At South By Southwest 2010, almost 2,000 incredible new bands from around the world came to Austin, Texas, to share their music with new fans at the year's biggest event for the independent music industry. At a traditionally Western-rock oriented festival, groups such electro-cumbia band Bomba Estereo mixed their country's traditional Columbian sounds with dance beats and U.S.-based globally inspired groups such as New York collective Balkan Beat Box, and Los Angeles-based Cambodian psych-rockers Dengue Fever infused world sounds with electronic beats and sophisticated dance rhythms, and in the process introduced audiences to some of the most innovative music at this year's festival.
Many of these artists used their voices as tools for social change, using the medium of popular music to shed light on urgent issues like the perils of the global oil industry and human rights, or simply to share the stories of other cultures and histories. The effect often meant that in an often party-centric environment, audience members could walk away from a show feeling a part of something bigger than themselves.
"And now the world is asleep/
How will you ever wake her up when she gets deep in the dreams, wishing/
And yet so many die/
And still we think that it is all about us/
It's all about you"
These lyrics about the earth's exploitation were written by a Nigerian artist named Nneka. Her name, given to her by her father, roughly translates to "Mother Earth is supreme." Although she grapples with heavy subjects, her music is not boring or preachyit's bold, upbeat and makes you want to dance. On her first U.S. tour, Nneka was one of the most buzzed-about acts at SXSW 2010.
Nneka was born and raised in the Niger Deltaone of the biggest oil-producing areas in the world where big oil companies and corrupt political leaders exploit and pollute the region. Many people of the Niger Delta live without electricity, hospitals and schools. Violent gangs and militias run rampant and result in many civilian deaths. Major pollution is reaching an all-time high, and gas flares and oil spills are killing the fish and harming much-needed farmlands.
Instead of getting angry Nneka says "my music is my weapon" and speaks out about corruption on stage, on the radio and on her Web site. She's partnered with a project called "Remember Saro-Wiwa" a non-profit whose mission it is to bring awareness about exploitation and show what role the West plays in Nigeria's current state. Ken Saro Wiwa was dedicated to stopping the Nigerian government from what he called an "ecological war and genocide against his people," an effort which cost him his life.
It is rare that artists from developing countries make it to mainstream success in the United States. ( Nneka has already been covered as a top artist of 2010 by Rolling Stone and Spin. ) The thoughts and beliefs Nneka shares through her music particularly stand out in a country where many are exposed to Third World struggles through celebrities with a one-dimensional perspective of a Third World issue. The collapse of the major record labels has definitely helped empower artists like Nneka, who spreads her music and message via an indie label and management, and fiercely opposes the greed and exploitation that the entertainment business can perpetuate.
This sort of global social consciousness in music has been percolating for some time. In 2005, Sri Lankan artist M.I.A emerged with her global political music, embellishing her stages with rows of Buddhist prayer flags and sharing her experiences of poverty, revolution, Sri Lankan civil war, human-rights abuses and the Tamil independence movements. In 2008, The Experience Music Project's Pop Conference, presented her work as part of "Shake, Rattle: Music, Conflict, and Change," a discussion on social change and music. In addition to her music, M.I.A. builds schools in Liberia and in 2006 met with Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and ex-child soldiers as part of the, "4Real" TV-Series. In 2009, she was voted one of the top 100 "World's Most Influential people" in Time Magazine for having "global influence across many genres."
Ancient Buddhist teachings called Abhidharma claim that if one person is suffering or even causing suffering, it is a sign of collective sickness or, rather, our group karmaand that if any one person in the world is suffering it affects everyone in the world, in such a way that a cancer would affect one breathing, living organism. And Martin Luther King, Jr., came to a very similar conclusion when he said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutualitytied in a single garment of destinywhatever affects one directly, effects ALL indirectly."
"The devil, the dark and negative exist, but within that is the positive too," said Nneka about these connective threads. "By being open to others politics, their lives and including other people in our decisions [ we can generate more empathy across borders, between the people of different countries ] . We can learn so much from each other. Africans know how to be satisfied with less material belongings and on the other hand they need to learn from the West how maintain schedules better."
As we become a more globally aware nation, it is becoming more evident how interconnected we truly arehow our day to day lifestyles can directly affect those in other countrieshow our excessive use of gasoline and oil could be contributing to the suffering of rural farmers and fishermen of the Niger Delta. Together, we are creating a new American dream. One that shares prosperity, values human connection, encourages service, develops character, understands compassion and fights for equality.
On a recent episode of Real Time with Bill Maher Dr. Cornel West said, "We are in a transitional moment. The real question is: Can we generate a commitment to fairness and justice in the face of greed? Can we generate compassion in the face of indifference? Can we generate hope in the face of fear?" And it may be that without the dark we cannot see the lightthat it takes conflicts and tragedies like 9/11 to fuel our ability to progress.
The emergence of musicians like Nneka on our doorstep may be a testament to the fact that something big is happeningsomething mainstream America can no longer ignore. Music, like any art form, is a reflection of a greater collective consciousness. So it will be interesting to see how this evolves and how artists like Nneka might be an inspiration for others to put their words and bodies on the line in the fight for greater sanity and justice yet to come.
As Nneka says, "We are all part of one entity, mankind and all speak variations of experience, but at the end of the day we're all one kind, under one sky and we need each other, each country is dependant upon each other." And music may be one of the most powerful tools to connect us all. In Nigeria people are in their farming and fishing villages singing along with Nnekaand at the convention center for one of the most influential music festivals in the world, we were singing along, too.