Kim Newmoney

Wizard Rock In The Age Of Trump

Imagination can be a powerful tool of resistance in dark times

“These times are dark,

but I can see a light.”

—Harry and the Potters, “These Days Are Dark”

Harry and the Potters stopped playing “Cornelius Fudge Is an Ass” when Barack Obama was elected president. For years before that, it was a staple in the wizard-rock band’s sets, with good reason: In one minute and 34 seconds, the punchy song tackles inept government officials, corrupt media, and the perils of our complacency in the face of both, taking as much clear aim at then-President George W. Bush as at the misguided Minister of Magic from the Harry Potter books. In concert, the band drew even more explicit parallels between crooked news outlets in Harry’s world and ours: “You can convince yourself that The Daily Prophet has a clue / But I think they’re a whole lot closer to Fox News.” By November 2008, as Obama’s promise of hope swept through America, the song fell out of rotation.

Then 2016 happened. “Cornelius Fudge Is an Ass” first emerged from its long retirement this August, a few weeks after Donald Trump became the Republican Party’s presidential candidate. In the Potters’ last show before the election, at a Harry Potter conference in October, they performed it again, changing “Fox News” to “Breitbart.” And, as in the Bush years, there was no hiding who this was actually about: The song ended with an emphatic “Fuck Donald Trump.” Both the band and its fans hoped that the song, for all its wizardly wit, wouldn’t be as relevant after November 8. But we all know how that story ended.

Wizard rock — the DIY music movement based on J.K. Rowling’s bestselling fantasy series — had lighthearted beginnings. Harry and the Potters formed in 2002, when brothers Paul and Joe DeGeorge wrote and performed songs from the perspective of the boy wizard to save a backyard show at their home in Massachusetts. They crafted a backstory where Harry uses time travel to start a punk band with himself: Paul plays guitar as Harry Potter in his seventh year at Hogwarts, Joe plays keyboard and saxophone as Harry Potter in his fourth year, and they both sing. For their plugged-in shows, they have a rotating cast of drummers they’ll call up depending on the time and place — all also in character, like Bill Weasley (Bradley Mehlenbacher of Remus and the Lupins), Ginny Weasley (Rosie Richerson of Night Witch), or the ghost of Cedric Diggory (Mike Harpring of Good Luck).

The Potters released a self-titled album in June 2003 and, propelled by the excitement surrounding the fifth Harry Potter book’s debut on the same day, began touring the country. Hundreds of wizard-rock bands emerged in the ensuing years, forging an underground movement that spans genres and generations. Many bands, like Draco and the Malfoys or Tonks and the Aurors, stuck to writing songs from the perspective of a namesake character from the books (or, in the case of The Whomping Willows, a namesake tree). Others, like The Mudbloods, sang about a variety of wizarding world topics untethered from a single character’s perspective, while others still, like Lauren Fairweather (one half of The Moaning Myrtles), wrote “meta wizard rock” — songs about life and love in the Harry Potter fan community.

The case of “Cornelius Fudge” is a standout example of how many of these acts took the politics implicit in the source material and tied them to real-world issues. At times, The Potters’ political messaging is straight to the point (if occasionally a bit dated): The title track of 2004’s Voldemort Can’t Stop the Rock, for instance, calls out Tipper Gore and the PMRC. But the band’s most moving work distills the high-stakes good-versus-evil conflict of the books into anthems that are just as necessary in the real world and its real fights. The night we watched Donald Trump’s election as president, I saw my community — the people I fly across the country to share wizard-rock shows with — post those songs over and over again when our own words wouldn’t work. For us, turning to wizard rock in a time of grief, fear, and anger made all the sense in the world.

That week, Paul and Joe DeGeorge were preparing to take Harry and the Potters to Utah for their first post-election shows. I asked Paul how he thought the band’s performances would change in the age of Trump. “I started thinking about that this morning,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of people finding comfort in some of our music, and I’m thinking about the songs, in particular, that they’re being comforted by — songs that speak to that fight against authority, that resistance to evil. I think we’re in a very different reality now. Joe and I are going to have some real deep conversations about what shape our show will take from this point on, and how we’ll use our band as a place to empower people and to remind people that we must keep up the fight.”

For many of us, this crisis — this looming violent, white supremacist, misogynistic, ableist, homophobic, transphobic administration, and all this hatred our neighbors have elected — is the darkest we’ve ever faced. It is understandable, then, that we might be scrambling to do the right thing the right way, and to make sure our peers are keeping up. It is understandable that references to fictional stories amid all this very real horror might seem glib or profane. It’s all understandable; most responses are in the face of an event like this. Still, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what stories are, and what they’re for.

Stories do not come from thin air; they come from what we’ve seen, what we’ve believed, what we’ve lived through. Stories are not how we escape the world, but how we make sense of it — how we navigate it, how we survive it, and how we archive our survival. They allow us to understand other people, and to know lives we will never live. When I tell people that leaving my house was like escaping Privet Drive, or that mental illness closes in on me like dementors, or that my community feels like my Hogwarts, they understand — maybe not the details of my story, but certainly its heart, and mine.

Haven’t we had stories as long as we’ve had fire? Aren’t stories how we’ve built (and broken) entire cultures? Don’t we tell stories over food with our families (given or found), while in line for shows, upon coming home from a long trip, at the end of a long day, at weddings and funerals? What we’re living through right now isn’t quite a funeral; I do not mean to say that we lost a loved one as November 8 dissolved into November 9 and took any remaining illusions about the country we live in with it. But we’ve lost something, and we’ll lose more, and we’re grieving.

Harry Potter, too, deals in loss and in grief. J.K. Rowling lost her mother in 1990, the same year she began writing the first book in her series. She went on to work at Amnesty International, where she witnessed “the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power.” She drew from her grief, and the grief she saw, to craft Harry’s story. Her hero, of course, begins as an orphan and loses many surrogate parents over the course of the books; we see him grapple with tragedy again and again, and we become intimately familiar with his anguish. We see how he keeps going, keeps fighting, keeps loving despite — and because of — his sorrow. And if Harry Potter is about loss, grief, and all the things we live through, so is wizard rock.

“Indestructible is the intangible

Inside of us

Inside of you.”

—Harry and the Potters, “Phoenix Song”

To truly understand wizard rock’s magic, it’s best to seek out a wizard-rock show — to journey into some club or conference hall or basement, or at least scour the live albums and shaky YouTube videos, and see the bands take the stage, hear the audience singing along, understand that this is something more than escapism.

Wizard rock takes one of the most culturally significant and morally formative stories of our time and makes it more real. Music — live music, especially — is participatory in a way that books and movies cannot be. The songs we listen to become our soundtrack: We walk through the world with them, we make memories with them, and we become the protagonists of the stories they tell.

Harry and the Potters build their shows around this concept. At the beginning of each show, they ask the audience to raise their right hands and repeat a pledge:

“I pledge allegiance to this show —

to make this show the best show that I can possibly make.

On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to rock and roll.

I will sing and I will dance and I will yell until I lose my voice,

and then I will have to go out into the world and find it

and use it to make change in this world, for the good,

because I am a magical being with a magical voice.”

It’s a mission statement, a call to adventure, and from that moment forward, the hero’s journey is more like an instruction manual. In a 2015 interview with Spark Magazine, Joe DeGeorge describes their show as carrying “a desperate hope to inspire people to imagine less oppressive paradigms to live within.”

As I’ve listened to Harry and the Potters’ music in the last three weeks, I’ve been thinking about imagination. I’ve been thinking about how all work that moves us forward — whether it’s art or activism or both — must, by its very nature, begin with the imagining of something different.

Immigration finds its roots in imagination, too: It’s based on a handed-down hope that there must be something better, more survivable out there. This is a hope so strong that people risk everything, endure tremendous struggle, and tear their families to pieces chasing it. It stings, then, to learn again and again that America is not the country my mother imagined it to be when she sacrificed all she knew to bring me here from Honduras 17 years ago. It is not the country I imagined it to be upon my wide-eyed arrival.

And I could not imagine, in my first days here or in the brighter days and years following Obama’s election, where we would be right now. Even this year, with all the mounting evidence indicating where the election was headed — even in my friend Olivia’s apartment, as an election-night party began to feel more like an emergency room too full of bad news — I could not quite imagine it would come to this.

But neither could I imagine, holed up in my childhood bedroom, all the ways that wizard rock would change me, raise me, rebuild me. I found wizard rock when I was in elementary school in Miami; I was a queer immigrant kid in a broken house, facing down a darkening world. I knew I was at odds with what I heard from my parents and my teachers and the news, but I didn’t know this opposition was valid or valuable until I heard those songs. It was a tiny cognitive revolution, changing everything I knew about authority and allegiance and love. I couldn’t imagine how, in the years that followed, wizard rock would help me turn all the things the world told me I should be ashamed of into good work and a good life.

In the wake of the election, I’ve been grappling with the expected fear and fury and devastation. I’ve felt a great dread weigh heavier each day. But I always come back to truths that run even deeper in my bones and in my guts. There is so much to fight for. How lucky, then, to have so much to fight with.

In J.K. Rowling’s commencement speech for the Harvard University class of 2008, she said, “We do not need magic to change the world; we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.” I do not mean to say that we can simply imagine a better world. Change starts with vision, but it also takes years of hard work, of ruthless organizing, of protest, of action. Still, everything begins somewhere. In the face of the unimaginable, stories are the spark that becomes the fire.

“And the damage you’ve done

We will mend it

The world can still be beautiful.”

—Harry and the Potters, “Song for the Death Eaters”

On November 8, after my friend kicked everyone out of her election party but let me stay to crash on her couch, after we watched Donald Trump’s victory speech in horror and she eventually retreated to her bedroom for the night, all I could do was listen to Harry and the Potters. I couldn’t sleep. I had no appetite for midnight snacks. I just sat in my computer’s blue light and listened to the music that had been with me since my very first years in this mis-imagined country. For the first time in eight years, I thought with real clarity about the Bush administration and why I needed wizard rock to live through it.

I was 13 years old when Obama was elected. I came of age in a time of new luxuries I did not know to recognize as such. As I began understanding my queerness, I watched my entire country fight for marriage equality; as I began reclaiming my latinidad, I watched young immigrants fight for undocumented Americans and celebrate DACA — not a total victory or a magic repeal of the millions of deportations under Obama, but a step forward. I studied the history of my people’s struggle and revolt where I could find it, and I read about all the people dead because of white supremacy and homophobia and transphobia; I understood that Obama’s administration had its own body count, but I had a naïve sense that we could only ever march forward. Wizard rock’s rallying anthems were still crucial to me in those years, but their applications felt more local: battles, not wars; songs to look to amid tragedy; affirmations we still needed, but ones that felt — in the broadest, most idealistic sense — in line with where our country was headed.

For most of my life, I’ve attributed the wizard-rock community’s importance in my life to how it helped me survive and escape abuse, how it helped me forge a path through life on my own terms, how it has always kept me grounded in the strongest magic I know. This all remains true. But in the earliest hours of November 9, I found myself confronting things I did not remember in full force until they became present anew. We needed these songs in different ways under Bush. I needed them to grapple with my living situation, but also to brace myself against a president who represented so much of the darkness I feared. There was a desperate urgency to wizard rock, both in its conception and its reception, that eased out of focus when Obama’s first term began. There was also a defiant hope.

“These Days Are Dark” closes The Potters’ 2003 debut with its most stirring, rallying moment. Conceived as a way to end the album on a high note despite the then-latest book concluding with a beloved character dead and a genocidal tyrant resurrected, the song offers a steadfast belief that good will triumph or die trying. Its refrains eventually build into a frenzied pledge: “What comes will come / And when it does / We’ll meet it with all of our courage / These days are dark / But we won’t fall / We’ll stick together through it all.” The last verse of the song, asserting “And the world is beautiful / Just look around / And the world is beautiful / Just look at all your friends,” might seem naïve at first glance, but the best optimism I’ve ever known is that which knows the darkness surrounding it and only burns brighter.

The band’s final studio album to date, 2006’s Harry and the Potters and the Power of Love, showed that they had only grown stronger in that belief. “Song for the Death Eaters” addresses Voldemort’s followers in a snarling rejection of everything they stand for, and The Potters are still singing “the world can still be beautiful.”

This song corresponds with an even grimmer point in the Potter story: The sixth book in the series leaves off with schoolmaster Albus Dumbledore dead and Lord Voldemort’s evil forces quickly rising to power, soon to take over Hogwarts and the rest of the wizarding world. This album, which focuses on themes of resilience, resistance, and all the things nobody can take away from us, was released in 2006, in the heart of George W. Bush’s second presidential term. We had no way of knowing how long that era of Republican rule would last. Those days were dark, but we made our own light. Wherever the story took us, on the page or in America, we knew it would find us fighting for good, pledging allegiance to love and to each other. We can say the same today.

One of Harry and the Potters’ last shows under George W. Bush is immortalized on Live at the New York Public Library, recorded in May 2008. It closes with “The Weapon,” a song that sees Harry grappling with the war ahead and the loss of his godfather, full of resolve to keep fighting anyway. As the song fades out, Joe tells the audience to “keep reading, keep loving.” The song tells us over and over that “the weapon we have is love,” and weapons — whether love, or songs, or stories — only work when we use them. The pledge at the beginning of each Harry and the Potters show only works if, after we sing and dance and yell until we lose our voice, we go out into the world, find it again, and use it. Wizard rock alone is not the fire. But it’s a spark.

In 2005, Paul DeGeorge co-founded a nonprofit called The Harry Potter Alliance. Now led by Matt Maggiacomo of The Whomping Willows, the group leads international campaigns and community chapters (over 200 of them across every continent except Antarctica) to fight for equality. Its members have collected over 300,000 books for underserved communities and helped persuade Warner Bros. to switch to fair-trade chocolate in its Potter-branded candy. I worked with the HPA from 2011 until earlier this fall, first as a volunteer and later on staff as a writer and social media manager. I used the parts of me I’d always tried to hide — my queerness, my latinidad, my poverty, my mental illness — to chip away at the institutions that made me ashamed of them in the first place. Like the music movement at its heart, the HPA told me I was valuable and capable, told me I could change the world without a degree or a wealth of resources, and then gave me space to do just that. In the coming years, organizations like this will be more valuable than ever.

The wizard-rock community is already hard at work. Tonks and the Aurors just launched a grant program to support women who want to start their own wizard-rock projects. Draco and the Malfoys have spent the past few years turning their Rhode Island home into a community space: they run quarterly house shows, encourage emerging voices, and recently hosted the first ever wizard-rock retreat. In December, Harry and the Potters will host their 12th annual Yule Balls in New York, Boston, and D.C., with part of the proceeds going, as always, to The Harry Potter Alliance and its activist work.

After the election, Paul DeGeorge and I talked about our devastation and disbelief at the state of the world in tandem with the question of wizard rock’s role in the time of Donald Trump. “Honestly, I don’t know what it’s gonna be like,” he said, then paused. “I think it’s time for our shows to be a little less goofy,” he added, “and a lot more ‘it’s time to fight.’”