Socialist Worker

Sounds of war in music world

by Martin Smith
Issue No. 1773

A virtual who's who of the music industry took to the stage last week at Madison Square Gardens and other venues across New York. They came together to raise money for the victims of the 11 September tragedy. This was no moving tribute. It was a carnival of reaction.

Bon Jovi's choice of song was 'Dead or Alive', and James Brown, the man who once sang 'Say it Loud-I'm Black and I'm Proud', now sang 'God Bless America'. Punctuating each set were chants of 'USA!' from the audience.

When actor Richard Gere made even the tamest criticism of the US bombing of Afghanistan he was booed off the stage. And the spectre of Paul McCartney singing, 'I will fight for the right to live in freedom,' would have made John Lennon turn in his grave.

No one can doubt that music is now being used as part of Bush's propaganda war. We are also witnessing a massive increase in music censorship in the US. Clear Channel Communication, the US radio watchdog, has banned all music by political metal band Rage Against the Machine. Over 1,500 radio stations have complied with this instruction.

The CIA went even further, closing down the Rage Against the Machine website. Hip-hop has also suffered under the censor's hand. Rap artists like Mos Def, Common, Talib Kweli and KRS-One have been barred from being interviewed on the radio-all four have spoken out against the war.

One radio head issued the following internal communique: 'So far the average US citizen has no idea what Mos Def thinks about our war on terrorism-let's keep it that way.'

More mainstream musicians who have been even mildly critical about the way Bush has conducted the war have come under massive pressure to retract their statements. Moby retracted his comment that the people of New York had been 'failed' by the FBI and CIA. Kevin Richardson, of boyband Backstreet Boys, was forced to apologise for saying, 'What has our government done to provoke this action that we don't know about?'

But there are musicians who are refusing to buckle under this censorship, and some are even speaking out against this brutal war. Numerous bands have played benefit concerts for peace or spoken on anti-war platforms, the most famous being Spearhead, John Pandit (from Asian Dub Foundation) and KRS-One.

Rage Against the Machine, Mos Def, Primal Scream and countless others are challenging the state censorship now taking place. Next week a new charity single for the victims of the New York tragedy will be released by dozens of black artists. The song they have chosen is Marvin Gaye's classic anti Vietnam War song 'What's Going On'.

Some of the lyrics have been adapted. The result is that much of the song's meaning has become ambiguous. By and large the song is a cry for help and a desperate plea for someone to explain why anyone would want to commit such an atrocity.

But the song's key refrain-'War is not the answer'-still remains. This gives some idea of the growing unease with Bush's war aims. 'What's Going On' is a worthy record-but at a time like this just asking questions is not enough.

The world's most powerful nation is waging war on one of the poorest, and our civil liberties are under attack. We need something with a more powerful message. Thankfully there are bands like Rage and Spearhead speaking out clearly against the barbarism being committed in our names.

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Sat 3 Nov 2001, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1773
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