The conference’s ‘Forbidden Folk’ theme will bring in some of today’s biggest protest artists
Musicians have often found themselves at the forefront of social upheaval and revolution. Whether through the African-American spirituals of the Civil War, protest songs of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, or feminist empowerment of the 1990s, folk music has lent a universal voice to a voiceless population.
For the past 29 years, Folk Alliance International has brought the folk music community together. Originally formed as the North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance in 1990, the organization was comprised of a group of folk organizers from across the continent. In the years following, FAI has expanded to a global organization that works to strengthen and advocate for the community — a community that is steeped in the values of inclusion, diversity and social/political reform.
This year marks FAI’s fourth year in Kansas City; it also brings a more focused message for the organization and its 2500+ membership base. Through a four-day explosion of music pouring out of hotel rooms, insightful industry panels and networking opportunities aplenty, the conference has become an essential weekend for a chunk of Kansas City musicians and music lovers to join with an international like-minded collective.
With its theme of Forbidden Folk, 2017’s upcoming event is a call to activism within the arts. English singer, songwriter and activist Billy Bragg will serve as the conference’s keynote speaker. In his 30-year career, Bragg has advocated for a number of groups: he founded Jail Guitar Doors, an organization that supplies instruments for prisoners; supports causes of the Labor Party and class solidarity; and works to empower artists in the rapidly changing music industry.
Carried on in the tradition of Woody Guthrie — but with a message highlighting Great Britain’s social inequalities, and the rough working-class bent of The Clash — Bragg has had an impressive musical career as a protest singer. His most notable work was 1998’s “Mermaid Avenue,” a collaboration with Wilco that began when Guthrie’s daughter asked Bragg to set her father’s completed lyrics to music. The album earned them a Grammy nomination, and breathed new meaning into words that had been written decades before.
“Real change can only be achieved by organized individuals working together with one another in common cause,” Bragg states on his website.
Another special presentation will come from Ani DiFranco, who has long been a cultural icon for feminists, activists and independent artists. She moved to New York City at 16, founded her own record label at 19 and gained popularity by word of mouth through her authentic, politically-charged songs. In the 1990s, her poetic and topical songs helped lead the charge of empowerment, ranging from personal experiences to critiques on sexuality labels, racism and revolution.
Her latest video, released days before the recent inauguration, was a tribute to President Obama and “those who spend their lives in service of others.”
While FAI’s Forbidden Folk theme will be accentuated by these protest pioneers, a number of other panels — ranging from topics about the history of banned music, censorship and contemporary protesting — will drive home this year’s emphasis on creating social movement through music. The event’s artwork features a bold red fist of resistance, clutching a ukulele.
According to FAI’s executive director Aengus Finnan, this graphic is an encouragement that anyone can help enact change, not just famous musicians. “We all have a part to play, and the songs we write and sing can have meaningful impact,” he said.
The 29th Folk Alliance International conference starts next Wednesday, Feb. 15 through Saturday, Feb. 18, with the KC Folk Fest on Sunday, Feb. 19. Sunday’s event is open to the public.
— Michelle Bacon is a musician and writer dedicated to the Kansas City music community. She advocates for and helps spotlight music in the area, writes web content for 90.9 The Bridge, and plays drums with Chris Meck & the Guilty Birds. Her grandma will always be the coolest person she knows.