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Laura Burhenn Bullhorn
Nine Songs
The Mynabirds

Laura Burhenn talks about the protest songs that inspire her.

08 September 2017, 09:00 | Words by Jon Putnam

As the creative force behind chameleonic art-pop band The Mynabirds, Laura Burhenn is no stranger to using her songwriting and music as a platform to speak about the persistent tears in our social fabric, as well as incisive matters of the head and heart.

Burhenn tackled the former with The Mynabirds’ 2012 sophomore effort Generals and the latter on 2015’s Lovers Know. On their latest, Be Here Now, Burhenn marries the two in a politically intimate take on her reaction to Donald Trump catching America staring at its phone when the light turned green. A natural musical reflex to a social crisis is to reach for protest songs, which Burhenn did in a hands-on way.

“I was on a solo tour in North America in the fall and it was like there was a heavy energy in the collective American consciousness. I felt like I was soaking up what everybody was feeling as I went from town to town, it was like this collective grief and it seemed totally impossible to live this reality we were facing. As I was on tour a friend of mine called to ask if I would teach a songwriting class in Fort Collins, Colorado at this place called The Music District. After the election I thought ‘OK, I know what I need to teach – a protest songwriting class’. It’s something I care about and have thought a lot about in my career.”

Fitting this theme, Burhenn has chosen her favourite protest songs, that cover a wide swathe of society’s qualities and, at times, the intersection of them. Some of the songs are brash and explicit while others are unassuming; some speak globally for the individual, some intimately for the masses. In each case, no matter the age of the song or the deliverer of its message, daily news headlines still elicit the demand for their power and prove their overwhelming relevance today.

“Strange Fruit” by Nina Simone

“I got into Nina Simone when I was 16 years old and she changed my life. I was playing the piano and I liked Tori Amos, someone said to me ‘if you like Tori Amos, you should check out Nina Simone.’ The first time I put on a CD and heard her voice I thought ‘this is a man singing, someone must have given me the wrong disc.’ I was really taken by her voice; I love voices that are strange, that you can’t really categorize and Nina Simone’s voice stands on its own.

“She was such a strong voice in the Civil Rights movement and I think back on her initially as someone who was revered in that time, but she struggled, people didn’t want her to have that voice. This song is just beautiful, the poetry and imagery, how it’s talking about such a horrific subject – lynchings in the South – but doesn’t mention it directly. I love the metaphor of this tree we’ve planted together and now we’re reaping what we sow, that the fruit is dead and dying.

“There’s something about her version that feels so exhausted. To me, it’s as if she’s thinking ‘I can’t believe I still have to sing this. Billie Holiday sang this and I have to sing it again for you for you to remember that this is still a problem.’ That feels really relevant to me today. I went to see Detroit and there was a Q&A session after with Kathryn Bigelow and she did a great job of talking about how these were riots that happened in the 1960s but things haven’t changed much. Likewise, this is a song that, for me, unfortunately continues to be really relevant.”

“A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke

“This is the quintessential protest song in my mind. There’s just something about his voice, it’s a similar exhaustion I hear in Nina Simone’s, but there’s also this wellspring of hope.

“There’s a great article in The New Yorker about this song. Sam Cooke was inspired by Bob Dylan and what he was doing with ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and this idea of using music to protest. It talks about the history of black voices in music and there’s one line that talks about how Cooke was so carried away by it and the fact that a white boy wrote it, he was ashamed he didn’t write something like that himself. I was fascinated and pleasantly surprised by that, not only are people listening to and affected by musicians, but that musicians are listening to each other.

“I think of it as this circle of encouragement, where when we’re trying to find the strength to persevere, we think of what we can do to encourage others and ourselves to believe that what we are singing is worthwhile. Whenever I hear Sam Cooke’s voice sing this song I always feel encouraged, it’s got that tone of ‘everything’s going to be OK, we’re going to be fine.’ It’s hard, but I still believe.”

“Dancing in the Streets” by Martha Reeves The Vandellas

“‘Dancing in the Street’ is a euphemism for protesting. There’s a really great documentary series called Dancing in the Street that talks about black DJs in the 1960s spinning this song as a subversive way of saying ‘Come on, we can do this’.

“Yes, there’s a celebratory joy about it, but it’s also a rallying song. The reason I picked this song is that I have such a soft spot in my heart for pop music that has become so popular that you get people singing the song and it’s so catchy that people don’t recognize how big the message is that they’re singing. When you get people doing that and dancing in unison, you can unify people with a song and that to me is power. For me, that’s what this song represents.

“Later on in the 1980s, you have this song again, a big catchy pop song that’s a rallying cry and it’s revisited by Mick Jagger and David Bowie for Live Aid, so it’s a song that keeps carrying on and getting new life."

“Living for the City” by Stevie Wonder

“A big part of what I love about this song is that it literally describes the life of one person. There’s something really powerful of talking about the singularity of it. In a lot of protests, we’re talking about big groups of people and it’s almost like we’re dealing with metadata. Sometimes it’s important to drill down to the singularity of one person and I really love that Stevie Wonder does this in this song and he does it through a character that’s ageing.

“Again, I get back to this theme of ‘it’s the same as it ever was’, which is disheartening. I feel like he sang about this grief and frustration but it’s also journalistic in a way. It’s very filmic when you listen to this song, you can see the characters. He’s singing out against what was happening to black kids in the inner city, trying to go get a job somewhere and they get stuck in the middle of a bad deal and they’re in prison the rest of their life. That’s something we’re still dealing with – the failure of the justice system and the education system and the failure of society to recognize the systemic racism we have.

“I feel like Nina Simone paved the way for Stevie Wonder to sing about what he sang about. Maybe he would have done it anyway, but by the 1970s this type of song was more acceptable. The fact that he was a young pop singer taking on these issues was a big deal. He paved the way for me to sing what I want to sing. I just love him, I fucking love Steve Wonder, what else more can you say?”

“50 Ft Queenie” by PJ Harvey

“I’m from Washington D.C. and I know PJ Harvey got some criticism for The Hope Six Demolition Project when she went to D.C. and toured the Southeast, for being a white British woman who came there and tried to tell the story of the Black American experience. She’s an interesting artist and I’ve put her on this list for that reason.

“When Rid of Me came out, my mind was completely blown by her voice and everything she sang about, I had a hard time choosing which song to pick from that album, since there are so many there and on Dry too. When I thought about it, I thought ‘I’m going to pick this one because it’s a statement of self’ and I love this song for that reason.

“I think protest can just be claiming yourself, just a statement of who you are and what you stand for. I remember being a teenager and jumping around my bedroom singing, “I’m one big queen, nothing can stop me!” That’s badass, to give those words to other people to sing… it was so empowering, for men and women both. Let’s just all be fifty foot queenies!”

“La Femme Fetal” by Digable Planets

“This Digable Planets record Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space) is probably in my top ten records of all time and it has such a deep place in my heart. This song is a pro-choice song and I really love the way it’s presented as literally a conversation between two people. It’s about a woman coming to her friend and considering an abortion and what are the pros and cons of getting an abortion.

“I grew up in a very religious protestant household and I ended up going to college at the Catholic University of America even though I’m not Catholic. I was in an English class, we were talking about The Beats and Jack Kerouac and I did a paper on how this song grew out of the Beat tradition. I didn’t think about it at the time but I presented a pro-choice song in a Catholic classroom!

“It’s just really human and not telling people what to believe, but it’s presenting the humanity of the issue and the shades of grey in between. I have it in this list because sometimes changing people’s minds or hearts is about reminding them that issues aren’t black and white, they aren’t often simple, but that they’re often many-sided and just human people trying to make the best decision.”

“The Waitress” by Tori Amos

“I think about this song all the time lately because I think of myself as a pacifist, but in writing this new record, especially the song ‘Golden Age’, I came to terms with the fact that maybe as much as I’m a peacemaker, I’m a peace fighter and 'The Waitress' embodies the pacifist’s moral dilemma for me.

“I really love the story presented in this song, about a woman who works in what sounds like a shitty diner and works with this woman who is just insufferable. She wants to kill this waitress who’s worked there for years and ‘wields her power all in a club sandwich.’ So you think about the many ways in which people wield their confidence and power in their tiny corners of the world and how they can be monsters. I love how it erupts into the chorus of “but I believe in peace bitch!” She’s angry and really wants to kill her but decides to channel her energy into this ultimate pacifist statement.

“Particularly in the last six months, I’ve found myself reading the news and that chorus will come into my head. I’m glad she’s planted that seed in my brain and that I can get that cathartic release of pure rage and then think, ‘All right, I’m going to take a deep breath and not do anything crazy.’”

“Don't Touch My Hair” by Solange

“I included the last two songs here as modern protest songs. I think Solange is such an incredible voice in our world today. Beyoncé has done wonderful things, she’s a true feminist icon and true feminist voice in our era which we’re lucky to have and I love Solange’s voice equally.

“I think she speaks in a different way and to me, it’s so regal. She’s a queen – she knows her worth, she knows her power, she knows what she deserves and how she shouldn’t be treated or spoken to or viewed as a novelty for someone to touch. I’m so grateful I’ve learned so much over the past two years, we’re talking so much these days about cultural appropriation and things that I think finally people, black people in particular, are comfortable saying. Where this song hits me is that it’s such a simple statement – it’s a black woman saying, “don’t touch my hair.” This is such a deeply held offence that black women have been thinking and feeling for generations and haven’t felt that they could say anything about.

“To hear someone very calmly singing “don’t touch my hair” – don’t touch my crown, this is my power and you don’t need to get anywhere near it - makes me feel grateful that we live in an era where people are speaking out. It’s crazy that it even needs to be said and I put it in this list because it represents the voice of a whole generation of women that have been suppressed to speak until right now.”

“Penthouse Floor” by John Legend ft. Chance the Rapper

“This is one of my favourite songs of the past year, the production is incredible and the lyrics to me are a newer version of “Living For The City”. It’s kind of a dirge for the golden age of Obama’s presidency. In his opening monologue for Saturday Night Live Dave Chappelle talked about being at a party at the White House and how it was all these black folks and the black President in the White House that was built by slaves, but now they’re having a party and how hip-hop music and everything that was a ‘black thing’ was sitting there in the seat of power. How incredible was that for a whole generation?

“I was living in D.C. when Obama was elected and I remember running down to the White House and drinking champagne with strangers, Joan Baez was randomly there in a bathrobe, it was such a party! This song is really about that era but you have to read all the lyrics about what the TV crews are focusing on. Here John Legend is saying “We thought we made it, let’s go to the penthouse, let’s take the elevator, they can’t keep us out now,” but the TV crews on the ground are focusing on all the violence and I see Ferguson and all the Black Lives Matters protests in my mind when I hear it.

“In the middle, Chance The Rapper’s rap is incredible, it’s about that ascension – of being on the street, not being trusted to be in the seat of American power. What happens when he gets to the top? He gets pushed off, it was all just a tease. And that to me was the election of Trump and that’s where we are now.

“This song is so beautiful but incredibly heartbreaking to me – it’s a party song that feels so good to listen to, but it’s so sad. John Legend has summoned Sam Cooke’s voice from ‘A Change Is Gonna Come,’ for him it’s not just about getting to that position of power, but it’s a new consciousness and state of mind that he’s pushing towards. Again, he’s a pop artist and it’s such a great pop song that says so much more.”

Be Here Now is out now on Saddle Creek
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