HONK! Activist street bands, artists, educators talk inclusion

HONK! Fest is an annual gathering of activist street bands around the country. While the festival has satellites in Austin and Seattle, it got its start in Somerville, Mass. five years ago. Last weekend, some 30 bands descended on our northern neighbor, and a pedagogical symposium on Monday topped it off.

I attended the first part of the Monday symposium at Harvard’s Gutman Library (full notes here). Scholar and organizer Reebee Garofalo described the intention of the symposium as “expanding this conversation beyond music, beyond the area we know best.” He invited Steve Seidel of the Graduate School of Education to speak to why the Arts in Education program underwrote both years of the symposium.

“I’ve been noticing, in a sense, all my life, the way that people in all kinds of practice situations have to teach and learn from each other that are different from the ways we teach and learn from each other in formal settings … A lot of that learning is really powerful, and it really builds community,” Seidel said. “We’re interested in how people get through those hard moments to do the artistic work that they want.”

Seidell emphasized the tension between quality and inclusion, a topic that the following speakers also picked up.

Jose Mateo, who founded a nonprofit ballet company and school almost 30 years ago, has been teaching ballet for even longer. It is not unusual for seven year-olds, he said, to be x-rayed to determine whether they would grow into the proper anatomy for ballet.

“In the arts, it is not unusual for the teacher to make his or her job an easier one to teach students of a restricted range, and it is not unusual, in my exprience, for teachers to justify their claim that only in this kind of environment can a higher quality be achieved.” Mateo fundamentally disagrees, and began Dance for World Community as an annual festival that shows otherwise. “We have to begin by at least confessing that there’s absolutely no agreement about [quality]…No sooner is that potential fulfilled, [then] new potential. We have to assume that we don’t know what a student is capable of doing.”

John Bell, formerly of Bread and Puppet Theater, chimed in as the next speaker: “Being able to think and respond and invent… does not exclude excellence in any sense because in the course of inventing…that invites other people to come in because if you don’t know how to do it, anybody can invent a movement that could be good.” Bread and Puppet Theater popularized puppetry as an activist tactic, and in street demonstrations, the goal is to have a big turn out. “That activist element that wants to find a cheap and accessible way of creating a big presence (which is actually what we do at the HONK! parade) necessitates inclusion.”

Before breaking into smaller groups, two young poets from MassLEAP took the stage. They shared the impact that spoken word art had on them, and the gift economy in which those who grew up with it turn around and become mentors to the next generation of spoken word poets. They led the room in a cypher, a group jam tradition in hip hop.

We then broke into three groups to look at how non-music arts could be incorporated into the practice of activist street bands. In the puppetry group, musicians from various street bands raised practical issues and shared advice in the effort to be inclusive:

  • A band member described how not taking paid gigs gives a lot of freedom but also limits the community it can draw from. People who are interested in playing and need to make money don’t find a place in the band.
  • One band organizes skillshares on soloing and conducting (part of the leadership goal to diversify conductors). This was a response to the former bullet point, so I’m not sure whether he was suggesting this as one ethically sound approach to raise money, a way of embracing diversity, turning musicians into teachers or all of the above.
  • Another band member: Some people are there for the camaraderie. It’s fine if they don’t bring skills as they can learn, but this band is also finding that some of them don’t have the desire to participate in the media creation. What they see is that those band members don’t listen, don’t actually participate or will buck group direction.
  • Tension of keeping people who are skilled musicians around and people who want to play music but aren’t interested in skillsharing. What are others doing?
  • Many bands don’t require attendance at practice. Some are exploring options to implement expectations around time and energy
  • What about it being open to musicians? It’s only open in one direction to those who have no training and get that opportunity, but not open to musicians who want to improve as a group because a lot of participants just want to make noise but have no interest in getting better, no matter what skill they come from

The group discussion was honest and slightly tense. It was clear that each band draws from a different pool of people with distinct motivations, challenges and regional characteristics, and some of the solutions were site specific. Many bands had already embraced the principle of inclusion and were now wrestling with the practical realities.

Full notes on the Media Lab etherpad