On Tuesday, December 11, 2018, the UC Berkeley campus once again became the center of conversation about social movements. Led by singer/songwriter Noel “Paul” Stookey of the ’60s trio Peter, Paul, and Mary, Music Matters…or Does It? presented an evening of dialogue and performance to an audience of UC Berkeley alumni and friends. Stookey, along with a group of special guests, reflected on the ways music has influenced and inspired artists to action around some of the biggest social movements of our time. Music to Life, a nonprofit organization led by Stookey, curated the event.
Special guests included Ken Kragen ’58, creator of humanitarian movements including “We Are the World” and “Hands Across America,” and former music manager to clients such as Lionel Richie, Harry Chapin, and Kenny Rogers. In 1986, he was named UC Berkeley’s Alumnus of the Year, in recognition of his achievements. Kragen spoke about his experiences working with musicians in support of social causes, noting, “the threats to dictatorships are first and foremost the artists, and the musicians, because they can move the people.”
Additional special guests were singer-songwriters Nate Cameron and Naima Shalhoub; children’s artist Kaitlyn McGraw, along with members of the group Alphabet Rockers; musician Marcus Shelby; and Rickey Vincent, UC Berkeley ethnic studies lecturer, author, and KPFA radio DJ.
Multidisciplinary artist Claire Lim opened the program with a solo live electronic act. Rich Lyons, Dean of UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, introduced the evening’s guests by singing James Taylor’s “Country Road,” with Stookey playing impromptu percussion. “Music reminds us how much fun it is to be alive,” said Lyons.
The artists talked about music’s power to express suffering as well as unite across culture, language, and country. “Freedom knows freedom, and oppression knows oppression,” Shalhoub emphasized. Accompanied by Marcus Shelby on bass, Shalhoub performed Roumieh Prison Blues, a song she wrote in collaboration with prisoners incarcerated in Roumieh, Lebanon.
A self-described “activist by accident,” Stookey recounted how music’s power had evolved his personal life. “A benefit concert brings attention to the circumstance for a moment, and then fades away,” he said. “The people on this stage care deeply because they have poured their lives into what they believe in, and that’s what Music to Life attempts to support.”
“This is an opportunity to decompress time,” Stookey said, “because we are here from different perspectives talking about music that matters.”
Founded in 2000 by Stookey and his daughter, Elizabeth Stookey Sunde, Music to Life builds on the strong historical legacy of social movements’ intentional use of music to educate, recruit, and mobilize. “It’s not only the cause, it’s the manner in which you express the cause,” Stookey said. “How can you involve other people if you have an anger you’re carrying into the circumstance? What is that magical quality that music brings into the human heart?”