Dec 02 2010

The Only Boss I Ever Liked

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 20RCN @ 9:36 am

Now I been lookin’ for a job but it’s hard to find
Down here there’s just winners and losers
And don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line

Atlantic City, Bruce Springsteen

It was nearly three decades ago, in May 1981, that I first saw Bruce Springsteen (aka The Boss) in concert at the Playhouse in Edinburgh. Prior to the gig I had heard much about the energy of the performances that he created with the help of his backing group, the now legendary E Street Band.

I’d bought the records and I’d liked what I’d heard. Indeed, I had bought my first Springsteen records in 1973, when most of America didn’t know who he was. But could he truly replicate the energy of those pieces of vinyl live in concert and live up to the reputation for live performance that followed him around?

Back in the early ’80’s the music industry was, and let’s be honest, it still is an entity which thrives on a staple diet of hype, distortion and downright lies. Was the fuss surrounding Bruce Springsteen just one more piece of record industry bullshit, I wondered?

Thinking thus, it was with no small degree of trepidation that I approached the concert at the Playhouse. In the end I really shouldn’t have worried. Three-and-a-half hours after Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band took to the stage on that far-off evening they left it, cheered to the rafters. Hype this was not.

The man rocked!

And for the next three decades he has continued to rock.

Springsteen was born in New Jersey in 1949. After leaving school he played in various bands before being signed to CBS records by John Hammond, a music industry legend, having signed such talents as Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan to the label..

Springsteen’s first two albums, Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, The Innocent And The E-Street Shuffle were both critically acclaimed but they did not sell well, a situation which led to Springsteen becoming known as Hammond’s Folly at CBS.

The snipers at CBS had to bite on their own bullets, however, in 1975, with the release of his third album, Born To Run. It is one of the all-time classic rock albums. With its release, a critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful rock ‘n’ roll singer called Bruce Springsteen was catapulted into the big time. Such was the furore surrounding the release of Born To Run that he even appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek simultaneously.

However, just as it seemed he had made it all the way to rock super-stardom his career stalled as he became embroiled in a lengthy lawsuit with his former manager.

It would be 1978 before he would release his fourth album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. To promote his fifth album, The River, he undertook his first world tour in 1980/81.

By the end of that tour, including the aforementioned Edinburgh gig which I witnessed, he was being hailed as the new king of rock ‘n’ roll. But Bruce Springsteen was about to prove in a most remarkable way that there was more to him than just a good rock ‘n’ roll show and songs about fast cars.

Just as the rock world was proclaiming him the next big thing he seemed to turn his back on it all. Though he had been out on tour in the real world for a year and more, or maybe even because of it, when he returned to the United States he looked inwards at what was happening where he lived.

In 1982 he released Nebraska. It was the bravest artistic decision that Springsteen ever took. There was no band backing him, instead he presented to the world a largely solo acoustic album which took everyone by surprise.

On Nebraska the Spector-like wall of sound production, the sweeping cityscapes and wild romanticism in the music and lyrics of Born To Run are all gone, replaced by dark tales of characters sidelined by the USA of the early 1980’s and Reaganomics.

The record is populated by the misfits, the rejects and the unwanted of American society; they are characters who, sentenced by the system that they lived under and being possessed of no special talent were born to fail, excluded by birth from the American dream.

There’s a place out on the edge of town, sir,
Risin’ above the factories and the fields.
Now ever since I was a child I can remember
That mansion on the hill.

In the day you can see the children playing
On the road that leads to those gates of hardened steel,
Steel gates that completely surround, sir,
That mansion on the hill.

In many of Springsteen’s songs from the early to mid-1980’s the lyrics reflect the economic times that he lived in, and listening to the older recordings provides an insight into those times, allowing reflection on the ways in which the world has changed (or not, as the case may be) since those songs were originally written.

In 1980 Springsteen released his fifth album, The River. The title song opens thus,

I come from down in the valley where, mister, when you’re young,
They bring you up to do just like your daddy done.

OK, English teachers and grammatical perfectionists out there, take a minute to get over the verbal mangling at the end of that one. Then everyone take another minute to mull over what life was like in 1980 and compare it to what it is like now.

When The River was written back in 1979, many young people leaving school actually did follow in the footsteps of their fathers. If you were poor and working class being born in a mining community meant that being a miner was your likely fate.

Then there were the shipyards, the steel towns and in Dundee, my adopted home-town, generation after generation worked in the city’s jute mills, till after the second world war when some diversity of occupation was possible as many foreign companies located in the city.

But Dundee and many other cities throughout Scotland were about to find out that multinational companies and corporations investing in them was not done through any sense of altruism.

If you drive into Dundee from the north on the A92 and turn right at the Scott Fyfe circle on to Dundee’s inner ring road, the Kingsway, and proceed to drive its length to the other end at the Swallow circle, you will drive through an industrial graveyard.

Dotted along the five-and-a-half miles of the Kingsway are the sites of the post-war sunrise industries which located in Dundee — Timex Milton, ABB Nitran, Valentine’s, NCR, Timex Camperdown, Levis — each factory at one time a beacon of hope for a brighter future, but now all either vacant sites or shopping centres, each one now nothing more than a tombstone along the side of the road of Dundee’s forced march into globalisation.

A forced march into a world where capitalist multinationals in thrall to globalisation shipped jobs abroad to where the goods that they produced could be manufactured cheaper, a world where loyalty from international corporations to loyal work forces had no place as shareholders had to be satisfied and profits maximised.

Nitran, Valentine’s, NCR, Timex, Levis.

Some went easy.

Some went hard.

But in the end . . .

. . . they all went.

To this mix, add Dundee’s jute industry, fast approaching its death throes. By the time that Dundee’s industrial holocaust had burnt itself out swathes of its post-war housing schemes had become like ghettoes in some places as those who would once have found employment in those industries self-medicated themselves to temporary and repetitive oblivion with the drink or narcotic of their choice in order to escape the empty awfulness and lack of hope in their lives.

Maybe those jobs hadn’t been great, especially in the jute mills, but they had provided expectations among the young of Dundee of at least some kind of employment when they left school.

With that certainty gone they would no longer follow in the footsteps of their fathers, and their fathers before them. They would no longer be brought up to “do just like your daddy done.”

In the song My Hometown Springsteen observed,

Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more.
They’re closing down the textile mill
Across the railroad tracks,
Foreman says, “These jobs are going, boys,
And they ain’t coming back
To your hometown . . .

Springsteen may have been making observations about life in the United States, but the song found a sympathetic echo on the streets of Dundee.

Bruce Springsteen’s seventh album, Born In The USA was released in June 1984, a few months into the miners’ strike, Britain’s most bitter post-war industrial dispute, during which Thatcher unleashed the full force of the state to crush the miners.

Across the Atlantic her ideological soul mate, Ronald Reagan, was decimating American industry, and both had set the (wrecking) ball rolling on a course which would see car plants, steel mills and much of the manufacturing base destroyed.

Born In The USA was Springsteen’s most commercially successful record and all sorts of craziness followed its release as everyone jumped on the bandwagon, including Ronald Reagan, who was campaigning for re-election as president in 1984.

On a stop at Hammonton, New Jersey, he hijacked Springsteen for his own political ends as he told an invited audience, “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in the songs so many young Americans admire, New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.”

It was several days before Springsteen responded to Reagan’s adoption of him. On stage on September 22, he told the audience, The president was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favourite album musta been. I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.

He launched into a song from the Nebraska album, Johnny 99, the protagonist of the song having lost his job when the local car plant had been shut down. In desperation he had been arrested for trying to commit a robbery. At his trial he tells the judge from the dock,

Now, judge, judge, I had debts
No honest man could pay.
The bank was holding my mortgage,
They were gonna take my house away.

Springsteen was to revisit the theme of de-industrialisation in his 1995 solo album, The Ghost Of Tom Joad, in particular on the song, Youngstown. It tells the tale of a young man who returns from war in Vietnam to a job in the steel industry in the town of Youngstown, Ohio.

Well, my daddy worked the furnaces,
Kept ’em hotter than hell,
I came home from ’Nam, worked my way to scarfer,
A job that’d suit the devil as well.
Taconite, coke and limestone
Fed my children and made my pay.
Them smokestacks reaching like the arms of God
Into a beautiful sky of soot and clay.

Someone worshipping a beautiful sky of soot and clay makes for an interesting situation for eco-socialists. Knowing as we do the effect of pumping vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, would we ourselves be forced to close down the coal mines and steel mills, even though they provided the very means of existence to many?

Surely the difference would be that we would handle any closures and subsequent redundancies made to protect the planet in a humane manner by creating jobs in renewable technologies for the out of work miners and steel workers.

For the record, I nearly wrote in a more humane manner in the previous paragraph, but stuck with humane manner instead. The word more is comparative and its use would have implied that there was some degree of humanity about Thatcher and her attitude to the miners and, indeed, the whole working class.

There wasn’t!

The central character of the song is another who went on to become someone who ended up going down the road of doing just like your daddy done. Like his father before him he has returned from war to a job in a vital industry.

But he will be the last of his family to do this. His children will not do just like your daddy done. The third verse of Youngstown is a mournful requiem for the steel mills of that Ohio town.

Well my daddy come on the Ohio works
When he came home from World War Two.
Now the yard’s just scrap and rubble.
He said, ‘Them big boys did what Hitler couldn’t do’.

Both he and his father had unquestioningly served the state well in time of war, but his father’s life and his own were worth nothing to American based multinational corporations in time of peace when they found somewhere that steel could be made cheaper.

With the release of Born In The USA in 1984 and the world tour which followed it, Springsteen became one of the biggest rock stars on the planet, but celebrity and fame posed for him the question that all international rock stars face with their vast wealth and jet set lifestyles. How do you stay in touch with where you came from?

Some don’t even try. Others preach about saving the world from the stage during their concerts, all the while moving their tax affairs offshore only to end up wondering why they still haven‘t found what they‘re looking for. It seems that Springsteen is at least aware of the dichotomy that exists in his situation.

Following a three-month world tour with Peter Gabriel, Sting, Tracy Chapman and Youssou N’door, sponsored by Amnesty International and promoting the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Springsteen split from the E-Street Band. It would be eleven years before they played together again in public.

Springsteen simply told the band that he would not be requiring their services for the foreseeable future, that he wanted time to pursue other ideas. He did, in fact, tour in 1992 with a new group of musicians, and in the song Better Days he bemoans the fact that

I took a piss at fortune’s sweet kiss,
It’s like eating caviar and dirt,
It’s a sad, funny ending to find yourself pretending,
A rich man in a poor man’s shirt.

Perhaps it is a dilemma with no resolution.

Twenty-nine-and-a-bit years on from that far-off night at the Playhouse in Edinburgh when I first saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in concert, so much has changed. The big industries in Scotland—the coal mines, the shipyards, the car plant, the steel mill—all now gone. Methil no more. Linwood no more. Ravenscraig no more. Ghosts that now only inhabit and haunt the memories of those of a certain age.

But yet, so much remains the same. Unemployment, war and poverty have not died. They are every bit as real now and every bit as awful as they were nearly three decades ago, the stench that follows capitalism around like some unshakeable bloodhound.

Regarding war, it must be said that Springsteen’s attitude towards his country’s foreign adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan could have been better. He toured Europe in the spring and summer of 2003 round about the time of the US (sorry, coalition) invasion of Iraq.

When he toured in 1988 he closed the first half of his shows with the Edwin Starr classic War flowing into Born In The USA. What a message he could have sent out with that ending to his 2003 shows. But it was absent. He did not come out against the war till much later. Neil Young, Steve Earle and the Dixie Chicks did it so much better.

Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?

The River, Bruce Springsteen

Like a remake of a classic movie once more we are told that we are all in this together, as times of austerity forced upon us by a failed ideology threaten to engulf us in a tsunami of redundancies and cuts to vital services.

Once again the rich elite who took the profits in the good times tell us that we must pay for their greed and folly in the bad times. And, as in any movie remake, only the actors have changed. The plot remains the same.

Those who would have had us believe that it was the end of boom and bust have been proved laughably wrong. Neither has the end of history arrived, for history is still being written, and though the hand that writes the story of our current times has previously written it on more than one occasion it seems never to tire of recording the same tale.

If ever there was a need for a new hand on the pen which writes the story it is now—and it is a need for a kinder, fairer hand, a hand that would write a happier ending for those who lack the naked greed and blind ambition which has brought us to our present pass.

Badlands, you’ve got to live them every day,
Let the broken hearts stand, that’s the price you’ve got to pay.
Keep pushing till it’s understood
And these badlands start treating us good.

Badlands, Bruce Springsteen.

Anyway, enough. On July 14 last year, I and 50,000 others turned up at the National Stadium in Glasgow to see Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band in concert. The question I asked myself prior to him hitting the stage was this. Here was a man just a few months short of his sixtieth birthday. Could he still hack it?

Thinking thus, it was with no small degree of trepidation that I approached the concert at Hampden Park. In the end I really shouldn’t have worried. Three hours after Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band took to the stage on that summer evening they left it, cheered to the rafters. The man still rocks!

I’m just a prisoner of rock ‘n’ roll.

—Bruce Springsteen.

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Oct 26 2008

Life With You

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 16RCN @ 6:02 pm

by The Proclaimers

Like many people I have liked the Proclaimers for years. I really enjoy their love songs which have a Tom Leonard quality to them in terms of their ability to express profound emotions in the language of the working class. I was therefore really pleased to be given Life with you as a recent birthday present. Good to sing along to during my 40 minute drive to work I thought. And so it is – you find yourself drumming at the wheel while belting out the lyrics. This, however, is more than an album of memorable choruses. It is very angry, bitter, highly political and completely relevant.

Proclaimers album cover

Proclaimers album cover

In Recognition is a republican anthem for the 21st century as it viscerates the hypocrisy of those who buy into the honours system leaving no excuse open to those who, put the crown / before or after their name.

We could all name those so called champions of the working class who capitulate to patronage and monarchy and who leave us questioning their years of contribution to the labour movement when they eventually bend the knee to the crown for personal gain.

Celebrities too are singled out for scathing sarcasm when they take a gong for bravery upon the stage. The irony of their deed as they stand beside wounded squaddies is completely lost on them.

Blair has no hiding place as they demand an apology for the bloody carnage that is the war in Iraq. This theme is continued in The Long Haul which emphasises the consequences of the West’s current fight against evil empires which are now Islamic as opposed to those which were communist in the 20th century.

For me, by far the most refreshing tracks were those which hammered into religion in a way that was militantly secular. – New Religion and If there’s a god.

I love the clarity which expresses their disbelief that so many people will suspend their rational faculties in order to feel a sense of purpose through ridiculous nonsense. Give me a zip for the back of my head / I want to join in too sums up their contempt for those weakest seeds who need to find nourishment in the mystic and the supernatural.

Charlie and Craig are fearless in combining their popular art with the radical politics which is clearly so much a part of them. They throw in a great wee song about misogynist song lyrics which also shows their ability to stand against the ‘anything-goes’ liberal trend. They are confident enough, as they have always been, to dare to be different and not care if that is regarded as somehow homely and not hip. They are however far from playing it safe. Their lyrics are more dangerous than those of any gangsta’ rapper, who needs to call women bitches or whores.

They come through this album as really sound guys that you would want to have as your pals. They are sensitive men who are angry about huge issues. There is no narrow nationalism here. These are Scottish artists who are internationalists.

All this and sensitive love songs too. Whole wide world and Blood lying on snow are imbued with a sexy longing for physical and emotional fulfilment with someone you can love. And finally a cracking proclamation of love and commitment in Life with you. It hasn’ae been off my CD player for days. Windows down and giving it laldy – it makes going to work almost bearable.

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Sep 29 2007

Internationalist Spirit

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 15RCN @ 6:52 pm

Allan Armstrong reviews two albums, which address the world of migrant workers – dispossession and discrimination, longing and hope, oppression and resistance.

Road of Tears

Road of Tears

The Road of Tears

Battlefield Band, £9.50

Battlefield Band released their 26th album, The Road of Tears, last year. The theme is emigration and immigration. The album makes the link between the experience of the dispossessed from Scotland and Ireland, in the face of clearance and famine, and the plight of the world’s migrant workers today. The band’s line-up highlights Scotland’s multi-ethnic character, with the Scots, Alan Reid and Alistair White, the Irish, Sean O’Donnell and Jewish American, Mike Katz (Highland pipe player!)

The title track, written and sung by Alan Reid, sets the scene by focusing on the Highland Clearances, the Irish Famine and the Trail of Tears. This refers to the Cherokees’ march to Oklahoma, in 1838. They were forcibly, removed by US President Jackson, to the Indian Territories (Oklahoma). Four thousand, mainly women and children, died on the trail. The survivors sent money to the Irish Famine Relief Fund in 1847.

The album includes fine versions of two of Burns’ poems, sung by Alan Reid, The Slaves Lament and To A Mouse. Woody Guthrie’s Plane Wreck At Los Gatos is sung by Sean O’Donnell. Many will already know this song as Deportees from Christy Moore’s Spirit of Freedom album. Battlefield’s sleeve notes link the death of 28 illegal Mexican migrant workers in 1948 with the fate of the 18 cockle pickers who died in Morecambe Bay in 2004.

The first instrumental set includes the piece dedicated to Mr. Galloway Goes To Washington. This celebrates George Galloway’s triumph in the face of the US Senate sub-committee. There are another four instrumental sets which also show off Battlefield’s musical skills. The album finishes with The Green and The Blue, written and sung by Alan Reid, calling upon Irish migrants from Antrim and Fermanagh, arriving in Scotland to:-

Look onwards to Glasgow and all your tomorrows The future lies there, and its still waiting for you As the green crosses over to meet with the blue.

Its great to see that that some of Scotland’s leading musicians can fully live up to that Scottish internationalist spirit, so well demonstrated in Hamish Henderson’s Freedom Come All Ye.

La Radiolina

Manu Chau
Nacional Records

Manu Chau

Manu Chau

Manu Chao first came to international fame for his Clandestino album, which sold three million copies worldwide, putting it just behind Bueno Vista Social Club as the best-selling world-music album of all-time. Not a lot of people know that – well not in the English-speaking world that is. Hopefully, things will change here with the recent release of Manu’s third album, La Radiolina.

Manu grew up in Paris, because his Galician father and Basque mother had to escape from Franco’s fascist Spain. Manu’s current home base is the Catalan capital of Barcelona, but he spends a lot of time in Buenos Aires, another city with a strong oppositional culture. He also visits Bamako in Mali, a major centre of world music.

La Radiolina includes songs in French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and English. It has a much rockier feel compared to his first album. This is because he uses Radio Bemba Sound System for backing. ‘Radio Bemba’ is the word-of-mouth system used by the Cuban revolutionaries, led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, to communicate with each other in the forest of the Sierra Maestra.

When Manu recently toured the USA, he played to a 90,000 strong audience, at the Coachela Festival in California. They were waiting to hear their idols, Rage Against the Machine, but he won over the mainly non-Latin audience. His band performed with a banner draped across the stage – Immigrants are not Criminals. This followed the major protests organised mainly by Latin American immigrants, throughout the USA, on May Day, 2006.

The lyrics from one of Manu’s English-worded songs give an indication of Manu’s politics and highlight the reason why so many people are forced to emigrate worldwide. After verses about the appalling conditions in war-torn Zaire and Liberia, Manu finishes Rainin in Paradize with the following verse:-

In Bagdad
Its no democracy
That’s just because
It’s a US country!
In Fallouja
Too much calamity
This world go crazy
Its no fatality

Let’s get Manu’s new album up there to equal the sales of the justly famed Bueno Vista Social Club.

Battlefield Band
Battlefield Band (Wikipedia)
Manu Chau

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Sep 13 2005

Fight the Power

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 11RCN @ 1:57 pm

Alan Graham examines how politics and music link up

Looking back on the Make Poverty History march and the events surrounding it, it is hard to ignore the effect music had on the event. But how did it compare to other political/music events, and how political was the music? I will look at various bands and collaborations and the variety of ways they tried to spread their political message.

A small disclaimer: this is not a definitive list of bands or events. There are hundreds of artists, from a vast range of genres who could have been included here, but I will just touch on a few artists that I am most familiar with. Neither is it an endorsement of the politics of each of these artists. As there is a percentage of people in society who consider themselves socialists, so there are artists who consider themselves socialists. Some of these may not make politicised music. This article will merely look at the ways of using music to spread a political message, or as will hopefully become more clear, political messages.

System of a Down

System of a Down are a band made up of the descendants of refugees who fled from the Turkish genocide in Armenia. They put a couple of songs with strong political messages on each album as well as peppering political messages in songs as one-liners. An example of a political song would be P.L.U.C.K. about the genocide in Armenia. Other notable songs include Prison Song focusing on exposing the prison industrial complex and the role of the CIA in the Iran Contra affair.

  • Drug money is used to rig elections,
  • And train brutal corporate sponsored,
  • Dictators around the world

The other stand out track is Boom!, the video of which was directed by Michael Moore which tied together globalisation and the 4000 children who die every day from poverty in comparison with the billions spent on bombs to kill people… Creating death showers.

Their latest album, which came out after the start of the war in Iraq, begins by criticising the system which sends economic conscripts to die in wars … Why don’t presidents fight the war? Why do we always send the poor? They always send the poor.

Rage Against the Machine

One of the biggest and most widely recognised political bands of the 1990’s was without doubt Rage Against the Machine. Unlike System of A Down who spoke of politics in some songs, Rage discussed politics in almost every song they released.

As the various band-members described themselves as anarchists, communists or simply left wing, they provided not only criticisms of the existing capitalist system but also were deeply involved in campaigns to change the system – from Anti Nazi League benefit gigs in London, supporting sweatshop workers, campaign to free Mumia-Abu-Jamal and support for the Zapatistas.

They have taken part in everything from tokenistic protest, such as hanging the US flag upside down, to direct action, such as filming a video outside the New York Stock Exchange. This caused mayhem as fans turned up to an illegal public performance, resulting in the Stock Exchange being closed down for the rest of the day and the band members and Michael Moore, who directed, being arrested. You can see the arrest as part of the video.

Needless to say their outspoken left-wing views and ability and willingness to link up differing campaigns whilst pointing out the capitalist system as the problem led to defamation and attacks by the right wing media. For example, they were dubbed anti-Semites and terrorist supporters for supporting the struggle of the Palestinians.

Peace Not War

The two volumes of the Peace Not War compilations were organised by the Stop the War coalition around the Iraq war.

The first compilation, produced in the build up to the war, comprised of artists from throughout the world opposed to it. The songs were not just narrowly about the war, but linked various issues to it: imperialism, nuclear weaponry, US support for Bin Laden and the plight of asylum seekers in Britain are all featured.

The second compilation has a more angry feel than the first, probably due to artists outraged that the war had actually happened, even though millions had mobilised against it. Most of the artists here are from UK, USA and Australia, whether this was deliberate or whether artists in the countries whose leaders were the most supportive of the war were most moved to write anti-war songs is unexplained, but unimportant.

Like Compilation 1, this album also links campaigns and struggles throughout the world, as well as sampling speeches by Tariq Ali and Bill Hicks and using songs from demonstrations.

Some noteworthy examples are:

  • Faithless’ excellent Mass DestructionRacism is a Weapon of Mass Destruction, Greed is a Weapon of Mass Destruction.
  • Son of a Nuns Fight Back: We’re on a mission to widen the schisms of capitalism and replace it with a system that’s for the people, by the people, of the people, not the evil.

The CDs can be ordered and tracks download for free from Peace Not War , their next release will be Peace Not War Japan.

Rock Against Bush

Another movement using music as the focus of political activities has been Rock Against Bush, in association with Punkvoter, a movement which through stalls at concerts throughout the USA managed to get 2 million, mostly young people, registered to vote for the first time. Their two volumes comprise of a CD and a DVD with documentaries and music videos as well as political comedy sketches.

Public Enemy

Although the examples so far have been mainly rock artists, unsurprisingly hip hop has a number of political acts. Public Enemy were ground breaking in both the size and breadth of popularity. They suffered massive state and media attacks including an FBI report to congress Rap Music and Its Effects on National Security. One member, Professor Griff, caused controversy and was eventually ejected from the band after comparing the acknowledged Holocaust with the largely ignored slaughter during slavery. He also attacked Zionism leading to claims of anti-Semitism, some of which appear to be without merit but others not, leaving his position in the group untenable.

On stage they had a group of minders called S1W (Security of the First World) which were a throwback to the Black Panthers defence militias. Attempts to link up with past struggles was a main feature of the group. Around the time of the first war against Iraq they released a track called Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos, echoing the sentiments of many economic conscripts their view was clear:

  • I got a letter from the government the other day
  • I opened and read it
  • It said they were suckers
  • They wanted me for their army or whatever
  • Picture me giving a damn – I said never

After speaking out for the poor in Africa for years, a visit there had a profound effect on Chuck D (the main rapper and songwriter). In his autobiography, Fight the Power, he describes the shock they received as they toured. One positive outcome was their realisation that not many people had access to electricity, to which they organised the donation of hundreds of thousands of clockwork radios and tapes allowing thousands to have access to radio for the first time, and to spread their powerful lyrics to new audiences.

One of the most moving sections of the autobiography is the description of visiting the Castle of Elmina where slaves were kept before transportation. The description of the conditions in this dungeon, as well as the 2 foot of hardened bone and flesh which covered the whole floor, helped to inspire the 1994 song Hitler Day which was hugely controversial.

This song started:

  • 500 years ago one man claimed to have discovered a new world
  • five centuries later we the people are forced to celebrate a black holocaust
  • how can you call a takeover a discovery?

Not surprisingly the song caused the American media to hit out. Chuck D defended the song claiming that there would be outrage if someone wanted to celebrate a Hitler Day for what he did for Germany. As Hitler represented death, torture and destruction, so Chuck D felt that is what Columbus Day represented to Native Americans and African Americans. Its other inspiration was that, at that time, the US state of Arizona still did not recognise Martin Luther King day.

Although they have not been working on music much lately, Chuck D has been active in promoting the use of file sharing and fighting copyright to encourage not only free downloading of music but the freedom for artists to sample sounds and other music for their own work.

Tupac Shakur

This year, 9 years after his murder, Tupac had another number one single in the UKGhetto Gospel: a song about poverty in American ghettos. The majority of his work, over the years, has dealt with this subject – from single mothers and his own life story, to trying to understand and confront the dead end outlets taken by many young black males – drug abuse and gang warfare.

Of all the artists using their work to discuss politics, he stands out as one of the greatest. However flawed his analysis, he portrays the system which created the poverty he lived in and despised so much.To understand why his music was so popular and why some of his analysis was wrong it is essential to put his music into context. Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, had been a Black Panther, a member of the Panther 21 group. While she was pregnant with Tupac, she was on remand for allegedly planning terrorist attacks against the state. His aunt Assata had escaped from prison and found exile in Cuba and his godfather, Geronimo Pratt, was a leading Panther and a political prisoner. Tupac campaigned for his freedom, both in his music and at grass roots level. Pratt was only released from prison after Tupac’s death.

Tupac claimed to have been followed and harassed by FBI agents from the age of 9, due to his politically active family and friends. At 17, he already had ideas of changes to the school system which would actually benefit the poor in America, and would also expose and question the nature of society:

There should be a class on drugs, there should be a class of sex education, a real sex education class, not just pictures and diagrams and illogical terms…There should be a class on scams. There should be a class on religious cults. There should be a class on police brutality. There should be a class on apartheid. There should be a class on racism in America. There should be a class on why people are hungry.

On his first release 2Pacalypse Now, the track Words of Wisdom was by far the most political, the majority of it comprising of a tirade against capitalism and the American state, but also promoted militancy:

  • Pledge allegiance to a flag that neglects us
  • Honour a man that refuses to respect us …
  • I charge you with robbery for robbing me of my history
  • I charge you with false imprisonment for keeping me
  • trapped in the projects
  • And the jury finds you guilty on all counts
Tupac: social commentator

Tupac: social commentator

On the angst-titled I Don’t Give a Fuck, he, like Chuck D, is angry about the Iraq war, And now they [are] trying to ship me off to Kuwait, Gimme a break the song ends in a vitriolic rant against the San Francisco and Marin County Police Departments, the FBI, the CIA, George Bush and AmeriKKKa a phrase which was so used by other artists and protesters it has become cliché.

The album also contained his landmark social commentary songs – Brenda’s Got a Baby – about a young girl who is the victim of sexual abuse who ends up turning to prostitution and crack cocaine abuse, and Trapped about the prison system and its effects on society. Topics most artists dare not cover, and this was a 19 year old’s début album.

Even from this time, he was interested in doing more than releasing songs about poverty, he wanted to change society. One naïve attempt was the creation of the Code of the Thug Life which tried to reduce gang warfare.

Less naively, once he had become famous he wanted to use his influence and respect from other rap artists to sponsor community centres in every ghetto.

Unsurprisingly his youthful enthusiasm, promotion of militant activism and ability to formulate ideas to give immediate improvements to the lives of the poorest workers in American quickly gained the attention of the state and he had a number of run-ins with police. In 1993, after the Rodney King beating, Shakur came across two off-duty police officers who were harassing a black motorist on the side of the road in Atlanta. Shakur got into a fight with them and shot both officers (one in the leg, one in the buttocks). He faced serious charges until it was discovered that both officers were intoxicated and were using stolen weapons. The charges against Shakur were dismissed. What followed was systematic harassment against him. This included arrest for jaywalking and a 4.5 year prison sentence for sexual assault, which he consistently denied.

Whilst in prison he studied politics and history. When released these run-ins with the law inspired him to take an even more militant stance in his view of the police, state and media as well as engage in grass roots activity like rallies to free all political prisoners as well as campaigns to encourage poor African Americans to register to vote.

Although the only album released between his release and his murder was his least political, his vast archive of posthumously released tracks contained many other songs about poverty and politics.

He also fought against some of the more reactionary claims in hip hop, that the vast majority of blacks are impoverished because of white men. In White Man’s World he parodies this view and ending: It ain’t them that’s killing us, it’s us that’s killing us.

In interviews of this period, he spoke of his new vision to improve society. As well as community centres in every ghetto, he promoted baseball teams sponsored by rappers. This served a duel purpose, firstly to encourage poor kids from the ghetto to get involved in sport as a way to stop them being involved in gangs and drug abuse. Secondly to heal the wound from the media invented ‘Rap War’, which, in reality, was a verbal polemic between a small number of artists, glamorised and exaggerated by the media as a way to attack and denigrate people who were role models to some of the most impoverished teens in America. Focusing on these battle tracks also diverted attention away from the positive initiatives some of these artists were involved in, as well as the songs dealing with subject matter the media ignored.

Sorting out Africa and global poverty!

Sorting out Africa and global poverty!

Live 8 in comparison

This is a long introduction for a rather short analysis of the musical events surrounding the anti-G8 protests but hopefully it has given a flavour of the mix of politics and music. The biggest factor to consider is the ability of these artists to speak, not only of politics and dissect society, but more importantly to link these struggles up with others:

Rage Against the Machine on Spanish imperialism, the Zapatistas and Globalisation; Public Enemy on slavery and intellectual property; Tupac speaking about political prisoners, drug abuse and prostitution.

This is what separates these political activists from the dirge of Live 8. The majority of the artists participating in Live 8 (U2 and Green Day being the main exceptions) had no history of political activism. What they had in common was they were famous and popular – therefore people would watch them rather than listen to speeches by political activists. This also attracted media attention. Where there was any political discussion to be had by artists at Live 8, it consisted of sloganeering – 250,000 people here – fantastic, great; more aid, fairer trade, buy a white band and that will stop the G8!

Geldof had the dubious honour to be appointed to Blair’s Commission for Africa. It is staffed with New Labour puppets who then lobbied the New Labour government for minor reforms, got some of them and could then claim the G8 had got 8/10 and 10/10. While the government lobbied itself for change, the media’s attention was on scaremongering over anarchist plots. Although it seemed to be the police planning all the trouble – harassing and lying to those travelling to Gleneagles, keeping them trapped for hours to frustrate them and re-routing the march to allow a massive target of a tiny fence between the protesters and the Hotel.

The solution presented by Geldof and his cohorts was for the G8 in their almighty benevolence to cancel some aid and allow an increase in the move towards globalisation of capitalism through the opening up of markets. And if Blair didn’t listen to your voice then you should just withhold your vote from him in 4 years time! This is assuming the majority of the 250,000 who were over 18 and were so concerned with poverty in Africa would have actually given a lying war criminal, partly responsible for this suffering, their vote in the first place.

The widest chasm between the political activism of the artists mentioned earlier and Live 8 was the complete lack of any link to other movements or issues. Anti war speakers were banned from the main stage and the Stop the War Coalition had to set up a separate stage to allow that issue to be heard at the Make Poverty History demonstration in Edinburgh. What chance would a speaker from Palestine or Iraq have had, never mind those fighting against privatisation schemes here, whilst government-funded, right wing think tanks are trying to force these schemes on the poorest in Africa.

For me, the Live 8 event was politically vacuous and a striking example of what happens when celebrities with media and state support jump onto a movement and take over the agenda and stifle any other relevant issues. When I first got interested in the G8 protests there were grass roots mobilisations against it.The office bearers were publicly known and accountable. Make Poverty History grew out of this, but was less accountable. Then came Live 8 who, out of nowhere, arrived a month before the events and organised a series of concerts which completely dominated and diverted media attention and focus of the anti-G8 protests, undermining the real agenda.

Alan Graham


Dyson, Michael Eric, 2001, Holler if you hear me

Hoye, Jacob, 2003, Tupac: Resurrection 1971-1996.

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