Artivism and Decolonization: A brief Theory, History and Practice of Cultural Production as Political Activism
We do not claim that our definitions of artivism are monopolistic. There are probably as many ways to define artivism as there are to define music, performance art, jazz, or growing your own food. We share our experiences after years of an activist-infused practice, such as performances at the U.S.- Mexican border outside of migrant detention centers, at an environmental conference in Northern Iraq, and at the founding of an Ecosocialist International in Venezuela. We feel the Artivist must go beyond critiquing the moment in which they were born.
Afro Yaqui Music Collective is a loose knit ensemble of musician-activists—self-called “artivists”—based in the United States. This essay will discuss what being an artivist entails, as we see it, as well as the “how” and “why.” We do not claim that our definitions are monopolistic. There are probably as many ways to define artivism as there are to define music, performance art, jazz, or growing your own food. We share our experiences after years of an activist-infused practice, such as performances at the U.S.- Mexican border outside of migrant detention centers, at an environmental conference in Northern Iraq, and at the founding of an Ecosocialist International in Venezuela. In 2018 we sought to create a collaborative work: we composed and performed a jazz opera rooted in the defense of nature and Indigenous social movements in dialogue with women activists on the front lines of environmental struggle in Mexico, Turkey/Syria, and Tanzania.
We were certainly inspired by the recent dramatic downturns in global health and upticks in global fascism and unhinged capitalism. Confucius’s dictum—“May you live in interesting times”—seems to have been written with the Necrocene, the age of mass extinction, in mind. We live in a revolutionary moment with an emerging mass revolutionary movement, but one that is not immediately apparent to many of us. Indeed, global decolonization and de-patriarchalization remains as elusive as ever. The battle of Standing Rock reminded us that human rights violations against people of color and ecocide grow up together. Its mirror image flips across the equator, where Bolsonaro’s war shows us that a deforested and Indigenous-less Amazon would almost immediately spell a global climate tipping point, reversing the rainforest’s role as net-remover of carbon and accelerating the greenhouse gas effect exponentially. Globally, Indigenous territories caretake 22 percent of the world’s land surface, an area that contains 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. Amid threats of mass extinction, Indigenous communities from Standing Rock to the Yaqui nation to Bolivia are committed to continuing their centuries-long work against environmental destruction by vowing to battle gas companies—and succeeding—as well as loggers, governments, and cartels. We feel these communities are the key focal points to build buffer zones during climate chaos and, hopefully, lay the seeds for a post-capitalist future.
How can musicians and composers influence the historical moment which we have inherited? The late saxophonist-composer Fred Ho insisted in his essay “How Does Music Free Us?” that “music and music creators can play [important roles] in challenging—and even daring to overthrow and replace—capitalist-imperialist hegemony…[.]The onslaught of cultural and ecological degradation, and the exponentially growing subordination to imperialist aggression (whether it be military conquest or socio-economic, the double effect of McPentagon and McWorld) is the imminent danger to both human society and to the planet.” Ho grounded his creative practice explicitly in ecological terms, and drew direct analogies between repressive cultural norms and the “the advancing desert.” “Ecologically, soil erosion, increased land salinity, deforestation, monocrop horticulture and agriculture have led to a devastating desertification. So, too, has cultural desertification been a product of the homogeneity of commercial music.” Ho did not see getting out of this matrix as a product of a composer or performer’s individual brilliance and innovation. Rather, he advocated for musical creators to connect to an ecological aesthetic rooted in the “build[ing of] movements of musical and political solidarity with the national liberation struggles of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Oceania.”
But how does one “be” an Artivist? Is the end objective to address social issues and challenge oppression from the microphone, the stage, or the notated score? We do not profess to have all the answers. But we feel the Artivist must go beyond critiquing the moment in which they were born. The great Italian communist Antonio Gramsci wrote, while in solitary confinement at the hands of Mussolini, that “to try to deal with the question just by describing what the two represent or express socially, that is, by summarizing more or less thoroughly the characteristics of a specific socio-historical moment, hardly touches at all upon the artistic problem.” Gramsci instead suggests our object is “the struggle to destroy and to overcome certain feelings and beliefs, certain attitudes towards life and the world.” (Antonio Gramsci, “Art and the Struggle for a New Civilization.”)
We agree with Gramsci and Ho in this sense. It is not enough to denounce current conditions with their cynical and overpowering nihilism that disregards the dignity of black, brown, and working people, perpetuates colonialism, and wages war on the conditions for life on Earth. Artivists should be strengthened by their mirror echoes across time, which resound like baleen whales singing under labyrinthine waters in our dystopian ocean built upon the extracted capital of billions of women, indigenous and migrant laborers, and Afro-descended enslaved workers. These artists responded to conditions that frighteningly parallel current ones. Arguments that planter-slaveowners made against reconstruction sound like right-wing politicians today arguing against all forms of redistributive justice. Zora Neale Hurston called Jim Crow a “social smallpox” (Husrton, “Crazy for this Democracy,’ in I Love Myself, 167) whose logic extended from the American south to the British colonies in India; and that smallpox has not withered. So we found as the vaccination, almost in suspended animation, ever returning, artivist heroes like Daniel Desdunes, the Afro-Creole jazz trumpet player who was arrested and probably worse for sitting on segregated train cars in 1892 to protest Louisiana’s new black codes. We hear the piano playing and signing of Mamie Desdunes, his half-sister, writing blues songs protesting the treatment of women of color and the violence meted out to sex workers. We find the great and greatly erased Mary Lou Williams playing at Cafe Society for a fundraiser for the Black communist New York City Council Member Benjamin Davis (Farah Jasmine Griffin, Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II). We hear Cal Massey’s Black Liberation Movement Suite, memorializing Huey P. Newton and Malcolm X, and playing the piece at a fundraiser for the Black Panther Party with a band that included McCoy Tyner and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Not only do we see the ever-present tide of artists fighting racism, oppression, and physical and artistic colonialism, but we see them self-consciously drawing from the wells of their pasts, deploying and redeploying the examples of their adopted ancestors. We find the 1960s Mexican-American-Chicano muralist movement drawing inspiration from the great Mexican muralists of the 1920s and 1930s: Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siquieros. Los tres grandes (the three greats) were a collective archival memory in which 1960s Chicano muralists such as Antonio Bernal, Wayne Alaniz-Healy, and David Rivas Botello found a model. These artistic political activists found life in its unconditional support for the struggles of the poorest, most exploited members of their communities. Artivists see these waves of resistance, and we recognize, as Amiri Baraka did in “the changing same,” that the more things change, the more they change the same (change in the same way). Augusto César Sandino, the great Nicaraguan revolutionary who defended his country against the U.S. Marine invasion in the 1930s, claimed that revolutionaries were reincarnated. They certainly are, and the works of artivists are important ways that the social memory and values of the oppressed continue to resonate across time and disturb the Imperial occupation of dignity. “Artists are here to disturb the peace. They have to disturb the peace. Otherwise, chaos,” explained James Baldwin. If we don’t want chaos, we must create disturbance!
Thus we encounter the words of Burmese multimedia artist Chaw Ei Thein with a special intensity:
Artists work as historians.
They are telling about the time they are living.
They were telling about the time they were living.
They will tell about the time they will live.
As Thein shows us, historical summoning is not the entirety of artivism. But it is also central to the work. It is pointing to a new world where we will live, where we will struggle, sacrifice our comfort, our careers, and maybe more, if need be. We do not strive to be archivists of popular culture and anti-imperialist memory or ethnomusicologists of protest music. Artivism is about creating a new culture rooted in the struggles against patriarchal capitalism from time-immemorial. It is where the interconnection between the rejection of the oppressors’ mores meets with the quest to construct a new being and a new way of being. “The most radical art is not protest art but works that take us to another place, envision a different way of seeing, perhaps a different way of feeling.” (Robin Kelly, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, 11.) Indeed, to pivot back to Gramsci, it is not even a new art we are fighting for. It is a whole culture:
It seems evident that, to be precise, one should speak of a struggle for a ‘new culture’ and not for a ‘new art’ (in the immediate sense)…To fight for a new art would mean to fight to create new individual artists, which is absurd, since artists cannot be created artificially. One must speak of a struggle for a new culture, that is, for a new moral life that cannot but be intimately connected to a new intuition of life, until it becomes a new way of feeling and seeing reality and, therefore, a world intimately ingrained in ‘possible artists’ and ‘possible works of art’. (p. 395)
How can one create a new culture without being connected to activists living in the world, fighting, sometimes sacrificing privilege, other times their lives, to build that world? For these reasons Afro Yaqui Music Collective is a collective not just in the sense of its musicians but also of its responsibility to the movement. Revolutionaries and activists make up a part of the ensemble, and make decisions, as much as the artists. The transition from an artist to an artivist happens when we encounter activists on an equal playing field, recognize we share objectives, and offer our labor as a means to achieving those goals. As cultural workers, we have unique abilities to generate audiences, congregate community, and transmit values and revolutionary hope through aesthetics and performance. Now is the time to activate that intentionality and make creative and challenging decisions that force us to grow, as artists, as artivists, as human beings.
The authors would like to thank Dr. Wilson Valentín-Escobar for his legacy as a radical educator who has deeply impacted our lives, and for sharing crucial information to help create this piece.