Activist Rockers "Outernational" Talk About Their New Political Album "We Are All Illegals"
Earlier this year, the Brooklyn-based rock ensemble Outernational released Todos Somos Ilegales (We Are All Illegals) as a political treatise on US-Mexican border politics and how they harm individuals on both sides of the line. Told in narrative form about an immigrant from the Southernmost tip of Central America as well as including reimaginings of Juarez tragedy and good, rabble-rousing fight songs, the album combines rock and radical politics, with Latino styles like banda, mariachi and Norteno. Midway through Outernational's tour along the US-Mexico border, to audiences that were largely immigrants and Mexican Americans as well as indigenous Reservations, AlterNet spoke with bandleader Miles Solay about theorizing borders, SB1070, playing rock on the Rez, and what we can do next.
You just performed at the University of Arizona. How was that?
That was cool. So, there’s sort of like this graduate program, graduate students who are getting degrees in social justice, if you can believe it. And they sort of this symposium on border issues. Through word of mouth or the internet or what have you, they have this record that we put out not too long ago when we were all illegal, so they invited us. It was kind of like class. It was cozy. We sort of rocked the fuck out at this college at 1PM for 20 graduate students.
What's the tenor in Arizona right now. Are you getting a sense of how people are feeling?
Our first stop was the Tohono O’odham, a reservation down in Southern Arizona which is actually split in half by the border. It’s the nation that I was not as familiar with their whole history when I had studied the stuff when I was younger but that was our first stop. We just went down there and talked to them. They had these youngsters and a garden in the main town and we played half the songs from our We Are All Illegals record, we played them acoustic. I would say, for example, because I gave you some of the sense of the response we’ve been getting across the board, like in Texas, for example. The people were very, I don’t know, it’s kind of a trip when a bunch of revolutionary rock ‘n rollers from New York kind of roll up on your reservation.
Not a lot of non-Native American musicians do a tour of the rez.
Yeah. I think people kind of found that intriguing. They were very welcoming. They invited us down there. That was a cool scene. Then we went up to Arizona State. Arizona State was a little bit different because it was graduate students, so it’s like a mix of people. But when you’re dealing with stuff that’s not law school or medical school, not sports, it’s all women, which is cool. It was a class of 15 women. Maybe one or two men were there. I would say Arizona, well, the SB-1070 is the law that put that stuff on the map years ago.
That’s what I meant. Obviously with that and with the ban on ethnic studies, especially now, when it's getting more charged.
It is getting pretty charged. It’s malicious. They killed these migrants down in the desert not too far from where we were, two nights ago. Kind of like KKK shit, really. [Ed. note: he means this. They shot up like 30 of them. Two of them died. They were dressed in camouflage. Arizona, as you’re familiar, is kind of the frontier of some of the more ominous, odious of these laws but in many ways, Arizona, historically has kind of been a testing ground for a lot of sort of really racist shit. Public Enemy wrote that song “By the Time I Get to Arizona” about Arizona refusing to recognize Martin Luther King Day. In terms of our response, we’re just kind of getting back to Arizona. It’s really charged. It’s just going in front of the Supreme Court on April 20 in a few weeks. And the ethnic studies ban.
For us, everyone's like, juiced. Everyone is like, Fuck yeah. People can smell a rat from a mile away, so there’s a sincerity, I think to our project and our record. I think people are really welcoming. When we’re talking to people, they really want to know a lot of the depth of, How did this start? What are you guys doing? What are you saying? For me, it’s real refreshing. We run in good company as a rock n roll band. We’re largely unknown, it’s a good thing, but a lot of place it’s like, “Oh, you guys are the Tom Morello band.” Which is totally cool because those are good friends of ours and they’re totally helpful, but this is really cool because it’s kind of putting focus on who we are and what we’re about. And that’s not an identity thing, that focuses more on what we have to say. I’m excited about that.
When you were conceiving the album, it has such an arc and a narrative and it touches on all these issues that are really important and not a lot of musicians even have one song about them, outside of Latino musicians. When you were approaching writing the album, what was your concept for it and were you thinking you would make it a narrative?
The development and the arc of it we conceived halfway through the album. What I mean by that, so the last song on the record is a song called “Que Queremos” by and large it’s kind of the centerpiece of an Outernational live set, with the chorus to that song, “Que queremos nada, que queremos todos mundo.” I’m really excited that’s the last song on the record because there’s a lot of, the theme of the record is temporal in terms of this issue, but it’s also much larger than that. In a lot of ways, that’s the take home message of the record. But that’s the first song we wrote before we even conceived this record. Then when SB1070 went down, I started talking to Tom Morello, who is a good friend of mine, like, “Yo man, you guys, Rage Against the Machine, let’s go to Arizona now, let’s go to Arizona.” He came to me with Zack (dela Rocha, of Rage Against the Machine), who I knew when I was much younger, I was talking to Zack and he was like, “Cool, man. People should go to Arizona but we’re gonna do a boycott of Arizona with all the big artists. Make it sort of a cultural wasteland.” At that time, two years ago, we went over, we drove through Arizona and we went to Tom Morello’s house and we recorded “Deportees” which is a Woody Guthrie song that’s also on the record... We connected with Rene Perez, the singer for Calle 13. We wanted to make it a really expansive thing [conceptually]: "What’s it like to go from Guatemala up through Mexico and then all the way up to [the US]: what’s that journey like? We tried to make this a springboard for our vision of how a whole other world could be. The planet could be. I think the way the way human beings are treated, immigrants, not just here, but all around the world, it’s kind of an entry point for our vision and our mission.
I know that you all have talked about the importance of having borderless nations, at least in imagination. I wonder, particularly in a place like Mexico City where it is so, Indios and Spanish-descendants and cosmopolitans from all around the world live in this one place. I wonder how much that influenced the idea of borderlessness, and how you interpret the idea of "borderless nations."
That’s kind of the question. If there’s one thing to talk about, it would be that. To pull the lens back, the way I see it, the way the world is right now is completely unnecessary. In the sense of like, the production relations of reproducing the basic necessities and requirements for human life and human sustenance, they exist. It’s not like the 1600s with basic cures for diseases. There’s tremendous productive capacity to feed everyone, to clothe everyone, and yet you have this disparity in terms of distribution of things in the world. So when I say no borders, for example, that comes in my song, “Fighting Song,” I’m trying to imagine... no divisions between countries. Obviously we’re not trying to say obliterate oppressed nations. For example, we were on the reservation the other night and we did “Fighting Song,” I had to give a little disclaimer and I’m completely sad that we have to do disclaimers, but I still had to give a disclaimer where I said, “Hey, there’s a part in this song where I scream out, ‘No nations! No nations!’” and I’m sitting here on a Native American nation, and it had to be very clear so that they could appreciate it. I don’t mean let’s get rid of your nation, or other oppressed nations. We’re trying to sing about a world where people actually aren’t separated into different nations or My People or Your People.
There’s always this talk, Oh there’s no political musicians, which is complete BS and I always think all music inherently is somewhat political because it’s a reflection of society. But I wonder, when you’re distilling these big ideas, social and philosophical ideas into music, are you thinking about, because your music is very accessible, your ideas are accessible through that. Are you thinking about the best way to communicate with people?
I agree with you that all art is political. You can just, you know, when people say, That’s a political band, I know what they mean and I don’t beef over that, but it’s not the way I like to think about it because all art is political in the sense of politics is the lifeblood of society. If you can see the way it might challenge someone to see or to think or even how you perceive in different social contexts, it can have tremendous implications.
You talk about Occupy pretty early in Todo Somos Ilegales. Obviously Occupy has had an element of indigenous and border liberationist movements, but I wonder if you’ve had anything thoughts on how it’s come together. I know you’ve performed there.
Yeah. We were actually in the midst of the most intense part of making Todos Somos Ilegales right when Occupy kicked off on September 17 on Wall Street. And so, I was up there a lot in the first week. Then we performed at the one in LA and a couple other cities. Occupy was refreshing and at the same time broke the ice and was breaking the freeze over of Americans and a lot of young and the fact that it has a defiance that is hard-wired. I thought that that was really inspiring and it was a lot of defiance.
I would say there was a lot of limitations and there was a lot of also sort of too much Americanism in the Occupy Movement. It was a start for a lot of people that it woke up a lot of people.
Lastly, do you feel optimistic? Your album seems that way. I am optimistic in the sense that I feel like people can be confronted with reality and people can be transformed. People can transform themselves and people can transform other people and based on that can transform the world. One of the problems we have right now, though, is that you have whole generations of people who have been taught not only through the schools but even a lot through a liberal thinking and left politics that real revolutionary, radical solutions are beyond the pale. The best we can do is tinker around the fucking fringes of the system. Non-profits and NGOs, many of whom are people trying to do very good things. How many sincere people I’ve met who become doctor or how many sincere people I’ve met who become lawyers or how many sincere people I’ve met who become teachers because they want to help people but they get fucking confined because the monsters are so much bigger. I’m just trying, we’re trying, there’s five of us here, we’re trying to fucking crack that egg open. By the egg, I don’t mean people but that bubble. That safety zone. If you live in America, you live in the projects with no money, you still got two words that half the planet doesn’t have: Clean water. Even the most depressed people, living in this country, it’s like living on the top of the trash heap of humanity. So we’re really trying to get people to stop thinking like Americans.