By Emily Gawlak
A staple of the San Francisco theater scene in the ‘90s, Bill Talens created the character of Reverend Billy, a nod to street preachers and televangelists, as performance art. But by the time Talens’ larger than life character made his way to New York City and began to gain a following for his outspoken protest of consumer culture, a bonafide social movement had begun; the Stop Shopping Choir was born, and there was no turning back.
Now officially a nonprofit organization, Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir began their activism protesting the evils of sweatshops and major chains, including Disney, Starbucks and Walmart, but have since widened their scope. The group now travels the United States, placing themselves on the front lines of social injustice from the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, MO to the problem of mountaintop removal in Coal River Valley, West Virginia. Dozens of arrests later, the group has performed with Neil Young in New York to protest Monsanto‘s use of carcinogenic pesticides, been featured in Morgan Spurlock’s documentary What Would Jesus Buy? and on April 22nd will release The Earth Wants YOU an album and “motivational handbook.”
Today, Elmore is exclusively streaming The Earth Wants YOU, a record “meant to inspire people to challenge the consumerism, racism and militarism that are killing our planet.” We got the chance to chat with the Reverend Billy and the Choir’s director, Savitri D, about the making of the album, the boundaries between artist and activist and the ways we can help bring about a change in the world.
Read our Q&A and stream The Earth Wants YOU below.
Elmore Magazine: Lyrically, your work recalls folk-style protest songs in the vein of Neil Young’s recent work (with whom you’ve performed), but obviously there are gospel elements at play as well. Can you tell us a bit about your musical (and activist) influences?
Savitri D: Good hot gospel is where people tell the story of how it is and how it should it be—perfect conditions for a radical politic. Many of us are PK’s (preachers kids) and grew up inside the remarkable contradictions of church— but we all met in New York City, Babylon! Sodom & Gomorrah! – and we are refugees from fundamentalism.
Reverend Billy: When 30 of us are up on stage or singing in a Wal-mart parking lot to folks campaigning for $15, then our rhythm section is clapping and shouting. We’re like an animated form of the old spirituals, and we’re about half of us people of color, so there’s a gospel look and feel. Passersby with their shopping carts might not notice that we’re singing a salsa number, or a lullaby but with lyrics more like Malcolm X.
SD: We don’t really make gospel music per se, but the instrument of a choir just exerts very specific pressures on melodies, rhythm and even meaning and of course performing gospel music is irresistible. It’s funny how as soon as you have a big choir with a rhythm section the music takes on a life of its own, with its very own special energy and momentum—and maybe that is really the definition of gospel, or in our case post-religious gospel, or you might say post-apocalyptic gospel. You mention Neil Young, a great artist who has managed to keep a political reality streaming through his work for decades, musically we also think of Fela Kuti, Gil Scott Heron, the Clash, Earth Wind & Fire, Joni Mitchell and so many others… but you won’t necessarily hear those influences.
RB: Last year, when we opened for him in those converted hockey stadiums and outdoor amphitheaters, the tradition of belief-driven music was in the atmosphere, the nights were loud with it. He takes on Monsanto directly, so that this toxic corporation feels compelled to defend itself in the Hollywood Reporter – it’s a very present-tense showdown. With his friends in the Promise of the Real band, Neil stops the show and they hand out packets of non-Monsanto seeds and then he dares the cops at the doors to arrest 10,000 people, because Monsanto controls the regulators and we’re illegal giving each other non-corporate seeds. We got it, how he stays so current. He and his partner Daryl Hannah – they look at society and they catch the drama that we’re playing out. They talk about it, and then Neil composes and sings from that thing we’re all doing… So he sings back to us the battle we’re fighting and we have this surprise jolt of consciousness. Earthalujah!
SD: As activists in NYC we definitely look straight back at ACT UP, the outrageous creativity they conjured in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, we think of the anti-roads movement in the UK, where regular people reclaimed public space, staging huge dance parties on highways, blocking road building to protect single trees and faerie lands, and Abbie Hoffman a little further back teaching us how wild, how truly punk, life can be when you give over to living and expressing your values not just as artists but as activists— taking risks, resisting authority, being too weird, damning the arts, avoiding institutions and institutional support…
RB: You can’t really sum up the influences, can you? We’re taking things in, and the songs catch lots of random music in the air. When we visited the kayaktivists in Seattle last year the music we came away with was Lakota war songs, because we ended up being with… Nina Simone feels like the teacher. And Joan Baez, and Joe Strummer… They’re in all the songs, but it’s not like a specific melody line or line of lyrics jumps out at you.
SD: Fundamentally, though, we look to The American Indian Movement and the music that rose from African Americans, singing in slavery and escaping from slavery — these people have born the brunt of earth killing capitalism/empire for hundreds of years and they are our teachers. Check out Idle No More.
EM: How did The Earth Wants YOU come together? Do you write all of the songs, or does the whole choir play a role in the creation of the album?
SD: Nehemiah Luckett & Laura Newman are principals on this record as composers and performers. Rev and I write almost all the lyrics. We brought a couple of old songs forward, “We are The 99%” came straight from Occupy Wall Street, and “Shopocalypse” is an old number we wrote when we made our movie with Morgan Spurlock in 2007—they just still feel as pertinent as ever. The rest of these songs are from the last 18 months and speak to our pre-occupations with Black Lives Matter, the extinction crisis, pesticide use. Some of these songs are created with a very specific stage in mind, “Monsanto is the Devil” was written to perform on the lawn of Monsanto’s HQ in St Louis where we made an organic Thanksgiving Dinner; we decided to write “Man Down” sitting on a couch in Edinburgh UK while we watched the initial uprising in Ferguson after Michael Brown was killed. So the songs come from different impulses and serve different purposes, “Gratitude” is a song we made to sing to activists (who never get thanked enough), I just sat down and described the basic day of an activist….
RB: Savitri’s “Gratitude Song” seems like an extended play of the story about Dr. King and the grandmother. He asked an 80 year old lady who was marching to Selma if she was tired. The old momma told him, “My feet are tired but my soul is rested.” We have sung the “Gratitude Song” in sacrifice communities next to refineries and pipelines and toxic fields of GMO corn… We sing it to activists and we let that song give them a moment to feel good about their work.
EM: How do you find the line between artist and activist? Which role comes first?
SD: That’s really a false dilemma— its only capitalism that asks us to make these kinds of distinctions.
RB: Consumerism recreates life in the packages of products. Consumers begin to think a certain way, like everything is separate and has a label. But – yeah – art and activism needs to be the same thing. Activism that isn’t creative is a bore and art that doesn’t shake the soul is just silly.
SD: We try to use the skill sets of both art and activism. In an activist setting creative decisions are unbelievably important, just as in a the setting of a straight performance on a concert stage or even in a club, the decision to be activist, to express political values, changes and influences the performance. We are Earth Radicals, and we use all the tools we have — and as a band of wild New Yorkers it so happens that a lot of the tools we have are creative.
I will say that identifying as an artist is definitely helpful when you are are trying to move through social strata, when you are trying to get into a room, or tap into certain resources. Being an “Artist” is a lot less marginal than being an “Activist,” and gives you more flexibility socially. Its also sometime helpful to place yourself in an artistic lineage — as a way of surviving hard times, or finding the discipline to continue to work… but really “The Arts” are so industrial, so mechanized— its hard not to feel claustrophobic. We usually run as fast as we can for the liberated life of activism, where there is almost nothing to lose and everything to gain.
RB: The question is: where are you singing that song? If we sing about climate change in the lobby of a bank that finances CO2 and methane emissions, like JPMorgan Chase or Bank of America, and we know the cops are on the way – that song lifts up and has a new life.
EM: What do you think about the issues of greed and consumerism in the music industry? How does your group fight against those problems?
SD: Those problems in the music industry reflect the larger problems of commodification and consumerism in our culture; you can see them in virtually every human stream at this point. Americans don’t seem to have another way to evaluate human production. We all know what’s happening; we know there is something dodgy about a train car full of people staring down into gadgets, about children encountering corporations in the classroom, we know its strange to take pictures of our food and performing our every act of “happiness” for a selfie on Instagram.
Now it’s really up to all of us to cultivate other systems of exchange and flex another set of muscles. Instead of consumers let’s be citizens. Instead of just having successful careers lets have successful lives. The biologist EO Wilson has just proposed giving half of the Earths surface back to the Earth, so that half the earth is untouched by Humans. We all have to think about our lives now—What the hell am I doing and why? What am I giving back to the Earth? How can I get out of the way?
RB: We sometimes joke that the fastest way to turn your back on consumerism is to look into another human’s eyes. I can assure you the potential for hot sex is definitely far greater there than staring at Beyonce’s photoshopped bikini line. Amen?
EM: You’ve referred to The Earth Wants YOU as a “motivational handbook,” how do you hope to inspire your listeners to action; how does someone join your church?
SD: One time we performed at a big festival in the UK, it was in a beautiful part of England, so green! …with ancient trees and little lakes and ponds here and there, there were big tents and amazing vendors—it was great—except there was litter EVERYWHERE, I mean EVERYWHERE cups, plates, napkins, party debris, just shit EVERYWHERE and there were all these people tripping all around us, and I was thinking to myself there is no way I could do LSD and sit in a field of litter. To me that’s like the definition of a BAD TRIP… So this is kind of the problem we are confronting with this record— not about litter at a festival obviously, but about climate change, and the extinction crisis and police brutality in our everyday lives and how to make it impossible for people to just (metaphorically) drop some E and pretend none of it is happening..
RB: I know a lot of people are walking around with a pit of dread in their stomachs. We have a weight. We know what the scientists are saying. We feel the apocalypse, but we don’t usually acknowledge how bad things are. Meanwhile, we go about our daily lives, walking on sidewalks, calling friends, sitting in the subway, and we feel a lingering grief about the state of the Earth. It floats through our souls like a dark cloud.
SD: Let’s figure out ways to grab the dark cloud with our bare hands and engage with it, do some magical jujitsu. Be wild by living a whole new way. The Stop Shopping Choir at its best makes you feel like you can do anything.
EM: Anything else you’d like to tell Elmore readers about the new release and what’s up next for the Stop Shopping Choir?
RB: Against racism and against the killing of the Earth – we need a revolutionary social movement. The environmental movement could take some lessons from Black Lives Matter. Don’t say that you are a social movement on your website until you’ve risked your life for the cause. That’s how change has happened in our country. People were willing to risk it all. And every successful revolution in our culture has had great music, from labor to civil rights to women and peace and gender rights and immigration rights – all the great movements that have won us our freedom, these uprisings rose on waves of music.