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The Beastie Boys and Interdependence: Adam Yauch's Civic Courage

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The untimely death of Adam Yauch, "MCA" of the Beastie Boys, reminds us again of how naturally it comes to artists and musicians to think and act interdependently, even as our political and media leaders think and act with stunning parochialism.

Not long after 9/11, with President Bush challenging the Taliban and al Qaeda to a High Noon style shoot-out, and paper patriots shouting "We're Number One," the Beastie Boys headlined a benefit concert at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City for organizations least likely to get help from other sources, like the NY Women's Foundation Disaster Relief Fund and the NY Association for New Americans.

Nice, but nothing special there -- just a famous band doing a little admirable post-9/11 philanthropy. What was unusual was that Yauch invited speakers critical of unilateral nationalism and politics as usual to come on stage two nights running during the intermission to address issues of violence, war and predatory globalization -- not just Yoko Ono and me, but also -- a courageous choice just a few months after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- the Muslim Fellowship leader Ibrahim Ramey.

The audience, with a preponderance of raucous young men willing to shout "We're Number One" themselves, was not particularly liberal or progressive, and inclined to the kind of easy chauvinism the 9/11 events had made altogether understandable. I can't say these Beastie Boy fans were keen to listen to political speakers critical of unilateralism and the excesses of global market capitalism, or even to reflect on Yoko Ono's moving vocalizations that spoke as eloquently as words.

But with the urgent voices of Yauch and Adam "Ad-Rock" Horowitz reassuring them it was OK, listen they did. Rarely have I spoken to an audience so unlikely to sympathize with my message; rarely have I had the opportunity to affect, if not change, minds. Even more important, that audience had to pay attention to the wise words of an American Muslim leader who helped assuage the rage against anonymous Muslim "others," and helped them to grasp that terrorism was a universal and not just an American problem and that we needed to act together interdependently to defeat the causes that make terrorism possible.

When we were done speaking, we were stunned that these rowdy Beastie Boys fans offered applause for our heartfelt calls for global justice and nonviolence nearly as enthusiastic as had been offered up to the group itself. It was clear to me that the applause was for the Beastie Boys' own political idealism and willingness to speak out through our voices at a time when silence was more prudent.

The courage was theirs, not ours. As we remember Adam Yauch and his pioneering musicality, we should also acknowledge his pioneering civic courage -- his identity as a punk musician and rapper for whom citizenship was a natural expression of art, and interdependence a necessary concomitant of citizenship.

On September 9th, the Interdependence Movement will hold its tenth memorial Interdependence Day Concert -- an annual commemoration that has emerged from the destruction on 9/11 -- at the Levitt Pavilion (MacArthur Park) in Los Angeles. It will also be an occasion to remember and honor Adam Yauch: a musician, songwriter, director, and activist with an interdependent spirit.