The pop star and the warlord

Reading this Observer piece about the arrest of Serbian pop singer Ceca for embezzlement reminded me of going to Belgrade to write a story about her first arrest, in 2003, for Blender magazine. I dug it out and scanned it. The story and the prose were a little oversimplified in the editing process (that headline!) but I think it’s still an interesting tale.

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Dylan in China

“No matter what Bob Dylan has done… or what he will do for the rest of his life, his obituary has already been written: ‘Bob Dylan, best known as a protest singer from the 1960s, died yesterday…’” That line, from Greil Marcus’s excellent essay on Masters of War, is one of my favourite observations about Dylan, and it came to mind again this week when the 70-year-old singer toured China for the first time. On Radio 4’s Today programme, they played Blowin’ in the Wind and spoke to a Chinese fan who said he loved Dylan because he sang songs of peace. It was as if the last four-and-a-half decades had never happened, and Dylan was still the skinny guy with the harmonica on stage telling the world that the times they were a-changin’.

Well, the times went and a-changed for Dylan, several times, but it was the singer’s misfortune to arrive in China the same week the authorities arrested dissident artist Ai Weiwei. To human rights advocates, Dylan was suddenly meant to turn back into the protest singer he used to be and take a stand. “It’s shocking to see him collude in this kind of censorship,” said Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch. “Back in the day, if he had been in Ai’s shoes, he would have expected someone to speak up for him. What does he have to lose?” Newspapers noted, disapprovingly, that he had had his setlist vetted by the Chinese authorities. (Given Dylan’s famously unpredictable live form, I wonder if they also ordered him to play the songs properly: “Just like on the albums please, Mr Dylan.”)

So even though he played some songs that are often considered broadly (albeit sometimes cryptically) political, like Ballad of a Thin Man (beloved of the Black Panthers back in ’66), A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Desolation Row, Like a Rolling Stone and All Along the Watchtower, reporters bemoaned two omissions: Blowin’ in the Wind (which he last played in Taiwan on Tuesday) and The Times They Are A-Changin’ (California, August 2009). After Beijing and Shanghai last week, he plays Hong Kong on Tuesday and Wednesday but don’t hold your breath. Critics also complained that he didn’t say anything between songs, but then he never does.

If it were U2 playing China, having agreed not to perform Pride, Sunday Bloody Sunday or Walk On, then the critics would have a point. They still align themselves with resistance movements and political prisoners and therefore probably wouldn’t accept the booking in the first place. But Dylan made things perfectly clear back in 1964 when he told the New Yorker: “Me, I don’t want to write for people anymore. You know – be a spokesman.” The only time I can remember him saying about China was a surreal 1966 Playboy interview in which he jokingly challenged Chairman Mao to a fistfight.

By then, he had rejected explicit protest songs. His only relapses for leftist causes were 1971’s George Jackson and 1975’s Hurricane, while 1983’s Neighbourhood Bully, a stout defence of Israeli foreign policy released during his born-again Christian phase, was political in a direction that few of his old 60s fans expected or enjoyed. This is a man who couldn’t even be persuaded to publicly criticise the war in Vietnam, for God’s sake. In the summer of 1968, when the anti-war movement was gearing up for the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he defended a friend who supported the war by telling a surprised interviewer, “People have their views. Anyway, how do you know that I’m not, as you say, for the war?”

But just as Joan Baez is still asked by some grey-haired protesters whether “Bobby” will be joining at her at the latest demonstration, his past won’t let him go. Do I wish he’d said something about Ai Weiwei, simply out of support for a fellow artist? Of course. Am I surprised he didn’t? Hell no. As David Aaronovitch put it in a smart Times (£) comment piece, “As Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have commented, the silence from the West over the latest crackdown has been deafening. Why would Dylan be prepared to do stuff that we aren’t? But he’s 70 and doesn’t need the money and his words conceivably might make a difference.”

One song in his Beijing setlist contains a neat, if unintended historical lesson. At the 1965 Newport folk festival, where he famously enacted his divorce from the veteran left-wing folkies who had fallen for him so hard, he played a reluctant encore featuring the tartly titled It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue. The idea that Dylan is the man to speak out on righteous causes — the rock star as noble activist — should be all over now. It should have been for 46 years. But still it endures. Bob Dylan, best known as a protest singer from the 1960s, has no say in the matter.

Note: For more on Ai Weiwei’s life and career, this New Yorker article from May 2010 is unbeatable.

“I did some research, put it together like a jigsaw and made it funny.”

It’s not, let’s be frank, Fight the Power, Sound of Da Police, or The Message. But MC NxtGen’s Andrew Lansley rap is surely the first hip hop track to make it into Hansard. While I was writing the book, Crass’s How Does It Feel? was the only protest song I could find that had been mentioned in Parliament – to the target of the song, no less. Now that honour is shared, thanks to John Healey MP, the Shadow Health Secretary, who taunted his opposite number: “It takes a special talent to unite opposition from Norman Tebbit and MC NxtGen.” Making it even sweeter, the context was the Health Secretary’s announcement that he was slowing down the contentious NHS reforms that inspired the song in the first place.

According to the Observer, MC NxtGen is 22-year-old Loughborough bin man Sean Donnelly, who wrote the lyrics three weeks ago and then (via his girlfriend, an occupational therapist) approached Unison, the health workers’ union for help. Unison funded the video, shot in a special school in Leicester, which gave the song its YouTube momentum – 223,754 views at the time of writing. Thanks to social networking, it travelled so far so quickly that even Lansley felt obliged to seem a good sport about it. “We will never privatise the National Health Service,” he said. “But I’m impressed that he’s managed to get lyrics about GP commissioning into a rap.” Conversely, one Westminster correspondent reported that there had been Conservative plans to troll the video’s YouTube comments and smear NxtGen as a union shill. When a clip can’t even inspire an organic backlash on YouTube, the home of the troll army, then you know it’s hit the mark.

The first time I heard the rap, I tagged it as a novelty because it’s funny — “grey-haired manky codger” owes more to Ronnie Barker than KRS-One — but I underrated its craft. As demonstrated by his other YouTube clips, NxtGen has a slippery, agile flow. The choice of an old Animals sample rather than his usual grime-influenced beats gives it canny cross-generational appeal. And the lyric conveys an impressive amount of information, even if some of it seems to have travelled a little too quickly from Google to the microphone. The verse about Lansley’s white paper lucidly condenses the case against his reforms into just six lines. And the preceding verse about “broke folk” gives the song an unexpectedly potent shot of moral indignation. I like Donnelly’s description of the writing process — its unfussy, internet-enabled immediacy:

I did the lyrics myself, went on the internet, did some research and put it together like a jigsaw and made it funny. And it has just spread.

And what he told the Right to Work website about the role of protest music…

I think music can get the message out there to the whole population including the younger generation who will be able to understand it more rather than what they hear on the news.

…isn’t a million miles from what Joe Hill said about protest singing a hundred years earlier:

If a person can put a few cold, common-sense facts into a song and dress them (the facts) up in a cloak of humour to take the dryness out of them, he will succeed in reaching a great number of workers who are too unintelligent or too indifferent to read a pamphlet or an editorial on economic science.

Is there a lesson to be drawn from this? Will other protest songs make their mark by travelling the same social-networking pathways as Rebecca Black or Dancing Thom rather than the traditional route of recording studio to radio? Can humour and spontaneity, those factors which the internet cherishes above pretty much anything else, be pressed into the service of particular messages, making protest songs part of the general Twitter/Facebook hubbub rather than specialist curios that you only find if (like me) you’re really looking for them? Or will there be lots of bad sequels which drive this idea into the ground until everyone loses interest and gets distracted by a video of a sneezing meerkat? Let’s find out.

The song is now available on iTunes.