Honk! A Festival of Activist Street Bands

by Kristin Cook

When I attended the Honk! Festival of Activist Street Bands in Somerville,
Massachusetts over Columbus Day weekend, Isaac Prilleltensky’s (2001) article,
Value-Based Praxis in Community Psychology: Moving Toward Social Justice and
Social Action, was on my mind. (I had completed an analysis paper just the day before.)
Prilleltensky (2001) offers a set of values to promote personal, collective, and relational
wellness and urges the field of community psychology to intensify efforts to advance
social justice and social action. As the performances entertained me at the Honk!
Festival, I reflected on the festival’s intent to promote social justice and activism.

Honk! is a free, community organized, three day festival. Thundering brass bands from
all over the United States and the world descend on Davis Square for a “celebration of
music, community, and activism” (honkfest.org, 2016). The festival is funded and
organized by the grassroots effort of one thousand volunteers, local businesses, and
residents. Musicians come to the festival at their own expense, some traveling from
great distances (honkfest.org, 2016). I planted myself in the center of the square where
more than twenty-five energized activist bands performed throughout the day. Band
names were creative: Le Pompier Poney Club (Marseille, France), Environmental
Encroachment (Chicago, IL), Forward! Marching Band (Madison, WI), and Second Line
Social Aid and the Pleasure Society Brass Band (Somerville, MA).

I’m aware of activist musicians who promote social justice and political agendas, but I’d
never heard the term “activist band” prior to the Honk! Festival. According to
honkfest.org (2016), an activist band is socially engaged, “some in direct action and
outright political protest, others in community building, be it performing for social justice
or community-based organizations or conducting workshops in the public schools”
(honkfest.org, 2016). Honk! Festival bands perform for free and symbolically, at street
level “without sound amplification and with very little distance between artist and
audience” in order to “create a participatory spectacle to reclaim public space in ways
that place them at the heart of activist politics” (honkfest.org, 2016).

The energy at the festival was electric; tubas, trombones, and drums boomed. I sat on
the pavement and took in the atmosphere, appreciating the performances in solidarity
with community members. I thought about the activist and social justice aims of the
Honk! Festival through the lens of Prilleltensky (2001) and community psychology. How
did this festival promote collective wellness and the value of social justice? First, the
festival did (as purported), reclaim public space. Streets in the square were auto-free,
allowing pedestrians to walk or dance freely through the square. Public parks were in
use; emphatic music created a vitality that pushed community members together and
promoted collective emotional well-being. Second, because the festival was free of
charge and performed at street level, it was inclusive. There was equal opportunity for
community members to attend, regardless of socioeconomic background or status quo.
The music, as a centerpiece of the festival promoted solidarity as the community
reveled in the sound together. Third, the city square venue provided an opportunity for
the dissemination and transmission of ideas. Children asked questions, community
members paraded with signs expressing their idealistic needs (More parks for
Somerville!), and many advocated political agendas. In the execution of the Honk!
Festival, I could see the values of community psychology, social justice, and social
action all around me. Honk! will be back in Somerville again next October.


Kristin Cook is a graduate student in the Community Social Psychology department at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Honk! Festival of Activist Street Bands. (2016). Retrieved from http://honkfest.org/about/
Prilleltensky, I., (2001). Value based praxis in community psychology: moving toward
social justice and social action. American Journal of Community Psychology, 29
(5), 747-774.

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