Issue 239 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review

Music

'No rich people on death row'

Pandit G (left) and Tom Morello (right) making a political difference
Two of the most exciting and angry bands right now are at the centre of the campaigns against injustice. Robyn Mills and Martin Smith talked to Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello and Asian Dub Foundation's Dr Das and Pandit G about politics, racism and music

 

Political
prisoners

  • Satpal was wrongfully convicted for murder. Free Satpal Ram Campaign, PO Box 23139, London SE1 1ZU, or for the latest info www. asiandubfoundation. com/satpal/
  • Mumia Abu Jamal was wrongly convicted for the murder of a police officer in 1981. He is on death row. Mumia Must Live! campaign, 020 7538 5821, or for the latest update on his case www.freemumia.org

  • Rage Against the Machine have been part of the Mumia Abu-Jamal campaign. What reaction have you received?
    Tom: The police hounded us throughout our entire US tour last year. Up to 300 cops picketed every one of our concerts. They came with one thing in mind to shut down our gig. They were angry because we support Mumia Abu-Jamal. Mumia is a former radio journalist and Black Panther who was framed for murder and has been on death row for 17 years.

    It's not Rage Against the Machine (RATM) the police fear. They are afraid of the people in our audience hearing the truth about what is going on, and the cops are scared that people might start getting organised.We have played a number of benefit concerts to help raise money for the Mumia campaign. As you know, justice costs money. That's why there are no rich people on death row.

    In 1995 Mumia received a stay of execution. It was the international outcry and demand for a fair trial that kept that man alive. Labour organisations and Amnesty International have raised their fists to say that Mumia is a political prisoner, and is in prison because of his race and beliefs. We've got to keep that pressure up.

    In Britain Asian Dub Foundation (ADF) have brought the case of Satpal Ram to a mass audience. Can you tell us more about the case?
    Pandit G: In 1986 Satpal Ram went to eat in a restaurant in Birmingham with some friends. When he objected to racist language directed at the Bengali staff from a group of six white people they focused their attention on him. Before he knew it he was being attacked by one of them with a broken glass, with the others throwing plates. Bleeding and in fear of his life, Satpal warned his assailant to back off. He literally had his back against the wall and was forced to defend himself with a small knife he used for work. The attacker received stab wounds which he refused to be treated for in hospital and later died. Satpal was subsequently charged with murder.

    Dr Das: To us there is an overwhelming feeling that Satpal was convicted because he didn't conform to the stereotype of the 'passive Asian'. ADF got involved because we heard of too many instances of black people being arrested or convicted for defending themselves against racist attacks, and we knew that this is something that could happen to us.

    What inspired you to form your bands?
    Dr Das: ADF met in 1993 at a music workshop in London where I was the tutor. When the workshops finished we carried on making experimental dance music together. However, after the racist attack on Quddus Ali in east London in September 1993 we got ourselves together as a band. Our first gig was a benefit for Quddus at the Hackney Empire.

    Tom: We formed in 1991 in Los Angeles just after the Los Angeles police beat Rodney King. The LAPD get away with this kind of thing all the time, but this time the police were caught on film. We were recording in Canada as the Rodney King verdict came in. Unbelievably, the police were let off. That night we turned on CNN and saw our city in flames. Most of the songs from the first album were written before the Los Angeles uprising, but Zack, the band's lyricist, very much had his lyrical finger on the pulse of the city.

    How would you describe your music?
    Pandit G: ADF are influenced by all kinds of music--bands like The Clash, Public Enemy, and Asian and experimental dance music.

    Dr Das: I have been involved in all kinds of music bhangra, indie bands and reggae. We try to find what connects different music, and out of that try to develop new sounds.

    Tom: Our music is a combination of punk, hip-hop and hard rock. I'm totally amazed that a political band like ours can sell 15 million records. Bands like The Clash made it possible for bands like us to sign record deals. I'm sure there's some executive of our record label, Epic, sitting in an office somewhere scratching his head listening to our lyrics. The thing about capitalism is that so long as they can make money they don't really care what message bands are trying to put across.

    Can music make a difference?
    Tom: At any given time there are always politically active bands, but they're not always commercially successful. Some bands, through a combination of their art and politics, are able to resonate with an audience. Globalisation makes a fertile field for bands like RATM and ADF to get their music across. I'm not claiming that bands like ours are the cause of that mood, but we want to be and can be a part of a cultural battlefield. We are fighting for the hearts and minds of young people against the lies being pumped out by Wall Street and the big corporations. The key to changing the world is not music it is about being politically active.

    Pandit G: RATM are relating to a young political audience. They are raising issues like Mumia, low wage sweatshops and many other campaigns. ADF are trying to do the same thing here in Britain. We aren't the campaign to free Satpal Ram, but we can be a way of informing people about him. We want to help direct people into ways of resisting and fighting back. All we can be is a mouthpiece. At the end of the day it comes down to the activists and organisations.

    It's not just about Satpal Ram. We want people to make the connections between the establishment and what happened to Ricky Reel, Satpal, Stephen Lawrence. We can make a difference--our fans have sent cards to Satpal's parole board. At first they took no notice, but 30,000 cards later they started to sit up and listen. Satpal told the band that every letter he receives raises his spirits. Satpal has moved prison 59 times. The average number of moves for someone who has served that length of sentence is five! Prison guards have beaten him. The letters and publicity makes it less likely that he will be attacked, abused or 'accidentally' hanged in his cell.

    How important was last year's Seattle protest to you?
    Tom: Seattle was a wake-up call. It is a turning point in the US and hopefully the rest of the world. It has made people see the necessity of mass organisation. It was a rebellion of workers, environmentalists and students against the World trade Organisation (WTO). It was planned, it was well organised and it was smart. It makes a massive impact when you shut down the WTO. That's why the police reaction was so harsh. They realised that there was substance to the protest. It represented serious forces. It shows that there is a silent majority in the US who are not just toeing the line. I am a socialist. I have a lot of hope for the working class. Things aren't easy--our rulers are experts in indoctrination. Every now and then something like Seattle comes along and breathes hope into the situation.

    What do you think of Tony Blair's New Labour Party?
    Dr Das: Democracy is just being equated with the right to vote. We have to raise an alternative. Each one of us has been involved in different organisations but for us politics is about being practical. Lots of our lyrics are about self empowerment and self education.

    Pandit G: I know it's a cliché but New Labour is just another Tory Party. Tony Blair is also influenced by the US Democratic Party. New Labour is copying Clinton on issues such as crime, zero tolerance and race. We feel it is important to start lobbying New Labour over these kinds of issues. A number of us are going to go and see Paul Boateng, the Labour Home Office minister, about Satpal's case this month. I remember when Boateng was elected as a Labour MP for Brent. He was jumping up and down demanding the end of apartheid and saying that he was going to change things for black and Asian people. Boateng has done nothing to help Satpal or any of the other prisoners falsely imprisoned. He was one of the most left wing MPs and now he has become a vicious right winger. But the campaign to free Satpal is growing. We are going to make him sweat.


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