Junkyard Empire — the band — by Dahr Jamail

Published on Truthout — http://www.truthout.org/1229098

Tracking the Sound of Revolution


by: Dahr Jamail, t r u t h o u t | Review

photo
(Photo: Junkyard Empire)

The band Junkyard Empire does not differentiate among music, message and life.

Political Affairs magazine said, “A jazz version of Rage Against the Machine, Minnesota-based Junkyard Empire blends jazz instrumentals, hip hop, and socially conscious lyrics to create a fresh sound … this new Midwestern band has something to say.”

The title track of their new CD Rebellion Politik, declares:

They lure us in stores to keep us all poor
Ignoring the cure for what’s at the core
Explore the floor of the third world poor
Creating the wars for mineral ore

Lead vocalist/rapper Brian Lozenski, whose stage name is MC Brihanu says, “Music and art should represent life. My life revolves around social justice and trying to make a better world for my children. Therefore my music reflects that. I don’t think every piece of art and music needs to be explicitly political, but there needs to be an accurate reflection of people’s lives. Most of the mainstream music we hear today is purposefully not political. That is a political act in itself because corporate media does not want its consumers to think critically and challenge the status quo.” They are a band endorsed by Noam Chomsky.

Christopher Cox, founder of the band, tells Truthout the name evolved in this way:

“I originally proposed the name ‘Refuse Empire’ which was clearly anti-imperialist, but also an ecological statement. The US is an empire of refuse, since the American Empire is based on everything being expendable, quick, throwaway … including capitalism itself, which never leads to long-term good, it only leads to short-term ‘good,’ and that’s a short-term good only for a small group of people. So building an empire on junk is not good for anyone for the long term.” The name then morphed into Junkyard Empire from there.

Mirroring Cox’s thoughts, Brihanu is clear about the current state of affairs, and what he feels needs to happen:

“The number one problem I see right now is the corporate control of the government. We cannot hope to see any realistic change until we separate private enterprise from the federal and state governments. The public cannot compete with the corporations in terms of money and power. The political system we have can work only if it is able to operate without politicians being allowed to profit from their political decisions. The only other way would be through a violent revolution and I think no one really wants to see the chaos that would ensue. However, I also realize that the power elite will not let go without a fight, so it may come to a traditional bottom up revolution in order to create a more just society.”

Brihanu began his activism as a student at Cornell University where he pushed for fair housing and culturally diverse programs. He has been involved in the campaign for the release of Mumia Abu Jamal and other political prisoners, in anti-poverty initiatives and in the demand for education rights. The list of organizations he associates with range from the Uhuru Movement to Wellstone Action to The League of Pissed Off Voters. He believes that activism is integral to his life. Even as a public school teacher he tried to engage his students in thinking critically about society.

Cox is a Sonoma State University graduate in political science. He has earlier worked on Project Censored , a group with the mission “to teach students and the public about the role of a free press in a free society – and to tell the News That Didn’t Make the News and Why.” “My head was into political organizing,” the trombone/keyboard/electronics player told Truthout, “So for me, I didn’t want to play music just to make a living, I wanted to get politics in there.”

In August, Junkyard Empire was invited to Cuba for a rare opportunity to meet with Cuban arts organizations and leaders and to perform several shows. The Havana Times wrote of their visit, “The US hip hop group Junkyard Empire – accompanied by trombone, drums and bass – invited everyone attending ‘to sing against imperialism and to unite their voices for freedom and equality.’ According to the host, they represented good-hearted Americans who defied the blockade to come to Cuba and offer their art.”

***

The state of political consciousness in the United States today is a joke, and civic participation in activism pales in comparison to that during the Vietnam era. In the wake of President Obama’s recent announcement to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan people are feeling more powerless and demoralized than ever. It is in this environment that Cox, Brihanu, guitarist Bryan Berry, bass guitarist Dan Choma and drummer Graham O’Brian have created a combination of activism and art. The day after Obama’s announcement, Cox and Berry were arrested in Minneapolis while protesting the escalation.

The band does not shy away from hot topics. Everything from the US financial meltdown to the Palestinian-Israeli crisis is addressed in the new album. The song “Manifest” tackles head-on the foundational doctrine of the United States:

So the message becomes repetitive, seduce you like a sedative
You hear it in school, in the media and in your church edifice
We’re the civilized here to save the savages
Their culture is ravenous, they’re a lesser people
Not equal to receive the gifts bestowed on god’s righteous leaders
Let’s teach them they’re inferior and should despise themselves
And if they don’t conform to us, they’ve destined themselves for hell
If they rebel we have no choice but to take them by force
It’s what we’re destined for, so you know it’s god’s law
And if need be it’s a justification for war
By any means necessary, destroy all our adversaries
And spread our doctrine to the edge of the Earth
Cause the world is ours, it was manifested by birth
We want your land and your resources for the nourishment of our society
But don’t fight it and don’t test we
Just realize this is your manifest destiny

***

To ensure their survival and success, musicians in the US keep away from the contentious issue of politics. They are rewarded by the corporate-dominated media with excessive publicity and, as a consequence, higher sales. In such an atmosphere, bands like Junkyard Empire are unlikely to find any of their songs reaching the number one position on the charts. Nor do they hanker for that brand of popularity. They do want to reach people, but through different routes and for very different reasons.

It is not indifference to public taste, but rather an examined intent to sensitize the public that guides the band.

Ask them what is wrong with someone just wanting to listen to music to have a good time, and leave politics out of it, and Brihanu responded, “Why does it make them uncomfortable? Does it make them uncomfortable to hear the misogyny, violence, and materialism prevalent in ‘fun, party’ music? The best music should stimulate our minds, bodies, and souls. It is impossible to deny the impact of Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Michael Franti, Fela Kuti, Dead Prez, Public Enemy, and numerous other musicians on our society. Like those musicians, we want to challenge people through our music in the hope that they will question what we’ve been taught and how we operate. I also believe that if you have a platform to say something then you should say something with substance. Plus, there’s nothing wrong with shakin’ your ass to a political message that sparks a fire inside of you.”

Cox shares his view: “Some of the most educated and political people I know are jazz musicians. However, most of them don’t feel politics belong in their art. But I think politics affects everything we do, including our music. And as a jazz musician, I have always felt there should be more to the music. My take is that all music has intense social relevance. For us, we’re just taking this path because we have some things we want to say, and we’re using music as our way of saying it. If you’re given a stage, why not include something that changes people’s minds, or at least opens them up?”

***

Truthout attended the band’s release concert of their new album, Rebellion Politik, in September, at the Cedar Cultural Center in downtown Minneapolis. The band refers to the title track as an “operating theory” that uses as a force for organizing and political action, “the science of survival in a repressive environment.”

The track “Original Assumption” asks:

What is freedom?
Is it the perceived option to choose between two preconceived concoctions
Of a two party dictatorship, based on maintaining a deranged relationship
With no explanation of our benefits

The chorus of the title track reinforces the thought:

Rebellion Politik, the opposite of what you know as politics
Where corporate capital makes the government break their promise
It’s a new day where people create the policy
And the economy trickles up to eradicate the poverty
So get up, stand up, these are our demands, what
We want our money back so politicians get your hands up
Equal distribution of the land and the profits
An end to all war and a socialized democracy

These lyrics come as no surprise from a band that, along with thousands of protesters, was chased by riot-gear clad police at last year’s Republican National Convention in Minneapolis. The experience galvanized the band as a unit, explained Cox. “That experience kind of made Junkyard Empire, in our minds. It solidified for us how much we want to be a part of the movement, versus being a band that is just into the subject matter.”

One of their gigs during the convention week took place on the steps of the Capital, the day after Rage Against the Machine had played at a festival. Cox recounted, “We played for a protest called ‘No peace for the war makers.’ We played our set on stage, with some speeches between our songs, it was great, and intense. All of a sudden I looked to my right and saw about 50 cops in riot gear, and I was wondering what was about to happen. So it was a bit awkward, but the energy was great. It was the first time for us, as a band, that we felt like we were doing exactly what we wanted – playing live music, involved in a live protest, cops around, and being connected to both, was incredibly energizing.”

The band’s conviction is both refreshing and unmistakable. Junkyard Empire believes that their music can assist in fomenting the change they feel must happen in the world right now. For them, it is important to combine music, art and politics because they see music as an inspirational mechanism to create change.

Brihanu reminisced, “One of the first ways I realized that there were problems to be confronted, was when I was listening to Public Enemy and KRS-One as a child. It helped me interpret my world and built a passion for social justice inside me that I didn’t even realize was there.”

Today he hopes their band might have the same effect on people.

“Our music and message are one in the same, they are meant to provoke thought and inspire us all to realize our true potential. We want to be the soundtrack for a mass social movement in the US and around the world.”

Right now I’m speaking as the voice of the masses
Defeated, mistreated, believe it you beat us robbed us and gassed us
We’ve been passed up, locked up, exploited and downsized
But we will uprise, no compromise, this is the fire next time

Junkyard Empire is sporadically touring the Midwest, looking to partner up with other radical bands for a larger tour, and working towards a tour of Europe. They are also in the planning stages for other international political actions, and are promoting Rebellion Politik, which is their third album.

Bhaswati Sengupta contributed to this report.

Dahr Jamail, an independent journalist, is the author of “The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan,” (Haymarket Books, 2009), and “Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches From an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq,” (Haymarket Books, 2007). Jamail reported from occupied Iraq for nine months as well as from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Turkey over the last five years.

Why Is It A Felony To Record Your Own Arrest? – C Drew

[Chris Drew posted this followup to his arrest for taping his own arrest (does anybody else see the Kafkaesque quality of that statement?).  His message includes an article from reason.com by Radley Balko.  Felonious recording of police officers? Can't wrap my mind around this. -- Lew Rosenbaum]

Reason.com – an online magazine published an opinion piece online December 14th about my arrest. It made strong points in support of our efforts. Please read it and share it with friends.
http://reason.com/archives/2009/12/14/chicagos-thick-blue-wall

Art patch, printed on a white cotton background - "c drew charged with eavesdropping" - photo by Chris Drew

Someone said the City is trying to distract us with a trial over a first degree felony (4-15 years in prison) “Eavesdropping on Police” charge instead of the community service from a misdemeanor selling in the Loop charge that I deserved for my actions.

Once we get past the intimidation factor, we need to make it all about the Art Patch Project.

We have to get back to organizing people around the Art Patch Project! At

every point in this trial we should try to have an art patch give away somewhere. As few as two volunteers could be a team in these art give-aways.

I will have art-patches with me at my 26th and California arraignment in Cook County Court. After the hearing those attending the court appearance and I will go down to the Loop where I was arrested in front of Macys on State Street and legally give-away art. For those who want to join us there, email me your cell phone and I will call you to let you know when we get out of the court and when we will be downtown.

Who’s In??? ?

Nancy Bechtol has made a video entitle “C. Drew Answers Charges of Eavedropping on Police”

<http://click.icptrack.com/icp/relay.php?r=35180696&msgid=525122&act=UZ00&c=296369&admin=0&destination=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DG-K_dTlzs5M>http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-K_dTlzs5M

Help us change Chicago. Our goal is not justice for Chris Drew – it is justice for all who go after him. Someone must brave the intimidation of the State of Illinois and the Daley Administration to change the laws that prevent our freedom. We are not free to live by our art and we are not free to protect ourselves from police abuse. It is time to stand up and support your rights. Time to make a better Chicago to live in. I am taking the risks so you do not have to but I need your support. If citizens do not make an effort to support this we will fail. Failure means prison time for me and life in a city like a prison for you. If you like not being able to protect yourself from police abuse, do nothing.

Chicago’s Thick Blue Wall

The Windy City’s notoriously aggressive police department fights for less accountability.

| December 14, 2009

Christopher Drew had every intention of getting arrested. The 59-year-old artist and executive director of the Uptown Multi-Cultural Art Center in Chicago set about his city earlier this month in a red poncho and a sign that read “Art for Sale: $1.” It was a protest against Chicago’s law on unlicensed peddling,

Before the arrest: View of C Drew's crime -- photo by Ron Grenko

which Drew believes puts up unconstitutional barriers preventing artists from selling their work.

The artist was confronted by Chicago police and arrested on December 3. Because he recorded the entire incident, on the understandable assumption that the reasons the officers gave for arresting him may prove useful to his follow-up lawsuit, Drew was also charged with “felony eavesdropping.”

Generally speaking, it’s not a crime to record an on-duty police officer in a public space. In fact, with just a few exceptions (mostly limited to military installations and nuclear energy facilities), you can photograph and/or record anything and anyone in a public space. But there are still too many stories of people being arrested, intimidated, or detained for turning their lenses on cops. (See Carlos Miller’s excellent blog Photography Is Not a Crime for a litany of examples.) It happened last week in West Virginia, where award-winning photojournalist Scott Rensenberger was arrested after attempting to photograph a police officer in a Charleston mall.

You can certainly understand why someone would want to get a planned interaction with Chicago police on tape. In the last few years, the department has been hit with scandals of egregious police misconduct that, had they not been captured on tape, likely would either never have been investigated, or the investigation wouldn’t have been based on what actually happened.

The most famous incident was footage of an off-duty cop viciously beating a female bartender who refused to continue serving him in 2007. He wasn’t even charged until three months later, after the surveillance video surfaced on the Internet, generating worldwide outrage. There are other examples: six cops beating two men in a bar brawl; a video of a fatal police shooting in a subway station where officer accounts of the incident don’t match the video footage. The department also recently disciplined two officers after a video showed up on the Internet showing a Chicago PD unit posing for a trophy photo with a protester they had apprehended earlier this year at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh.

This is a police department still under federal investigation for an officer-run torture ring in the 1980s and, more recently, for a major scandal in which officers in the department’s Special Operations Unit—alleged to be made up of the city’s most elite and trusted cops—have been convicted of a variety of crimes, including home robberies, theft, physical abuse and intimidation, and even planning a murder. The “best of the best” unit was disbanded last year.

A 2008 study by University of Chicago law professor Craig B. Futterman found 10,000 complaints filed against Chicago police officers between 2002 and 2004. That’s more than any city in the country, and proportionally it’s 40 percent above the national average. Of those 10,000 complaints, just 19 resulted in significant disciplinary action. In 85 percent of the cases, the complaint was dismissed without even interviewing the accused officer. The study also found that about 5 percent of the department’s 13,500 officers accounted for more than half the complaints.

Yet the Chicago PD recently went to federal court—and won—to prevent the release of the names of 662 officers who had more than 10 citizen complaints filed against them between 2001 and 2006. Even members of the city’s Board of Aldermen aren’t allowed to see the officers’ names.

Now, the police department is working to become even less accountable. Last October, a study from the Chicago Justice Project found that on those rare occasions when Chicago police brass want to fire an officer, the Chicago Police Board—the agency that oversees the department—nearly always overrules them. On the very same day that study was released, the department announced a new policy whereby it would reserve the option to file criminal charges against citizens who file police misconduct reports deemed to be without merit. I’m sure false misconduct reports are common, and likely a bureaucratic hassle. But you can’t start charging citizens who claim to have been mistreated by police with crimes because a department that has shown it isn’t capable of investigating and policing itself has decided, unsurprisingly, that once again its officers did nothing wrong. The policy will likely deter false complaints; but it will also deter legitimate ones.

I’m sure the bulk of the officers in the Chicago Police Department are professional, courteous public servants. But that doesn’t let the department or the city off in its failure to discipline those who aren’t. At the very least, those officials should pass a clear and unambiguous policy codifying the right of citizens like Christopher Drew to take and preserve an audio or video recording of their interactions with city police, and instructing cops that they can’t interfere with that right. Chicago’s political officials have shown themselves incapable of protecting the city’s residents from the bad actors in its police department. The least they can do is ensure that the city’s residents have the legal right to protect themselves.

Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

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