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PACBI-On Music, Politics and Ethical Responsibility


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3 October 2012

On Music, Politics and Ethical Responsibility

Earlier in September, in the lead up to a performance by the Red Hot Chili Peppers in apartheid Israel, a worldwide campaign calling on them to cancel their show gathered steam.  Over the last several months, our South African, Lebanese, Indian, American, Israeli, and Italian partners, among others, had all written letters to RHCP, and a petition was set up that garnered over 7500 signatures [1], a first of its kind. 
 
In Lebanon, days before their show, the famous band, Mashrou3 Leila, announced that it would be opening for RHCP and a huge online debate spurred about the ethics of such a show in light of RHCP performing in Israel a few days later.  One of the most salient arguments used against those who were calling for Mashrou3 Leila to cancel, as well as against those calling on RHCP to boycott Israel, was that music should be separate from politics, indeed “above” politics.  This argument is based on various taken-for-granted claims, the most frequently repeated of which are: Music has nothing to do with politics; music should build bridges and peace not fall prey to conflict; music is about bringing smiles and human compassion to an audience; and a musical performance is not a political act.  All artists who have crossed the cultural boycott “picket line,” whether in the South African or Palestinian context, have resorted to a similar logic to justify their acts of complicity. Let us consider why in the context of Israel’s colonialism, occupation and apartheid the notion that music and art are above politics rings hollow.
 
Since its inception Israel has taken great pains to destroy or inhibit the development of Palestinian culture and to target Palestinians who chose cultural production as their method of resistance.  For decades, Israeli leaders routinely proclaimed that Palestine didn't exist as a nation, and Israeli authorities and complicit institutions attempted to destroy or confiscate indigenous Palestinian culture, heritage, tradition, history and identity, if not explicitly then through convoluted schemes and arbitrary laws.  For example, flight attendants on board Israel's airlines El-Al were issued Palestinian embroidered costumes; the golden Dome of the Rock was prominently featured on Israeli travel brochures; hummus and falafel were served as traditional “Israeli cuisine;” a myriad of Arab and Palestinian slang expressions entered the Israeli lexicon and the colours of the Palestinian flag were banned in any shape, form or combination, even on paintings. Any assertion of Palestinian identity was punished.  Efforts by a leading Palestinian dance company, El-Funoun, to portray the roots of traditional Arab-Palestinian dance and song were considered a dangerous form of subversion and punished accordingly.  Clandestine dance rehearsals were not uncommon for El-Funoun dancers at times of military crackdowns.
 
Palestinian artists in the occupied and besieged West Bank and Gaza live under the constant threat of having their exhibitions ransacked, art galleries destroyed or concerts cancelled.  They, like all Palestinians under occupation, are also denied their most basic rights, including their right to freedom of movement which is restricted through a complex web of Israeli military checkpoints, illegal colonies and the apartheid wall.  Certainly no exemption is made for artists: they are not separated from this political reality.  
 
The Israeli state certainly does not see music or cultural production as above politics.  A former deputy director general of the Israeli foreign ministry, Nissim Ben-Sheetrit, explained upon launching the Brand Israel campaign in 2005: “We are seeing culture as a hasbara [propaganda] tool of the first rank, and I do not differentiate between hasbara and culture” [2].
 
In the case of Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Mashrou3 Leila, advocates of BDS were appealing to both groups specifically because they do not want to see their art used as a tool of hasbara or acting to normalize Israel’s image.  Importantly, they were seen as musicians who had identified and sang about social and political change, and it was therefore assumed that they would want to take a clear stand opposing Israel’s violations of international law.  Mashrou3 Leila in particular, has sung about political issues in the Arab world and about revolution  Thus, it was surprising when some argued that Mashrou3 Leila’s music should be 'above politics’ although their participation in the RHCP concert, when the latter were due to perform in Tel Aviv a couple of days later, would in itself be a political statement. 
 
The reality of the situation is that Lebanon continues to be a country where hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees reside and are denied their right to return home.  Moreover, Israel is still occupying Lebanese territory.  To open for a band that will be travelling to the very place those refugees are denied access to and will be entertaining a state that is still occupying Lebanese land would be making a political statement, a very damaging one.  It would also send a signal that those who break the boycott may continue to profit from Arab markets, and their trips to Israel would be considered normal.  It is for this reason that we reiterate, once again, our admiration for Mashrou3 Leila for their cancellation. 
 
Mashrou3 Leila’s position is fundamentally different than musicians and artists who pay lip service to an abstract notion of peace, without qualifying it to make it dependent on the realization of justice and rights.  These musicians, although claiming to be neutral and above politics, are in reality engaging in a specific politics and lending their art to upholding the oppressive status quo, rather than challenging it.  To the oppressed, no peace is worth its name if not associated with justice and human rights.  Ignoring violations of those rights and undermining popular struggles to regain them suggests that the musician’s call for peace was simply the proper thing to say to appeal to fans of almost all convictions, and motivated more by self-interest than any desire towards building a better, more dignified future for people.
 
Other artists steer away from political and social issues altogether and present their music as l’art pour l’art (art for art’s sake).  This may include, for example, those whose music contains no lyrics, or abstract or “neutral” lyrics that cannot normally be construed as carrying any political or social thought.  Although in the debates around the RHCP and Mashrou3 Leila concerts this was not the issue, we wish to take the example of such musicians to explain why, beyond the lyrics and choice of political topics of musicians, music remains deeply related to politics. 
 
In all the above cases, musicians are of this world.  In the current context of mass protests globally calling for true democracy, as well as social and economic justice, it is misleading, even harmful, to position music and art above politics.  Indeed, artists like the rest of humanity, are influenced by the world around them and, perhaps more than others, may have a relatively significant impact on it. 
 
When they choose to take their music beyond the private confines of their homes and perform in the public sphere they have a responsibility to their publics.  A basic component of this responsibility is to make sure that their art is not used to sugarcoat oppression, that their performances are not supported -- and therefore prone to be used -- by states, corporations or organizations that are responsible for violating international law or human rights.  Thus, if the content of the music or art itself is, arguably, not political, musicians and artists, for their participation in society and public presentations of their work, certainly are political.  A musician, who visited South Africa during apartheid, for instance, against the express will of the oppressed majority, was taking a political stance even if all he or she sang about was love and flowers.
 
Putting aside their lyrics and politics, when RHCP performed in Israel, they were doing so within the context of a colonial conflict, and within a situation where a people struggling against occupation, colonialism and apartheid was calling on them to cancel their show to avoid being complicit in covering up oppression.  The Israeli state was using their show, openly and unabashedly, to whitewash its crimes and re-brand itself as a normal, even progressive, state promoting music and culture.  Within such a context, RHCP’s performance was a political act of collusion in covering up Israel’s human rights violations.  Boycott bashers in South Africa were viewed exactly the same, as accomplices in perpetuating oppression.  It would be understandable, if unethical, had RHCP come out publicly in support of Israel, as Madonna and Elton John had done, but it is disingenuous when they, and other musicians, hide behind the naïve and misleading statement that they don’t want to mix music with politics.
 
Those who attend concerts on the grounds that this is just a fun night of entertainment and that music is not political should keep in mind the role of music, and more importantly, musicians in society, and what goes into organizing a public musical performance.  They should also keep in mind that to artists under conditions of sustained oppression, their art, if deeply and creatively reflecting their people’s and their own aspirations for freedom, justice and dignity, is inherently perceived as “political.”  As the late iconic South African singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba said:
Everybody now admits that apartheid was wrong, and all I did was tell the people who wanted to know where I come from how we lived in South Africa. I just told the world the truth. And if my truth then becomes political, I can't do anything about that.” [3] 
In calling for a cultural boycott of Israel, which is largely inspired by the cultural boycott of South Africa, Palestinian artists are reminding their colleagues worldwide of their profound moral obligation to do no harm, at the very least; to avoid abetting or providing a cover for the commission of human rights violations; to ensure that their names and art are not used to justify or prolong apartheid, occupation and colonialism.  When we ignore the power of music and musicians to cover such crimes by divorcing music from the world in which it is performed, we give these crimes oxygen to last another day.
 
Notes:
[1] http://www.change.org/petitions/red-hot-chili-peppers-cancel-your-performance-in-israel
[2] http://www.haaretz.com/misc/article-print-page/about-face-1.170267

[3] http://www.inspirationalstories.com/quotes/t/miriam-makeba/page/2/ 

Posted on 03-10-2012


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