The paradox of the Chili Peppers
There is something incredibly frustrating about the fact that the Red Hot Chili Peppers played a concert in Israel, ignoring international pleas for them to cancel and observe the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).
Admittedly, I wasn’t even quite aware of just how much their decision stung until the day after their appearance at the Pic.Nic festival in Tel Aviv.
It was then that I took a bit of a trip down memory lane. If I’m honest with myself, the Chili Peppers haven’t really been my thing for quite some time. Nowadays they seem to fit all too comfortably with the slick, mega-marketing scheme of turning rebellion into money that the music industry has honed so well.
It’s only after giving it some real thought that one remembers an entirely different era that Anthony Kiedis, Flea and company were a part of. That was the late '80s and early '90s, which no less a figure than Rock & Rap Confidential’s Lee Ballinger called the most exciting period for record making in 25 years.
Just to be clear, Ballinger wasn’t talking about hair metal or empty, sugary synth-pop, both of which had more or less run their course by this time. He was talking about the rise of grunge and alternative music around '91, the emergence of hip-hop as a cultural force, and scenes like those in Los Angeles starting around '86.
It was here that punks, surfers, headbangers and hip-hop heads started to collide, creating some truly unique music: Fishbone, Suicidal Tendencies, Rage Against the Machine, and yes, the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
All mixed a potent blend of metal, punk rock, rap and funk ― crossing racial and cultural barriers in doing so. We should be clear, in the age of a rising war on drugs (which would devastate poor communities of colour, particularly in LA) and South African apartheid’s final days, creating music like this was a radical act.
The Chili Peppers might not have been the most political of this scene in their early days, but neither were they a total exception.
It wasn’t for nothing that one of their first break-out hits was their cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”. Blood Sugar Sex Magik, released in 1991 and rightly regarded as the album that cemented their status among rock’s best, included such tracks as “Power of Equality”.
They were also involved in a great amount of progressive advocacy and activism during these years, playing benefits for Rock 4 Choice and speaking out against the fundamentalist Christian censorship brigades that emerged in the form of the Parental Music Resource Foundation.
And, of course, they never played in apartheid South Africa. Once again, in the midst of Reagan and Bush the First’s America, these stances went against the grain in a big way.
What the hell happened, then? How is it that this band, springing from the dynamic, multiracial, instinctively anti-racist scene that they did, ended up playing for an apartheid state?
Moreover, how could they do so even as Israel’s actions become more brazenly racist by the day ― as police turn a blind eye to anti-Arab lynch mobs and as anti-African pogroms are carried out?
I have heard some, in more informal settings, chalk it up to the fact that the band’s late guitarist Hillel Slovak (to whom “Under the Bridge” is dedicated) was himself an Israeli-American Jew. This doesn’t pass muster. As any supporter of BDS will know, there are plenty of anti-Zionist Jews out there. This includes a small but significant number of those born in historic Palestine or present-day Israel who are horrified by Israel’s actions. Slovak died over 20 years ago, and we have no way of knowing how his political ideas may have been shaped.
Far more likely is the way in which the political, economic, and cultural landscape has drastically shifted since the Chili Peppers first emerged on the scene. In the late '80s and early '‘90s, federal regulations prevented television and radio from being so frightfully consolidated as they now are.
DJs and artists alike were still able to speak their mind on a host of political issues; though record and communications execs may not have liked it, they weren’t really able to do much about it.
This was coupled with the fact that there were such things as a strong anti-apartheid movement back then ― a movement that, in some ways, represented a last hurrah for powerful social movements that were forced into decline by the ascent of neoliberalism. In short, the grip of “the industry” was notably looser, while the space created by the left was greater. Back then, it was possible for songs like “Sun City” ― which urged musicians to shun South Africa ― to make it onto MTV and radio. Today, the possibilities are much, much narrower.
Over the summer, Punks Against Apartheid was among the many groups and collectives that openly called for the Chili Peppers to cancel. In doing so, we specifically appealed to the group’s artistic and social legacy: “[W]hile some in the mainstream may have forgotten this history ― scratching their heads at why a bunch of no-good punks would bother with a band as commercial as the Chili Peppers ― we have not, and we intend to remind you and your fans of these roots.
“Because your proximity to punk as a band should have put you in touch with the best tendencies of rebel music, of music as a form of resistant community ― and that is something to be cherished, not to be rejected by playing in Israel.
“By doing so, you would be, in the words of the Israeli group Boycott from Within, serving ‘the government’s agenda of whitewashing its war crimes and creating an image of Israel as a “modern state”.’”
One of Boycott from Within’s own members, Tali Shapiro, also wrote a piece explaining how out of joint the Chili Peppers’ decision is, even with their present political stances: “In the past four months, I’ve taken a visible role in the campaign to get the Red Hot Chili Peppers to cancel their concert in Israel. A campaign which grew to almost 8000 signatures, more than a dozen letters from organizations around the globe, and managed to get support from other celebrities.
“Following the band closely, on their current world tour, we’ve seen that it goes beyond the music to support causes it believes in. Be it Trayvon Martin, Pussy Riot, or Captain Paul Watson, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, recognizing their public status, have made a conscious choice to raise awareness about something other than themselves.”
This, in some ways, is where the window of hope gets opened a bit. The social movements that were on the decline in the ‘80s appear to be on the ascendancy again. The political winds are shifting.
Case in point: the very day that the Chili Peppers played their Tel Aviv show, there was a strike of transport workers that paralysed the West Bank in protest against the Palestinian Authority’s complicity with Israel.
This was significant enough in itself, but it’s important to point out that September 10 was also the first day of the Chicago teachers’ strike. In New York City, one demonstrator in solidarity with the teachers carried a sign that made connections between the two strikes. It’s a sentiment no doubt shared by a growing number of people.
It is also telling that many in the BDS movement are declaring the campaign around the Chili Peppers to be at least a partial success. Much like Madonna’s May performance in Tel Aviv, the Red Hot Chili Peppers couldn’t seem to shake the BDS campaign wherever they went.
Not only were there open letters, but frequently the true nature of culture in the state of Israel as propaganda was exposed for what it is.
And then, of course, there was the cancellation of the Chili Peppers’ opening act, Mashrou’ Leila of Lebanon, two days shy of their gig in Beirut. Mashrou’ Leila’s cancellation ― especially as it was only about a week before the Pic.Nic performance ― had the effect of cementing the awareness that the Chili Peppers were, ultimately, crossing a picket line.
Perhaps the most prescient lesson from the campaign around the Chili Peppers is one rather similar to the experience around Madonna. During the call for the queen of pop to cancel her Tel Aviv performance, BDS activists worked tirelessly to make sure the truth followed her around wherever she went.
The Chili Peppers, despite their own refusal to even acknowledge the BDS campaign, couldn’t escape the truth either. This was in no short order due to the efforts of activists again, but the past several weeks have also seen an increased upsurge of attention to the Middle East.
From the general strike in the West Bank to the rebellions against an Islamophobic film to the controversy over Pamela Geller’s insufferably racist transit ads, the world really did seem to be showing us the full extent of the Western empire’s racism.
And here were the Red Hot Chili Peppers, holding up a central pillar of this empire. After speaking out for Trayvon Martin and Pussy Riot, completely ignoring the fact that it’s all the same system.
You didn’t need a doctorate in foreign policy to see this for what it was. None of this is to say that activists merely have to let the truth do the work for us, but it is worth remembering, in the fevered frenzy of constant campaigning, that ultimately it’s just this that we have on our side ― the truth.
It’s precisely this that puts building a large, global anti-apartheid movement back on the agenda. Any artist who forgets this ― as the Chili Peppers unfortunately have to some degree ― is bound to be left behind by the rest of the world.
When the times change, you’d better change with them. I think Dylan had something to say about those who don’t.