“What do we do?”

That was the question that loomed over a conversation I had with a friend, Iranian musician Amri Amiri, last week. He was expressing a lot of feelings—anger, sadness, compassion—about the protests in response to state violence in Iran, and the repression that has followed.

For all of its zigs and zags, our conversation kept coming back to the question of what to do. Of course, there are many organizations to support, demonstrations to attend and statements to sign. But for Amiri, the pathway was not clear. Each of these actions is likely to mean something different to anyone you asked.

That got me thinking about what it means to act collectively.

Last week, over 900 artists signed the #MusiciansForPalestine statement—declaring their solidarity with Palestinians and committing to noncooperation with institutions and agents complicit with apartheid, occupation and military assaults. Musicians for Palestine officially began in May of 2021, but It’s the most recent culmination of an organizing process I’ve been involved in for two decades.

The signatories included rappers from Chicago like Femdot; from Norway, Nina Persson, singer of The Cardigans; Indigenous artists like the Halluci Nation; and South African singers like Msaki. They ranged from artists you can hear on the radio around the world—from FKA twigs to Denzel Curry—to singers and instrumentalists mostly known regionally or in their communities.

Gathering 900+ individuals to express solidarity and commitment with Palestine was the result of years of organizing, and thousands of conversations. The signatories are not just people who filled out a form, but artists who have been engaged in conversations with other artists—in many cases for years.

Ari Swan performs at Artists Against Apartheid at the Suoni Per Il Popolo festival in Montreal in 2015. Photo: Heri Rakotomalala

A collaborative formation

Aspects of our collective stance have been shaped by many of those conversations. For example, in our 2021 statement, South African musician Asher Gamedze encouraged us to add clear references to international liberation struggles, shifting the tone and scope of the statement. Jewish musicians have been in dialogue with other supporters of the statement in a way that has strengthened their mutual trust, resolve and solidarity.

But speaking to Amiri, the Iranian musician, I realized that our network of Musicians for Palestine is just the most recent layer of a process of collective meaning-making that thousands—probably tens of thousands—of people have contributed to. 

In the 1970s, newly post-colonial states like Egypt and Lebanon boycotted Israel in solidarity with movements for Palestinian liberation. That sparked subsequent discussions in countries which were part of the non-aligned movement. South Africans organized a boycott against their apartheid government in the 1980s. The original call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions to end the oppression of Palestinians, made in 2005, sparked nearly two decades of fierce debates.

Each of these acts were part of collective dialogues across generations, which produced agreement in favour of action in solidarity with Palestine, pathways for people to participate in those actions. What is meaningful about all the dialogue and demands is the intent is shared by all the participants.

That meaning includes a common internationalist, anti-colonial understanding of what Palestinians experienced, as well a vision of their future liberation that could be clearly supported globally. It persists through different languages, and across state borders and continental divides.

Creating broadly-accepted meaning for collective action is not something that can be decreed by a state, a corporation or bureaucracy. Meaning lives in relationships and ongoing conversations that happen over months, years or decades.

An Artists Against Apartheid performance at the Suoni Per Il Popolo Festival in 2015. Pictured are Anthony Seck, Mark Alan Haynes and Stefan Christoff. Photo: Heri Rakotomalala

Reaching across divisions

To nourish those relationships, there are obstacles to overcome. There is of course the fear any given artist might feel about taking a public position that can provoke anger from powerful forces.

That’s a fear I’ve heard a lot of people express. 

But I’ve also noticed that there is a deeper barrier to collective action that exists in the way that artists and musicians think of themselves as individuals, separate and sometimes distant from society.

One international pop star told Musicians for Palestine organizers, “I’ll find my own way to speak out about this issue.” It’s something we heard a lot.

There is something deeply ingrained in the western concept of the artist that creates a lot of tension with the possibility of collective action.

Coldplay’s Chris Martin, for example, has never declared support for the boycott, but the band has not recently played in Israel and recently posted an anti-occupation song on the band’s social media. 

Would their engagement in the drafting and circulation of a collective statement for Palestine, with concrete commitments attached to it, be more effective?

I think so, though there’s plenty of complexity in that belief.

While some stay at the edges of the organizing, there are powerful benefits to the relationship building that many allied artists have engaged in.

Radiohead singer Thom Yorke had a negative and highly publicized reaction to protesters—who were also fans—pressing the band to cancel a Tel Aviv concert back in 2017. While he appears to have dug in his heels when it comes to his opinion on the issue, I also think there’s a possibility he doesn’t feel great about what happened. 

Through the relationships in the informal networks of musicians globally that Musicians For Palestine is rooted in, a few people around him have reached out to discuss what transpired on a human level. Whether Thom Yorke shifts his perspective on boycotting apartheid institutions or not, having hundreds of people who can engage in discussions rooted in friendships or collaborations, creates opportunities to expand collective action. 

The Seven Arrows ensemble performs at the Artists Against Apartheid series in Montreal in 2009. Pictured are Rebecca Foon, Sarah Pagé, Brad Barr, Joe Grass and others. Photo: Elsa Marie Jabre

The sound of solidarity

What’s unique about working with artists is that the effects of the organizing can extend beyond what we think of as political discourse. Speaking on the Musicians for Palestine podcast, composer Brian Eno expressed something interesting about the relational nature of listening to music.

“The world has become more jagged,” he said, picking an example from the conversation. “I identify this now because of this music… when a lot of people like something, it’s in a way saying that ‘we agree about this world… we’re sharing a vision of the world together.’”

Working with artists, it’s evident how conversations in the realm of ideas can move to emotional resonance and even a collective mood. That kind of feeling isn’t precisely political, but it also can’t be separated from its context. The feeling of a song, a mood or a style can support explicitly political ideas, lending them depth and resolve. 

Though it may be more evident with artists, I’m convinced that the same kinds of multilayered, mutually reinforcing relations between emotions, tone and ideas exist in any venue of sustained collective action.

Those working to liberate Palestine, or acting in solidarity with Palestinians, face overwhelming odds. The unity of Palestinian civil society on basic issues over many decades has created a strong web of meaning that makes it easier, in this one specific sense, to do this kind of work.

Speaking to my friend, it felt hard to convey how much groundwork is required to make it possible to take action, and ensure the meaning of that action holds fast as it is translated, passed around and interpreted. 

Each relational act of dialogue or organizing is a step into the unknown, without certainty that it will have any effect whatsoever. 

But with the benefit of years or decades, the power of people repeatedly choosing to move together with solidarity is undeniable.

This article is based on a September 2022 conversation with Dru Oja Jay.

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