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A Brief History of Musicians Boycotting Places

Wilco are refusing to play Indiana. But they're not the first act to invoke the power of the boycott.

by Mike Campbell
Apr 1 2015, 5:00pm

Musicians have always used their craft as a platform for protest. From Billie Holiday's singing of “Strange Fruit” in her condemnation of Jim Crow, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan’s salt of the earth, lefty folk anthems, to the earnest and genuine attempt (however lame and eyeliner laden) of Green Day to take down the Bush administration with their album (and subsequent Broadway musical) American Idiot, protest songs have had a huge presence in popular music. But actions speaking louder than words and all, there’s a further step in the art of the protest: the boycott. Deliberate refusal to perform in cities, states, and countries is a tangible and point-proving power move on the part of the artist, exacting what real-worald control they have in making a statement that has an impact, for what they consider to be a worthy cause.

This week, Wilco announced via their Facebook page that they would be canceling their upcoming concert appearance at the Murat Theatre in Indianapolis in protest of the recently enacted “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” The legislation allows for businesses in Indiana to discriminate against customers based on sexual orientation if the business owners feel that, for example, serving a gay person a hoagie violates their religious beliefs. Wilco stated that the religion-based law felt “like thinly disguised legal discrimination,” and looked forward to getting “back to the Hoosier state someday soon, when this odious measure is repealed.” God himself could not be reached for comment, but Jesus Christ, a representative, replied “God fucking dammit I love Wilco! Why are these idiots doing all this ignorant hateful shit in my name? I just wanna see Nels Cline shred!

There have been a number of other artists who have taken a similar approach in past years, specifically leaving a region of the Earth off of the tour itinerary, hoping its absence proves a point, and makes a real world difference for the causes they find worth fighting (or, at least, skipping a gig) for.

Kanye West, Conor Oberst, Cypress Hill, Sonic Youth, and Joe Satriani Boycott Arizona

Can you think of a stranger, more fucked up dinner party guest list than the artists listed above? You’d think that they would have very little in common to talk about over cocktails and dessert. But they all managed to band together in 2010, led by Rage Against the Machine's Zack De La Rocha, for the same cause which was to protest the immigration law enacted in Arizona requiring immigrants in the state to carry documentation of their legal status. The law also gave police the right to search anyone deemed “reasonably suspicious.” You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that this led to some serious racial profiling in the state, which borders Mexico. Oberst stated in 2010, “Don’t get me wrong, I do love Arizona. But the only way to put pressure on state government is through an economic approach. It’s important because it encourages fans to react to the government, and hopefully push for concrete changes.”

Public Enemy also Boycotts Arizona, but for a Different Reason

Unapologetically revolutionary hip-hop pioneers Public Enemy set a public boycott of performances in Arizona with their 1991 song “By The Time I Get To Arizona,” due to the state’s refusal to acknowledge Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday as a holiday, despite the fact that it had been a federal holiday since 1983. Arizona (finally) voted in 1992 to celebrate and recognize the existence of arguably the most important figure in the fight for human and civil rights. Better nine years late than never, huh? But Chuck D and co. maintained their refusal to perform in the state until 2006 when they decided to lift the boycott. Presumably because Public Enemy fuckin’ keeps it real. All of these Arizona incidents have inspired the state motto, Arizona: Always Getting Its Shit Together Ten Years Too Late.

Stevie Wonder Boycotts Florida

In response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the straight-up murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in recent memory, Stevie Wonder vowed to no longer perform in Florida, the state where the killing and subsequent trial took place. Wonder held the caveat that as long as Florida still carried and enforced the “Stand Your Ground” law, which was considered by the jury in the decision to get this murdering, repeated domestic abuser, and overall piece of human garbage off for the crime, he would not return to the Sunshine State for a concert appearance ever again.

Roger Waters Boycotts Israel

The State of Israel is a topic far too dense and complex to begin waxing political on here. So let’s just let a kookie British progressive rocker do the expressing for us. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd canceled his Tel Aviv performance in 2005 after seeing the separation fence in the West Bank, graffiting his own band’s lyrics, “We don’t need no thought control,” (*mega-cringe*) onto the wall. The Wall: his band’s seminal concept album. He has not performed in Israel since. Though Waters claims his reasons for the boycott are not rooted in anti-Semitism, at a concert in Belgium in 2013 he had a floating stage prop inflatable pig emblazoned with a Star of David, as well as dollar signs, hammer and sickles, and “symbols of dictatorial organizations and regimes from around the world.”

Gram Parsons Boycotts South Africa

In his brief but fruitful tenure as second guitarist and vocalist for the Byrds, Gram Parsons decided to quit the band on the eve of their South African tour. History would remember this moral protest of Parsons as a steadfast opposition to the segregated concerts and other evils of apartheid that the Byrds ended up witnessing on the tour. Though it could be argued that Parsons’ fear of flying, and preference for shooting heroin in the English countryside with Keith Richards both had something to do with the decision.

Steve Van Zandt and Pretty Much Everyone in the 80s Also Boycott South Africa

In perhaps his greatest cultural contribution to the world (at least a contender to his playing a strip club-owning consiglieri in The Sopranos), E-Street Band member Little Stevie’s anti-Apartheid song, “Sun City” attempted to expose the disparity of wealth and power, and systematic subjugation in South Africa. Though stylistically the song is strongly rooted in the mid-80s (it is essentially “We Are The World” meets “The Superbowl Shuffle”), the spirit behind it is virtuous and admirable. The lyrics to the chorus are a resounding, “I ain’t gonna play Sun City,” a reference to a luxury casino resort of that name, that hosted performances by top of the industry musicians and entertainers for extremely rich white people, smack dab in the center of hellish North West Province of apartheid-decimated South Africa. Van Zandt decided to “use Sun City as this symbol of apartheid. They were overpaying everyone to come down there and perform, so I… told myself if I could really tighten up the cultural boycott, we could then make the next move toward the economic boycott.” The list of contributors to the song is almost mind-numbing in its expansiveness: Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Run DMC, Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, George Clinton, Bonnie Raitt, Ringo Starr, and about 40 other top-name popular music recording artists. The song acted as an agreement of sorts between the artists, that by contributing to and singing the chorus, they would literally not ever perform in South Africa at Sun City. Though the single reached #38 on the Billboard charts and raised over $1 million for anti-apartheid efforts, the Sun City Resort still operates and thrives in post-apartheid South Africa today.

Mike Campbell has strong opinions about things and cares a lot about the world. He’s on twitter @mikedcampbell