Jello Biafra: the 'cultural terrorist'

December 5, 1995

He describes himself as a cultural terrorist, but most would remember him as the outspoken lead singer of punk band, The Dead Kennedys. JELLO BIAFRA has shocked and stirred middle-class USA with his radical proposals for drug law reform ("grow more pot"), taxing religion, eliminating nuclear weapons by stopping the production of tritium (an essential component), and his battles with record companies and governments over their attempts to censor his music. Jello was in Brisbane to perform at the Livid Festival where BRENDAN GREENHILL asked him about music, US politics and his spoken-word performances as a tool of dissent. Biafra's political message is unity against the corporate/state machine. He spoke on the media's suppression of dissent and its censorship. For instance, the French nuclear tests at Moruroa were not reported in the US, and therefore didn't happen! He also spoke about the Zapatista struggle in Mexico and the support the left is giving the rebels. However, apart from stockbrokers worried about "their assets", no one else in the US knows about the Zapatistas. The war on Blacks continues; the Democrats and Republicans have substituted "welfare cheat" for "nigger". The cuts to the social services are now having an impact on the middle class. Biafra also spoke about the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Philadelphia journalist on death row for allegedly killing a cop. Biafra has been involved in a poster campaign calling for a new trial. Robbie Cannal designed the poster and X took it on tour. "Ultimately, the reason why there was a stay of execution [for Mumia Abu-Jamal] by this notorious hanging judge was that word came down there would be a riot in Philadelphia. There were already three minor riots in San Francisco", Biafra said. On the growing influence of the extreme right, Biafra recalled the 1983 incident in Queensland when the Dead Kennedys' drummer was arrested for being Black. "I think it's a pretty graphic illustration when you let extreme right-wing religious bigots start deciding what everyone gets to listen to." He also criticised a campaign by the Australian Recording Industry Association for a "voluntary code" for "self regulation" of lyrics in music. The proposal includes a hot line inviting people to complain, and has labels — "tipper stickers" — for explicit lyrics. Independent labels not abiding by the code would be expelled from ARIA and reported to the police. Biafra urged people, as a matter of urgency, to protest the ARIA petition and to boycott labelled music. Not even the American music cartels are this stupid, he said. On the US government's "war on drugs" Biafra said that, "People have repeatedly been shot and killed in military raids for suspicion of growing or possessing marijuana ... The drug laws in America are so bad, a guy, paralysed in a wheelchair, is now serving 20 years in the Oklahoma State Prison from using marijuana to relieve his constant pain." On the establishment media, Biafra urged people of all ages to read between the lines. "[I started] in eighth grade because there had been a detailed unit on Soviet communist propaganda techniques in geography the year before, and in eighth grade the social studies subject was American history so I started looking for the propaganda, and all the signs they told you to spot were there. I would urge people to read both the straight media and the underground media, notice the [different] opinions and learn how to read smart and learn quick." Biafra was sort of dragged into spoken word by Harvey Kubernik in Los Angeles. At first Biafra thought, "Hey! this'll be easy; I'm so witty and poetic, I'll just read my lyrics. Then it got a little harder when I had to write some new material. I came out with a bunch of stuff which ended up on the No More Cocoons album and I realised quickly that people reacted to the humorous parts, and the suppressed information." Jello Biafra will be doing a show for 4ZZZ's 20th birthday on Saturday, December 9 at QUT Gardens Point Campus Lecture Theatre Z411 from 2-7pm. Tickets ($15/$12) are on sale from Rocking Horse 1, Skinnys, Silver Rocket and 4ZZZ studios.
[Brendan Greenhill works for 4ZZZ.]

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