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“Aim high and throw hard!” Interview with David Rovics

Val Schrock
Date Published: 
February 14, 2003
    Over the last few years, movement folk singer David Rovics (see has invigorated grassroots activism with inspiration and energy through his music. He has taken on a huge range of issues, from environmentalism to Palestinian liberation, with stunning consistency. His music mixes humor and wit with a deep compassion for human suffering and unabashedly revolutionary politics. He recently spoke to Val Schrock.

VS: I see you as an artist-historian of sorts because many of your songs present contrasts between today and other patterns in history. They teach and motivate activists to act from a broader consciousness about our time. But where do you find your inspiration and hope?

DR: In the movement, for sure, and in humanity in general. There is so much hope and so many inspiring ways that people deal with horrendous situations. And there’s so many inspiring people in solidarity with them, like the people in SUSTAIN [Stop U.S. Tax-Funded Aid to Israel Now!] and ISM [International Solidarity Movement]; and historically, like the Saint Patrick’s Battalion [Battalion of Irish-American deserters who switched sides in 1848 and fought on the Mexican side of the war]; these people - well, that’s where my inspiration comes from.

VS: Since so much of your audience is already in the movement, do you feel like you really get a chance to challenge your audience?

DR: First, I think that there’s nothing wrong with preaching to the converted – I call it ‘inspiring the troops’. But I really do feel like I’m able to challenge them in different ways. People come up and talk to me about that all the time - how they’ve been involved in some issues or some political orientation but they hadn’t seen the larger relationship; they hadn’t thought about Colombia or the Middle East or didn’t connect them together until I sang about them. I also really love to reach people who aren’t part of the movement. I love it when I’m playing at a college and teachers require their students to go to the show. I love the challenge of trying to reach people.

VS: With a song like Vanguard, from your knew album, it’s important for listeners to know a bit about the politics in the movement itself to get the song. This is a song indicting the ANSWER Coalition and other sectarian politics within the movement. Who are you singing to with a song like that?

DR: A song like Vanguard…the only people who are going to get it are the movement organizers. Unfortunately, most people who go to rallies by ANSWER just have no idea about the organization. I mean they might have a vague reaction like, “Isn’t it weird that they didn’t have any music?” or “Isn’t it weird that all the speakers were so uninspiring and so full of rhetoric?” But they might not realize that they are part of a sectarian group. But I also try to write songs like that in a way that they can still be accessible to people who don’t know what I’m talking about.

VS: How important is the integration of art and music into the activist movement?

DR: I think it’s absolutely vital. Humans need to have community; we need to have friendship; we need to eat together; we absolutely need to sing together, and listen to music, and be involved in cultural activities like that. We become miserable people when we don’t have that. We need the movement to fulfill as many of those emotional and social needs as people have. Look, we’re not just trying to defeat injustice, we’re trying to create a better society.

Music also keeps people going forward. Talk to anybody in the civil rights movement and they’ll say that if we weren’t all singing together as we were approaching those dogs and cops who were waiting to beat us, we would have just turned around and run. But because we were singing together as one, we had the strength to continue.

VS: I want to shift gears again and ask about the Palestinian solidarity movement. One thing I find fascinating is the fear that artists here seem to have around Palestine. It seems to be an intimidating issue for the movement to embrace.

DR: I think that largely boils down to fear of being labeled anti-Semite. I hope that I would have the same orientation if I wasn’t Jewish but, I think, in a way, it’s easier for those of us who are Jewish to be able to speak out against Israel because at least the accusation of anti-Semitism is a little harder to stick.

VS: Do you consider yourself an anarchist or a socialist, or do you avoid these labels?

DR: I tend to avoid these labels and just call myself a leftist or a progressive or something. I’m totally into talking about the details of my political perspective and others political perspectives, but it seems to me that the words ‘anarchist’ and ‘socialist’ have been so bastardized that nobody really knows what they mean anymore when you just use the words. I feel like the words just pigeon-hole you without being useful. I want to see some kind of a real grassroots, decentralized, democratically run society with loads of participation on the part of the people.

VS: What would you like to do as an artist that you haven’t had a chance to do yet?

DR: Oh man! I would like to have my own record company so I don’t have to do booking anymore for myself and I can just focus on writing songs and singing them. Umm, I would like to play for bigger audiences and tour in the Middle East and every other part of the world that I’ve never been to.

VS: Do you have anything left to say to the readers of Left Turn Magazine?

DR: Aim high and throw hard!