Argument

You Say You Want a Revolution

Before there was Pussy Riot, there were the Plastic People of the Universe. An FP List of musicians who took on their governments -- and became historical icons.

"Why a punk rock band?" Christiane Amanpour, interviewing a former Russian government official, asked on CNN on Aug. 2. "What is President Putin so afraid of?" The band in question was Pussy Riot, whose members -- three Russian feminist artists -- are on trial in Moscow for "hooliganism" following a confrontational guerrilla performance in an Orthodox cathedral. As the trial has mushroomed into a broader debate over political and cultural freedom in Vladimir Putin's Russia, the president has cautioned leniency in the case. It's a characteristically canny move by the Russian leader: In the history of asymmetrical conflict between musical provocateurs and repressive regimes, the strongman rarely gets the last laugh.

TROPICÁLIA (BRAZIL)

On March 31, 1964, troops loyal to the rogue general Olímpio Mourão Filho marched on Brazil's seaside metropolis of Rio de Janeiro, the beginning of a coup that toppled the democratically elected government of leftist President João Goulart and plunged the country into two decades of military dictatorship. Four years later, a collective of musicians from the state of Bahia, led by the singers Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, released Tropicália: ou Panis et Circensis, a genre-defying manifesto of an album that launched an arts movement of the same name. The Tropicalistas criticized the military regime in the album's lyrics and sardonic subtitle -- "Bread and Circuses" -- but their riskiest political statement was musical.

Tropicália cut and pasted traditional Brazilian bossa nova and samba with the psychedelia of the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, the sonic experiments of musique concréte, and the aesthetic provocations of French New Wave film. The resulting collage was an act of defiance in a country where military rulers and leftist nationalists alike believed that keeping Brazil's celebrated musical tradition free of foreign influence was a patriotic necessity. Within a year, Veloso and Gil were imprisoned and then exiled to London, where they stayed until 1972.

But as the regime's cultural crackdown worsened, forcing even musical traditionalists like Chico Buarque to wait out the early 1970s in Europe, Brazilians came to see the Tropicalistas as political heroes -- and, in time, cultural icons every bit as Brazilian as their predecessors. Eighteen years after Brazil returned to democracy, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva made the rehabilitation official, naming Gil his minister of culture.

 

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THE PLASTIC PEOPLE OF THE UNIVERSE (CZECHOSLOVAKIA)

Like Brazil's Tropicália movement, Czechoslovakia's Plastic People of the Universe emerged from their country's longhaired bohemian underground in the singular cultural season of 1968, channeling foreign influences -- outré American musicians like Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground -- into a distinctly local brand of experimental rock. Unlike Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, however, the Plastics had no particular intention of tilting against the political status quo. The band formed amid the Prague Spring, when Alexander Dubcek, the Czechoslovakian Communist Party's reform-minded new leader, tried to institute a raft of liberalization measures. But the political and cultural opening was summarily crushed by the Soviet Union eight months later, and the Soviet-approved authoritarians who succeeded Dubcek were not amused by the Plastics' playfully transgressive music. The government revoked the band's musicians' license in 1970 and arrested and tried its members for "organized disturbance of the peace" six years later.

Although the Plastics were convicted and sent to prison, the trial became a flashpoint for the Eastern Bloc's nascent pro-democracy movement. In January 1977, more than 200 political activists and public intellectuals, inspired by the trial, signed a letter demanding greater protection of human rights and tried (unsuccessfully) to deliver it to the Czechoslovakian government. Charter 77, as it was called, marked the beginning of the country's movement toward democracy that culminated 12 years later in the Velvet Revolution, and the election of the poet Václav Havel -- one of the charter's authors -- as Czechoslovakia's president. By that point, the Plastics had broken up, but they reunited in 1997 at the urging of their old friend Havel, and still tour sporadically today.

 

 

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FELA KUTI (NIGERIA)

 

Few musicians have made their political rebellion quite as literal as Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the Nigerian bandleader who pioneered the genre of hypnotic funk known as Afrobeat and spent his life railing against Western colonialism, corruption, and military rule in his country. Returning to Nigeria in 1970 after several years abroad -- including a stint in the United States, where he absorbed the uncompromising politics of the Black Power movement -- Kuti established a small compound around his three-story house and recording studio in Lagos, named it the Kalakuta Republic, and declared its independence from Nigeria. The Nigerian government was less than pleased, and years of military raids and confrontations ensued. Things came to a head in 1977, when Kuti released "Zombie," a song with acidic lyrics mocking the blind obedience of the soldiers in the Nigerian military, which had seized power in a coup two years earlier. A thousand soldiers raided the Kalakuta Republic, burning the building to the ground and throwing Kuti's elderly mother out a second-floor window (she later died of her injuries).

The incident solidified Kuti's iconic status in Nigeria as well as his defiance; he went on to call out the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo -- a childhood friend of Kuti's who at the time was serving at the behest of the Nigerian military -- by name in songs like "Coffin for Head of State" and "ITT -- International Thief Thief." A documentary filmmaker memorably interviewed Kuti in 1979 in a cramped house elsewhere in Lagos, surrounded by wives -- he had married his band's 27 backup singers in a single ceremony the previous year -- listlessly smoking enormous joints. "If you are in England, music can be an instrument of enjoyment," Kuti said. "You can sing about love, you can sing about who you're going to bed with next. But in my environment, my society ... there's no music of enjoyment, nothing like love. It is something like a struggle for people's existence."

By the time he died in 1997 of AIDS -- a disease which, even on his deathbed, he insisted didn't exist -- Kuti had formed his own political party, attempted to run for president (his candidacy was refused), and been imprisoned twice by two different governments he had antagonized on dubious charges of currency smuggling and murder. Two years later, Nigeria successfully transitioned from military dictatorship to democracy, under the resumed leadership of Kuti's old nemesis Obasanjo. The country still struggles with crippling corruption, however -- and Kuti's complicated legacy still looms large in the cultural consciousness, an omnipresent reminder that there is always something worth fighting against.

 

 

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HUGH MASEKELA (SOUTH AFRICA)

Hugh Masekela's three-decade voluntary exile from Apartheid-era South Africa began as a matter of necessity; in 1960, the 20-year-old trumpeter set out for the United States in order to study jazz in its native land. When he attempted to return to Johannesburg several years later, however, things had begun to go very wrong in his hometown. "It was a rough time, when the Apartheid government first started showing that if you don't behave, they'll shoot you -- women and children too," Masekela recalled in a 2009 interview. "You saw police with guns, with machine guns, and for the first time you saw tanks. We had a group called the Jazz Epistles and we were about to take off on a national tour. We were the first African group to play on an LP, but gatherings of more than 10 people were banned so we couldn't do our tour."

In the early 1980s, Masekela set up a recording studio and music school outside of Gaborone, Botswana, on the bank of the river separating Botswana from South Africa. He was forced to flee in 1985, however, after South African soldiers raided the area (they were officially looking for terrorists). By the end of the decade, Masekela had become one of Apartheid's most outspoken detractors on the cultural stage, performing protest songs like the Nelson Mandela anthem "Bring Him Back Home" when he toured the United States with Paul Simon. (Simon's involvement with South African music was then, and remains, controversial; he had recorded 1986's Graceland with South African musicians in violation of a cultural embargo of the Apartheid government, though the album's enormous success and Simon's subsequent tours with South African artists did bring attention to the anti-Apartheid struggle.) Masekela returned to Johannesburg in 1990, shortly after Mandela was released from prison; four years later, the country held its first multiracial elections.

 

 

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EL GÉNÉRAL (TUNISIA)

A little less than six weeks before fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of a provincial government building in central Tunisia, a 21-year-old rapper named El Général (born Hamada Ben Amor) posted a music video to his Facebook page. It was Nov. 7, 2010, the 20th anniversary of Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali's ascent to power; El Général's song, "Rais Lebled," (the title is a play off of "President of the Republic" in Arabic) was a brutally frank -- and, given the reputation of Ben Ali's security services, incredibly risky -- indictment of his rule. "Mr. President, your people are dying," he rapped over a spare, ominous beat. "People are eating rubbish/ Look at what is happening."

On Dec. 22, as Tunisia descended into chaos, El Général posted another song called "Tunisia Our Country," an anthem for the protests that had followed Bouazizi's self-immolation. Two days later, the police arrested him. "For 24 hours they insulted me," he later told Time magazine. "It was moral torture. They asked, ‘Who's behind you? Which party are you from?'"

By that point, however, El Général's music had become the soundtrack of the nascent Arab Spring -- and the rapper was enough of a celebrity that Ben Ali himself inquired about his condition in prison. A month later, Ben Ali had fled office and protesters in neighboring Egypt were chanting along with "Raes Lebled" in Tahrir Square. In the past year, however, El Général has returned to less world-historical concerns, recording a new album -- his first -- due out this year.

 

 

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Argument

Making Punk a Threat Again

Is Russia's Pussy Riot already the most politically influential punk rock group ever?

For a list of five other bands that have upended regimes and upset dictators, click here.

Pussy Riot is -- to borrow the Clash's mantle for a second -- the only band that matters. 

It almost doesn't matter what the court says. The three women of Pussy Riot -- an explosive, obnoxious cross between a band and an anonymous Russian dissidents' movement -- have, in an important sense, already won their farce of a trial in Moscow. Every day that their trial for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" continues, they call international attention to the paranoid repression of Vladimir Putin's Russia. Pussy Riot has skewered Putin on the horns of a dilemma: Either his government convicts the band and martyrs it even further, or it backs down and concedes that prosecuting the masked trio for a cacophonous musical protest at Christ the Savior Cathedral that called attention to the Russian church's alliance with the Putin regime was always a mistake. Three of the five band members now face the prospect of seven years in prison, which has prompted an unlikely international outcry. On Thursday, Aug. 2, ahead of a meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Putin indicated he'd prefer to back down.

This is not supposed to happen. Dissidents do not fare well in Putinist Russia, for one; for another, punk rock -- rock 'n' roll's snottier, wittier, and more abrasive bastard child -- does not typically win. Punk has a long history of aspiring to disrupt corrupt and authoritarian governments, corporations, and other structures of international power. But it does not have a long history of success. Accordingly, punk rock has set more achievable, less globalized political goals: typically, localized protests and raising consciousness. Pussy Riot, obscure just months ago, is now an international phenomenon, with the three band members proclaimed prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International and the band the darling of long-suffering Russian intellectuals who have rallied to its defense. And while no one may be talking about the group for its music, a look back at the history of punk rock's earlier geopolitical achievements shows that Pussy Riot has already surpassed them -- and perhaps given punk rock a future as a global force for justice and freedom.

It didn't take long for punk to move from the no-future nihilism of the Sex Pistols, the legendary mid-1970s British band that basically started punk rock. The Clash quickly turned punk's attention to global struggles. Joe Strummer, the Clash's creative force, had punk rock singing about the Spanish Civil War, the Jamaican underclass, the martyrdom of Chilean leftist poet Víctor Jara, even, on a record titled Sandinista!, about the victims of Soviet and Chinese communism. In Northern Ireland, contemporary Stiff Little Fingers sang about creating a different kind of insurgency -- the band called it an "anti-security force," as the group opposed the local militias alongside the British -- on "Alternative Ulster." Punk fractured into endless obscure subgenres and spread worldwide, but a common theme persisted: resistance to arbitrary, brutal global power, something that can be heard in everything from the politicized crust punk of Britain's Discharge to the melodic hardcore of Canada's Propagandhi to the abrasive folk of Florida's Against Me!. Punk channeled youthful angst into an anti-war, anti-government, and anti-corporate catechism.

But those ambitions did not yield tangible geopolitical results. Perhaps the high-water mark of punk's geopolitical relevance came from a single British band that had outlived its peak late-1970s creative period. The pioneers of a particularly abrasive kind of punk -- you'll know it from the relentless, militant snare-drumming -- Crass stood for anarchism, pacifism, and humor (sometimes humorlessly so). But it took an actual war in the Falkland Islands for Crass, by then far past its prime, to spring into action. Their typically caustic single asked British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher "How Does It Feel (to Be the Mother of a Thousand Dead)?" An improbable indie chart-topper, it prompted Tory parliamentarian Tim Eggar to attempt to have Crass prosecuted under an anti-obscenity law.

Escaping the authorities, Crass pulled off a prank that foreshadowed Pussy Riot's success. In 1983, the band secretly provided credulous journalists with a tape purporting to reveal a conversation between Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan. It seemingly confirmed left-wing paranoia about both conservative leaders: Reagan appeared to urge restraint on a bloodthirsty Thatcher when discussing the Falklands; Thatcher got Reagan to muse about sacrificing Europe in a nuclear exchange with the Soviets. The tape quickly spiraled into an international incident. The U.S. State Department and the CIA claimed it was Soviet disinformation: "This type of activity fits the pattern of fabrications circulated by the Soviet K.G.B., although usually they involve fake documents rather than tapes," read an official State Department statement. The Sunday Times ran a story headlined "How the KGB Fools the West's Press." The point made and the governments embarrassed, Crass band members admitted to the Associated Press that they, not the Soviets, were the architects of the hoax.

Nearly 30 years later, the furor is forgotten. Crass is better remembered for its first two albums, The Feeding of the 5000 and Stations of the Crass, than for the so-called "Thatchergate Tapes." For people like me, who continue to take this music far too seriously, that unfortunately says a lot for the geopolitical relevance of punk rock.

Ever since, to the degree that punk has political objectives -- and there has always been a sizable contingent within the punk scene dissenting from that proposition -- they've manifested in two forms: protest and local challenge. Washington, D.C.'s legendary 1980s hardcore punk scene symbolizes the first. In the summer of 1985, a year punks nationwide remember as D.C.'s "Revolution Summer," local punks like Guy Picciotto of the band Rites of Spring brought drums to the South African Embassy to harass the representatives of the apartheid regime. "We thought we'd inject a little spontaneity into it," Picciotto, dissatisfied with the then-rote protests, recollected. Jeff Nelson, co-founder of the crucial D.C. hardcore label Dischord Records, plastered area walls on Christmas 1987 with a poster mocking Attorney General Ed Meese. The Justice Department called the public propaganda "obnoxious"; its origins stumped the Washington Post. Soon afterward, Picciotto's subsequent band Fugazi, Dischord's flagship act, would perform shows on the National Mall, denouncing the Gulf War.

The other option has been localized action -- either to change local communities or to change the way people exposed to punk rock see the world. In every American city that has a punk scene -- which is to say every American city -- you'll find its members in parks, usually on weekends, cooking vegetarian food to distribute free to all comers, served up with anti-war pamphlets, in a political ritual called Food Not Bombs. Alternatively, other bands have worked to desegregate punk itself, an overwhelmingly white, male, and straight subculture. One of the best bands of the 1990s, Chicago's Los Crudos, was an all-Latino band that sang almost exclusively in Spanish, provoking white youth to consider what it's like to be a cultural outsider; its singer, Martin Sorrondeguy, went on to start Limp Wrist, a rare out, gay hardcore band.

All these efforts have meant a tremendous amount to the millions of people whose lives have been enriched by punk, which, at its best, instills an ethic of personal responsibility and self-reliance that outsiders can find difficult to reconcile with punk's shambolic aesthetics. (When no large venues will book your band, you have to build a tour network of people's basements and couches yourself, after all.) But they haven't meant much for international affairs -- admittedly, a near-impossible goal for what remains a youth movement. Punk protest has become something of an end to itself -- "Protest and Survive," as Discharge ironically sang -- a merit badge to earn or a ritual for punks to uphold. Punk still confronts war and injustice in its lyrics -- Crudos' still-amazing "Asesinos" is about U.S. support for Central American despots -- but like most artists, its geopolitical impact is marginal. The motto of the venerable Minneapolis anarcho-punk label Profane Existence is -- revealingly and somewhat pathetically -- "Making Punk a Threat Again."

Pussy Riot may not reverse that trend. Punk remains primarily a Western phenomenon, which means, as Propagandhi sang, "I recognize the irony that the very system I oppose affords me the luxury of biting the hand that feeds." Punks who don't actually live under real authoritarian governments don't face the high stakes that the members of Pussy Riot do. But while punk rock mobilized heavily against the 2003 Iraq war, releasing fundraiser albums for activist organizations and throwing anti-war concerts on the National Mall, they didn't so much as attract George W. Bush's attention. Pussy Riot, however, clearly has Putin's.

But maybe it takes a punk visionary to truly recognize Pussy Riot's potential. The band's "method of protest hinges on anonymity. They have created a method of protest that is full of possibility and can be used globally, across international borders," Tobi Vail observed to the indie culture magazine Dazed & Confused on Aug. 2. "Putin can jail individual members of the collective, but how can he stop the potential for new members to join or keep the movement from spreading beyond Russia?"

If anyone knows about creating a method of protest that's full of possibility and applicable across international borders, it's Vail, one of the most inspiring figures punk rock ever produced. The bicoastal band she drummed for, Bikini Kill, transcended its punk roots to become arguably the most important feminist rock group of all time. The "riot grrrl" movement that Bikini Kill helped forge represented a watershed for women demanding representation in an overwhelmingly male underground culture, and it quickly went global. Bikini Kill's caustic performances were political events in miniature: They double-dared women to be who they will and demanded that men confront their privilege, rather than congratulate themselves for being enlightened enough to attend the show.

Indeed, consider what Vail recognized. Pussy Riot performed anonymously at the Moscow church, its members' faces covered in colorful balaclavas. They can be anyone and that might be the inspiration for the next Pussy Riot. It just so happens that as their trial began, punk's most influential chronicle, the fanzine Maximumrocknroll, published its 30th-anniversary issue. The only article about the impact punk continues to have internationally was about Pussy Riot -- an implicit recognition that three women haven't just shamed Putin and indicted his gangsterism, but have redeemed the aspirations of a global protest culture.

Igor Mukhin via wikiamedia.org