David Rovics: \'folk\' with a message

July 5, 2008

David Rovics has been described as the musical voice of the progressive movement in the US. In this interview with Green Left Weekly's Matt Clark, he explains his motivations, his influences and his take on politics today.

David Rovics has been described as the musical voice of the progressive movement in the US. In this interview with Green Left Weekly's Matt Clark, he explains his motivations, his influences and his take on politics today.

For those readers who have perhaps not heard your music, how would you describe it?

I sing songs of social significance.

What pushed me in this direction, though, was the desire to say something about the state of affairs in this world, which is a mainstream thing in terms of the broad "folk" music tradition — "folk" meaning everything other than classical, everything that people wrote because they wanted to write it, not because a rich person was paying them.

I wanted to say something because from an early age I've noticed that all is not well in paradise. This need to express myself that way increased dramatically when my close friend, Eric Mark, was shot to death on the streets of San Francisco one night.

Who are your influences both musically and politically?

There's a certain amount of blurring between those lines ... I've been profoundly moved by a great songwriter named Anonymous. Other than Anonymous, I think Jim Page is absolutely astoundingly good. I've gone through various obsessions with Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Utah Phillips, Woody Guthrie and others.

When I was around 20 years old I worked at Morningtown Restaurant in Seattle, and the owner, Bill Watkins, turned me onto African musicians like Ali Farka Toure and Baba Mala — that was big for me. My friend Graciela introduced me to Silvio Rodriguez and others from the Nuevo Cancion musical movement in Latin America.

Your song "Jenin" has some of the most powerful lyrics I've heard. You obviously identify with the struggle of the Palestinian people. In fact, I'd go so far as to say you identify with the struggle of oppressed people everywhere.

I guess I'd have to agree. I identify with human beings. Especially ones I've known. But even the ones I haven't known, I know they're human too. That was something that happened for me when Eric was killed. In the days afterwards, walking around the Mission District where he was shot, I suddenly saw the grief on the faces of the many war refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala that populate the Mission, and it looked like the grief I felt then, and I felt our common humanity through our common grief, and I haven't been the same since. Cliche, but true.

I wrote "Jenin" while surrounded by tourists in the old English city of Canterbury, weird contradiction but there you go. I don't think it's hard to get into the head of a suicide bomber. In fact I'd say about the only way not to be able to identify with a suicide bomber is to be insulated from reality through things like international borders, imperial armies, and the commercial media.

In the recent past we've seen the Berlin Wall being knocked down and of course apartheid being overthrown in South Africa. But there's still an apartheid policy in Palestine. Tell us about the current situation in that part of the world.

Well of course South Africa is still mostly white-owned, but they no longer have official apartheid, kind of like the US no longer has official segregation. But yes, there is actual official apartheid in Palestine, and daily slaughter. The current situation? I haven't been there myself for a couple years, but I read a lot ... It's a horrible situation, overall. Violent occupation, daily assassinations, daily killing [of] children, destroying buildings, burning farmland, mass punishment, while the US gives Israel blank checques and protects them in the UN.

What are your thoughts on the current involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan by the United States, Britain and Australia, amongst others?

The "allies" of the Anglo world are all run by war criminals, and they're all committing genocide in the Muslim world. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed since the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Hundreds of thousands more had died under the UN sanctions in the 1990s. The whole thing is unspeakable, horrible and criminal. And now they're talking about invading Iran, and military bases in Lebanon. They're completely mad. They seem to be running the world on behalf of the military-industrial complex and the oil industry.

Your song "Reichstag Fire" contains the line: "to justify your exploits, you must have an enemy". You obviously believe that there is so much more to the 9/11 attacks than what the current Bush administration has told the public?

They always start their wars based on lies; always try to make themselves look like the victims. The current wars are no exception. Of course, neither Iraq or Afghanistan attacked the US on 9/11, and there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction, but Bush did his best to make the US look like the victim who needed to take revenge against Iraq and the Taliban for the crimes of Al-Qaeda, whoever they are.

What is your take on the continual occupation of the north of Ireland by Britain?

It's amazing that it's still happening. The creation of "Northern Ireland" was such a classic colonial move on the part of Great Britain, right up there with the partitioning of the Arab world, India, etc. Trying to pit populations against each other. Seems to me the sensible solution would be for the Brits to get out and for Ireland to be one country like it was before.

Songs such as "Trading with the Enemy" and "Song for Hugo Chavez" both show such strong solidarity with Latin America, which is not something the US Government is renowned for!

The US government is the world's biggest problem, and this is doubly true for Latin America. After hundreds of years of subjugation by the US and other powers, countries like Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia and Ecuador are really throwing off the yoke and starting to build what appear to be stable social democracies, very much against the will of the US elite, who wants them all to continue to bend over and do the bidding of the massive corporations that continue to reap obscene profits from the misery of the people of the South. It's an historic time for Latin America, a real beacon of hope for the rest of the world, I'd say.

Given the political nature of your music, have you ever encountered any problems singing your songs in the United States?

Well I certainly never get on the commercial airwaves, whereas pretty much anywhere else I ever play, I've been on national radio at some point, and in some countries quite regularly. But as for problems with the authorities for doing my music, no, nothing obvious. I have problems crossing into Canada. I'm currently banned for a year, until next April. I think that's a direct result of security laws that Canada and the US have adopted since the FTAA [Free Trade Agreement of the Americas] protests in Quebec City in early 2001. But I haven't had particular problems with the US authorities for what I do. It's more subtle than that.

[For more information, including the music of Rovics, visit:
http://www.myspace.com/davidrovics, http://www.soundclick.com/davidrovics.]

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