There has never been a more urgent need for a band of politically-motivated musicians to make their mark in society than today. The 1970s was a decade featuring the sometimes over-romanticised ideology of punk and anti-Establishmentism, one that spawned acts such as The Sex Pistols, The Clash and Billy Bragg - notorious for their outspoken political agendas and disdain for government. Since then, the essence of punk and punk music has often been tainted by nostalgia. We risk losing the meaning of punk - of being a musical revolutionary at the same time as possessing an inherent need to drive racism, capitalism and greed out of the global framework.
One of the most important bands to emerge lately, at the front of a much-needed revolution, are Anti-Flag, their very name indicating a disregard for the sickening nationalism that had infiltrated the US long before September 11. Fronted by Justin Sane, the Pittsburgh quartet have been actively involved in the anti-fascist campaign since they formed in 1988. Between touring the US with Michael Moore, speaking out against the use of depleted uranium as a warhead, and setting up an organisation called Military Free Zone, the band have taken part in countless rallies and demonstrations throughout the world.
My own political consciousness began in the playground when I was the only black kid in town. I think it was exposure to racism in the small, Chicago suburb of Libertyville that started me thinking about things in different ways. I grew up in a household that had a very left-leaning politics.Anti-Flag's singer, Justin Sane, empathises with my background. "It's funny how similar our stories are, except that you were black and I was white. I grew up in a very left-leaning house of activists. And my parents, too, were civil rights activists. They were involved in the feminist movement, and the anti-nuclear movement, any and all activist movements connected to social and political justice. They started the first food cooperative in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the first vegetarian restaurant where I grew up." So he's what's known as a red-diaper baby? "Absolutely, a socialist through and through."
I have been friends with Anti-Flag for some time, and I played on their latest album, For Blood And Empire. Sane and I have toured together; Anti-Flag opened up for my old band, Rage Against the Machine on the Battle of Los Angeles Tour, and then The Night Watchman (featuring me) opened up for Anti-Flag on the subtly titled Rock Against Bush Tour. I mention that his band's new record, which sounds fantastic, is their first time on a major label, wonder what have been the pluses and minuses of that, and question how it has affected their political potency as a band.
"We had some role models on major labels - one band that I can think of in particular named Rage Against the Machine! Touring with you guys was an incredible, eye-opening experience. At that time Rage Against The Machine were working very hard on the case of Mumia Abu Jamal [a journalist and political activist convicted of the murder of a police officer]. For that reason, the police were out demonstrating at every single one of your concerts, and every night the TV cameras showed up. It was incredible because, thanks to Rage Against The Machine, the case of Mumia Abu Jamal was brought into the living rooms of middle America. It certainly opened our eyes to the possibilities of working with a major label.
"So the most important point negotiated in our contract with the label was that we had to be given 100-per-cent artist control. The label agreed that we would have control over our art, music, lyrics, when we tour, where we tour, everything! Now we can talk to the mass media about issues, and our voice is being heard in a way that it's never been heard before.
"Some days I sit and search for something that has been bad about it. But we've been able to operate in exactly the same manner as we've always operated, only there are doors as far as mainstream media that have opened for us and we feel like we've been able to take advantage."
My experience growing up with bands like The Clash and Public Enemy was that music that had an enormous impact on my lifeand and helped fuel my fire to get out and change the world, and to be unapologetic and unafraid and uncompromising in my music and politics. "The Clash were the band for me as well," says Justin. "They just hit me upside the head like a sledgehammer, and made me think, "Wow! This is amazing because this band is singing about all of the things that I can relate to, and all the things I care about. When you hear a band like that and their music moves you to the point that you want to get involved, you want to change the world.
"I know from personal experience that music can move mountains, and it can move bodies into action. And you know, in that respect sometimes we'll meet kids who, because of our music have taken up a cause and, or simply they didn't join the military, which to me is a great success. I think the war in Iraq illustrates we often have very good people who are being used in unjust wars. So to experience people making choices based on music I have made, and to see people coming together to make a positive change in the world because of music, that is what's so gratifying to me about what we do.
"Even in these times where it seems so bleak, knowing the power that music has to create change is what reminds me that it is worth continuing the struggle. It's worth making music and putting a message out there for people to rally around."
'For Blood and Empire' is out now on ColumbiaReuse content