How Fast Food Workers Are Amplifying Their Message On The Mic And In The Studio
Pictured: Fast Food Worker, Organizer and Musician Ashley Cathey. All Photos Courtesy of Fight For $15.
Yale professor Daphne A Brooks recently dubbed our era “a golden age of protest music.” Her piece “How #BlackLivesMatter started a musical revolution” casts artists like Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, and D’Angelo as the latest in a long tradition of protest music. Similar think-pieces on these artists and their revolutionary potential clog our social media feeds, yet such analyses look at music’s role in the movement primarily from the top-down, ignoring art being created from the grassroots. We should praise popular artists for taking a stance, but in order to get a more complete view we must also look to the people on the ground in social movements and see how the music they create expresses and amplifies their political ideals.
The Fight for $15 movement began in New York City in 2012 with the primary goal of winning a $15 minimum wage for fast food workers, and it’s grown rapidly since. With affiliates all over the world, the movement has been working tirelessly to get a living wage and union rights for not only fast food workers, but also adjunct professors, airport workers, and home healthcare workers. The group is planning a massive action for this Thursday, May 26, as an estimated 10,000 workers and allies will converge on the annual McDonald’s shareholder meeting in Chicago.
Kendall Fells is the organizing director of Fight for $15. Speaking over the phone, he was happy to tell me about about how the movement started and what its goals were, but he became particularly animated when he started to talk about music’s role in it. Over the course of the interview, music went from a “defining characteristic” of the movement to its “soul.” Between rhythmic chants and “breathtaking” body movements “swaying left and right,” Fells described the visuals and sounds of the movement as “like theatre.” “When I boil it all down, workers have found their voice on the strike line, on the mic, and in the studio to tell their stories,” he says.
When I boil it all down, workers have found their voice on the strike line, on the mic, and in the studio to tell their stories.
In videos and photos of Fight for $15 rallies, workers are banging on buckets and singing into megaphones. They’re performing and improvising music not to get record deals, but to get a living wage and a union, rewriting the narrative of means and ends in the modern music industry. Music becomes the heartbeat and soundtrack of the Fight for $15, rather than just another dry chant.
A number of artists have risen to prominence within the movement. One is Ashley Cathey, a fast food worker and organizer from Memphis, who says her songs are about “our lives and what we go through.” Cathey’s chant “Hard Work” is a call and response where her lyrics begin describing the mundane in her life – “Get up ‘bout a quarter to 8” and “Get the kids on their way” – before moving to demands: “Fighting for a living wage” and “organize my union now.”
“People won’t take the time to listen to what the movement is about, but they’ll hear your song and catch something from what you’re singing,” says Yara Allen, a musician and activist training fast food workers on how to incorporate music into their movement. Of course music isn’t a new movement tactic; it is as old as the struggle itself, but its persuasive potential can be underrated. Chicago rapper and fast food worker KJ agrees, arguing, “people wouldn’t want to listen to a two-hour debate, but would listen to a three minute song.” While working on this story, one song would constantly get stuck in my head: “Show Me 15” by St. Louis, MO artist, organizer and former fast food worker Skillet. The song’s chorus is the movement’s two core demands in four simple words: “$15 and a union.” There is a covert power in music to shift a political narrative.
Artists parse out their politics beyond slogans as well. In his song “We Live That,” KJ’s verse covers extensive ground, taking listeners through the nuances and the intersections that embody a broader political landscape. He critiques “systems” of violence, shows solidarity with “Mexican Immigrants,” compares fast food work to slavery “in the modern day,” and calls out the rich for being greedy and “bloodthirsty.”
When considering the power of music within Fight for $15, it is impossible to ignore the congruence of race and history. According to organizing director Kendall Fells, 90% of the crowd of any given Fight for $15 event is African American or Latino. Cathey notes how these narratives are intertwined historically in the struggle for justice: “Music – especially coming from a black culture anyway, coming up from what our ancestors went through, you know they couldn’t read and write, but you couldn’t take their drums away from them, you couldn’t take the homemade instruments they made for themselves – you couldn’t take take those away. Back then that was the only way we could express ourselves.”
“We’re doing this hard work for these billion dollar corporations who don’t want to see us succeed in life, and we work our tails off for them and they profit most of the money,” Cathey says. These disparities were borne out when it was recently revealed that McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook had received a 368% raise from 1.69 Million in 2014 to 7.91 Million in 2015. The news came out just one day after the Fight for $15 movement staged their largest action yet on Thursday April 14, 2016, with over 300 strikes and protests around the world. The day of action was part of a rising sea of discontent, taking place the same week that 40,000 Verizon workers walked off of the job. All the organizing and actions have won $15 minimum wage laws in New York and California, and the movement marches on.
We’re doing this hard work for these billion dollar corporations who don’t want to see us succeed in life, and we work our tails off for them and they profit most of the money.
Skillet, despite his talent, says he isn’t in a hurry to push his music. He says that if there came a time where it made sense, he would be open to doing more music and making it more than a hobby. In contrast, when the opportunity came to become a full time organizer, he jumped at the chance. “I had no choice,” he says, “I had to stand up and do something.” As for KJ, he’s proud his is of the impact he has already made as a musician: “I am actually creating influence, and showing people what’s going on.”