Jello Biafra on ‘Nazi Punks’ and hate speech
The ugly subculture of neo-Nazi punk rock is back in the news after the shooting at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee. But within the punk community itself, many voices have loudly opposed this strain over the decades and worked to combat it with music.
Jello Biafra, the founder of the pioneering Bay Area punk band Dead Kennedys, label owner and one of the most outspoken leftist activists in music, wrote perhaps the defining anti-Nazi punk anthem in 1981. We can’t print its title, but we spoke with Biafra -- who now fronts Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine -- about the history of Nazi punk and his own legacy in opposing it. A condensed and lightly edited transcript of his remarks follows:
I wrote that song in 1981, and at the time, it was aimed at people who were really violent on the dance floor; they didn’t call it mosh pits yet. It began to attract people showing up just to see if they could get in fights in the pit or jump off stage and punch people in the back of the head and run away. I noticed some of the really bad thugs were clearly not teenagers, they looked quite a bit older, which makes me wonder if they were really undercover cops.
People started asking me, “Are you down with this? Thing are changing, the audience is younger, hard core is coming up and it’s a more extreme form of punk,” and I liked that kind of music, but I thought if we’re gonna play this music, we need to distance ourselves from that side of the scene. The initial premise of the song was “You violent people at shows are acting like a bunch of Nazis,” and that was as far as it went. Then the real ideological Nazis began coming out of the closet.
They attacked Dead Kennedys shows after that. One time, a more hard-core version of (Britain’s) National Front showed up in tandem with the road crew of a band, and that connection always creeped me out. Punk is such an extreme form of music, the most extreme form of rock and roll ever invented, and it’s always attracted different kinds of extremes. So “Nazi Punks…" evolved in people’s minds into an anti-fascist, anti-Nazi anthem. I’ve noticed that the more that my current band, Jello Biafra & the Guantanamo School of Medicine, plays in countries where people have tangible memories of suffering under dictators -- South America, the Balkans, Eastern Europe -- the more people want to hear that song because it means something deeper to them than telling people not to start fights at punk shows.
The founder of Maximumrocknroll, who had the guts to take this stuff head-on early, pointed out that there were always idiots in the scene, and now they have an ideology. The punk music sound is one kind of music white supremacists are attracted to, but to blame the murder of a bunch of innocent people in the Milwaukee area on music itself is like blaming Ozzy Osbourne for some troubled kid killing themselves, or blaming the Bible for when a Christian supremacist kills someone.
There were shows and individuals who had been attacked by Nazi skinheads and that still goes on here and there, but the ideological ones haven’t shown up at any event of mine in years. The subculture may to some degree be organzied, but it’s much further underground than some of the people crying wolf at the Southern Poverty Law Center might want people to believe. I support all their work to counter white supremacists, but the biggest danger from white supremacists is in police departments now, racist officers looking for excuses to shoot people of color. That is the worst form of Nazism or organized racism going on in this country today.
I’ve seen people on TV saying, “Oh no, this is terrible music, it’s just noise,” but that’s just playing into their hands. Those are exactly the kind of people who deserve to be annoyed by punk, like Tipper Gore trying to get me thrown in jail, or playing the race card to attack NWA and Public Enemy. It’s not the music’s fault. One of the early success stories in white supremacist music was Skrewdriver, and when their first album came out in ’77, it was not overtly white supremacist at all. They disappeared for a while and then came back with an all new lineup except for the singer, Ian Stuart, and then they were a white power band. The danger with Stuart was that he was charismatic, he was organized, he was a true believer. But in a lot of songs he was trying to be taken seriously as a singer-songwriter, and he might have been listening to a lot of Springsteen. He was trying for middle-of-the-road anthem rock, only with a really ugly message.
People say, “How do we take this music out of circulation?” I’m glad the 1st Amendment says you can’t. The best way to fight hate speech is with more and better speech and better education. The only way you can identify people succeptible to this message is if the message can be freely expressed. I’ve argued repeatedly with people in Germany that banning the swastika or banning people saying the Holocaust never happened is doing nothing to deter neo-Nazis. They just go further underground where you can’t figure out who they are until they’ve killed an innocent Turkish immigrant. If David Duke hadn’t been allowed to publish his racist literature, he’d have been elected governor of Louisiana. He was a very slick animal, he would say, “Oh, you have nothing to fear from me, I’m not what people say I am, I just don’t like welfare cheats.” Duke denied being a racist or anti-Semite before his opponent came out and said, “Look what you wrote in this book,” and Duke was finally and deservedly crushed in the runoff. Duke was stopped because he was allowed to express his opinions publicly.
People have been (combatting hate speech) for years in the punk underground, and that’s spread to other genres -- like Bruce springsteen taking “Born in the USA” back from right-wing nationalists from Reagan’s campaign. It started in ’76 when Eric Clapton, of all people, came out in support of Enoch Powell. People were so appalled at this that they started an organization called Rock Against Racism, and people like Elvis Costello and the Clash were on their compilation. They came out in force saying, “We do not stand with Eric Clapton coming out in support of a racist like Powell and neither should anyone else,” and pointing out that the problem was much, much wider.
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