Hardwork Movement at the Shut Down Berks benefit | photo by Yoni Kroll for WXPN
“It Takes An Entire Community”: Talking to the artists and organizers of the Shut Down Berks benefit concert
Last weekend, Hardwork Movement and Frances Quinlan from Hop Along played a special all-ages matinee at Boot & Saddle on South Broad to benefit the Shut Down Berks Campaign, a coalition of groups fighting the incarceration of immigrant families at the Berks County Family Detention Center. Equal parts political rally and concert – Hardwork Movement repeatedly reminded the sold-out crowd that, “They work for us and not the other way around!” – the show raised more than $1200 for the organization. The whole event was organized by Katy Otto (Callowhill, Trophy Wife) in conjunction with Jasmine Rivera from Shut Down Berks. We spoke with the two of them as well as the musicians who played.
The Key: How do you turn the anger people are feeling into something more than that?
Jeremy Prouty: It’s hard to put it into something positive. I run a fundraising series [The Monthly Fund, more info here] and that’s kind of the whole idea: let’s get people together, let’s feel good about what we’re doing. But it takes a lot out of you! Especially right now that it’s coming from all sides. It’s continual and unrelenting.
I think stuff like this is just the way to do it. Have people leave feeling energized and not drained.
TK: After the election, people were talking a lot about doing fundraisers and constant protests but I feel like after a while it can be very difficult to maintain that energy.
Dani Gershkoff: On Trump’s inauguration a year and a half ago, we had a show that night at Ardmore Music Hall opening for Rebirth Brass Band. That was a very specific moment for me where I thought, “Okay, here we go! Trump is being inaugurated and we’re playing music tonight.” I feel like it fuels this purpose. Sometimes it’s hard for me to see where activism and artistic practice come together and sometimes it’s very obvious. And I’m so grateful for the moments where it’s so obvious, where finding myself and my own expression can matter to other people, it can matter to the community, and we can use that to create change.
TK: It can be pretty hard to find that happy medium between entertainment – ’cause that’s why people are coming to a show in the first place – and also trying to make that change happen.
Sterling Duns: I think it was Ursula K. Le Guin who talked about being “realists of a larger reality,” this idea of people with their beautiful imaginations creating a new world. People step into these spaces who are not avoiding what’s actually happening but acknowledging it and also simultaneously creating a different way of relating to each other. I think it’s really powerful as artists to do that.
DG: In a time like this, whatever skill you have is useful in some way. This is the skill that we have and I’m very grateful to the organizers of this event for providing the platform for us to play.
TK: Why did you pick the Shut Down Berks coalition as the target of this benefit show?
Katy Otto: It was important to me to do an event that kids could be part of too, because I think it’s really important for families to stand up for other families. I don’t believe we should be imprisoning families in Pennsylvania. I think that Governor Wolf can issue an emergency removal order and try and shut down this facility. I really think it’s important that we have a creative community, a music community, where kids are part of things, so I was excited that Boot & Saddle was generous enough to do this rare thing and open up for an all-ages show.
TK: Do you think people coming to this were aware of the cause prior to the show?
KO: I think some but not all. I think that doing these kinds of events helps spread awareness; the powers that be don’t want us to think about family detention and there’s a reason that this kind of facility is not in Philadelphia, it’s an hour north. It’s just important to bear witness to what’s happening. I’ve been very inspired by Jasmine Rivera and the Shut Down Berks Coalition doing these vigils and going up there and making sure that the families inside know that they’re not forgotten.
Doing a benefit show is one thing I have to offer. I’m really inspired by the people who are doing the Occupy ICE actions. That’s not something I’m as able to do [but] I think there are different things we all can do. Folks can make calls, write letters. There’s all different kinds of ways to stand up and say that you’re not comfortable with this and don’t want this in the Commonwealth.
TK: I feel like it’s very easy to revel in the collective anger about what’s going on but at the same time difficult to turn that into action.
KO: That’s also my self-interest for doing this because I think that music and the community that comes around music is a wellspring for hope. That’s the role that musicians and artists can play is to help keep us going and nourish us.
I feel fortunate to have grown up in D.C. The first shows I went to, a lot of them were Positive Force shows and there were just so many benefit shows all the time. That’s really where I got a political education [and] so I always carry part of that with me.
TK: I’ll ask you the same question I asked Hardwork Movement: how do you bridge the gap between music as a needed escape from the day-to-day and music as a political tool?
Frances Quinlan: Art in general is a format used to connect as much as it is to escape. You take the full circle. Certainly at a show you’re sharing a space with all sorts of people all trying to connect, and the artist is trying to connect back. I think most people, that’s what they want to feel.
Katy has been a source of valuable information for me for a long time. We’ve known each other for years; I actually met her in D.C. at a house show that she put together. I look to her [for information.] Certainly on tour I really don’t keep up with the news the way that I should so I try and keep my ear to people that I know are a part of something. Katy’s such, I don’t want to say an upstanding member of the community, but she really is. She’s a participant, through and through.
Despite the fact that you can say that music is an escape – and I use it as such often – it’s also a product of its time. I do think that most artists do want to be a part of their time, as much pain as there is involved in that. It doesn’t have a sense of purpose unless it comes from what’s true, which is what’s happening right now.
While I’ve never written a political song – again, I just don’t feel informed enough to speak too deeply about the contents of a lot of what’s going on – this is one of those hardline issues for me. The fact that families, innocent children are being locked up because somebody said they should be? That’s all it is. Because people that weren’t born in America deserve to be punished? That just doesn’t make any sense. So when Katy asked me [to play] it was just the easiest answer I could possibly give. I do want to be a part of this.
TK: Do you think there’s an inherent political aspect to being a musician? Do you have a responsibility to talk about this stuff?
FQ: Nina Simone said that an artist needs to be a product of their time. It needs to happen, I just can’t stress that enough. … There’s just so much that needs to be fixed from the ground up. While I don’t feel like a particularly articulate voice, it is valuable to me and I want to help change things for the better. That’s such a corny thing to say but I think everybody does, artists or otherwise. I think a lot of people are very dismayed and don’t know what to do. Their response might be to turn away, and I certainly understand that response, but I think we need to talk more about what we as communities can do.
I think it’s easy to get taken up in the powerlessness, certainly if you don’t feel very powerful in the day-to-day. I think it’s an understandable feeling to give into but … there are creative ways to help people feel empowered and I think we should continue to do so. Instead of thinking, “All these people with money are making things this way” – which is true! – [we should be] talking about it and engaging with one another. I think that has meaning as well.
TK: How did this come about? Did you contact Katy or was it the other way around?
Jasmine Rivera: Katy and I have known each other for years. She’s a friend of mine and she’s always been interested in the Berks campaign and interested to do more. I was talking to her about some ideas and she came up with this benefit concert, really wanting to utilize her musical background as another way to be a part of the larger campaign. It’s just been really cool to see so many people all bringing their various talents to this campaign, whether that’s music, whether that’s art, whether that’s activists, translators. We’ve just had a lot of people who have offered up their talents and skills.
It takes every single person in a movement to make it a movement. There’s never been anything won that’s been won by a person or a handful of people. It takes an entire community, whether that’s on the city, county, or state level, to make the change that we need.
TK: One of the things that came up when I was talking to Hardwork Movement is this idea of how difficult it can be to find the energy to do all these things. I feel like that’s where the idea of community comes in, because it allows people to prop each other up.
JR: It’s hard! For some folks this hits closer to home and so the other part of understanding this work is that for some people it can be traumatic. But that’s the beautiful thing about community is [the] understanding that we’re all human and sometimes you need to tap out. But knowing that you’re surrounded by really good people who are committed and united for the same goal [means that] we can all step up when we need to step up and let others take a break when they need to take a break. But always at the end of the day it’s a collective effort.
TK: Who else is part of the coalition?
JR: It’s made up of organizations, grassroots groups, we have churches involved and faith leaders involved that are part of our interfaith witness group, we have individuals, we have lawyers. And it’s not just Philly-based: we have folks in Chester, Dauphin, obviously Berks, Lehigh, Allegheny, Lackawanna now. It feels like every day we’re growing.
TK: And how long has it been around for?
JR: Since the beginning of 2015.
TK: So there’s just a lot more attention on it now?
JR: Because of everything that’s happening on the national level, yes. We actually released a statement as a coalition at the end of May, the moment we saw the Trump administration really going all out with the family separation. We knew it was a tactic for them, one to just be sadistic to the immigrant community but two it’s a tactic for them to normalize immigrant detention.
We’re definitely really excited that there are so many new people who are coming to this fight because we need everyone to be a part of it, that’s how we grow our movement. We have to be mindful that this is rooted in the criminalization of all communities of color and we have to stand against any form of dehumanization.
TK: What do you think the role of musicians and artists is in this movement?
JR: I think it’s amazing. We all know that musicians hold a special platform, a platform they can use to disseminate [information] and educate more people on these kind of issues and so many more. Also at the end of the day musicians are people with their own stories and their own experiences. It is the whole goal of this campaign to have all people have their voices be heard so we can all have our human dignity.