Sunday, June 30, 2024

Reflections on Singing for Wikileaks

My takeaway from the recent welcome news of Julian Assange's release from prison is that collective action works.

When the news broke that Julian Assange was going to be released from confinement after fourteen years of it altogether, after I got done not believing it was true, I was relieved that his long years of imprisonment would finally be over, that he'd get to be with his beautiful family, and that a social movement could at least cautiously claim some form of a victory.  We could at least make the case that we eventually accomplished what we set out to do.

I basically have nothing to add to the many wise words that have come from so many of Julian's friends and supporters over the past few days.  

I agree with them that the fact that Assange ever had to seek asylum in the first place, and certainly the fact that he was ever sent to prison for any time at all -- let alone that he had to be tortured for years in a maximum security prison by the British authorities -- these are defeats.  They are devastating facts that are and will continue to have a devastating impact on real journalism around the world, and Assange eventually being released from prison doesn't change that.

And I agree with what everyone is saying about the US government imposing this plea deal, with Julian having to plea guilty to violating the post-Russian Revolution hysteria law that's still on the books but never used, the Espionage Act.  This sets a terrible precedent for the future of investigative journalism and for whistle-blowing.  And I agree with what the same people are saying about how mad it would be to expect Assange to not take the plea deal -- stay in prison forever or take this plea deal is not a real choice.  Especially when the future of investigative journalism and whistle-blowing have already been impacted so severely by Julian's years of imprisonment in the first place.

I happen to be in Australia, having landed here a day or so before it was announced that Julian Assange was going to be released.  I'm on a tour of Australia, planned many months ago, in part here to sing songs about this continent's native son and his persecution.  Sometimes timing is like that.

I didn't think I had anything to add to what other folks have been saying about the news, but having just attended a talk here in Perth at the Ecosocialism conference that's been taking place this weekend about "being the media" -- an old Indymedia slogan -- it occurred to me that perhaps I do have some reflections worth sharing on this subject.

In many discussions about doing media, creating media, getting the word out in one form or another, there is a perfectly sensible emphasis on things like how to take good pictures, how to write effectively, and how to effectively promote content so people might see it.

This is all crucial stuff.  To which I would add, remember to consider the power of culture, and artistic forms of communication, like telling powerful stories through mediums like music and video.  And remember that a hallmark of just about any kind of media, alternative or otherwise, that goes viral, is that it is probably the result of a successful collective effort.

From my experience, certainly, and also by my observation of what happens out there more broadly, the stuff that a lot of people see, the stuff that gets shared on a very large scale and picked up by various other media -- the stuff that goes viral -- is almost always the product of intense collective effort.  It is the product of multiple levels of collaboration between lots of groups and individuals.

There is an image, etched in the collective imagination by the way things play out in movies like V for Vendetta, of masses of people participating in collective actions -- but organized, it seems, as a mass of otherwise isolated individuals.

This, from my experience, is mostly not how it works, though there are some parallels.  Like there are certainly a lot of supporters of Assange and Wikileaks who might just repost anything they see that Wikileaks or Stella share on X, and they're not necessarily organized to any extent beyond following Stella and Wikileaks on social media platforms and maybe showing up at a demo somewhere, especially if they live near cities like London or Rome.

But my personal experience working with people associated with this iconic network that comes out of a milieu where so many people have been so dedicated to the idea of not only exposing corruption and war crimes, but to getting the truth out there to the eyes and ears of the public, has been all about coordinated, collective effort.

This seems especially important to mention because of the way so much of society has been atomized by the social media phenomenon.  We've learned to just do things on our own, essentially.  But it seems abundantly clear to me that strength comes from working together.

At this stage, writing in 2024, it would be impossible to guess at how many people out there in the world might not recognize my name, but they have heard certain songs -- "Behind These Prison Walls," "When Julian Met Stella," and maybe "Behind the Barricades."  

I'll make no claims about how these songs had any kind of decisive impact -- or any impact at all -- on bringing about the release of any prisoners.  What I can say is that I wrote and recorded other songs about the imprisonment of Julian Assange, but those are not the ones people have heard.  The reason why at this point millions of people have heard the songs I mentioned is mainly due to collective effort.

Just because I prefer to hear about things in the form of a good story, I'll tell the story of these collective efforts that involved me chronologically, and hope someone might get anything useful from it.

When Chelsea Manning was arrested I wrote a song about her arrest, and about the war crimes she exposed, which she had released via Wikileaks.  It was a song celebrating her contributions to humanity, and condemning her persecution by the US government, when they should have been giving her a medal instead.

At the risk of getting overly granular here, it seems worth mentioning that what happened next, after I wrote that song, is I recorded it.  Not just that, but I recorded it in a studio with a producer, engineer, and band, as part of a fairly expensive recording project.  The final product sounded great.  The recording project was a collective effort, as was the crowdfunding campaign for it to happen in the first place.

Somehow or other folks at Wikileaks heard the song, and emailed me about using it for a Wikileaks album project with other musical artists.

Around the time the album was being released, Julian Assange was on duty, calling each of the artists who contributed to the project on the phone to thank us.  When he called me, we talked about how heroic Chelsea Manning's actions were, and how good it was for her actions to be celebrated in songs like mine.  I told him how heroic his own actions were.

A few weeks after that conversation was when he first checked in to the Ecuadorian embassy.

The world is a small place, it seems, and Ciaron O'Reilly, an Australian activist I had first met a few years earlier, when it looked like he and eight other folks in Ireland were going to go to prison for smashing up some US war planes at Shannon Airport, was now living in London, spending a lot of time outside of the Ecuadorian embassy, organizing various vigils and other actions trying to support the embassy's infamous Australian occupant.

Over the years Julian was in the embassy, visits to London would sometimes include some kind of action Ciaron was organizing there.

On one such occasion, filmmaker Niels Ladefoged was there, filming me singing "Behind the Barricades" at the entrance of the embassy.  This was later edited and presented on various platforms by various prominent accounts in support of Assange.

You'll find the work of Niels Ladefoged in so many corners of the tale, facilitating anything I've done as part of this campaign, and whatever so many others have done as well.  If it's not brilliantly captured on video, it didn't happen.  And there's generally one guy with the camera present.  

When you see video footage of Stella Assange giving a speech where everything looks and sounds so professional, it's not an accident, it's often not footage being taken by a corporate media outlet that you're seeing, and it's certainly not from somebody's cell phone.  It's Niels, right there up close to her, but invisible to the viewers, getting that great audio and video.

After seeing how Niels' video of me singing at the embassy was so well done and got so widely circulated, the next time I was coming to London after Julian had been abducted and imprisoned at Belmarsh, I contacted Niels and asked if he wanted to do a video of some kind in front of the prison.  He readily agreed, and rounded up another person to operate another camera for the day.

I then wrote the song, "Behind These Prison Walls," imagining singing with the prison behind me.  We spent the next day with Niels and his accomplice filming me singing that song over and over again in a multitude of different situations, mostly with the prison in the background.  After many days of editing, Niels had finished making what was essentially a very professional music video.

The next step was timing the release of the video and lining up prominent accounts who would share it -- Wikileaks, Stella, the Don't Extradite Assange campaign, Tom Morello, and whoever else.  Once the song is out there like that, it then gets used as a song to play through the sound system at protests and to be used for various sorts of informational videos -- which would never have happened to nearly the same extent without the high-quality music video or the initial, coordinated promotional effort, from my experience with having written a lot of other good songs that never received this kind of treatment. 

On another visit to London a couple years later, visiting various members of the Assange family, I was playing music on the porch with Stella and Julian's children.  Niels was filming, as he is doing much of the time.  Later he would use this footage, and days of more footage he'd film with me in various parts of London, including once again in front of Belmarsh, to make another music video, for the song, "When Julian Met Stella," which would be promoted through the same sorts of channels and with the same methods as the last song was.

In writing these songs, as with so much of the other media that has been disseminated by supporters of Julian, a big part of the effort has been to counter the "lies and slander" narrative with tales of Julian's immensely important accomplishments, an awareness of his fragile humanity, and the urgent need for him to be out of prison and with his family.  The way Niels made the music videos for the songs was clearly intended to serve these purposes as well, working in sync.

A few months ago, Stella was in Oslo, Norway to accept an award on behalf of her imprisoned husband, and it happened to be that Kamala and I were singing that night at a local venue called Mir.  After the award ceremony, Stella came to our gig with friends and colleagues, including Niels, camera in hand as usual.

While Niels filmed, Stella approached the stage, phone in hand, to let us know that Julian was on the line.  

We sang "When Julian Met Stella" while Niels alternated between filming us, Stella, and the phone.  This video got shared and broadcast more than anything else I've ever been involved with, probably.  The combination of the song, with Stella, and Julian represented starkly by the disembodied phone on a table, was moving, and clearly many people found it to be so.

We could accurately say that it was not a staged event, but when you're being followed around most of the time by a filmmaker who is actively filming, everything will be caught on film, whether it happened organically or not.

A few days ago I saw on Al-Jazeera, from Brisbane, watching as Julian and his legal team were getting off the plane and greeting Stella in Canberra.  There was Niels, camera in hand, following Julian.  

A rare moment of seeing the man who is usually the one off-screen, making the movie -- which clearly continues, now with a much more uplifting segment.

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Reflections on Singing for Wikileaks

My takeaway from the recent welcome news of Julian Assange's release from prison is that collective action works. When the news broke th...