Noise From Underground

Noise From Underground

For more information about Positive Force, or to send donations to the Arthur S. Flemming Center, write to Positive Force, 3510 North 8th Street, Arlington, VA 22201. Checks should be made payable to Emmaus Services for the Aging.


Over the years you’ve lied to me
Stolen more than you could ever need
And baffled me with your selfish greed
Your country don’t mean much to me.
In fact instead of reverence
And pride in your democracy
You’ve generated something like
Hate for your dishonesty.
   –“Insurrection Chant”

These crude, furious lyrics were choked out by Tomas Squip of the Washington, DC-based punk rock band Beefeater during Ronald Reagan’s White House tenure. For many kids at that time, punk music was one of the few vehicles for expressing anger toward what they perceived as the political and cultural bankruptcy around them. But Beefeater’s songs and the antiapartheid activism they helped to inspire were destined for obscurity. The music was far too loud and abrasive for most people over the age of 30 and, more significant, inaccessible to the majority of young Americans, whose tastes in music have long been dictated by trends set in the offices of music conglomerates.

“Alternative rock” did enjoy a brief period of mainstream popularity in the early nineties, when it was discovered and disseminated by the major labels, but by mid-1998, it had been declared commercially dead. Today there’s only a minimal chance that any music fan–young or old–will encounter through any major media outlet the songs of protest that continue to spring forth from the punk underground; the major record companies have succeeded in erecting a pay-to-play industry that effectively shuts out any band whose label cannot pony up hundreds of thousands of dollars for radio, video, retail and print promotion. When Universal Music and Polygram merged last December to form the largest record company in the world–Universal Music Group–the final nail was driven into the coffin of corporate-sponsored punk rock; some 250 bands were dropped to clear the roster for the latest trend, “teen pop,” embodied by bands like the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears.

At the same time, however, the underground remains a wellspring for a wide variety of countercultural currents, with bands ranging from the explicitly political to the nihilistic but aesthetically adventurous. While independent labels can rarely provide the resources musicians need to survive financially, the most influential–Dischord (DC), Touch & Go (Chicago) and Jade Tree (Delaware), to name just a few–offer their bands full creative freedom and access to a vibrant musical community: a true alternative to the bottom-line assault on music. Sometimes musicians and their independent labels forge direct links with organizing efforts–with or without encouragement from the progressive establishment. But perhaps the greatest contribution of today’s punks lies in changing minds: spreading an anticorporate message in a culture whose dominant voices are MTV veejays and athletes adorned with the Nike swoosh.

The politically minded underground movement is propelled by bands like Fugazi, which became the crown jewel of the devoutly independent Washington, DC, music scene soon after its first live performance in 1987. Its albums are released by Dischord Records, which has been a cornerstone of the DC music scene since its inception in 1980, and is co-owned by Ian MacKaye, one of Fugazi’s two lead singers. The band is revered not only for its distinctive sound but for being one of the few groups to resist the lure of corporate funding when the majors plundered the ranks of independent artists after the Seattle-based underground group Nirvana was signed by Geffen Records in 1991, to huge commercial success. Instead, Fugazi has stayed on course as a pioneer of abrasively poetic, politically charged music. In the process, it has sold nearly 2 million records, primarily through independent distribution channels. This is a tremendous accomplishment–Fugazi has outsold all but a few of its corporate-aligned colleagues, simultaneously eschewing the mainstream media, refusing interviews with MTV and music publications like Spin and Rolling Stone. “Spin is to music what Cosmopolitan is to women’s issues–it’s really just a catalogue with an occasional feature,” says MacKaye. “The bands themselves then become products, too. We are not interested in participating in that particular part of rock and roll.”

Merchandise keeps us in line
Common sense says it’s by design
What could a businessman ever want more
Than to have us sucking in his store?
We owe you nothing, you have no control.

   –Fugazi, “Merchandise”

Fugazi continues to call its own shots, musically and commercially. The song “Merchandise” reflects on the ideals driving the band’s decision to repudiate the commodity line that accompanies most rock bands (T-shirts, baseball caps, etc.). Through Dischord Records, its CDs are available for $10, as opposed to the industry standard of $16.98. Fugazi’s political concerns surface in songs like “Repeater,” which explores the growing numbness of Americans in the early nineties toward African-American victims of the violent crack epidemic: “Did you hear something outside/It sounded like a gun/Stay away from that window/It’s not anyone/We know….” In the song “Dear Justice Letter,” singer Guy Picciotto rasps, “It’s all over…the last fair deal going down,” feverishly mourning the loss of Justice William Brennan on the Supreme Court and the ominous ascension of Reagan/Bush appointees.

The nation’s capital has been an unlikely hub of underground political and cultural activity since its Revolution Summer in 1985, when members of Beefeater and others in the music community staged “Punk Percussion Protests” in front of the South African Embassy. That year a group of local independent music fans and musicians founded a nonprofit organization, Positive Force, to pursue their political goals. Through Positive Force, Fugazi has donated the proceeds from every live performance in DC since 1989–more than $100,000–to grassroots groups ranging from the Community for Creative Nonviolence Homeless Shelter to Washington Inner City Self-Help, a low-income people’s organization, to the Tenants and Workers Support Group of Alexandria, Virginia. At the same time, the band maintains a strict policy of low ticket prices–never more than $6, even at benefit concerts–when it could charge what other bands of similar stature do, up to $20 per ticket. “Established fundraisers scratch their heads and think what we’re doing is dumb. We could raise so much more money, [but] the low door price is an important part of the band,” explains singer/guitarist Ian MacKaye. “If $1,000 is collected at the door, every single dollar goes straight to a group that will use that money directly toward a grassroots operation. It doesn’t go through some fundraising organization; there aren’t people taking cuts along the way.”

These days, much of the energy at Positive Force is channeled into the development of the Arthur S. Flemming Center, which will be owned and operated by DC’s Emmaus Services for the Aging. The Flemming Center will house a variety of nonprofit activist and direct-service groups, with special emphasis on local music and art and service to the surrounding low-income community. Also, this past summer Positive Force hosted one of four benefits across the country for Voices in the Wilderness, the humanitarian renegade operation challenging the economic strangulation of Iraqi citizens by the US embargo. Sparked by a feature in the fanzine Punk Planet detailing the activities of the organization, underground activists in DC, New York, Philadelphia and Seattle staged events that funded a fact-finding delegation of Congressional aides to Iraq in late August, despite State Department objections and a US travel ban.

The San Francisco Bay Area has similarly been a hotbed of punk activism since the early eighties. As the singer for punk legends the Dead Kennedys, Jello Biafra was dragged through court by the Parents Music Resource Center and lambasted by its talking head, Tipper Gore, for “distribution of harmful matter to minors” after the band released an album with artwork that included a reproduction of a painting by Swiss Surrealist H.R. Giger depicting several rows of copulating male genitalia. Biafra traveled the country raising awareness and money for his First Amendment defense, while underscoring his view that punk rock was a movement of constructive idealism, not of the sullen apathy that the mainstream media have attributed to Generation X. In addition to producing music, Biafra’s independent record label, Alternative Tentacles, focuses on spoken-word recordings, including albums featuring lectures by Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal.

The mobilization to save the life of Abu-Jamal has been one of the few grassroots movements to unite punks with other artists and activists on a broad scale. On September 11, Mumia 911–an ad hoc group based in New York–orchestrated more than 100 artist-driven events and actions nationwide for a “national day of art of stop the execution.” New York hardcore bands Ricanstruction and Huasipungo hit a Lower East Side nightclub with the same message of resistance that Angela Davis and hip-hop artist Michael Franti propounded in San Francisco’s Dolores Park. Maximizing the visceral power and popular appeal of music, theater, spoken word, dance and visual art, Mumia 911 successfully laid the foundation for what the organizers hope will become a sustained movement to “transform the climate of cruelty” that infects American politics.

Resistance is everywhere, it always has been and always will be…. Being told you are a worthless piece of shit and not believing it is a form of resistance. One girl calling another girl to warn her about a guy who date raped her is another. And while she may look like a big haired makeup girl who goes out with jocks, she is a soldier along with every other girl, and even though she may not be fighting in the same loud way that some of us can (and do), it is the fact that she is resisting that connects us.
   –Kathleen Hanna, Bikini Kill, CD liner notes

Though women made inroads toward punk prominence in the early hardcore years, it was not until the nineties that the Riot Grrrl movement–championed by some members of the now-defunct Bikini Kill and their peers–ushered Third Wave feminism to the forefront of the punk political agenda. Bikini Kill, whose albums were released by the independent label Kill Rock Stars, based in Olympia, Washington, wrote jarring, confrontational songs that defied the silence surrounding violence against women. Kathleen Hanna, the band’s lead singer, found herself counseling young women at concerts who turned to her with their stories of sexual abuse. Hanna helped organize some of the many benefit concerts that Bikini Kill played and, along with several other women, initiated “Girl Talk,” a teenage sexual assault support group run out of Olympia’s Safe Place Domestic Violence Shelter. After moving to DC, Hanna continued her outreach at such venues as Blair High School in Maryland, where she spoke to student assemblies about rape and the services available to women who have been abused. The response from girls at the public school was overwhelming, and school administrators cleared out the nurse’s office to bring Hanna back for private sessions with students.

If I love a man, what is it to you?
If my people, my friends, have turned their backs on me, I know why.
But understand one thing: I want to be free, instead of living a lie.
   — Los Crudos, “A Los Inseguros” (To the Insecure)
   (lyrics translated from the Spanish)

Ideological rifts led to the collapse of the Riot Grrrl movement, but punk feminism remains alive and kicking, and has facilitated the increasing visibility of gay men and lesbians in punk rock through independent bands like Los Crudos, Tribe 8, Pansy Division and The Butchies. Though the band recently dissolved, Los Crudos spent most of the nineties fueling the Latino corner of the punk scene with hardcore songs in Spanish–released on its own label, Lengua Armada–addressing issues ranging from homophobia to California’s anti-immigrant ballot propositions. “One of the main reasons for singing in Spanish was to communicate directly with kids in our neighborhood,” says the band’s Uruguayan singer, Martín Sorrondeguy. Los Crudos worked closely in Pilsen–its Latino neighborhood in Chicago–with community organizations like Project Vida, an AIDS prevention program, and Project Hablo, a support group for Latina victims of domestic violence. Hardcore music played only a small role in the neighborhood events that the band helped to plan. “Punk is important to us, but community is even more important. When we’re writing songs with angry lyrics, what’s the point if we’re not going to extend our hands to try to work with other people?” asks Sorrondeguy. “Punk music has to cross borders; we’re all too familiar with borders.”

Life after Los Crudos promises more music and political activism for Sorrondeguy, who is now raising money to create a public meeting space in Pilsen. Although it will be used for an occasional punk concert, the space, tentatively titled “Nuestra Casa,” will more often be the venue for the activities of community organizers and local artists. Sorrondeguy, however, is digging in his heels for what is likely to be an extended battle to keep Nuestra Casa open: “We have serious issues with the local politicians here, and they will try to close us down.” After challenging, at a neighborhood meeting, local alderman Danny Soliz on his favors to outside developers and his support for gentrification-friendly tax codes, Sorrondeguy and his roommates were suddenly evicted from their apartment. In addition to planning Nuestra Casa, an undeterred Sorrondeguy has brought his message to Pilsen’s Christo Rey Jesuit High School, where he has twice been invited to speak with students about music, politics and low-income community organizing.

Whereas Los Crudos once represented an anomaly in punk rock, the band has helped to draw young Latinos into the underground through a highly politicized point of entry, and has in turn helped to raise awareness in the predominantly white, middle-class punk subculture. “A lot of new young Latino bands are forming and singing about these issues, singing about how California’s propositions have affected them and their families,” explains Sorrondeguy. “It brought a whole new voice into punk rock. A lot of kids were not talking about these things, because they weren’t directly affecting them. Our experiences were not the same as those of a lot of other punk kids. For us, this became the focal point of what we were doing.”

Like Los Crudos, Rage Against the Machine is among the small number of punk groups with nonwhite members; unlike Los Crudos, their music is released by a major label, Epic, and they have sold more than 8 million records. Members of Rage Against the Machine were musically educated in the hardcore scene, and the band continues to take cues from Fugazi and other punk trailblazers. RATM guitarist Tom Morello is dismayed that so few of the band’s commercially successful peers on major labels “are willing to take a stance on political issues that go beyond feel-good celebrity causes.” The band’s overtly political lyrics and the revolutionary visual imagery that it projects in all of its album artwork and music videos are reinforced by RATM’s participation in direct actions, including civil disobedience in solidarity with the garment workers’ union, UNITE, and the coordination of delegations to Chiapas, Mexico, to help bring an international spotlight to the Zapatista uprising. “I was an angry teenager in a small Midwestern town,” says Morello about his own musical upbringing, “and a band like the Clash was giving me a much more accurate portrayal of US foreign policy in Central America than Dan Rather was. It confirmed some of my suspicions and helped fire me up to pursue something bigger than sex, drugs and rock and roll.”

Unfortunately, punk rock has not enjoyed the same cachet among older progressives that artists like Country Joe and the Fish and Bob Dylan once did. Punk activism has always existed outside most progressive political channels, and its subversive undercurrents have, for the most part, been unrecognized. Positive Force’s co-founder, Mark Andersen, is troubled by this divide. While acknowledging the confrontational–sometimes antisocial–underpinnings of the musical culture, Andersen has been working for years with his group to build bridges between the underground and like-minded activists. When Positive Force was conceived in the mid-eighties, punk organizers in DC were recovering from an ill-fated partnership with the Revolutionary Communist Party. For the most part, he says, the left has not “reached out to some of the very creative young people who could possibly formulate new ways of approaching political questions, new ways of bridging justice and service, and ultimately building some sort of a movement that could actually put the left in contention for organized power in our society.”

Andersen’s reflections are echoed by others in the music underground who feel that the traditional left lacks a visible cultural component that could give its causes more populist appeal. Of course, punk rockers must accept some culpability for the chasm that separates them from older generations of political activists. Underground rebellion has too often become more of a vehicle for expressing youthful desires and frustrations than for fighting injustice; for many punks, the prospect of working side by side with older activists who may resemble their parents is decidedly uncool. Fugazi’s MacKaye describes his own aversion to activism as a teen: “Straight politics or radical politics–it all seemed boring to me.” Having patiently endured the major labels’ foray into punk rock, Andersen now sees the development of a broad and inclusive vision as essential to the politics of the underground. “The independent music community needs a political analysis–an anticorporate analysis–to connect it to other common institutions and to a general ethic of fostering healthy, democratic community.”

And now you want to mobilize
A million misled youth against
Some enemy that you devised
Don’t trust our loyalty.
   –Beefeater, “Insurrection Chant”

With independent rock providing many disaffected kids with a portal to political activism, the established left must challenge itself to look beyond the bland feel-goodism being churned out by the major labels. “The great tragedy of the sixties was that there was a whole counterculture that could have been the basis for a transformation,” says Positive Force’s Andersen. “Somewhere along the line, the politicos and the artists split apart.” The organizing efforts of entities like Positive Force and Mumia 911 provide springboards for crossover, but if the left fails to recognize the value of the political and artistic expression that punks have been developing over the past two decades, it will lose one more natural ally in the battle to stem the rightward drift of American politics. Punks, for their part, need to stop romanticizing isolation, or they may find their political endeavors, along with their music, doomed to perpetual obscurity.

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