Friday, September 30, 2011

BDS Update: "A Human Gaza Strip"

Natacha Atlas, the award-winning electronic-worldbeat artist, canceled her upcoming show in Israel and will be boycotting the state until the apartheid regime is dismantled. A statement on her Facebook page reads:

"I had an idea that performing in Israel would have been a unique opportunity to encourage and support my fans' opposition to the current government's actions and policies. I would have personally asked my Israeli fans face-to-face to fight this apartheid with peace in their hearts, but after much deliberation I now see that it would be more effective a statement to not go to Israel until this systemised apartheid is abolished once and for all. Therefore I publicly retract my well-intentioned decision to go and perform in Israel and so sincerely hope that this decision represents an effective statement against this regime."

Atlas' music has always dug beneath the apparent "contradictions" of her own identity. The daughter of an Egyptian-Palestinian man and an English woman who converted to Islam, her music has always sought to bridge the gaps, incorporating Middle Eastern rhythms with drum 'n' bass and a variety of other "western" genres, as well as expanding her palette into reggae and hip-hop.

She has long referred to herself as "a human Gaza Strip," and always stood firmly on the side of the Palestinians when the issue came up. That she would think what she did initially (that playing in Israel would somehow be an opportunity to reach actually buck apartheid) speaks to the power of the Israeli concert industry globally--arguably the strongest in the region. That she did indeed cancel, however, speaks to the power of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement--as well as the strength of her own commitment to human rights.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Can Hip-Hop Be "Bigger Than the Occupation?"

One of the first scenes of the new documentary Hip Hop is Bigger than the Occupation shows a veritable who’s who of radical underground hip hop pass through the Qalandia checkpoint into the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah.

These people aren’t lightweights by any means: among their ranks are Lowkey, Shadia Mansour and M1 of dead prez. Of course, they are forced through the menacing metal turnstiles, flanked by the Israeli military robocops, staring them down like everyone else for whom this kind of repression is a daily fact of life. Right out of the gate, one asks an obvious question: how, in the midst of all this, can hip hop be “bigger than the occupation?”

Last year, Mansour, Lowkey and M1 took part in a visit to the West Bank organized by the campaign group Existence Is Resistance (EIR); that visit also included New York’s DJ Vega Benetton, Mazzi from Jersey City’s S.O.U.L. Purpose crew, the Bronx’s own “revolutionary minded” MC Marcel Cartier, Chicago’s University of Hip Hop and a handful of other activists. Their purpose? To teach, in a series of workshops and shows, nonviolent resistance through the arts and music. This documentary, produced by EIR and director Nana Dankwa, tells the story of that ten-day journey.

And a journey this most certainly is. It might be tempting to look at this film as mostly focusing on the artists--their experiences, their thoughts, their actions. And while the film’s events obviously revolve around them, in some ways the real “stars” of this film are the Palestinians themselves, in particular the young people who under the most inhumane of circumstances maintain an unquenchable sense of hope.

Toward the film’s end, a humbled Marcel Cartier looks at the camera and says “we were hoping to inspire them, but we left more inspired.” That just about sums up the thrust of Hip Hop is Bigger than the Occupation. Though hip hop’s popularity in Palestine has become well-known by now, this film chronicles what an amazing phenomenon that is — both because of its deep roots, and the odds that are stacked against it. Ultimately, as the film shows, both these reasons are intimately intertwined.

As the artists travel through the West Bank, their days are primarily spent touring the cities and camps, speaking with those who live in an almost literal hell. Every conceivable aspect of stable and normal culture is strangled by the Israeli state. We’re taken through the Balata refugee camp, an area barely covering a quarter-mile and housing 30,000 human beings, with streets so narrow that grown men have to walk sideways to get around.

We’re witness to a conversation with Hashem, a resident of Hebron whose wife has miscarried not once but twice from being beaten by the Israeli military. Her crime? Trying to get to the only hospital in Hebron.

We’re shown the artists’ participation in a peaceful demonstration in Bilin before it’s broken up by Israeli soldiers using sound bombs, tear gas and live ammunition. So ruthless are the soldiers that they attempt to detain EIR activist (and The Electronic Intifada contributor) Jody McIntyre, whose lives with cerebral palsy and uses a motorized wheelchair.

“My parents were born here”

During their visit to Jerusalem, walking through the settlement markets selling t-shirts reading “Camel Power From Jerusalem,” Shadia Mansour and Lowkey happen to glance a man they recognize--Daniel Luria, an Australian real estate agent selling homes whose Palestinian residents have been kicked out in order to make way for settlers.

Anyone who is familiar with the work of Lowkey or Mansour will rightfully get the impression that they don’t take any shit. The argument that ensues after approaching Luria is heated to say the least, with the estate agent smugly insisting that there was never any Palestinian claim to Jerusalem until Israel came into the picture. “My parents were born here!” exclaims Mansour. The exchange is broken up before Israeli cops can get involved, but not before we get a glimpse at the unquestioned racism driving Israel’s settlements and occupation. This is the kind of chauvinism only possible when backed up by tanks.

It’s these scenes--frankly presented to us by the directors--that had this viewer wondering yet again how exactly hip-hop can be bigger than all of this. How, in the face of such brutal repression and unhinged bigotry, can we expect any art to take root, let alone for this small delegation of artists, DJs and rappers to make any impact?

Naturally, we are supposed to ask this question, and the answer is repeatedly provided us in that same forthright manner. Throughout the film, spread between the scenes of unimaginable horror, we’re shown an unmistakable counterpoint: the community spaces and youth theaters that play host to the tour’s workshops and shows--the Yaffa Youth Center, the House of Talent in Askar Camp, and Jenin’s Freedom Theater.

The folks who run these spaces are, more often than not, scraping by simply to keep them open (indeed, mere days after I first saw a rough copy of this film, the Freedom Theater was raided by the Israeli military, and three of its crew were arrested). They are, as Lowkey explains, relating to “children being deprived of their basic human rights... [these are] people struggling to provide them with some kind of future.”

The value of places like this can’t be overstated, however, in the face of such brutal denial. One 19-year-old woman, a regular at the Freedom Theater, says that its events are a prime source of encouragement for her. Another young woman goes further, saying that without the theater’s workshops she’d feel “non-existent.”

The workshops make these kids’ faces light up. The rhymes they write are--according to the visiting artists themselves — good enough to run alongside any of their own. The one word that appears most often in these rhymes? “Hurriya.” Freedom.

Contagious positivity

Throughout the breakdancing and DJ-ing classes, the kids’ focus and enthusiasm shine through. Of course, such positivity is contagious--not only is everyone on screen caught up in it, but it’s difficult even as a viewer to not be affected. These scenes aren’t merely exhibits of existence and survival; they are moments in which we witness the flowering of creativity--that one characteristic that, perhaps more than any other, makes us human.

What we witness during these workshops is something more than teaching, more than kindness, and yes, even bigger than the occupation: solidarity. An overriding sense of equality between visitors and occupied that persists despite all walls, checkpoints and the ever-present threat of bombing. Hip hop, so often portrayed by western mainstream media as a materialistic end in itself, becomes a vehicle here for something much, much stronger.

It would be difficult to find a vessel with more dynamism and potency than the words, beats and moves that EIR have brought over. Footage of the nightly performances, with their raucous, grassroots energy and call-and-response participation is reminiscent of New York in the early 1980s, a similarity also noticed by some of the artists themselves.

Each show captures that feel of controlled chaos, directed to some transcendent end, that defined those days before the industry sunk its claws into the hip-hop world. The crowds are enthralled with the dynamic contrast between Shadia Mansour’s gorgeous singing voice and fierce Arabic lyrics. They are well-acquainted with Lowkey’s “Long Live Palestine” and consistently chant the chorus along with him--to the point where his own voice becomes almost incidental.

Then, of course, there’s the performance of dead prez’ “Bigger Than Hip Hop.” By now the song has become so iconic that it’s bound to be referenced by anyone looking to illustrate rap’s social relevance. The obvious allusion to the track in the Hip Hop is Bigger than the Occupation title might be trite if we hadn’t seen the indelible sense of hope that makes it so. Without a doubt, there are countless things in the fight for basic humanity that rank higher than music, but when a song is imbued with the spirit of resistance despite all odds, it does become something bigger.

With the final cut of Hip Hop is Bigger than the Occupation now being submitted to festivals, the hope is to raise enough money to pay for next year’s tour. If the content of this film is to be believed, then that alone makes it worth supporting. Modest though they might be, it’s trips like these that present a sense of life beyond borders and walls. “All we could do was spread the message,” Mansour explains in the film. Much more is needed if Israeli apartheid is to one day crumble--infinitely more. But it’s a start, and a very inspiring one at that.

First published at Electronic Intifada.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Rebel Music Needs Your Help!

This project deserves all the support it can get. Readers may know that I've always spoken highly about Antonino D'Ambrosio's work. The founding member of La Lutta New Media Collective and author of A Heartbeat and a Guitar has always had an excellent understanding of the intersection between music and struggle.

Perhaps there's no better example of this understanding than his book about Joe Strummer, Let Fury Have the Hour. D'Ambrosio has been working on transforming the book's message into a documentary for some time now, and as this video down below shows, the results look to be excellent. The list of names who have come forward to share their thoughts on the role of artists in social change is impressive.

But, the project needs your help. Yes, yours. Distributing independent documentaries with radical messages doesn't come cheap--all the more so because corporate backing of these kinds of films is, well, simply not going to happen. D'Ambrosio and the rest of the team behind this doc have set up an account for folks to donate at Indie Gogo. Anyone who can should give whatever they're able to.

Let Fury Have the Hour Trailer: from Let Fury Have the Hour on Vimeo.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hey Moneyman

Lupe Fiasco has donated fifty tents to the ongoing "Occupy Wall Street" movement that has spent the past nine days, well occupying Wall Street. Though the occupation has gotten all but blacked out from the American media, it has nonetheless gained an impressive amount of attention internationally. The Guardian, for example, has been excellent in reporting not only the developments in the occupation itself, but the pointless brutality meted out to it by the NYPD.

Lupe's reasons for donating to the protest action are pretty much what you would expect from one of the few rappers in the mainstream who has been bold enough to criticize Obama's neglect of the African-American community and continue questioning the validity of the wars abroad. But just for those who need it spelled out a bit extra, Lupe also wrote a poem inspired by the occupation, transcribed below:

Hey Moneyman the crowd is outside. The past, the future and the now is outside. The teachers and cooks and the drop-outs too. Word on the street is they looking for you…

Hey Moneyman they saying whats the score? And how much blood have you spilled on the butcher shop floor? Those numbers keep running but what they running into? The crowd is outside and they asking of you…

Hey Moneyman Moneyman the mayors' on the phone. He says he wants to know if all those people went home. Those momma's and poppa's and students and cooks. Those teachers and preachers, one second I'll look…

Hey Moneyman Moneyman the tents are still up, the songs are still singing and the coffee's in cups. The nights due to fall and the sun's going down but its still a whole mess of good folks hanging round...

They eyes are wide and their voices are loud. Its white and black and colorless proud. The signs are big and the smiles are bright. By heaven I reckon its gone be one hell of a night!

Hey Moneyman poor Moneyman you should slip out the back. Cuz the forces of greed are under attack. No bombs or bullets or rocks or guns. Just hashtag's and voices at the tops of their lungs!

And Moneyman Moneyman I wont need a ride. But if you need me…

You can find me outside.

By Wasalu "Lupe Fiasco" Jaco

Monday, September 26, 2011

Nevermind the Overkill

Somewhere between commodity and true appreciation, there are the 20th anniversary celebrations of Nirvana's Nevermind. Surely, the album feels as fresh as ever--even so many years after the death of Kurt Cobain and the diffusion of what was always a bit laughably referred to as "grunge." If any album is more iconic in planting the flag of disillusionment among white kids in the early '90s and proving how influential all of the sub-radar hardcore punks had actually been, if any set of songs changed the trajectory of rock music in the post-MTV age, it was definitely Nevermind. I rarely say this when it comes to music, but that's simply an objective truth.

As if to highlight the way in which this album absolutely shattered the mold, two of the commemorations for it seem to rely on complete opposites. The NME's admittedly novel idea was to have an online listening party, with folks around the world tuning in to a stream of the full album along with a message board discussion. The take of Universal Music is the latest in a long line of boxed sets--this one labeled "super-deluxe."

The latter of the two is clearly an attempt at getting blood from a stone. This isn't because Nirvana's music isn't still relevant. Indeed, it may be more relevant in our time than it was two decades ago. However, the amount of reissues, special releases and boxed sets since Cobain's death number no fewer than ten. At this rate, how many new discoveries can there possibly be left in the Nirvana lexicon?

According to Jessica Hopper of the Chicago Reader, not much. This set is four CDs and one DVD, mostly consisting of alternate mixes (one done by Butch Vig), a few live performances, and demos with pre-Dave Grohl drummer Chad Channing. As Hopper points out, all of these mixes and demos long ago hit the bootleg circuit and are easy enough to procure by themselves.

Says Hopper: "Nevermind is a great record, but lord, what a boring thing to offer fans. There's not even any fresh meat for the obsessive collector scum who go for this sort of thing. Yet this bottom-of-the-barrel commemoration also carries wonderful news: there's nothing left to scrape up."

Cobain's ghost most certainly agrees with Hopper. Let's not forget that the man whose recordings the record industry have been seeking to milk dry for the past seventeen years was himself profoundly suspicious of the music biz and the "lamestream" as he called it. One of the things he pointed out in his own suicide note was how the pressure placed on him by the executives had basically stripped Cobain of any joy he once had received from music.

Little wonder why. These folks clearly have no sense of irony. Let alone dignity.

There is a striking difference between UMG's transparent attempts to make a buck and the NME's commemoration earlier today. Say what we will about the contradictions of the NME, but they have historically been solid on the question of peer-to-peer. While the music industry have over the past decade been shameless in their push to maintain music as a commodity, the NME's coverage has been surprisingly sober for such a major music rag.

Which is what makes their tribute today, modest though it might have been, refreshing. One of the many gripes about music's present web-bound form is that it merely perpetuates the process by which it can be shared and experienced together. This complaint has always been a bit narrow, but now that fewer people than ever actually listen to the radio, it carries with it a certain weight. Especially nowadays, when the potential power that a Nevermind might provoke in the collective imagination.

And really, what gave this album such gravitas in the first place was that everything about it, from its anger to its stripped-down DIY ethos to the quickness with which it rocketed up the charts, confirmed that there was a whole collective out there--and really quite a huge one at that--of young people who despite all the talk of prosperity felt profoundly left out and left behind. Insofar as music can be a lightning rod, the songs of Nevermind were just that. They were a reminder to young folks that even if they were being shut out of the American dream, at least they can bond together on the fringes and make the best of it.

That's what really inspired Cobain to make music. Ultimately, the notion of community has to play a role in any genuine creativity, especially when coming from those most alienated. The NME, at least on some faint level, get that. Universal and the other "Big Four" however, really don't have much concept of community. Just commerce.


Folks may notice that there was no BDS Update last week, but this was mostly to do with the priority that Troy Davis took for anti-racist campaigners and a staggering amount of artists. The BDS Update will certainly return this week, and an article assessing the balance sheet of artists who supported Troy will also be coming. So, once again, don't forget to subscribe.

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Rebel's Guide To Guthrie

It's a twisted reality where the most truthful recent statement about a legendary American artist can come from a knuckle-dragger like Glenn Beck. Last year, the arch right-winger took time on his Fox News show to go through the song “This Land Is Your Land” with a fine-tooth comb--including the infamous “lost verses”--to come to the correct conclusion that it was written by “Woody Guthrie: Communist!” Evidently this was something of a revelation in the narrow mind of Beck, but it can also be chalked up to the deliberate watering-down that the folksinger’s legacy has endured since his death in 1967.

Recent decades have seen a debate launched in U.S. music circles and academia that can be summed up in the squeamish little question, “Exactly how radical was Woody Guthrie?” To many, it’s an uncomfortable equation to say that this most American of songwriters can be so connected with that quintessentially un-American streak of communism.

Into this fray steps Will Kaufman, an expat professor of American literature at the University of Central Lancashire in England, with his simply titled Woody Guthrie, American Radical. To call the book sorely needed would be an understatement—in a little over 200 pages (not counting citations), Kaufman manages to effectively convey just how inextricable Guthrie’s music was from his fierce brand of homegrown radicalism.

The book starts at a sticky place--Guthrie’s firing from California radio station KFVD for openly and steadfastly defending the pact between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin in 1939. This starting place is significant. One biographer after another has been twisted into pretzels around this incident; most use it as a line in the sand, the one act that definitively separates “good Guthrie” from “bad Guthrie.” At best, Guthrie’s actions are justified by the “troubled times” of the Great Depression. Those less for­giving will portray Guthrie as nothing but a naive country bumpkin duped by big city reds.

Kaufman, however, goes right to the heart of the matter. He has gone to painstaking lengths to portray Guthrie’s politics exactly how they were and how they evolved—pulling extensively from his songs, his correspondence with comrades, even what Guthrie was reading at the time. He also keeps the editorializing to a minimum, neither attempting to deny nor defend Guthrie’s Stalinism, but rather letting the facts speak for themselves. Ultimately, it does his music a better service than any kind of liberal hand-wringing.

Ample time is given to Guthrie’s “awakenings,” his experiences meeting Dust Bowl refugees, striking tobacco farmers, displaced migrants turned away at the California border because they “ain’t got the Do-Re-Mi.” But the book goes even deeper, touching on the rebel folk tradition that existed well beyond Guthrie’s songs by the time he came around the American Communist Party in the late 1930s.

That tradition was organically connected with the labor movement, where songwriters just as often found themselves dropped into the heat of struggle: Florence Reece, the union organizer’s wife who wrote “Which Side Are You On?”; Claude Williams and John Handcox, the troubadours of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union; Sara Ogan Gunning, who wrote the subtlely titled “I Hate the Capitalist System.”

Then there was Annie Mae Merriweather, the famed “Union Maid.” The jaunty, cheerful feel of Guthrie’s labor standard belies its original lyrics, which tell how company thugs brutally assaulted Ms. Merriweather, an African American sharecropper, for daring to organize:

"Now the rich man heard her speech
And he commenced to itch,
He hired his thugs to spill her blood
Along the city streets.
They whipped her till she bled,
They hung her up for dead
In a little old shack one midnight black
For saying what she said:

“You have robbed my family and my people
My Holy Bible says we are equal
Your money is the root of all our evil
I know the poor man will win this world!”

None but the most committed radical songwriter could dare to so unflinchingly tell this story. Nor was all of this written at the behest of some Communist Party apparatchik. In fact, the book makes clear that there were plenty of times when Guthrie’s outlook didn’t exactly jibe with that of the official CPUSA--he was, after all, never a card-carrying member.

At the same time, Kaufman is hardly a follower of the “Church of Saint Woody.” He’s quite critical toward Guthrie’s songs during the Second World War, when most writers tend to be their most fawning. The man who mere months before had penned some of the most brilliant antiwar ballads was now rewriting the lyrics into didactic chest-thumping war anthems. Guthrie’s obvious hypocrisy makes these passages very hard to digest.

Even harder to take, however, is how Guthrie’s postwar output was cut short all too soon. The most obvious factor in this was the toll of Huntington’s Disease, but it’s impossible to ignore the role of McCarthyism as well. Most painful in all of this is that Guthrie’s work in the wake of the war’s end was arguably his most radical—songs that chronicled heroic labor struggles, an entire album dedicated to martyred anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, concerts that vigorously protested the brutality of Jim Crow.

None of it, however, was enough to withstand the dramatic shift right as the United States dug in for the Cold War. Guthrie was one of the many left-wing musicians assaulted by gangs of white supremacists in Peekskill, New York, in August of 1949. In some ways, the Peekskill riots represented a “last stand” for radical folk music, before it retreated from the picket lines into the campus coffee houses for the next decade. It also spurred one last creative burst in Guthrie’s songwriting; according to Kaufman, he wrote no fewer than twenty-one songs about the incident in the span of a month!

Exhaustively researched as the book is, it’s hardly dry; the author is a folk musician himself, and the unmistakable yet restrained passion is enough to put Guthrie’s work in the light it has deserved for quite some time. Placed in context, we are left with an understanding of Guthrie’s life and work tightly interwoven with the history of American radicalism--its strengths and weaknesses, its victories and failures.

As Kaufman argues, it is this version of Guthrie--and not the sanitized social patriot presented to us by so many historians--that continues to inspire. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find any politically conscious artist whose work hasn’t been influenced by Woody Guthrie’s legacy. It’s not just Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, or Phil Ochs. It’s Joe Strummer, Steve Earle, and Emmylou Harris. It’s Son Volt, Wilco, Tom Morello, and Ani DiFranco. It’s Native American punk bands and the rootsy London electronica of Alabama 3.

It takes a true giant to have that many artists standing on your shoulders. Kaufman’s book reminds us just how broad--and radical--those shoulders were.

First appeared in the September/October issue of the International Socialist Review.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"I Pray They Don't Reminisce Over You"

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Troy Davis' plea for clemency yesterday. It is absolutely down to the eleventh hour to save his life.

I will repeat what I've said before, which is that it is still possible to get a stay of execution right down to the last minute. That means we don't give up--we keep fighting, we keep signing the petitions, we keep calling into the Georgia District Attorney's office and urging our friends and family to do the same.

Update: Printed below, in its entirely, is a statement/reflection from Chicago hip-hop poet Kevin Coval on the fight to save Troy's life and the broad, anti-racist movement that's needed now more than ever. I heartily agree with the entire text.

i don’t want to live in a country that does this. that is brazen and cocksure enough to kill people despite evidence of overwhelming doubt. today the state of georgia/this country will kill a man who is innocent. the case of Troy Davis is clear, the rising interest and growing tide of support amassing in the last week, represents the culmination of work from organizations like the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP), Amnesty International, The NAACP, Troy Davis, himself, and many others, including his family, and his sister, Martina, in particular who has worked tirelessly to bring information about her brother’s case to the public eye.

and though today is about Troy Davis, this is an old story. the story of a country that since its inception has criminalized, imprisoned and executed bodies of color. today in georgia a white judge, district attorney, clemency board, state supreme court are murdering a Black man. we have a mixed white/Black president who is silent on the issue. he must be listening not to his white working class half, or his immigrant African ancestry, but to his rich and complacent whole. this is an issue of race. it is Black and Brown bodies who fill prisons in this country, who march to death dates without fair trials and any sense of justice. and this is a class issue, if Troy Davis had Oprah money or stature, if Troy Davis had Barak Obama wall st. friends, he would not be murdered at 7pm this evening.

because, this is an issue of grand, historic inequity and current injustice, it exists at the intersection of where a new movement can be born. in the radically integrated center of the working class who knows this country is run by and for the wealthy. this week alone shows us there are more of us, who are tired and overworked, who know Troy Davis could be a friend or family member, who scrape check to check, who can’t afford a lawyer or health care.

WE, the people, know these truths to be self-evident: rich, racists run america. today in 2011, when the country murders a(nother) Black man, whose guilt is at least not beyond a reasonable doubt, we must begin to look for alternatives to the status quo. we must use our resources, not capital and a paid police force, but the collectivity of our mass, our bodies that can organize together. it is all we have and all we need.

a mass of US, of the working and poor, of the fed up and under fed, US who hold firm that this life is not to be determined and deadened and dictated by the wealthy, white elite. this is OUR lifetime, together. WE can determine what will be of it. The wealthy, the white courts and congress and statehouses are not GOD, yet they over determine how we live and today and everyday they play GOD by taking away life in this country and in the countries their war planes and weaponry terrorize.

i am looking around today for a grand gesture and know the vigils that will happen this evening, hours before the execution of Troy Davis are not enough to stop the legal lynching this country continues to practice. it is hours before they come to get Emmett Till and we are unable to stop them. we need an organization, an organized force that will put our bodies to use, put our bodies on the line, use the collective body to grind the wheels of this madness to a standstill. that is all we have, this time, this body politic, the grandness of our collective body to halt the machine of criminalization, privatization, globalization, environmental desecration, incarceration and militarization. it is on us to build anew. from this day. a new brigade. a new force that says no more. not anymore from here.

last night i returned to the words Troy Davis wrote the last time he was facing death. these words came two hours before his execution (which that time was eventually stayed) he wrote:

"…remember I am in a place where execution can only destroy your physical form but because of my faith in God, my family and all of you I have been spiritually free for some time and no matter what happens in the days, weeks to come, this Movement to end the death penalty, to seek true justice, to expose a system that fails to protect the innocent must be accelerated."

There are so many more Troy Davis’. This fight to end the death penalty is not won or lost through me but through our strength to move forward and save every innocent person in captivity around the globe. We need to dismantle this Unjust system city-by-city, state-by-state and country-by-country.

last night i read these words to a room full of educators at a screening of Howard Zinn’s The People Speak. I am struck courage and beauty of these words and by the audacious courage the everyday people in Howard Zinn’s film showed partaking in the dynamism of history. By acting in it, turning it with force to bend more forcefully toward justice and equity.

This morning Troy Davis’s words are reminding me of the great Jazz band leader, Afro-futurist, aesthetic freedom-fighter, Chicagoan & inter-planetary being, Sun-Ra who said:

"They say history repeats itself; but history is only his-story. You haven’ heard my story yet. My story is different from his story. My story in not part of history because history repeats itself. But my story is endless, it never repeats itself. Why should it? The sun does not repeat itself. Neither does a sunrise. Nature never repeats itself. My story is close to mystery. My story is better for man than history. Mystery is better than history. What’s your story?"

what is our story, america? we must be more than we are now. more just, more humane, more fair, more inclusive, more considerate of ALL the bodies, ALL the stories. this life is a mystery, indeed. it is not the right any person or state to prohibit the living of another. but here we are america, repeating ourselves. i am down to write another story. my body on the line, my shoulder to the wheel. what is our story america? who is down to write it anew?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"And Still I See No Changes": Tupac's Legacy Fifteen Years On

“Since his death, Tupac has become an international martyr, a symbol on the level of Bob Marley or Che Guevara, whose life has inspired Tupacistas on the streets of Brazil, memorial murals in the Bronx and Spain, and bandanna-wearing youth gangs in South Africa.”

These words, penned five years ago by culture writer Eric K. Arnold, are just as true today, a decade and a half after the rapper’s death--perhaps even more so. If hip-hop has become a global phenomenon, an international culture of defiance, then the man known at Tupac Amaru Shakur has become something like its figurehead.

Like all figureheads (especially the ones no longer with us), there’s a tendency to raise ‘Pac up on a pedestal, a static symbol frozen in time rather than a flesh and blood human being. In his case it’s almost literal--statues have been erected of Tupac in Georgia and Germany.

Certainly, there have been countless stabs at watering down Tupac’s legacy to the point where he becomes little more than a sanitized marketing tool--some more successful than others. What stands apart, however, even as record labels and clothing companies still try to make a buck off Tupac’s ghost, is how firm the integrity of his message remains.

At first glance, it’s odd; dead rebels always seem destined for the dustbin of commerce. From Woody Guthrie to John Lennon, from Billie Holiday to even Martin Luther King. Not so much for Tupac, though, and it begs the obvious question: why?

First and foremost is how well-known his roots are. Between his mother Afeni, his step-aunt Assata, and his godfather, one Geronimo Pratt, Tupac’s Black Panther pedigree was unmistakable. Indeed, it would be referenced frequently in ‘Pac’s own lyrics--and evidently lead him to join the Young Communist League while still attending high school in Baltimore.

Part of it must also be the time ‘Pac represents--right at the tail end of the Golden Age, when the line between “conscious” and “gangsta” wasn’t so well-defined. With the “war on drugs” transforming America’s already hurting ghettos into mini police states, the same forces that created “criminals” looked also to be breeding a generation of young revolutionaries. It was a fluidity best represented in those brief weeks in the wake of the Los Angeles riots when Blood and Crip alike called a truce, trading in their colors for anti-Apartheid ball-caps. As the son of a Panther who had been forced to resort to street-hustling to survive, Tupac knew both worlds.

This volatile combination made for poetry that was complex, poignant, brutally honest. The evolution from Tupac the art-school student into 2Pac the rapper wasn’t so much a transformation as it was a culmination of all the things that made him tick. He embodied the militancy of Public Enemy and the unhinged wrath of N.W.A all at once. But underpinning it was an aching vulnerability that neither had ever reached for.

Marcus Reeves, in his book Somebody Scream! Rap Music’s Rise to Prominence In the Aftershock of Black Power, puts forth:

“[W]hat distinguished Tupac from his radically hardcore colleagues was his mindful expression of pain from living in the inner city. He didn’t just rap about the problems of the ghetto or decry the conditions; he took listeners into the lives and souls of people affected by the environment.”

Plenty of his boosters and detractors alike attempt to separate “good ‘Pac” from “bad ‘Pac,” and indeed the veering contradictions that would turn up on his albums could be jarring. Even on his first album it was apparent--where his moving portrayal of sexual abuse and pregnancy in “Brenda’s Got a Baby” was directly followed by “Tha Lunatic,” where he brags about being with “a new bitch every night.”

In a twisted way, these contradictions made 2Pac’s whole persona more human, but they also reflected the very real pressures being placed on him by a quickly ascendant hip-hop industry. Even Afeni, who would work as her son’s publicist, couldn’t smooth out this contradiction.

Herein may be yet another reason that ‘Pac’s legend endures. The moment he came up in was one where rap had finally “made it,” when the mainstream had stopped regarding it as a novelty fad destined to fade and began to take the culture seriously. With that legitimacy, though, came the wolves in suits whose safest bet was to emphasize excess and material over righteous indignation.

It’s the kind of juxtaposition that still keeps hip-hop philosophers up late into the night, and it can be heard probably most clearly by putting “Keep Ya Head Up” next to “I Get Around” (also on the same album), “Dear Mama” next to “California Love,” or even within the same song like “Bury Me a G”.

“Yes, I am gonna say that I’m a thug,” he would tell reporters. “That’s because I came from the gutter! And I’m still here!” Statements like these reflected the reality behind politicians’ rhetoric of welfare queens and communities overrun by criminals. And in fact, ‘Pac’s own frequent run-ins with the law, along with the regular denunciations from cops and would-be censors, far from discrediting him, made his demands to reckon with the system that more viable. He made words like “Nigga” and “Thuglife” into uplifting acronyms (“Never Ignorant about Getting Goals Accomplished,” and “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody”). All of this put together added up to a worldview where those most forgotten by society suddenly had a voice. To many of those most down-and-out, hearing 2Pac’s words was to hear their own humanity confirmed.

This continues in the eight-plus albums released since his death--a staggering amount of material considering that he was only twenty-five when he was gunned down. Many of these songs are among his best; in fact it almost seems fair to say that these posthumous songs are the ones that have allowed us to get to know the real Tupac Shakur: “Ghetto Gospel,” “Soldier Like Me,” “When I Get Free.” Yet more reasons that fifteen years later, he refuses to be sanitized.

It speaks volumes that among these songs are some that have become 2Pac’s most iconic, most notably “Changes.” What stands out in this track isn’t merely the flow, the heart-on-sleeve delivery or finessed retooling of “The Way It Is” (a Bruce Hornsby song of all things). Ultimately, it’s how much these words resonate more than fifteen years after they were recorded:

“And still I see no changes. Can't a brother get a little peace?
There's war on the streets and the war in the Middle East.
Instead of war on poverty,
They got a war on drugs so the police can bother me.”

Listening to this today, it’s stunning really how little has actually changed--especially in Black America. It would be easy to square up ‘Pac’s declaration “we ain’t ready to have a Black president” with Obama’s White House and say that this solves it. That 2Pac’s struggle--and indeed, hip-hop’s whole reason for being--has been fulfilled. We hear it coming from some of hip-hop’s better off. The facts on the ground--from Troy Davis to skyrocketing Black unemployment--paint a completely different picture.

Maybe that’s the most significant reason that the industry hasn’t succeeded in turning Tupac Shakur into a harmless marketing gimmick: because, despite what we hear parroted by pundits and spin-doctors, ‘Pac’s words about what’s wrong and what needs so urgently to be done ring amazingly true.

Make no mistake, those who have always been most threatened by 2Pac still see him as dangerous. Conservative writers like Michelle Malkin still shriek from the hilltops when a teacher dares to use Shakur’s poetry in the classroom. His statue in Stone Mountain, Georgia has been repeatedly vandalized, and in 2007 had a noose strung around its neck in direct mimicry of the one stung up outside a high school in Jena, Louisiana.

Perhaps there’s no greater compliment. After all, it’s not like all dead musicians stir such ire from the right-wing. One sign of good art is that is pisses off the right people, but Tupac was able to do so much more than that. At his best, he helped push hip-hop forward, staying true to its origins while helping it reach to greater heights. He pointed to those most marginalized in the world and declared that they deserved a greater voice precisely because they’ve been pushed to the edges. That might seem like a contradiction, but then that might have more to do with the irrationality of this sick system than it does with Tupac himself.

First appeared at SOCIARTS.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Making More Noise for Troy...

Franz Ferdinand, Mogwai, Andrew Weatherall of Primal Scream and the Drums are among the artists who lent their voices to the international campaign demanding that the state of Georgia not execute Troy Davis last week. This is on top of Stevie Wonder's outspoken (albeit vague) plea on Davis' behalf at Austin City Limits over the weekend.

Not that these artists are alone in calling for Troy's freedom. Amnesty International have reportedly collected something close to 800,000 signatures from around the world on a petition demanding his release. Here in Chicago, about 150 people picketed Obama's campaign headquarters on Friday on short notice, while 200 gathered in DC; it was one of countless demonstrations world-wide that took place on that day. There were other demos in Paris and Rome, among several other European cities. In Davis' home state of Georgia, reportedly almost 5,000 traveled from all over the US to demand he not be executed.

The reasons are simple: there is no physical evidence connecting Troy to the murder of Officer MacPhail, seven out of ten witnesses have recanted (most have since insisted that their testimonies were coerced), and the entire case smacks of good old Southern racism--a white cop is killed, Black people are nearby, and the system pins it on one of them in an effort to send a message.

We have our own message to send: that Troy is innocent, his execution would be a grave miscarriage of justice, and he deserves to be freed. His date of execution has been set for Wednesday the 21st. That's two days. Not a lot of time. But those who remember similar cases, such as those of Kevin Cooper or Kenneth Foster, will attest that campaigns such as these can win--even at the last minute. We can this time too, but it requires turning up the volume as loud as it can go.


Sign the petition demanding that Georgia's District Attorney Larry Chisholm grant Troy Davis clemency.

Friday, September 16, 2011

BDS Update: An Eventful Summer

Festival season is winding down in Israel, as it is most other places. There's certainly no denying that the Israeli concert industry was able to dodge the slew of cancellations that it experienced the previous summer. There weren't the large groups of acts and artists backing out of fests in protest. In fact, with the concerts by Dylan, Paul Simon, Moby, Justin Bieber and others, it's safe to say that there were some real boons for Israel's summer concerts.

Does this mean that the call for cultural boycott is waning? Certainly not. True, there hasn't been the kind of sensationalism this past summer that we saw last year with the assault on the Freedom Flotilla. In fact, Israel's skillful maneuvering of this year's flotilla represents how much last summer's events put them on the back of their heels. What's more, the Arab revolutions have really upped the pressure. It stands to reason that last week's storming of the Israeli embassy in Egypt is only the start; the long-standing hatred of the US' watchdog runs deep through the region, and the progressing revolts are guaranteed to unleash that outrage even further.

Combine this with the protests within Israeli itself, and it's fair to say that Bibi and company feel themselves tightly cornered. Over the course of the summer, these protests have evolved from being centered around housing demands to challenging the broader hold of neo-liberalism in Israel. That Netanyahu was completely unable to diffuse the housing protests with his (admittedly mild) assault on Gaza speaks to how the quick-fix of "bomb now and ask questions" later isn't so much an option as it once was, and to how much the state's credibility has frayed at the seams. While these protests have yet to substantially take up the issue of the occupations, right of return or Zionism as a whole, the potential for them to do so is undeniably there.

All of this means that there is more fertile ground for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions than possibly ever before. Just as the Arab revolutions have found themselves in a state of consolidation and regroupment, a reassessing of position and demands, so has the global BDS movement. This fall will, for example, see the first ever nationwide conference for Students for Justice in Palestine in the US.

It makes sense, then, that the targeted campaigns of the cultural boycott movement carried actual weight. Some have simply been very successful publicity stunts--such as the disruption of the Israeli Philharmonic in London. These are moments when the panicked reaction of the pro-Israel camp is as much a propaganda score as the event itself.

Then there have been the handful of artists that did indeed cancel this summer--most prominently the last-minute back-down of Tuba Skinny from the Red Sea Jazz Festival and the successful campaign to get Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine to cancel their Tel Aviv gig.

While neither of these reached the level of last summer, they nonetheless reveal that targeted campaigns have the room to work. As always, the space for them to be successful is contingent on how much work is done on the streets, campuses and communities.


On the subject of the "No Room For Jello" campaign, Punks Against Apartheid is still planning for a relaunch of its site, and a Points of Unity document for punk bands who refuse to entertain Israeli apartheid. If you or any artists you know are interested in signing on then don't hesitate to get in touch through Rebel Frequencies.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Boris Johnson: Bigoted Buffoon

There is something truly disturbing about the racist harassment that Kelis experienced at a London airport on Monday. The notion that an upper-class twit like Boris Johnson will do anything about it... well, that would just be laughable if it weren't so utterly and stupidly opportunistic.

According to a message on Kelis' Twitter account, the singer was called a "slave" and "a disgusting Nigerian" by a random traveler who accused her of cutting in line. It's not known whether the man was himself British or not--though he obviously spoke English quite well.

That random bigots might feel confident enough in the UK to spew such racist filth isn't really surprising. This is a country where the English Defence League does indeed still wield influence on the streets, where Romani people and Irish Travellers are facing the possible elimination of their way of life.

It's precisely why confronting racism in all its forms is so important--to close off the space that random little haters like this need to breathe. That's a solution that comes on the streets--not from the charlatan, elitist dunce that is the current Mayor of London.

Let's be clear: Boris Johnson has gone out of his way to make life harder for working class British Blacks his entire time as mayor. Since the UK riots he's jumped completely on board with David Cameron's "blame the 'criminal elements'" spiel. When he tweeted back to Kelis "I’m appalled & I’m on the case," it was little more than opportunism, piggybacking on a high-profile incident of racism and hoping that folks don't notice that he's actually contributed to an atmosphere where things like this become the norm.

If there's anyone who Kelis should be going to about this whole stomach-turning debacle, it's Love Music Hate Racism--not the stuffed suits simply looking to cover their own asses.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

L-Vis Lives! And Tonight He's Live Too

I've read this book. It's tight. For those of you not in the know, Kevin Coval has been on HBO's "Def Poets," and his poetry has been acclaimed by Studs Terkel and has been shortlisted for the ALA's Book of the Year award. He's the co-founder of Louder Than A Bomb: Chicago Teen Poetry Festival. Not exactly a light-weight.

And his latest book, L-Vis Lives! Racemusic Poems, gets its kick-off tonight in Chicago!

This is Coval's fourth collection. I've read all of them, and yes, it is his best. His work has always played at so many of the contradictions in modern culture--and L-Vis Lives! brings all of these to the forefront, examining a journey that's certainly his own but has also run through the whole history of white artists (some talented, others not so much) embracing African-American culture. And he does it with poignant honesty, humor, passion and so much else. I could try to describe it further, but really the only thing that could do justice--and hopefully put some butts in the seats tonight--would be to let you see just how good Coval really is. So check the vid below.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

We Still Need Changes...

Fifteen years ago today, Tupac Shakur died from the gunshot wounds he had sustained six days earlier.

There's so much that's already been said about 'Pac as an artist and human being, and yet so much that at the same time bears repeating. We will of course infinitely wonder if hip-hop would have looked any different had he lived, but we also know that his contribution was nothing less than trailblazing. At a time when the industry was segregating rap into "gangsta" and "conscious," Tupac showed us that there was no real divide, and that this was a music that at its best always reached out to uplift those that were suffering the most. It's what made him great; it's also what made him dangerous.

Listening to this song today, a decade and a half after his death, is nothing short of stunning. Not only because the production, lyrics and flow are close to flawless, but because 'Pac almost seems to predict how similar our current time is to his own. Of course, the line "we ain't ready to have a Black president" was used in Nas' "Black President" released in the run-up to Obama's election. That alone might be used by the cynics as a way to "prove" that Tupac has lost his relevance.

The rest of the song speaks so poignantly to our modern times, though, that it's almost unbearable:

"And still I see no changes
Can a brother get a little peace?
There's war on the streets and a war in the Middle East
Instead of war on poverty,
They got a war on drugs so the police can bother me."

Stunning, isn't it? Last month, news came down that Chicago cops have already killed more people this year than they did in all of 2010. Running parallel to that is the statistic that the Chicago PD arrested over 20,000 Black men under the age of 17 last year, compared to a paltry 900 white youths.

"And still I see no changes..."

There will be a more thorough article on the fifteenth anniversary of Tupac's death released next week on SOCIARTS. So definitely stay tuned and spread the word.

Monday, September 12, 2011

From Chile to Chicago: The Other 9/11

Last night, while televisions and newspapers alike played their ten-year commemorations of September 11th on a loop as a way of justifying continued meddling in the Middle East, Rebel Diaz reminded us of what those on the international left have long referred to as "the other 9/11."

As many reading this post undoubtedly know, the two members of Rebel Diaz, G1 and RodStarz, are originally from Chile. Their parents were among the countless who fled after General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected leftist President Salvador Allende on September 11th 1973. By now it's an open secret that the coup was backed to the hilt by the US; Kissinger's own words were "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves."

The fallout from this coup was devastating: poverty and repression ran rampant during Pinochet's rule and thousands of socialists, radical and union activists were systematically "disappeared."

Today's Chile seems to have come full circle--students have been on the streets for months protesting cuts coming from the right-wing government. Rebel Diaz, in an email promoting their show at Quennect 4 last night, wrote:

"Today the streets in Chile are full of resistance. Students and workers fighting back. Fighting back against the result of this dictatorship. An economy in which everything is privatized. Education, transportation, and even water. An experiment in which humans are variables in an equation for profit."

The Quennect 4 show, obviously headlined by RD, also featured local rebel rappers Phillip Morris and Bob Rok, as well as DJ from Chicago and across the Midwest. The show doubled not only as a commemoration of the '73 coup, but a celebration of this current crop of Chilean resistance. It's a shame that counterpoints like these are so often limited to local community halls without getting so much as a mention on the TV screen.

To take all of the politicians and pundits at their word yesterday, one would think that this country holds nothing but flag-waving, blinder-wearing bigots ready to drop even more depleted uranium on the world's most deprived countries in their ten-year quest for perpetual payback. We never hear about the way workers in Wisconsin were inspired to take to the streets by the Egyptian counterparts (the very same "ragheads" we're supposed to eye suspiciously), or of the countless laid off because leaders of both parties would rather spend the money on bombs.

We most certainly don't hear about those at other corners of the globe who have arguably suffered the greatest brunt of the United States' "defense." Obviously, informing us about all of that is the job of the grassroots--the artists and activists who have kept their eyes on it all. Beyond all the media hype, there persists the undeniable notion that the real divide isn't "US vs. the world," but the global have-nots vs. the tiny privileged minority looking to keep it that way.


Don't forget that Rebel Diaz's Radical Dilemma is going to be released on October 16th. There will of course be a review coming from Rebel Frequencies.

Friday, September 9, 2011

BDS Update: Israel Philharmonic Plays Sour Notes...

"The video below was filmed a week ago in London--apparently filmed by a member of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. It shows BDS activists repeatedly interrupting the IPO's performance with Palestinian flags, shouts and chants, even amid a sea of boos."

At least that's what I'd like to write. Truth is, the video has been pulled. As folks will see when they go to the YouTube link, the British Israel Coalition has filed a claim demanding that the footage be removed. The BIC is a UK based umbrella of liberal Zionist groupings claiming to be "pro-peace." Obviously, however, their claims to advocate peace don't extend to being "pro-dialogue."

What seems most quizzical about the BIC's removal of the video though is that, vacuumed from context, it could just as easily be used to promote pro-Israeli interests--sort of a "look at these disrespectful Palestine activists" kind of narrative that plays the Israeli culture industry as some sort of victim. Such an insistence would be completely in line with the way Israel's worst crimes are defended. True, the video isn't there to back me up on the assertion of its content, but perhaps those who have seen it like myself might be able to chime in.

So why, then, did the BIC demand the clip's removal? The answer lies in how successful the global BDS movement has been--in particular its cultural wing. If Israel's supporters exhibit real horror at a shaky, short video clip, even going to lengths of demanding censorship, then it reveals how the global campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions increasingly has Israel's reputation on the ropes.

Part of it is the broadest context--the revolutions in the Middle East, Israel's recent attacks on Palestine, not to mention the possibilities opened up by the protests within Israel itself. These events themselves have also played a role in an increasing amount of artists and projects severing ties with the Israeli cultural industry. It's one of the reasons that the government has seriously been mulling a state insurance for concerts and other events.

So while it may be a little frustrating that proponents of BDS around the world can't view some of their own taking it to the Israel Philharmonic, it also reveals that we're doing something right.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Troy Davis is Innocent... Let's Make Some Noise!

Two days ago the state of Georgia handed down a death warrant for Troy Anthony Davis. Troy is an African American man who has been on death row for 20 years for killing a white police officer named Mark MacPhail in Savannah. Seven out of the nine witnesses who fingered Troy during his trial have since some forward and admitted that they either lied or were coerced. Given that the case rested on these testimonies, there remains little evidence that Troy actually shot MacPhail.

This case has just about everything we expect from the American criminal injustice system--coerced testimony, a corrupt police department anxious to find a culprit for shooting one of their own, a Black man railroaded onto death row by a racist judicial process. For that reason Troy's case has gained international attention; Amnesty International has campaigned for his release for years. So has the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.

Troy's sister Martina Correia has traveled across the country and Europe campaigning on his behalf. Richard Hughes, drummer for the English band Keane flew to Georgia in 2009 to visit Troy on death row.

"I am totally against the death penalty, and the case of Troy Davis is a terrifying illustration of the reasons why," said Hughes. ""Troy is very likely innocent, yet has been on the brink of execution, only last-minute reprieves keeping him alive. He continues to fight for the chance to prove his innocence."

Also in '09, NYC hip-hop group the Welfare Poets recorded a video urging people to get involved in Troy's defense campaign. Now more than ever, folks need to do just that...

Troy Davis' execution date has been set for the 21st of September. Go to the website of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty to look for local emergency demonstrations in your area. There is still time to force Georgia officials to do the right thing, but it means that every single one of his supporters need to make their voices heard!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Two Good Reasons to Boycott Fender

Few brands are so ubiquitous in the world of music as Fender. Even folks who have never picked up a guitar know the name. It’s been associated with some of the greatest axe-players of all time--Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, Keith Richards, George Harrison just for starters. Their quality is solid, their sound is great, and the simple “cool factor” of being seen playing one is almost second to none.

So here comes a big, buzzkilling bomb: nobody should play a Fender guitar--at least nobody who cares the least bit about justice in the world. And certainly nobody who calls themselves an ally of immigrant rights or the right to make a decent living. In fact, Fender is guilty not only of crossing the line against one of these causes, but both at the same time. Neither should be taken lightly.

Almost a year-and-a-half out, and Arizona’s vicious anti-immigrant law SB 1070 remains more or less in effect. Though a federal injunction still blocks most of the act’s more controversial aspects, its remaining points still effectually reduce the land of the Grand Canyon to an apartheid state.

As the saying goes, for each action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Thus, the economic and cultural boycott continues, as does the Sound Strike (who, far from fading over the past year, have more signatories and supporters than ever) and the consumer boycotts. Plenty of companies based in Arizona have taken not-insignificant hits, and a flurry of targeted campaigns in various cities continue to pressure their governments to pull out of contracts with such companies.

Enter Fender Guitars, headquartered in--you guessed it--Arizona. To date, the Scottsdale-based company has yet to utter a word against SB 1070. I’ve scoured the Internet and have yet to see so much as half a press release that even mentions the matter in passing. It seems an offensive snub given the good graces that Latino artists have brought the brand over the year--from Shakira to Juanes to Freddy Fender, who was obviously so in love with the guitars he took them as his last name.

Fender has gained immensely from being based in Arizona. The state has some of the most lax business regulations and lowest taxes in the country. Meanwhile, the atmosphere created by SB 1070 is one straight-up of fear. Latino families both documented and undocumented have uprooted themselves and fled the state. The highly-publicized internment camps of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and like-minded officials have continued unabated. States from Georgia to Pennsylvania have at least attempted to embrace parts of 1070 in their own legislation.

It’s for these reasons that the Sound Strike, Alto Arizona, the Puente Movement and others engaged in the fight against the law continue to support the boycott of Arizona and companies that do business there. More than ever, these efforts have to be redoubled; Fender seems a good candidate for such a campaign's cross-hairs.

Fender’s indifference to human rights doesn’t end at the border. Globally, in fact, the company is more than willing to cooperate with some of the shadiest characters imaginable. This past January, as the National Association of Music Merchants held their yearly conference in Anaheim, California, a picket of South Korean workers and union activists gathered in front. Throughout the weekend, the demonstrators were joined by immigrant rights activists, fellow unionists and, of course, musicians.

The workers’ demands were simple: give us our jobs back. They represented hundreds of other workers who had worked for a Korea-based guitar manufacturer known as Cort--in some cases for decades. Conditions were unsafe, hours were long, payment often below minimum wage. After a long struggle the workers had managed to legally unionize and win better conditions. Not long after that, Cort shuttered its main plant in Daejon. Manufacturing was moved to China and Indonesia, the Korean workers were fired.

That was four years ago, and Cort’s CEO Yung Ho Park--one of the riches businessmen in Asia--has refused to give the workers their jobs back. What’s more, Fender Guitars, who have an ongoing contract with Cort, once again refuse to cut ties. Fender gets quite a bit of extra coin from outsourcing its parts manufacturing to Cort; it’s a familiar story in the globalized world. Other instrument-building companies maintaining contracts with Cort include Ibanez, Gibson and Parkwood.

Ironically, the one company associated with Cort to meet with the workers was Fender, who did so in January and March of 2010. The company promised to conduct a thorough investigation. They didn’t. “Instead,” according to the Cort Action website, “Fender has conducted a closed-door , internal investigation and has not made any moves to suspend its business with Cort, instead opening TWO stores in Korea and continuing with business as usual.”

It’s a slap in the face; no exaggeration. But the support for the Cort among musicians has been impressive: Ozomatli, the Coup’s Boots Riley. “World Wide Rebel Songs,” the title track off of Tom Morello’s new album, was inspired by the Cort workers. Perhaps it’s no surprise that many of these names are also artists observing the Sound Strike.

The bad publicity has obviously rubbed the honchos at Fender the wrong way. In January, mere days after the NAMM conference, I was one of thousands of signatories demanding Fender to do the right thing and sever ties with Cort. I was shocked when I received a response; most of the time when one fills out petitions you don’t expect such a thing. Perhaps the fact that I had included a message stating that I am a music journalist urging his readers to boycott got to someone a little too much.

The reply was from one Larry Thomas, who identified himself as “a new employee” of Fender Guitars, admonished me to get my “facts straight” and insisted that the company was “very concerned with human rights.”

Larry Thomas is not “a new employee” of Fender. He’s the company’s CEO, appointed in July of last year. Apparently, Thomas, who was in attendance at NAMM, had gotten hold of one of the pamphlets handed out by the Cort campaign. It apparently stuck in his craw.

Like any modern CEO, his insistence that his company observes human rights was accompanied by the accusation that the Cort campaign was nothing but front a Korean labor union--as if that were some sort of smoking gun. He also had no answer for why a company that supposedly values decent treatment of workers has factories in counties with some of the worst labor violations in the world--China, Mexico, the list goes on.

There are plenty of unflattering descriptions for Larry Thomas. Probably the most accurate is that he’s swallowed the nasty taste of his own propaganda for so long that he can’t help but spew bile out his own mouth. The reason we should care, however, is much bigger than Thomas himself.

As we are reminded on the Cort Action website: “[T]he struggle of the Korean workers cannot take place in Korea alone, but must be joined by anyone who believes that music cannot be made under terrible conditions, and that workers everywhere, whether in Korea or anywhere else, deserve to be treated with dignity.”

That principle rings truer than ever today, when millions are unemployed in the US amidst draconian trade deals with South Korea, and when despite all this we are told that the non-American workers are the ones to blame.

Of course, it’s a lot bigger than Fender too. It’s as big as a system that presents us with scant opportunity in one hand and a cat o’ nine tails in the other, the promise of opportunity mixed with the reality of inequality. Taking down the whole edifice may seem like a tall order. An upsurge in people seeking to hold Fender accountable, to demand that our music not be soaked from head to toe in dirt and blood, seems like a good start.

First appeared at SOCIARTS.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Planes, Pants and Automatic Repression

Clearly, Billie Joe Armstrong did not have a good Labor Day weekend. The Green Day front-man was kicked off a plane--apparently for wearing his pants too baggy. According to reports he was approached by an attendant while boarding and was told to "pull up his pants." He refused and was told again.

Actually, his exact words were a bit more exact, and can be sympathized with by anyone who has had to deal with airports in the post-9/11 security state: "Don't you have better things to worry about than that?" At this point he was told again to pull up his pants. He rebuffed the request again, and was thrown off the plane along with his travelling companion.

With the ten-year anniversary of the September 11th attacks right around the corner, there's no doubt that most airlines have their employees acting even more uptight than normal. It's certainly a stretch to say that they deliberately targeted a musician who has openly questioned the national reaction to 9/11 in his music. It's nonetheless a worthwhile thought to entertain, and one can almost guarantee that Armstrong is also mulling it over in his own head.

Still, though Armstrong is arguably aware of all of this, he probably didn't expect to be subject to the same profiling that others have endured over the past decade. Armstrong no doubt feels lucky he's not Muslim. Yes, ten years later, this still happens.

Or, for that matter, he's lucky he's not Black. Six weeks ago, a man named DeShon Marman was kicked off a plane because he had a bit too much of his boxers showing. This, of course, doesn't stop at the airport entrance; plenty of towns recently have been passing ordinances dictating how low someone's pants can be worn. Obviously, it's racist--not to mention targets hip-hop culture in general.

Ten years in, and still Muslims are kicked off planes. A Black president--indeed, a president who some have called "the first hip-hop president"--and kids who identify with rap music are still targeted. Maybe it all runs a bit deeper than just a few cosmetic switches. Sometimes the affects of systematic racism bounce back up--even to modern rock royalty. When that happens, it's a sign that you've got a real problem.


Obviously, Rebel Frequencies took the extra day off. We're back, however. Upcoming articles include support for the ongoing boycott of Fender guitars and a review of the latest biography of Woody Guthrie.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Wisconsin, Verizon, the Future... a Different Kind of Labor Day

Let's be very clear about something: Labor Day was created as a conservative alternative to the radicalism of May Day. This doesn't mean of course that those of us dedicated to rebuilding a vibrant and militant labor movement should begrudge an extra day off work (those of us who are still lucky enough to get Labor Day off that is!), in fact, it seems that unlike Labor Days past, we actually have a labor movement to celebrate!

We've seen Madison turned into a dynamic hub of class anger and renewed struggle--workers and students together take over the State Capitol, the term "general strike" uttered in a way that isn't merely abstract. Then there's Verizon, the largest private sector strike in years. It was only two weeks on the picket line, but the solidarity that it inspired across the country was truly staggering. It's not over either... at Verizon or at most other workplaces. Auto workers at the Ford plant in Kansas City--the second largest in the country, just voted by near unanimity to authorize a strike. Even Ikea workers in Virginia are unionizing!

It's by no means up and up (Wisconsin lost, after all... at least for now), but it looks like for the first time in a while, we can at least talk of the possibility of a fighting American unionism. Here are a couple tunes that keep it in mind this weekend. Both are now intimately connected with the events in Madison this past winter that kicked it all off.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

BDS Update: Dear Yardbirds...

Below is an open letter drafted by the British Committee for Universities for Palestine (BRICUP) to seminal '60s Brit-rockers the Yardbirds. The group, who launched their US tour a few days ago, is planning on playing at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv on October 29th (those who followed the campaign to get Jello Biafra to cancel will remember that the Barby was the same venue he was slated to play).

Especially powerful is the argument that the Yardbirds, like many of their generation, wouldn't play in South Africa because of the British Musicians' Union's boycott of apartheid there. They didn't cross the picket line then, and they shouldn't now. BRICUP is requesting that this letter--or variants of it--be sent to members Jim McCarty ( and Chris Dreja ( They should also be sent to their European management (Nigel Kerr, and their US management (Anne Leighton,


Dear Yardbirds,

As ancient geezers ourselves, we support the principle of keeping going. So, the Yardbirds still playing gigs – excellent. The Yardbirds playing a gig in Israel, which illegally occupies Palestinian land and shows no sign of withdrawing – surely not.

Chris Dreja and Jim McCarty, founder members of the band – when you were enjoying such success during the 1960s, the British Musicians’ Union had a policy of boycotting apartheid South Africa. We’ve been looking on-line for evidence that the Yardbirds broke that ban, and we’re happy to say we can’t find any. The world famous Yardbirds appear to have respected the South African liberation movement’s call for artists and musicians to assist them by denying legitimacy to the racist state.

Have you thought through the implications of your appearance at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv on October 29? You’re telling Palestinian civil society organisations that are similarly calling for a cultural boycott of Israel that their dispossession and their oppression don’t matter. The Palestinian Teachers’ Federation; the Writers’ Federation; the League of Palestinian Artists; the General Union of Palestinian Women; and many others – your performance at the Barby will in effect tell all of these people that you side with the Israeli military occupation, that you don’t mind
helping to airbrush the cruelties of racism and ethnic cleansing, and that you’re happy to behave as if there isn’t a Palestinian struggle for liberation and justice.

So we’re hoping you might think again.

Here’s Roger Waters talking about why he supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel. Here are Faithless and other musicians singing ‘Freedom for Palestine’. Here is Elvis Costello explaining why he withdrew from his two scheduled concerts in Israel.

There’s a wave, Yardbirds – a whole international wave of people supporting justice for the Palestinians via consumer boycotts, academic boycotts, cultural boycotts. You can cancel your gig and ride that wave – or you can let one night at the Barby dash you on the shore. Please think again. Please don’t go.

Yours sincerely,

Professor Haim Bresheeth
Mike Cushman
Professor Adah Kay
Professor Jonathan Rosenhead

London, September 2011