More About Reebee

Music and politics. These are the two major strands of my life. When they come together, I feel whole. 

There has probably been music in my blood since before l was born. My mother led an all female jazz band called Evelyn and her Mood Indigo Girls in the 1930s and I have been playing in rock 'n' roll bands since I was a sophomore in high school. I jumped headlong into politics — not electoral politics, as in voting for presidents (or not), but movement politics, as in "we all wanna change the world" — when I volunteered to do voter registration work in Mississippi in 1964, the year Mississippi was burning.  The vision of a powerful mass movement fueled by music has been with me ever since. 

Like I said: music and politics. When they come together I feel whole.

And sometimes they do!

Shortly after I arrived in Cambridge, MA, I joined a group called Entropy, Inc. We produced concerts all over New England and gave the money away to political projects. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the project and in 1974, Harvard awarded me a degree in Clinical Psychology and Public Practice. No, really!

Then I went off to co-author Rock ‘n’ Roll is Here to Pay: The History and Politics of the Music Industry, with first author and Entropy co-founder Steve Chapple. As one of the first books to get under the hood of the music business, it was considered groundbreaking. Everybody loved it except Rolling Stone. Hmmmmm.

During this period, I also created the Genealogy of Pop/Rock Music, a graphic representation of the rock ‘n’ roll era, which first appeared as a three page fold-out in early printings of Rock ‘n’ Roll is Here to Pay. It has since been reproduced in a dozen or so graphic design texts, including Ed Tufte’s Visual Explanations. And it is currently available as a stand-alone poster from HistoryShots.com, along with its newer sibling Pop Waves, which extends the genealogy from 1955 - 2014. If ever you don’t know what to get someone for their birthday, look no further.

While still at Harvard, I fell in with some economists from the Union of Radical Political Economists (URPE). Together with some musician friends, we formed Red Shadow: The Economics Rock and Roll Band. Although we never performed live, our two albums, Live at the Panacea Hilton and Better Red, became instant classics in certain economics circles.

On July 21, 1979, I co-produced Amandla: Festival of Unity, a benefit concert for the liberation organizations in Southern Africa featuring Bob Marley in Harvard Stadium. One of the first major anti-apartheid events in the country, Amandla was a stand-out performance for Marley and a life-changing event for those who attended. After distributing the initial proceeds, we spent the next thirty years negotiating the sale of the concert video with the Marley Family. In 2009, we made a deal and sent an additional $175,000 to South Africa. Amandla is remembered at BobMarley.com as #3, among “4 concerts that made Bob Marley a legend.”

Following Amandla, I became a co-founder of Mass Rock Against Racism to protest racial violence and spent the next seven years using popular music to combat racism among high school students in the Greater Boston area. This was during the aftermath of “busing” when racialized violence plagued the public schools. Most of the students we worked with were into hip hop, so we had rappers, break dance crews, and graffiti artists pooling their talents to learn about and perform at political events and community organizations. Odes to civil rights and women’s liberation never looked or sounded so good!

In 1980, I helped organize the Boston/La Habana Media Tour to study the mass media in Cuba. As the music specialist, I was treated to a bird’s eye view of Cuba’s music industry. And as the fates would have it, the tour arrived in Cuba just weeks after the beginning of the Mariel boatlift, a heady time, which kicked off two decades of further visits and additional research and writing on Cuban music in collaboration with my wife, Deborah Pacini Hernandez. In the 1990s we produced two of the first academic articles on rock and rap in Cuba. And we still married.

By late 1970s—September 1, 1978, to be exact—I had become a professor at UMass Boston’s College of Public and Community Service (CPCS), an experimental, competency-based college, serving diverse, working class, urban adults. We challenged academic orthodoxies, worked in actual communities, and made a real difference in peoples lives. It was a very special place. So special that I stayed for the next 33 years.

My teaching started with courses like “Race and Culture,” “The History of the Welfare State,” “Grassroots Fundraising,” etc., then segued seamlessly into “The Social History of Popular Music,” and "Music and Politics," which treated popular music as contested terrain upon which the struggle for American values takes place. Turns out that combining music and politics in this way proved to be quite useful to educating human service workers, especially those not yet conversant with US popular culture. And I loved that CPCS allowed me to teach out of the disciplinary box.

We didn’t just teach courses at CPCS. We worked with students in the field. And I often did it with music. Workfare: Anatomy of a Policy was an audio documentary produced for WBCN-FM that analyzed the fallout from welfare reform in the early 1980s through interviews punctuated by poignant selections of related music. In 1982, the program received a first place national award from the National Commission on Working Women. But Can You Dance To It was a televised dance party, produced for Somerville Community Access Television. It featured locally prominent deejays Charles Laquidara, Sonny Joe White, and Jose Masso playing selections from their diverse playlists and providing social commentary, while a multi-cultural group of young people danced to them. In 1983, the program won a first place national award from the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers.

In the late 1980s, I became active in organizing the “political” panels for the New Music Seminar (then the largest music industry conference in the country). I chaired panels on racism, social change, censorship, etc., with leading activists, prominent music industry figures, and artists such as Ice T, Peter Gabriel, and Nona Hendryx and got to rub elbows with the likes of Chuck D, Jello Biafra, and Africa Bambaataa. The fact that my introduction to the panel on racism in 1987 got a standing ovation from over 1,500 people in attendance spoke to how thirsty people were for a critique of their own industry.

I remained at CPCS from 1978 until I retired in 2011, teaching and writing about topics at the intersection of music and politics: racism, sexism, globalization, censorship, charity rock, copyright law, music and emotion, and digital file sharing. During this period, I also produced two edited collections. In 1992, I edited Rockin’ the Boat: Mass Music and Mass Movements, about the relationship between popular music and political movements around the world. And in 2003, Martin Cloonan and I co-edited Policing Pop, analyzing censorship in popular music.

Even with a respectable record of publication, I have been a reluctant academic. Activist always sounded better, and at CPCS, the lines were very blurry. Still, it’s hard to ignore the fact that I have always done things academic: writing; publishing; sitting on editorial boards; going to professional conferences. I joined the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM) in 1984. By the late 1980s, I had become the president of the US Chapter and a member of the International Executive Committee. I am an honorary member of the US Executive Committee to this day.

At one of the national conferences I organized for IASPM in New Orleans in 1990, an editor from a major publishing house sat down next to me at lunch and said: “I want to publish the definitive history of popular music and I want you to write it.” I didn’t believe a word of this, but I thought it was one hell of an icebreaker. Although I never came to terms with her company, she did refer me to the publisher who published Rockin’ Out: Popular Music in the USA.

I think of Rockin’ Out as one-stop shopping for music and politics: you get history, social context, musical critique, chart position, sales figures, and political analysis, all in one place. It’s like a US history course using popular music to tell the story. Rockin’ Out is now in its sixth edition, and sufficiently successful that I have asked my friend and colleague Steve Waksman to join me as co-author. Steve has added a fresh perspective to the work I began some 25 years earlier.

Going into my final decade at CPCS, I created a new degree program in Community Media and Technology (CMT). The program was anchored by a new technology lab funded by Monster.com and a one million dollar federal VISTA grant that was renewed for ten years. CMT was ahead of its time, but the university administration let it languish and eventually put it on the shelf to create a more traditional Communications Program in the College of Liberal Arts. That was the last straw. I retired on May 31, 2011. By then the university administration had begun to systematically dismantle the college and I couldn’t bear to be there anymore. I honestly thought I would miss academia more than I do.

One of the things that kept my spirits up during the lean years at CPCS was my current rock ‘n’ roll band, the Blue Suede Boppers, founded in 1987 and still going strong after thirty-plus years without a personnel change.

Fortunately for me, as my interest in academia was cooling down, the HONK! Festival of Activist Street Bands was heating up. Founded in 2006, by members of the Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band, HONK! is a moving spectacle (in both senses of the term) of outrageous and unruly marching bands, along with gigantic puppets, dancers, bikers, jugglers, hoopers, flag twirlers, and stilt walkers, all working in cahoots with unions, activist organizations, and community groups. At full power, these bands deliver an irresistible force of creative movement and sonic self-expression directed at reclaiming public space and advocating for broader social change.

HONK! itself is a three day festival that happens annually in Somerville, MA, but the fact is that these bands act like this all year. The Festival has been so successful that it has spread to cities all over the country and to locales as far flung as Rio de Janiero and Wollagong, Australia. I could go on (and have), but really HONK! has to be experienced to be understood. Even watching the videos only takes you so far.

The moment I saw my first HONK! poster I knew I wanted to be part of this scene. I joined the Organizing Committee at the first opportunity, and two months later, there was a vacancy in the Second Line percussion section, so I was invited to join the band as well. I have now spent more than ten years organizing the Festival in October and playing for demonstrations and other festivals the rest of the year. One of the most gratifying moments the band’s history happened on January 21, 2017, as Second Line led the parade for the Boston Women’s March for America with 175,000 people in attendance.

In 2010, about a year before I retired, I started thinking about how and where I want to live as I age. Along with my wife, Deborah Pacini, and our good friend Janine Fay, we founded the Collaborative Living Project. We are now a group of more than twenty progressive artists, activists, and educators of retirement age, pursuing the construction of a multi-use, multi-generational intentional community with other development partners. It is designed to enable us to remain engaged in our local community and maintain the quality of our lives as we continue to age in place. Not for nothing, it includes, among other amenities, a musical rehearsal space and a performance venue.