Activism in music – remarks from President Michael D. Higgins

Music is the international language, the bridge builder and the barrier breaker.

Last weekend Irish President Michael D. Higgins appeared at The Music Show in Dublin‘s RDS to introduce a panel session on activism in music. The President, lined up to speak after a short performance from rapper Temper-Mental MissElayneous (who’s music is a fusion of traditional Irish music and her own brand of fierce rap stylings), had the intersection of the arts, creative industries and the power of music for inspiring participation and social change at the heart of his address. Read on for an edited extract of his remarks.

Good Afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Tá an-áthas orm bheith i bhur láthair ar an ocáid seo. Tá me buíoch dibh as an cuireadh agus an fáilte forchaoin a chur sibh romham.

I am delighted to be here today to celebrate this wonderful event.

You are part of the paradox which is the business of creativity. My belief has always been that the arts, including music, are far more than a business. The Arts have clear economic potential but, even more important, they are vital indicators of the spirit of the times as well as being enablers of positive change. While the arts do not have a monopoly on creativity, they do develop discrete functions of intelligence. These include the marriage of reason and feeling; the centrality of imagination and symbolic representation; the dialogue between ideas and materials; the search for new solutions; the tolerance of ambiguity; the linking of innovation with archetype. These are key features of ‘the Irish mind’, with applications that are beneficial for a knowledge-based economy and for wider civil society.

As I said in my inauguration address, I recognise the will of all of our people to move beyond anger, frustration or cynicism and to draw on our shared strengths. In this I am convinced of the power of community solidarity, of active citizenship. As I said then, we must seek to build together an active, inclusive citizenship – based on participation, equality, respect for all and the flowering of creativity in all its forms. This sense of an engaged community, of doing it for ourselves, I believe sits well with your topic for today – Activism in Music.

This ethos of innovation and pro-activity is being translated into practice in the music industry. You are not waiting for traditional structures or processes to allow you to display your talents or to express yourselves. Every day, we see the use of social media, such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other methods of distribution and promotion, being used to make your work available. You are impatient to have your talent accessible to your audience.

And so it should be – your enthusiasm is infectious and long may it continue.

Music has the potential to connect people in different parts of the globe. Its varying capacity to calm, move and excite us – beyond the limitations of language – gives music a huge transformative power. It’s soothing and liberating potential helps us to address, or at least to mitigate, the sense of disappointment and hurt which has wounded many people in recent times, wounds which are not only economic and financial but also emotional and psychological.

In a time like this it is vital not to deepen inequality and injustice but rather to inspire commitment and to encourage a more intense and productive kind of participation and engagement. Engaged citizenship when fully practiced complements the role of the artist in the community. In the globalised world, music can act as a generator of ideas, solidarity and interconnectedness.

And music is wonderfully accessible – it can be made by all and it certainly can be enjoyed by all. Music also has the capacity to cross the boundaries of age and to have intergenerational appeal. It’s interesting to note that the recent and critically acclaimed album of Leonard Cohen is called “Old Ideas”. I don’t think Leonard is using the word old in a pejorative sense, rather he is subtly conveying the thought that ideas – and indeed musical artistry – have a beauty and integrity irrespective of their age or the age of the artist who expresses them.

The Music of Ireland be it traditional music or music written by today’s Irish rock icons, is itself an area to be celebrated and held up as a sign of optimism. We have much to be proud of and on which to build. Irish musicians have made their mark on today’s international stage; it is well recognised that the arts and culture are Ireland’s global calling card and one of our world-class, distinctive strengths as a nation.

Music is therefore the international language, the bridge builder and the barrier breaker. Your discussions today will raise many questions about the role of music in the wider world – about influencing change, about providing a voice for the unheard, about ensuring that music in all its diversity and plurality continues to prosper in a world sadly susceptible to homogenisation.

Is iontach an obair atá ar siúl agaibh agus comhghairdeachas arís inniu. Go raibh fada buan sibh agus go raibh míle, míle maith agaibh.

Thank you.

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