“If Elvis-fucking-Costello wants to pull out of a gig in Israel because he’s suddenly got this compassion for Palestinians then good on him. But I have absolutely one rule, right? Until I see an Arab country, a Muslim country, with a democracy, I won’t understand how anyone can have a problem with how they’re treated.”
These words weren’t spoken by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. They didn’t crawl from the bile of AIPAC, Newt Gingrich or some hardened, right-wing ideologue from the heart of the Israel’s illegal settlements. They came from the mouth of John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols.
Most devotees of punk rock stopped taking Lydon seriously well before he started shilling for Country Life butter. To be sure, any and all credibility he once had from his work with the Pistols, or, for that matter, later on with Public Image Ltd (PiL), flew out the window years ago.
It’s also true that the Pistols idiotically paraded around in swastikas during their early years. Still, even taken with that grain of salt, Lydon’s words are profoundly troubling. Like it or not, the former Rotten is considered a granddaddy of punk rock. It’s not far fetched to imagine someone reading his words and thinking his flagrant racism, his willful defense of an apartheid state, are somehow the punk norm. It’s for this reason that Punks Against Apartheid exists.
In the summer of 2011, Punks Against Apartheid came together as an ad hoc formation of BDS activists and punk fans (a formation that, in the interest of full-disclosure, includes this writer). The goal was initially modest: draft a letter and petition urging Jello Biafra, formerly of The Dead Kennedys, to cancel his gig in Tel Aviv with his band The Guantanamo School of Medicine.
The response was overwhelming: within four days, Punks Against Apartheid’s petition had more than 500 signatures (“Sign the petition: Tell Jello Biafra to cancel the gig in Tel Aviv,” 16 June 2011).
As pressure built and Biafra publicly reaffirmed his commitment to the show, he specifically called out Punks Against Apartheid. However, a few days after that, with the petition bearing more than a thousand signatories, Biafra canceled the gig (“Jello Biafra cancels Tel Aviv gig,” 29 June 2011).
Furthermore, many of those who had supported us were urging Punks Against Apartheid to continue as a formal network.
Now, Punks Against Apartheid has finally launched its official website: www.punksagainstapartheid.com. Of course, the group doesn’t exist in isolation. The global movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions is at a crucial international turning point. With the Arab revolutions and the anti-capitalist Occupy movement in close to 100 countries inspiring a new generation of rebel musicians, there may be no better time for Punks Against Apartheid to announce its formal presence.
“Racism Ain’t Punk”
Punks Against Apartheid follows a firm tradition of anti-racism within the punk movement. This encompasses punk rockers’ early embrace of reggae, the formation of Rock Against Racism and the Two Tone movement, the music of the Clash and Bad Brains, X-Ray Spex and MDC, Subhumans and The Specials.
There’s more than a little romance to the idea that all of this came out fully formed somehow. On the contrary, it had to be fought for both in the concert halls and on the streets. In both the US and the UK, open white supremacists vied for support within the punk movement during these early years. In a climate of economic crisis and harsh anti-immigrant scapegoating, the angry wail of punk was initially just as liable to trail into some dangerously dark territory. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)
And just like today, there was an international dimension that was difficult to ignore. Punk groups like National Wake from Johannesburg, South Africa were shut down and prevented from playing just like Black Flag in Los Angeles — though in the former’s case it was usually due to it being an integrated band in an apartheid state. The pleas from Nazi boneheads like the UK’s National Front or the American National Socialist Party to “support white South Africa” obviously had the effect of dividing the global punk community rather than uniting it.
No surprise then that the anti-racist side also embraced the worldwide movement against South African apartheid. David Widgery, one of the founders of Rock Against Racism, recalled in his book Beating Time that South Africa was a key part of Rock Against Racism’s message. Its publication, Temporary Hoarding, featured pictures of the Soweto uprisings on its cover. The same issue made a case that, as Widgery put it “our little Hitlers had their big brothers in power in South Africa.” The Specials, with their infectious blend of ska and punk energy, were particularly moved to support the anti-apartheid movement — most famously and obviously in “Free Nelson Mandela.”
When Steven Van Zandt, a guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, formed Artists United Against Apartheid and declared “I ain’t gonna play Sun City,” Joey Ramone and The Dead Boys’ Stiv Bators were among those who recorded the single. Countless other punk acts heeded that same call and pointedly refused invitations to perform in South Africa — including The Dead Kennedys and Public Image Ltd.
The parallels between apartheid South Africa and modern-day Israel have been laid out again and again. Areas designated “off limits” to Arabs and Palestinians, systematic denial of basic rights. Forced removals, refugee camps and checkpoints. Random raids of homes and violent repression of anything smacking of resistance. Though it’s been almost twenty years since white rule was abolished in South Africa, its ancestor is alive and well in a similar colonial settler state.
Of course, punk rock hasn’t gone anywhere either. For every sugary corporate Green Day ripoff willing to cross the Palestinian people’s international picket line (I’m looking in your direction, Simple Plan), there are untold numbers of young folks forming their own bands, their own labels and own fanzines because they believe punk stands for something. It’s these people that Punks Against Apartheid seeks to reach.
And believe it or not, despite the stubbornly persistent notion that punk remains a white boy thing, many of these punks are those most under the gun of American racism, a racism that has become more pronounced since 11 September 2001.
“Being a punk and being a Muslim-American to me go hand in hand,” says activist and writer Tanzila Ahmed. “They are both about standing up to the man. They are about believing what you believe with your whole gut and soul … It’s about being marginalized and fighting to reclaim your voice.”
Ahmed, or “Taz,” as she is known, is one of many participants in the burgeoning Taqwacore scene: Muslim punks. It’s a sub-culture that is currently taking its rightful place next to riot grrl and Afro-punk in the ever expanding horizons of a diverse punk scene.
In an interview with The Electronic Intifada, Taz also insisted that her identity as a Muslim punk is a big reason she supports BDS: “The US government is largely why Israel feels empowered to bully the way it has … It’s all about political power, and at this point of history hate speech against Muslims is the tactic and Muslim-Americans are the pawns. I absolutely believe that the lack of support for Palestine is the sacrifice politicians are making to stay in power and to win votes.”
Bigger than Jello
Thirty years ago it was open fascists emboldened by a political establishment who turned the other cheek. Now it’s white nationalists milling around the ranks of the Tea Party and the “Stop Islamization” crowd. Back then they pointed at jobs and services “stolen” by black people and higher crime rates in the inner-city. Today they shriek about Arabs and Muslims conspiring to impose sharia law via downtown mosques.
Back then, both gutter racists and establishment politicians alike looked to South Africa as a bulwark against the invading brown hordes. Today, it’s Israel. Global empire doesn’t care about apartheid. On the contrary, without divide-and-conquer, it probably wouldn’t survive.
As always, the fight is international. Amplifying the shouts of those shoved to society’s margins doesn’t end at national borders. Perhaps that’s why the original Punks Against Apartheid petition included signatories from all over the world — London, Beirut, Chicago, Istanbul, Paris and beyond.
It’s also perhaps why a glimpse of those who have signed on to Punks Against Apartheid’s “points of unity” so far will reveal a diverse swathe: “Spirit of ‘77” originators The Angelic Upstarts, anarcho-punk architects Oi Polloi and the Oppressed, riot-folk singer Mark Gunnery, radical torch-bearers Propagandhi and more.
Of course, Punks Against Apartheid is tapping into something much bigger than any list or artists, bigger than Jello Biafra, John Lydon, or even “Elvis-fucking-Costello.” Punk rock’s legacy, twisted and contradictory though it may be, had to be fought for and can still mean something to a new generation. Ultimately, it’s about solidarity. If the world’s most marginalized are ever going to take back what’s theirs, then this is one value that has to remain at our very core. Time to show the world that punk is a lot more powerful than any divisions — real or imagined — ever could be.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist based in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies and has contributed to The Electronic Intifada, TheNation.com, Z Magazine, International Socialist Review and SOCIARTS.com. He is a founding member of Punks Against Apartheid and has been active in various anti-war, anti-racist and economic justice movements. He can be reached at rebelfrequencies [at] gmail [dot] com.