The Boston-based band, Hot Molasses is known for two things: its raucous rock and roll sound, and its commitment to social action.
This past January, Hot Molasses teamed up with Moishe/Kavod House for a benefit show to raise money for the grassroots community organizing non-profit City Life/Vida Urbana. Band leader and Jewish Organizing Initiative (JOI) alum, Andrew Cohen, took a moment to explain the inspiration behind the show, the band’s dual-mission, and where, exactly, they got their name.
Tell me more about your band.
Throughout our history, I have been committed to pursuing social activism through the rubric of the band, and using it as an organizing and education tool. We love to rock out and to play music, but we’re more than just a creative outlet. The band is also a creative way to engage in politics.
What was the inspiration behind the show – and your name for that matter?
This was our third annual Molasses Fundraiser. The history is, in January 1919, a giant molasses tanker in the North End of Boston ruptured, sending gallons of molasses flowing through the streets and killing 21 people. The people living in that neighborhood were mostly lower income immigrant groups – mostly Italians and Irish folks who did not have much organizing power. The community had been speaking out against the tanker for a long time, but the company neglected to take any action. What’s interesting is that the victims of the flood were able to win millions of dollars for their families – at that time it was the biggest class action lawsuit in the nation’s history.
Our band started using the name Hot Molasses as a lark, but I had it in mind that we could use it as a way to raise awareness about current inequities, particularly in low-income and immigrant neighborhoods, going on in Boston today.
Do your songs lyrics tend to reflect your political beliefs and focus on social issues?
My song lyrics address political issues some of the time, but not always. Most of my songs tell stories, many of which relate to political issues, but they are rarely overtly political or sloganeering.
How did you come to partner with Moishe/Kavod House and City Life Vida Urbana?
I originally learned about City Life when I was a fellow of the Jewish Organizing Initiative. An employee of the organization came by to talk about what they do, and really captured my imagination. Moishe/Kavod has an ongoing relationship with City Life. They work together to do amazing tenant organizing to help residents stay in their homes and build stronger neighborhoods – so it felt like a natural partnership.
How do social issues and Jewish identity relate for you?
I am a secular Jew, but I connect to my Judaism through the work that I do. Whether it is through my job at the UMass Medical School’s Center for Health, Law and Economics, my band, or my work with JOI or the Boston Workmen’s Circle where I’m a board member, so much of my Jewish identity is wrapped up in social activism.
Was that always the case?
It really started with JOI, which I did after graduate school. I found it to be a really welcoming community that let me grow as a Jew and reconnect with pieces of my cultural heritage. The experience also gave me a new lens with which to understand my social justice work. Honestly, it wasn’t until doing JOI that I was able to link these two parts of my identity. I hadn’t considered wanting to be a part of a Jewish community because I thought it had to center around synagogue and Jewish practice, which didn’t interest me. But JOI gave me a new way to coalesce the Jewish and activist parts of my identity.
It certainly seems like JOI was truly transformational for you.
Yes, for me and for a lot of people. In Boston, JOI has become a feeder organization for non-profits and the Boston social justice community. JOI is all about building relationships and power within organizations and communities. This is not the type of training that you can swoop in and out of – it’s about the long campaign for justice and understanding how people can leverage their power to create justice. That’s why so many JOI fellows have become involved in leadership positions.
What about the other band members – do they come from similar backgrounds?
Our other singer, Julia, is a midwife. She works with lower income populations all day long and, like many midwives, thinks about her work within a political framework. The drummer, guitarist and other co-band leader don’t necessarily work in the field, but are all very supportive of this work. They find meaning in it and want to help.
Do you do other benefit concerts aside from the Hot Molasses benefit?
We do several a year around different issues and have raised about $9,000 for a variety of organizations since 2008.
Do you think music has an inherent roll to play in social action work?
I believe that art is absolutely critical in social action – it can mobilize support and also inspire social movements. The 1960s was a great time for artists and activists working together to mobilize a generation against the Vietnam war. It’s no accident that so many of the protesters were young people turned on to these issues by music. Similarly, music was critical in sustaining the Jewish labor movement of the early 20th century.
In the end, we’ll never succeed in promoting justice on a wide scale if its not fun. Hot Molasses and the music and community we create, even when we’re not playing for a specific benefit, is about bringing people together and leveraging that community.
Any final thoughts?
Yes! My band is releasing in sophomore album in March and are playing an EP release show on March 25th and Johnny D’s in Somerville. People can find out more information on our Facebook page, and listen to a sample track here.
If you are interested in the Jewish Organizing Fellowship, head to their website. Applications for the year long training program that Andrew participated in are due on March 18th!