Music has long been a tool used for activism, from the freedom songs of the Civil Rights Movement to punk bands singing in basements about veganism.
But how often do you think about pop music as a vehicle for change?
In 1992, Sophie B. Hawkins used it as just that with her Top 10 hit "Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover," which got constant play on mainstream radio stations across the country—despite its repetition of the word "damn" in the chorus.
Of course, the song's prominent use of a minor swear word wasn't what made it "activist."
Hawkins is actually singing about a woman. In fact, it might have been the first popular hit to explicitly talk about "making love" to someone of the same sex. And Sophie B. Hawkins was among the first pop-culture figures to not be shy about being bisexual (or, as she likes to call herself, "omnisexual").
"I have really no boundaries about who I should love," she says. "Humans always have to work against the fact that we put ourselves in a box. I want to start not in a box."
One way to release oneself from that box, she explains, is through music. And she's proved that several times over with her music, which—from her chart-topping 1995 hit "As I Lay Me Down," to her touching new single, "The Land, the Sea, and the Sky"—has always been unique, gutsy and continually evolving (not to mention a lot more complex than is implied by a label like "pop").
That's why Hawkins is a perfect headliner for this year's Pride in the Desert, Tucson's biggest annual LGBT festival, which celebrates people's right to be who they are—gay, straight, bi, trans, whatever (even omnisexual). The festival uses music, dancing and other entertainment as tools to bring people together in a nonjudgmental environment.
The festivities kick off on Friday with a Fourth Avenue parade ending in a concert at Winsett Stage, including performances by Long Beach pop-rocker Jennifer Corday, acoustic guitarist Tom Goss, and Tucson's own finger-picking singer-songwriter Leila Lopez.
The Pride in the Desert festival itself takes place all day Saturday at Reid Park, and features local, regional and national musicians performing on several stages. There will also be a DJ'ed dance stage, a drag show by Dragstar Cabaret, a Latin dance tent, a belly-dance performance, and interactive displays and activities—plus 80 to 90 vendors, including nonprofit-group exhibitors, retailers and a food court.
"Every year, it's a little bit different," says David Ealy, president of Pride in the Desert's producing and sponsoring group, Tucson Pride. "But we always try to make it a family-oriented event and cater to all demographics. And I would say this year, we've stepped up and brought the community together even more than in the past."
Though not always called by the same name, the festival has happened in some form every year for more than three decades, starting after the tragic death of gay hate-crime victim Richard Heakin. In 1975, while visiting Tucson, Heakin exited a downtown gay bar and was beaten to death by a gang of teenagers, who ended up receiving no punishment but probation. The Tucson community—gay, bi, trans and straight alike—united behind the cause of tolerance and helped the city to become one of the first in the nation to pass anti-discrimination legislation based on sexual orientation.
In June 1977, after the slap-on-the-wrist sentence was announced for Heakin's killers, the newly formed Tucson Gay Coalition hosted a memorial festival in Himmel Park with about 50 people attendees. Today, an estimated 6,500 people-plus attend Pride in the Desert, and it's much more than a memorial—but one of its main points is to remember Heakin and others victimized for being themselves.
Sophie B. Hawkins says she wanted to do the festival before she'd heard the story of Heakin's death and Tucson's rally for justice—but when she did hear it, her decision to play here was reinforced.
"Why do I do these things? That's the reason," she says.
Though LGBT issues are close to Hawkins' heart, she's also active in many other causes, including animal rescue, women's rights and environmentalism. In fact, she's considered herself an activist since she started picking up litter in the park when she was 9 years old. Now, 100 percent of proceeds from her "The Land, the Sea, and the Sky" single are benefiting Gulf of Mexico oil-spill-recovery efforts by the nonprofit Waterkeeper Alliance. And Sophie is as busy as ever, raising her 2-year-old son, Dashiell; writing a Broadway musical for Kristin Chenoweth; and finishing up a long-awaited new album, Dream Street and Chance, which will give listeners a peek into some of Hawkins' most intensely emotional real-life experiences. The title track, we hear, is about acceptance.
Hawkins will join dozens of other artists at the Pride in the Desert festival, including fellow chart-topper Joshua Klipp, trans singer Namoli Brennet, sultry roots duo Coyote Grace, nurse-turned-musician Amber Norgaard and rowdy rock band Whiskey Rodeo.
Ealy emphasizes that the festival is meant to draw all kinds of Tucsonans, straight and gay alike. (In fact, he says he knows more straight Hawkins fans than gay ones.) The point of Pride in the Desert is "to come out and support our community and be somewhere where, no matter who you are or what walk of life you come from, you can feel like you won't be judged by anyone."
Hawkins would second that, since the festival's goal mirrors her goals.
"We've all been slaves and judged and persecuted," she says. "It's a human experience—not because you're gay or straight or black or white, but because you're human. And if that's the experience, here's the purpose: to rise above it and come together in love. How incredible is that?"