Words and Illustration by Ant Gray
We can only hope that the resurgence of the extreme right in America inspires an equally strong counterculture. In the era of Trump, only punk can save us now.
Six months before the recent US presidential election, I had this dream. I was at home. I went outside and looked up, and the sky was glowing orange and red and swarming with American stealth bombers. In the distance, the horizon was on fire and I thought:
‘Wow, Trump won the presidency. Well, I guess this was bound to happen.’
In the dream I felt resigned, but in real life I’m having difficulty accepting how things have turned out. Trump’s victory isn’t yesterday’s bad dream—it’s today’s nightmare and potentially tomorrow’s apocalypse.
For the world over, it represents a massive lurch to the ultra-far right, a triumph of the politics of resentment. Now many people, save for a select few, are more vulnerable, more uncertain and less safe because a section of our community will use Trump’s victory as a starting pistol to say and do terrible things, not just in the US, but in Europe and Australia too.
As American journalist and executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, Bruce Shapiro, commented in a recent interview:
“There has been a sort of spasm of bigotry that this campaign has unleashed.”
“There has been explicitly a rise in harassment, hate crimes, hate graffiti on college campuses, communities and neighbourhoods,” he said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center reported there were over seven hundred incidents of harassment in the week following the US election, directed mainly at LGBTI, Muslim, Jewish and other communities. The large majority of these incidents, which included swastika and ant-immigrant graffiti, occurred in places of learning—in primary and secondary schools, and on university campuses.
In light of this, I think we need to figure out how we can be of service to our communities. We need a new ethical movement—more compassion, more generosity, and more of a commitment to stem the flow of abuse, hate and anger, paranoia and fear.
Right now, I’m not sure what I should be doing towards this. But in the meantime, here’s a mixtape of sorts inspired by the American folksinger, Woody Guthrie.
In 1941 Guthrie wrote a song called “Talking Hitler’s Head Off Blues,” and afterward he famously painted his guitar with the words,
“This Machine Kills Fascists”.
In that spirit—without actually advocating violence to anyone—here are seven songs that celebrate rebelliousness and nonconformity. Songs that either champion what should be self-evident, or give the great American experiment—for all its mutations and excesses, all its injustices, ironies and failings—the patriotic middle finger it deserves.
1. Dead Kennedys, “California Über Alles”
“California Über Alles” is perhaps the most potent example of the punk movement’s penchant for conflating Nazis with… well, you name it. The song alludes, of course, to the first verse of the German national anthem, “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,” which after WWII was banned in Germany.
There have been dozens of versions of this song. In 2004, Dead Kennedys’ front-man Jello Biafra updated it for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s governorship, a version that included the lyrics:
“Third Reich won’t come back, you say? Not if Fox News has their way.”
Biafra originally co-wrote the song around 1979 about then Governor California Jerry Brown. That same year, Biafra ran for mayor of San Francisco. His political platform included increased spending on infrastructure projects, regulation of rental prices and policing reform. While ‘kissing hands and shaking babies’, he also promised a law requiring all businessmen to wear clown suits during business hours and the institution of a ‘Board of Bribery’ to make political donations more transparent.
Despite doubts about the seriousness of Biafra’s candidacy in the mainstream, he did better than expected, finishing fourth out of ten candidates.
2. Rage Against the Machine, “Killing in the Name”
Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in The Name” is “California Über Alles” for new generation. But why pick a version of it by a marching band? You should watch. It’s a room full of kids getting into it and going nuts—something you don’t usually see anyone doing while holding flutes and clarinets. Anyone who’s ever been in a school band will know how they can suck the life out of you and anyone else in earshot.
Joy and passion are precious commodities in the classroom.
Plus, I like this video because it reminds me how essential it is that young people learn to distinguish between knowing when it’s necessary to show respect for others, and when it’s appropriate to say ‘F*ck you, I won’t do what you tell me’ without fear or hesitation. If they do, they’ll grow up being less vulnerable to schoolyard bullies and out-of-school predators, and less likely to be turned into bullies and predators themselves.
And hopefully they’ll leave school or uni fully aware of how violence, power and coercion works too—something we need more of in the era of a Trump Presidency.
Why? Because, “Some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses.”
3. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “Up Above My Head”
For many people, just being yourself is a political act. And if you’re a woman who can rock the sh*t out of a Gibson SG, that goes doubly so.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe is the little-remembered gospel ‘godmother of rock and roll’, who influenced Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, Little Richard and Elvis.
She reminds us that everyone deserves the chance to nurture the flame that burns inside of them and that doing so makes the flame inside all of us burn brighter.
All in my heart (music everywhere) / all in my soul (it makes me whole) / it makes me feel so good (it makes me so happy) / I do believe (I do believe) there’s joy somewhere
4. Tom Robinson, “Glad to Be Gay”
Years after writing “Glad to be Gay”, Tom Robinson received a letter from an American teenager who had tried to take his own life.
The teen had been disowned by his conservative parents because he was gay, and he’d decided to take an overdose of sleeping pills. But while he was waiting for the pills to take effect, miraculously, he heard Robinson’s song on the radio. The song saved his life. He made himself throw up and soon after moved to San Francisco to find happiness.
Robinson himself had been troubled at sixteen as well. Anxiety about being gay, which was still a criminal offense in England at the time, had caused him to have a nervous breakdown. While recovering and finding a sense of self-acceptance and love, Robinson discovered a love for music and performing. Later, inspired by the Sex Pistols and Bob Dylan, he wrote the song for Pride in London in 1976.
“Glad to Be Gay was about anyone who didn’t conform, from lesbians to transgenders,” Robinson said in a recent interview, “a way of recognising that most of us have complex sexualities.”
At the time, he thought the song would only be for a one-off performance, but it’s now a gay-rights anthem. After telling the story of the letter from the teen who tried to kill himself, Robinson said, “It would have been worth writing the song for him alone.”
Read how disgusting we are in the press / Telegraph, People and Sunday Express / Molesters of children, corruptors of youth / It’s there in the paper, it must be the truth
5. Tracy Chapman, “Born to Fight”
One way I can summon a feeling of hope is think of Trump’s win as not the beginning of the end, but one final blowout of grotesquery before a major generational shift.
We’re a few months away from a man who comedian John Oliver once described as “a Klan-backed misogynist internet troll” taking office.
But instead of despair, it’s useful to think of the next four years as one long training montage for women, for young people, for the scapegoats and the disenfranchised to become tomorrow’s champions—all set to Tracy Chapman’s, “Born to Fight”.
I was born to fight / I ain’t been knocked down yet / I was born to fight / I’m the surest bet
6. Pussy Riot, “Straight Outta Vagina”
I’ve always been in awe of people who cause a trouble for a living, especially since I’d do anything not to draw attention or cause a fuss.
But for Russian punk rock feminist campaigners Pussy Riot, it’s a different story. They regularly put into practice Mos Def’s exhortation, “Don’t talk about it, be about it,” with two members spending nearly two years in prison for their anti-Vladimir Putin performance activism.
Their commitment to women’s and LGBT rights make most punk bands look like a bunch of p… (nope)... a bunch of preschool cry-babies.
Does your vagina have a brand? / Let your vagina start a band / If your vagina lands in prison / Then the world is gonna listen
7. Lead Belly, “Mr. Hitler”
Lead Belly wrote ‘Mr. Hitler’ in 1942—a time when, even though they were fighting the Nazis, the Allies were reluctant to respond to the urgent humanitarian crisis of tens of thousands of Jewish people fleeing Europe. But Lead Belly—the American blues and folk songwriter who no doubt experienced discrimination living in the deep south—saw things for what they were:
“Hitler started out in nineteen hundred and thirty-two / When he started out, he took the homes from the Jews”
Donald Trump is a very easy person to paint with a little black moustache. Lots of people have been doing it in the media, and it does seem apt.
But Hitler analogies are always problematic, not least because they lay all the blame for the Holocaust on one man, forgetting the centuries of worldwide antisemitism that made that such a thing possible.
Trump is not Hitler, but like Lead Belly most of us can see something isn’t right. Some people are saying we should keep an open mind—that his win is about globalisation and class and dissatisfaction with establishment politics.
Nuh-uh. His appointment of ultra conservative Stephen Bannon as his chief strategist—a choice publicly celebrated by the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party—is the latest in a series of alarm bells ringing through the night.
Still, Trump is not Hitler because that’s a tired analogy and potentially disrespectful to the millions of people who suffered and died during the Holocaust. But then again, maybe we’re addicted to Hitler analogies because, well, we won. There are heaps of homicidal maniacs that we could draw parallels to, but like no other, we kicked Hitler’s Jew-hating ass all over Europe.
But in 1942, when Lead Belly wrote that song, things must have looked bleak. And still even then, Lead Belly knew these things don’t last forever—there are always opportunities for change.
You ain’t no iron, you ain’t no solid rock / But we American people say ‘Mr. Hitler you is got to stop!’
The Limits of Art as Activism
Since Trump’s win, I’ve been in a state of grief. And I think I’ll be bouncing between denial, anger and depression for a while. Acceptance may not be a shore I’ll ever reach, nor would ever hope to.
But now’s not the time for inaction or depression. There are people out there who need our help.
In the days following the 2004 re-election of George W. Bush, author Toni Morrison wrote about how she felt sad and powerless—how she couldn’t bring herself to do any work. But after talking to a friend, she tried to shake herself out of it. “No! This is precisely the time when artists go to work,” she wrote.
“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity,” she said, “no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
I think that’s true, but at the same time I worry that my outrage and desire to do something will fade—that I’ll settle into a state of melancholic inactivity, only periodically signing petitions, and pressing ‘like’ on the protestations of the already converted.
I want to do something, but haven’t figured out what yet. Making this ‘mixtape’ and writing this post was fun, but it won’t do much. I need to find a way to do more.
On the subject of Donald Trump, comedian Jon Stewart was asked if he’d come back to television and whether comedy and art can really effect social change. “Comedy can’t have an impact on policy,” he answered. “It can be catalysing, but it in no way can be mistaken for activism.”
“Comedy and satire are an expression. They are an artistic idea. They are not activism. It is not anything other than a painting, a song, a joke. None of those can change anything. They can, occasionally, focus a conversation at a crucial moment and help the good work of all the individuals that have put in that time, and I never forget that. Nothing that we ever did meant anything compared to the people on the ground in grassroots who work tirelessly in anonymity against all odds to do what’s right.”
So why make this mixtape? I don’t know. Maybe it’s part of what Morrison said about healing, but the process can’t stop there—there is bigger work to do.
With these posts, I usually try to come to a conclusion. I don’t have one this time. Maybe neat endings are just as dangerous as the totalitarian desire for easy answers.
Or maybe this ending is still to be written.
Wanna hear all the tracks listed here and a few more? Check out the playlist below.