April 21, 2014

BROMER | Rebels With a Cause

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“Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties / Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise / While Rubin sits like Buddha in a 10-foot cell / An innocent man in a living hell.” — Bob Dylan, “Hurricane”

“Congregations genuflect / Black robes brag, golden epaulettes / Freedom’s phantom’s gone to heaven / Gay Pride’s chained and in detention.” — Pussy Riot, “Punk Prayer”

In 1975, Bob Dylan received a package. In it was an autobiography written by a former middleweight boxer who had spent the last eight years in a cell, dealing not only with the prison sentence that had wrongly taken away his freedom, but with the “anger and illusion” that had defined his youth. Without a doubt, this man had his fair share of flaws — he had spent his adolescence in and out of juvenile penitentiaries — but these lapses of character did not compare to the cruel, institutionalized bigotry that seemed to have led to his imprisonment late one night in 1967. How did a protest song turn one man’s fight to clear his own name into a powerful symbol of the fight against racial discrimination and political oppression?

Dylan was hooked. Weeks later, the two met face-to-face and one of the greatest protest songs of the last half-century began to coalesce.

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter — the human rights advocate and former boxer whose wrongful 19-year imprisonment came to be detested around the world — died Sunday in his Toronto home. He was 76.

Carter’s death will, for good reason, prompt reflection on the life of a man who faced years of injustice with impressive dignity and intense resolve. But, seeing as coming to terms with one person’s entire life in a few short paragraphs is an essentially impossible task — and that this is, after all, an Arts and Entertainment section — I’d like to focus on music. Specifically, I want to address two questions. First, how did a protest song turn one man’s fight to clear his own name into a powerful symbol of the fight against racial discrimination and political oppression? And second, does this story, though harrowing, have any implications for protest musicians today?

As powerful as Carter’s story was in its own right, Dylan’s “Hurricane,” penned with help from collaborator Jacques Levy, was so immensely effective in broadcasting Carter’s plight to the world because it clearly and logically laid out the details of Carter’s arrest, trial and imprisonment while also molding the inmate into an archetypal hero. In his eight minute journey through Carter’s nightmarish experience, Dylan masterfully portrays his subject battling the mess of crooked cops, coerced witnesses and complicit jury-members who wanted him imprisoned and dehumanized. To the tune of an angrily strummed chord progression and the swelling and receding of a lone fiddle tune, he walks step by step through the odyssey, from the murdered bartender found in a “pool of blood” to the lying witnesses who “drink martinis” while Carter rots away for a crime he did not commit. All throughout “Hurricane” is its legendary refrain, describing Hurricane as “the man the authorities came to blame,” who could have been “the champion of the world.”

Of course, as one Slate author writes, Dylan was “more of a storyteller than a fact-checker;” his retelling of this saga had to be tweaked to avoid lawsuits and Carter was never really all that close to becoming “champion of the world.” But that didn’t matter. Dylan’s “Hurricane,” immersed in the raw details of Carter’s case, was not meant primarily as a forensic argument, but as a parable for the astounding injustices committed by American lawmakers and law enforcers against African Americans. In crystallizing Carter’s experience into its essentials, he created a hero and helped pave the way for his eventual release (which would still not come until nearly 10 years later, despite his retrial in 1976). As for the song itself, Dylan never again played it after 1976’s Night of the Hurricane II, the final stop on his carnival-like tour to spread the word about Carter. Having served its task, “Hurricane” was decommissioned to this day, much to the chagrin of Dylan fans.

But, you might ask, how does this all translate to an age of hashtag activism, where social trends disappear as quickly as they skyrocket? As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his searing critique of this sort of activism, networks are “messy” and subject to a “ceaseless pattern of correction and revision;”  how does one make an impact when his or her message is constantly being distorted, diluted and, eventually, forgotten?

Well, the members of Pussy Riot certainly embody one option: Wearing the black hat. This Russian collective, which has captured the attention of millions of Americans, is influenced more by punk, anarchism and third-wave feminism than the folk protest of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, Pussy Riot still shares one key trait with Rubin Carter: the urge to protest for prisoners’ rights. Sure, they went about the whole thing backwards, going to prison for their protests rather than protesting their time in prison, and sure, they have taken on a persona of ironic and damn angry subversion (see their hilarious interview on The Colbert Report as an example) rather than saintliness, but Pussy Riot may be, for better or worse, the (strange and unnatural) heirs to Rubin Carter. Capturing the public’s attention, it seems, is no longer a matter of becoming a hero, but of embodying the anti-hero.