seventy of us and there and we had no First Amendment rights at all. We didn't do anything violent, and we didn't do anything that night that hadn't been done at the previous march, but as soon as we took the streets, the cops started kettling us and were arresting people. There were more cops than there were protesters that night. That gets to the root of it: The city goes after anarchists. The city was specifically targeting anarchists and anarchist organizers and radicals. They try to pick out who the leaders are and take those people off the streets, and [those people] end up getting trumped up with felonies and other false charges.
If I were the ACLU, I would ask: How come the right to assemble applied when thousands of liberals were out, but when they weren't out in the streets, there wasn't any freedom of speech? That's fucked up. Again, when we think about peaceful protest, to me, peaceful means passive. History has shown that nothing gets accomplished by being passive. We have a white supremacist going into office who has emboldened Nazis. I'm hearing about violence against gay people here in Denver already, and this is all happening because of our president-elect, and he's not even in office yet. If people think we can stand on the side of the road putting up peace signs and everything's going to be okay — if you want to talk about privilege, there's nothing more privileged than a bunch of white liberals deluding themselves into thinking that is okay because they don't have anything to lose.
It sucks to think we had to come this far — but there are definitely white folks just now facing the fact that this kind of oppression has been happening to their fellow humans for centuries and actually does affect them. Even if you think it doesn't affect you, it affects your neighbor, your co-worker, your family. Congrats, you've been awakened — but now what are you going to do?
It's all about communication. It certainly represents a failure of radical politics that we have not been able to effectively communicate with people. The term "radical" — it just means getting to the root. It doesn't mean the most macho, too-cool-for-school motherfucker. It means getting to the root of why things are the way they are and working from there. So when I say, "I hope a lot of folks get radicalized," I mean that I hope people are going through the educational process. Nobody just knows how change happens; not a lot of people know how real resistance movements happen. So hopefully, through this process, people will start to learn, because the stakes are really high. This is scary. I mean, Newt Gingrich wants to bring back the House Un-American Activities [Committee].
How do you connect with other artists and musicians who are on your same page when it comes to activism? This track sees you collaborating with Decomposure. How did that come about?
He saw me put a call out online that I needed some singing on the track. He sent me a track that was basically a letter to his libertarian brother, and I was like, man, we have to do this. Same thing with DJ Pain 1, who I've been touring with and doing a lot of work with. Again, he's just down. He comes from the same musical background — Public Enemy and getting radicalized through hip-hop. He recognizes the role that music can play, and together he and I have been making agitprop, as it were. I'm more inspired by the academics, writers and activists who I'm engaged in a conversation with because I get to ask people really difficult questions and get answers.
Speaking of collaborations, you released another video prior to election day: "Trap News: The Farce Awakens." It's a song with Brer Rabbit from Flobots and Alas from Savage Fam. Can you talk a little bit about that song and the companion video?
Brer Rabbit is a close comrade and beloved friend. The Stimulator on SubMediaTV approached me about doing an anarchist version of The Juice's Rap News. We decided to call it "Trap News" and cover the election. I thought, "Fuck, yeah — if I can throw on a wig and a pantsuit and be Hillary Clinton, that would be amazing." We brainstormed the project and thought about what other kinds of voices we would want to include, and, of course, Standing Rock, which is ongoing, was an important topic. The Stimulator had a connection to Alas from Savage Fam, a dope rapper on the ground at Standing Rock, and asked her to be on the track. I have a deep admiration for Alas and her work. Then I hit up Stephen [Brackett, Brer Rabbit] and asked him if he wanted to play Obama, and he was down.
What made Brer Rabbit's part so powerful to me was that he himself was mentored by Vince Harding, who was one of the speechwriters for Martin Luther King Jr. When he attacks Obama on his legacy along the lines of MLK, it's powerful. It's coming from this place of, like, how dare you.
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What do you see as the role of artists and musicians in this conversation?
I'm a big fan of the Situationists, and one of my favorite slogans from them is "Go beyond art." I think it is critically important that artists engage in social struggles. I don't know what that means — it could mean putting together a compilation that actually raises funds for things. It could mean doing things that materially support social movements or getting involved in the streets. Or, just making better art.
If artists are worried about these issues, they need to educate themselves and the real context of all this. Donald Trump didn't invent all this shit. Artists have to find a way that engages people. Art really does play a huge role in raising awareness and making people see things in new ways.
Art alone is not enough, but it's a great start.
Download Sole's "Threeway Fight" featuring Decompsure for free via Bandcamp and check out the artist's politically-minded Solecast podcast series featuring conversations with local and international activists, philosophers, musicians, social permaculturists and more.