It was the music of politically progressive musician Manu Chao that did it for me the other night. I was deejaying at a function for an NGO that aims to improve the status of impoverished working people, especially women, in the informal economy. When I played one of Chao’s songs early in the evening, a ripple of smiles and nodding heads surged through the 130 delegates from 32 countries. He paved the dancefloor for a wild party later that evening.
I thought about it later on. The likes of Chao make it easy, but what is a lefty DJ to do when musicians, whose music you use in some of your dance sets, behave like reactionary jerks? My response is simple: those songs are scratched off my list.
I bid goodbye to R Kelly’s guaranteed floor filler, Ignition Remix, after the serious sexual misconduct allegations against him. Local isn’t that lekker in the case of Black Coffee, who defiantly, arrogantly and embarrassingly performed in Israel despite the cultural boycott against that country. Those are just two examples.
Why does a performer’s politics matter? A great post on the music blog Harold’s House argued that because humans are instinctively socialist, the DJ’s role in society is “to selflessly share something wonderful, that binds a group together and creates fleeting moments of pleasure, release, community and joy … Time spent dancing and laughing together is more vital than ever before, to bring us together and to remind us that it is ‘us’, not ‘I’, that is a truly important thing in society.”
Fortunately, there are musicians with progressive politics whose songs still get rumps shakin’. Chao was born in Spain 57 years ago, but he grew up in France because his radical parents were forced to flee the fascist Franco regime. Chao had huge success in his adopted country with his punk-roots band Mano Negra, but went solo in the mid-1990s. His brilliant 1998 debut album, Clandestino, meaning “illegal immigrant”, turned 20 in October.
Described by his biographer, Peter Culshaw, as a “musical magpie”, Chao created with Clandestino an original gumbo of ska, reggae, punk, rock en Español, chanson, salsa, Algerian raï, son and other Latin musical styles he picked up during busker-style tours across Central and South America. While there, he got to know communities and their struggles, and befriended Zapatista spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos in Mexico (Clandestino includes snippets of his speeches).
Chao has raised funds for a number of Latin American rebel groups, and championed progressive causes like environmental justice, tax reform, indigenous peoples’ rights, and rights for sex workers and women. In 2001, he played a free concert for protestors at the G8 summit in Genoa, Italy.
The title track of Clandestino starts with a brief crackle of static before Chao’s rhythmic strumming leads us through the compelling song. His keening voice takes us on the journey African clandestinos – the so-called illegal immigrants – undertake across the treacherous Mediterranean Sea to a supposedly better life in Europe.
I'm a just a rake on the sea
A ghost in the city
My life is prohibited
Says the authority
I come only with my punishment
There comes only my conviction
Running is my fate
’cause I don't carry any identity papers.
Twenty years later, these journeys, with their mostly sad endings, are still as prevalent as ever, and Chao still belongs on any progressive party playlist. He doesn’t only make you think, he also makes you dance. And, heaven knows, we need both these days.