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Lafawndah Interviews Lawrence Lessig to Accompany New Track ‘Town Crier’

The Harvard professor and Creative Commons founder answers the hard questions

“Let me take the opportunity to tear you down,” murmurs Lafawndah on “Town Crier,” the aerated opener to her four-track debut EP for Warp Records, Tan (out February 5). Rather than relying on melody to carry her poetry’s not-so-subtle insinuations of destruction, she ducks and weaves between hollow percussive clangs and what sounds like the wailing of a pitched-down zurna, reveling in the track’s never-ending sense of tension (and no release).

Having lived in Paris, Tehran, Mexico, and Brooklyn, the worldly producer is sharing a recent interview she conducted with social advocacy and political reform visionary Lawrence Lessig. He needs little introduction — except for the one Lafawndah, who’s also an affiliate of woozy New York synthmen Teengirl Fantasy and London’s bass-masters label/collective Night Slugs, has given him. Of the following Q&A, she says:

“Town Crier” is the new single that I’m sharing from my EP. The song starts off as what might initially sound like a deceptive romantic relationship, and concludes with the rumbling threat of insurgency against the powers in place.

For this occasion, I had the honor to talk to Lawrence Lessig.

Lessig is so many things, they shouldn’t fit in a single lifetime. Here, however, are a few: he’s a professor of law at Harvard; a long time proponent of internet copyright issues; founder of Creative Commons; and an independent political activist who recently ran as a candidate in the 2016 US presidential election with the aim to raise awareness around campaign finance reform.

To accompany the release of “Town Crier,” I thought Lessig and I could talk about civil disobedience and how to mobilize people beyond the politics of dissatisfaction.

Listen to “Town Crier” here, and read Lafawndah’s interview with Lessig below.

I feel the need to be reminded of episodes in history in which people gathered to disapprove — to rise against the power in place — in order to start imagining the possibility of it. Which moment of civil disobedience has had the most enduring impact on you?
I guess my favorite civil disobedience event is the sit-ins of the lunch counter. They began [with] young activists in the south, not supported by the leadership of either the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) or even Dr. King’s southern Christian leadership conference.

They took the issue into a place where it was visceral for ordinary people, and raised it to a principled level that made it hard for people to resist. I thought that was very impressive.

Is there a threshold for civil disobedience, a point that needs to be reached in order for people to find that strength? When and how do we reach this point?
I think effective civil disobedience is disobedience that cannot be ignored, not because it’s violent or forceful but because it forces people to acknowledge something they sometimes already believe.

The difference between King’s movement and Malcom X’s movement was that King’s movement, by embracing non-violence, made it impossible for the other side to ignore it. A movement of violence was simple for people to ignore and suppress. So interventions that elevate the moral debate are ultimately gonna be more effective.

How do you mobilize people and what is particular about mobilizing people in 2016?
I’m not sure I claim success in mobilizing people, but what I believe in is mobilizing people to the better sense of who we are as citizens. And that’s to try to elevate that fight above the partisan frame that typically pollutes so much of public life. What I’ve tried to do is to find a way to make people who think that they disagree see that they actually fundamentally agree about this.

What does civil disobedience require now that distinguishes our moment from the politics of the recent past?
I think the urgency has become so critical. The problem is getting worse, more people are getting it, more people are seeing what the urgency is about… They’ll see why it’s so critical and also increasingly see why there’s something we might be able to do.

In your TED talk, you say that you don’t buy cynicism and when people feel discouraged. Is there something that you find peculiar to this moment in history that we’re in, in that we feel like we don’t have agency?
Yeah, I think that’s exactly the way to frame it. We’ve professionalized politics. Politics is what politicians do. And we believe that politicians are corrupted and we don’t believe that politicians are actually able to uncorrupt themselves.

Even when they are talking about how fundamental change is or the need for change is, people hear them and don’t actually hear any real reason to believe they’re gonna bring that change.

So I think what we’ve got is the worst of both worlds. We have a passive public, the public doesn’t know how to engage and then we have the only people who actually do engage are not trusted to actually bring about reform. So we need to find our way around that.

Did you watch Making a Murderer?
No I haven’t seen it yet.

The way people mobilized after watching the series is very impressive to me. I just wondered what made people react so strongly, if there is some kind of thread for how people come to the moment where it clicks from passive to not passive. The reasons to not be passive are there, so it cannot be the reasons alone that make people click.
Yeah. I think we’ve got a problem of the politics of resignation. People are dissatisfied, they see the problem but they don’t think there is anything they can do about it and until you give them a reason to believe there is something you can do about it, they’re not gonna act. So I think giving people a sense that there is hope, that there’s something that can be done, is the essential step to getting them to do something.

How do you give that sense of hope to people though?
I think it’s about building something they can actually see as potentially successful. We don’t know what that is yet, I don’t know what that is yet. I’m doing everything I can to figure that out but I think that’s what’s gonna need to happen.