Monday, May 31, 2010

Silence For Arizona

Kanye West. Massive Attack. Tenacious D. Sonic Youth. Joe Satriani. On the surface these artists might not have much in common. But on May 25th, all joined on with the latest wave of outrage directed at Arizona's draconian new immigration law.

It's called the Sound Strike. Initiated by Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha with help from Michael Moore, it is a petition calling for the immediate repeal of SB 1070--the vicious bill signed into law by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer in April.

It's no news by now that Brewer provoked a hurricane of anger when she effectively codified racial profiling into Arizona law. Marches and demonstrations have taken place across the country in the weeks since. Their message has been simple: we won't stand by while the undocumented are turned into criminals.

Nor is the Sound Strike the first musical expression of this renewed movement for civil rights. In the days following 1070's passage, Chuck D of Public Enemy released a statement protesting the law with his wife Dr. Gaye Theresa Johnson along with a new single, "Tear Down That Wall." Public Enemy's "By the Time I Get to Arizona" has found itself into several remakes too--most notably by the collaboration of Phoenix-based emcees "Back To Arizona."

But the Sound Strike represents the first collective of high-profile artists to publicly pledge their intention to withhold their art and their labor from the Grand Canyon state. "We are not going to play in Arizona," the manifesto reads. "We are going to boycott Arizona!"

That's right. No "Jesus Walks" for Phoenix. No "Guerilla Radio" in Tucson. No performances from Cypress Hill, Ozomatli, Rise Against or the Coup anywhere in Arizona until SB 1070 is taken off the books.

The Tea Party and other uber-conservatives have predictably gotten themselves in a twist over the Sound Strike. Looking up the campaign on the Free Republic discussion forum will reveal lovely little gems of racism like "the only business in AZ that will suffer from this boycott will be dope dealers." Far more trot out the tired line about privileged musicians out of touch with mainstream America.

Naturally, the artists who signed the petition see things differently:

"Fans of our music, our stories, our films and our words can be pulled over and harassed every day because they are brown or black, or for the way they speak, or for the music they listen to," reads the statement. "This law opens the door for them to be shaked down, or even worse, detained and deported while just trying to travel home from school, from home to work, or when they just roll out with their friends... Some of us grew up dealing with racial profiling, but this law (SB 1070) takes it to a whole new low."

Significantly, the petition has also gained support from artists whose music has brought them north of the border. Norteno ensemble Los Tigres del Norte, though originally formed in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, have been based in San Jose since the 1960s. "We've had occasion to travel there twice since it was approved," says band leader Jorge Hernandez, "and you can feel a chilly climate from the moment of arrival at the airport."

Some have questioned how effective the Sound Strike is going to be in bringing down 1070. Ed Masley, a pop music critic for the Arizona Republic, told that "supporters of the bill aren't likely to become supportive... The right-wing rhetoric is so ingrained and it's pretty easy to marginalize anyone who's speaking out against it as a celebrity pet cause type of thing."

Masley misses the point. The Sound Strike's aim is hardly to win over the Minutemen and Teabaggers. Calls for boycott have come from activists within Arizona, and are part of a larger effort to isolate the state's government and economy. Arizona-based companies like PetSmart, Fender guitars and even the Diamondbacks baseball team have faced demands to renounce the law and divest from the state.

Veterans of the struggle against South African apartheid will surely remember "Sun City," the song released in 1985 by Steve Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen, Miles Davis, DJ Kool Herc, Joey Ramone and a slew of others who joined together as Artists United Against Apartheid. As they declared in the song, none would play in South Africa until the racist regime was struck down.

If "Sun City" were a lone voice in the wilderness, then its affect may have been negligible. But by the time it was recorded, there was already a global movement in swing urging boycotts, divestment and sanctions against South Africa. By 1994, both internal and external pressure was enough to bring apartheid to its knees.

Today, the boycott appears to be regaining its currency among the most socially aware artists and musicians. Elvis Costello, Gil Scott-Heron and Carlos Santana recently pulled out of scheduled performances in Israel to protest that country's own apartheid treatment of Palestinians. And here in the States, where the lessons of Jim Crow clearly haven't been learned, the Sound Strike represents how sometimes, the best weapon at an artists' disposal is their silence.

This article first appeared on the Society and Cinema and Arts website.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Remember the Body of War

Tomorrow is Memorial Day. Renditions of "Proud to Be an American" and "America the Beautiful" are already choking the airwaves. This is a holiday initiated in the wake of the Civil War and expanded into its modern version after World War I. It's rather telling that the American government saw it necessary to memorialize those fallen in combat after the first "modern" war, which saw casualties on a horrifyingly unprecedented scale. None of the flag-waving we are bound to see is likely to take into account the daily reality for most vets--PTSD, inadequate care, trauma, and of course a job market that has little place for them.

But rather than listening to what the Tea Partiers and other hawks have to say, it may be better to take the word of the vets who have seen the horror first-hand. Those who have followed Rebel Frequencies over the past couple years will remember the review of the Body of War soundtrack back in 2008. These were songs compiled by Tomas Young, a soldier who was paralyzed from the chest down in Iraq in '04 and came back to join Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Contrary to the drum-beating anthems that TV and radio are forcing through our ears, Body of War samples some of the best of the countless anti-war songs to be released in recent years. Michael Franti is in there. So are Bruce Springsteen and System of a Down. Ultimately, though, the best song comes from Eddie Vedder. A stark, howling track, "No More" seems to capture the loneliness and heartache that so many vets report after coming home and being kicked to the curb by their own government. With the US still continuing two occupations, with young men and women still coming home in body bags, this song remains as poignant as it was two years ago.

Friday, May 28, 2010

"Gay Vatos in Love"

As most Ozomatli fans are aware, the group has a new album out that definitely has a few surprises in there. Fire Away sees the group's familiar blend of salsa, cumbia, hip-hop and rock meshed even further into a firm pop sensibility that's nonetheless grounded in passion and intelligence.

One of the biggest surprises, however, comes in the form of their new single, "Gay Vatos in Love." Ozo have always been one of the first to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those fighting for equality--be it with striking janitors, immigrant rights activists or anti-war protesters. But "Gay Vatos" is the first time they have taken so explicit a stance on LGBTQ liberation. Written in the wake of the initial protests against Prop 8 in California, and in response to the murder of trans teenager Angie Zapata, the song is a simple and straightforward vindication of the new movement that has taken hold over the past couple of years.

I could say more about it, but it seems best to let Ozo's members--and the song--speak for themselves:

What Ulises says bears repeating: "whether it's the woman's movement, African-American movement, Chicano movement, Asian movement, you name it—our struggles are very much connected, and it's that point of seeing the connection that I think is very important for us to try to bring to light."

Ozomatli are no doubt outraged by the passage of SB 1070 in Arizona and the gutter racism it opens Latinos up to. Fire Away chock-full of outcries for Chicano power and liberation. More broadly, however, is the way their music has always played at the very simple and powerful need for solidarity. That some have referred to 1070 as "a Prop 8 moment" isn't for nothing. Folks in the LGBTQ communities have much to gain from linking arms with their Latino brothers and sisters--and vice versa. That artists like this continue to make music, connect the dots, and inspire others is definitely something our side has to be thankful for.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Elvis Costello boycotts Israel

Elvis Costello has become the most recent artist to cancel upcoming shows in Israel to protest the occupation of Palestine. Though others have taken similar actions recently, Costello is the first to make a public explanation.

"One lives in hope that music is more than mere noise, filling up idle time, whether intending to elate or lament," says Costello:

"Then there are occasions when merely having your name added to a concert schedule may be interpreted as a political act that resonates more than anything that might be sung and it may be assumed that one has no mind for the suffering of the innocent.

"I must believe that the audience for the coming concerts would have contained many people who question the policies of their government on settlement and deplore conditions that visit intimidation, humiliation or much worse on Palestinian civilians in the name of national security.

"I am also keenly aware of the sensitivity of these themes in the wake of so many despicable acts of violence perpetrated in the name of liberation."

Since the brutal bombardment of Gaza in late 2008, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement has been able to convince several performers to withdraw from Israeli shows. It reflects a growing awareness and rightful disgust with the apartheid conditions experienced by Palestinians. If it's any indication then Costello's move won't be the last.


And speaking of boycotts, a petition is now circulating online for artists, musicians and writers refusing to patronize Arizona in the wake of SB 1070's passage. The petition, entitled Artists Against Arizona's SB 1070, already has hundreds of signatories (including me) and can be viewed here. Those wishing to sign on should email

Monday, May 24, 2010

Diaspora Rising: Rap, Reggae and Rebellion Converge on Distant Relatives

"We tryin' to build some schools in Africa with this one, and trying to build empowerment... So, the record's... all about really the 'hood and Africa also..." -NaS to MTV, at the 2009 Grammy Awards

Much like hip-hop itself, Africa just can't seem to dodge the hate. Western media has a knack for morphing the richest continent on the planet into a bastion of violence and savagery. So when it came time to make an album that flips the myths on their head, NaS couldn't have picked a better co-creator than Damian "Jr. Gong" Marley.

The result is Distant Relatives, a collaboration that started in 2008 as a short EP, but quickly evolved into a full album. Glibly labeling it "rap" or "reggae" would be to sell the work short--especially considering how firmly rooted it is in the broad struggle of the African diaspora. NaS and Marley have taken it back to the source (for lack of a better phrase). And counter to the Kipling-esque myths, they've turned the fateful triangle between Africa, America and Caribbean inside out to reveal a legacy of humanity and pride.

"Each and everyone deserves to earn / And every child deserves to learn," Marley sings on the thumping, string-fueled "Tribes At War." "Every man deserves a turn / Like Babylon deserves to burn." It's an oblique albeit powerful line that could come from any reggae song. But NaS' contribution makes clear exactly where they're going with all of it:

"Man what happened to us?
Geographically they moved us
From Africa
We was once happiness pursuers
Now we back stabbing
Combative and abusive
The African and Arab go at it
They most Muslim
We should be moving in unison!"

Anticipation for Distant Relatives has been high ever since word of the album's production saw the light of day. Paying tribute to Africa is nothing new in hip-hop or reggae, but from the start, the buzz seemed to reflect that something bigger was at play. In January, NaS and Marley spoke at a panel discussion in Washington, DC's National Geographic building on deep common legacy the two seemingly disparate artists were attempting to cull.

Rob Kenner, writer for VIBE magazine and organizer of the event, pointed out that reggae and hip-hop are both "soundtracks for young people around the world. Although people segregate them, they're very closely related--and they're both distant relatives of Africa."

Recent years have seen these global soundtracks projected back in the form of African artists and rappers who have gained notable status in the West: Somalia's K'Naan (who guests on Relatives), Ghana's Blitz the Ambassador, Sierra Leone's Bajah and the Dry Eye Crew and Senegal's Waterflow just to name a handful.

"[T]here's a global context now," says hip-hop journalist Jeff Chang. "In order for all art forms to move forward, you have to have someone like NaS or Damian Marley to step up and push the edge."

There's no denying that Distant Relatives pushes the edge. Rap and reggae have certainly crossed paths countless times before, but NaS and Marley's effort is the first album-length work seeking to fuse the two so finely. This might be enough to boot--reggae's Rastafari uplift and hip-hop's street level empowerment mesh with ease--but when the Afrobeat and soukous, the djembe drums and kalimbas make themselves heard, one starts to get the idea of what a unique album this is.

As every good artist knows, though, nothing pushes the edge quite so abruptly as a well-delivered truth spoken by those who know it best. The second verse of "Tribes At War" sees K'Naan delivering a rebuke to the white-man's-burden notions that abound of both hip-hop and Africa:

"I drink poison
Then I vomit diamonds
I gave you Mandela
Black Dalai Lamas
I gave you music
You enthused in my kindness
So how dare you reduce me to Donny Imus"

"Land of Promise," featuring samples from late roots legend Dennis Brown, lays it on thick with the slow and sultry beats and brassy horns, and its message is just as blunt. Images of Sunset Boulevards in Ghana and Times Square in Somalia paint a rather clear picture of just how much has been robbed of Africa over the centuries.

Not all of Distant Relatives is so forceful. "Count Your Blessings" runs a jaunty, upbeat tempo under lyrics bound to provoke more smiles than raised fists. Neither is all of the album squarely on the mark. "My Generation," surely intended as a meeting between a bevy of diverse artists (Lil Wayne and Joss Stone both make appearences) comes off as a jumbled and aimless song whose words could stand a bit more scrutiny before making the final cut.

But lest the listener get too comfy or complacent, NaS and Marley are always careful to keep a jolt of energetic militancy not too far behind. "Nah Mean" sees Marley's toasting skills in their finest form as he takes aim at everything from colonialism to police brutality. "Strong Will Continue" builds from heart-rending confessional into a fiery blast against cynicism itself. And "Dispear" bluntly lays out the divisions that have kept the ghettos of Africa and the world over in chains:

"Who are the masters?
They are the gangsters
They are the bankers
The ones who tax us
The masses
They are us
The sheep, the people"

Some reviewers have been dismissive of Distant Relatives, seeing both the subject matter and lyrics themselves as "trite," "dreary," or "self-serious." It's a rather snooty assertion to make--especially considering that most musicians' ideas about Africa come from the condescending likes of Bono and Sting.

And while it has to be admitted that a few songs on the album fall flat, most hit the mark with pinpoint accuracy. Few "experiments" (as Marley himself referred to the songs) can be said to come off so well in today's musical landscape.

For two iconic rebel artists to even attempt what they have is significant enough. That they succeeded in crossing the boundaries that have separated continents, nations and cultures borders on groundbreaking. It makes one think... if it's so easy for them, maybe the rest of us can too.

This article first appeared at the website of the Society of Cinema and Arts.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Queer Noise

On Friday the 21st of May I attended the event "Queer Noise" at Chicago's New Wave coffee house. It had been quite some time since I had been to an open mic night, and a benefit for Join The Impact Chicago (JTIC)--one of the leading LGBTQ equality groups in the area--seemed a good reason to hop back in.

By the time I arrived at New Wave, it was already packed. And I even showed up a bit early! The best seat I could find was in the back... behind a pillar... next to the baristas and the coffee grinder. Not exactly optimum viewing or listening seats. It wasn't a drag, though, because the fact that so many turned out for a small event to support the liberation of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and trans folks created an infectious buzz.

That energy didn't simply come off the event itself. The day before, 13 JTIC members and other activists had been arrested at the office of Illinois Senator Rick Durbin for staging a sit-in and demanding he do more to ensure the passage of a trans-inclusive Employee Non-Discrimination Act. In 38 states it is still legal to fire someone for non-straight sexuality, and even more states have no provisions protecting transsexuals or transgender individuals. It was a small action, but a powerful one, and an action that reflects the confidence behind the modern movement for LGBTQ rights.

All of which added to the feeling of celebration that permeated this otherwise unassuming corner of Logan Square. Halfway through the night, I was reminded of what I love about open mic nights: the rare opportunity to see "folks like you" perform. Some of the acts were relatively seasoned performers, songwriters with local followings who have perhaps cut an album or two. But most were people who get a stab at the mic only once in a while.

Those of us who work a day-job, struggle to get by, pay bills and keep a roof over our head (most of us in other words) have the idea that we aren't "special" driven into our heads. The ones who we see winning Grammys or performing on TV are the lucky few born with enough "talent" to share with the rest of the world. For the rest of us, the best we can hope for is an existence of work-a-day wage slavery and quiet anonymity.

The opportunity to break that mold is a rare and valuable one. And at "Queer Noise," the cracks were large enough for a few to peek through and feel connected with other people like them. The first performer of the night--a JTIC activist who works at a museum during the day--shared her experience of sitting in at Durbin's office the previous day. Apparently the song that kept going through her head was Peter Paul and Mary's "Have You Been to Jail For Justice?"--which she then played on her ukulele.

Another highlight was the rock version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," which was played by a singer-guitarist named Desiree. Dovey, a trans activist who came in from Wisconsin was ready to share her guitar and singing skills that she gained from her days as a guitarist in the midwest alternative scene. As it played out, her guitar had gotten a bit of a jolt in transit and was too out of tune to play, so she instead lead the crowd in an improvised sing-along. I was none the wiser until she told me.

Corrine, another activist with JTIC played an original song that tied the fight for LGBTQ justice with the struggles in Palestine, Thailand and the world over. The night ended, appropriately with Ryne, a college student and activist at University of Illinois Chicago, reading Allen Ginsberg's "America."

Most of the performances were rough, but not in the sense that they were bad. Rather, it was simply that the performers from that night knew they were among friends and allies. Even if most weren't on a first-name basis with everyone else, the feeling that all in attendance were there for a cause was enough to buoy their confidence to be up there and to know that their contribution would be supported. It's the kind of intimate camaraderie that only an open mic can really aspire to. That it was in the service of a grassroots movement with real momentum didn't hurt either.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Upcoming gigs...

Be sure to catch me at Socialism 2010 in Chicago this June. I'll be speaking at a session entitled "Music of Liberation and the Liberation of Music," which will examine how the rise of cutthroat free-market policies in the aftermath of the '60s both tightened the grip of the record industry over music and laid the basis for a robust cultural resistance today. The dominance of the punk and hip-hop aesthetics remains strong among young people today (in some form or another). Why is it that these two ultimately rebellious musical movements have retained such a hold on youth consciousness? How does this bode for those wishing to see music capture the urgency of the political moment?

This conference is a high-point for the radical left every year. Sponsored by the Center for Economic Research and Social Change (publishers of the International Socialist Review) and, this year's event will be bringing together a wide array of speakers and activists: Tariq Ali, environmental activist and writer Heather Rogers, Salim Muwakkil, Against the Current editor Diane Feeley, actor and playwright Wallace Shawn, Pulitzer-winning journalist Chris Hedges, Sexuality and Socialism author Sherry Wolf, rebel sportswriter Dave Zirin, and many more. It's certainly a thrill to be in these same ranks. Anyone able to be there in Chicago (or at the Oakland conference two weeks later) should definitely register!

By the time S'10 rolls around, Rebel Frequencies will also be releasing its first ever 'zine! Originally, there was a plan to have one out around this time last year, but finances and other issues scuttled that. This year, however, will be right on schedule! A compendium of previously published and new work, folks will be able to pick it up at the conference and at local bookshops around Chi-town like Quimby's and Myopic. And if those outside of the city want a copy, they should feel free to get in touch.

On top of all this, there are a few changes we should expect to the site itself, including an audio-video section where you can check out recordings of past talks and interviews. As before, this addition will come with the help of Kyla Klein, the best damn radical web-developer in the biz.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Massive Attack's Robert Del Naja on the role of musicians in struggle

A quick snippit from Massive Attack's Robert Del Naja in a recent interview in the LA Times. Del Naja is unusually frank in this piece. And his ideas about political artists needing to engage while still being musically interesting are close to spot-on. His dynamic thoughts on the changing nature of the industry and his insistence that the internet has democratized it are also spoken in the same breath. Given that the tough economic times have forced countless artists to reassess their position and what they do, it seems appropriate. Heligoland, their most recent album, seems to have this sensibility woven into its fabric. It's no wonder the group have stayed relevant for 20 years.


"Certainly, the Internet has changed everything, politically, culturally, the way people interface with each other. In a social sense, the Internet might mean that people tend to stay home and reach out less, and certainly it puts artists at a disadvantage in terms of record sales. But for me, what’s encouraging about it is that it has made music a truly democratic art form again. What’s important at this point is that we don’t let the online retailers completely take over, and that’s one of the things we’re trying to make sure doesn’t happen.

"The Internet has placed the impetus on live music, which is why there are so many more festivals now. We’re a communal people, a migratory race; music is what keeps us going. One of the things that we’ve always strived to do is communicate with our fans via a visual performance onstage capable of matching the music. Sometimes, it takes us longer to do our stage show than it does for the music itself. Of course, artists don’t live in a vacuum un-impacted by life and politics, so we talk about the Arizona immigration law, the BP oil spill, the Greek riots...

"Things have certainly changed, but I think that we’re going through a substantial period of change at the moment where people are seeing the effects of capitalism failing people on a catastrophic sense. I think people are waking up to the way we’ve been living. Change doesn’t necessarily need to start at a federal or state level, but it can start at groups on Facebook and Twitter--they can have a very large influence and it’s important. For us, it’s not about sloganeering or waving your arms trying to get everyone to agree with you, but about an end game. During our time here in Los Angeles, we’re [sic] been interfacing with Howard Zinn’s the People Speak organization to help engender a social and political influence."

Monday, May 17, 2010

Back to Arizona

It started with a statement from Chuck D. And even at that early date you could tell it had legs. Ever since the Grand Canyon State passed the racist and repressive SB 1070, it's become a focal point for social justice activists, and has reactivated the immigrant rights movement. Calls have gone out for actions and boycotts against the law in every segment of society, from labor to sports to yes, music. And, unsurprisingly, it seems that once again hip-hop has lead the way.

Nobody can deny that one of Chuck and Public Enemy's most infamous songs has received an uncanny new lease on life in the aftermath of 1070. Almost as soon as the news broke that Governor Jan Brewer signed the bill into law, activists from all over the country could be heard quoting "By the Time I Get to Arizona." Of course, the irony wasn't lost on Chuck:

"In 1991 I wrote a song criticizing Arizona officials (including John McCain and Fife Symington) for rejecting the federal holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The same politics I wrote about in 'By the Time I Get to Arizona' are alive and well in Arizona today, but this time the target is Brown people."

Along with the statement, Chuck also released "Tear Down That Wall," a rebuke to anti-immigrant scapegoating that samples "Arizona" during the opening.

Nor was the relevance lost on the younger generation of artists. Recently, Minneapolis rapper Toki Wright released an online version of the song with lyrics updated to include the bill. Perhaps more impressive was the collective of emcees--Black and Latino, male and female, all based in Arizona--that came together to produce the eight-minute "Back to Arizona." It went live on May 6th, and has gone viral in the days since.

Like Wright's version, the beat is pulled straight from PE's original. The buzzing bass and thumping drums are all intact, and one thing that's immediately apparent is how fresh it still sounds. And the impressive performances from every one of the dozen diverse emcees make it near-impossible to set any one apart.

More broadly, the bevy of artists on "Back to Arizona" reveal the depth of anger that 1070 has unleashed among young people. Upon closer examination, though, it also shows the possibilities that exist for a real and palpable unity among Black and Brown. Anti-immigrant bigots have always sought to use the Black community as a wedge in their campaigns, seeking to depict Latinos as out to steal jobs from a population that already suffers the affects of racism itself.

The content of "Back to Arizona" makes clear what utter bollocks this is. Throughout the song, both Black and Latino artists are heard making reference to the racism, the profiling, the harassment and degradation that both communities have put up with. It's a prescient statement to make seeing as how allowing cops to pull people who "look illegal" (read: "are Brown") can only open the door for more harassment of African Americans.

And that's the crux--that the only people to benefit from 1070 are the politicians and officials who pushed it. The rest of us--Latino, Black, Asian, Arab, white--are the ones who get screwed.

While the call for action has definitely come from the state itself, there has been no shortage of artists from around the country willing to oblige. Miami-based emcee Pitbull was the most recent to cancel his tour stop in Arizona.

"I am canceling my concert in Phoenix on May 31," said Pit on his Twitter page. "How is the country we enjoy and love bcuz of its human rights, freedom, opportunity and that has been built by immigrants, now start 2 deny them??.. It is contradicting 2 everything the USA stands 4…"

Days before, Cypress Hill announced their intention to pull out of their May 21st date in Tucson. Currently on tour in support of their recently released Rise Up, the group stated that "[t]his decision was made in an effort to show support and solidarity with those, undocumented and otherwise, being directly affected by this unconstitutional law. Cypress Hill recognizes those living in the struggle for their basic civil rights."

What bears saying, however, is that without the steps taken by countless outraged people in the days following 1070's passage--without the organizing, the protests, the marches--it's doubtful that any of these would have happened, much less found traction among fans and supporters. But the space for these kinds of artistic statements to thrive has been carved out in shockingly little time by the street-level actions in communities and campuses alike.

From Katrina to Sean Bell, hip-hop has certainly had its hands full over the past few years. The craven racism of Arizona's law is only the most recent in a litany of crimes that the art-form has had to face head-on. With a national day of action against 1070 coming up on May 29th, we may yet see the vibrancy that the "CNN for Black (and Brown) people" might achieve with a grassroots movement under its belt.

This article first appeared on the Society of Cinema and Arts website.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Miners' music and the war over mountaintop removal

"They're tearing up our mountains. They're taking away our hills,
They're taking away our homeland - and making valley fills."

So sings Elaine Purkey, a West Virginia folk-singer and retired miners' wife. The song is described by the Associated Press as "twangy, angry and thoroughly haunting." The lyrics are directed against the coal industry's tactic of mountaintop removal (MTR)--a process by which companies literally explode the tops off mountains to have easier access to the underground coal. It's a method that obviously throws the surrounding ecosystem into complete disarray, as well as puts countless traditional miners out of work.

Purkey is part of a growing number of miners and miners' relatives who have a big problem with MTR. The May 19th benefit "Music Saves Mountains," featuring Dave Matthews, Patty Loveless and Emmylou Harris and sponsored by the National Resource Council, is one example of a few big names mobilized for the cause, but Purkey and other musicians like her also reveal the indispensable discontent among miners themselves about the practice.

"So many people are singing this song," Purkey told the AP. "This is about so many people and so much destruction and so much pain. Until you come here and see this thing... this monster they call MTR, you cannot imagine what it's like."

That's not to say that MTR doesn't have support among other miners. Jesse Mullins, a miner and musician based in Kentucky recently wrote the track "Hey, Tree Hugger," a country-rock song that takes vicious aim at everyone from environmentalists to President Obama (despite the latter's open support for the coal industry). Seeking to play on the conservative worker stereotype and drum up faux-populist support, the Virginia Mining Association has posted the song on its website.

The industry has trotted out even bigger guns. Ted Nugent and Hank Williams, Jr. have played shows in support of MTR on top of former strip mines. Of course, Nugent and Williams are well-known for their right-wing views and hostility to environmentalism.

What's not quite as clear-cut, however, is how much support the companies are actually going to garner. The underground explosion in Montcoal, West Virginia back in April that claimed the lives of 29 miners--the worst mine disaster in almost 25 years--was a stark reminder of the industry's famed indifference to sustainability. Massey Energy, the company that owns the Montcoal mine, is notoriously anti-union and pioneered the technique of MTR. Its CEO, Don Blankenship, is also a well-known skeptic of global warming.

So little has changed in the way big coal does business. The cutthroat exploitation that provoked Woody Guthrie to write songs about the Ludlow Massacre is still there. And thankfully, there are still artists willing to tap into the rich musical tradition of Appalachia to protest that same disregard for our lives.

In the 1930's, a simple and straightforward song was penned by Florence Reece, the wife of an organizer for the United Mine Workers after their home was raided by company goons. It's since gone on to become one of the most famous American labor songs. Its question is just as relevant as the day it was written: "Which Side Are You On?"

Friday, May 14, 2010

A few items from the newswire

No surprise here: America's prisoners don't have the right to music. Earlier this week, Lil Wayne was given an infraction by the officials at Rikers Island for "music contraband" (I kid you not; that's their term, not mine), which meant that he was caught with ear buds and a charger for a watch the plays mp3s in this cell. Believe it or not, Weezy's sentence could actually be extended for this!

It's rather harsh, no? After all, what damage could possibly be done, whose safety could possibly be put at risk by music? But then, this is the same country whose prison system denied death row inmate Kenneth Foster the right to read Dave Zirin's What's My Name Fool? back in 2007. Mumia Abu-Jamal, an award-winning journalist, isn't even allowed a pen in his cell; he has to write his columns with an ink cartridge.

Where the hell is Johnny Cash when you need him?


M.I.A. has fired back once again on the controversy generated by the video for "Born Free." Said the outspoken artist to

"I find the new Justin Bieber video more violent and more of an assault to my eyes and senses than what I've made."

She's joking of course, but Maya is certainly onto something. Bieber's work may be "safe" by some puritanical standard, but its utter shallowness and mindlessness, its complete disconnect from any kind of reality, could just as easily be construed as "offensive." I know that I definitely find his pabulum nauseating.

Offensive may indeed be in the eye of the beholder, but the class interests of the beholder can't be overlooked. M.I.A. might be "offensive" for daring to portray the reality of racism against non-white immigrants. Bieber, the prepubescent poster-boy for today's music industry, is offensive for demanding we turn away from that reality in favor of a fictional prosperity where all we worry about is puppy love.


And while we're on the subject of the offensive, how about the news that Mary J. Blige will be portraying Nina Simone in an upcoming biopic? Blige no doubt has the pipes to pull it off. I can't speak toward her acting chops, but that's not necessarily what should have fans of the high priestess suspicious.

Simone was, as people know, a steadfast supporter civil rights, Black Power and women's liberation, and was one of the quintessential artists of the '60s for that reason. It wasn't just something she happened to do on the side from her music; it was a central component of her art. According to, though, the film won't even touch this essential part of her life, and instead will focus on her relationship with her assistant Clifton Henderson. In other words, a woman whose work shifted the way we perceive music and culture is still only as good as the man she picks.

Final judgment will have to be reserved for when the movie is actually released, but for now it looks as if Hollywood is yet again trading truth for star-power, playing fast and loose with a great rebel artist's legacy. It's Walk the Line all over again.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


It's a trend as familiar to pop music lovers as the sound of a guitar tuning. A band come along, make a splash, release an album and impressive handful of singles. They tap into exactly how the kids feel, and gain a loyal following as a result. Then, without warning, they break up and recede into the shadows. Overnight the group, their music, and the excitement they generated are all forgotten.

Such is the case with the Redskins, a British band who gained a notable amount of popularity in the 1980s for their blistering, punked-up version of unabashedly radical soul music. That a band like this might be pushed to the margins is tragic enough, but given the potential for them to find a new audience, there is a certain sigh of relief that comes with Insurgence Records' release of the Redskins retrospective Epilogue.

The Redskins' records are hard enough to find in the UK. In the States, they have an added two strikes against them. Most American leftists are likely to think of a racial slur when they hear the band's moniker. On top of that, explaining what their name actually did mean is hindered by the stereotypes of skinheads as neo-nazis.

In this particular case, that couldn't have been less true. When Chris Dean, Martin Hewes and Nick King came together in 1981, it was as the punk group No Swastikas. All three were indeed skins--complete with the Dr. Martens, the 501 jeans, the Harrington jackets. But they were also of the left, and Dean and Hewes were members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

"The misconception has always been that skinheads were all right wing, which they were not," said Dean in a 1986 interview. "If you look at the Specials audiences, the 2 Tone [ska] bands, Madness, there were a lot of skinheads, a lot of anti-racist skinheads and left-wing skinheads and socialist skinheads. The name Redskins came from a group of skinheads in Sheffield who were in the Communist Party... Some were in the Labour party, some in the Socialist Workers Party."

That tendency became best defined when No Swastikas evolved into the Redskins. Soul music had been a big part of skinhead culture since its inception in the '50s, along with ska, reggae and R&B. The advent of punk and its crossover with ska in the '70s had lead to a big revival of the movement. Even as Hewes' bass took on a hip-shaking bounce and Dean's voice mimicked the visceral growl-and-wail of soul's pioneers, the energy of punk's early years continued to be heard in their songs. Dean, when asked to describe the group, once quipped that the Redskins wanted to "walk like the Supremes and talk like the Clash."

The political landscape the group faced was far less favorable than bands of their ilk had found in the '70s, however. Margaret Thatcher had become Prime Minister in 1979, and had placed everything from unions to public industries to Northern Ireland in her cross-hairs.

Thatcher's open war on the working class might have been what provoked the Redskins to be so unabashedly... well, red, in their early work. Their first single, released in 1982 on the CNT imprint, was "Peasant Army," which appears on Epilogue. More a punk than soul, it's a high octane piece of three-chord agitation that lays the slogans on thick.

The B-side, "Lev Bronstein" (which also appears on the collection) is even heavier on the rhetoric; not many artists would title their songs after the birth name of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. But the beginnings of the group's recognizable swing can clearly be heard in Dean's guitar work and drummer King's incorporation of bass and toms.

During their career, the Redskins would release only one album, Neither Washington Nor Moscow, in 1986. It would eventually reach number 31 on the UK Albums Chart and remains the best introduction to the Redskins' work. Songs like the hard-burning "Bring It Down (The Insane Thing)," the steady finger-snap of "The Power is Yours," and horn-driven freneticism of "Kick Over the Statues" sadly don't appear on Insurgence's retrospective.

That being said, there are still some amazing gems for the uninitiated on Epilogue. Two tracks in particular, neither of which appear on Washington/Moscow, showcase the band at their absolute best. "A Plateful of Hateful" mixes a stutter-step drumbeat and rousing horns with passionate pleas to "free the people!" And the live version of "Don't Talk To Me About Whether" manages to capture the raw soul-power the group brought to their performances.

The demo version of "Keep On Keepin' On" provides similar a window into what made the Redskins such a successful act for their time and place.

When the band appeared on the popular British music show "The Tube" on November 9th, 1984, Britain was gripped by a miners' strike that became the most heated labor dispute in a decade. Thatcher had long been public about her intention to privatize the coal pits and close several others, but in the early months of '84, the government went forward with the plan--which would lead to the loss of over 20,000 mining jobs.

The National Union of Miners, lead by the militant Arthur Scargill, took to the picket lines in March. By the end of the month, miners were in pitched battles with cops from Scotland to Yorkshire to South Wales. Despite fierce opposition from the authorities and universal denunciation in the mainstream press, almost 200,000 would go out over the year-long strike, and hundreds of thousands of other union activists and radicals would be galvanized.

The Redskins threw themselves into solidarity with the striking miners. They had already played several shows to benefit the strike fund, and when they performed on "The Tube," they started by taking a dig at Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock for his unsupportive stance. Then, in after their first song, they brought up a miner--aptly named Norman Strike--to give a brief update on what was happening on the picket lines.

Strike's speech, however, wasn't to be heard. His microphone had been cut off. Nonetheless, the Redskins launched into "Keep On Keepin' On," a song written expressly in solidarity with the strike.

"Can't remember such a bitter time
The boss says jump, the workers fall in line
I'm not down, but I'm feeling low
They whip us into line
With the threat of the dole
Time and time when the workers rise
The fightback's stabbed by a neat backstab
And the papers' lies
Leaders lead us into blind retreat
One by one we take the money
Ten by ten we face defeat"

Dean ended the number with an outright declaration of "victory to the miners!" The incident with Strike's microphone would cause a controversy in the press the next day, but the censorship didn't stop the Redskins' performance from reaching others sympathetic to their message. Mark "Bazza" Barrett writes in the liner notes for Epilogue:

"I was blown away. The song was all about the Miners' Strike and the workers' struggle. I'd always had left-wing leanings since getting into the 2 Tone bands a few years before. But here was a band that really struck a chord with me. The lyrics hit home and that sound... I just loved the Soul-sounding brass on that song. I was won over... For the next two years the Redskins became a big part of my life. I even ended up joining the Middlesbrough branch of the SWP..."

Ultimately, this is what Epilogue displays incredibly well--that ever-shifting interplay between music and struggle. Not just how music influenced the people, but how people influenced the music. As a retrospective, this album pulls it off, briefly but effectively chronicling their evolution from a straightforward punk group to a band whose sound and stance personified the unity and steadfastness that working people so desperately sought to cling to at that time.

Sadly, that fragile relationship might have also been at the root of the Redskins' demise. In March of '85, the miners strike ended in defeat. Thatcher privatized and closed the pits after all, the strongest union in the UK was crushed, and in some mining towns unemployment climbed to 50 percent. The labor-left too was greatly demoralized, and many perceived it as a major coup for Conservatism's control of British politics.

The Redskins would break up in late '86, during the low-point of the downturn in British class struggle. Hewes would work as a motorcycle courier before becoming a music teacher. Dean would leave the SWP in 1988 before taking up a reclusive life in Paris. A tiny but loyal base of left-wing music fans is really all that's prevented the group from sinking into the bottomless morass of forgotten artists.

Such a prospect might be still more tragic today, at a time when the Redskins' refrains--hold tight, organize, resist--has more resonance than it's had in a great long while. This alone justifies the release of Epilogue. That the music really is just that good is merely an added bonus.

This article first appeared at the website for the Society of Cinema and Arts.

Monday, May 10, 2010

More artists speaking against Arizona

As folks have no doubt heard by now, the artists speaking out against SB 1070 in Arizona haven't stopped at Chuck D or Stars. Perhaps the most high profile was Gloria Estefan, who took part in the May Day weekend demonstrations in Los Angeles.

"We join with you today so that they will know that we immigrants are honest, workers, to show the beautiful face that we bring to this country, always respecting the laws," said Estefan at the protest. "If everyone looks back, everyone is an immigrant in this country. We don’t want to link the word ‘immigrant’ with ‘criminal.’”

Maybe even more unusual was Shakira, who appeared on CNN's "AC 360" to declare her opposition to the law. The pop singer, who is a Colombian citizen, pointed out that "[i]f this law was already in effect today... I could be detained and arrested and taken away because I don't even have my driver's license here. I'm completely undocumented here."

And then there was Ricky Martin, who in his first public appearance since coming out as gay, went off-script at the Billboard Latin Music Awards to say that the law "makes no sense."

"You are not alone. We are with you. Put a stop to discrimination. Put a stop to hate. Put a stop to racism… Long live love, long live peace."

None of these artists have ever been recognized as especially "political." But their willingness to speak out reveals a few things. First is how absolutely offensive the Arizona law is, and how far-reaching the outrage it has provoked. And then, there is the stunning reality of how reliant American pop music has become on Latin artists.

This should hardly be surprising. Since the passage of NAFTA back in the early '90s, immigration to the US from Latin America has grown exponentially. There is hardly an urban area today where one can't find a Latin record store or a reggaeton scene. It's the simple truth that as the US' draconian economic reach forces others to find a better way of life, they are going to bring their culture with them.

The recording industry recognizes this. The past decade has seen the amount of Latino artists signed grow alongside the population at large. It's a simple business decision, really. And that's something that lays at the crux of the outrage over Arizona: that if businesses can go wherever they want and exploit whoever they want to make a buck, why can't those who make the profits for them?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Just in case you still can't find it...

Per Friday's article. This is undoubtedly a video that hard to watch. It's also intensely powerful, and well-worth watching. M.I.A. is back, and as this vid shows, her presence in today's music scene is sorely needed indeed.

M.I.A, Born Free from ROMAIN-GAVRAS on Vimeo.

Friday, May 7, 2010

"I Was Born Free!"

Plenty of graphic content can be found on YouTube. From executions by firing squad to clips of Vietnamese children covered in napalm, the blood and gore seem in no short supply. What might be harder to find, however, is the new video from M.I.A. The British/Sri Lankan artist (whose real name is Mathangi Arulpragasam) is no stranger to controversy. She's also no stranger to choosing sides. It's this might have the suits up in arms over her video, but it's also what makes her one of the most important artists of our era.

When "Born Free" premiered on April 26th, the Google-owned video site swiftly buried it, citing that the official clip was in violation of rules that "prohibit content like pornography or gratuitous violence." The days that followed saw a firestorm of protest sweep the internet. M.I.A. herself lashed out, and countless supporters backed her up.

Though YouTube was quick to point out that "Born Free" was not actually banned, they have also "age-gated" the video, meaning that only 18-and-over viewers can find it. This, combined with a vigorous amount of "flagging" from uptight viewers, has made the vid a challenging find.

Anyone even vaguely familiar with YouTube will attest to what a crock this is. Viewers can already find everything from soft-core porn to outright hate-speech on the site, none of which seems to offend Google's "standards."

So what is it that makes "Born Free" so objectionable?

The song itself, to be included on her upcoming as-yet untitled album, is a full-on sonic assault. Listeners only familiar with "Paper Planes" may wonder where the Clash-era hooks went, and why they've been replaced by a thumping, buzzing, chopped-and-screwed techno beat. And while her familiar swagger remains intact, there is no doubt that this is an angrier, more frustrated M.I.A.

"I throw this in your face when I see ya
I got something to say
I throw this shit in your face when I see ya
Cause I got something to say"

It's a taunt directed (in this case with appropriate irony) at the forces who have resented her success. She's defiant as ever, but with a more palpable dose of rage. One might wonder whether the experience of seeing her native Sri Lanka torn apart in the recent civil war--and the corresponding genocide against the country's Tamil population--has had any influence on this.

The video answers with an unmistakable yes. More short film than music vid, it's nine minutes long--double the time of the song itself. Like any good film, the music takes a back seat to the action onscreen. Directed by Romain Gavras (son of legendary French left-wing filmmaker Costa Gavras), it follows a SWAT-like platoon of storm-troopers as they raid an apartment complex in an unnamed city. The men, who all display American flags on their upper-right sleeves, are brutal as they prowl from dwelling to dwelling, beating innocent bystanders without mercy, shouting insults and epithets.

Finally, they find who they're looking for, and it's only after this nameless young man is shoved onto the bus that we realize their quarry are all fair-skinned, red-headed men. As the bus drives away, a trio of young red-heads with keffiyehs wrapping their faces emerge from behind a corner throwing rocks and raising their fists.

The shocking parallels continue. The bus reaches its destination, a compound that looks like a mixture of Abu Ghraib and the US-Mexico border. One prisoner, a boy not one day over twelve years old, is shot in the head point-blank before the rest are forced to run across a minefield. The video's climax is a full-frontal shot of one of the red-heads literally being blown to bits.

What starts as a straightforward satire ends as a graphic statement--and one that's unfortunately applicable worldwide. That repression of any ethnic group--be it Arabs in Gaza or Latinos in Arizona--makes about as much sense as rounding up gingers.

And therein may lie the reason some of the honchos at Google took particular offense. As the Chicago Tribune's Kyra Kyles quipped, "[m]aybe the mistake M.I.A. made was using violence and brief nudity to make a political statement."

As for M.I.A., a refugee who was forced to flee to the UK because of her father's role in the Tamil liberation struggle, she comes honest by her outspoken views: "I do have a political background. I’m only in England, learning this language and building a life in this society, because of political reasons. Why would I deny that?"

At a time when music is becoming increasingly segregated, her work is truly unclassifiable, pulling on punk, electroclash, grime, hip-hop, dancehall and just about anything else she can use as a vehicle to speak out on sexism, the War on Terror and poverty in the developing world.

All these elements have combined to make her face one of the most recognized and respected in music. It's also made her an easy scapegoat. The "Born Free" fiasco is only the latest to be visited on M.I.A. by various authorities since the start of her musical career. A brief list would include the following:

2004: MTV bans her video for "Sunshowers," the second single off her debut Arular, after she refuses to remove references to the Palestine Liberation Organization.

2006: M.I.A. is denied entry to the United States, where she was scheduled to work on her second album with producer Timbaland. No reason is given for the denied visa, but rumors swirl that it is connected to her father's political ties.

2009: In the heat of the civil war, M.I.A. accuses the Sri Lankan government of "genocide" against the Tamil minority. Government spokesperson Palitah Kohona shoots back that she is "misinformed," and that she should "stay with what she's good at, which is music, not politics." The New York Times labels her "an apologist for the Tamil Tiger rebels," despite her denunciation of the Tigers' tactics.

2010: More apparent visa troubles. M.I.A. reports that she is "Banned from leaving the U.S., family banned from coming to U.S. to see me, baby..."

It seems safe to say that few artists of her profile have had to deal with this many headaches. Just as telling as this kind of censorship, however, is the massive popularity she's achieved despite all obstacles. Kala, the album she was almost prevented from making after the visa problems, is recognized as one of the best releases of 2007, and has sold over a million copies world-wide.

In 2009, even as the NYT and Sri Lankan government were branding her one shade off a terrorist, Time magazine named M.I.A. one of the "World's Most Influential People." In six years she's gone from a virtual unknown to darling of the indie scene to a musical flashpoint of rebellion in an increasingly globalized culture.

If there is one thing to pull from the minor online shit-storm around "Born Free" it's further proof of the growing contradiction in that same culture. On the one hand, it's clear that those in power will do almost anything to keep these kinds of ideas, this kind of art, from gaining a hearing. On the other, when people hear music that they relate to in a visceral way, there's ultimately little that can be done to stop it.

Anyone who thinks M.I.A.'s implacable momentum can be stopped by burying her video is in for a rude awakening when the album is released this June.

This article first appeared at the website for the Society of Cinema and Arts.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


Yesterday was the fortieth anniversary of the Kent State Massacre, when the National Guard was unleashed on anti-war protesters at Kent State University, leaving four dead and nine wounded. It's one of many infamous moments that have become synonymous with the heady and rebellious era of the late '60s and early '70s.

Says Eric Ruder in an article on yesterday:

"Like the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. two years earlier, nearly everyone alive at the time remembered what they were doing when they heard the news that college students protesting the war were shot dead in broad daylight by members of the Ohio National Guard."

This was certainly true for Neil Young. After seeing photos in Life magazine of the shocking display of state repression, he furiously wrote the music and lyrics to "Ohio." It was recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in a few takes and released a mere eleven days after the four students were killed.

Like most counter-cultural musicians, CSNY were stridently against the war in Vietnam and its expansion into Cambodia. Of course, the country had seen how capable the state was of repressing its own citizens in the name of the war at the Democratic convention in 1968. Nonetheless, the incident at Kent Shocked and further radicalized a generation.

The song peaked at #14 on the Billboard Hot 100. And in the forty years since, it's become a staple of the counter-culture.

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Three questions

The following interview was done by Michelle Williams, reporter for the Daily Collegian.

3 Questions with Alex Billet from michelle williams on Vimeo.

The entirety of the Amherst event can be viewed here.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

May Day musical roundup

It has really only been in the past few years that May Day has re-entered popular consciousness the way it was intended. It's ironic that a holiday originally celebrated in the United States had to be reimported by workers emigrating from Latin America, but at the same time, it seems to embody the spirit of International Workers Day.

Given that May 1st has once again become a day of working class solidarity, it comes as no surprise that each one sees an ever-growing myriad events sprout up around the main marches on the day itself. In Chicago, this is doubly true.


Friday night was the IWW's show at the Bottom Lounge featuring Tom Morello's Nightwatchman persona as the main act. Of course, any labor historian will know that music was a big part of the Wobblies' culture back in their height during the early 1900s. Few know that this tradition carries on today in the age of organizing Starbucks baristas.

For one, as he pointed out in my interview with him this past week, Morello is himself a card-carrying member of the IWW. And while his work with Rage Against the Machine has always personified a collision of political and aesthetic radicalism, his songwriting as the Nightwatchman has given his more labor-oriented side an incredibly effective expression.

It might be easy, though, to let Morello overshadow the other facets of the IWW's continued musical tradition. Bucky Halker represents the affect that the work of Guthrie and Hill continue to have on music. The Rust Belt Ramblers, also all Wobblies, show the way in which it's connected to all of the IWW's folky origins. The Ramblers themselves prefer to describe their music themselves with the straightforward Americana label. And sure enough, their songs are a blend of American traditions--folk, country, rockabilly, bluegrass--performed with an old-school rebel style.

For his part, Morello's set was quite powerful. Passionate, personable, even funny at times, he managed to fill the stage with nothing but himself and his acoustic guitar. Granted, the Bottom Lounge doesn't have a very big stage, but there was no doubt that the audience was hanging off every note and word. He played a few songs off his most recent The Fabled City, most of his set was either from his first album One Man Revolution or versions of others. His quiet, dirge-like version of "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night," "Union Song," which is included in the newest version of the IWW's Little Red Songbook, even an acoustic version of "Guerilla Radio" that worked surprisingly well!

The best, however, came during his encore, during which he brought the crowd onstage. He played "Worldwide Rebel Songs," which will appear on his upcoming album. Then, "This Land is Your Land," with the infamous lost verse. And, of course, it wouldn't be a Wobbly May Day event if he didn't bring out Halker and the Ramblers (yes, with the crowd still on that tiny stage) for a version of "Solidarity Forever." By the end of the night, there was no denying that the hundreds of people in the audience were down with what this show was all about.


Needless to say, this made for a bit of exhaustion the next morning. But the energy that was carried into the march on Saturday was massive. Final counts have yet to come in, but it's reasonable to estimate at least 20,000 people came out that day. Of course, the brewing anger against the passage of SB 1070 in Arizona has to be connected with the large turnout, and throughout the day talk and chants were directed at the draconian measures that the state has on offer for immigrant workers in the US--both undocumented and documented.

LGBTQ activists who showed up to show their solidarity have called Arizona "a Prop 8 moment," and that seems about right. The immigrant movement has hardly taken this development lying down. And Jan Brewer, the governor of Arizona, has made a vast political miscalculation provoking the sleeping giant.

The spirit was overwhelmingly unapologetic and defiant. A crowd of all ages and races raised chants like "Arizona, escucha, estamos en la lucha" (Arizona, listen up, we are fighting) and "Todos Somos Arizona" (we are all Arizona). The presence of unions of all stripes also solidified the feeling that this was a fight not just for racial justice but class solidarity. "La lucha obrera no tiene fronteras" was a common chant (the workers' struggle has no borders).

For sure, the movement for immigrant rights and labor in this country still has a long way to go before it is at the point it once was, when every working man and woman knew that the first of May was a day for them, that they had a real interest in commemorating. But it also has to be acknowledged that within the struggling economy and glaring inequality that exists, there is a growing willingness to fight among young people. People who are searching for something better, who want to protect what they have now and gain what they know they deserve.

And so, because it wouldn't be a May Day roundup without this song, it seems appropriate to end on these notes:

Arise, ye prisoners of starvation!
Arise, ye wretched of the earth!
For justice thunders condemnation:
A better world's in birth!
No more tradition's chains shall bind us,
Arise ye slaves, no more in thrall!
The earth shall rise on new foundations:
We have been nought, we shall be all!

'Tis the final conflict,
Let each stand in his place.
The international working class
Shall free the human race
'Tis the final conflict,
Let each stand in his place.
The international working class
Shall free the human race