Interview with Joe of Larry & Joe on the role of social justice activism in their music

By Grace Stevens, age 12

Larry & Joe

Grace: How did you and Larry meet? And what made you want to become like a duo?

Joe: The way we met was somewhat related to activism. I had lived in South America for 10 years, but during the pandemic, I wound up back in the United States and got very involved in what people call “artism,” which is basically using your art and pairing it with activism. I was volunteering at a shelter in Nogales, Mexico, for asylum seekers called La Casa de la Divina Misericordia, or House of Divine Mercy. My friends introduced me to an asylum-seeking musician working in Raleigh, NC, who was working in construction, who was a brilliant Venezuelan musician called Larry. A couple of months later, I invited Larry to participate in a residency that I was producing in Durham, NC. And we hit it off and decided we wanted to make music together. 

Grace: What social justice issues do you feel strongly about?

Joe: Immigration reform. That’s a big one. There’s so many issues that are important. Also climate change is one of those issues that affects literally every person on Earth. I’ve written a lot of music about that. In fact, in our next album there are a couple of songs that directly speak to the need for climate action. And when you’re dealing with, for example, immigration reform and the migrant crisis, one of the main reasons people are migrating is because of climate change. Because of desertification, they’re being forced out of their homes. So when you talk about immigration reform and the need for a better asylum program, that goes hand in hand with the root cause, which is climate change. I guess the deeper I get into activism, the more I’m finding how interconnected all of the issues are. Right now with Larry, a lot of our work focuses on the idea of unity, the idea of music without borders, and the notion of a world without so many borders, or at least with a more humane notion of what borders are.

Grace: I remember in language arts at my school, we had a unit on immigration, and our teacher kept telling us about how one of the big problems is that people look at borders as if they’re barriers, as if no one could go past it like a steel wall, even though that’s not how it needs to be.

Joe: Right. And, you know, the big irony is that no matter how big you make a wall, or how fortified or how strong, it doesn’t work. That’s what that’s proving. That’s what has been proven in the borderlands, where I’ve spent a lot of time. People just are getting forced into more dangerous circumstances. But what people don’t understand or what some people don’t understand about migrants is that if they have no other option, they are going to try to get through. And if that means they have to go farther into the desert, then they will. So the wall is mostly fortified in more urban areas. So, like in Nogales, you’ll find a very fortified wall. It’s huge and scary. But if you go 20 miles, 40 miles out along the same border into the desert, you’ll find places where there is no wall, and people are just walking across. So the idea that the wall is actually working is also incorrect, because it doesn’t stop anybody. But the conditions in which they’re trying to cross are made worse. 

Grace: [But] people will find a way. Even if there is water in [the way], you could always use a boat or fly. Like, that’s never going to stop people from trying to reach asylum.

Joe: Right. And if people can’t get asylum, they’re going to come, and they’re going to try their luck without documentation. You know, it’s a really complex situation, but it’s not given a very in-depth analysis within mass media and corporate media. People don’t talk about the subtleties of the situation. But that’s where people like you come in, and you can write about the more underlying issues and the real life stories that make up this issue. So, yeah, I’m glad IndyKids is out there doing that kind of stuff! Y’all being so young, that’s really cool.

Grace: How do you try to incorporate social justice issues into your music, and why do you think it’s important to sing about these issues?

Joe: A lot of the time people approach me with ideas. During the pandemic, I wrote a song protesting the dismantling of the U.S. Postal Service, which was something that former President Trump was trying to do. I was approached by an organization and commissioned to write this song, and it went viral. It was called “A Plea to the U.S. Government to Fully Fund the Postal Service.” And the song, [along with] a larger campaign, ended up getting around 400,000 signatures on a petition, which effectively brought the issue to the congressional docket. Then, about a year later, the Postal Reform Act was actually passed as a protection against the dismantling of the Postal Service, which was the result of our campaign and other campaigns that were happening in the United States. In other words, I got to be a part of something that was effective. 

I wrote a song for an African American woman called Dreama Caldwell, who ran for county commissioner in Alamance County. Again, I was approached by this organization called Down Home North Carolina, and they told me about Dreama’s story. She was a victim of the cash bail system, which I had never even heard of. This is, basically, you can get convicted of a crime that you didn’t even commit, but before you’re given the right to trial, a non-elected official or a magistrate at a county courthouse can issue a cash bail, meaning you have to pay [a large sum of money] to avoid going to prison. I ended up writing a song for Dreama called “The Rise of Dreama Caldwell,” and there’s an official music video for it.  

I also wrote a song about a friend of mine named Moisés Serrano, who is a Dreamer, or a DACA recipient. It tells the story of a person who was brought to the United States as a baby and doesn’t have papers, even though he’s been in North Carolina his whole life. That song got a lot of attention and was even nominated for a Grammy. 

I wrote one for queer people, myself included, called “Dirty Little Rainbows.” It was part of a campaign to give voice to LGBTQ+ people in rural areas. I’ve done quite a lot of songwriting about social justice issues, but I don’t even necessarily frame it like that. These are just songs that I feel if I don’t write them, I can’t sleep at night. So I don’t identify as a social justice songwriter, I just end up writing a lot of songs that serve social justice causes.

I’m learning from younger people than me that younger activists take a lot of joy in activism. And doing what’s right, it gives you a sense of purpose. It fuels your soul. And it makes you want to keep going in life. This music kind of brings some entertainment to the movement. And you know what? It’s fun.

Grace: Why do you think it is important to carry on traditional Latin American music?

Joe: Well, particularly in the United States, migrants like Larry, they want their children and their children’s peers to know about the folk traditions of their homeland. So playing joropo [Venezuelan music] is a very important thing, because it helps the descendants of these immigrants to have a cultural identity and to not be erased. 

I think it’s an important thing to see the worthiness of the arts, because the arts help you remember who you are, who your people are. Even if that cultural identity is hybrid and is mixed with folk traditions, from [the U.S.] it’s still kept alive. I’m not Latin American myself, but I lived for a decade in Latin America, and I really have been nurtured by Latin American folk traditions and music. So I think it’s cool to bring my Appalachian musical heritage and to combine it with different Latin American music and make it into something that is representative of what is happening right now. Now Latin American music is part of the Appalachian region. It’s a part of us, because of the people who’ve brought it.

Grace: What advice do you have for kids who want to use their voice or their music to advocate for certain issues?

Joe: I think, particularly for kids who want to use their voice, [they need to] to also acknowledge the voices of mentors of people who have been using their voice for these causes for a long time. For example, I was very verbal about LGBTQ+ issues [when I was younger], and I was very outspoken about the fight for queer rights. But I didn’t fully understand the sacrifices of the people who had been working for a long time on that issue so that I could even be able to do what I was doing. I didn’t realize I was literally being hoisted up by the work of many, many people through many generations. So I would tell kids to not do what I did, but to actively look for mentors and educate yourselves. Find out who has been carrying that baton, who’s going to pass it off to you in the future.

A lot of the most outspoken people about things are often not the ones that are actually pushing the movement forward. And I am very guilty of that. Like I said, I’ve been very outspoken about a lot of things. But I could have helped more, if I had just listened more and learned more about the history. Sometimes being very outspoken and verbal is less important than just developing a strategy and making sure the work happens.

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