"Music is the weapon of the future; music is the weapon of the progressives; music is the weapon of the givers of life." So says Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, quoted at the start of Pop Grenade: From Public Enemy to Pussy Riot – Dispatches from Musical Frontlines.
In his new book, the intrepid journalist and author Matthew Collin, a former BBC foreign correspondent and author of seminal books on ecstasy culture and resistance movements, reveals in six pieces of reportage how music has been a force for cultural change, rebellion, and a way of creating temporary paradises.
Collin is the Doctor Who of sonic rebellions. He was there when Public Enemy burst onto the scene in 1987, when techno and the Love Parade united Berlin after the fall of the wall two years later, and when a UK techno soundsystem set out with a food convoy in 1994 and staged raves in war-torn Bosnia. He was a stringer in Georgia when its president tried to prevent a Russian invasion by putting on a Boney M gig in a conflict zone in 2007. In 2013, he was hunkered down in Taksim Square getting pelted with tear gas canisters with the rebel musicians and was there in Moscow to see Pussy Riot released.
The 2014 answering machine message of Public Enemy's Professor Griff, quoted in Pop Grenade, says: "Remember—revolution is not an event, it's a process." It's this revolutionary process that, by revisiting these stories, Collin has managed to open up, to gain a unique insight into the impact of these events over time. I called him up to ask him to more about Pop Grenade.
VICE: You seem to be on the frontline with your notebook during defining musical times in recent history. How come?
Matthew Collin: Like a lot of people, I'm looking for something to believe in, something that I think has value, that's positive. These moments had a massive impact on my own thinking and I wanted to re-look at them from the point of view of, well, what did it all really mean? I'm not a music writer but my interest is in how music affects and is affected by the social environment at the time. The result, this book, is really a subjective history of inspirations.
The book begins in Tunisia, with a 21-year-old rapper, Hamada Bin Amor, a.k.a. "El General". His anti-government hip-hop track "Rais Le Bled" went viral and became the anthem behind Tunisia's uprising in 2010, a rebellion that heralded the Arab Spring across the Middle East and North Africa. Did a rap song really spark these revolutions?
Can a pop song bring down a repressive government? Of course not. A song in itself cannot change society or a political situation. The Specials came out with "Free Nelson Mandela" and six years later he was released, but I don't think anyone would suggest the Specials were responsible for that. It was as a result of years of hardcore struggle by the people of South Africa. What music can do is help support and nurture movements of change and reinforce them in quit a powerful way.
With Bin Amor it was a case of right place, right time, right message. His songs chimed with the mood of rising protests in his country. I don't think he planned it in advance, no one saw it coming and no one saw where it would go – that the dreams of the Arab Spring would lead to the nightmare of ISIS. This was a very brief moment in time, in which there was a lot of hope and idealism. But in the rather brutal world in which we live, hope and idealism – especially idealism – is often cruelly dashed.
You interviewed Professor Griff and Chuck D from Public Enemy when they played in Leamington Spa last year, nearly three decades after you interviewed them in New York when the band had, as you say, "Dropped like a sonic cluster-bomb into the collective consciousness of British youth." How do you see their long-term impact?
Public Enemy had this period of glory for three or four years when they were firing out these incredible hits and making headlines for all sorts of reasons. They put the issue of the oppression of black people in the US totally on the cultural agenda. They were this introductory portal through which listeners could gain insights they otherwise may never have had access to, about radical people like Malcolm X or the Black Panthers.
But then it went wrong for them. They started getting a lot of negative attention because one of the band members came out with anti-Semitic statements. The climate within hip-hop changed as well, they went from being the center of things to being somewhere on the periphery. In pop culture, often things don't last for very long, but they have become a pop culture institution.
Now the hip-hop world is dominated more by lyrics about girls, money, and drugs than politics. Has what Public Enemy did been completely washed away?
Rap music isn't what it was in the 1980s, but how could it be? It was an upstart cultural form then and now it's very much an establishment cultural form. Things have changed to some extent. You have a black president. When I interviewed Griff last year he told me that by educating a whole generation of black and white people, Public Enemy may have played a part in Obama's election. But then you look at the shootings of young black men, for example in Ferguson, and things obviously haven't changed enough. The question is, are these current problems being adequately represented by the kind of hip-hop street journalism—the musical reportage—that was used by Public Enemy?
You say that you can "still feel the vibrations of 'Rebel Without a Pause' and 'Fight the Power' humming through the turbulence of 21st-century conflicts like the dark rumble of a far-distant thunderstorm." Can you explain?
The interesting thing about Public Enemy is that they had this idea of being the hip-hop Clash. They were picking up on the inspiration of something that had gone on before in a completely different culture and social situation, but they were re-interpreting and re-using it, as others have done with Public Enemy.
During the Bosnian War in 1991, an independent radio station in Belgrade responded to Slobodan Milošević's advancing tanks by playing "Fight the Power" on repeat. In exactly same way Public Enemy used to call rap music "the black people's CNN", with people like El General there is now this idea that rap, for Arab MCs, is the hip-hop nation's Al Jazeera.
People tend to forget how grim Berlin was before the fall of the wall in 1989. Then came techno. How much of a debt do modern day Berliners and all those artists and tourists owe to that oomch-oomch-oomch music?
Berlin was a city that went through decades of immense trauma from the 1930s onwards. But there has been a very genuine achievement after the fall of the wall in which the techno scene did play a crucial role. Berlin is the capital of cool and techno helped to change it from quite a grey and dour place into somewhere that is incredibly attractive in creative terms.
It not only managed to transform the image of the city but also managed to establish a creative community that is still thriving and attracting people from all over the world to go and live and work there. It didn't create the political change that allowed that to happen but it certainly inspired some of the social change that's made it the incredibly vital place it is today.
Writing about the integral part music played in the Taksim Square protests last year in Istanbul, you said Turkey had a long history of counterculture music and that many bands there have a political edge. What about the UK?
Yes, there is a history of protest music in the UK, particularly in the punk and the post-punk era, the 1970s and 1980s, when all sort of ideas like anti-racism and feminism were being hurled out into the cultural arena by bands such as the Clash, the Slits, and Gang of Four. Then there was the anti-Thatcher pop of the mid 80s like Billy Bragg and Paul Weller, which was not as adventurous musically, but was still sincerely held left-wing social egalitarianism.
Now, you have people like Sleaford Mods or Plan B who are trying to express the emotions of a disenfranchised zero-hours contracts generation. But you get the feeling they don't have the same mainstream impact that say, the Specials did when they did "Ghost Town" around the time of the inner city riots and the Thatcher era.
Why is it harder to have an impact now?
That could be because of the way pop culture and the media has become more fragmented. So, for example, grime music is expressing the feelings of a disenfranchised generation, but it's also a subculture that only ever touches the mainstream when it becomes overtly pop, so it doesn't have that same mass reach as when everyone sat down in front of Top of the Pops at the same time on the same evening. You don't have that same collective impact. You do have subcultural pop agitating for social change or expressing social disillusionment, but it doesn't have that mainstream reach that makes it a unified talking point.
Will music be more or less of a "weapon" as Fela Kuti called it, in the future?
I saw an article by Owen Jones recently saying that because music has such raw emotional power it has the potential to make us think about social injustice more effectively than any column of any newspaper. I certainly felt that it was only because of punk that I got involved in any political activism, such as the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism. The best political bands, such as Public Enemy and the Clash, only actually managed to get their messages across because they made such an incredibly fantastic noise. The music has to be as good as the politics or it's just a load of boring agitprop.
Any examples of this?
There have been some really terrible ones. Culture Club's "War Song"—"war is stupid and people are stupid"—that's really going to stop wars, isn't it? Michael Jackson's ecological triumph "Earth Song": "What about the elephants/have we lost their trust?" It's just embarrassing and achieved absolutely nothing for the causes they thought they might be promoting. Going back to Fela Kuti, if music really is going to be a weapon, it's really got to be used with some verve and some style.
One of the most astonishing parts of the book is how a renegade soundsystem from the UK called Desert Storm, in the shape of an elderly DAF with movable side panels out of which techno blasted from a bank of speakers, ended up holding 20 raves in war-torn Bosnia. The beats were often punctuated with Kalashnikov bursts from dancing soldiers and people outside council estates. That must have been crazy to see.
It was one of those moments in time that couldn't be imagined. It was a product of history, chance, and a kind of renegade dedication of some very courageous, or some might say deranged people. What the raves meant to all these people who had been in this horrific war I could never hope to know, but it was a positive experience, if a very brief one: a quick flash of some kind of normality, some kind of euphoria—a very rare experience for these people over three and a half years of bloody awful war.
The charismatic commandant of Desert Storm was a disenchanted acid house refugee and part of the free "teknival" movement, a black 27-year-old Glaswegian called Keith Robinson. What on earth made him do this?
Keith is a remarkable person, a true individual. It's not your everyday DJ who decides to go and play in Sarajevo during the siege. There's much more easy money to be made and a much easier life to be had. The photographer who went with him, Adrian Fisk, told me that he [Keith] was driven by this challenge of putting on these parties in environments that were increasingly difficult and risky, but at the same time motivated by what he saw as one of the great injustices of our generation: a European country subjected to this absolutely terrible, brutal war.
So, the opportunity to go there and stage a party, a rave, becomes all the more attractive if the guy knows he's doing it for the right cause. Of course there's the adventure of it, the daredevil stuff, but this is adventure beyond the call of duty. He was a DJ, not an aid worker, a politician or an international negotiator, he was a guy who played records so he was going to go out and play records, to stand up and be counted, I think, with the resources that he had, which were his records and his soundsystem.
Like many people, including the Spiral Tribe lot, you became disillusioned with the excesses of acid house in the 1990s and how it became dominated by cash and cocaine. Is rave dead to you?
The bizarre thing is that dance culture is far bigger globally than it ever was in the 90s. The commercial superstar DJs of today play these huge EDM parties in places like Las Vegas and they are earning much more than anyone in the 90s could have every dreamed of. Back in the 90s, we thought it was getting over-commodified—and now it's just total big money decadence on a scale that's quite shocking, its actually rave culture as corporate capitalism.
But what's happened is that there is this completely other layer of people who are involved in dance culture because they truly believe in it and truly want to do something creative and original. So you have these very vital scenes, in many cities around the world, which are based on this idea of creativity and not about profit making.
I was in Cape Town recently and there was this pretty remarkable South African scene, people making genuinely indigenous variations of the rave template, reflecting their own roots and culture at the same time. While you have this glitzy, over-hyped, pumped-up hyper-capitalist mass scene, you also have all these fascinating undercurrents running beneath it. In the end, dance culture is what I grew up with and I can't not have a relationship with it, I probably always will.
The Georgian president was a big fan of using music as propaganda, which was one of the reasons Russia invaded in 2012 because they got so pissed off with his songs. He also had Boney M playing a gig intended to get rebels in the South Ossetia region to lay down their guns and dance. At the time he told you it was "a kind of disco approach to conflict resolution." Do politicians often use music as propaganda?
Think of all these pop stars who have sang for Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, publicly to endorse them. Obama has had lots of musical boosting, a lot of the time by rappers. One young guy, Young Jeezy, wrote a song called "My President" and the lyrics went something like: "Obama for mankind/we're ready for change/so let the man shine." However you spell his name, Will I Am recorded "Yes We Can" after Obama's election slogan and the rapper Common listed Obama in a song as a change maker along with Martin Luther King and Ghandi.
Pop propaganda is not necessarily only the territory of the good guys. During the current Ukraine conflict there were a few rap videos recorded by these pro-Russian separatist militias, one filmed by a paramilitary unit called the Brianka Brigade. It shows a group of tough guys in camouflage hunkered down in their lair holding AK-47s and RPGs and all this Orthodox Christian paraphernalia around them, rapping "we don't want your NATO/we don't need your gay parades/sharpening knives/flames from barrels," scowling at the camera. Music as propaganda is not all Billy Bragg and "Kumbaya."
Living as they do in a country they describe as "built on the model of a penal colony," the members of Pussy Riot faced much bigger risks for saying what they felt than the British punk bands that inspired them. You interviewed the girls before and after their jailing. What were they like and why did they take such a gamble?
They were the daughters of the intelligentsia, very well educated, very intelligent, but very young. They believed punk bands like Angelic Upstarts and Sham 69, singing about police oppression and convicts being beaten up in cells, had an impact on making British society fairer. They had this fearlessness that comes from being in your early twenties when you think you are immortal.
To be honest, I don't think they ever thought they would be sent to jail, it got totally out of control. What they thought they were doing was an artistic prank and what it was perceived as being was a threat to power. In a society such as Russia where any threat to power is being extinguished, if you pose that kind of threat you will be taken down.
At what point did they realize this show trial was going to be the performance of their lives? One music journalist referred to their videos and performances as a sound check and the actual trial as being the real show. In a sense it was the performance of their lives because the statements at the trial were really quite remarkable, they said they wanted to create something new in Russia and they did.
Yet as you point out, in Russia pop artists cannot get airtime unless they are friendly with the state. The Russian parliament voted in a new law against blasphemy; a kind of "Pussy Riot law," with three years in jail for "offending religious feelings." Both Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova told you in a Moscow pizza restaurant a couple of months after they were freed that they had already been attacked twice. How can that be "change"?
They went into jail at a moment where there was a sense of hope for the Russian opposition, with alternative media outlets opening, that some kind of change was possible. They came out of jail at a time where it had become clear that was not so. The situation has deteriorated significantly with a massive clampdown on all opponents of the regime, the stepping up of propaganda around the annexation of Crimea and the war on Ukraine, and Putin becoming more popular and stronger than ever. However, even if the movement they were part of did not achieve its goals, of some kind of liberalization, I do think that, as a potential inspiration, what they did cannot be erased.
So these flash points in your book, whether or not they had an immediate impact, can still echo through time?
For a moment you are really vital and you are headline news, you are influencing people and then after that the moment is passed and it's gone. But what you've achieved in showing such courage and dedication and creative vitality can be picked up again somewhere down the line by someone else, somewhere else, when the time comes.
Is there a common thread running through these disparate pieces of reportage?
Intelligence, courage, dedication and an ability to think creatively. I doubt they would share exact political beliefs but it's really about the courage to act on these beliefs in the cultural sphere that they are in, which is making music, it's not literature or politics, that's how they express themselves. In most cases we're not talking about people wanting to start the revolution – although some people did – but the desire to simply create a better or more human space in which we can live.
Pop Grenade: From Public Enemy to Pussy Riot – Dispatches from Musical Frontlines by Matthew Collin is out now from Zero Books
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