Dance for the Climate: dance your anger and joys to a U2 tune!

Hopenhagen?

As the UN climate conference culminates today in Copenhagen, there seem to be lots of angry people in the Danish capital. Many civil society and environmental activists, and some journalists, have been frustrated by the inter-governmental bickering process and the occasionally tough crowd control measures by the Danish police.

As author and activist Naomi Klein wrote at the end of the first week: “By the end, around 1,100 people had been arrested. That’s just nuts. Saturday’s march of roughly 100,000 people came at a crucial juncture in the climate negotiations, a time when all signs point either to break down or a dangerously weak deal. The march was festive and peaceful but also tough. ‘The Climate Doesn’t Negotiate’ was the message, and Western negotiators need to head it.”

I’m not in Copenhagen for uptodate news, but the 5,000+ journalists and over 10,000 activists are keeping us well informed on what’s happening (or not happening). Perhaps part of their anger can be dissipated by heeding a creative call to Dance for the Climate.

It’s an alternative way of demonstration, made into an inspiring and hopeful video clip by award winning Belgian film director Nic Balthazar. It shows 12 000 people on a Belgium beach in a truly spectacular simultaneous choreography dancing to the U2 hit single ‘Magnificent’. Bono and his band graciously gave the rights to their music. The message of the clip to politicians in Copenhagen is to ‘start moving, together, before it’s too late. The time is now to change climate change’.

In a recent email, Seppe Verbist, handling international distribution of “Dance for the Climate” clip, wrote: “We believe that the chances of success of the UN Conference are influenced by the clear signals from ordinary people to their politicians. The ‘Dance for the Climate-clip’ wants to contribute to this, and we sincerely hope we can count on your support!”

According to her, the clip has been released three weeks ago and they are now trying to spread it worldwide. In Europe the distribution goes pretty well as the European Broadcasters Network (EBU) offered the clip to all her members. They are picking up the offer and integrating the clip into their Copenhagen content. In Canada weather forecasters from different broadcast networks are organizing an imitation of Dance For The Climate, and the clip will be shown 24/7 at the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai in the Meteo World Pavilion. They’re expecting 100 000 visitors every day for six months. The Al Gore Climate Project also supported the clip and shared it with their network. It’s been on TV in Brazil and Mexico as well.

Dancing can be a powerful way to express not just joy, but a range of emotions. One of my favourite calls to action came from Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian poet, author, environmentalist and minority rights activist (for his Ogoni people) who was executed by Nigeria’s military on 10 November 1995. While in jail facing an uncertain future, he wrote these momentous words:
“Dance your anger and your joys,
Dance the military guns to silence,
Dance oppression and injustice to death,
Dance my people,
For we have seen tomorrow
And there is an Ogoni star in the sky.”

And today, we must also dance for saving our climate.

Pete Seeger turns 90 on World Press Freedom Day: Thank you for the protest music!

Pete Seeger: Still singing protest at 90...

Pete Seeger: Still singing protest at 90...

Today, 3 May, is once again World Press Freedom Day. It is recognised by the UN, and observed by media professionals and media activists worldwide to ‘draw attention to the role of independent news and information in society, and how it is under attack’.

By happy coincidence, today also marks the 90th birthday of Pete Seeger, American folk singer and a pioneer of protest music. Since media freedom is inseparable from the democratic rights to dissent and protest, I will devote this blog post to salute Pete and his many decades of music for worthy causes — ranging from the American civil rights movement and opposing the Vietnam war to saving the environment and nuclear disarmament.

I won’t go over the basic biographical or career information, which is easily found online. Wikipedia has a good entry, and PBS shows a career timeline which has covered some of the most momentous events of the past century. There are approximately 200 songs (music and lyrics) that Pete wrote or with which he is associated – including “Guantanamera,” “Where Have All The Flowers Gone,” “If I Had A Hammer,” “Turn Turn Turn,” “Wimoweh,” “We Shall Overcome”.

Pete is a hero for at least three generations of music lovers and freedom lovers around the world who believe in human rights, human dignity and democratic freedoms. Armed with nothing more than his banjo and melodious voice, and driven by the courage of his conviction, this small, gentle man has stood up to mighty leaders, generals and officials.

Never underestimate the power of one determined man...

Never underestimate the power of one determined man...

Pete is celebrated as much for his artistic and cultural achievements as for standing resolutely for his political beliefs and for lending his voice and music in support of causes be believed in. In 1955, he was called before the now infamous House Un-American Activities Committee, but refused to name personal and political associations on the grounds that this would violate his First Amendment rights. He said: “”I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.”

This defiance resulted in sustained harassment, persecution and professional isolation. As his recent PBS biography noted, “Standing strong for deeply-held beliefs, Seeger went from the top of the pop charts to the top of the blacklist and was banned from American commercial television for more than 17 years. This determined singer/songwriter made his voice heard and encouraged the people of the world to sing out along with him.”

‘If you love your country, you’ll find ways to somehow to speak out, to do what you think is right,” Pete says in this powerful documentary looking back at over half a century of activist singing and music.


Watch opening segment of PBS AMERICAN MASTERS series: Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, directed by Jim Brown and first aired in February 2008

Watch more PBS interviews with Pete Seeger and some of his archived performances from yesteryear

Having pleaded under the First Amendment during the communist witch days of the 1950s, Pete repeatedly paid tribute to the far-sighted American pioneers who introduced the First Amendment guaranteeing the freedom of speech.

“As some judge said, if there is any fixed star in our firmament, that is the First Amendment,” he says in a talk-cum-performance at the Ford Hall Forum. In this audio-only piece, he talks the privilege of living under the First Amendment. He recalls his experience being questioned by the House Unamerican Activities Committee, encounters with censorship, and his relationship with fellow singer Woody Guthrie. It runs for nearly an hour, but is worth every second.

For someone like Pete Seeger who sang alongside Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights movement leaders and activists, it must have been deeply moving to be able to sing at the concert to mark President Barack Obama’s inauguration on 20 January 2009 at the Lincoln Memorial.

Watch Bruce Springsteen sing along with Pete Seeger on Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”. As he often does, Pete invites the euphoric audience to sing along!

One of my favourite Pete Seeger songs is “Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There is a Season)”, often abbreviated to “Turn! Turn! Turn!”. It’s a song adapted entirely from the the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible (with the exception of the last line) and composed to music by Pete Seeger in 1959. Seeger waited until 1962 to record it,

Pete Seeger tells how he came to write “Turn Turn Turn.”

I have always believed that we have to get creative and resourceful when the basic freedoms of conscience and freedom of expression are under siege from despotic rulers and fanatical extremists. When we are not allowed to express in factual prose, we must turn to creative prose. And when prose fails, we still have verse, lyrics, satire and drama — the possibilities are only limited by our imagination. This is why I celebrate activist artistes like Pete Seeger, and invoke the memory of activist-poets like Adrian Mitchell and Ken Saro-wiwa. When the barbarians are at our gates and we feel surrounded by the unrelenting forces of hatred, intolerance and tribalism, they remind us that Another World is Possible — but we have to believe in it, stay the course and find ways to sing, dance and laugh our way out of gloom.

And here’s Pete singing another one of my personal favourites, a song that powered the civil rights movement and has since inspired and sustained struggles for social justice around the world: We Shall Overcome.



New York Times editorial appreciation on 5 May 2009: Still Singing