Thursday, June 30, 2011

Petty Malice

With the Republican candidates now feverishly jockeying for the nomination, it was only a matter of time until this happened. In fact, it seems that we go through this every four years. Last election cycle it was the members of Boston rebuking Mike Huckabee; even ABBA had to step in to tell John McCain to back off their songs.

Now, it's Tom Petty's turn. Petty is rather well-known as a liberal, and this isn't the first time that he's had to tell a Republican to stop using his songs. But despite the apparently "all American" sound of his song "American Girl," the thinly veiled subject matter really makes one wonder why the hell Michele Bachmann is using it.

Petty's music in general has always been about the young and innocent having their bubbles popped. Just listen to "Into the Great Wide Open" or "Last Dance With Mary Jane" and you'll start to get the picture. In this context, the promises that the American girl was raised on in the song can't exactly be seen as rock-solid. In fact, by the end it's rather clear that these promises are little more than myths.

Actually, on second thought, that might just be the perfect soundtrack for Bachmann... or the Tea Party as a whole. Or, for that matter, politics in general. "A Better America" is kind of hard with no jobs or social safety net. Petty's work isn't the only thing going over Bachmann's head right now.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

BDS Update: No Room For Jello!

Today, Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine announced that their controversial show in Tel Aviv, Israel, booked in blatant defiance of the Palestinian call for cultural boycott, was canceled!

Thanks to everyone who signed the petition urging Jello to pull out of the gig and forwarded it to all their friends; this is without a doubt a real victory for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and proof that pressure from below can work. Below is the statement that Jello posted on Facebook today. While the cancellation can only be called a victory, the condescension he directs in the letter (toward Punks Against Apartheid, BDS and really all Palestinians in general) reveal that there’s a lot more work to be done well past Jello himself. For that reason, it seems safe to say that the work of Punks Against Apartheid has only just begun!


Dear Friends,

Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine are not going through with the July 2 date in Tel Aviv. This does not mean I or anyone else in the band are endorsing or joining lockstep with the boycott of all things Israel.

I am going to Israel and Palestine to check things out myself and may yet conclude that playing for people in the belly of the beast was the right thing to do in the first place.

The toll and stress on the band members and myself has been huge, both logistically and as a matter of conscience. I can’t drag anyone any further into rough waters without being better prepared than some of us thought we were. A responsible leader does not go, ‘Hey, check out the storm at the top of Mount Everest. Let’s go up anyway just in case we don’t die.’ Some members are angry with me for this decision, let alone how long it took me. I don’t blame them.

It would have been so easy to quietly pass on the gig out of fear someone might get upset, and no one would have been the wiser. We could have flown under the radar, left the date off our tour postings and not bothered with a statement, but how honest is that?

Our intention in going was that we thought we could do some good , speaking truth to power, fans and impressionable young minds in a way that most bands don’t. What about the people on the same side of the human rights fence we are who now don’t get to see us play? Should they be boycotted too? What about the even larger atrocities of the Bush regime and by extension Obama? Should we turn off our mouths of anger and boycott our own country too?

We tried again and came close to landing a Ramallah show, but again, we needed to be better prepared. How fair is it to the organizers to demand a full-on rock show on a few days’ notice with a type of music they may not be familiar with? More importantly, how much are we really doing for Palestinian rights if people there don’t seem interested in our kind of music at all?

I’ve been doing this long enough to know better than buy into hardline absolutes such as playing in Israel automatically supports apartheid or Israel’s government. That threat is ridiculous. I know far more about this issue than some people think I do, and I am not a poodle for Hasbara, Peace Now, BDS or anyone else.

The first people contacting us went out of their way to be diplomatic and communicate how they felt. Then our Facebook page went from eye-opening and educational to a childish bickerfest between a handful of people, to the point where we had to try something else just to reclaim our own Facebook page.

As the gloves came off, unfortunately so did some of the masks. Calling anyone speaking up for Palestinian rights a ‘terrorist’ is dumb. So are the blanket condemnations of everyone who happens to be Israeli that seem to be coming from the ‘drive all the Jews into the sea’ crowd. I also even got an invitation from a self-proclaimed fan to ‘come meet the Israeli right’ and see the settlements through their eyes, complete with a wine-tasting party. Whew!

Whoever started now admits it was aimed solely at one person – me. It is obvious that not everyone signing the petition has any idea who I am, or knows anything about punk, possibly the majority. The last time I looked I could only find three names of people I actually knew. Some made it clear that I will be on their bad list no matter what I do because I dared to even think of playing in Israel.

I can’t back anyone whose real goal or fantasy is a country ethnically cleansed of Jews or anyone else. Where people who think for themselves or talk to the wrong person are automatically a sell out. Speaking personally, I currently favor two democratic states in the admittedly naive hope that in our lifetime they can somehow evolve into one. Where race or religion does not matter because people have learned to work with each other.

I think back to last year when JBGSM played in Serbia. The locals we spent time with were not monsters, and filled me in on how they risked their necks for years opposing and demonstrating against Milosevic and were not down with ethnic cleansing at all. But they weren’t too happy about being bombed by NATO for over 2 months straight either, and showed the ruined buildings to prove it.

I also heard comments like, ‘The Croats killed my grandfather in World War II. I can’t forget that…’ and ‘There’s another war coming soon. I can feel it.’ The most I could do from the stage is say that I do not know what I would do if the Croats or Serbs killed my grandfather, or a suicide bomber or occupying army killed my child. But I would hope I would be one of those people who could somehow say, ‘Can’t we have some peace?’ The audience seemed to appreciate that.

The next day I laid out my thoughts and emotions to the person giving me a ride in Slovenia. She turned ice cold and said, ‘Maybe next time you should play in Bosnia.’ Good point. The nightmare continues.

Rise Above,

Jello Biafra

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Bono Faces the Music

If there were ever an outdoor music fest that kept close to its hippie roots, it would have to be Glastonbury. Since 1970, the festival held in England's picturesque Somerset region has hosted some of the most forward-thinking acts of their time. Moreover, the fest has always maintained that it's not enough to dream of a better world, but strove to make it a reality. Its founder, Michael Eavis, ran for parliament on a left Labour ticket in the '90s before urging people to vote Green in protest of the Iraq War. In the 1980s, Glasto openly allied itself with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and two of its stages have long been owned and operated by Greenpeace and Britain's Trades Union Congress.

Leave it to Bono to ruin all of this. As always, he's playing dumb about the repression that was handed out to protect him. Still, it seems that lately, for all his attempts to paint himself a man of peace, protest dogs him almost everywhere. And while Glastonbury has long had to negotiate the treacherous waters of being a major music festival in a cutthroat world of commerce, this little stunt seems to have put it over (if you'll pardon the pun) the edge.

It happened on Friday, the last night of the festival, during U2's headlining set. A group of activists were roughed up by security, their materials confiscated. Among the group was Claudia Graham, had her finger broken by one of the guards. Their crime? Inflating a 20 foot banner that read "U pay tax 2?"

The activists were members of Art Uncut, a spin-off of UK Uncut. The past several months have seen UK Uncut pull off some of the most visible direct actions in Britain against the country's worst corporate tax-cheaters: Vodafone, Barclay's bank, Topshop and many others. While the UK's Tory-led government has exacted grinding austerity against the Kingdom's working classes, these activists have quite publicly and rightly asked why the upper one percent have been let off the hook.

Bono most-likely knew it was only a matter of time until he and U2 were targeted. In a defense of the Glasto protest appearing in The Guardian, UK Uncut's Phillip Goff laid out the "case against Bono" rather well:

"In 2006 U2 Ltd [the band's operating company] moved most of its tax affairs to Holland, seemingly in response to the Irish government's decision to cap the tax-free exemption on royalties at €225,000 (before this, artists in Ireland were not obliged to pay any tax on royalties). Our concern is that when individuals and corporations "shop around" different countries for the best tax deal, this puts pressure on governments all round the world to lower their tax rates, which results in an ever-dwindling proportion of profits going to governments to spend on schools, hospitals and public services. Given the financial difficulties in the group's native country right now, any tax revenue denied to Ireland hurts badly."

Of course, nobody has credibly been able to call Bono "progressive" for quite some time. Times like these have a way of kicking up dirt on even the most pristine public figures, and the U2 front-man is no exception. Indeed, as far as symbols go, it's hard to find a better whipping boy than Bono himself. Here's a man who prattles on about "solving poverty" while refusing to pay his fair share into the public coffer; who makes sanctimonious calls for peace while hobnobbing with war criminals like Bush and Blair; who publicly maintains a "love" for his fans while daring to charge outrageous prices for tickets and demanding that "music pirates" be prosecuted.

Among left-wing music fans, "Bono-watching" has become something of a sport. Dave Marsh and Lee Ballinger of Rock & Rap Confidential have both been rightfully relentless. Irish journalist and civil rights activist Eamonn McCann has been similarly merciless toward his countrymen's hypocritical practices. Signs reading "make Bono pay taxes" have emerged on Irish anti-cuts marches.

In all of these instances, Bono himself has remained arrogantly mum (for example, backing out of Marsh's challenge to a public debate on the nature of the "One" campaign). There is something different about the events of Glastonbury, however. First, there's the festival itself. The swiftly rising ticket-prices or corporate logos notwithstanding, this is a fest whose progressive legacy is well-known among many attendees. Little wonder then that activists feel emboldened to raise this kind of action and call out the contradiction of U2's mere presence at Glasto.

Then there's how much the world in general is changing. Eighteen months ago, I discussed with a fellow activist of Irish descent whether the time was ripe for pickets at U2's shows; he remained understandably skeptical. Now, however, we stand on the shoulders of rebellions in Britain and Spain, Egypt and South Africa. As politicians of both parties push austerity, the UK Uncut model has made its way to this side of the pond. It would seem, for lack of a better term, that people are mad as hell, and they're just not going to take it anymore.

For his own part, Bono has arrogantly dismissed the protests and insisted he wasn't behind the protesters' brutal treatment. Speaking with the Daily Mail the day after, Bono insisted declared that "I’m all for protests. I’ve been protesting all of my life. I’m glad they got the chance to have their say. But, as it happens, what they’re protesting about is wrong."

Bono didn't say when he had last protested for anything; most readers most likely won't remember either. Likewise, he didn't bother saying exactly what about their protest was wrong. He didn't attempt defending the group's use of tax havens or comment on whether the rich should pay their fair share.

But then, folks of his income bracket rarely have to explain themselves. Recent reports indicate that the members of U2 are the highest paid artists in the world; last year raking in as much as $160 million. The band's holding company employs untold amounts of labor and cuts every possible corner to keep itself profitable. If Bono seemed deliberately vague, then it's probably because he hasn't known true accountability for quite some time

That, however, may be ready to change very soon. Bono may not have been a fan of the protest, but judging from the cheers that went up after the balloon was inflated, thousands of others were.

It comes down to a matter of sides: on one stands a man who fancies himself the people's rock star, but when push comes to shove is only backed up by the scads of money he's hellbent on holding onto; on the other legions of pissed off working people sick of being screwed over. For years we've heard that music isn't a place for politics, but more and more, the chorus coming from the rabble is "why not?"

In the end, it's about a lot more than one rock band; it's about a system. If Bono one day has to face the music, it's because his ilk have finally felt the pressure from the rest of us.

First published at SOCIARTS.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Last Chance to Catch Resistance Culture!

From music to poetry to comedy, from folk to punk to hip-hop, there’s not a single aspect of culture untouched by the spirit of resistance.

This year’s lineup includes HBO Def Poet Kevin Coval, Prayers for Atheists off Providence’s Strange Famous Records, critically acclaimed rapper Phillip Morris. Also, original songs from exonerated death row inmate Darby Tillis and folk artists from Iowa, Chicago, NYC and more!

Plus, radical sketch comedy and the first ever drag-show at the Socialism conference! Don’t miss out! Your last chance to register online is Tuesday!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

BDS Update: Hip-Hop is Bigger Than the Occupation

With the launching of the Flotilla just around the corner, with the BDS movement at a real crossroads, the timeliness of this film should be obvious. Existence is Resistance premieres in Chicago tomorrow, and yes, it promises to be straight-up dope. The connections between the world of hip-hop and Palestine have become more well-known over the past few years; this further cements the link, chronicling the tour of artists like M1, Shadia Mansour, Lowkey and others through the Occupied Territories.

Okay, so what does this have to do with BDS? Nothing directly. But the struggles that artists have to go through just to get to Gaza or the West Bank stand in stark contrast to the way that artists have the red carpet rolled out for them in Israel. Art, basically, is a human right, and the denial of that is only the tip of the iceberg for what youth in Palestine endure.

Really, though, this film seems to get at the hope that music can also deliver despite all obstacles. These artists are, of course, some of the best-known soldiers for Palestine in the world of hip-hop, but building this movement will mean that there can be a lot more in the coming years.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

We've Almost Lost Japan

Word is that Japan's nuclear crisis, far from abating like the Western media wishes, is far worse than originally thought. While many have feared total meltdown since March, the debacle at Fukushima has possibly resulted in melt-through. It's not hyperbole to say that while a melt-down would have been bad, this scenario is far worse.

Melt-through, in essence, means that radioactive material has soaked through the ground and contaminated soil and drinking water. According to the IAEA, this would almost definitely make the bulk of Japan uninhabitable.

Let's back up here: Japan, recognized as one of the most culturally influential countries on the planet, may stand on the brink of being turned into an atomic wasteland. And yet, unsurprisingly, the CEOs continue to defend nuclear power. It's shameless and horrifying.

Over the past couple months I've commented about the lack of good anti-nuke songs in modern music. This may be shifting, but in the meantime, it's worth remembering songs like this. The late Gil Scott-Heron, still being mourned less than a month after his death, composed what is arguably one of the best: "We Almost Lost Detroit," off his 1977 album Bridges.

Two years later Scott-Heron would become involved in Musicians United for Safe Energy, formed in the wake of the Three Mile Island incident. Most of these artists related to a white, middle-class sensibility (not to dismiss them), but Scott-Heron's song, included on the No Nukes compilation album, brought in a mournful missive incorporating the environmental racism witnessed at the partial meltdown at the Fermi 1 reactor outside Detroit.

Like most of Gil Scott's songs, there is a stunning relevance to current events. One needs only replace the word "Detroit" with "Japan" in order to see that here.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

It's Bigger Than 50...

There are plenty of reasons to be perplexed by 50 Cent's recent announcement that he'll be releasing a young-adult book. Not because he's bad with words--nobody can seriously say that's true. Nor because it somehow seems beyond his purview; the past several years have seen him jump at the chance to shill for anything that'll make him a buck. Rather, it's because of the content of the book.

The novel, tentatively titled Playground and scheduled to be released in January, is being promoted as an "anti-bullying" novel. Ostensibly, it's semi-autobiographical, focusing on a teenaged bully who sees the light and seeks to mend his ways. Of course, the irony here is that anyone who has listened to Fif's music knows how rife it is with homophobic slurs. When politicians have needed a way to point the finger at hip-hop--their own usual indifference to LGBT rights notwithstanding--50 Cent has been one of the first artists they pointed to.

The past year or so has seen a lot of news stories highlighting hip-hop's attempt to "come to terms" with it's own homophobia. This seems to be in that same vein. Like those other incidents, however, this seems to smack of some shallow stab at making peace with the system while letting the real culprits off the hook.

Says Channing Kennedy over at ColorLines:

"It’s easy to take a stand against bullying, because it’s easy to take a stand against bad guys. It’s much harder to take responsibility for the cultural causes of bullying — and while there are many, the major ones are homophobia and transphobia, at the hands of parents and classmates, but originating with spiritual leaders, policies, and popular culture."

Is it idiotic to lay the blame for all homophobia at 50 Cent's feet? Of course, just as it is to blame it on any one individual. Whether or not he feels he can be somehow absolved for years of rather unapologetic use of the word "faggot," the whole thing both shoulders him with too much personal responsibility and runs roughshod over the real issue. Really, this book says a lot more about his own position than it does anything about homophobia or hip-hop.

Most artists on major labels try to keep the machinations of the industry at arms length for a variety of reasons, among them the manipulation and bigotry that it seems all-too-willing to promote. But it's been a long time since 50 has been discernible at all from the biz. The media loves to describe him as an "entrepreneur," which nowadays is code for businessman. There's another word for it: capitalist.

That's what this really is all about. Just like oil companies try to look concerned about the environment, just like porn kings attempt to wrap themselves in "civil rights," music moguls try to paper over the offensive crap they shill with thinly veiled public relations stunts. That's basically what this is; a patina of compassion covering up a mode of production going way beyond any one person.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

RIP Clarence Clemons

Clarence Clemons died on Saturday. The man who played that legendary sax solo on "Born to Run," not to mention accompanied Springsteen on the cover of the album, is no more. As with all members of the E Street Band, he was a lot more than a backup player.

“I got into the soul music," said Clemons but I wanted to rock. I was a rocker. I was a born rock ’n’ roll sax player.” If that's the case, then he fooled a lot of people for a very long time. In almost thirty years of recordings, there was never a single note that lacked soul.

It was different times when he joined the band for sure. In Clemons' memoir he pointed out that even in the early '70s, even in the northern state of New Jersey, the music scene remained segregated: “You had your black bands and you had your white bands... and if you mixed the two you found less places to play.”

Ultimately, Clemons was part of a band that transcended these kinds of racial boundaries musically. Springsteen and the E Street Band have arguably been one of the few acts that have consciously kept the spirit of the rock and roll old school alive without letting it become a dusty old relic. It's an ethic that willingly defies placement in any of the boxes--rock, soul, R&B, etc.

It's an approach to music that steadfastly persists in these early artists' ability to cross social divides. This shouldn't be overstated; even jukeboxes were segregated during these years. Nonetheless, the sound that gestated from these collision-filled years were a potential platform, alluding to the kind of daily life in music that hadn't yet been achieved in general. The sound of the E Street Band--and Clemons' sax-playing--embodied this same kind of potential. That was no easy feat during the Reagan '80s.

It's illustrated in the must obvious way. How many rock acts even have a saxophonist nowadays? It might be easy, and frequently is, for commentators to place the greatness of the E Street Band, that thorough ecumenicism, on Springsteen alone. That sells it short. Clarence Clemons was an integral part of it.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Building Resistance Culture, Bringing Down Apartheid

The petition urging Jello Biafra to drop the gig in Tel Aviv has been so far a smashing success. In four days it's approached 1000 endorsers and signatories; within the next day or so it will most likely pass that threshold. In Europe, where Jello and the Guantanamo School of Medicine are on tour right now, he is being met with activists asking him repeatedly to drop the show. Though the Facebook page for JBGSM recently disabled wall comments, it's clear that Jello is taking this effort to get him to join the international Palestinian picket line seriously.

It bears pointing out that among the signatories have been a smattering of well-known figures in the underground punk scene and radical arts scene more generally. For example: riot-folk rabble-rousers Ryan Harvey and Mark Gunnery, Palestinian poet Remi Kanazi (review of his new book forthcoming here at RF), and Louisa Rachel Solomon of Brooklyn indie punks the Shondes.

Further than that, it should be noted that Punks Against Apartheid is part of something much broader. That so many young people are inspired by one of the best-known rebel musicians of all time is notable in itself. That these same people are seeking to actively hold him accountable and court his solidarity for what is, in essence, today's key movement against apartheid says something even deeper. Music, as regular readers of this site will know, goes a lot deeper than pretty sounds. It's one of the few parts of our alienated, deprived lives that we feel we can actively engage around. And while it's naive to insist that music by itself has all the galvanizing power needed to bring down a whole system, one can't deny that its innate power is all-too-often overlooked.

Over the past few days, myself and the handful of other people who came together to initiate the PAA project have expressed shock at how quickly swathes of people have flocked to support. Perhaps we shouldn't be. Capitalism is failing, pure and simple. Its inability to meet people's basic needs is rather undeniable at this point. Especially among young people--be they inspired by punk, techno, folk, rap, whatever--these ideas are brewing and boiling, waiting for something to tap into them. There's a whole history of radical music organizations that strike a nerve and lead to something way bigger than themselves--it's a history largely unknown today because it's seemed so impossible in the here and now. Though just barely off the ground, and still with a lot of hurdles in front of it, Punks Against Apartheid reveals that the spirit of Sing Out!, Rock Against Racism, Artists United Against Apartheid and many, many more, is just as possible today.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Need It Here... Once Again

Coming in from our friends across the pond in Love Music Hate Racism: North London will play host to a fascist rock show next week. On the surface it may not be that unusual; hatecore and other genres attached to white supremacist groups are the kind of thing that most music fans know happen without really bothering with the details. The existence of labels like Resistance Records has been well documented.

However, one of the things that has made fascist shows so far off the radar has been the marginalization of fascist groups themselves. The vast majority of the time these types of shows happen in some crusty old white guy's basement or way out in the rural compounds of groups like the Aryan Nations.

This is different. And scary. This is happening in Islington, right in the heart of London and a very multiracial area (it's home to the CLR James Library for crying out loud). It shows a real emboldened feeling among these types of bands and hate groups that they can carry out this type of show in this kind of neighborhood.

To be clear, the fascist ties of these groups are very real. Many are former members of the National Front who hold avowedly unreconstructed views. Others go so far as to wear Nazi uniforms on stage. The show is being promoted by Stormfront. What's worse, the venue, appropriately named Slimelight, refused to cancel the gig and has even booked another show of this nature in October.

In other words, it reveals not just an increase in confidence on the part of these knuckle-draggers themselves, but an acceptance among it in mainstream society. This is no news necessarily to those who follow British politics--the BNP's Nick Griffin now sits in European Parliament, for example. But it's worthwhile noting that this is taking place within the context of a steady unraveling of capitalism and a deepening radicalization among youth. Mainstream politics have been discredited, and in that vacuum all sorts of scum will attempt to take advantage of this and grow.

Of course, the US isn't Britain. Even the Tea Party seems less in the news than it was this time a year ago--largely due to Republican electoral victories. There is no real analog to the BNP with in terms of size or influence over here. They will try, however. In fact, they already are in certain ways. As the example of LMHR shows, people need to be ready to confront them.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

BDS Update: No "Holiday in Tel Aviv!"

Myself and an ad-hoc group of concerned musicians and activists have launched the site Punks Against Apartheid, whose goal is to foment greater links between the punk and Palestine solidarity communities. It may come as little surprise to most readers to know that our first order of business is to convince Jello Biafra to drop his gig in Tel Aviv.

Below is an open letter to Jello urging him to do just that. There is also a petition to him that folks should seriously consider signing. Jello and the Guantanamo School of Medicine are currently in Europe and have been very responsive to all of this. It is more than a little likely that we can get them to cancel.


Dear Jello,

We are fans of yours, people who have been influenced and inspired by your work. There's no doubt that over the past thirty years, while so much of American culture has been inundated by cookie-cutter corporate pop, your words and music stood apart in calling out hypocrisy, corruption and oppression. Without that kind of commitment, it's safe to say that honest, unflinching, politically-charged music wouldn't look quite the way it does today.

This is why we must strongly urge you to reconsider your decision for you and the Guantanamo School of Medicine to play your show in Tel Aviv on July 2nd. Sure, you may be sick of hearing it by now. Even a quick glance at your Facebook page will reveal tons of uproar around it. Yet understand, it's because your work has meant just that much to so many people who care about your political input. If you play that show it will definitely leave a sick smirch right in the center of your work. It will send a message that when it's really hard to do the right thing, solidarity can be thrown out the window. You’ve never been one to back down during those times, and there’s no reason to start now.

Over the past couple weeks you’ve engaged with many voices in the Palestine solidarity movement, in particular the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) in the UK and the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). Without belaboring their arguments, it is worth admitting that your correspondence, while certainly reflecting the kind of humility and fair-mindedness you've always brought to your activism, is also inaccurate at many points, and we feel the need to correct these inaccuracies as fellow punks and activists.

Your assertion, for example that “both the Israeli Left and the Palestinian Left are divided” in their support for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) is at best an over-generalization. The Boycott Divestment Sanctions National Committee (BNC) is supported by all major labor union federations in Palestine, the Global Palestine Right of Return Coalition, the General Union of Palestinian Women, the Union of Palestinian Farmers, disability groups, religious organizations, refugee groups and more. Recently the major political parties in Palestine enthusiastically supported the formation of the Palestinian Trade Union Coalition for BDS (PTUC-BDS).

As PACBI pointed out in their letter to you, “All the popular committees struggling against the wall are part of the BDS movement and have called on their supporters to respect our boycott guidelines.” In total over 170 Palestinian civil society groups have endorsed the BNC’s 2005 call for BDS. Author Omar Barghouti calls it “the largest coalition of Palestinian civil society organizations inside historic Palestine and in exile.”

Nor is it so marginal even among the Israeli left -- and its support is growing. In fact, so recognized is the threat that BDS poses to Israel’s machinations that “delegitimization,” that is, the diplomatic and economic isolation of Israel, has now become a common topic in mainstream Israeli politics and media.

You’ve emphasized the “fact-finding” end of your trip, and the announcement of a film crew documenting your trip seems to reflect this emphasis. By all means, go and see for yourself. Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters was in a similar position but made the decision to educate himself prior to performing in Tel Aviv; he has since joined the BDS movement in support of cultural boycott. If money is an issue (plane tickets to the Middle East aren’t cheap!) then consider reaching out to raise it. For every Israeli organization willing to foot the bill for you to play, there are plenty of Palestinian groups who will gladly help you witness that reality firsthand. If a Kickstarter account can be started up to fund a film about your trip to Israel, you can most certainly start one up for a fact-finding mission.

You say in your follow-up letter that you “don't see how the Netanyahu government could manipulate this event for their own purposes. What right wing regime in their right mind would want to namedrop me? I am not exactly known for keep my mouth shut onstage, especially about human rights violations...”

Sure, you ain’t Justin Bieber. But the very fact that you will be speaking out from the stage in the first place will give the Israeli press the opportunity to crow about Israel’s “tolerance” in the midst of an “intolerant” Arab world. Given the dust that has been kicked up around this whole fiasco, it can be all but guaranteed that this is bound to happen. That can already be seen in a small way on JBGSM’s Facebook page, which has been all but hijacked by chauvinistic comments--ranging from claims that Israel is “open to everyone” right on down to the worst kind of gutter anti-Arab racism. And that’s just a handful of kooks on Facebook--imagine what the Israeli media, with its close relationship to Western “McNews,” can accomplish! Each musician that breaks the call for BDS further normalizes the abhorrent injustices of colonization, occupation, and apartheid that are being perpetuated against Palestinians. As members of the global punk community, this is something we can’t allow our music and efforts to be a part of--punk must stand on the side of liberation and freedom.

Regimes who use the white man’s burden as their cornerstone are always eager to twist criticism around into smug self-satisfaction. Perhaps the government won’t get a financial boon out of the performance, yet it will still be a propaganda victory. In Haaaretz (21/09/05), Nissim Ben-Sheetrit of Israel's Foreign Ministry stated: “We see culture as a propaganda tool of the first rank, and I do not differentiate between propaganda and culture.” How does this stand with your statement from a 1997 interview that “Culture can help initiate better politics, while politics can be used to suppress culture--they go hand in hand.”

If you break the boycott, you will be an active collaborator with the politics which suppresses Palestinian culture and uses culture to propagandize and cover up Israel’s crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Then there’s the propaganda benefit to Israeli businesses -- also a target of BDS.

Your support of Peace Now is of concern. You may not be aware that Peace Now is complicit with the Israeli regime. As revealed in Israeli newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth (8/11/10), “activists” from Peace Now requested to meet with Israeli Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon to ask “if the Foreign Ministry could cooperate with Leftist circles in its hasbara [public information] efforts in Israel and abroad--in a bid to present Israel as a pluralist country that allows for a variety of opinion. During the meeting the organisation delegates suggest to Ayalon a number of possibilities for including the Left in hasbara efforts, including sending Peace Now delegates to lecture abroad on behalf of the Foreign Ministry.” Peace Now does not represent the “Left” in any meaningful sense of the word--it is a willing tool for whitewashing Israel’s crimes of apartheid and occupation.

As the Israeli state is preparing another onslaught against the next Flotilla to Gaza, which is meant to breach Israel’s illegal blockade of the Gaza Strip, your voice is needed on the side of the oppressed. A stance of neutrality and equivocation will mean you have chosen the side of the oppressor. You run the risk of breaking this international picket line right when its strength is needed the most. In six years, the BDS movement has managed to win the support of countless artists and musicians, and it’s still young. You, Jello, are in a unique place to either weaken or strengthen this movement. This is just as important as the call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against apartheid South Africa - a picket line you respected and endorsed. Now, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa are supporting the call for BDS against Israel. Desmond Tutu said: "If apartheid ended, so can the occupation, but the moral force and international pressure will have to be just as determined. The current divestment effort is the first, though certainly not the only, necessary move in that direction.”

We know you don’t take this decision lightly, Jello. You have never been one to shrug off the crimes committed by the world’s powerful governments against ordinary people. This is about a lot more than the crimes of Netanyahu or the occupation; it’s about what can put an end to them once and for all. At this crucial turning point for Palestine, now more than ever, it’s about solidarity.


Punks Against Apartheid

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Gaddafi Facing the Music... Is NATO Next?

As the NATO bombardment of Libya takes its toll and rebels continue to duke it out with the dictator Gaddafi, contradictions of the operation there are coming to a head. Specifically, one has to wonder whether the economic, social and cultural stranglehold of Gaddafi's decades-old regime isn't so much fading as switching hands.

Recently, a flurry of revolutionary music has been making its way through the country via the web. Gaddafi's regime had kept a tight lid on the nation's music ever since the early '70s, so it's no surprise that the most popular pro-rebel songs have come out sans copyright, sans artist info. As Khaled Mattawa says on the Freemuse site:

"Gaddafi's aggressive ideological dictates began to infiltrate all cultural production in Libya. The colonel's insistence on music, and arts, of the people, in reality meant an insistence that all artists praise his rule and person... As a result, many artists were sidelined or silenced."

Styles have ranged from rap to folk to a long-lost, unofficial Libyan national anthem. It should come as no surprise that with the rebellion against Gaddafi more than three months old, music has found its way from the genuine grassroots proudly taking on the regime.

Whether that will be the case after he's gone is another matter. By now the UN and US have their tentacles firmly wrapped around the "official" opposition, the Transitional National Council (TNC), a group who a few months ago were largely ad-hoc. Now, they're a firmly entrenched bureaucratic body, backed to the hilt by Western dollars. "Regime change" wasn't originally on offer from NATO and the West. Now it's all the world's leaders can talk about. So much for avoiding "mission creep."

As Patrick Cockburn wrote recently in the Independent:

"Libya has...moved a long way from the democratic hopes of February. An important signal since the start of June has been the intervention of NATO attack helicopters, making the rebels more an auxiliary force in a foreign-run campaign. The deployment of the rebels is now largely decided by NATO, without whose air power the local anti-Qaddafi forces would long ago have been defeated.

"Many Libyans want Qaddafi to go, but the Transitional National Council in Benghazi may not have the legitimacy or the support to replace him. He is very likely to be displaced before the end of the year, but this will be a victory primarily won by NATO, and not popular revolution."

In other words: "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." Does this mean that Libyan people are terminally screwed? No. The rebellions in Egypt and Tunisia, which have retained their popular character without sliding into civil war, remain a beacon for the entire region (same can be said in relation to Yemen and Syria, both of which are dangerously close to going down Libya's path).

It does mean, however, that the flowering of art, music and culture that accompanies revolutions is bound to hit the brick wall in Libya very soon. That wall is going to look suspiciously similar to the guns and tanks rolling through the streets of Kabul right now. Musicians there haven't exactly been granted "artistic freedom" by the occupiers. Far from it; there's going to be a whole new authority for Libyan artists to direct their voices against very soon.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Passion Is a Weapon

Passion is a fashion. So read the jacket of Joe Strummer from the Clash, back in punk's early days. It was a declaration that in a sea of apathy, giving a damn was a radical act.

It's an outlook often admired yet seldom duplicated in recent years, when many indie groups try so hard to be above it all. And even with groups like Rise Against and Strike Anywhere having come to relative prominence, punk's mainstream remains dominated by sophomoric poseurism. Few acts aspire to Strummer's mantra, and even fewer manage to pull it off in style.

The sands are shifting, though. Sooner or later in post-neoliberal America, most artists won't have a choice but to take a stand. Propagandhi, Against Me! and others like them have certainly paved the way, but really the future rests with acts like Prayers for Atheists. And that's a good thing.

Prayers for Atheists could quite easily rest on their laurels. Vocalist Jared Paul has been friends with underground hip-hop mainstay Sage Francis since middle school (it's Paul that Francis is speaking to on the phone during the intro of "Makeshift Patriot"). Certainly, PfA might stick out a bit on Francis' primarily hip-hop-oriented Strange Famous Records, but it wouldn't be difficult for them to ride out a decent existence content being in the shadow of their contemporary. Instead, with a solid profile developed with Francis' help, they've struck out on their own for their second album New Hymns For an Old War.

All the earmarks of a damn good hardcore punk album are there: the tense drumbeats, the dissonant vibrato guitars, the screaming gang vocals. But with such an epic title, it's easy to ask what this "old war" is (even easier still with the operations in Afghanistan now the longest war in U.S. history). The answer is more thoroughly provided just by looking at the song titles: "Bouncers and Cops," "Keep Left," "U.S. Out of the Amazon."

Guitarist Alan Hague and vocalist Paul are the primary songwriting team for PfA, and both have a long history of radical organizing in their native Providence, R.I., and beyond. Back in 2008, Paul was among the 800 protesters arrested by overzealous cops at the Republican Convention in Minnesota. "Hope City Skyline," off New Hymns, name-drops a litany of social justice groups: "Jobs With Justice, Youth In Action, End the Siege, SDS... ISO, Food Not Bombs, 2:1, Marriage Rights, WIL, IWW, What Cheer? Mobilize..."


Taken as a whole, this is an album of good, solid, politically charged punk rock. What is it, then, that separates this from all the other countless albums fitting that description over the past 30-plus years?

In a word, timing--specifically, the return not only of class to the American landscape, but class war. For the past three decades, the punk scene has put itself in opposition when few others would. Amid historic declines in strikes and union power, fightback was certainly a necessary thing, just not a workers' thing.

Not anymore, and certainly not for Prayers for Atheists. The events of the past year have been enough to turn plenty of cynics into believers. In the public mind, "workers" are no longer just a collection of beer-bellied, white men with NRA cards. They're the kids who rushed the Wisconsin State Capitol, the Jimmy John's delivery bikers trying to unionize, the dockers in the Bay Area who refused to unload Israeli goods.

It's here, at the present intersection between a hidden militant past and potentially radical future, that PfA's passion comes in. Lead single "Guns Up" centers the whole album. Clocking in just under three minutes, veering between fast-paced mania and unrelenting stutter-step, its lyrics pull on imagery of foreclosed farms and homes, while linking it back to a very real history of struggle--in particular, the "Bloody Harlan" miners strikes of the 1970s:

"Drivers headed for the docks
Caught between the road and clock
Miners up against the boss
Black lungs pumping in the dark...

"Like villagers against the tanks
From Gaza City to West Bank
Can't always bleed, one day we'll win
New hymns for an old war, sing!"

"Have heart, friends," they tell us in the chorus, and there's no doubt that there's a lot of that on New Hymns For an Old War. Listening here, one would think that despair is for poseurs, and that's a rather refreshing concept. Even with defeat so palpable amid so much volatility, it's also hard to not feel a real sense of hope and belief. At its core, even at its most sneering, it's something that punk always seemed to paw at. Over the past 30 years, it's seemed little more than a spark, however.

But the music of New Hymns also seems to know that there are plenty of other times when that's been the case. "May 1st, 1886," one of the final songs off the album, is an homage to the early days of American class struggle wrapped in a kind of rattle-and-rolling testimonial. In fact, so well are the lyrics woven with the song that it was only after several listens that I realized they actually are a testimonial; specifically, that of Haymarket martyr August Spies:

"The time will come when our silence
Is stronger than the voices you strangle today
The cause of my alleged crime
It is your history!"

Truer words couldn't be spoken by any of today's "criminals." And it's worth remembering how many of these crimes have been leveled against some of the best artistic rebels. Seems that passion is, oftentimes, illegal. If that's true then it can only be seen as a weapon--one that's well-wielded here.

There's something profound about making such a successful hardcore album that consciously reaches back over 125 years. If it all resonates so well--and it obviously does--then it must mean there's something indelible in its content.

Perhaps it shows that punk rock, having been twisted around and declared dead so many times over the decades, may actually have its best years ahead. Or maybe it shows that its very seed--rebellion, distrust of authority and a profound intolerance for hypocrisy--are actually sown much deeper in our cultural soil. History may go in circles, but that doesn't mean it can't also be smashed to smithereens.

First appeared at

Monday, June 13, 2011

They Shoot Black Men, Don't They?

Last night, Johannes Mehserle walked free. He's the Oakland transit cop who shot Oscar Grant dead on New Year's Eve, 2008, on the BART platform. Grant, for those who don't remember, was unarmed, pinned face-down on the ground. Mehserle shot him in the back point-blank. Mehserle received a paltry two-year sentence. Now, after less than a year, he's been released early. He is today a free man after killing a father whose only crime was walking while Black.

Naturally, communities are outraged, protests have been called. And much like the direct aftermath of Grant's death and others like it, a flurry of tracks and vids have been unleashed from the hip-hop world. The first on the scene has been this one below from Killer Mike. Others are sure to follow.

That's because, straight up, there's not a single way to look at this case and call it fair. Mehserle, despite what his defenders might say, did not "pay his debt." He was let off with a light sentence because to do otherwise would be to admit to the grave injustice and entrenched racism that goes well-beyond Mehserle and permeates throughout the nation's police departments.

And, as Mike points out in the song, it's something that's continued well into the tenure of America's first Black president. Seems that putting a stop to this is going to take a lot more than just a few changes in personnel. It's going to take a whole new system.

Friday, June 10, 2011

New Stuff...

There are a couple new things that are happening here at Rebel Frequencies. First, as people have no doubt noticed by now, the coverage of artists boycotting Israel has increased greatly. This isn't by accident; the stakes are high in the Palestinian solidarity movement. And with the new Flotilla about to be launched and the revolutions across the region deeply effecting the confidence of those in Palestine, the cards are more stacked than ever for those seeking to bring down the apartheid regime.

So, every week here at RF there will be a BDS rundown of sorts, updates on artists and the international boycott of Israel--be it about Coldplay posting support for the cause on Facebook, the push to get Paul Simon to cancel his show there, or the uproar around Jello Biafra playing a gig in Tel Aviv. Make no mistake, this is a big deal both for the prospects of radical struggle around the world and for rebel music itself. Not since the campaigns against South Africa has there been such potential for artists to actively speak with one voice for justice and equity.

The next change here is a bit more mundane: Rebel Frequencies is on Twitter. I've remained quite resolutely anti- for quite some time, but after a while the arguments about how much easier it's going to make spreading the word about this site... well, they won out. Now there are several ways to keep up with RF: joining the mailing list, following on NetworkedBlogs, the RSS feed (of course), or going to Twitter and looking up @RFrequencies.

And of course, don't forget to donate!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Blame Rapists, Not Artists

Women are treated as second-class citizens. They're objectified, exploited and condescended to on a daily basis. When they, god forbid, raise their voice against this kind of treatment, they're hounded for speaking out of place. It might sound like more of a description of 1950s America than the modern music biz, but the recent controversy around Rihanna shows how little difference there is between the two.

Rihanna is, of course, the best-known young victim of domestic violence in music today. Her abuse at the hands of Chris Brown a couple of years back has undoubtedly shaped her art; last year it was "Love the Way You Lie," her collaboration with Eminem, that sparked the ire of certain "family groups" for its graphic portrayal of domestic violence. Now, it's her new video for "Man Down."

The subject matter of the vid is unmistakable: in a crowded train station, Rihanna takes aim at an anonymous man, then pulls the trigger; he falls in a pool of his own blood. Then, flashing back to the previous day as the song starts, we see a much happier Rihanna hanging out with friends and going clubbing. At the club she's approached by the same man she shot. After his advances are turned down, he accosts her outside violently. At the end of the video we see him walking away, his shirt torn, while Rihanna collapses in a corner. The implication is that he sexually assaulted her. Still, the lyrics of the song have the singer clearly expressing regret over taking his life.

The day "Man Down" premiered on BET, Rihanna expressed on her Twitter account that it would have a "very strong underlying message 4 girls like me." Ironically, that underlying message has been amplified and made all the more urgent by the ensuing uproar.

Pastor Delman Coates, a founder of the Enough Is Enough Campaign declared the video "a clear violation of BET’s own programming guidelines shared with the public by Debra Lee, the chairman and CEO of BET Networks." Coates went on to join with the Parents Television Council and the Industry Ears advocacy group in calling for Viacom, BET's parent company to immediately pull the video.

Paul Porter, a former music programmer for BET and founder of Industry Ears, went even further: "['Man Down' is] an inexcusable, shock-only, shoot-and-kill theme song. In my 30 years of viewing BET, I have never witnessed such a cold, calculated execution of murder in primetime. Viacom’s standards and practices department has reached another new low.”

It's amazing that this is the video singled out, especially given the recent ways in which sexual violence has been in the news lately. That Porter is upset over the shooting (not all that unique for primetime TV) without saying a word about the allusions to rape shows where his priorities lie. Really, there's very little separating his world from the crude, old-school PMRC witch-hunts of the 1980s.


Back then, the targets of Tipper Gore and company were often selected at random; rap acts would be singled out for violence while much worse depictions in "white" music were let off the hook. It belied the agenda of "protecting children" for one much more colored by racism and Reaganite elitism. Now, it's the sexism of the establishment on display.

That sexism is palpable. In several US states, legislatures are considering laws that not only strip women of their right to choose, but seek to narrow the definition of rape itself. Powerful men like Dominique Strauss-Khan feel they can sexually assault hotel cleaning-women without consequence, and really it's no wonder why. About the same time that Strauss-Khan was finally getting busted, a New York City police officer was being acquitted of raping a woman he drove home. Two cops in Chicago have recently been implicated in a similar case. In both instances, the first question asked by reporters and prosecutors was how much the women had been drinking.

The Parents Television Council hasn't been oblivious to the pop culture reflections of this sexism. They also, however, show a rather sensationalistic disregard for moral context. On more subtle depictions of sexism, groups like the PTC have remained notably silent. Their prudish attitude toward violence--which can be summed up as "airbrush it and it'll go away"--simply turns viewers young and old into unintelligent babies.

The same is being done to Rihanna right now. When she was beaten by Brown, she inspired sympathy from most political stripes. When she used her music to bring attention to the realities of domestic violence, she was laughably accused of condoning it. And finally, now that she's portraying the realities of sexual violence and revenge (albeit in a rather simplistic, Hollywood kind of way), she's flat-out denounced.

Rihanna is herself a bundle of contradictions; over the past several years her own music and videos have frequently been the kind of stereotypical schlock demanded by the music industry from female pop artists. Few artists of her stature, however, have been willing to speak up about the realities of sexist violence and its consequences.

What the PTC and its ilk don't get is that there is a difference, to put it bluntly, between the violence of the oppressor and that of the oppressed. In a world where women are blamed for being victimized, where rapists get off scot-free and are often even protected by the legal system, are we really that surprised when a woman takes the law into her own hands?

It's a question that is resonating loud and clear right now. Back in January, Toronto Police Constable Michael Sanguinetti had the gall to tell a York University safety forum that "women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized." Since then, the SlutWalk marches have spread to Boston, London, Sydney, Stockholm. No surprise that the sexist victim-blaming goes well beyond North America, nor does the outrage.

On June 4th, I attended the Chicago SlutWalk. What I saw was stunning: the crowd was multiracial, overwhelmingly young women, obviously sick of being objectified and blamed for it. A number of them carried signs that reflected their survival of sexual violence; others had scrawled the word "survivor" across their chests in magic marker. One of the refrains throughout the day was "wherever we go, however we dress, no means no, yes means yes!"

The message was clear: if the system won't defend us, then we'll fight back. Now that women in the music industry are saying the same thing, the "tsk-tsk" of the censors is louder than ever. Coates, Porter, the PTC and the rest have merely turned themselves the musical analog of the victim-blaming cops and judges. In the end, they all serve the same repressive function.

First appeared at SOCIARTS.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Boundaries Are For Chumps

For those not in the know, stereotypes about hip-hop stubbornly persist. Vague, obtuse notions of all rappers being male thugs pushing backward ideas about violence, gays, women or all of the above somehow still carry currency on this planet. When Common, about as sanitized a hip-hop artist as you can find, is getting harangued by right-wingers looking to score points, you can see how laughable most of these accusations are.

Nonetheless, as always, it's crucial to have artists breaking these molds. Moreover, whether these molds are imposed from inside or without, it's important these artists not be overlooked. Palin and the rest would be hard-pressed to find misogyny or anti-gay violence in the work of Chicago's Emanuel Vinson or New Orleans' Big Freedia, but she'd undoubtedly find umbrage in Vinson's outspoken bisexuality and Freedia's transgendered lifestyle (she's biologically male identifying as a woman). Just goes to show that some folks won't be satisfied until the rapture.

Both of these artists can carry their own in any straight-boys' club, and both played yesterday's Do-Division Fest here in Chicago on Sunday. This interview, where Vinson talks to Freedia in last week's Chicago Reader, isn't about LGBT liberation; it's about the music. Quite frankly, that's how it should be. But there's a connection to be drawn here: here are two rappers who are just as talented, unique and innovative as any others out there. I honestly don't know how hard either of them have tried to "make it" in the mainstream--though the fact that Freedia has opened up for Lil Wayne and Snoop Dogg points to how widely her work is becoming accepted in the hip-hop world. It doesn't take too much of a stretch, however, to see that most figures in the realm of MTV and the Big Four wouldn't have any clue what to do with these artists.

That's because, once again, even though artists like Vinson and Freedia may easily be about to trounce most mainstream MCs, the mold exists. And those who put it there don't like for it to be pushed. Record execs make too much money off the imposed concept of hip-hop machismo. The bigger question is whether this is a problem only with rap (as some would have us believe) or merely one aspect of a much broader system of inequality.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Popping Off for Palestine

Concert promoter Shuki Weiss may truly believe that things are getting better for Israel's music scene after last year's string of cancellations and boycotts. That may very well change, though, and quite soon. Israel's nature as a colonial apartheid state is rather apparent at this point; just in the past few weeks, peaceful demonstrations in front of checkpoints were fired at, killing around a dozen, and Netanyahu came off like a bully in his address to US Congress. This past Jerusalem Day saw thousands of hard-right Israelis chant "may your village burn" as Israeli troops fired into the Golan Heights, killing 20. And all this before the Freedom Flotilla has even been launched.

It's in this context that Coldplay, obviously one of the biggest bands in the world, have caused such a ruckus by merely mentioning a song on their Facebook page. Last week they referred fans to the "Freedom for Palestine" single being released by OneWorld and featuring several other British artists. Note that Coldplay didn't even really endorse the single; they merely said "some of our friends are involved" in it. They aren't themselves involved in it, and they have yet to publicly boycott Israel.

Coldplay are, after all, one of the biggest bands in the world. Nobody can deny Chris Martin's ability to write an excellent pop hook, and that's certainly the main reason that they've attracted so many legions of fans over the past decade. But being such a massive draw for the music industry comes with a price. Independent-minded as Martin and company may be, their "activism" is hemmed in by the need for their label not to rock the boat. It's this that's lead the band to speak up for "fair trade" while remaining silent on protests against the IMF or G8. Same for Martin's rebuff of invitations to back the UK's Stop the War Coalition even as he speaks against the Iraq invasion. Given their position, this kind of tepid "advocacy" is about as much as Coldplay can muster.

That, of course, didn't stop scads of websites and pages springing up calling for supporters of Israel to boycott Coldplay. The site Act for Israel posted a blurb that read "We urge you to educate Coldplay on Palestinian incitement and violence, and why Palestinians have NEVER accepted a peace deal. We also urge you to boycott Coldplay (if you ACTUALLY buy their music)." The amount of inaccuracy in a mere two sentences is impressive enough, but then there's the kind of blatant anti-Arab, Islamophobic rant posted on the Boycott Coldplay Facebook page:

"Thank you coldplay and keep supporting... :) ... keep supporting those who's torturing and killing GAYS... keep supprting those who arrest torture and kill BLOGGERS for posting a comment on the internet... keep supporting those who stone woman for witch craft/ idoltery/ insulting Islam... keep support those who oppress other minorities like Christians... That is the proof that HUMAN RIGHTS is not the issue here..."

Apparently, this kind of fear-mongering worked. Two days ago, Coldplay removed the link to "Freedom for Palestine" without explanation. There are a couple lessons here: 1.) defenders of the inhumane project in Israel are well organized and most certainly able to bring pressure to bear, even as the credibility of their state wanes, and 2.) artists and musicians will only take a stand and defend it when they have the room to do so. That's true no matter how right the cause is. To be perfectly blunt, that's where the movement comes in.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Gil and the Devil: Remembering Gil Scott-Heron

In a career that spanned four decades, Gil Scott-Heron had a lot of labels ascribed to him: “revolutionary soul poet”, “the voice of black pride”, “godfather of rap”, “the black Bob Dylan”. While all of these may have been true in some way, labels are woefully insufficient to describe the loss of an artist like him.

Naturally, in the wake of his recent death at the age of 62, tributes to Scott-Heron have sprung up not just on music websites, but on sites for activist and anti-racist groups, and for history and culture fans. Hip-hop and R&B artists like Eminem, Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West, Chuck D, the Beastie Boys and Snoop Dogg have all publicly paid respect to him, a rather ironic twist given the innovator’s reticence toward the “godfather” role.

Indeed, there are many cruel ironies to the timing of Gil Scott-Heron’s death. Some of them are predictable: an artist who never got his due in life transformed to a legend in death. Most are the kind of painful “what ifs” that will be forever wondered by those who understood the connection between his ideas, his art, and the struggles he endured.

Hip-hop journalist Davey D hit the nail right on the head when he described this contradiction: “How many people are gonna talk about the bottle and really speak in a way that people can go ‘that is my life?’ He wasn’t trying to hide it. As an artist who’s willing to smash on the system that was oppressing us, he was also willing to show a lot of vulnerability, a lot of compassion, a lot of love.”

By all accounts, it could have been easy for the young Gil to choose the path of his hero Langston Hughes. He attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, Hughes’ alma mater. In 1970, at 21, he had already published two novels, and like Hughes’ own work, they had evinced a strong connection with the African-American music world. Despite frequent collaborations with musicians varying from Kurt Weill to Charles Mingus, though, Hughes was thought of as a man of words before a man of notes; for Scott-Heron this distinction was increasingly blurred.

This was an era where plenty of boundaries were being broken, preconceived notions discarded. Hughes was dead. Malcolm and Martin were too—assassinated, in their cases. The revolutionary mood could be felt in the names of places alone: Vietnam, Paris, Watts.

By this time the militancy of groups like the Black Panther Party and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers—openly revolutionary, unabashedly proud and brooking no compromise with the system—was common parlance. Elaine Brown, an accomplished jazz and soul musician in her own right who would later become chairwoman of the Panthers, recalls in her autobiography A Taste Of Power that her calls for revolution were greeted with steadfast enthusiasm. It was an outlook embraced by Nina Simone, the Last Poets and countless other African American acts.

Though he was often dismissive of being called “political”, this same revolutionary fervor dripped from Gil’s first three albums. Sound-wise, they are vastly different. Small Talk at 125th and Lenox (1970) is mostly limited to the simplicity of his poetry wafting over sparse conga beats. Pieces of a Man (1971) and Free Will (1972) were his first collaborations with keyboardist and composer Brian Jackson and ventures into various forms of jazz and soul. What made all of these so palpably radical, though, was the poet’s ability to travail the distance between the hope and pain of Black America.

Scott-Heron called his sound “bluesology, the science of how things feel”. In 1998 he told the Chicago Tribune, “I had an affinity for jazz and syncopation, and the poetry came from the music… we wanted the music to sound like the words.” It was a sophistication well above the trite sloganeering that plagued (and continues to plague) so many “political” artists.

Observe, for example, the content of Pieces of a Man. Of course, the album comes out swinging, with the full instrumental version of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, using Scott-Heron’s virulent distrust of mass corporate media as a way to frame the rest of the songs. The sanitized, quickly co-opted versions of Black Power are a mirage on this album; what’s taken their place are stories like those of the title track, where men and women are used up and turned to human dust:

"I saw my daddy greet the mailman
And I heard the mailman say
‘Now don’t you take this letter to heart now Jimmy
Cause they’ve laid off nine others today’

"He didn’t know what he was saying
He could hardly understand
That he was only talking to
Pieces of a man"

It was this truth—one of poverty, invisibility, and tellingly, addiction—that made the insurgent cries against American racism so undeniable. That these kinds of songs are hardly uplifting is only part of the story.

Even in the midst of this intricate ghetto existentialism, Scott-Heron takes time for the jaunty soulfulness and optimism of “Save the Children” and “I Think I’ll Call It Morning”. Tracks like “Lady Day and John Coltrane” seem to straddle the two together, almost as if to declare that music itself has the strength to lift you out of the alienation and give you the strength to fight. Similarly, it’s impossible to listen to other pieces from this era—“Brother”, “Whitey on the Moon”—without hearing a very playful sense of humor.

The most obvious contrast between Pieces of a Man and 1974’s Winter in America is the widening of Scott-Heron and Jackson’s musical palette. Worldly and expansive elements of funk, free jazz and Afrobeat are laid down next to the artist’s redoubled spoken word. Lyrically, however, Gil’s optimism is notably overwhelmed. In past works he had always summoned the strength to look forward; on Winter in America, his most optimistic moments are wrapped in nostalgia. Two years before, “Home” had been “Where the Hatred Is”. Now, the most upbeat notions came when he went “Back Home”.

Gil Scott-Heron wasn’t the only one experiencing a change in mood. As the title suggested, hard times in America had gotten a whole lot harder. Two years prior, Richard Nixon had campaigned for a second presidential term by appealing to white segregationists who had previously supported the old southern Dixiecrats. This “Southern strategy”, which presented the Civil Rights and Black Power movements as somehow demanding special privileges, proved effective.

The Panthers had been neutralized, having fallen victim to internal disputes and the FBI’s COINTELPRO. Then, there was the stock market crash and the oil crisis of 1973, which basically put an end to the post-war boom. Entire cities were going bankrupt. Jobs, which had never been exactly plentiful in communities of color, suddenly became even more scarce.

The liner notes for Winter in America, Scott-Heron explained how all of this was reflected in the album’s songs:

"At the end of 360 degrees, [w]inter is a metaphor: a term not only used to describe the season of ice, but the period of our lives through which we are travelling. In our hearts we feel that spring is just around the corner: a spring of brotherhood and united spirits among people of color. Everyone is moving, searching. There is a restlessness within our souls that keeps us questioning, discovering and struggling against a system that will not allow us space and time for fresh expression… We approach winter the most depressing period in the history of this industrial empire, with threats of oil shortages and energy crises."

Though Gil’s words attempted to maintain at least a tinge of hopefulness, the forces of urban decay proved to be much greater than his own resolve. As the ‘70s gave way to the ‘80s, the economic crisis was “solved” by attacking the very gains that had been won by the movements of the previous decade. Carter was replaced by Reagan, and the Southern strategy became a part of both parties in one way or another.

Through all this, Gil Scott-Heron continued composing radical, thought-provoking music and poetry. Following the Three Mile Island incident he joined with Musicians United for Safe Energy for the “No Nukes” concerts and compilation album. Though his contribution, “We Almost Lost Detroit”, was written about a partial meltdown at a southern Michigan power plant in 1966, it would take on an eerie double meaning as the Motor City went into steep decline during the ‘80s.

Reagan's America and Beyond

It’s not publicly known when exactly Gil Scott-Heron’s troubles with addiction began. His arrests during the 2000s were the first that many fans had heard of these struggles. But, it does seem rather uncanny, in retrospect, that his output dropped precipitously at the height of Reagan’s America. Moving Target, his rather lackluster 1982 release was followed by 12 years without an original full-length (though he would maintain a busy tour schedule).

That same year was when Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” blazed into the mainstream. Listening to the song’s lyrics, and those of the rappers it inspired, it was apparent that the ills Scott-Heron spoke of hadn’t gone anywhere. In fact, they had only grown. As jobs and services hemorrhaged from the ghettos of America, drugs took their place—often, according Pulitzer-prized journalist Gary Webb, with the knowledge and at least tacit approval of the US government.

And yet, as part of Reagan’s “war on crime”, sentences for drug offenses increased. States and cities passed draconian statutes based on New York’s “Rockefeller laws”. Addiction was, in essence, further criminalized, and possession began to carry a sentence similar to that of a violent offender. Of course, the effects were felt most harshly in poor communities of color.

Given all this, one can certainly see the parallels between the United States of the 1980s and South African apartheid. Scott-Heron had been making this comparison for almost a decade by the time he helped write and record “Let Me See Your I.D.” in 1985. Appearing on Artists United Against Apartheid’s Sun City album, Gil’s own deft, acerbic soliloquies are interspersed between the forceful raps of Duke Bootee and Melle Mel. But, while Gil’s influence on hip-hop is palpable here, so is the toll these years have taken on him. The voice that once boomed across performance spaces and forced you to listen is replaced with a grizzled, gravelly ramble, perhaps wiser for age but also worse for wear.

That same year, Gil was dropped from his label, Arista. It wouldn’t be until 1993 that he would sign with TVT and release Spirits a year later. Never one to keep his words on an easy path, the album included “Message to the Messengers”, a track that in many ways put him back on the map.

The overarching thrust of “Message”, that young rappers need to turn the blame away from each other and work together for real justice, might come off condescending in lesser hands. Normally that’s exactly how it is when baby-boomers talk about “the problems with rap”. Gil, however, realized he was speaking to a generation that could change the world the way his had tried:

"Hey yeah, we the same brothers from a long time ago
We was talkin’ about television and doin’ it on the radio
What we did was help our generation realize
They had to get out there and get busy cause it wasn’t gonna be televised
We got respect for you rappers and the way they be free-weighin’
But if you’re gon’ be teachin’ folks things, make sure you know what you’re sayin’"

Certainly, Gil saw the writing on the wall and the need to speak up. Over the course of the next several years under Bill Clinton, the US prison population would increase tenfold. A disproportionate number of this booming statistic were Black, non-violent drug offenders. Poverty, inequality, lack of access; all seemed to have gone nowhere in the era of “post-Civil Rights”.

In 2001, Gil was arrested on cocaine possession, convicted and sentenced to three years. He was paroled in 2003. In 2006 he was sentenced to three-to-four years for violating a plea deal by leaving rehab, and was again paroled in 2007. Later that same year, he was arrested yet again for cocaine possession.

During this period, when he was in and out of jail, Gil’s substance addiction became well-known. So too was it revealed in ’08 that he was HIV positive. Interviews with him would recount him openly smoking crack. Apparently during these same interviews, he couldn’t even bear to look in the mirror.

To the casual glance it would appear that he had become the very “pieces of a man” that he had so often written about, a poster-boy for how much had changed and how much had stayed the same. The very demons he had portrayed so well in songs like “The Bottle”, “Speed Kills” and “The Get Out of the Ghetto Blues” now seemed to relentlessly follow him around.

This would only be half the story, though. With hip-hop now the dominant force in popular music, Gil’s art surged into public consciousness the way it hadn’t in 20 years. Kanye West sampled him on “My Way Home” from 2005’s Late Registration, then again as the closing track from last year’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Countless rappers, from Talib Kweli to Aesop Rock have explored the ideas expressed in “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. Both his novels have been reissued, and his material has been reworked by artists springing from not just rap, but punk, folk, trip-hop, reggae and dubstep.

And even as Gil struggled with his own afflictions, he knew that the greater struggle was the outside of himself. In 2010, not long before embarking on a world tour, he canceled his appearance in Tel Aviv, Israel at the urging of Palestine solidarity groups. Young activists, clearly hearkening back to Gil’s own involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle, told him “Your performance in Israel would be the equivalent to having performed in Sun City…”

In an irony that Gil himself must have appreciated, the return of revolution to the global landscape arrived at moment when mass media enjoy more hegemony than ever. The toppling of governments in Tunisia and Egypt haven’t just been televised, but Facebooked and Tweeted. Striking French workers and insurgent British students use their smartphones to coordinate mass actions. Communications execs panic at the notion of their products taking on a life of their own like Frankenstein’s monster, but one can only imagine Gil Scott-Heron laughing in approval. In fact, one could easily venture that he saw it coming.

After another long absence from the recording studio, 2010 also saw Gil release I’m New Here, which was greeted with positive reviews. Though released several months before the specter of uprising became a stunning reality, and lacking a great amount of his signature political commentary, it’s nonetheless a stunning portrait of history’s dark, vicious circle.

“Me and the Devil”, the sole single, carries all the markings of a Gil Scott-Heron piece (though the original version came from Robert Johnson). A stark portrait of loneliness, it is at once delta blues and urban electronica, sorrowful and menacing, thoroughly post-modern and old as the wind. The devil with whom Gil walks side-by-side isn’t just one he’s well-acquainted with, but one that possibly torments us all… and could but loose at any moment.

When asked if his love for music was just as powerful in 2010 as it was when he first started, he replied “Of course! Music has the power to make me feel good like nothing else does. It gives me some peace for a while. Takes me back to who I really am.” For him to have such faith in his art after so much pain was an example of that work’s indomitable relevancy.

It might be tempting to say that Gil Scott-Heron’s work was futile, and that the very forces he railed against were the ones that claimed his life. Gil, however, would most likely see it reversed; it was the vicissitudes of racism and inequality that made such struggle necessary in the first place. Taken as a whole, his songs and poetry leave one with the sense that eventually, that struggle will have to be worth it.

First published at

Friday, June 3, 2011

Real Soldiers Don't Die...

As if losing one icon of the Black Power struggle last week wasn't bad enough, yesterday saw the death of Elmer "Geronimo ji-Jaga" Pratt, former Minister of Defense for the Black Panthers back in the late '60s and early '70s, he was sent to prison in 1972 on trumped up murder charges. He did 27 years--eight of them in the hell of solitary confinement--before his conviction was vacated in the late '90s. He died of a heart attack yesterday in Tanzania, where he had taken up residence several years ago.

This kind of story, of course, made him a near-legend in hip-hop too. Rappers trying to figure out how to carry on the Panther legacy in very different times looked to Geronimo for inspiration. Common and Paris both wrote songs about him, and dead prez, unsurprisingly, mention or quote him several times in their catalog.

He was also, not so incidentally, Tupac Shakur's godfather. have reprinted an interview with Geronimo from 2003 where Pac was a major topic of the conversation. It starts off: "To understand – better yet – to know Tupac Shakur, you must peer beyond hip-hop into history." Geronimo was an integral part of that history. The whole piece is worth reading for the link it provides between the struggles of yesterday and today.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Banning Reggae in Burkina Faso

One facet of the global uprising taking place right now is its move not just through the Middle East but down the African continent. Though not as sweeping as those in Egypt or Tunisia, Yemen and Syria, the strikes and protests in Cameroon, Swaziland and Botswana have likewise reflected desire for real economic and political justice.

Burkina Faso has seen a series of youth revolts and labor actions over the past few months, and like in other countries the system has responded with varying degrees of crackdown. Reggae artist and broadcaster Sams'K Le Jah was recently banned, his music and show pulled from station Ouaga FM.

Le Jah is a longtime dissident in Burkina Faso. He has written and dedicated songs to Thomas Sankara, "Africa's Che Guevara" and president of the country until he was overthrown by present leader Blaise Compaore. Le Jah was also organizer of the 2007 "Sankara Revival" festival, and has frequently used his radio show to call for Compaore to step down. More recently he has publicly encouraged the youth and labor revolt against he president.

After attending a rally with other artists on April 30th, management at Ouaga FM pressured him to tone down his anti-Compaore rhetoric. Le Jah refused, and moreover released an additional song dedicated to the democracy movement. Though this made him increasingly popular with the youth movement, the honchos at Ouaga pulled him.

Sams'K Le Jah isn't the only musician casualty of the resurgent movements for democracy on the African continent. The music of El General has inextricably been tied to the opening shots of the Tunisian revolution. Same can be said in Egypt for the music of Ramy Essam, who despite being tortured by the regime has become a hero of the revolution. The silencing of culture rarely reflects a system that has things under control. When the state starts censoring musicians, it usually means that the leaders are running scared.