New York’s righteous rockers tackle immigration, tour the border, and ultimately, show that it’s sexy to give a s**t
To kick off their spring 2012 tour, activist rock fivesome Outernational didn’t start with a big club date in New York or Los Angeles. They played in an art gallery in Brownsville, a city located at the very bottom corner of the United States where Texas meets Mexico, a literal stone’s throw from the border wall. The music they played was rock ‘n roll in the good old-fashioned sense: big riffs, distortion pedals, and just the right amount of righteous indignation. But there wasn’t anything old-fashioned about the other musical elements sprinkled into the mix — cumbia beats , mariachi trumpets, and Spanish-language call-and-response chants. The mostly-Chicano crowd moshed and cheered loudly, for the five white boys assembled on the stage came here to Brownsville to do something that hadn’t been done before: to play a full album of rock songs decrying US immigration policy.
In the coming weeks, Outernational would journey along the border, playing in Texas cities like Laredo and El Paso, around campfires on Arizona’s Native American reservations, and in the very fields of California’s Central Valley where immigrants from Southern Mexico pick fruit during the harvest months. They would visit sweatshops on the outskirts of Tijuana, confront Minutemen and border patrol officers, and have long conversations with Mexicans and Mexican-Americans about the border in all its complexity.
This unconventional tour was designed in support of their album Todos Somos Illegales: We Are All Illegals, billed as a “concept album about the US-Mexico border.” The album features politically-tinged rock songs accompanied by some Latin American musical flavors, and guest appearances from artists like Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, Calle 13 frontman Rene Perez, Tijuana punkstress Ceci Bastida, and nu-cumbia producer Uproot Andy.
Outernational’s members say the central message of the album is to unpack the immense damage the border inflicts on immigrants and to shine a light on the absurdity of labeling human beings as “illegals.” “This is the year 2012, and it’s obsolete,” says singer Miles Solay. “We’re fighting for a world in which no people are illegal. Some day it will be ridiculous to say people are illegal the same way it’s ridiculous that people used to own other people as slaves.”
“It’s about the border, but it’s about so much more” says guitarist Leo Mintek. “It’s about drawing a focus to the larger truth that the system we live under is horrible, and we can do so much better, and we need a revolution to do it.”
At precisely the moment that Mintek said the word “revolution,” your humble music writer did something of double-take. In a day and age where irony and wry humor are celebrated and politics have been all but banished from the rock underground, there’s something almost uncomfortable about hearing a rock ‘n roll musician express leftist political convictions with such unflinching earnestness. Did he really just drop the “R” word?
I told Miles, the band’s singer, about that sensation, and he agreed that there is not only a resistance towards revolutionary ideas among today’s bands, but that it went way beyond music. “Part of the resistance is that there’s so much relativism among this generation today,” said Solay. “You hear people today debate whether there’s such a thing as reality and objective truth. I think it’s important to believe in what’s real and to try to transform what’s real.”
Solay has never had much of a problem believing in right and wrong. He was turned on to activism at an early age, growing up in New York City in the 80s and 90s and listening to Public Enemy and KRS-One. He hung out in Revolution Books, a lefty hot-spot near Union Square, where he got a thorough education in radical literature. In high-school, he organized walk-outs and participated in protests.
After speaking with Solay for a while, it became clear that he’s slightly crazy in that he’s totally fearless. At age 15, he sneaked into 30 Rock and the set of Saturday Night Live because his favorite band, Rage Against the Machine, was the night’s musical guest. That evening led to a long friendship with guitarist Tom Morello, who was impressed by Solay’s pluckiness and started putting him on the guest list to Rage shows and inviting him to come and hang out. Then in 2002, Solay volunteered to go up against Bill O’Reilly on Fox News to talk about “Not In Our Name,” a petition he participated in condemning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that was printed in the New York Times and signed by all sorts of prominent people. O’Reilly called Solay “disgraceful” on national TV, but the young activist held his own. “In retrospect, I could have tore him up,” muses Solay today. “But let this stand as an open call — Yo Bill, it’s on the record, I’m game to get back on there.”
Solay started jamming with like-minded musicians Leo Mintek and Jesse Williams in the mid-2000s, but they didn’t become serious as a band until 2009, when they started to put together their first EP Eyes On Fire, produced by Tom Morello. The Todos Somos Ilegales project came up almost by accident. In 2010, when Arizona’s immigration law SB1070 went into effect, Outernational responded by recording a version of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees” with Morello and traveling to Phoenix to perform at the protests.
Around the same time, Solay began talking with Rene Perez from Calle 13 about doing a song together, but they found that instead of talking about music, they were having long talks about US imperialism, the student uprisings of Latin America, and revolutionary theory. Over the course of those talks, the idea for Todos Somos Ilegales took shape. The band hooked up with the multi-instrumentalist Dr. Blum, who added the keyboards, trumpets, and accordions needed for the Latin American musical features of the album. They then recorded and set about planning a tour that would simultaneously serve as publicity campaign, a political statement, an education in border politics, and perhaps even, a kind of performance art.
About half of the tour’s shows have been in traditional venues – clubs and college campuses – and the other half have been jury-rigged, DIY experiments in community centers, galleries, fields and wherever else they could draw interested listeners. In Arizona they were sheltered on the O’odham Indian reservation that straddles the border, and shown the dangerous desert crossings where many would-be migrants perish. In California they crossed the border and played to an enthusiastic crowd of Tijuana punks.
The songs themselves vary from spirited calls-to-action like “Fighting Song” and “The Beginning Is Here” to more abstract, story-based tunes about the cruelty of the border like “Ladies of the Night” and “Buried and Done.” All are sung, yelled, rapped and chanted by Solay, whose voice has a slightly-out-of-tune-but-totally-getting-away-with-it, Anthony Kiedis quality to it.
Although the songs all have a message, Solay says they’re not interested in trying to lecture people. The aim, he says, is to create quality art that also moves people. “We’re not making protest music in the sense of trying to make a book to a beat. There are overtly political pieces that have a lot of poetry to them,” he says.
Both Solay and Mintek agree that the border tour really invigorated them about the band’s mission.
“The biggest lesson from the tour for me, is that a new generation of rebels and dreamers and fighters is emerging,” says Solay. “People really came out of the woodwork. They’re looking for another way. A lot of things have happened since last year, from the Occupy movement to the Arab Spring to the outrage over the death of Trayvon Martin.”
Outernational is planning to release an album later this year called Welcome to the Revolution, which they say features RHCP drummer Chad Smith on the kit and which will be their real-deal debut to the world. Despite all the big-deal collaborators like Smith and Morello, the band doesn’t have a label deal currently. They hope to continue to build a true grassroots following through projects like the “Todos Somos Ilegales” Tour, and eventually to fill the gap left by the activist bands of the 90s such as Rage Against the Machine, who broke up in 2000.
“Rage came out and they changed the entire terrain of music. They were so radical and confrontational. But every since they broke up 12 years ago, there’s been a need for bands to take up that torch, and new bands. That’s been a big part of our mission,” says Mintek.
Solay, however, doesn’t stop there. His vision is much more grandiose – and why not?
“I hope that we not only have influence on people already out there doing good stuff, but I hope we’re able to kickstart a new culture of revolt against this revolting culture with thousands of bands and writers and actors,” he says. “ We’re not trying to go down this road by ourselves.”