Musicians Rock Miami Protests


In light of the popularity of recent books with names like "Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth" by Joe Conason, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them" by Al Franken, and AlterNet's own book, "The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq," there can be no mistaking the political climate that spurred the creation of the Tell Us the Truth Tour, now in its penultimate week on the East Coast.

Headliner Billy Bragg is joined by fellow musicians Boots Riley of The Coup, Mike Mills of REM, Audioslave's Tom Morello, country guitarist Steve Earle, blues rocker Lester Chambers, and others in a spirited effort to entertain as well as encourage audiences to demand government accountability around two specific issues: media consolidation and free trade.

The two topics were not chosen at random. The tour kicked off at the National Conference for Media Reform in Wisconsin in early November, where presenters shared strategies on creating a progressive alternative to the corporate media monopoly. The June 2 decision by the Federal Communications Commission to remove many of the obstacles to more concentrated, less regulated media ownership permits one media company to own a newspaper, three television stations and several radio stations in the same market.

The performers have since traveled from the Midwest to the Southeast, bringing their eclectic sound to cities such as Chicago, Indianapolis, Nashville and Atlanta. This week, they will disembark at the People's Gala for Global Justice in Miami, entertaining the thousands of protesters who will converge on a gathering of top officials working toward the creation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), an expansion of NAFTA to include the entire Western Hemisphere.

Protestors fear that such an expansion will adversely affect workers‚ wages and rights, harm the environment, and establish an exploitative trade model that benefits only the corporations who will have free reign to dictate the bottom line. "What we see here is Big Media getting a free pass to get bigger by government and our government getting a free pass to do whatever, whether that means changing the media rules or changing the trade policies," asserts indie rocker Jenny Toomey, executive director of the Future of Music Coalition, a musician advocacy group and a sponsor of the tour.

The Future of Music Coalition published a report in 2002 measuring changes in the structure of the radio industry since 1996, when the Telecommunications Act opened the floodgates to nationwide station ownership by a single entity. The findings: less music and news programming diversity, and musicians struggling more than ever to get airplay. "Until we understand why radio sucks so much since the Telecommunications Act, we shouldn't be fooling around with other media that are directly connected to our democratic process," says Toomey.

"As artists and musicians we understand how the formal and informal censorship of our voice has impacted the diversity of our culture and the climate within which we make our art," declares a statement on the Tell Us the Truth Tour's website. "We will not remain silent in the face of the ghettoizing of our communities and the banning of our peers."

To get the message across, the tour's artists meet with media and fair trade activists prior to almost every performance, creating a rare publicity opportunity. Unfortunately, the media's coverage of the tour has been fairly sparse, with a tendency to focus more on the media consolidation issue than the questions activists have raised about the FTAA.

The mystery surrounding the two subjects is typical, says Toomey. "The sense that I get from people when I talk to them about these issues is confusion and fear," she affirms.

The presence of sponsoring organizations Common Cause, Axis of Justice, the AFL-CIO, and local groups at every venue go a long way toward dissolving that confusion, and the tour's homepage includes a description of both issues and resources for action.

A joyful sound doesn't hurt the message either. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a special group jam to the Chambers Brothers 1968 funk hit, "Time Has Come Today," with Lester Chambers leading the company and Boots Riley rapping over. In Wisconsin, FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein wowed the crowd with an impromptu performance on the harmonica (he'll be back for the tour's final stop in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 24.)

"Oh my lord, he's bad," laughs Chambers, who knew of Adelstein's talent. "I'm thinking about inviting him to record with me."

The concert never fails to inspire, with a standing ovation every night. "It's a healthy show," says Chambers. "You see people leaving the venue, even silver-haired ones, going down the streets and hollering up the neighborhood."

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