Connecting passions with music

Rise up and Sing! Power, Protest and Activism in Music
by Andrea Warner with illustrations by Louise Reimer

Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2023
$26.95  /  9781771648981

Reviewed by Catherine Owen

*

When I was a child in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I was lucky enough to have parents who not only concerned themselves with the peace movement, the fight against a highway running through Vancouver, Greenpeace’s oppositions to nuclear weapons tests and deforestation, the need for clean water, UNICEF’s raising of funds for the third (now known as the developing) world, early recycling and reusing movements and organic food production, among other missions, but who also connected such passions with music. Our record player spun Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, John Lennon, and a range of further artists who concerned themselves with anti-war and pro-peace aims, along with the preservation of the environment. Big Yellow Taxi, Birmingham Sunday, War, Blowin’ in the Wind, Imagine and many more tunes served as our domestic soundtrack, especially in the evenings when we kids would request vinyls to spin and songs to send us into sleep. We were also taken to the Vancouver Music Festival to see some of these artists in performance, while other artists, like Valdy and Raffi, provided child-attentive messages of preservation at the Children’s Festival in Vanier Park. All this to say that a book like Rise Up and Sing! remains necessary, and perhaps even more so in a time where there is more emphasis on music that sells than on music that changes the world for the better.

Vancouver-based Andrea Warner

Andrea Warner has written a provocative, lucid and fierce book of deep connection. Her readable prose is enhanced throughout by fantastic portrait art by Louise Reimer, bright colours, poppy graphics and recurrent symbols like a heart or a lightning bolt to instantly allow the eye to see which artist is attached to what wide arc of political and social movements. Each chapter covers a different area of activism: climate, indigenous, civil rights, disability, pride, gender, peace and human equality. Every political and social concern is linked with the powerful music that expresses these areas of attention and opposition. Features such as “Hall of Fame” spotlight the artists who have been the foundation for these kinds of protest songs while sections like “Listen Up” offer lists of songs and videos that have had intense forms of impact. Each segment also offers a Top Ten playlist with bonus tracks so one can obtain an aural context for the message and its media. It would have been an amazing addition to have an attached thumb drive with this music on it too, though of course it’s easy to look up songs on YouTube and not much harder (and of course preferable) to purchase an album.

“Each segment also offers a Top Ten playlist with bonus tracks so one can obtain an aural context for the message and its media.”

A list of terms foregrounds the sections and both clarifies and occasionally makes things more complex for readers, as definitions have shifted over time, sometimes leading to the blurring of historical terms and contemporary ones. This happens most problematically in the Respect segment on “Gender Equality, NonBinary Folks and Inclusive Feminism” in the “Hall of Fame” part where female creators from the past like Helen Reddy and Bikini Kill are said to be activists in the movement for Gender Equality although, according to their era, they were more accurately fighting for Women’s Rights. Conflating the past and the present terms does these revolutionaries a small disservice. In the same section, discussing the overturning of Roe v Wade, the blow is said to have threatened, “almost 50 years of safe, legal abortions for people with periods.” People who have periods and wombs are, in fact, women (do we have to fight for this truth too?). Even in the exceedingly rare case of a trans man who retains their uterus, that organ remains female. But truly, terms are a slippery bugaboo these days as one attempts to be respectful to all entities, and Warner does her utmost to step gracefully upon that line.

An illustration by Louise Reimer depicting Sweden’s Climate Life concert of 2021

The chapters commence effectively with descriptors of festivals or events that meld these political and social revolutions with the musicians who support them: Sweden’s Climate Life concert of 2021, Vancouver’s Drum is Calling Indigenous Festival of 2017, Human Rights Day’s 48-hour virtual show in 2020. Then the highlighted issue is elaborated on in relation to the songs and artists that exemplify these crucial struggles. From rap to hip-hop and folk to punk and metal, no key genre of music isn’t represented that seeks to “fight the power” and pass on a message of hope or opposition, to give possible solutions or present essential courses of action.

Unfortunately, the recent identity scandal involving Buffy Sainte-Marie, somewhat taints the Indigenous Existence, Indigenous Resistance section with the inclusion of the ironic statement that she released two versions of a song because, “It was important to her that the details be accurate. The facts could not be refuted.” This is not to discount the utter vitality of the work Sainte-Marie has done in various struggles for justice, just to underscore the extreme challenge Warner faced in her selection of artists, along with her use of terms.

The “Dance Break” parts are one of the strongest features of the book as they delve quickly and engagingly into certain songs like “All the Good Girls Go to Hell” by Billie Eilish or “No Estamos Solas” by Ana Tijoux and dig for the origins, both personal and musical. Also compelling are the “In the Spotlight” focus segments on particular artists, gifting the reader with biographical peeks into the lives of musicians like Alicia Keys and Jeremy Dutcher. The “Music Notes” at the close of each chapter, offering up three questions to ask yourself regarding your own musical interests, political concerns and modes of daily activism, such as “Rhianna said, ‘Each and every one of you has the opportunity to help someone else.’ What is one thing you could do to make the world a more equitable and just place?’” are truly necessary too.

Rise Up and Sing! is not only a collection of activism and songs for young people but a reminder to all of us of the history of protest music and the ability it has to raise awareness and effect change. In Andrea Warner’s profound words: “No wonder music contains so much potential for revolution and radical change. After all, it’s powered by the people.”

*

Catherine Owen

Catherine Owen was born and raised in Vancouver by an ex-nun and a truck driver. The oldest of five children, she began writing at three and started publishing at eleven, a short story in a Catholic Schools writing contest chapbook. She did her first public poetry readings in her teens and Exile Editions published her poetry collection on Egon Schiele in 1998. Since then, she’s released fifteen collections of poetry and prose, including essays, memoirs, short fiction and children’s books. Her latest books are Riven (poems from ECW 2020) and Locations of Grief (mourning memoirs from 24 writers out from Wolsak & Wynn, 2020). She also runs Marrow Reviews on WordPress, the podcast Ms Lyric’s Poetry Outlaws, the YouTube channel The Reading Queen and the performance series, 94th Street Trobairitz. She’s been on 12 cross-Canada tours, played bass in metal bands, worked in BC Film Props and currently runs an editing business out of her 1905 house in Edmonton where she lives with four cats. Editor’s note: Catherine Owen has also reviewed books by Aaron Chapman, Emelia Symington-Fedy, Sean Kelly, Jason Schreurs, Adrienne Fitzpatrick, and Connie Kuhns for The British Columbia Review.

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The British Columbia Review


Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie


Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an online 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.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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