Striking an antiwar chord

Times Staff Writer

The proposition of life during wartime was haunting David Byrne.

The singer best known for his years with the rock band Talking Heads was losing sleep at night and then fuming each day as he read reports of the unfolding situation with Iraq. “I had gotten to point that I had to do something to ease my conscience,” he said in an interview here Thursday. “I felt like by not saying anything, I was being complacent. I also suspected that other musicians felt the same way.”

So, about three weeks ago, Byrne began talking to peers and music industry associates about a public protest of the U.S. policies that he viewed as too hawkish. The result has been the most prominent antiwar demonstration from the music community, a coalition called Musicians United to Win Without War, which is now scrambling to put together a large all-star concert in New York to amplify its message.


The coalition -- which includes a strong contingent of rap artists, pointing to that genre’s increasingly political activism -- is the latest outcry from a range of artists in the worlds of poetry, theater and film.

The coalition first got its message out Feb. 26 in a full-page advertisement in the New York Times. “War on Iraq is wrong and we know it,” the ad trumpeted in large typeface. The 42 names who signed it veer wildly across the music landscape: Jay-Z, R.E.M., Sheryl Crow, the Kronos Quartet, Emmylou Harris, Lou Reed, Fugazi and Caetano Veloso among them. A similar ad with a growing list of performers has been purchased in the upcoming issue of Rolling Stone magazine.

“There will be some more ads -- those are kind of the fastest things we can do -- and of course we are talking about other things, whether it’s concerts or records or downloadable songs,” Byrne said. “All that is just talk at this point, though.”

A high-profile effort

Already, the coalition is the most visible demonstration by contemporary music’s elite to speak to the U.S. stance toward the Iraqi regime.

At the 45th annual Grammy Awards here late last month, for instance, political speech was practically nonexistent. And although the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were subject material in months past for numerous artists (among them Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and Steve Earle), the darkening conflict with Iraq has been less explored in lyric.

There have been exceptions. Darryl Worley’s “Have You Forgotten?” is a growing success story in country radio with its pro-war call to action, and rapper Paris has a new CD stirring controversy with its condemnation of the U.S. stance and an album cover depicting a jet airliner bearing down on the White House. John Mellencamp, meanwhile, has a new song, “To Washington,” that chides President Bush and classifies the push into Iraq as a war for oil.

Pop artists in Britain -- including rising hip-hop star Ms Dynamite and members of such bands as Travis, Massive Attack and Blur -- have been exhibiting a stronger activist streak. Youssou N'Dour, the Senegalese singer, announced Friday that he has canceled his seven-week North American tour over the threat of war.

“As a matter of conscience, I question the United States government’s apparent intention to commence war in Iraq,” a statement from him said. “I believe that coming to America at this time would be perceived in many parts of the world -- rightly or wrongly -- as support of this policy.”

Mostly, though, the U.S. music community has had the volume on low on Iraq.

Josh Schrei is the marketing director for Luaka Bop, Byrne’s record label, and as a veteran organizer of the Tibetan benefit concerts, he became a natural point man for the singer’s call to create a coalition. Schrei said there was quick and consistent support from artists contacted, but he also sensed that many had been waiting for some guidance.

“Everyone, to me, seemed really relieved,” Schrei said. “If somebody else initiated the effort, then they were totally down to be part of it.”

Schrei said almost all the artists contacted lent their names to the project and many made contributions toward advertising costs. “Some people were with us in sentiment but said they were doing their own thing,” Schrei said. “Like Madonna. She’s working on an antiwar song now, so we were told that was going to be the way she was going.”

Although protest has been mounting in recent weeks about the trajectory of U.S. policy, many people remain conflicted about the risks and the inevitability of a war.

“I feel so helpless,” said Roseanne Cash, one of the artists who signed her name to the coalition. “Who is listening? Bush doesn’t care about millions of people in the street. What’s going to change things? Look, I can tell you that my personal survey of taxi drivers in New York says Americans don’t want a war.”

The coalition that began with the restless Byrne gathered steam when it crossed paths with the efforts of another music industry notable, Russell Simmons, the music mogul who built Def Jam Recordings. With Simmons, the coalition quickly added a large infusion of rap and urban music stars, such as Nas, Busta Rhymes, OutKast and Missy Elliott.

While the rock world has a long and entrenched network of artists lending their names and time to political causes, the younger genre of hip-hop has not been a consistent presence. Simmons has pushed to change that. Bill Adler, onetime publicist for Simmons and Def Jam and one of the engines behind the coalition, said that the presence of rap stars widens the audience for the message. He also said that celebrity opinion, which is often dismissed as inappropriate or inane, remains powerful with young people in shaping their worldview.

“When John Lennon opposed the war in Vietnam, I was 12 or 13 years old and that was impressive to me,” Adler said. “I didn’t know about politics. But I knew about the Beatles and that carried weight with me. I respected their intelligence and it gave me an entry point into the issue.”

Not without risks

Still, in the modern celebrity culture, many stars who use award show speeches or arena stages for political comment run the risk of alienating not only ideological opponents, but also those who question the appropriateness of using an entertainment platform.

Byrne is well aware of the vagaries involved. He says that artists are expected to infuse their work with their worldview and that if the mixed blessings of celebrity can be focused on matters of global importance, then why not? Since the appearance of the coalition’s newspaper advertisement, Byrne has been inundated with responses pro and con.

“Some have been very positive and some have been very aggressive, and I think that shows the volatility of the situation,” he said. “It runs from ‘We’re with you’ to ‘Love it or leave it.’ But at the very least we have added to the discussion of this and, hopefully, a sense that it’s not too late to think about what we’re doing.”