Music has always been a form of nonviolent rebellion.
From protest music in the Vietnam era, to punk's brash fuck-the-system attitude, to tamer classics like Joni Mitchell's environmental cry "Big Yellow Taxi," music has always served as a reflective and cathartic response to the social climate of the world. It's a living record of events, ideas, and cultural values, catalyzing gradual shifts in communities by broadcasting these sentiments.
With the rising ubiquity of mindless pop music, it seems the number of social activists in music has been dwindling. Or rather, they're more obscured. It's not sexy to sing about genocide or violations of human rights when you could sing about the escapism culture of modern life (a troubling concept that prompted LCD Soundsystem's latest single, "tonite.")
Enter Rising Appalachia – an artist fueled by provoking conversation and promoting positive social change. An artist who leads by harmonious example, incorporating diverse cultural musicians in their lineup (sans appropriation.) At an RA show, you can snag an eco-conscious graphic tee, get involved with a local non-profit, and buy an authentic handmade n'goni from Burkina Faso in a single night.
The rotating band is made up of sisters Chloe and Leah, who serve as creative directors for the musical compositions.
"We like to use music's power as a gathering force to encourage conversation" I was told during a phone interview. Rising Appalachia are the artists you see playing acoustic guitars at standing rock, accompanied by other conscious musicians such as Nahko and Medicine for the People or The Polish Ambassador. RA chooses to lead by example, actively practicing what they preach from a grass-roots level, inspiring their listeners to practice awareness in their lives and take action.
"We like being in a setting where we may not be preaching to the choir," she stated. The goal is to open new minds to the issues at hand and encourage conversation and an exchange of ideas between people through the common thread of music.
Their performance at the Belly Up San Diego on October 14th was a demonstration of their talent and vision. Standing on a dimly-lit stage, the band opened with "Scale Down," a call-to-action track examining the ways our habits negatively impact our world. After a brief introduction, Leah stated:
"We're gonna play extra love songs tonight – the world needs it" to a burst of cheers and applause. The band, accompanied by string instrument n'goni player Arouna Diarra, bassist Duncan Wickel, and percussionist Biko Casini, dove into "Synchronicity," "Closer to the Edge," and "Find a Way." The crowd moved to their exhilarating and energetic beats, with many shouting every lyric – a testament to the type of community Rising Appalachia has built.
The band slowed things down a bit, premiering a new track entitled "Resiliency," the popular "Medicine," and the silken "Caminando." They continued with the sensual NOLA-inspired "Downtown," and ended with a meditative rendition of "Amazing Grace" before returning for their encore.
Rising Appalachia's music is amoebic, in the sense that it is heavily influenced by situation, location, and circumstance. Aside from the Smith sisters, the band is often changing iterations, incorporating different artists and instruments through each tour. Much of their music is influenced by folk, soul, and world music, composed around relevant traveling experiences.
Leah described RA as "sound catchers," using musical composition as a kind of sonic diary. She recounted a time where they were invited to learn Bulgarian folk music from elders of the culture. She reports this is a typical creative process for them; encountering new cultures, learning their practices, and using it to inform their style.
"We asked [the elders] for permission before bringing the music to the stage," Leah explained, emphasizing the mindfulness RA uses before incorporating a sound into their own. Not only does this bring awareness to a smaller, esoteric musical style by keeping it alive and opening fans up to new genres and thinking, but it also serves as a positive model to combat cultural appropriation in the slick, trendy modern music scene.
This attitude has prompted their creation of The Slow Music Movement, an umbrella term for proactive change-agent projects. Currently, TSMM is directed towards promoting sustainable touring practices throughout the music industry. Each show partners with local non-profits in order to give fans a tangible way of connecting with change-makers in their community. For example, this Belly Up event partnered with The California Innocence Project – a non-profit that seeks justice for the wrongfully convicted.
When asked about the goal of their music in terms of social action, Leah stated that it feels as if they're "constantly paddling upstream" in the industry. Regardless, their philosophy remains that music is an extension of social action, and that it can be used as a connecting and driving force.
Get involved, learn about the RISE Collective, and support their live album ALIVE here.
Image: Daniel Zetterstrom