News & Politics

Not Your Parents' Protest Music

The burgeoning politi-punk band Outernational discusses what it means to be revolutionary.
"One hundred thousand civilians died in Iraq, what the [email protected]*#! is up with that?" -- Sonny Suchdev of Outernational, introducing the song "Blood on the Streets."

I've been following the band Outernational -- with their fearless melange of punk, rap, ska, bhangra and afrobeat -- since 2003. While still not a household name, the group began to make waves at 2004's Republican National Convention protests in New York. That's where they played (at the "Axis of Justice" concert organized by Tom Morello, formerly of Rage Against the Machine) to a large crowd of pissed-off activists, many of them Critical Mass bike riders who had just watched the NYPD target and arrest scores of their own (the Bloomberg administration claimed that "anarchists" had infiltrated the group bike ride). The repercussions of that day's mass arrests and police mistreatment continue to reverberate in Outernational's NYC home base.

Even before Outernational's breakout performance at the RNC protests, they had fans -- like me -- regularly attending their shows for a political floor-stomping fix. In 2000, as the New York Times pondered the possible death of "protest music", older anti-establishment voices like Consolidated, Public Enemy, Fugazi, and Negativland were dimming, and fans needed something new. Into the gap stepped Outernational, which came together in late 2003 with a heady mix of radical politics and furious beats.

Since its inception, the young (most members are in their early 20s) band has been growing steadily, supporting numerous political events such as last year's Atlantic City concert at a picket line of striking hotel workers (with Wyclef Jean) and World Can't Wait events to demand Bush's resignation. The group has also been playing sold-out shows at national clubs and college campuses, with the likes of Michelle Shocked, Dub Is A Weapon, Prince Paul, and Gogol Bordello (led by Eugene Hutz, who produced the band's EP "Outernational"). As it is for many other still-unsigned bands, the networking website MySpace.com is a crucial tool for Outernational, helping build a dedicated internet fan base that follows them from city to city.

I recently caught Outernational at New York's Knitting Factory and was pleasantly surprised to find that their audience had changed. Alongside the hardcore anti-war activists and South Asian radicals I used to see at their shows, there was now a huge following of high school students and Latino working-class youth. When a spontaneous mosh pit evolved, with enthusiastic kids crowd-surfing and hanging from ceiling pipes, I worried that the band's shows might devolve into "forget politics, just dance" parties. But, thankfully, Outernational's repertory remains political, with crowd favorites like "From the Future" imploring listeners to "send these fools to the trash and move these ghouls to the past/ take a stab at this cornered crabby crass capitalist class."

After their Knitting Factory show, AlterNet met with band members Miles Solay and Sonny Suchdev for a free-wheeling discussion about politics, music, fans and inspiration; other band members weighed in later via email.

[Outernational are Miles Solay (vocals, lyrics), Sonny Suchdev (trumpet, vocals, percussion), minimum tek (guitar), Jesse Williams (bass) and Turbo Garcia (drums).]

Naeem Mohaiemen: What were your inspirations to start the group? I remember a general malaise from the idea that revolution rock was dying (metaphorically with Rage Against The Machine's implosion, and literally with the passing of Joe Strummer and two Ramones). Were you inspired to fill a gap?

Miles Solay: The origins of Outernational partly came from a felt need among our generation. The passing of Joe Strummer (The Clash) was incredibly influential for me. It was tragic because he was not some washed-up relic. He had a new band and was really trying to be relevant and connect with a new audience.

We started Outernational after the U.S. invaded Iraq for the second time. We come out of a certain tradition, which we embrace and contribute towards. What we're doing, though, is trying to develop a new synthesis -- a new sound -- based on the legacy we came out of.

Sonny Suchdev: I had been an activist since I was a teenager and had been playing the trumpet since I was nine, but I had never found the right group of people to combine music and politics in a band. One day that fall, I was at dinner with some friends after a meeting (about post-9/11 detentions of immigrants), and Jesse was also there. He commented on the Skatalites T-shirt I was wearing, and we of course started talking about music. He told me about his friend Miles and how they were getting together and jamming with different people in the basement. I asked him what kind of music they were into, and he replied, "We're on an outernationalist rebel music tip." I had a good feeling about this.

We all felt strongly that the world needed so many more artists and bands that use music to resist oppression, war, imperialism, capitalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and also put forth a vision of what this world could be like without all this BS. From the beginning, we were not interested in being simply a "protest band" that played at rallies and spoke out against injustices, but we wanted to actually put forth something new, artistically and politically, that helped to shape this culture in a new direction.

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Music is powerful. You can say things through a song that you can't say in a speech or in a book or essay. You can envision and hear what a just world looks and sounds like through music, even though it doesn't exist yet.

NM: What does it mean to be a "revolutionary band?" You've used this term in some of your press, and I would really like to get into that. It's such an over-used term that we don't stop to break it down. Is your political strategy incremental change or dramatic shifts?

SS: Being a revolutionary band means that we want our music and our band to be a part of the struggle to change the world, to overturn this exploitative, degrading system and create a new world. Being a revolutionary band means that we're inspired by oppressed and colonized people in this country and throughout the world who are fighting back and have been fighting back for centuries. It means that we refuse to accept this white supremacist-patriarchal-capitalist system that we are all living under, and we refuse to be silent. We hope that our music is fueling people's fight(s) against this system, giving them more energy and hope, while also inspiring others to wake up and take action to change things.

MS: I look out at the crowds, when we're rocking out in Times Square at the Bush Step Down/World Can't Wait protest (while Bush was giving his State of the Union address), and I see hundreds of kids screaming the lyrics with their fists pumping the air. Or when we're playing the Knitting Factory, our NYC homebase, and I see the youth from D.F. Mexico mashing it up with white middle-school kids. The South Asian folks bumping shoulders with '60s people whose faces are all lit up. I see a whole new world opening up when everyone is shouting in unison, "I'm from the future you wish you would see!"

From Newark's old Ironbound district to Sunset Park, there's a whole scene of Latino immigrant youth who have wholeheartedly embraced Outernational as their own. When we're playing a show and everyone is singing "Que qeremos? Todo el Mundo" (What do we want? We want the whole world).

In a song like "Que Queremos," for example, we're traveling with Mexican, Guatemalan and Filipino farm workers in the South, and an old Jamaican man on a Brooklyn subway. They don't just want better wages or health care, or even simply to be recognized as human beings, they want the whole thing. It is for these people, the stories from Soundview to Immokolee, West Bank to Kathmandu, Baghdad to the cities of France and everywhere in between.

NM: Rage Against The Machine famously had that table full of inspirational books on their album sleeve. What would be some texts that are major influences for your music and political vision?

MS: From Ike To Mao And Beyond (Bob Avakian), Beloved (Toni Morrison), Red Star Over China (Edgar Snow).

SS: The Karma of Brown Folk (Vijay Prashad), Open Veins of Latin America (Eduardo Galeano), Ain't I a Woman? (bell hooks).

minimum tek: Reinventing Anarchy (Howard Ehrlich), Wretched of the Earth (Franz Fanon), Lockdown America (Christian Parenti).

Turbo Garcia: They Came Before Columbus (Ivan Van Sertima), The Islands: Worlds of the Puerto Ricans (Stan Steiner), Ishmael (Daniel Quinn).

Jesse Williams: Native Son (Richard Wright), Beloved (Toni Morrison), Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That? (Bob Avakian).

NM: Does the band ever worry about "selling out?" Let's say you end up on Central Park Summerstage and blow up -- is there a danger of your political message getting diluted?

MS: We intend to do everything possible to get this music out there as far as it can get, in this country and internationally. When we are out there in the shark-infested waters of the music industry and constantly on the road, it will become more challenging to stay connected to our audience and the people. This is a challenge that we are eager to tackle. It has much more to do with us and what we're about (not to mention our fans) and keeping our sights set on the horizon than whether or not we're on a major label.

Recently I read an interview with Saul Williams (spoken word poet and musician who recorded the "Not In Our Name" pledge of resistance). In it, he was speaking of some of his fans that reject his efforts to take his art to many more people. In other words, they want him to remain an underground phenomenon. While recognizing how special it is for people to discover something new and to claim it as their own, Saul said, "Do you want the world to be different, or do you just want to be different?"

SS: I'm definitely not worried about Outernational's politics getting diluted. Though we all have different political beliefs, we share a very strong common ground on what this band represents, and that will not change, record deal or not. I'm not concerned about the whole notion of selling out. We want this music to get to as many people as possible and will do what it takes to make that happen, whether that is on a major label, an indie label or selling CDs out of our van!

Check out these other MP3s from Outernational, available for download from AlterNet: Ricochet (Radio Edit), Que Queremos (Radio Edit), Blood on the Streets, Her Word On Me, From the Future, and Roman Candle (live).
Naeem Mohaiemen is a filmmaker and media activist. Projects include Shobak & Disappeared In America.
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