The “pop-washing” of apartheid? Veolia sponsors “green” music festival

Occupation-profiteering corporate giant is sponsoring a “green” music festival in the US city of Milwaukee.

First came the news that Lollapalooza, one of the world’s biggest and best-known alternative music festivals, was headed to Israel next year. And with it, producer Perry Farrell is likely bringing millions in revenue, not to mention a massive boon in cultural cache designed to portray the world’s last legal apartheid state as a bastion of diversity. 

Those who haven’t read Benjamin Doherty’s in-depth post on The Electronic Intifada’s blog absolutely should. Doherty is thorough in not just describing how virulent the supposedly liberal Farrell’s Zionism is (he raised funds for soldiers during Operation Cast Lead for example) but also in revealing that next year’s Lolla Israel will literally sit atop the ruins of a Palestinian village.

Now, however, one has to wonder whether there isn’t something larger at play. Last week, advertisements went up around Chicago stumping for the “Rock the Green” festival in nearby Milwaukee. Presented as a “green music fest,” Rock the Green front-loads its rhetoric about environmental sustainability. Its commitment to “near-zero waste” is touted, and interviews with its headlining artists (including Third Eye Blind, Switchfoot and others) all feature their thoughts on what it means to be green.

Just as up front in the publicity for Rock the Green is its primary sponsor and financial backer: Veolia Environmental Services.

Veolia’s record contradicts “socially responsible” image

Veolia is a name infamous among Palestine solidarity activists, and the French company’s role in Israel’s regime of occupation and apartheid is a far cry from the “socially responsible” image they attempt to promote with events like Rock the Green.

In an effort to see how the organizers might excuse this glaring contradiction, I emailed the following inquiry via the festival’s website:


My name is Alexander Billet; I’m a freelance journalist and social activist in Chicago. I’m wondering if I might be able to get some information and/or a response from some of the organizers or publicists about Rock the Green’s connections with Veolia Environmental Services.

As you may know, Veolia is in charge of constructing a transit system in Jerusalem that solidifies illegal settlements in the West Bank. These settlements are literally built on top of the wreckage of recently evicted homes of Palestinians. It’s this that’s led the UN to condemn the tramway in 2010, calling it “in clear violation of international law.”

What’s more, despite Veolia’s environmentally responsible image, its waste in Israel is summarily dumped in a rather un-green way in the Jordan Valley. The Tovlan Landfill, as it’s known, collects 200,000 tons of trash from Israel and the settlements annually, and thus far there has been no plan to establish any infrastructure to prevent ground pollution. A nearby Arab village, Abu Ajaj, has been left ‘virtually uninhabitable.’

I am not looking to barrage Rock the Green’s organizers here, but do, as a journalist, want to know how it is that the festival squares its socially responsible practices while doing business with a company recognized by the UN as guilty of human rights abuses and environmental degradation.

If someone from Rock the Green may respond to this in a prompt manner, I would appreciate it.

Thank you,

Alexander Billet

At the time of this writing, nobody has responded, which isn’t really surprising. 

Music festivals are surefire ways for corporate sponsors to burnish their image. Over the past thirty years they’ve gone from being a relatively independent venture (sometimes with small local businesses as sponsors) to being backed by some of the largest companies in the world. 

It would be wrong to simply say that all these companies get out of music festival sponsorship is a large cut of extra cash, though they certainly get that. Rather, what these companies really get is something that money can’t really buy: cultural caché. Massive institutions like Veolia, Nike, even the US Army get into the festival business for largely the same reason that they spend so much on advertising — to make capitalism, with all its ugly and oppressive contradictions, look cool.

After all, how could the US Army, who provide the rad rock-climbing wall at the Warped Tour, also be responsible for war crimes? How could Nike, who sponsor the Afro-Punk festival for crying out loud, also be guilty of sweatshop labor? Answering these question means digging through a pile of bullshit — but undeniably well-crafted bullshit. Bullshit that certainly plays a role in obscuring some very real crimes that otherwise might get in the way of profits.

That’s what Israel gets out of Lollapalooza, and it’s what Veolia gets out of Rock the Green.

Time to boycott whitewashing music festivals

What both examples force to the front, however, is whether it is now time for cultural activists to call for a boycott of certain music festivals. For sure, Israel itself hosts several music fests of various genres, all of which have rightfully been the target of boycott campaigns — and some with real success.

However, Rock the Green is the first time — at least in this writer’s memory — that a company connected with Israeli apartheid has so obviously placed themselves at the center of a music festival outside the 1948 borders. It is also worth recalling that Lollapalooza in Chicago will still be happening, and if all goes well in Israel, then the two festivals will likely be spoken of in the same breath for some time to come. 

Whether Rock the Green and the recent Lolla announcement represent anything like a “trend” for Israel or companies that do business with it is too soon to say. It would make sense, however.

The deep and seemingly never-ending slump in global capitalism certainly puts extra pressure on every corporation to appear “responsible” or “hip.” Likewise, the need for Israel to ramp up the hasbara has been clear given the country’s precipitous decline in credibility over the past several years. Several Israeli officials have said as much, pointing to culture’s unique role in promoting a better image for the state.

In some ways, Veolia encapsulates both of these processes. Public pressure and targeted “drop Veolia” campaigns have taken root in cities across the world, particularly in Europe. Several local and city governments have refused to carry through contracts with Veolia due to local boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign efforts. 

According to The Electronic Intifada’s Nora Barrows-Friedman, the company “has lost tens of millions of dollars in the last year due to concentrated efforts by BDS groups in Europe.” This is definitely a firm that could benefit from a bit of an image boost abroad.

BDS activists, however, should be taking these efforts and throwing them right back in Veolia’s face — and, for that matter, Israel’s. Acts that are playing at Rock the Green need be made aware of their festival’s ties to gross human rights violations. They need to be reminded that apartheid never deserves to be green-washed, or entertained. To be sure, acts have cancelled their Tel Aviv dates with far less notice after being approached by the movement. Perhaps the Milwaukee festival itself should be picketed by BDS activists.

As for Lollapalooza, perhaps it goes without saying that both its incarnations need to be boycotted too. This is a tall order for BDS activists to take on, but given the massive amount of clout that Lolla carries in the music world, it also presents an opportunity to bring cultural boycott efforts to a whole new level.


Alexander Billet

Alexander Billet's picture

Alexander Billet is a music journalist and solidarity activist based in Chicago. He is on the editorial board of Red Wedge magazine, and his articles have also appeared in The Electronic Intifada, Jacobin,, New Politics and other publications. He is one of the founding members of Punks Against Apartheid, who successfully campaigned in the summer of 2011 for the Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra to cancel his concert in Tel Aviv.

A full collection of his articles can be found at his website Rebel Frequencies, and he can be reached at