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Songwriters Draw Musical Inspiration From Immigration

The wall dividing the United States and Mexico stands to prevent illegal immigration between the two countries, but it doesn’t stop musicians from crossing art and politics. Photo from the “Border Songs” CD booklet, courtesy of Shawn Skabelund.

While “Gang of Eight” may sound like the next new pop sensation, this band of political leaders is not the least bit concerned with Billboard hits. Instead, they’ve taken on the task of producing bipartisan harmony on the issue of immigration reform.

But music does have a place in the national dialogue on immigration. “Music is used for political purposes all over the world and has been since the beginning of politics,” Robert Neustadt told PBS NewsHour.

Director of Latin American Studies at Northern Arizona University, Neustadt has spent much of his career researching and writing about the role of music in Latin American political movements. Most recently, he co-produced “Border Songs,” a two-disc compilation album of immigration songs, including tunes that focus on fatalities and other tragedies that occur in the desert at the border between the United States and Mexico. The album includes an eclectic mix of songs in both English and Spanish, spoken word, blues, folk and Americana and everything in between. Contributing artists include Amos Lee, Michael Franti, Spearhead and Tom Russell. Ninety-four-year-old folk music legend Pete Seeger even lends his song “My Rainbow Race” to the collection.

Listen to “Are We A Nation” by Sweet Honey In The Rock, the first track from disc one of “Border Songs.”

“Border Songs” makes clear its goal to end what Neustadt calls a “humanitarian disaster” occurring on the border, where hundreds of migrants perish each year. All of the money made from its sale goes towards No More Deaths, a charity that works to provide water, food and medical aid for migrants in dangerous parts of the border desert.

On the other side of the political spectrum, artists like Grammy winner Ray Stevens have sung about amnesty. Stevens’ 2010 country tune “Come to the USA” mocks what he calls the “ridiculous things that have been allowed to happen because some politicians think they’re gonna get votes from illegal aliens.”

Watch Ray Stevens’ music video for “Come to the USA.”

Stevens has sung about other political topics, including global warming and the economy, and the artist has also recorded a great deal of non-political work. His more than three dozen studio albums offer sounds that span musical genres.

PBS NewsHour spoke with both men about why they turned to music to make a political statement.

“These songs can wake people up and make them aware of what’s happening, and also can make them feel more compassionate,” Neustadt said.

“I have to speak out whether it does any good or not…” said Stevens. “Somebody might hear your point and be in a position to do some good.”

You can listen to both of the interviews below.

Robert Neustadt reflects on the humanitarian crisis occurring at the U.S.-Mexico border and his hope that “Border Songs” will inspire compassion.

Conservative Ray Stevens discusses U.S. immigration policy and why he produced his tongue-in-cheek single “Come to the USA.”

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