Justice Rocks 2009

Justice Rocks 2009 festival promotes social justice through pop culture.

Credit: Steve Louie

Vancouver band and Justice Rocks festival performers, the greenbelt collective, discuss how pop culture can promote social justice

Justice will rock East Vancouver this Saturday, August 29, 2009. Justice Rocks 2009 is put on by Pivot Legal Society (whose documentary festival we covered earlier) and takes place in Strathcona Park. Click here for details. Along with the music line-up, attractions include skate demos, a dunk tank, three marching bands, a b-boy/b-girl break off and a “carnie birthday party.”

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The park will also host ideas about increasing community-based social engagement. Several social and environmental organizations are showcasing ways pop culture can engage and educate the public in social justice issues.


To learn more about the festival and its goals, I punted a few questions to Vancouver band the greenbelt collective. The group describes their music in a mouthful: “songwriting that harvests sentiments and political conversations dealing with issues of environmental, romantic and political psyche: a duodecuple playful co-ed group singing cut-and-paste power pop dance rotation from Vancouver, B.C.”

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Click here to listen/download: “This Hill Used to Be a Valley” by the greenbelt collective.

Juls Generic (Margaret Thrasher), David Mattatall (Shipyards), Sarah Butler, and Beshéle Caron share their thoughts below.


What is the role of music in supporting social justice?

David: What is the role of a hammer in supporting social justice? Music, like all art, is a tool.

Sarah: Music can be the expression of what’s going on in our communities. If the reality of what we experience is our living histories of colonialism and oppression, we sing about what we see. When people hear that music, or dance to it and are listening to it they might connect to those experiences. Community building also can’t be understated: we work to keep our music and our band a welcoming and inclusive space.


Is there a ‘natural’ link between music and social justice, or does such a link need to be consciously cultivated by artists or performers?

Juls Generic: There’s a natural link between underground music and social activism, since indie music demonstrates how things can be functional, productive and inspiring while existing outside the control of employers, managers and record corporations. Along with writing and performing our songs, we manage a record label, design record sleeves, and book our own tours—and still tour most of the year.

Besh: When music and social justice share the same space, it can be very powerful. People gain something tangible to express their feelings.

David: Popular music is often antithetical to social justice (sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll, whiny personal songs, conformity masked by hyper-individualism). However, music has always performed a key role in human struggle, even if it might not be explicit.

Sarah: If you’re singing about your experiences, and are being thoughtful and critical, you are taking part in social justice.


How do you define the distinction between socially conscious art and propaganda? That is, how do you draw the line between art and politics?

Besh: I think you have to differentiate between free expression on certain issues and maybe, the other side of it, intent and the aftermath of that. I still feel like art is art, whether or not politics are involved. I don’t want there to be a line.

David: I don’t think a line can be drawn. Socially conscious art will most likely be some form of propaganda, since they’re not mutually exclusive. Art is not a book with reasoned arguments and empirical evidence; it is emotional and visceral.

Sarah: I don’t see a huge difference. Some people express things directly, and some people express their experiences more subtly, or in a diversity of ways. Different people respond differently to different mediums, so it’s important to have a mix. Politics and power flows through everything.


Can you give an example of a socially conscious musician you found personally inspiring, and tell us why?

David: A Silver Mt. Zion and Godspeed! You Black Emperor are socially conscious and remain interesting artistically. They set an important example for running a group in an anarchistic fashion. No frontmen, no spokesperson, indie as fuck, and pretty provocative. The MC from aNoMoLies crew, Invincible, is pretty inspiring in her talent, her history and her activism.