Ed. note: As long as humans have been making music, it’s been used as a form of protest. As part of KQED Arts’ 100 Days project, documenting artists’ responses to our new administration in its earliest days, I’ve asked Bay Area musicians to get in touch with songs they’ve written or recorded that serve as reactions to our current political climate. Over the next couple months, I’ll be highlighting the most compelling entries I receive, along with a few words from the artist about their inspirations and intentions.
In the tense, color-coded-alert-level months following 9/11, the refrain "freedom isn't free" carried with it a jumbled grab-bag of pride and propaganda: The belief that Americans should naturally surrender some privacy and civil liberties in order to be better protected by our government. The idea that going to war in far-off countries is a necessary measure to preserve stability at home.
A decade and a half later, the word "freedom" is no less loaded, as the United States grapples with a shifting geopolitical position and the promise of increased defense spending under an isolationist president who wants only to "make America great again."
For L.A. four-piece Chicano Batman, it seems, it was time to take the word back. "Because of the ascendance of capitalism as a dominant form of cultural exchange, freedom -- however you choose to define it -- has been commodified like any other product," wrote singer Bardo Martinez in a statement that accompanied the release of "Freedom Is Free," the lead single on a new LP by the same name.
The record, which blends funk, psychedelia and traditional Latin music, conjures 1970s L.A. band War in some places and Gil Scott-Heron in others. It includes lyrics both in Spanish and English -- a usual amalgam for the band.
The record was written and recorded before the 2016 presidential election, band members have said in interviews. But it's hard to ignore the timeliness of its more political themes -- including, as on the titular track, the idea that joy derives from the natural world, or that one's own personal experience, imagination and spirituality is untouchable by the world of politics.
You got your guns up on display
But you can't control how I feel, no way
Cause freedom is free
Freedom is free
And you can't take that away from nobody
"Throughout our history the state has presented the rationale (through propagandistic means and ends) that freedom is not free; that your personal freedom is contingent and dependent on the well being of the state. This logic has explicitly justified war and its atrocities in the name of freedom," said Martinez.
"This song is an antithesis to that ideological fallacy. Freedom is as free as the spirit, as nature, as the universe itself. No matter how hard man tries to control every nuance of nature's movement, he will not succeed. Freedom is a concept of the feeling of nature itself propelling everything in the universe in motion."
Chicano Batman performs Friday, March 3, at The Fillmore in San Francisco. Tickets ($25) and more info here.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED