Singing ‘bout revolution

Rise Up and Sing!: Power, Protest and Activism in Music
by Andrea Warner (illustrated by Louise Reimer)

Vancouver: Greystone Kids, 2023
$26.95 / 9781771648981

Reviewed by Ron Verzuh

*

Rise Up and Sing! might be meant for a young audience, but older readers will get a lively musical and political education from Vancouver’s Andrea Warner’s exhaustive and colourfully illustrated study of protest music from Beyoncé to Bob Dylan with a lot of hip-hop, rap, and gospel in between. 

I confess that I have not been able to fully fathom the appeal of hip-hop and rap as popular musical genres and yet the world is celebrating hip-hop’s fiftieth anniversary and those word artists are winning big at the Grammys and the Junos. Whether I like it or not, it is a big deal and Warner tells us why. 

The book is designed as a popular textbook. Each chapter discusses a protest movement, starting with climate/environment justice and moving through indigenous rights, civil rights, disability rights, pride rights, gender equality, peace, and human rights. 

In “Indigenous Existence and Resistance,” for example, readers are informed about the fight for decolonization; Orange Shirt Day, honouring the children subjected to the horrors of residential schools; and the music of Inuit people, including throat-singing sensation Tanya Tagak.

Hall of Fame sections in each chapter introduce artists I didn’t know as well as household names like Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Elton John, and Aretha Franklin. The chapters also contain a Top 10 Playlist.

Author Andrea Warner (photo: Carlos Hernandez Fisher)

Buffy Sainte-Marie is rightly included, though a recent CBC Fifth Estate exposé questions her indigenous roots. Warner (who published a biography of Sainte-Marie and co-wrote and associate produced a 2022 documentary about her) did not know about the claim, since it came after the book appeared. Had she known, I wonder if she would have dismissed it as I have done in the interest of recognizing Buffy’s commendable human rights work? 

Swedish environmental wunderkind Greta Thunberg opens another chapter, “Earth Revolution,” which also features a lineup of great songs by Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bonnie Raitt, and Bjork. All of them have released songs that demand an end to world pollution. In the regular section titled Dance Break, we learn about Billie Eilish’s “climate action anthem” titled “All the Good Girls Go to Hell.”

In “Fight the Power” a section titled Listen Up discusses Myke Towers (a Puerto Rican rapper whose song “Michael X,” salutes Malcolm X) and the Linda Lindas (an all-female punk rock band whose “Racist, Sexist Boy” is a call to all ages to “continue being fearless in their own power”). 

One of Louise Reimer’s vivid illustrations

In “Nothing About Us Without Us,” blind musician Ray Charles and Beach Boy Brian Wilson make Warner’s Hall of Fame as champions of disabled rights and challengers of ableism, or discrimination against people with disabilities. Dance Break in this chapter highlights Lizzo’s “Good as Hell,” a song that expresses her views about “anti-fat bias and body-shaming.”

 “I Was Born This Way” takes us through the music of 2SLGBTQIA+ rights, with short profiles of Elton John, k.d. lang, Indigo Girls and Hall of Famer Lady Gaga. Another section, In the Spotlight, provides a short account of Tegan and Sara, lesbian twins from Calgary whose “queer love songs” on breakthrough 2012 album Heartthrob sent them to the top of the charts. 

Warner cites relevant books and studies throughout, such as Sasha Geffen’s 2020 book, Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary. In it, Geffen writes, “Trans people are as ancient as music. We have always been here, singing from the shadows, glittering up the dark.” 

For young readers “Give Peace a Chance” introduces the famous Bed-Ins for Peace staged by John Lennon and Yoko Ono and their memorable anti-war anthem “Give Peace a Chance.” Bob Dylan finds his place among other “Peace and Anti-War” singer-songwriters. Other Hall of Famers are Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, Bob Marley, and Phil Ochs. 

“Stand By Me” rounds out the repertoire of musical protest with comments on gospel singer Mavis Staples’ “Pulling the Pin” and reminders of other great human rights troubadours like Tracy Chapman, Peter Seeger, and Woody Guthrie. The Top 10 Playlist lists rocker Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A” and “Joe Hill,” by British folkie Billy Bragg.

Historical photographs complement Music Notes, Bonus Tracks, and Top Ten Playlist+

At the end of each chapter, readers are invited to review Music Notes, with suggestions about what to ask about your role in the vital political issues that the artists cover in their music. In the human rights chapter, for example, Rihanna tells us we have an opportunity to help someone else, which leads to, “What is the one thing you could do to make the world a more equitable and just place?” 

Louise Reimer’s colourful illustrations on most pages are reminders of familiar protest buttons, signs and banners as well as portraits of many of the artists. Historic photographs go with the Music Notes. One is of Eleanor Roosevelt holding a Declaration of Human Rights poster. Another is of the launch of the good ship Greenpeace in 1971.

Rise Up packs a gut punch about what’s wrong with our world and how song presents us with some welcome solutions to our problems. As John and Yoko once sang, “War Is Over! If You Want It.” 

The only thing that isn’t included here is the music itself. At times, I wanted to slide a CD into place and listen along as Warner took us on this journey of awareness. For that purpose, I turned to an excellent website where Kris Klaasen explores new music and provides Spotify or YouTube playlists. He has created a chapter-by-chapter playlist at Kurated No. 197.

Enjoy this well-organized and sometimes provocative musical tour of multiple generations of known and not-so-known popular music from many genres. Thankfully, it nudged me out of my complacency about hip-hip and sent me in search of American music critic Robert Christgau’s column on how to listen to it.

*

Ron Verzuh is a writer, historian, and short documentary filmmaker. He’s reviewed books by Barry Gough, Elaine Ávila, Ken McGoogan, Mostafa Henaway, Kennedy Stewart, Henry Tsang, and Robert Lower for The British Columbia Review, and he contributed an essay on trade unionist Harvey Murphy.

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The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (nonfiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie


Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

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