An Interview with Musician and Activist Ryan Harvey
In the tradition of Woody Guthrie, acoustic guitars are still being used as machines to kill fascists. The nearly dozen musicians of Riot Folk describe their group and mission as “an anti-profit mutual-aid collective of radical artists and musicians…[who] make music to provoke, educate, heal and inspire.” Ryan Harvey, a 26-year-old musician, anti-war activist and writer living in Baltimore, Maryland, is one such radical musician, who recently spoke with WIN about his music, work to resist war, and how the two, for him, are inextricably and creatively linked. The following is an expanded version of the print article.
WIN: What came first for you, music or anti-war activism?
Ryan Harvey: I got active in the late 1990s. My music came after Bush got elected…elected? When Bush got appointed. I really got politicized through punk music. I was part of the anti-globalization movement. My first protest I was fourteen or fifteen. I started playing folk music in early 2001 so I was seventeen. The ebb and flow of my artistic creation is I organize a lot, I put a lot of work in and then a lot of songs come out of it.
WIN: From where do you draw inspiration for your music?
RH: I’d say I get the majority of my inspiration from people that I organize with. Anyone who listens to any songs I’ve written recently, who knows me, would know exactly who I’m talking about and where I got the idea from, with few exceptions. I’m pretty literal. A lot of songs I’ve written recently are about veterans I know and work with. A lot of them are about organizations that I’ve been a part of or have been a significant ally to or had a relationship with. When I was younger a lot of my inspiration came from assumptions about political movements and the songs were more rhetorical. Now they’re a little more grounded in an organizing tradition.
WIN: What is your song writing process like?
RH: I sit down with my guitar and it either works out or it doesn’t (laughs). For instance, yesterday I wrote a song, and today I finished a song that was in my folder of unfinished songs. Usually I pick the guitar up for a minute and see how it’s feeling. Rarely do I rush to my room with a song in mind and then write it. It’s more like you’re sitting down to see what’s on the radio or sitting down to see what the mind is up to. If I got something going I just write it all there. My best songs were ready to be written.
WIN: When and how was Riot Folk founded?
RH: Riot Folk was formed in November 2004, making it five and three quarters years old, so it will be six in November. It started as an idea in my head. The year leading up to the forming of Riot Folk I had done a lot of traveling around the country, and I had gone down to Miami to the FTAA demonstrations in 2003. I met Ethan Miller and Kate Boverman there who went on to be in Riot Folk. I had heard of Ethan and he had heard of me because we were doing a similar thing. Me and Ethan played a little set together in the corner of the convergence center in Miami and when we looked up there were tons of people there. We kept in contact. I met Adhamh Roland at an anti-war conference in Kansas. I met Brenna Sahatjian in San Francisco at an anarchist book fair. Mark Gunnery and I grew up together. We met each other when we were fifteen since we were doing similar activism in the Baltimore suburbs. I had known Tom Frampton for a few years as well through political activism. I told all these people as I traveled that I had this idea in mind. Once we formed Riot Folk, it was pretty magical. It sounds cheesy, but everyone was energetic about it and putting work into it and building it. And everyone was playing a lot of music at the time so it really caught on in the political scene that we were all active in. We became pretty popular underground. We would go play shows and lots of people would be there and they’d know the lyrics. Putting songs online for free download helped. I say my idea, but it was completely shaped by everybody in a very real way.
WIN: What is the word “riot” in “Riot folk” meant to communicate about the music?
RH: Essentially the name came from a friend of mine, the first time I ever played a show in Portland, OR. I had never met her before, but she was organizing the show and I was being added to it. So she says, “play me some of your songs, let me hear you music.” So I played her some songs. She comes in the next day with a flier for the show and it says my name and it says “Riot Folk.” That was what she had decided was the name of the type of music I played. I thought that was a neat genre. It stuck and people liked it. I think it came from, not necessarily a literal riot, but the feminist punk rock movement called Riot Grrrl that came out of the Northwest. Most of us aren’t playing regular old folk music. There’s something more aggressive about it that’s inspired by punk rock. Punk certainly made the space for that sort of anger to be present in music.
WIN: In your song “In the Name of Western Democracy,” you incorporate recordings of news reports of the 2008-2009 Gaza war from Democracy Now! as well as scholar Norman Finkelstein speaking about the Israeli offensive. When did you write that song and why did you choose to write about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
RH: I wrote that song right after the invasion of Gaza by Israel [in Dec. 2008 to Jan. 2009]. I listened to the news reports and I had just read Norman Finkelstein’s book The Holocaust Industry. Before that I had read a book by Jeremy Salt called The Unmaking of the Middle East. That book stood out as really easy to understand and point-blank. So the song is my analysis or summary of Salt’s book and the anger that was directed around the Israeli invasion of Gaza. I wanted to incorporate those other voices into my song.
WIN: In another one of your songs called “I’m Going AWOL,” you take on the perspective of a soldier resisting war from within the ranks. Since you’re not a veteran yourself, from where or whom did you gain this perspective?
RH: I wrote that not about a particular person’s story. At the time, I knew plenty of AWOL soldiers, deserters, folks who had already done their prison time and gotten out, folks who were waiting to go to prison, folks who never went to prison. That song is a rewrite of a Phil Ochs’ song called “I’m Going Down to Mississippi.” Assuming it was about a young white person going down to Mississippi during the civil rights movement to put some work in…It’s sort of glorifying this person who’s doing something so righteous but then the song is saying, but don’t give me a medal. I’m just doing what people should do just to prove that there’s a right and a wrong. I’m just doing good and people should do good so I shouldn’t be glorified too much because this is what should be expected of me as a human. So I wanted to update that song and I wanted to take somebody like an AWOL soldier who is making a personal choice and in the long run doing something really good for the world and in the short run they’re taking a stand that they feel they need to take. You don’t meet a lot of AWOL soldiers or deserters who are walking around trying to be considered some heroic person. But it’s sure nice when you’re taking a risk like that and putting your whole life in turmoil. A lot of these people’s families have lost respect for them, or they went to jail, or their whole life’s flipped over. I wanted to glorify that character without being too heroic about it. That song is really popular among veterans and soldiers when I play shows.
WIN: Can money and music with anti-war messages ever coincide?
RH: For me, it’s contextual and it really depends on the band. You take a band like Green Day. I tried to email them once to see if they would perform for Iraq Veterans Against the War at a major concert. I couldn’t even email them, or their management team, unless I signed a form that guaranteed them $25,000 for a concert. That was after establishing that it was a benefit show. I was like, OK, so Green Day needs $25,000 from this group of broke-ass veterans to do a benefit show.
On the flipside, Rage Against the Machine (RATM) not only plays a concert for IVAW in Denver [at the Democratic National Convention in 2008], but they pay for it. They throw down a significant amount of money to support this organization. There are a bunch of other bands that are active supporters, like The Bouncing Souls, Strike Anywhere, Rise Against, Eddie Veder from Pearl Jam, and Michael Franti. Rise Against basically said, hey anytime we do a concert, we want you to come out and table and meet veterans in the crowd and talk to them. Same with Strike Anywhere. Those bands are out there writing political and social justice music. They’re making a good amount of money from it, some of them more than others. But, it’s a matter of if they deliver. Green Day has some political songs. So does John Mayer and a whole bunch of other people. Bush brought a lot of people out to write a political song. I’d love to hear one of them write something now in the Obama era. It was really safe by 2007 to write an anti-Iraq War song. The people who made it safe to do that are anti-war activists and organizers.
WIN: In September 2009, on your blog “Even If Your Voice Shakes” (voiceshakes.wordpress.com) in a post titled “Are We Addicted to Rioting?” you wrote:
On the question of “violence vs. nonviolence” I opt out. I respond with a better question: “What is your goal?” Then I consider the goals, how they link up to a larger strategy, and how it effects its movement as a whole. “Will it make you stronger?” “Will it hurt your organizing efforts?” These are the relevant questions. Then I ask, “What do you need to do to achieve your goal?” Then I consider the question of violence or nonviolence. It’s more of a tactical concern, and tactical concerns stem from a goal, which usually stems from an even bigger goal, which stems from a strategy.
Almost a year later, do you still feel the question of “violence vs. nonviolence” is “a tactical concern” rather than a moral or ethical, or even social or political, concern?
RH: I’m pretty morally anti-violent. I’m not a fighter. I don’t want to be and I don’t want to see violence. I can’t think of many things that are worse. I can’t think of many things that are more un-anarchist than violence because it’s sort of the ultimate expression of coercive power. The ultimate expression of putting something onto to somebody that they don’t want put onto them. At the same time, I’ve seen situations, and occasionally I’ve been in situations, where people had to respond to violence with violence in very real ways. It doesn’t make those situations good. That’s where I think a lot of anarchists say, well, I’m not anti-violent because I believe you have the right to defend yourself. Hey, that’s fine. No one’s saying you shouldn’t. But, you shouldn’t organize situations where you get to defend yourself with violence for the sake of using it. You should organize in nonviolent ways, not just morally, but tactically because the U.S. happens to be the best-armed government in the entire world. You would be a fool to think that you could use violence effectively to achieve change against that force, unless you’re willing to suffer the way that the Vietnamese suffered, or the way that the Iraqis suffer, not that they chose to. I have my moral thoughts about violence, but when I’m talking in that arena with folks from different political backgrounds, I don’t want to argue about the morality of violence because I won’t get anywhere. People will stick to their guns, literally, and others will not stick to their guns, literally. The point is violence polarizes society, and as soon as you initiate violence you suffer repercussions of it.
WIN: What is your impression of the popular punk band Against Me! and their political and musical evolution?
RH: I played with them in a basement actually three blocks from where I currently live, in the basement of the Food Not Bombs house in Baltimore. At that point they were like the best band in the underground punk scene. The two times I saw them play in that time period everybody and their friend who were in the punk scene came to see them. Even when they played there, their song “Those Anarcho Punks Are Mysterious” was really popular and everyone sang along, but then you go back and read the lyrics and it’s really critical. It’s really critical of militant anarchists. It’s saying, “All of a sudden people start talking about guns, talking like they’re going to war, cause they found something to die for. Start taking back what they stole. Sure beats every other option.” And then at the end of that verse, he’s like “But do you really fucking get it?” And then they say “No.” You were singing along to that, and I don’t think anybody fucking even understood what he was saying in the song. That song was critical of this militant anarchist saying, we’re right and you’re wrong and I have the right to do what I want, to prove that with violence if I want, because I’m righteous. And that’s why they were saying those anarcho punks are mysterious, like that’s so weird because they’re supposed to be these really peaceful people, but then they have this politics that’s super dogmatic and aggressive and intolerant at times.
I think they had this really legitimate political disconnect with the anarchist punk scene that they were within. You read other of Tom Gabel’s lyrics, and some of the songs are about drugs and alcohol and the punk scene and asking, is this really how we live our lives? And they got disenchanted with that.
On the flipside, I wish they had stayed on a popular indie label. You don’t always have to go to a bigger label when you get more popular. You can bring the label up with you. I think AM! has a mix of really good political stuff and then they got a taste of fame and that’s where they’re at. If AM! just hit the airwaves as a popular band we would all love them, but since we know that they used to be this underground anarchist punk band, and we knew them or played with them, it changes. People hate AM! way more than they hate Green Day.
WIN: What are your plans for the future?
RH: I’m starting to go to college next week [mid-August] through Goddard College in Vermont. I’m going to be studying history with an emphasis on the history of military resistance, of soldiers refusing to fight. It’s something I’ve been studying for a couple of years on my own, really intensely in the last year…I want to become a powerful historian. I’m obsessed with it. I want to add another tool to my toolbox. I can write the historic song, I can tell stories, I can organize, and I can make history. Now I want to learn the wider skills of investigating history.
Also, I’m in a punk band [tentatively called Bouncing Betty] that’s still in the process of learning our songs. And Mark Gunnery and I have been plotting a multi-genre social justice record label called Odonian Records. Aside from that, I work with the Civilian-Solider Alliance and we’re just getting started on some really major work with IVAW. We’re about to announce our base campaign.
WIN: Do you have any upcoming shows?
RH: I actually just decided that I was going to go on tour [this fall] and it’s already coming together really well. I’m going to be going from Rochester, NY up through Canada, through Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, down through Burlington, and then Albany and New York City in mid-October. I’ll be playing in NY on Oct. 23. That show is going to be a split benefit between the Community-Farm Worker Alliance and the Civilian-Solider Alliance. Then I’ll be travelling down through the southeast in November. I’ll be going through Norfolk, VA and all the way down to Miami and then back up through Columbus, GA for the School of the Americas demonstration and then up to Atlanta and back to Baltimore. It’ll be my first two tours in three or four years so I’m really looking forward to it.
WIN: Is there anything else you would like to tell WIN readers?
RH: Once the dialogue has shifted, once the WikiLeaks documents have come out, once you’ve heard a bunch of awesome bands singing awesome songs, once you’ve been to a rally and the culture has shifted, that’s when the work really begins. Think strategically and think about where we can insert power and where we can actually make change and let’s start doing it.