Interview with Ryan Harvey and Mark Gunnery of the Riot Folk Collective
“Today and Tomorrow” by Ryan Harvey
Halfway through October, driven by characteristic restless leg syndrome, the looming Northeast winter, and the lure of a wide open America peppered with folk enclaves, the intrepid Folk to Folk crew jumped into Bertha the Toyota Camry and took off to the south.
First up was Baltimore. Ryan Harvey, activist, songwriter, and founding member of the Riot Folk Collective, had just gotten back to the States from a three-month long European tour and generously offered to put us up in the house he shared with fellow Riot Folk-er Mark Gunnery, right over by Tupac’s old hood.
Riot Folk was created seven years ago as an anti-profit mutual-aid collective of musicians and activists and currently lists Ryan, Mark, Adhamh Roland, Brenna Sahatjian, Evan Greer, Kate Boverman, Ethan Miller, Shannon Murray, and Tom Frampton as members. The group shares funds, contacts, and a desire to “make music to provoke, educate, heal and inspire.” A collective is not a cohesive unit. The members live in different areas, have different (though compatible) politics, play different styles of music and prioritize activism and music in different ways. Ryan cites his activist roots in the global justice movement, is heavily influenced by hip-hop, and has been active on the cause of veterans rights. Mark’s causes include herbalism and Palestinian solidarity, often performs in drag, and has recently ventured into electroclash. Riot Folk is less a brand and more a firebrand - a call to arms to take back folk from the watered down acoustic soft rock or “adult alternative” types and recreate it as the music of the people, with a people-centered political consciousness.
As we drove around charm city, we were floored by the contrast between the picturesque row houses of the science/university-oriented areas and the ghetto full of foreclosed homes sprawling under the ominous blue lights of omnipresent police cameras. Ryan, a Baltimore native, told us how his city went from being a major industrial center to a capital of HIV, heroin, crime, and inequality. As industry fled, so did hundreds of thousands of people. Combine this with a recession and a foreclosure crisis, and you get 84,000 abandoned homes and the kind of tour where every couple of blocks someone points out “hey, I saw this corner on The Wire!”
Bleak as this is, the inequality doesn’t go completely ignored. We passed the Baltimore Free School; Red Emma’s - a collectively owned coffeeshop, bookshop/infoshop, and community hub named after Emma Goldman; the 2640 Church which doubles as a community center; and the Baltimore Free Farm which repurposed an empty lot into a community garden. We learned about the Algebra Project, which promotes mathematics as a route for educational equality and advocates against youth prisons. We ate delicious black bean burgers and drank $3 Longtrails in Little Havana on the harbor and talked about how we got from the global justice movement and the Seattle WTO protests to the horizontal organizing of the Occupy movement and how although the term “anarchist” is being thrown around by the press as a pejorative/fear mongering term, it’s a philosophy that (at it’s best) promotes personal responsibility and small-scale socially conscious community organizing. On our way back to the house, we passed the Baltimore Occupy - small but going strong, in talks of becoming a squatter movement. With all those abandoned homes on hand, it made sense that sleeping in a public park might not seem like the right kind of revolution for this city.
“No I won’t cover a Bob Dylan song,” said Ryan back in his living room. “I write my own songs.” That doesn’t mean he fancies himself a Dylan-esque figure. As musicians along our route kept pointing out, the folk revival of the sixties played into the same hierarchy folk was supposed to dismantle. Folk was supposed to be the music of the people, but sixties labels deified folk singers as preachers and centralized the community around a couple of white male figureheads who wrote anthems for the people. We don’t mean to diminish the importance of those musicians or the quality of their music. Blood on the Tracks and Highway 61 Revisited got a whole lot of mileage in our Camry - we’re more than willing to lay down an abrasive cover of “Idiot Wind” to prove that. But 2011 isn’t about monoculture and “the Occupy generation” isn’t about anthems. Just as Occupy’s organizational politics encourage a polyphony of voices and causes to be heard, today’s music scenes are too fragmented and niche-oriented to ever generate something that can be considered an anthem in the classic sense of the word.
As Ryan points out in this great essay, there is no shortage of political music being created today, if you know where to look. Except for the brief sixties zeitgeist in which record labels were hungry to produce political music, there’s something inherently contradictory between profit-motivated pop pleasantries and activist protest songs. That’s not to say there are no popular political artists - musicians like MIA, Talib Kweli, and Propagandi are well known for their instigating. But when it comes to the contemporary wave of Occupy-style politics where collaboration is valued more than competition and the medium is as important as the message, young political artists are more likely to self-release records, distribute them for little to no money, and focus their energies more on community organization than self promotion.
As the night ended, we were exhausted, excited that our trip got off to the best possible start, and stoked for whatever came next. I drifted off under a poster of two bundled up kids and their instruments that read, “In the dark times, will there be singing? Yes. There will be singing about the dark times.”