Making music in trade justice education: listen up!

Creative academic expression

There’s an undergraduate module at the University of Exeter called ‘Geographies of Material Culture’. It’s one of two University modules whose student coursework form the basis of almost every page. The module is assessed through students’ critical self-reflections on whatever comes to mind through reading the academic literature and working together to research and publish draft ‘compilation’ pages and new work for the site. They are encouraged to be creative, to express themselves in ways that rework the traditional essay formal that everyone is used to. The work is diverse and fascinating. You never read the same thing twice.

‘How am I gonna be an activist about this?’

One type of work that’s started to emerge in 2013 are original songs, written, recorded and published online by students and written about on paper. There have been two so far. The first is by  Jenny Hart, who submitted her song at the start of the module this year (in October). She’s trying to get her head around the key theoretical baselines of the module. The second is by Tommy Sadler, who submitted his song at the end of the module last year (in January). He’s expressing what the module was about, for him. Both shared their songs via Soundcloud, and you can listen to them here:


‘Writing a song & actually singing it is almost as personal as you can get.’

At the end of the module in 2012-3, I invited all of the students who gained first class marks to talk about the academic / creative process which they had developed in the module. When we talked about the work that they had submitted, Tommy explained:

Tommy: I guess the most exciting part of mine would be the song that I recorded and I wrote … I handed in the disc in an envelope but I also uploaded it onto the internet so that you could play it online. I just thought that that was a good way of putting across everything … how many things you use just to do one task whilst also performing the point, you know? Putting your emotion into the work.

Ian: So it was you and your guitar, and then you just wrote a few verses and a chorus that was your final entry wasn’t it? What the module’s been about.

Tommy: Yeah. I put the lyrics as part of the wordcount, and I wrote the rest of the journal along with the lyrics underneath.

Eeva: What kind of song was it? Which genre?

Tommy: Kind of bluesy … you know, that genre is quite emotive …

Elaine: Ah, that’s such a good idea!

Ian: Yeah. I wasn’t expecting that … I thought it was someone else’s song for a while and it took me a while for the penny to drop that actually you had written it and it was actually you! …

[Song plays]

… silence…

Joe: Wow, that was incredible. …

Elaine: that was insane!

Eeva: You’re a good singer as well! …

Ian: When I think about your song, I guess I had a little tear in my eye because it really gets you, and thats the point isn’t it? It’s not just writing words down. Its got something extra to it – hasn’t it? –  than just writing an essay? … Why did you do that?

Tommy: I thought that …  if I was going to be completely different to how I normally write essays – where the person writing it could be anyone –  if I was to write something about what I was thinking personally, then writing a song and actually singing it is almost as personal as you can get, other than being next to you and telling you in person.


‘i .. want.. the … song.’

Here at HQ, we are interested in how music’s composition and reception can contribute to trade justice activism. There is, of course, the longstanding tradition of the protest song. But what we’ve picked up through our research on this module and for the website are ways in which putting ideas to music can help them to stick.

We noticed this first when we researched the ‘Luckiest Nut in the World, an animated film about WTO regulations and the international nut trade. What you’ll find if you click ‘play’ below, is that it’s narrated by an animated singing peanut.

You can read more about this on our ‘Luckiest Nut’ page, but a couple of comments on the film are worth picking out. The first is from a critic, talking about what signing animated nuts can bring to a dry subject:

It’s easy to ignore a graph charting an economic downturn if it’s presented to you with the cold graphical style, ominous narration and sparse editing that characterises literally dozens of programmes per week. It’s much harder to ignore it, however, if it splurges onto the screen like some escaped Nickelodeon graphic and is explained to you by a chorus of singing nuts. (Source: Worthington 2002 np).

The second is a series of short comments under a YouTube upload of the film, in which school kids who seem to have been asked to watch the film for their homework say what they think about it:

I liked this video. / It told me things that were blatantly obvious, but used music and nuts. Overall quite enjoyable. / this is so boring!!! / your boring!!! / lol we had to watch this at school / Same here, it was TERRIBLE! / SAME ! / all your movies are boing / / the format made it almost unwatchable. also: [****]  yea for america being better at capitalism / i .. want.. the … song / this guy really likes nuts / Some of the information in the video is not exactly correct. Some other people pointed em out though but the video was good. / i only liked the song at the begging XD / peanuts aren’t nuts, they’re legumes, like beans and peas / sings happily ‘they spend more on debt then education and debt combbbbinnnneeedddd’ lol nice (Source: ReggieRoden et al nd, np).

We hope you enjoy Jenny’s and Tommy’s songs as much as we do. We would love to hear if you end up humming them, or signing their choruses in the shower. But we’d also like to hear about other examples of musical  ‘follow the thing’ commodity activism, ones that we could research and feature on our site. To date, we have only one. This.


ReggieRhoden et al (nd) The Luckiest Nut in the World: comments.  ( last accessed 4 April 2011)

Worthington, TJ. (2002) Alt-TV: The Luckiest Nut in the World. ( last accessed 4 April 2011)


NB: the discussion quoted above involved Tommy, me, Eeva Kempainnen, Elaine King, Joe Thorogood, Lowenna Carlson and Nancy Scotford. This and two other student group discussions were transcribed by Tommy Sadler, as part of his internship this summer.


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