Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Support independent student journalism. Support independent student journalism. Support independent student journalism.
The Dartmouth
February 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Baca, Spearhead give democracy a new 'look'

"Everyone deserves music" was one refrain Michael Franti shouted and sang over and over again last night, during "What Does Democracy Look Like?," an event that ambitiously sought to blend art with politics.

The performers-cum-activists on the evening's lineup included Franti, who performed with his nationally renowned hip-hop group Spearhead, and Judith Baca, a Los Angeles muralist who is a Montgomery Fellow at Dartmouth this term.

After an introduction by Rockefeller Center for the Social Sciences director Linda Fowler -- who cracked that this was the first Rocky-sponsored event in some time where the average audience age was under 65 -- Baca took the stage in the Hopkins Center's Alumni Hall.

Clad in a brightly printed shirt, Baca smiled warmly as she introduced the crowd of several hundred students and a few dreadlocked locals to her art.

The audience, seated on the floor, were rapt as Baca used a video presentation to outline her career as a community artist and co-founder of the Social and Public Art Resource Center in Los Angeles. The group works with groups of young adults in local communities to create public murals incorporating themes of social justice.

Baca first gained notice in 1976, when she organized the creation of vast murals along the banks of the Los Angeles River. The plans for the murals were conceived by a group of artists from varying backgrounds, each accustomed to different media. But the work of painting the murals represented the efforts of about 200 people, most of them people of color from unprivileged backgrounds.

A succession of artists -- most of them new to painting -- worked for 12 years, extending the murals' reach along thousands of feet of cement flood-drainage walls, part of the vast network of cement that lines every foot of the Los Angeles River system.

The mural is now the longest in the world. It represents a timeline of Los Angeles' history from the native people who originally lived in the area through the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s. Along the way, the story the mural presents is decidedly populist, focusing on the corrupt governments and oppressive majorities who often dictated the fate of local Indians, Latinos, African-Americans and Asian-Americans.

Since the creation of the so-called "Great Wall," Baca has worked on similar projects elsewhere, including a traveling mural that is displayed and exhibited worldwide.

One of Baca's most powerful stories was of creating the Venice Beach Graffiti Pit, a public area where SPARC got permission from city authorities to allow local graffiti artists to cover the cement walls, floors and tables with a coat of spray paint and social statements.

After Baca concluded her presentation, the tall, dreadlocked Michael Franti took the stage, barefoot, backed by his five-piece band, Spearhead.

Franti's challenge was apparent: after nearly an hour of reflecting on Baca's art, he had to motivate the audience -- now on its feet -- to participate in a hip-hop concert.

He needn't have worried excessively. Spearhead opened with a downbeat groove, but soon ratcheted up the tempo and after several songs, the crowd was moving freely, if not wildly.

Franti repeatedly admonished the crowd to shout out, throw up hands, sing along -- and for the most part, they did, building the energy in the boxy hall into something tangible.

Franti and Spearhead's message wasn't so much political as social. While one keyboard was prominently adorned with an American flag that had a field of white corporate logos in place of the stars, anti-corporate and anti-government rhetoric was downplayed.

Franti did work a few jibes into his rapping: the crowd cheered at "I don't give a f-- who politicians are screwing in private/I wanna know who they're screwing in public!" But the more prominent choruses were mostly calls for peace and harmony, like "Every single soul is a poem written on the back of God's hand."

Each member of Spearhead was clearly proficient, but two stuck out: human beatbox RadioActive and bassist Cari Young.

RadioActive and Franti often jumped around the stage, bounding effortlessly as RadioActive sputtered and scratched.

Young kept Spearhead moving, anticipating Franti's antics and leading from the back of the stage with experienced detachment. During a solo opportunity, he didn't waste the chance to blow the audience away with a volley of funky, tweaked notes that sounded otherworldly.

The event, a joint venture whose backers included the Tucker Foundation, the Rockefeller Center, the Dartmouth Greens and the Programming Board, required substantial planning, organizer Lois Schonberger '03 said. She noted that preparation had begun at the beginning of the summer.

By the end of the evening, it was clear what progressive hip-hop sounded like; Baca's visual art had provided an explicit and overwhelming example of a community coming together in the democratic process of creating art.