Rock, Humanitarian Causes, Political Commitment and Islam
by Ibn Warraq & Raphael Ismail
From New English Review, August 2008.
The present essay is a modest preliminary survey without theoretical assumptions and even fewer grand conclusions of Western rock groups that are politically and socially committed. We were particularly interested in bands or individuals that showed any awareness of the implications of 11 September, 2001. We found only one unequivocal song that dared to examine the consequences of 9/11. However, there are probably many more, and we confess our ignorance, and hope that readers will furnish more examples so that a fuller account can one day be written.
The present essay is part one of a two-part survey. The second part will discuss Mark LeVine’s Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam, and the Iranian Rap groups living in the West which attack the Mullahs in power in Iran in violent lyrics.
1. ROCK AND HUMANITARIAN CAUSES
American Idol, the Fox channel show and contest, raised seventy five million dollars for charity last year, and intends to raise nearly $100 million this year. Rock stars have been involved in raising money for worthy causes since the 1970s- the most memorable occasion was The Concert for Bangladesh, when George Harrison, Ravi Shankar, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and others took to the stage at Madison Square Gardens, New York in August 1971. The Concert raised much money for UNICEF, and raised awareness for the organization around the world. As the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said more recently, “George and his friends were pioneers.”
Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, wrote “We Are the World” in 1985, and it was recorded in April of that year by a supergroup of popular musicians billed as USA for Africa. The charity single raised funds to help famine-relief efforts in drought-struck Ethiopia.
The next major concert with similar humanitarian concerns was Live Aid, organized by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, to raise funds for famine relief in Ethiopia. The multi-venue rock music concert was held on July 13, 1985. An estimated 1.5 billion viewers round the world watched the live broadcast via satellite link-ups of some of the most famous names in rock music; the main sites for the event being Wembley Stadium, England, and the JFK Stadium in Philadelphia. We are not concerned with arguments about whether the money raised by these concerts ever gets to the intended beneficiaries. We are more concerned to illustrate the fact that rock stars – whatever their motives: cynical or sincere, sentimental or calculated – are willing to lend their name to what they consider to be humanitarian causes, which seem on the whole to be politically neutral, and do not require any rigorous soul searching for them to lend a hand.
2. ROCK AND POLITICS
Recently in the letters pages of National Review [March 10, 2008], George Jochnowitz, in response to an article by Jay Nordlinger on the New York Philharmonic’s trip to North Korea, made the claim that “music has always been a threat to dictatorships. Plato, the grandfather of totalitarianism would not have tolerated the manufacture of the flute or other instruments ‘capable of modulation into all the modes’. He feared the power of music, as did Ayatollah Khomeini, as did Chairman Mao, who prohibited most music and theater, blessing only the eight revolutionary operas selected by his wife, Jiang Qing. I was teaching at Hebei University in Beijing, China, during the Beijing Spring. On May 18, 1989, the students took over the campus loudspeakers. What did they play? Beethoven.”
To which Jay Nordlinger sensibly replied “…I’d be cautious about laying down rules- for example about music and dicatatorships. Hitler and music got along pretty well, unfortunately.” Several famous musicians, and composers were accused of collaborating with the Nazis, for example Carl Orff and Herbert von Karajan, and the Nazi hierarchy consisted of highly sophisticated connoisseurs of classical music, not to mention paintings, and literature.
The group MC5 was politically engaged, much influenced by Fred Hampton and the Black Panther party. However the group folded after 1972. Many punk bands were politically anarchist, and anti-authoritarian, for example, The Dead Kennedys criticized the religious right and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
Rage Against the Machine is the most politically active group of the last ten years. Their support for the Mexican Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) is well-known, as is their hatred of Bush and Cheney. The band’s rapper, Zack de la Rocha, is on record as saying:
But are there any groups or individual singers who, first, realize the implications of stealth jihad, al-Qaeda, Islamic terrorism, and, second, have had the courage to speak up or sing about the dangerous consequences of the Islamization of the West? The answer is depressing: ONLY one group, Stuck Mojo, has had enough political awareness to warn us of the dangers of Islamism. It is true that Bono is not only committed to humanitarian causes but had the courage to take a stance on the Rushdie Affair. He invited Salman Rushdie on stage during a U2 concert on August 11, 1993 in Wembley Stadium, London. Rushdie told Bono who was dressed as the devil that “real devils don’t wear horns.” However, we do not believe Bono has pronounced anything on Islam since 11 September.
The rest are too busy attacking Bush, Christianity, the United States, Capitalism, Globalization and the West generally, in other words, ironically, castigating the very culture that keeps them well-fed, well-clothed, and allows them the poetic license and freedom of expression to say whatever they want, true or false, with impunity. Are they even aware that they are in danger of losing the very freedoms they take for granted, and that they would be the first casualties in the cultural clampdown that would ensue were the Islamists ever to have their say?
The band Stuck Mojo, a rap metal group from Atlanta Georgia, has a complicated history but Rich Ward, the guitarist, is the one stable element and continuing thread. It was formed in 1989 by Rich Ward and bassist Dwayne Fowler, and continues to this day though with different members from the early years.
Their album Southern Born Killers released in 2007 (reissued in 2008 on Napalm Records) contains two songs that are of interest for our purposes, “I’m American” and “Open Season.” The track I’m American shows a remarkable awareness of the strengths of American civilization, and an appreciation of all those who gave their lives for the freedoms they enjoy today-“This land of the free and the home of the brave, Populated by ancestors of immigrants and saves who met early graves So we could see brighter days…”. Sure there is racial discrimination but is it any better elsewhere? And, above all, we do have freedom of expression, and an embarrassment of choices and opportunities, “But we’ve got free speech so I won’t be quiet, We got a lot of problems here man I won’t deny it, But ain’t another place that I’d rather be, Than in this land of great opportunity, Where we can be anything that we wanna be, So until the day I D-I-E, I stand tall as an American.”
The track Open Season is no less remarkable in its political realism. The clip accompanying the song has images of the Twin Towers burning on 11 September. The lyrics, instead of singing the usual vapid mantras of peace, tell us that if “they” declare war then we shall have to reply in kind. “They” should stop pretending that theirs is a religion of peace, “Claiming that you’re a religion of peace, We just don’t believe you, We can clearly see through, The madness that you’re feeding your people, Jihad the cry of your unholy war, Using the willing, the weak and poor, From birth drowning in propaganda, rhetoric and slander…”. We do not need your blind faith that is stuck deep in the seventh century, and which has killed many innocent people. Don’t mess with us but if you want a fight we are ready.
The lyrics of Sacrificed Sons written by James LaBrie of the progressive rock band Dream Theater are an anguished take on the tragedy of 11 September, 2001, and they seem to show awareness that the acts of that fateful Tuesday were “faith inspired”, and no-one needs reminding which faith.
Walls are closing
Smoke and fire
Planes we’re certain
France has had its share of rock concerts dedicated to humanitarian concerns, like those in support of Armenia and Ethiopia. Equally, there was a wave of French punk bands in 1980s and 1990s whose main concern was to combat the fascism of the National Front of Jean-Marie Lepen. Many of the groups were made up of children of parents of North African origins.
Dashiell Hedayat is an avant-garde musician, having worked with the psychedelic rock group Gong on the album Obsolete, which features an appearance by William Burroughs; novelist, essayist, and translator of the works of Bob Dylan, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Leonard Cohen into French. He has written two works under the pseudonym Jack-Alain Léger confronting Islam, Tartuffe fait ramadan , and A contre Coran , the latter title a pun on the French expression “contre-courant,” meaning “counter-current,” or “against the fashion.”
A contre Coran is at once an old-fashioned – in the best sense of the word – work of freethought, and a robust defense of democracy and human rights in face of the intolerance preached by the Koran; “No tolerance for the intolerant,” he writes on page 48. It is also a brave, politically incorrect, book daring to criticize Islam, and the Koran, and the Islamization of France. He is certainly not afraid to read the Koran for himself and find verses in it that he considers “abominable, which revolt all civilized people and which go against all our values of justice, and respect, and simple human sentiments” [p.96]. He also criticizes Catholics for apologizing for the intolerance and obscurantism of the Muslims [p.116]. As for the Koran, Léger writes, “And do we have the right to say that the Koran is also a book of hatred? Yes. A book whose verses dubbed “rants” or “fulminations” are so many incitements to hatred, …racial hatred. A book which were it not sacred would have been banned under the Gayssot Law which forbids written expressions of racism and anti-Semitism…. However I am against all censorship.” [p.149]