The DeGeorge brothers' mine J.K. Rowling's magical books for real-world meaning
If you’ve dabbled in wizarding fan culture at all over the last 13 years, you’ll know Harry and the Potters as the world’s foremost Harry Potter rock band. Formed in 2002 by brothers Joe and Paul DeGeorge, they are the originators and primary champions of a genre since dubbed “Wizard Rock.”
Now 8 years after the publication of Rowling’s last book in the series, the brothers are still playing packed clubs and libraries throughout the world. Part of the continued appeal is their ability to transcend their source material by bringing the books’ political and moral lessons into our own world. Their shows are part political rally, part role playing convention, and part religious ceremony, as the band implores the audience to fight greed and seek power in love and protest.
They’ve even created their own non-profit group–Harry Potter Alliance–to transfer the energy of fan culture into organizing campaigns and “Fight Voldemort in the Real World.” I spoke with the brothers about how they’ve so effectively transformed a book series about a boy wizard into a powerful catalyst for change.
JOEY LA NEVE DeFRANCESCO: So many works of popular culture follow a typical good-versus-evil storyline yet take no political stand. What’s special about the Harry Potter books that makes them especially meaningful to real life politics?
Paul DeGeorge: You’re absolutely right. So many stories will take that big-versus-evil story, but fail to unpack any of the elements of evil or the motives of those who support it. I think Harry Potter succeeds because Rowling is so intent on providing a much clearer picture of the social and political landscape that fosters Voldemort’s ascent as a more archetypal villain. There are many smaller evils along the way to that big evil, and pretty much every character is the story is complicit in at least some way of propping up this system.
There’s wrongful and unjust imprisonment at Azkaban, classism around blood-purity where children born to one or more non-magical parents are viewed as lesser by traditional wizard families (the word “mudblood,” which describes these wizards, is essentially the wizard world’s equivalent of racial slur), the enslavement of house elves, and a society as a whole that regards entire classes of intelligent magical creatures (centaurs, goblins, giants, etc.) as either lesser or subservient.
The wizard world feels real because there are whole host of social and political issues that actually effect the characters in the story. And even when the ultimate evil (Voldemort) has been defeated, that doesn’t mean these other issues have been solved. I think the richness of the social and political structure is a big part of why the Harry Potter books have made such an impact and how they continue to help us make sense of our own messed up world.
There are many smaller evils along the way to that big evil, and pretty much every character is the story is complicit in at least some way of propping up this system.
Joe DeGeorge: A friend of mine once derided Star Wars as being surprisingly apolitical for a movie about a rebellion. That seems to me the quintessential story of the last 50 years that has the potential to come up with some sort of political narrative but just fails at every juncture. Why is there even a rebellion in that movie? I have yet to receive a satisfying explanation concerning the politics of Star Wars.
But with regard to Harry Potter, those stories are loaded with their own politics, and the generation I grew up with is able to resonate with the politics in these stories. In Rowling’s wizarding world, the Ministry of Magic refuses to acknowledge the return to power of the hateful wizard Voldemort. The magical government is inept and takes no action or preparations to combat the policies of hate that Voldemort and company invest themselves in. In our world we see ignorance, indifference and worse, straight up denial with our leaders failing to recognize climate change, or blatantly ignoring genocide and civil wars. In the Harry Potter books it is the youth that become empowered to take action, as nearly every adult in a position of official political and bureaucratic power is useless or regressive, from the ignorance displayed by the Minsters of Magic to the top-down educational reformers who come to school and censor valuable defensive knowledge from the students. Harry and his comrades even organize a sort of student union to demand that they be taught the skills they need to survive in a world increasingly dominated by aristocratic racist wizards, and take on a lot of this education on their own.
The Harry Potter books are meaningful to real life politics because they create an empowering narrative for people set against a backdrop of dark and oppressive magic forces that yield social consequences. Through friendship and imagination of a better and more accepting world the characters in the stories rise against the wizarding systems of oppression and hate. I think any activist would find something to resonate with in the Harry Potter stories. A whole generation has grown up with these stories and they all have common experiences in this story. It may be a work of fantasy, but the political narratives in Harry Potter are a legitimate source of inspiration for people and a valid foundation for social action.
In your live shows and recordings you push the politics further than the books. How do you amp up the message?
Joe DeGeorge: I don’t know if we as a band and are able to push to politics much further than in the books. The politics are there in the books. What we do have is an additional way to interpret and broadcast those politics. We have a more or less punk approach to our band’s practices. The conceptual premise of our band is that there are two Harry Potters on stage at the same time, and although Harry Potter is sort of a jock, he’s also into punk stuff. As punk Harry Potters we aim to create an inspiring space marrying the progressive politics Rowling has put into the stories with the vocabulary of punk aesthetics. Of course, it makes sense that Harry Potter is a punk: he’s got a lot to yell about, and he might get a little preachy too about some especially relevant issues.
As punk Harry Potters we aim to create an inspiring space marrying the progressive politics Rowling has put into the stories with the vocabulary of punk aesthetics.
This maybe isn’t as relevant now, but before 2008 Americans were frustrated that a buffoon was running the country. We did a lot of touring around that time and had a song called “Cornelius Fudge is an Ass.” Fudge is one of the inept Ministers of Magic. In that song we mapped many frustrations concerning the direction of America with regards to conservative media. In our shows at that time we would actively deride the president and change some of the lyrics in the song to “Fox News” just to drive the point home. I think that song was sort of a beginning point for us where we realized we could draw these parallels between our world and Harry Potter’s world and get people to think about Harry’s relationship with political forces as analogous to their own. We wrote about S.P.E.W., Hermione’s labor organization for oppressed elves. When introducing the song at a concert, Harry Potter will emphasize the importance of decent working conditions and living wages. When playing “Song for the Death Eaters,” sometimes Harry Potter will call out all the people in the audience who identify as Death Eaters (I know, it’s fucked up) and tells them he feels sorry for them because they have their values all messed up, putting capital and blood lineage before human compassion. Our shows touch on some activist rhetoric in this way, but it is mostly playful, with a desperate hope to inspire people to imagine less oppressive paradigms to live within.
What issues seem important to the Harry Potter fan community? Have you been able to push them in a more radical direction?
Paul: LGTBQIA Issues and Gender Equality are places where there’s a lot of energy and interest in the Harry Potter fan community (the Harry Potter Alliance recently conducted a member survey where over 43% of respondents identified their sexuality as something other than “straight.”) There’s also a lot of enthusiasm around education issues (reading has a particularly special place in a Harry Potter fan’s heart) and mental health.
Although some of my personal politics may be radical, I don’t think we’ve pushed too hard on that with our band. Most of our success in organizing the community comes by way of our work with, and support of, the Harry Potter Alliance. I’m a co-founder of the organization, serve on the board, and at one point, spent a couple years working full-time for the HPA. My work with the organization centered on creating structures that empower fans to make real-world change. Along the way, I’ve definitely helped to put at least a few new issues (net neutrality, economic inequality, ethical sourcing) onto the radar of teenage Harry Potter fans, but these don’t really feel like radical issues to me. They just feel sensible.
Is there a limit to what the mainstream Harry Potter audience will go for politically, or how far they’ll let you push the source material?
Paul: If you’ve ever read fan fiction, you know that fandom generally has a pretty high tolerance for how far you can push the source material, but most fanfic doesn’t go too deep on politics. More to your question, the mainstream Harry Potter audience can behave pretty differently from the much smaller subset that we’d categorize as the engaged fandom, which seems more radical/queer/tolerant/
As a band, we see this on a pretty small scale when we make social media posts that might have a political bent. We’ll get a lot of comments along the lines of “keep politics out of Harry Potter” which is a comment that basically outs the author as someone with a pretty unsophisticated read of the text. I argued with some trolls about gay marriage back in 2004, but haven’t paid them much mind since. Got no time for that.
But there are places where it seems to get really uncomfortable for the more mainstream Harry Potter fans. Mugglenet, a popular Harry Potter fansite, recently published a quick little story on Dylan Marron’s “Every Single Word Spoken by a Person of Color in the Entire ‘Harry Potter’ Film Series.” It’s a brilliant piece of cultural commentary that speaks for itself very simply because it presents a fact: in 19 hours and 39 minutes of screen time during the Harry Potter film series, people of color only speak for about 6 minutes. Mugglenet posted the video without commentary, basically saying “this exists” and then I saw them getting slammed hard for “race baiting,” which is absurd.
So to answer your question, mainstream Harry Potter fans, much like mainstream Americans, have a problem both recognizing and dealing with white privilege. Fandom, in general, has a better understanding of this issue – though far from perfect – because there is a huge movement within fandom now for more diverse representation in stories.
We’ve already talked a bit about your non-profit organization, Harry Potter Alliance, which aims to “Fight Voldemort in the Real World.” You’ve won a lot with the organization—can you tell us some of the work you’re most proud of?
Paul: When Harry and his friends realize that the leadership of the wizarding world is compromised and ineffectual, they take matters into their own hands and begin to train and organize their own resistance as Dumbledore’s Army. The whole idea behind the Harry Potter Alliance is to create a real-world Dumbledore’s Army that empowers young people to make a difference and fight for social justice. So while I’m very proud of some of our individual campaign victories (successfully pressuring Warner Bros. to make all Harry Potter-branded chocolate products fair trade, sending nearly $130,000 in relief supplies to Haiti after the earthquake, rallying fans for Net Neutrality), I’m much more preoccupied by the war instead of the battles. So to that end, I’m most proud of the fact that we’re helping to inspire future organizers and leaders. We have over 250 chapters doing autonomous work in their own community. Many of those chapter organizers have now grown into some of the top leadership positions in the organization. And last year, we launched the Granger Leadership Academy which is changing how activists organize around popular culture. When you change the culture, you can change both hearts and minds, and that’s how we’ll start to see large scale social change. The HPA has already been successful in connecting so many new young people to social justice issues and training them to organize and become leaders. We’re stacking the deck for the future with a bunch of cultural revolutionaries.
When you say you “fight Voldemort in the real world,” do you see Voldemort as representing a specific person, issue, or institution, or system? Or does represent just a broader idea of evil?
Joe DeGeorge: I think we mean it in all of these ways. The Voldemort in the books really, really sucks. He hates muggles. He’s obsessed with the idea of wizard supremacy and his own immortality and letting his violent awful ideologies live forever in power. He’s not some faceless idea of a vague evil; he is the worst. I think you can map Voldemort and his values of supremacy onto a lot of things in our world. Sometimes Voldemort is a racist family member. Some see Voldemort as the US industrial military complex. Sometimes Voldemort is inside you. An important part of the story is that Harry Potter learns how to fight the Voldemort that is inside him and I think that is a powerful device for anyone who recognizes that they are the product of the society they are living in. It is especially relevant if that society is built off of the structures of colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism. In order to make a less oppressive world it’s important we recognize the vestiges of those oppressive Voldemorts in ourselves and work against them.
An important part of the story is that Harry Potter learns how to fight the Voldemort that is inside him, and I think that is a powerful device for anyone who recognizes they are the product of the society they are living in. It is especially relevant if that society is built off of the structures of colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism.
Paul: Coming from an organizing perspective, I think it’s pretty limiting to ever attribute a single issue or institution to a figure of ultimate evil like Voldemort. I think this actually ties back to your earlier question about what makes the Harry Potter series resonate on a political level. There are a whole wealth of systemic issues that create an environment in which Voldemort can come to hold power. As activists, we must continue working to dismantle all of the structures that make such an oppressive and tyrannical rule possible.
Your song “S.P.E.W” suggests you are supporters of the Society for the Promotion of Elvish Welfare (or S.P.E.W), Hermione’s organization to improve the conditions of the house elves. How do you evaluate the success of the organization? I appreciate that Rowling displays the complexities of organizing by showing the difficulties of Hermione’s efforts, but do you feel the organization is ultimately a kind of empty top-down charity model with little support in the base of elves themselves? An expression of Hermione’s savior complex?
Paul: S.P.E.W. catches a lot of flack in activist circles for exactly the reasons you mentioned. Hermione’s campaign was ultimately a failure, but I think she planted some seeds and could maybe declare at least a small victory after seeing the house-elves (led by Kreacher) rise up from the Hogwarts kitchens and enter the fray during the Battle of Hogwarts.
Hermione’s difficulties with S.P.E.W should make it feel that much more real for those who care about social justice issues. It’s important to remember that we are all imperfect activists and that we grow and learn as time goes on. Hermione’s efforts may have been flawed, but at least she tried to do something. Let’s be clear: house elves are basically enslaved by wizards. This was the status quo, Hermione saw this injustice and tried to do something and, when she did, she was basically laughed at by the entire school, including her own friend circle. She fought when no one else would and I think that makes her the biggest friggin’ hero in the entire book series. We’re so lucky to have Hermione as a role model and props again to JK Rowling for giving us with such a rich portrayal of activism. Even when Voldemort’s been defeated, that doesn’t mean that all is right in the world. There is still work to do.
Joe DeGeorge: Yes. There are some important issues with S.P.E.W.’s internal organization. Hermione, who has a heart of gold, has minimal actual connections with house elves. It would be nice to see more elf representation in the organization. However, I think some will argue that Hermione has a lot more privilege and resources available to her than a house elf who is enslaved at all hours of the day and conditioned to think that there is nothing to life beyond labor and loyalty for their masters. You see the resistance in a lot of elves who are hesitant to even consider the idea of freedom. Some like, Kreacher, even detest the idea of freedom after years of service to his masters. It is my hope that S.P.E.W. will evolve to be more representative in it’s membership and activity.
You know what’s kind of messed up? The last line of the last chapter of the Harry Potter books, Harry Potter has just defeated you know who, the evil wizard, the champion of oppression of all other magical beings, Harry Potter’s only wish is that his slave house elf will bring him a sandwich. After all that fighting for equality and justice for magical beings he just wants his slave to get him a sandwich. As my brother said, there is still so much we need to fight for.