All posts by Halldór H Bjarnason

Journalist. Traveler. Activist. Audio engineer. Music maker.

Racetraitor (interview)

In 1998, when performing songs off of their debut album, hardcore veterans Racetraitor regularly created both controversy and critical debate with their brutally honest shows. Racism, white supremacy, sexism, the prison industry, religion, their own privilege – nothing was off the table. When ‘Burn the Idol of the White Messiah‘ came out, 20 years ago, guitar player Dan remembers that the lyrics and ideas behind the album sparked conflict. Today on the other hand he recognises more of a longing from the audience for such a political debate. I spoke with Dan and bass player Decker about the band reentering the hardcore scene (with a new album that just dropped and is a gargantuan banger) and how things are different for them as artists now, both on and off the stage.

What made you step back up onto the stage?

Decker: The climate around the 2016 elections was the motivating factor for me. Don’t get me wrong, all of the previous US presidents have been illegitimate and served the interests of the white ruling class. Obama, who was the best president we will ever have, is a fucking war criminal. There just seemed to be something else opening up in terms of outright fascist and white supremacist thought which felt different. I mean now 2 years later we see things like the immigration policies which are literally referred to as the “Muslim ban”and it is completely normalized. We have always seen punk and hardcore as cultural resistance and we wanted play our small part.

Dan: For me the most pressing piece was the continued incidents and footage of black being ruthlessly murdered by the police. This wasn’t a foreign idea having done activism with black communities in Chicago, and having heard these accounts, and worse for years. There was something about seeing it, this wave of incidents. I think if you’re not experiencing that reality, no matter how much you try to stand in solidarity etc. it is hard to grasp the brutality without seeing it. For me seeing this re-sparked a level of outrage, and we had this vehicle that gives us a voice to reach more people. It seemed wrong not to use it. Selfishly, it also served as a productive emotional outlet. Add the Trump campaign to that, the reemergence of unapologetic fascism, racism, jingoism in mainstream politics,and the liberal lefts typical weak response. It felt musically and politically relevant.

Dan quote
Photo by Eduardo Ruiz – IG: @mylegsgavein

The band being active in the 90’s and then stepping back onto the stage now, because of the current political climate, must give you an interesting feel for the scene. How are people receiving your political talk on stage differently now than before? Has much changed?

Dan: We didn’t really know what to expect or how we’d be received. First time around these ideas and politics were much more unfamiliar to the scene and generated a lot of conflict. This time around people seemed to almost be looking for a rallying point for these types of politics. It’s been a warm supportive reception so far with some online trolls here and there keeping it “interesting”. We’ve been able to connect with some bands with similar politics and missions and it’s been overall a very inspiring and humbling experience.

Decker: We spend more time talking about what topics will be addressed in between songs than the actual setlist. We feel a responsibility to clearly communicate the more nuanced content of the songs. I think Mani has done a really good job of personalizing some of the issues in a way that makes it relatable for people who might be hearing these ideas for the first time.

What do you hope to achieve each time you have the stage and an audience in front of you?

Dan: If we inspire others and ourselves to look at how we can be effective instruments of change and action the mission’s accomplished. Again we want to continue to expand ours and others’ awareness of the brutal conditions oppressed communities experience and look at how we can use privilege and access to destroy systems of oppression.

Decker: We are all part of this weird hardcore/punk community, I mean I can literally connect with someone who I have never met before over the first Earth Crisis 7 inch and be friends for life. We hope to play our small part in inspiring this community to be its best self and support each other to be active in whatever way makes sense.

It seems like some people don’t understand that no matter how ‘radical’ any sort of activism can get, it always pales in comparison to how radically horrendous this world can be. How does it affect you when someone says you are ‘too radical’?

Dan: “Too Radical” is an interesting notion. I think what may seem radical to one person, is not that radical to another. We have all personally explored some pretty radical fringe stuff, so in some ways, even though our message is the same, from my perspective we’re being pretty reasonable now hahaha.

In the States I think there is a severe case of historical amnesia; segregation, slavery and lynchings weren’t very long ago. These are institutions that have long lasting effects on the Psyche of communities and huge economic repercussions that are long lasting and still effect people’s lives today. And of course these institutions still exist in different forms today.

So my opinion is we aren’t saying anything that “radical” we are talking about historical and current realities of the political and economic systems and they way the impact human beings. Nothing we’re saying can’t be empirically substantiated. Part of the problem is American society is constructed in a way to keep people practically functionally illiterate, inundated with work, sub-par public education and overwhelmed with consumerism. Add the flood of information from so many varied sources, and people haven’t learned to differentiate what are legitimate empirical sources, it is difficult for people to have a reference point or context for what is happening around them.

Do you have any bad or weird experiences with the audience’s reaction to what you have said on stage?

Decker: When we first started in the 90s there was way more weird reactions from people at the shows – to be honest we caused a lot of it. This time around we have been way more in community building mode than calling people out. I think some people have been disappointed that we aren’t calling everyone crackers.

What advice do you have for young artists who want to use their voice to spread political/activist messages through their music?

Decker: I think you just can’t listen to the cynics and their apologies for this white supremacist capitalist system within our scene. They will always have a reason why you shouldn’t do or say something. It will never look cool. It is important that you are connected to real communities and real work to inform your art or music.

Mani mentioned in a recent interview that the song Dar Al-Harb had some seriously controversial lyrics for its time. Is there anything today that makes you wonder about whether or not to tackle it in lyrics?

Decker: No, I don’t think anything is really off the table. I know Mani had to deal with that song because of his work and I have been asked about the band a few times in my “professional life” but our lyrics aren’t even that straight forward anyway. They are more in the modality of Sufi poetry than traditional protest songs. If we could write a song like Phil Ochs or Nina Simone we would be stoked but I think it just doesn’t come out that way for Mani or I when we write them. It’s these interviews that will get us in trouble haha!!!

You recently released a single, BLK XMAS, off a new LP. Can you tell us a bit about how the creative process has been different now than on for example Burn The Idol of the White Messiah (1998)?

Dan: One thing that has been amazing is re engaging with the band, in some ways feels seamless. I love that the song was fully collaborative. Everyone has a significant finger print on it. The other thing I love about it is the skeleton was completed Xmas eve.

Probably the biggest aspect that has been different on the new material (Invisible Battles…, By the time… and 2042) is technology. A lot of the “skeletons” of songs are demoed with me and Decker in Chicago, on Garage Band, then sent out, and worked over by everyone. Without that we couldn’t have done it. The current technology gives us more ability to continue the writing process in a collaborative way with Andy in Portland, Mani in NY, me and Decker in Chicago.

I think we’re all older, slightly better at communicating (haha) and appreciate each other and the process in a wholly different way then from when we were kids.

Will you revive Racetraitor again in 2042?

Decker: God no.

Are you following any current protest music?

Dan: Definitely Run the Jewels, SECT, HIRS collective, Wake of Humanity, La Armada, and Propagandhi, there is so much good music out there right now it’s hard to keep up.

Decker: Our collective favorite newer band is Redbait from St. Louis. If you haven’t already, you really need to check them out!

Decker quote
Photo by Eduardo Ruiz – IG: @mylegsgavein

Do you feel there is a lot of bands today using their voice responsibly or not enough?

Dan: “It seems there are a lot of bands using their voice in that way. But there is also a lot of music out there, so I don’t know if proportionally it’s increased. Obviously I think protest music is important, but I think music that delves into different and all human experience is important as well.”

Outside Racetraitor, do you partake in your community or activism of any sort?

Decker: “We are involved at various levels in our personal and professional lives. If it was any other way I don’t think this band would work. They range from immigration to human rights to “criminal justice” reform to environmental to community organizing work. I specifically have been very much involved in community violence prevention in the US and Latin America, working to end mass incarceration here in the US, and have long standing work/ties to post-genocide Guatemala. I don’t think any of us in Racetraitor are under the illusion that we are doing enough. What we love about punk and hardcore is that it can be a community that supports each other to be more active in the cities/countries where we live. That’s what we are interested in. Fuck cynicism.”

What is on the horizon for the band?

Decker: “We are putting out the record 2042 on Good Fight this month (October) and will be playing a bunch of shows over the course of 2019. We are also working on a project that is going to combine the lyrical content of the band with short documentary series. The members of the band are actively involved in the issues we write songs about and are privileged enough to have access to many places and people that many do not. The project is our attempt to bridge the two and communicate the larger issues outside of a two minute hardcore/punk song. We will see if we can pull it off.”

Thank you again for participating and for the music! Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?

Decker: “Thanks for the interest and I would strongly suggest that everyone takes a hour of their day and listen to Public Enemy’s ‘Fear of a Black Planet’.”

 

2042 is out on Good Fight Records on October 12th. Below is the second single off the new album, titled Cataclysm, featuring members of La Armada, Decline, Redbait, LIFES, Through N ThroughMalinche and Turnspit. The cover photo is by Eduardo Ruiz – IG: @mylegsgavein


Lee Brickley (interview)

Last August, a debut album was released called Songs For Rojava. The songs are all dedicated to “freedom fighters around the world” and a special focus is directed towards the Rojava revolution. The musician and activist behind the album is a self taught singer-songwriter, writer, activist and, more specifically, an anarcho-communist. All this led me to believe he’d be a perfect fit for a Shouts interview. Hit the play button above for a protest music soundtrack to the interview!

 

Who is Lee Brickley?

“I’ve been a freelance writer for the last five years, but my real passion has always been songwriting. After teaching myself to play the guitar at age 12, I started writing my own music almost immediately. Since that time I’ve written thousands of songs on many different subjects, but in recent years my music has taken a political slant, and that has thankfully put me in a position where I now have somewhat of a fan-base and am able to release my music publicly.

If you’re asking about my political views, I’d call myself an anarcho-communist, in that I believe it is possible for society to organise in variations of a commune-like structure without an authoritarian state at the helm. This is why I find Democratic Confederalism (the system currently in full swing in Rojava) to be of particular interest, and thus, why I chose to release my latest album that attempts to educate listeners on the Kurdish struggle and the Rojava feminist revolution.”

 

When did realise that you wanted to send out a message through music?

“I think I realised it was important to write songs aimed at educating, amusing, and encouraging social change when I was very young. Even as a 12 year old with my first £50 guitar in hand, I attempted to replicate the greats like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. I might not have quite understood the significance of their lyrics back then, but their songs spoke to me more than any others.

It has only been during the last couple of years that my songs have begun to get attention, and I believe that is because conditions have deteriorated across the world, and the international working class is closer to revolution than at any point during my lifetime. I write songs about worker’s revolts, I write anti-monarchist music, and I despise the class system. The number of people who agree with me seems to increase every day, and so, as a songwriter, my natural instinct is to create a soundtrack for the revolution.”

Lee Brickley quote photo 2

Has your music always been political? 

“My music hasn’t always been political, and I have hundreds of songs about other subjects. I just think the current political situation globally should encourage all artists to turn their talents towards the issues at hand. We’ve had decades of freedom to dream and create art in all forms on all subjects, but the planet is in a terrible state, psychopaths are in control of nuclear arms, and 99% of people on this Earth are nothing more than slaves. I think it’s time artists and intellectuals did their part, just as the Kurdish, British, and Internationalist volunteers do in Rojava.”

 

What is your connection to Rojava? How did you learn of it? Why is it important to you?

“As I said, for me, the ideology behind the Rojava revolution is highly appealing. It’s not perfect, and it never will be – nothing is. However, it’s an ideology based on real democracy, freedom, and equality between races, religions, sexes, and minorities. Whatever happens in the future in Rojava, the ideas of Abdullah Ocalan and his ‘Manifesto for a Democratic Civilisation’ writings are some of the most rational, compassionate, and empowering I’ve ever come across.

I want to see an international revolution in which the people of the world remove the current banking system completely, redistribute wealth, eliminate the oil and gas industries in favour of renewable energy sources, remove all monarchies, aristocrats, and those born into positions of power. I want to see a bottom-up structure of organising society where people make the decisions that directly affect themselves, and upper-structures are only there to implement the will of the people. I see this happening in Rojava, and so it’s something I must support. And I encourage all others to do the same.”

 

How is the music scene where you live, in terms of activism and protest? Do you feel alone in using your voice how you do or do you have comrades around you doing similar things?

“There isn’t much of a music scene for political music where I’m based, and so most of my releases etc happen online. However, I am planning a tour for 2019 which will see me play around the UK, Ireland, and Europe. I should be announcing some of the dates for that tour in a few weeks.”

 

How do you feel people are receiving protest music these days?

“Due to the state of the world at the moment, and the fact that politicians are clearly only focused on keeping the peace while dictatorial corporations pillage and rape the planet – I think people are now looking to protest music more than at any point since the 1960s. Which is good news for me because it means more and more folks out there are listening to my songs, but I’d imagine those in positions of power are getting rather concerned. And they should be concerned.”

Lee Brickley quote photo

What’s your take on musicianship vs. journalism? Many protest singers used to write about very current topics, like a journalist, and some do still to this day. Do you think the media is not doing its job today?

“Despite the fact that my song called “Ocalan” repeatedly gets removed from Facebook and YouTube even though the lyrics are historically accurate and simply tell the life story of Abdullah Ocalan up until his imprisonment in 1997, I still think I can get away with saying things in songs journalists wouldn’t dare to write in their propaganda mainstream news articles. But even I appear to be treading a thin line. There are more and more people being arrested in the UK for supporting the Kurdish struggle in one way or another all the time. And there have also been some arrests of songwriters for releasing music on other subjects.

So I don’t necessarily blame the journalists for not having the balls to write articles that go against the official propaganda line of the state. They risk being classed as a terrorist and getting arrested just like me. The only difference is I realise that I have nothing to lose but my chains, and they’re wrapped up in their ever-so-important lives.”

 

What about activism versus art? Should they be mixed? Do you ever get feedback or criticism regarding that?

“There are a lot of people out there who think musicians and songwriters should keep out of politics, but those people shamefully underestimate the power music and lyrics can have over a human being’s perceptions. When the mainstream music industry is filled with songs about sex and getting wasted; what happens? We get a society filled with teenage mothers and drug addicts. People who listened to that music and took inspiration from it long before they were experienced enough to make a rational decision on the matter. Music is incredibly powerful.

If you want to start a revolution, raising an army and asking the IRA for information about their old gun-smuggling routes simply isn’t enough. Not this time anyway. If the people of the UK and other countries around the world are to rid themselves of their authoritarian rulers, they must be united in their efforts. Art and music are essential tools for educating the masses, showing them the reality of their situation, and teaching them how to free themselves.”

Do you partake in activism outside the music?

“Yes. I regularly attend protests for issues I think matter. I also write articles and blog posts, and sometimes I’ve been known to engage in a bit of guerrilla art.”

 

Who are you musical heroes? What about current protest musicians? Anything you are following or can recommend?

“My musical heroes have to be people like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, James Taylor, Neil Young, and Johnny Cash, but there are really too many to mention. As far as current protest singers, I’d like to mention a couple of people that everyone should check out. David Rovics has been writing and releasing protest songs for what seems like forever, and he really is a master in the game. Seriously. There’s also a guy from the UK who’s blowing my mind at the moment called Joe Solo. Check out his song Start a revolution in an empty room.”

 

What is on the horizon for you?

“I am about to record another eight songs that I will release under the title of “The Working Class Revolution EP” ahead of the tour of the same name I am currently in the process of planning in Europe. I still have lots of room available to book extra shows, and the tour will run from April 2019 onwards. If there is anyone out there who would like to arrange a show, please feel free to get in touch with me and I’ll be happy to discuss and send all the information.”

 

Thank you very much for participating and for the music. Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?

“No problem! And yes, there is! I give all my music away for free to anyone who asks for it. It’s possible to buy it online, but I upload it to YouTube, Spotify, and other places so anyone can listen for free. I also happily send out MP3 files of all my music to anyone who sends me an email asking. The reason for this is that I want to make sure as many people as possible hear and enjoy my songs, and I completely understand how tough it is out there at the moment financially. So if anyone wants all my music for free, just email me 🙂

Likewise, anyone who wants to support my music and ensure I can continue to write political songs, record them, and distribute them for free to the masses can make donations however big or small [insert: Lee’s PayPal site].

Thanks for the interview!”

You can also follow Lee’s work through his social media and the event page for the online concert here can be found below:

 


Raye Zaragoza (interview)

Cover photo by Terry Bruce Herring

Since releasing her debut album ‘Fight For You’ (2017) Raye Zaragoza has been titled a protest singer, and she is fine with that. Injustice and inequality inspire her to write songs that can power protesters in their fights for nature and fellow people. But Raye is also more than just a protest singer as she explains in the interview below. She tackles anything that inspires her with an enormously soothing voice and vulnerable honesty. Raye was kind enough to take time while on tour to answer a few questions about her music and activism.

First off, for those not familiar with your work, who is Raye Zaragoza?

“Hi everyone! I’m an LA-based, New York City-born singer-songwriter. My latest album Fight For You is a collection of songs of social justice and finding your voice. I’m very passionate about writing about topics that are not talked about in mainstream music such as politics and indigenous rights.”

How and when did you get into making music?

“I started writing songs in my late teenage years, but I’ve been singing and playing guitar since I was 12. In middle school, I had a little band with my friends and we played Avril Lavigne and Vanessa Carlton songs at local restaurants in Hell’s Kitchen, New York (where I lived in my pre-teen years). I grew up doing musical theater, and always knew I wanted to be a performer, but it wasn’t until my late teenage years that I realized being a singer-songwriter is what I always wanted to be doing.”

When did you realise you could use your music to spread messages of protest or activism?

“Although I had written some social justice songs before this, I really started writing songs with an activist message during the Standing Rock movement. During that time I realized how much a song can comfort and inspire people who are fighting injustice. Speaking up can be a vulnerable and scary thing, and music can truly make you feel stronger and not alone. Many of my songs from Fight For You were written about Standing Rock and my journey there.”

How do you feel people are receiving your political music these days?

“With the exception of the expected occasional backlash, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s really been amazing to hear stories about how the songs have comforted people in tough times.”

How important is it for you to send out a specific message in your music? Are all your songs tackling a political subject?

“No — not all of my songs are tackling a political message. I write songs about all kinds of subjects — like nature, love, heartbreak, New York City, California, and anything else that inspires me! I’ve definitely been labeled as a protest songwriter after this album, and although I don’t have a problem with that, it’s definitely not all I do. I like to write songs with light-hearted messages too!”

Photo-by-Ursula-Vari-with-quote.jpg
Photo by Ursula Vari

Do you find it hard to balance between being political and poetic in your lyrics?

“I think that’s exactly my favorite part about it — when the poetry meets the politics. When a verse or a line can help make sense of the madness around us. I feel like social justice music is really what keeps the movement moving and the activists inspired — so for me, even if it’s a challenge at times, finding the balance is the most rewarding part.”

How do you see the current music scene, is there an abundance of socially conscious music today or a lack of people using their voice and talent for good?

“I think there are definitely more and more artists speaking up through their music. I think regardless of whether an artist writes social justice songs or not, it’s very important to be vocal on their platforms. People look to artists for guidance and inspiration — so it’s important we share a positive message.”

What are some of your inspirations or favourite protest musicians out there, active or not?

“I love Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. I also love my friends Calina Lawrence and Nahko Bear who are doing so much as activists and artists currently.”

Outside the music, do you partake in any other activism?

“Absolutely. Whenever I’m not on the road, I am very involved in my indigenous community in LA. Last year, I participated in the Run4Salmon, and March to Oak Flat — two indigenous rights causes very in need of support (everyone should look them up!). This year, I hope to return to both and continue to contribute to the protection of indigenous sites around the country.”

Photo 2 by Ursula Vari
Photo by Ursula Vari

What is on the horizon for you?

“I am currently working on my next album that will be released in 2019. I am also touring around the US, Canada, and Europe for the rest of 2018!”

Thank you very much for participating and for the music you make. Anything else you’d like to shout from the rooftops?

“Thank you for having me! if you’re hearing of me for the first time, I hope to meet you at a live show soon!!!”

You can catch Raye currently on tour. Check out her webpage for further details.