Over the weekend, hip-hot artist Jasiri X posted this image on his twitter feed. It’s taken from the front page of the New York Daily News’ website. Note the screaming headline and the sympathetic caption: “Accused killer Dylann Roof had one chance at a stable family life — and his abusive dad ruined it for…
Having grown up astride the hippy and punk eras in music, I’m a big fan of boycotts and other forms of concerted political action. Somewhere, gathering dust, I still have a twelve-inch vinyl single of “Sun City,” the 1985 protest song written by Steve Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen’s guitar player and partner in crime (and eventual star of The Sopranos, as Bruce likes to point out when he introduces Van Zandt on stage). It’s one of those 1980s mega-singles featuring dozens of artists – including Miles Davis, Run DMC, Van Zandt, Springsteen, Bono, Darlene Love, Joey Ramone, Pat Benatar, George Clinton, and the late, great David Ruffin of the Temptations – performing under the collective appellation, Artists United Against Apartheid. Sort of like “We Are The World,” only with a lot less kumbaya and a lot more curled upper lips:
Stevie Wonder’s recent announcement that he would boycott the state of Florida until its “Stand Your Ground” law is repealed harkened me back to the days when artists were better at concerted action than they are today. In the dark days of apartheid, few serious artists wanted to be associated with the racist government of South Africa and the brutal legal system that disenfranchised its black majority, denying not merely the right to vote, but the right to citizenship itself. In the mid-1980s, the Sun City resort became a global emblem of the country’s moral decay:
“[T]he entertainment complex [was] located in Bophutswana, one of 10 South African Bantustans: tracts of low-quality land supposedly enshrined as independent black homelands that were in fact one of the struts of the apartheid regime. They amounted to parched rural ghettos; the fact that the Sun City complex – a casino-and-golf resort, akin to an Afrikaner’s Las Vegas – was located in one of them only underlined their cynically conceived place in the apartheid scheme.”
So the cultural boycott of apartheid-era South Africa, although not absolute, was widely accepted.
Today, however, it’s not clear which artists will sign on to Stevie Wonder’s boycott of Florida. As Mother Jones reports, we’ve already seen false reports that artists as diverse as the Rolling Stones, Jay Z, Madonna, Rod Stewart, Usher, and Rhianna have likewise pledged not to play there until “Stand Your Ground” is repealed, but representatives of those artists have denied their involvement. While I respect and understand Stevie’s reasons for the boycott – as he said, “you can’t just talk about [change]; you have to be about it” – I’m not convinced that boycotting is the only way to draw attention to the problem with “Stand Your Ground” laws and to effectuate change.
A couple of days after the George Zimmerman verdict came down, Bruce Springsteen, at a concert in Limerick, Ireland, dedicated his song “American Skin (41 Shots)” to the memory of Trayvon Martin. Bruce wrote that song in 1999, after New York City police officers shot and killed an unarmed Guinean immigrant named Amadou Diallo in the vestibule of his apartment building. It’s a gripping song, not only about the killing of Diallo, but the risks attendant to being a person of color in America:
Lena gets her son ready for school
She says “on these streets, Charles
You’ve got to understand the rules
If an officer stops you
Promise you’ll always be polite,
That you’ll never ever run away
Promise Mama you’ll keep your hands in sight”
Is it a gun, is it a knife
Is it a wallet, this is your life
It ain’t no secret
It ain’t no secret
No secret my friend
You can get killed just for living
In your American skin …
Like George Zimmerman, in February 2000 the four New York City police officers involved in shooting Diallo were acquitted of the charges against them. Springsteen, however, didn’t boycott New York; instead, he took his song directly to the source, performing it live in a series of legendary concerts at Madison Square Garden which became the source material for his 2001 release, Live In New York City:
It was a controversial move at the time. NYPD supporters protested Springsteen’s concerts there, and the Fraternal Order of Police called him a “dirt bag.” But it proved to be a pretty effective way of getting the message out. Bruce remains a hero in New York City, and people haven’t forgotten Amadou Diallo.
And maybe that’s the real point -– that there’s more than one way to bring pressure to bear in Florida and other states with objectionable laws like “Stand Your Ground”. Florida, unlike apartheid-era South Africa, is a more-or-less functioning democracy. Given the apartheid government’s ruthless grip on power in 1980s South Africa, perhaps the best and only way to effectuate change there was to make it a pariah state; but in Florida, change has to come from within.
That’s not to say that Stevie Wonder’s boycott is wrong. To the contrary, I fully support his decision, and I’d support any other artist who believes, in good faith, that the best way to pressure Florida and other Stand Your Ground states is to boycott them. But I also support artists who want to bring the protest directly to those states, because there are people in those states who are receptive to the message and who are looking for support. Whatever influential artists like Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen can do to help, I’m for it. Boycotts or otherwise.