Guy Carawan 1927-2015

I found out far too late that Guy Carawan, the singer, musicologist and activist credited as one of the writers of We Shall Overcome, died on May 2. When I was writing my book I emailed Guy and his wife Candie to request an interview and he graciously answered my questions.  He came across as a warm and humble man who took next to no credit for the song. As a tribute, and for anyone interested in the story of We Shall Overcome, here’s the complete email interview. RIP Guy and much love and sympathy to Candie.

When did you first hear We Shall Overcome?

I learned the song and developed a way of playing it in Los Angeles in the 1950s. I may have heard it from Zilphia Horton when I visited Highlander in 1953 with Frank Hamilton and Ramblin Jack Elliot but I’m not sure about that.

When did you first visit the Highlander Folk School?

Frank, Jack and I made a trip through the South in the summer of 1953.   I had mentioned to Pete Seeger that I wanted to see the parts of the country where my parents grew up and he encouraged us to include a stop at Highlander. He told me that they used a lot of music there as part of their work on social and economic issues. We found the atmosphere there wonderful, friendly, welcoming and open minded after visiting many more conservative areas of the South, experiencing racism and being stopped by the police several times.

Zilphia was a very warm and encouraging person and a wonderful singer and musician. She was a good contrast to Myles who pushed people to question and think about their beliefs and actions. Zilphia encouraged people and helped them feel good about themselves, their music, their communities.

Did you consider yourself a protest singer?

I considered myself a musician interested in using my music in a positive way. I was inspired by people like Pete Seeger and musicians and singers I met in the Peoples’ Song Movement in Los Angeles. I was also a young person interested in learning about the world, which is why I went to the Soviet Union and China.

After you, Zilphia and Pete Seeger, Frank Hamilton is the fourth credited writer. Can you tell me about him?

Frank Hamilton was my singing partner in Los Angeles. He was very young, but an amazing musician. He was creative and versatile instrumentally. He was also spending some time visiting black churches in Los Angeles and had a great feel for African American songs. He developed a beautiful chord structure for We Shall Overcome which greatly influenced the way that I played it. I probably met Frank through the Oliver family. Bill Oliver was active in the Peoples’ Songs and hosted a lot of gatherings at his house.

What exactly was your role in adapting and popularising the song?

I developed a way of playing and singing We Shall Overcome that worked well for me and was easy to get people singing with me. My main role in the history of the song is being in the right place at the right time to teach it to student and adult activists both at Highlander and in communities where I was invited. Ella Baker had heard it at Highlander and wanted me to be at the founding meeting of SNCC.

Is it true that a student at Highlander wrote one of the verses?

A teenager from Montgomery, Alabama, Mary Ethel Dozier made up the verse “we are not afraid” during the raid on Highlander in July 1959. People were made to sit in the dark while deputized gun thugs went through their luggage. I was there, but I had already been taken off to jail by the time the song was sung. Septima Clark was in charge of the meeting (Myles was out of the country) and she was arrested. When I and another volunteer protested, we were arrested as well. We spent the night in jail and during the night we could hear Septima singing “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” to keep her spirits up.

Do you believe there is a definitive final version of We Shall Overcome?

We Shall Overcome evolved and continued to evolve throughout the active days of the Civil Rights Movement (1960-66). As it passed through different campaigns it tended to take on the cultural flavor of each area. In Albany, Georgia, which was a rich musical area it took on a new beat and some additional decorations. In Birmingham it was given a gospel feeling by the movement there. You ask about a “final version” and I don’t actually think there is one.

Was there a hunger in the movement for new songs?

I would say there was some resistance to the older spirituals in the early 1960s, especially by the young people. Some felt those older songs were associated with slavery and oppression. But many of the freedom songs which eventually became useful and powerful were adaptions of the older familiar melodies. And by the Black Power period, there was an embracing of older cultural forms and artists.

How did your activism evolve?

Because of my work at Highlander I was invited to many southern communities in the early 1960s. In particular I became Mrs. Septima Clark’s driver in the South Carolina Sea Islands as she developed the Citizenship School program. She had seen how music could be useful in helping people feel empowered to develop their literacy skills. In this area I became familiar with some of the oldest African American cultural traditions still alive in the US. It was an enriching experience and Candie and I eventually moved there to live for two years.

As I traveled to communities across the South it could be both exciting and also scary. I was arrested several times. And a place like Mississippi was a very frightening place in the early 1960s. However, I was invariably welcomed warmly in the black communities and made to feel appreciated. I think I was young and naive about how dangerous it could really be.

How did you compile your songbooks?

Most of the songs which went into our songbooks were recorded by me on a large Ampex tape recorder I traveled with. I was fortunate to have a relationship with both Moses Asch at Folkways and Irwin Silber at Sing Out Magazine who encouraged me to send material. In terms of deciding on a definitive version of the songs, we were lucky to have Ethel Raim at Sing Out who was a sensitive transcriber. We tried to explain that these songs were evolving and changing and the printed page was only a suggestion of what the songs could be.

Why did We Shall Overcome wane in popularity as the 60s wore on?

By 1965 people in the Movement were becoming cynical and discouraged about overcoming any time soon. Too many people had died and people recognized how deeply racism was embedded in American society. No wonder people didn’t find the same hope in the song We Shall Overcome. I sometimes felt it was inappropriate to suggest it or lead it in civil rights situations. However, in my own concerts and programs where I talked about developments in the South, I continued to sing the song. It has remained an important song at Highlander.

To what extent do you consider it your song?

We Shall Overcome is definitely not my song. It is a movement song that originated in the black church and has gone on to be useful in people’s struggles all over the world. I feel most fortunate that I was able to play a small role in its dissemination and documentation.

What’s the most memorable context in which you heard We Shall Overcome?

Candie laughed when she saw this question and said “don’t forget to mention that we walked down the aisle to it at our wedding in 1961!

Too many hills to climb: some reasons why Labour lost

Predictably, there is a lot of talk in Labour circles about where the party should move next, with a side order of “I Told you so”. Blairites want a New New Labour. The left-wing base wants a more left-wing party. Of course they do. That’s a debate that needs to happen but it’s far too early for certainty. I was impressed by Harriet Harman’s refusal to cave in to James Naughtie’s demand on the Today Programme for a snap explanation. There isn’t one, unless you thought you were right along. The Labour leadership, meanwhile, has to address the various mistakes and delusions that led them to be wrong. As a Labour member and an optimist I’ll hold up my hand and say I shared many of those delusions, fostered by the publications I read and kept afloat by the opinion polls, but I don’t feel like deluding myself further. In an effort to race through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief (denial on Thursday, anger on Friday, depression over the weekend) I’m trying to skip bargaining and go straight to acceptance. These factors strike me, with 20/20 hindsight, as almost insurmountable for Labour, and none of them are solely a question of left and right. So when someone says Ed would be in Number 10 now if only Labour had done this or that, I’m sceptical. (This blogpost started as a Facebook post.)

1. The economic crisis, however unfairly, shattered Labour’s hard-won reputation for economic competence and allowed all the old post-70s prejudices to come out of hibernation.
2. The economic recovery, however delayed, however imperfect, however fragile, is real and appreciated by people who don’t care what Paul Krugman thinks. Labour could have pushed the anti-austerity line harder early on but once the recovery happened it became almost irrelevant. Barring another crisis, it will be even less relevant in 2020. Unfortunately, many people feel that austerity basically worked.
3. The coalition exceeded expectations by staying together and appearing generally competent and durable.
4. The Tories didn’t overreach to the right because they needed to keep the Lib Dems onside more than their loopy backbenchers. Cameron & Osborne are pragmatists more than ideologues and sensibly slowed down austerity (as Krugman says) at the right time, not that they admitted it.
5. The post-referendum SNP surge could have been slowed but not by much.
6. English fears of a Labour/SNP deal. Not just a tabloid confection.
7. Tory message discipline was strong to the point of tedium, hammering home a dishonest but persuasive narrative…
8. …helped by the majority of the press that loathed Miliband. The papers, it seems, still have more power than social media to sway voters’ minds.
9. Much though I liked and respected him, Miliband as a leader never connected with the electorate or came close to Cameron in approval ratings.
10. The people who suffered most under the coalition were only a small percentage of the population: less than a million use food banks, less than a million are on zero-hours contracts. And many of them don’t vote. They loom large in the minds of the left, as they should, but are out of sight, out of mind for most voters.
11. The Lib Dem collapse was bigger than expected in many constituencies where Labour was a distant third last time.
12. Disillusioned Lib Dems aren’t as left-wing as we thought.
13. UKIP took more working-class Labour support than expected because some old Labour voters are more anti-immigration than we’d like to think. (Not that UKIP’s appeal on the left is purely down to immigration. It’s complicated.)
14. The coalition didn’t fuck up enough. Most of the time No 10 changes hands when there’s a pervasive feeling that the govt is knackered, too extreme and/or incompetent.
15. It’s very hard to turn defeat into victory in one five-year term. The last person to do it was Thatcher in 1979, and only under exceptional circumstances.

If you say you know how all of these problems could have been overcome I won’t believe you.

(I recommend interesting (and divergent) analysis from James Bloodworth at Left Foot Forward and K-Punk (aka Mark Fisher).)

Never mind the ballots

In the past week or so I’ve been sent links to a few election-focussed protest songs so I’ve collected them all here.

Cian Ciaran & Steve Mason – Don’t Give It Away

Collaboration between the former Mr Beta Band and a Super Furry Animal. Ciaran: “What has happened in established politics is nothing short of criminal, testing my faith in humanity. We see blatant, systematic rebalancing of the books, favouring private greed over public wealth, to ensure the deserving majority is left with nothing in favour of an immoral minority. The coalition has worked harder to protect this imbalance than anyone could have imagined, ruling through deception and fear. This is our response to those injustices and, in writing and releasing the tracks, ask that voters consider whether members of the political and business elite really have their best interests at heart.”

Cause of Accident – Sick of This Shit

Captain SKA – Liar Liar (Election Remix)

New version of their 2011 song.

Wilsoni Tha’ Funk Masta – Stand Up & Be Recognised!

White Trash Empire – Run From the Revenue!

Charlie Hebdo, PEN and the “wrong” kind of free speech

Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Taiye Selasi and Francine Prose are very clever people. Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, for example, is one of the most dazzlingly brilliant novels in years. So you would think that at least one of them could muster a justification for their decision to withdraw from the forthcoming PEN gala, at which Charlie Hebdo will receive the annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award, that wouldn’t make you want to bang your head against your desk. Apparently not.

Explanations have come in dribs and drabs. The longest, and worst, was published yesterday by Francine Prose — a former PEN President, no less. It opens with a classic case of the Liar’s But, where the whole paragraph preceding “but” is disingenuous blather: “tragic murders”, “nothing but sympathy”, “abhor censorship”, blah blah blah. This is the language of the politician, not the novelist, lacking both intellectual honesty and emotional truth. It’s only there to pay lip-service to the nine staff members murdered by Islamist gunmen on January 7 so that Prose can get on with the business of denigrating them.

At least she doesn’t indulge in victim-blaming to the grotesque extent that Garry Trudeau did recently, but she saves her most offensive claim till last. “The narrative of the Charlie Hebdo murders – white Europeans killed in their offices by Muslim extremists – is one that feeds neatly into the cultural prejudices that have allowed our government to make so many disastrous mistakes in the Middle East.” Narrative. Neatly. No doubt the victims would have preferred a more ambiguous story arc as long as it left them still breathing. The flipside of Prose’s claim is that the “narrative” is inconvenient for her. (Even in edited form: she fails to mention that copy editor Mustapha Ourrad was Algerian-French; that the Kouachi brothers also killed a maintenance worker and two police officers, one of whom was a Muslim; and that their friend Amedy Coulibaly murdered four customers in a kosher supermarket because they were Jewish.) Just because Islamophobes capitalised on the fact that Islamist extremists went on a killing spree, it doesn’t mean that Islamist extremists didn’t go on a killing spree. Prose is right to say that the murders were seized upon by people with an axe to grind and “many innocent Muslims have been tarred with the brush of Islamic extremism”. But all tragedies are politicised, and the subsequent opportunism doesn’t change the facts. This was a religious execution.

In his statement, Teju Cole brought up the Rushdie affair. “L’affaire Rushdie (for example) was a very different matter, as different as blasphemy is from racism. I support Rushdie 100%, but I don’t want to sit in a room and cheer Charlie Hebdo. This distinction seems to have been difficult for people to understand.” Leaving aside Cole’s contentious claim that the magazine was flat-out racist, it’s a distinction that the Kouachis themselves didn’t make. They weren’t machine-gunning cartoonists for the crimes of racism or Islamophobia. Even the most vile and unapologetic racists are very rarely murdered. No, they were punishing the crime of blasphemy. I’d be interested to learn of any other cases, in any other countries, in which PEN members have snubbed journalists who were murdered on this basis.

One of the great fallacies in the debate about Charlie Hebdo, articulated by Garry Trudeau, is the binary distinction between punching up and punching down, as if there were a ladder of power and a simple diagram to decide between “good” and “bad” satire. If you think the magazine was only attacking French Muslims, then it was punching down, but its obvious target was religious fundamentalism. In the era of Islamic State, Boko Haram and Wahhabism, it’s idiotic to equate religious extremism with powerlessness. Teju Cole listed some people he felt were more deserving of the award, including persecuted Saudi blogger Raif Badawi. Does he not realise that Badawi’s enemies are the same as Charlie Hebdo’s? If the Kouachis had been raised in Saudi Arabia rather than France, they would be the kind of men who would be flogging Badawi with enthusiasm. Outside of rock-solid dictatorships like North Korea, there is no force more brutally intolerant of freedom of expression.

So why does Prose believe Charlie Hebdo doesn’t deserve the award? “Our job, in presenting an award, is to honour writers and journalists who are saying things that need to be said, who are working actively to tell us the truth about the world in which we live.” Well, murderous extremism in the name of God is, unfortunately, a truth about the world in which we live. “That is important work that requires perseverance and courage.” OK. Even if you hate the Charlie Hebdo staff, you’d have to grant them those two qualities. But wait. “And this is not quite the same as drawing crude caricatures and mocking religion.” Why is this not the same? She doesn’t say. Pussy Riot made crude music and offended religious believers by performing in a church, but nobody boycotted their award last year. And isn’t there something insidious about suggesting that mocking religion is unworthy? Unnecessary? Progressives usually go to the barricades to insist that mocking religion is a valid form of freedom of speech.

I’ve genuinely been trying to understand why these six writers feel compelled to take a stand against Charlie Hebdo — why they cannot bear even to sit in the same room while the award is being presented. Perhaps they suspect that PEN is secretly led by racists and neocons with a grudge against Islam. Perhaps they really believe that the magazine, whose regular targets included the political elite and the Front National, was an intolerably racist enterprise. To illustrate the distinction between tolerating speech and endorsing it, Prose actually stooped to a comparison with neo-Nazis in Illinois; Deborah Eisenberg went further and mentioned Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer. There must be something that has led them to throw a basic principle under the bus. Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, clarified that principle in a blogpost yesterday:

Charlie Hebdo is in fact being recognised for its courage: the courage to publish in the face of threats and intimidation, and the courage to continue publishing after the shocking murders in January. We are more used to seeing that courage at a greater distance – in Mexico, Russia, Bangladesh or Egypt – and feel safe celebrating writers and journalists who may be prosecuted for outraging public morals in their own culture. On our own doorstep, when faced with a satirical publication that provokes and offends, there is an underlying view implicit in the protest of Peter Carey and fellow writers that this kind of speech is not worth defending.… Yet one of the most important, if uncomfortable, responsibilities for any free speech advocate is to defend the right to express speech which may be shocking, disturbing or offensive. Without that broad defence, the limits of everyone’s speech, as well as writers and publishers, are at risk of being restricted to suit the political agenda or prevailing morality, at a cost to artistic licence as well as individual freedom.

Charlie Hebdo is not being honoured because it was doing the bravest, most important work in the world — braver and more important than the work of Cole’s preferred candidates, including Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. It is not being honoured for its unfailingly progressive values and always punching in the “right” direction. It is being honoured because nine staff members and contributors were murdered in cold blood by fanatics who found their cartoons offensive. I struggle to come up with a definition of freedom of speech, or of courage, that doesn’t cover what they did, and the price they paid for it.

Salman Rushdie has sharply criticised the six. He knows full well what it’s like to not be the perfect poster-boy for freedom of speech. During the Satanic Verses affair, Roald Dahl, John le Carré and John Berger accused him of reckless arrogance and “insensitivity”. Former president Jimmy Carter called the novel “a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated”. Le Carré has since apologised and those attacks, levelled at a man facing a death sentence for writing a novel, now seem horribly misguided. Not because he wasn’t arrogant (he is rather) or insensitive (that was the point), but because they tried to make him less worthy of solidarity from fellow writers. It was the “wrong” kind of free speech, just as Charlie Hebdo’s is. Such criticisms are absolutely valid in the pages of the TLS or the NYRB but when lives are threatened or taken, the arithmetic changes. There’s an obligation to try to separate matters of taste from questions of principle.

My question for the six boycotters is this: if you cannot physically bear to sit in a room and show solidarity with people who have been murdered for drawing cartoons — murder being the most terminal form of censorship — then what is the point of belonging to PEN at all?

Blood on the drums: Whiplash and the madness of ambition


SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t seen Whiplash yet, major plot points are revealed below so you might want to come back later.

I don’t know how Damien Chazelle got the money to make a psychological thriller about jazz drumming but I’m very glad he did. Whiplash, which I saw last night, depicts musicianship with an intensity that I’ve never seen in a movie about rock music: a symphony of whip-pans, zooms and rat-a-tat editing, spattered with sweat and blood. It’s also a tense moral fable about the nature of ambition. As with any good movie, its strengths are clarified when you consider the fiercest critiques.

In a typically entertaining screed, the New Yorker’s jazz-loving film critic Richard Brody said Whiplash “gets jazz all wrong”, but that’s to assume it is trying to get jazz “right”. “What x gets wrong about y” is one of my least favourite approaches to fiction anyway. Apocalypse Now is not an accurate representation of Vietnam, The Third Man takes liberties with post-war Vienna and I’m pretty sure The Shining misrepresents the hotel business. So what? Whiplash is not a Ken Burns documentary. As a visceral depiction of obsession and sadomasochism, it reminded me of Full Metal Jacket (“wrong” about war), Raging Bull (“wrong” about boxing) and Black Swan (“wrong” about ballet). It renders drumming as violent as hand-to-hand combat and presents a piece of music as something to be beaten into submission. The most ironic line in the movie is when JK Simmons’ tyrannical conductor Terence Fletcher tells his terrified band to “have fun”. Fun is not the point.

This is what bothers the “wrong about jazz” crew but I don’t think Whiplash claims that there’s only one way to play jazz, nor that there’s only one path to greatness. Chazelle himself used to be a hyper-competitive high-school jazz drummer (“It was a pretty narrowly focused life”) but he quit, so Whiplash is a personal what-if?. Rather than endorsing Fletcher’s monomaniacal vision, I think the director is examining it — following its brutal logic to the bitter end.

Nineteen-year-old prodigy Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) is only vulnerable to Fletcher because he fundamentally agrees with him. His drumming idol is the showboating Buddy Rich, not a team player, and he is fixated on technique and stamina above all else. My other favourite recent movie about music is We Are the Best!, Lukas Moodysson’s story of three schoolgirl punks in 1980s Sweden (which, by the way, Richard Brody thought got punk all wrong). That’s about everything music can give you if you don’t have technical chops — camaraderie, catharsis, confidence — while Whiplash is only about the chops. Andrew’s achievement is athletic rather than artistic, with no indication that he has the creativity necessary for genius. Almost every music movie I can think of uses screaming fans to confirm the players’ brilliance. Here, we see a lot of practice but, if I remember rightly, only one shot of an audience, and a nonplussed one at that. Whiplash scythes away everything in music-making to do with pleasure and leaves only the hard work.

Jazz fans have pointed out that Fletcher’s favourite anecdote, about a teenage Charlie Parker being driven to genius after drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head, is false and Johnson only aimed it at his feet. He was trying to mock Parker, not kill him. Perhaps the mistake is indeed Chazelle’s, or perhaps the distortion is meant to give you a glimpse of Fletcher’s madness. The bully needs to reassure himself that bullying works.

The movie seduces us into a twisted value system while reminding us how twisted it is, creating a slippery dual perspective. Andrew’s single dad is either a loving, supportive mensch or a pitiable, ineffectual schmoe. Nicole, the indecisive college student whom Andrew dates, appears to fulfil that classic role in aggressively masculine dramas of the relationship-focussed woman who stands in the way of the man following the dream on which the narrative depends. But she is so sympathetically drawn that we cringe when Andrew disdains her lack of ambition and then dumps her because he absurdly assumes that a relationship is incompatible with musical greatness. In the dinner table scene, it’s funny when he mocks the high-school football heroes (his cousins? I missed the connection) for not being NFL-worthy but it’s also embarrassing and cruel because he thinks anyone who doesn’t have a shot at being the best is risible.

Several times, we are told that Andrew has no friends; he gazes more longingly at his photo of Buddy Rich than he does at any human being. When he risks life and limb to get to his final competition (for his sake, not the band’s), it’s clear he’s lost his mind. Ambition is the worm in Andrew’s soul, a moral corruption that draws him ever closer to a monster and gives him Randian contempt for anyone who doesn’t desire greatness at any cost.

In the bravura final sequence, during which my heart was pounding in double-time, Andrew veers from humilation to triumph. The audience in the cinema last night applauded. Whiplash resembles a sports movie to some extent but, unlike a sports movie, you cannot unambiguously win, so what kind of victory is it really? Andrew doesn’t give a shit about his bandmates (his long solo is pure selfishness) or the audience, only the approval of a brute. And Fletcher doesn’t care either. Is it an enjoyable show for anyone else? We never find out. The movie has reached its inevitable destination as a closed circuit of Andrew, Fletcher and the drumkit. Nothing else matters. Chazelle has said: “Fletcher’s mindset is, ‘If I have 100 students, and 99 of them are, because of my teaching, ultimately discouraged and crushed from ever pushing this art form, but one of them becomes Charlie Parker, it was all worth it.’ That’s not a mentality I share, but in many ways, that’s the story of the movie.”

And so, fully corrupted at last, Andrew has become Michael Corleone closing the door at the end of The Godfather. Two crucial questions are left open for the viewer. Where does he go from here? Fletcher’s icons of achievement, Charlie Parker and his trumpet-playing former protégé, both died young because they had mastered music but not life. And are Fletcher’s standards correct or is Andrew nothing more than a spectacular technician?

For me, neither question has an uplifting answer. Andrew’s tragedy is that would rather be a great musician than a good person. The kicker is that he might not even be a great musician.

Charlie Hebdo, satire and malicious misreading

The Paris killings have been discussed so widely and relentlessly that I didn’t intend to add my voice with yet another blogpost but I’ve found myself so busy on multiple Facebook threads that I thought I should pull my thoughts together here.

I’ve been genuinely alarmed by some of the responses to the killings. Not the Islamophobic ones which demanded that ordinary muslims prove themselves by condemning the murders. As a white man who is never, ever asked to stand up and condemn crimes by white men, I think they’re insulting, intimidating and absurd, but I expected those.

My disappointment is with a number of voices on the left who, in the days after the massacre, raced to talk about everything except the fact that people had been murdered by religious fanatics because of cartoons. It’s not irrelevant that the gunmen had been radicalised by crimes such as the Iraq war and Abu Ghraib, or that Islamophobia is a growing problem, or that the world leaders who marched in Paris were all, to varying degrees, hypocrites when it comes to protecting freedom of speech. (In fact, I think that this is an important opportunity to examine and address those hypocrisies.) But I did get itchy reading articles that wanted to talk about everything except the main event, as if to condemn the gunmen without qualification was somehow to play into the hands of Islamophobes and sabre-rattlers.

I like the slogan “Je Suis Charlie” because it suggests simple solidarity with victims of an appalling crime. Friends who reject it, and the numerous columnists who have said “Je ne suis pas Charlie”, believe that it means more than that — unreserved endorsement of Charlie Hebdo’s content — although, given that the magazine has been running since 1970, with countless staff members and contributors over the years, I find this assumption bizarre. I don’t need to rubber-stamp every page before I can voice my solidarity. Every publication that I read or write for has published some material I vigorously disagree with but I would stand by every single one in a case as extreme as this. Still, each to their own interpretation. Nobody should feel bullied into supporting a slogan.

What I found really hard to swallow was the number of people who, after the obligatory “Of course this is a shocking crime but…” opener, confidently described Charlie Hebdo as racist, including Richard Seymour (“a racist institution”), Jacob Canfield (“incredibly racist”) and Gawker’s Maria Bustillos (“trafficked in hateful images and ideas that often tracked uncomfortably closely with the ultragarbage peddled by the fascistoid National Front”). I’ll take it as read that nobody thinks even the most vile drawings deserve to be punished with gunfire but branding them racists so quickly, with so little evidence, is no small matter. No wonder that the French left, to which Charlie Hebdo belonged, has been shocked by some of its anglophone comrades throwing the magazine under the bus.

These claims were backed up by examples of Charlie Hebdo’s work, presented as if they were self-explanatory. Cartoons aimed at a small audience intimate with minor episodes in French politics were being wrenched out of context and held up as racist by people outside France who had no way of understanding what the cartoons were referring to. Charlie Hebdo’s provocative, impacted, in-crowd style makes it very easy to misread if you weigh in before taking time to check the facts.

When I first saw the Boko Haram panel that cartoonist Tom Humberstone cites as a straightforward example of “punching down”, I thought it was inexplicably offensive so I wanted to find out what the hell it was trying to say. It is in fact pointing out the hypocrisy of French conservatives condemning Boko Haram’s mistreatment of kidnapped girls while trying to remove welfare benefits from refugees seeking asylum in France. The pro-welfare magazine is lampooning the myth that vulnerable migrants are “welfare queens”, not cosigning it. (Vox’s Max Fisher explains it well here, comparing it to the New Yorker’s controversial 2008 Obamas cover, which also appears racist if you don’t know the background. Worth noting that Ricochet’s Leigh Phillips has yet another reading: “a clunky ‘first-world problems’ commentary on complaints over the French government restricting child benefits for top earners, suggesting that rich French people really have nothing to complain about compared to people’s travails in northeast Nigeria.”)

Likewise, the cartoon depicting Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who is black, as a monkey horrified me until I learned that it was an attack on the National Front politician who made that comparison, the National Front being Charlie Hebdo’s favourite target.

Now you could argue, and I would, that using racist caricatures in the service of an anti-racist message is self-defeating and offensive, and that the magazine should have thought a lot harder about it depicted muslims and black people. (The closest comparison in music would be the Dead Kennedys’ Holiday in Cambodia. Satirising the mindset of privileged white college students, Jello Biafra included the line, “Bragging that you know how the niggers feel cold.” He soon decided that the ugliness of that word undermined the song and changed the line in all subsequent performances.) But you owe it to the dead cartoonists to understand their intent before crying racist.

On one level, this is just bad reading. Rule one of satire is that if something looks extremely objectionable at first glance then there’s a fair chance that it’s critiquing those objectionable attitudes. Jello Biafra didn’t really want to kill the poor and Randy Newman didn’t truly despise short people. Worse than that, it betrays a willingness to assume the worst and believe that Charlie Hebdo was the kind of magazine that mocked kidnapped Nigerians or compared black people to monkeys. When we’re talking about murder victims, such bad faith is deeply insulting and is a travesty of left-wing values.

As Leigh Phillips’ writes: “These otherwise well-meaning but non-French-speaking knights-in-social-media-armour have embarrassed themselves by spouting off about things they know not quite enough about. This is not clear-headed thinking. This is not leftist or anti-racist thinking.”

You don’t have to like these cartoons. I find many of them, like 90% of political cartoons to be frank, neither funny nor revealing. And as a fairly laidback British atheist, I struggle to understand the ferocity of French anti-clericalism. But even the ones depicting Mohammed (vastly outnumbered by those attacking the National Front and the French establishment) have a range of tones and targets that make a simple “punching up versus punching down” binary impossible. If you attack muslims en masse, you are punching down. If you attack extremists, some of whom run countries, you are punching up. In a single-panel cartoon, the difference is not always clear.

What the academic Danah Boyd calls “context collapse” is the root of a thousand Twitterstorms. When comments or jokes intended for one audience are read by another the misreadings can be dramatic. Sarcasm and ambiguity don’t travel well. This is a hazard of our age but when the people whose work we’re analysing have been gunned down, surely the least we can do is to take the time to understand what they were trying to say.

Music and politics in 2014


“After a grand jury didn’t indict a Ferguson, Mo., police officer last month in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, D’Angelo called his co-manager Kevin Liles. “He said: ‘Do you believe this? Do you believe it?’ ” Mr. Liles said. “And then we just sat there in silence. That is when I knew he wanted to say something.”” – New York Times, December 17, 2014

The big story in protest music in 2014 can be summed up in one word: Ferguson. And by Ferguson I don’t just mean the death of Michael Brown, but those of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, and the gut-wrenching reminder that in America black lives are valued less than white ones. It shocked hip hop into its biggest spasm of civic responsibility since Hurricane Katrina. Rappers stopped worrying about self-identifying as political (read: preachy, boring, not commercially viable) and stepped up without hesitation.

I’ve already come across New National Anthem by TI, the Nina Simone-influenced Black Rage by Lauryn Hall, Don’t Shoot by The Game and others, War Cry by Tef Poe, Tell the Children by Tink, Be Free by J Cole, We Gotta Pray by Alicia Keys and Hands Up by Yakki Divoshi. Don’t Shoot, named after a Ferguson hashtag and placard slogan, stands out because its sheer manpower allows for a range of responses, from Diddy’s thoughtful restraint to Swizz Beatz’ bleak despair to Problem’s vengeful fury. Amid references to Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and Fuck Tha Police, Curren$y’s “I’m a resident of a country that don’t want me” cuts deepest.



Those are just the songs intended to be about Ferguson. As D’Angelo’s quote demonstrates, the crisis transformed the meaning and purpose of existing songs. When Vince Staples tweeted “Hands Up is not about Ferguson”, I felt like replying, “Well, that’s what you think.” I was reminded of a quote from DH Lawrence in Greil Marcus’s The History of Rock’n’Roll in 10 Songs: “Never trust the teller. Trust the tale.” Hands Up wasn’t written about Ferguson the place, Ferguson the crisis, but it’s about what the name Ferguson now represents. Likewise Run the Jewels’ heart-wrenching Early: “I apologise if I got out of line sir/Cause I respect the badge and the gun/And I pray today ain’t the day that you drag me away/Right in front of my beautiful son.” For D’Angelo, Ferguson recontextualised Black Messiah, an album which sometimes attains the humid density of There’s a Riot Goin’ On, and made its rush-release a necessary response. He wanted the album to reflect “anarchy and urgency and revolution”. So when Questlove posted on Instagram, calling for songs that “speak truth”, I felt that these songs were already out there.

The best of them feel fresh and alive in a way that Band Aid 30’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? did not. This lumbering anachronism reminded me of attending 2007’s Live Earth, the massive benefit concert that was forgotten even as it was happening: the last gasp of an outmoded form.

Under fire from the likes of Damon Albarn, Fuse ODG and even Emeli Sande, who sang on the record, Bob Geldof proved unable to accept that pop music, the media and the world have changed, and immune to humility or self-awareness. His belligerent defence of the redemptive power of good intentions was forgivable in 1984 because the concept was new and its strengths outweighed its flaws. Thirty years later, nobody needs a pop song to tell them about ebola. I’m prepared to believe that it raised awareness of the epidemic among the very young but mostly it just raised awareness of the redundancy of the all-star benefit single. (I had high hopes for another multi-vocal effort, Rookie Magazine’s Go Forth, Feminist Warriors, because it featured people like Carrie Brownstein, Aimee Mann and Tegan & Sara but unfortunately this “feminist We Are the World” is terrible. At least Do They Know It’s Christmas? is catchy.)

Some of the year’s most outspoken rock musicians were from the original Band Aid/We Are the World generation. On High Hopes, Bruce Springsteen enlisted Tom Morello to beef up two of his finest protest songs, 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad and 2000’s American Skin (41 Shots), the latter about – plus ca change – the police murder of an unarmed black man. On U2’s Songs of Innocence, Bono stopped trying to throw his arms around the world and drew a tight bead on the Ireland of his youth: the violence of political fanatics (Raised By Wolves) and the complacent cruelty of abusive priests (Sleep Like a Baby Tonight). It’s a shame that the album’s controversially vast iTunes data dump distracted from the powerful intimacy of the words.

Morrissey’s World Peace Is None of Your Business showed that a strong melody can redeem a ham-fisted lyric. Even as I couldn’t get it out of my head, I wondered how he could bundle together protest movements in countries as different as Egypt, Brazil, Ukraine and Bahrain and empathise with the victims of autocrats while rubbishing the right to vote. Small wonder that he is good friends with Russell Brand. Elbow’s The Blanket of Night took the opposite tack, tenderly sketching a scene of two asylum-seekers on a stormy sea. Compassion for ordinary lives can be more effective than raging vaguely against the powerful. The year’s biggest surprise came from Paolo Nutini, an MOR soulboy reconfigured, on Iron Sky, as an urgent revolutionary idealist, making excellent use of Charlie Chaplin’s famous “machine minds” speech from The Great Dictator.

Iron Sky’s dystopian video is just one example of how visuals can emphasise and expand lyrics. The clip for John Grant’s Glacier used the singer’s deeply personal account of the impact of homophobia as an opportunity to chart the history of the gay rights movement, to emotionally overwhelming effect. The pansexual love-in depicted in Annie’s Russian Kiss video made it an even more joyous riposte to Putin’s anti-gay laws during the Sochi Olympics. Holly Herndon’s Home, a break-up song addressed to her computer, was a witty sideways take on the mass surveillance program revealed by Edward Snowden.



Canadian country singer Kira Isabella’s Quarterback doesn’t necessarily read as a protest song but it should. I’ve said before that the only thing I’d change about 33 Revolutions Per Minute is to redraw the parameters of what constitutes a feminist protest song. I underserved personal songs with broad resonance that didn’t present themselves as movement anthems. Quarterback is such a song.

Isabella describes a nightmarish inversion of an early Taylor Swift scenario, in which a timid geek hooks up with a football hero in the most horrific way. As the title and chorus indicate, the real target isn’t the rapist but the high-school caste system that allows him to get away with it by disbelieving his victim. As Katherine St Asaph wrote in a brilliant review, “it’s also a song about popularity, and who we deem to matter”.

Originally written in the first person, Quarterback is far more disturbing in the third. Isabella’s neutral delivery, cracking only on the line “when she saw the pictures on the internet,” suggests that she could be one of the complicit bystanders. A stronger singer might have overplayed the indignation, tipped the song out of the everyday and into melodrama, made it obvious from the start where it was going. The video betrays the song’s toughness by ending with a cathartic scene in which the rapist is exposed. The lyric allows no such happy ending. It’s about trying to live at the very bottom of a crushing power structure. And it shows that great songwriting can bottle a major issue in a single story that leaves you stunned.


Here are my Top 20 albums and singles of the year. And here’s a link to my Spotify playlist of roughly 100 songs I enjoyed in 2014.


  1. Owen Pallett – In Conflict
  2. FKA twigs – LP1
  3. Manic Street Preachers – Futurology
  4. St Vincent – St Vincent
  5. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
  6. Sky Ferreira – Night Time, My Time
  7. D’Angelo & the Vanguard – Black Messiah
  8. Caribou – Our Love
  9. Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence
  10. Kate Tempest – Everybody Down
  11. Kelis – Food
  12. Wye Oak – Shriek
  13. The Soft Pink Truth – Why Do the Heathen Rage?
  14. Scott Walker & Sunn O))) – Soused
  15. Taylor Swift – 1989
  16. Lewis – L’Amour
  17. Wild Beasts – Present Tense
  18. Aphex Twin – Syro
  19. Eno*Hyde – Someday World
  20. The Juan Maclean – In a Dream


  1. FKA twigs – Two Weeks
  2. Todd Terje – Oh Joy
  3. Caribou – Silver
  4. Future Islands – Seasons (Waiting on You)
  5. Sofi de la Torre – Vermillion
  6. Taylor Swift – Out of the Woods
  7. Idina Menzel – Let It Go
  8. The War on Drugs – Red Eyes
  9. Kira Isabella – Quarterback
  10. Jane Weaver – Argent
  11. Röyskopp & Robyn – Do It Again
  12. The Soft Pink Truth – Ready to Fuck
  13. Beyonce – XO
  14. Elbow – Fly Boy Blue/Lunette
  15. Porter Robinson – Hear the Bells
  16. Clean Bandit – Rather Be
  17. Schoolboy Q feat. Kendrick Lamar – Collard Greens
  18. Vic Mensa – Down on My Luck
  19. Jenny Lewis – One of the Guys
  20. Perfume Genius – Queen


St Vincent at Shepherd’s Bush Empire
Kelis at Metropolis Studios
Miley Cyrus at Phones4U Arena
Future Islands and Courtney Barnett at Field Day
OutKast at Wireless Festival
Kate Bush at Hammersmith Apollo
FKA twigs at Hackney Empire
Underworld (Dubnobasswithmyheadman) at Royal Festival Hall
Kate Tempest at Village Underground
Goldfrapp at Royal Albert Hall
Jesus & Mary Chain (Psychocandy) at Troxy
John Grant at Royal Festival Hall
Manic Street Preachers (The Holy Bible) at Roundhouse