According to some sources up to 52 people have died in recent protests in Ethiopia. The protesters stormed the streets of capital city Addis Ababa in the wake of the killing of a popular musician and activist, one Hachalu Hundessa.
Hundessa has been known to write politically driven songs that criticize the Ethiopian government, an act for which he received numerous death threats and had to flee to the United States. Later he decided to move back home to be with his people, unafraid of the oppression he could face. Tragically, this oppression eventually took his life for as some sources say the local police believe his murder was a targeted attack.
With a constantly shifting lineup of artists now split between Sweden and the U.K., Crippled Black Phoenix have long eluded an easy description. “Stoner prog,” “freak folk,” and “psych doom” approach the general flavor but fall short of encapsulating the dynamic and emotive range of sounds the band displays. There is an undeniable sense of largeness in their music, and to sit with it is to let that largeness wash over and inhabit you, with all its varied textures and impressions. Behind each album’s somberly visceral crescendos—replete with a confidently erratic admixture of industrial noise, delicate keys, and a host of strings and horns—is not just a story of deft, seeking musicianship, but, looking more deeply into the band’s repertoire, of a group of artists deeply concerned with the welfare of animals.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with the band’s ringleader, Justin Greaves, and vocalist and lyricist, Belinda Kordic. Shared below are their thoughtful responses about the intersection of music and animal activism.
Nathaniel Youmans:Can you describe how the injustices against animals, and the long work to be done to improve and ensure their welfare, figure into your music? How do your music and art provide an opportunity for you, personally, to enter into meaningful dialogues for oppressed beings?
Justin Greaves: Well, it’s simple: as a band we have a voice, so it would be wrong not to use it. Personally, I believe in animal welfare and an end to cruelty of all kinds. I didn’t go to college to learn my methods of spreading awareness, instead I learned a lot from bands and artists such as New Model Army, Crass, Subhumans, and Man Is the Bastard, amongst many. I just couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t use the band as a voice for the voiceless. We hate bullies of all kinds. CBP stands firmly against them. If what we post on social media or what we write songs about encourages a conversation, or even criticisms, about the mistreatment of animals, then we can sleep at night knowing we’re simply shining a light on a huge injustice in this world.
NY: I’d like to talk about the song “Nebulas.” It sounds, ostensibly, more on the upbeat end of your vast musical spectrum. A close reading of the lyrics, however, reveals the anguish and helplessness that come from knowing how many animals are abused and mistreated every day, as well as the seemingly insurmountable limitations of our ability as individuals to relieve the suffering of the marginalized and abused. This is a beautiful song, and the tensions between its sonic and lyrical qualities makes it a highly effective charge to pay more attention to the welfare of animals. Are the themes in this song steady and present through your music? How does animal welfare inform your writing process and collaboration efforts as musicians and citizens?
JG: The oppression of animals is always a theme we will return to as a band. It’s always been there, but now with Belinda being more of a lyricist for the past few years, she can put this theme into words better than anyone. It is one reason we work well together. As the writer of the music, I’m basically influenced by the human condition and injustices we commit and also endure as a species.
Belinda Kordic: I had had this “letter asking for forgiveness” in me for quite some time. I was struggling quite badly with this guilt trip of not being able to end the suffering, torment, and abuse of animals. I just needed to put it into words or else I would have crumbled. I have, and still am, struggling mentally with this. Flashing images of abused, neglected, and caged animals is a daily battle, and it truly hurts me to the core. Maybe I can save a few, but what about the rest? And therein lies the frustration and heartbreaking guilt. It eats at you. I guess I just wanted them to know they are never forgotten.
NY: Acknowledging that Crippled Black Phoenix is an enigmatic project with many rotating members and collaborators, where are you based right now? What is happening in those areas, beyond COVID-19 troubles, particularly in the realm of ecological crisis, animal suffering, and political strife? How does your current environment influence your songwriting and civic engagement?
JG: I guess we’re based partly in the UK and partly in Sweden, so we have very different social concerns within the band. Of course, the animal welfare subject is a worldwide issue which rings true with all of us, but here in the UK the ecological disaster is somewhat more extreme than Sweden. The UK is on a journey downwards into a dark place, politically and ecologically. The two are tied together now because our country is run by super-capitalists who have no problem raping our resources and indulging in over-development in order to gain wealth. I can’t make a difference just by writing music, but I can make myself be heard and hopefully encourage others to think more for themselves and to see more than just what the mainstream media feeds us. I guess we all can do as much as we can with the resource and abilities we have at hand.
NY: From Eurasian lynx to European bison, wolves, and bears, the UK has lost nearly all of its large wildlife. Species like pine martens—there as well as in my home state of Washington—are under threat, and sea eagles are making a promising, if slow and tenuous, recovery from the brink of extirpation. Please weigh in with your thoughts on the UK’s extinct, threatened, and endangered species, as well as efforts to protect and conserve them and their habitats.
JG: You look at Scotland, for instance, and the authorities there are starting to make a positive difference in the conservation of animals such as pine martens, otters, and various birds of prey, and also beginning talks of reintroduction of large predatory animals like wolves. Unfortunately, we still have the leftover class-system, where the farming class and the upper class get away with illegal blood sports like fox hunts, deer hunts, badger culling, mink farming, grouse shooting, pheasant shooting… The list goes on, and shows no signs of stopping. These people are stuck in a time long gone, but, crazy as it may sound, the hunting community here is largely made up of politicians, lords and ladies, wealthy land owners, corporate bosses, and the justice system’s hierarchy of judges and police commissioners. So, it is a long, tough fight to help our wildlife here in the UK. As long as there is the attitude of using animals for disgusting entertainment and eating habits, we will always have threatened species. The farming industry—dairy and meat—has a big impact on the environment, and consequentially the wildlife. There are a few very righteous people and organisations who make a small difference, but there are just not enough… Yet.
NY: Are there any particular organizations you support or want to draw attention to? How can fans share in your passion for animal activism?
JG: I support the Hunt Saboteur Association, Hounds Off, Animal Equality UK, Pennypaws Romania to UK Rescue, Arm the Animals, Sea Shepard, Cat’s Protection League, Animal Rescue Crew, Keep The Ban, International Anti-Fascist Movement, Stop Funding Hate, Sabcat, Bodhi Dog Rescue and Shelter, Pudz Animal Sanctuary, Animal Aid, The Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation… Anyone can make a difference by supporting these great causes, not only by donating, but by buying products which support them and also by simply sharing their pages and posts on social media.
BK: You can never sign enough petitions. It could make a difference. Support your local animal shelter in any way, big or small. And maybe don’t shy away from posting about animal abuse. I know a lot of people do not want to see it, but it is important to be reminded about it. There is a lot of this “if you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist” mentality. But it is happening and this is the sad truth. Social media can be shite, but at the same time it is a strong tool for educating people and getting the truth out there. Also, simply being vocal about being vegan can encourage conversation. For example, my workmates know I’m vegan and they have become more curious about the lifestyle. Some of them had absolutely no idea about the mistreatment of male chicks in the factory-farming industry. They were frankly quite shocked and surprised when I told them about it. Some of my workmates have now even adapted to a more plant-based diet. Small steps in a positive direction…
NY: My best friend is a chubby cat named Squirrel who acts like a dog and flops around like an elephant seal. She dozes in sunspots, chews her claws and spits them out on my bed, and lives a pretty cushy life. Would you like to tell me about the furry, scaled, or feathered friends in your lives?
JG: We have six cats now, after our beloved Nell and Tigger left this world recently. Now we have four moggies named Frank, Vitaly, Pastor, and Rubens. And two Bengals called Bear and Fangs. They’re our family! Like kids, y’know? They’re all nuts, and very special, all rescued as kittens or kittens of rescue cats. Some have also featured on CBP album covers and on our social media from time to time. I’ve always had rescue animals, also rabbits, chinchillas, small rodents, etc… It’s a long list!
BK: They are my children! May not be biological (duh) but I love them like my own blood. Life without them would not be a life worth living. When Justin calls me on Skype he gets a quick hello then “Let me speak to the kids!!!” They make me a better person. And God do they make me laugh.
NY: A question about album artwork. “The Great Escape,” “A Love of Shared Disasters,” “Horrific Honorifics,” and “Bronze” all feature animals on the album covers. Can you give some background on the album artwork choices and how they converse with the lyrical content of your music?
JG: The album artwork is, for me, as important as the music, lyrics, song titles, and themes. Everything ties in to whatever the general feeling is at the time of each album or recording. Animals always feature because they’re always our companions, and, visually, animals can convey emotions better than anything, like the bird being released from a cage on the “A Love of Shared Disasters” cover. That was all about freeing myself from a scene I didn’t want to be part of anymore and felt trapped by. That album freed me in a lot of ways.
“Bronze” is about being both strong and fragile at the same time: a bear statue representing strength that is also crumbling away ties in with the title. Bronze is a material that is both strong and malleable, used for things of beauty as well as weapons of death. All the way to “Great Escape,” the artwork reflects emotions or mental states. For “Great Escape,” the horse is yearning to leave this place for somewhere better. It is about being tired of injustice and wanting to help the helpless, such as animals, escape from cruelty and oppression. And for our end, it is about escaping from the feeling of helplessness we all have when we can’t save every animal or help every person. “Great Escape” is also about disregarding the trappings of social standard living. It is okay to have an alternative way of life; we don’t have to conform to survive. Think for yourselves and don’t blindly follow the herd.
NY: Is there anything else you’d like to comment on about animal rights and environmental activism?
JG: Join your local Hunt Saboteur organization. They need more Sabs! Don’t be afraid of standing up to bullies, and don’t shy away from voicing your feeling or opinion. However small, it does make a difference, so if you think it, do it. Also, be mindful of where you buy food and products. Some companies actively help and support animal welfare, and, of course, some use animal testing or other animal produce. So it is a case of knowing the truth in the production of such things and being prepared to not support animal usage, whilst being open-minded in finding good companies that have no connection to animal abuses.
BK: I have such huge admiration and respect for the animal rights activists out there who enter slaughterhouses to rescue animals, document the cruelty, and stop transports on the way to death camps. I just couldn’t handle it. I think I would end up in a mental hospital or end up jumping off a bridge. Witnessing the distress of these sentient beings would be enough to tip me over the edge for good. I wish I was stronger.
NY: Tell me about a particularly powerful encounter with an animal you’ve had. Wild or domestic. Floor’s yours.
JG: The most powerful encounters are the ones like helping my cats give birth, and, sadly, losing loved ones. But apart from that, a good short story would be when I visited an animal sanctuary where they rescue big cats and other predator animals. You drive through large enclosures. It was a super-hot day and my car overheated between the lions and the wolves… Even though it wasn’t technically in the wild, they were still wild animals capable of eating me, watching me put water in the engine from not so far away. I also saw an unidentified huge sea creature in the bay of Venice. That memory has stuck with me all my life! Still no idea what it was.
BK: I had just met Justin and one day I was lying in the bedroom in the fetal position (very dramatic) crying and feeling sorry for myself. Sweet Nell, whom I hardly knew at the time, was sleeping on top of a cupboard. All of a sudden, I feel a cat licking my tears away and then she settled right by me. My heart almost burst. That is a moment I will never forget.
NY: Hypothetical one, here: if your personality/soul/spirit essence could be described as a fusion of three different animals, what would it be? I’ll start: heron-whale-lynx.
JG: Panther-Shark-Wolf… and Otter. 🙂
BK: Cat-Capuchin monkey-Mama Bear
NY: Finally, what is on the horizon this year for Crippled Black Phoenix?
JG: We have a new recording coming out in a few months. It’s a mini-album with some really great “guests” doing some vocals. I’m not allowed to say any more as I write this because we are still waiting on the official release statement. I wish I could tell all now because I’m super excited to get this one out! We’ll most likely record a new full length album around September, and then we’ll hopefully be touring again early next year. We have big milestones planned out all the way into 2022, and they might include a trip over the pond to the US. We’re working on something special.
Shady Habash, the young Egyptian director of the video for the protest song Balaha has died inside the walls of Cairo’s Tora Prison. Habash was only 24 years old. He had spent 26 months in the prison after being charged with terrorism for taking part in creating said music video that authorities stated used insulting names for the Egyptian president.
The musician and activist in the video, Ramy Essam, paid tribute to his friend on Facebook saying that Habash was “the kindest and bravest of people. He never hurt anyone”. Essam is currently living in exile because of the Balaha video.
Essam finished his post by saying that it wasn’t a song that killed Shady Hasbah.
“What killed Shady was the dictatorship and the horrendous violation of his human rights, and we have to demand for the investigation of his death caused by denial of medical care. We have to stop the same violation happening to Galal El-Behairy and Mustafa Gamal, who are still behind bars because of a song, suffering from human rights violations as thousands of others.”
Essam created the Balaha Case campaign which raises awareness of and fights for the freeing of the rest of his artistic crew that are still in prison in Egypt.