There has always been a unique space for the arts in politics. Every revolution has had its songs and behind their front lines there are drum-rolls. Every picket line has its chants; its calls, responds and harmonies. One can easily notice a distinct correlation between tumultuous political times and song. Art Spiegelman, a celebrated cartoonist, writer, and former illustrator for The New Yorker put it well when he said, "when governments go bad, art gets good."
I can remember being a little kid and watching Jim Henson's Muppet Show with my parents, when Buffalo Springfield was a musical guest. As they performed their song 'For What It's Worth' on the show, a skit played out with muppet woodland animals fleeing and hiding from hunters. Each muppet animal would scurry and hide from the hunters and when the coast cleared they would emerge from their woodland hideaways to sing along with Stephen Stills and Buffalo Springfield's chorus, "stop children what's that sound, everybody look what's going down." That song at that moment made me identify with the animals in that skit in a way that perhaps I was not mature enough to fully understand. In the days and weeks that followed I remembered humming & singing the chorus to myself. For a reason unbeknownst to me, singing that song would leave my mother looking uncomfortable. I would ask her what was wrong, she would reply, "nothing sweetie... you sure like that song huh?" I would not be until I became a teenager that I would learn the reason why my mother looked uncomfortable; 'For What It's Worth' was more than just a cute song sang by muppet animals avoiding hunters 'For What It's Worth' was a powerful protest song by about the Vietnam War.
As the United States' war in Afghanistan enters its 10th year there are chilling, unavoidable parallels that one can draw between today's era of conflict and that of Vietnam era. Today's hostility manifesting itself politically, socially, and economically is pressing on everyone. Whether you lost a child in Iraq, or are pinching pennies to buy gas to get to work, or out of work entirely, Americans are feeling that press. It's within this constriction that we see people at both their most desperate and also at their most creative. For New York hardcore punk band Cipher, their music, saturated with politics, confrontation, and calls for introspective revolution, is their activism. Cipher's musical aggression is more than an outlet for their fan's frustration; it's also a call to action. Within the lyrics of their most recent album The Joyous Collapse is a message that the over-simplistic, over-used, clichéd narratives of reactionary revolution mean nothing unless we first look within ourselves. Stripped down of the hipster fluff, left only with raw emotion, and expression (in many ways everything that music should be) The Joyous Collapse confronts our very personal roles in the apparatus of oppression, braiding hardcore punk, freeform jazz, and lyrics capturing concepts that each of us are like cogs in larger wheels of oppressive systems. Whether those systems are racism, sexism, homophobia, speciesism, militarism, or classism Cipher asks each of us to dissect ourselves and analyze how each of us contribute to larger institutions of oppression. From shedding light on the seldom talked about misogyny within the punk scene in their song 'Venom' to the much more literal storytelling of one young man's choice to join the military in the song 'Stoploss Gambit' Cipher has never shied away from dealing with difficult issues.
For Cipher's front man Maurice Mitchell, the song 'Stoploss Gambit' was a painful challenge. Unlike other more nuanced political topics they had addressed in previous songs the young man whom the song was about, who enlisted in the military and was eventually killed in Afghanistan was a friend. 'Stoploss Gambit' follows the story of this young man, who made his choice to fight as a way of declaring his autonomy from his parents, as a way to establish himself financially and hopefully earn money for college, but instead died from a bullet to his head while tucked away in a bombed out shell of an Afghan building. This story is a painful reality for many families across America, particularly in lower income communities, rural communities, and communities of color where military recruitment is often the most aggressive. With a worsening economy, these stories will become more and more frequent. More and more people who are victims of class disparity will make desperate ill-informed decisions to fight unjust wars in a gamble to be one of the haves versus the have-nots.
"(For the) dispossessed awakened fleeting caged and wanted hope. I place my own: a burned out hollow room with the myth of options when a BULLET'S IN MY head, in my palm, a crude prescription in my arm. This prescription grants me arms. The grist of fictions grants me alms. It can't be long. Those that evangelize bury my wrist with a hail of guilt so "women, what would you say if your only son was dead." Shot in the head to save his country. Close that casket. Save the front seats for the gangly patriarchs. Make them hungry for the blood scene. Oh, it's obscene and its perfect. Twenty lashes, chained on one tree. Where we worship and wipe crocodile tears from our cheeks, in our sleep. And I whisper. And he whispers." - Cipher, 'Stoploss Gambit'
"Mother, from the beginning you shouldered my blows. Please don't reproach me as I soldier on the older I grow. A cog in the wheel, in the wheel a spoke, in the spoke a seal, in the seal a hope. They say its better to die on your feet than to live on your knees for so much silver and gold. What if you face an erect death at the bequest of inept breadth of quivering souls? Wheeze as I Cleve to your breast. Grieve as I leave you in death. Plead as I leave you in debt. Reviewing flesh sleeved tissue memories it infests won't breathe life to a still beating chest." - Cipher, 'Stoploss Gambit'
Each song on The Joyous Collapse is aimed at breaking down ones self and seeing where we as individuals directly and indirectly support oppression. Directly attacking ones own daily interactions with militarism, sexism, homophobia, and consumer culture, The Joyous Collapse forces us to ask ourselves, "where and how do I support suffering?" Each generation has its protest songs and creative expressions that are unique to their era. Vietnam evoked the genius of Bob Dylan when he wrote 'Masters of War,' the massacre of unarmed protestors at Kent State University by National Guard gunmen drove Neil Young to write 'Ohio,' and Stephen Stills while reflecting on the Vietnam war and invigorated by a riot he witnessed in front of the "Pandora's Box" nightclub in Los Angeles went home to write 'For What It's Worth.' 31 years later in 1998 Stephen Stills would join Chuck D and Flava Flav as Public Enemy sampled and excerpted Still's chorus from 'For What It's Worth' on their neo-dissident hip-hop single 'He Got Game.' Still's timeless song provided a canvass for Public Enemy to paint on. It would only be 3 years later that Chuck D would find himself sharing his canvas and his stage at club Amuzurah in Jamaica, Queens with a handful of angst-ridden teenagers with a whole new set of protest songs. Sharing the stage with Chuck D, the teens from Long Beach, Long Island, calling themselves "Cipher" blended, bent and defied the preset musical genres for a space like Amuzurah and brought refreshing, relentlessly youthful, and brutally eye-opening political content to the stage. As our times -- socially, politically, and economically -- have become increasingly more tense, Cipher's message has become even more relevant. With more people dying each day in Iraq and in our open-ended war in Afghanistan, with service members being called back for 3, 4, and at times 5 tours of duty 'Stoploss Gambit' is this generation's protest song resonating Art Spiegelman's quote "that when governments go bad, art gets good."