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Lessons from Fugazi on Taking Down Donald Trump

on February 15, 2017, 3:00pm
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The Pixies, A Tribe Called Quest, My Bloody Valentine — plenty of late ‘80s and early ’90s music legends laid dormant for a decade or longer before roaring back to life in recent years. Some even managed to courageously pull together in half the time, even after a goodbye fete in the world’s most famous venue with notably inflated ticket prices! But in our troubled times, the one group we need — the true superheroes of rock, the platonic ideal of independent guitar music — remains on “indefinite hiatus.”

Fugazi will never reunite. (If they do, I’ll eat one of Ian MacKaye’s tiny hats on camera.) The reason is the same that made them a peerless act in the first place: Fugazi operated like a true collective, a hive-mind of outrageous talent. On tour, every member of the band had to be ready to play any song from the band’s discography — by the end, that meant roughly 90 songs — at any moment during a show. They operated without setlists, using a mixture of visual and aural cues to guide each set from song to song, their way of fueling every Fugazi show with the reckless energy of improvisation. Each band member had equal say in Fugazi’s decision-making, and each contributed to the band’s songwriting process in equal measure. Now, with members scattered from New York to Rome to DC, many with children, the devotion and pure athleticism required for Fugazi to exist — and for Guy, Ian, Brendan, and Joe to exist within Fugazi — would be impossible to rekindle, let alone maintain.

Fugazi never settled for half-measures. So, we won’t have the pleasure of watching Guy Picciotto lead a crowd in yelling to Trump, in front of his White House: “Maybe together/ We’ll wipe that smile off your face.” And even if we did witness that miracle, a group of four white men can’t by rights serve as the best avatar of leftist outrage and inspiration in 2017. Still, with their deep history of activism and art-as-political-act, Fugazi offers a road map for staying sane — and proactive — in the Age of Trump. As a caveat, the advice below is by no means revolutionary. Rather, as Fugazi would likely tell you, its revolutionary value comes in practicing it in small ways, day by day, year by year.

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01. Try Doing It Your (Damn) Self: Organize, and Go Local

 Lessons from Fugazi on Taking Down Donald Trump

Fugazi are at least as famous for their inclusive, DIY politics as they are for their music. Ian MacKaye became the godfather of hardcore’s DIY ethos when he co-founded Dischord Records in 1980 in order to release a 7” EP by his then-defunct band, the Teen Idles. MacKaye joined Minor Threat shortly thereafter, as Dischord released a second album — S.O.A.’s No Policy — and moved its operations to the “Dischord House” in Arlington, VA. The Dischord House would become a locus for DC-area independent music and its related social scene, with a heavily trafficked practice space in the basement and visitors regularly helping Ian and the Dischord team assemble records and stuff envelopes.

Later, when Fugazi became more popular than any of its bandmates could’ve possibly predicted (though Ian had experienced the same rush of relative fame in Minor Threat), Dischord continued to release the band’s records — to date, 13 Songs has gone triple platinum, an outrageous proposition upon its release in 1989 and just one example of the band’s success in remaining independent while finding financial success. From the start, Dischord was a labor of love, and it remains so today. It releases music exclusively from the DC area, works without contracts, and sells only music in its various physical and digital forms — no merchandise, no souvenirs.

Of course, running a record label is a different enterprise than running, say, a political organization dedicated to resisting a crypto-fascist regime. But the principles for organization remain broadly similar. There’s a reason Dischord focuses solely on chronicling the music from its local DC scene: MacKaye and co-founder Jeff Nelson recognized the importance — and the power — of local community, a notion fueled by the scene-oriented world of punk and hardcore. They knew their community, they poured sweat and blood into it, and in turn, their community empowered Dischord as the de facto mouthpiece for DC’s independent rock scene. Fugazi, soon enough, would themselves become Dischord’s flagship act, evinced in the simple words MacKaye used to open most of the band’s shows: “Hi, we’re Fugazi, and we’re from Washington, D.C.”

dischordthanksnote 22 Lessons from Fugazi on Taking Down Donald Trump

The band performed at dozens of charity and fundraising events throughout its career — in DC, Fugazi would eventually perform exclusively at these types of shows, turning over its profits to organizations like the Whitman-Walker Clinic, the Community for Creative Nonviolence, the Latin Investment Corp., and many others. By raising thousands of dollars for local causes in support of vulnerable populations, Fugazi became its own political entity in the nation’s capital.

For people looking to contribute to the effective resistance of Trump and his cohorts, then, this story has a few salient suggestions. By all means, sign up for the Democratic Socialists of America, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other progressive groups. These large organizations are essential to fighting the administration in every level of government. But, if you want to go further, organize your own group, and do it locally. Think about what you have to offer your community. What are your talents? Are you a designer, a writer, a natural manager, someone with expertise in an arcane area of policy? Channel those talents into forming a specific, even niche, group. Southwest Virginians for Sensible Education Policy. Citizens of Dallas for Immigrants’ Rights. Don’t set your eyes on the federal or even state levels to start. Go local. You’ve heard it before, and it’s true: Your local politicians will behave as if they’re more accountable to you than your state or federal representatives, because they are.

Find a few like-minded people, and use your design expertise to mock up posters and signs for causes important to you, and get them in front of people on your school board or city council. Show up to meetings and town halls. Even sending three or four people to these local events, handing out flyers you’ve created or passing around sign-up sheets for your new organization’s next meeting, will have an effect. It might be slow-going, and most people certainly won’t respond to you, but you’re not doing it for the spotlight. Grassroots movements tend to grow at the speed of the plant they’re named after.

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02. Corporate Media Is Not Your Friend

 Lessons from Fugazi on Taking Down Donald Trump

In no small part thanks to Fugazi and Dischord, “DIY” as an ethos long ago entered the mainstream consciousness, for better or worse shedding its punk associations. As ever, major media corporations have co-opted the term to appeal to a young demographic interested in the allure of “independence” and its aura of cool, a craven business strategy taken to farcical lengths in places like Brooklyn, where venerable DIY venues have been forced to close to make room for corporate media offices that make billions of dollars packaging and selling “punk” signifiers to the masses. Irony is real.

Kurt Cobain, a devotee of the band who often walked around in Converse sneakers with “Fugazi” written on them (or some variation thereof — long story), famously appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in a DIY “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” t-shirt. He wasn’t wrong, though one has to view the stunt as, at least in part, a grab at penance for his own begrudging embrace of corporate power in Nirvana’s explosive career. (Small world: Dave Grohl’s pre-Nirvana band, Scream, released its first three albums on Dischord, though Grohl hadn’t yet joined the lineup.) Fugazi rejected huge offers from every major label under the sun, routinely turned down headlining sets at major festivals including Lollapalooza, and avoided the mainstream press as a general rule.

The band’s anti-corporate politics certainly had much to do with these decisions, but they resisted sloganeering. As Picciotto once put it, speaking of fans’ tendency to look to the band as a sort of political oracle (*cough*), “They want us to supply some kind of message, but if I wanted to express a message in that way I would have been a politician. I’m not. I’m a musician. It’s in the songs. It’s there for people to use or not use.” In other words, Fugazi didn’t see themselves as a political group or a group out to evangelize for the cause of leftist revolution. They saw themselves as a band, and their avoidance of corporate influence and appropriation was a pragmatic move as, yes, a business. They eschewed corporate cash because to accept it would mean giving up, in a real sense, control of their band and livelihood.

fakenews Lessons from Fugazi on Taking Down Donald Trump

To become employees of Atlantic Records by signing a contract would make it more difficult for Fugazi to stick to practices like charging five dollars for admission to a show, insisting shows were open to all ages, and turning down corporate-sponsored festival gigs. These ideas are anathema to a corporate label seeking to turn a profit as its sole reason for existing. In giving corporate labels the cold shoulder, Fugazi were — in spite of Picciotto’s protestations above  — sending a message to their fans. You don’t, they were saying, have to settle for the corporate bottom line in your lives, either.

Today, Trump himself spends roughly 90 percent of his time railing against the “mainstream media,” to the extent that it’s easy to look at even CNN, the half-frozen mystery meat of the corporate media lunch buffet, as performing heroically in the face of an administration seeking to abolish the freedom of the press. Of course, as has been widely recognized, CNN also empowered Trump’s rise as a viable candidate for office by running his Discount Hitler rallies uninterrupted on its channel day after day. Why? The circus brought ratings, of course, and ratings mean money.

Whether Trump-endorsed FOX or Trump-decried MSNBC, corporate media exists to fill the coffers of its investors, and Trump’s gaming of the political news horse race can distract attention from the fact that now, more than ever, resisting Trump means resisting the forces that enabled him to come to power. That means investing your time and money into real, independent media sources, whether milquetoast NPR or firebrand The Intercept. Wearing a “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” t-shirt is a just fashion statement when you’re on the cover of Rolling Stone. Don’t cancel your subscription to The New York Times, but consider how to empower the independent outlets looking out for the public’s interest. Subscribe, donate, tune in.

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03. Speak Up, and Be Inclusive

fugazi 1989 lowres Lessons from Fugazi on Taking Down Donald Trump

One of the many joys of a Fugazi show came in listening to Ian and Guy berate audience members who weren’t behaving politely to their neighbors in the crowd. The band refused to tolerate stage diving or intense slam-dancing at its shows, a tall order for a group whose ferocity as a live act was matched only by the cathartic displays of emotion from its crowds. But Fugazi prioritized safety and inclusivity at its live performances. MacKaye, more than most people on the planet, was qualified to speak on the matter of violence at punk shows: he’d lived through the proliferation of skinheads drawn to hardcore’s anarchic energy, had seen — and performed in — countless shows that saw fans injured by men who saw a show as a place to vent their aggression.

So, at Fugazi shows, he would routinely interrupt the band’s set — even mid-song — to call out specific members of the crowd for being inconsiderate or endangering their fellow fans with their behavior, often refusing to continue playing until the offender had quieted down. You could call it public shaming, but when you’re calling out shameful behavior, it’s more justly called “making an observation.” The routine earned Fugazi a reputation as killjoys, but the band reiterated ad nauseam that it didn’t exist to entertain — it existed to play music and to share that communal experience with whomever wished to join in good faith. One reason for keeping tickets as close to $5 as possible? It allowed the band to say to its detractors, “If you don’t like the rules, you can leave. You’re only out five bucks.” (For a taste of Fugazi’s infamous call-outs from the stage — and to see how funny these encounters often were — you can listen to forty-five minutes of “Having Fun on Stage with Fugazi.”)

womens march on washington 32593123745 Lessons from Fugazi on Taking Down Donald Trump

Ian MacKaye, by virtue of having a platform onstage and through his well-earned reputation as an unfuckwithable godfather of punk, was empowered to chastise his audiences when he felt the situation called for a time-out. Many of us do not share this sense of authority and the bodily safety afforded by it, and in a world where hate-crimes and the violent suppression of free speech (especially surrounding speech on the left that dissents from the neoliberal status quo), it can be dangerous to speak up on behalf of vulnerable people when we witness the abuse of their bodies and minds. MacKaye, a straight white cis man with a shaved head and intimidating demeanor, used his privilege to fight for inclusivity within the punk scene, a community with progressive values but one nevertheless dominated by other straight white cis men. He and his band wanted to build a more inclusive scene, one not dominated by a sea of white, male faces staring back at the bands onstage.

In the band’s view, a Fugazi show should be a place where any human interested even tangentially in the band’s music could come, enjoy the set, and release as much physical energy as they so desired — as long as it didn’t interfere with someone else’s safe space. It is our shared responsibility to speak up for vulnerable people whenever we can do so, especially when our personal privilege shields us from much of the harm threatened upon these people. It’s a simple notion, but anyone who has made it in a public place knows it will inevitably be greeted with complaints of its earnestness. These reactionaries will say such sentiments are “preachy,” a word often thrown at Fugazi as a slur. In that way, it’s a compliment.

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04. Find a Good Soundtrack for the Revolution

soundtrack Lessons from Fugazi on Taking Down Donald Trump

In writing this piece, I’ve disobeyed the cardinal rule of Fugazi fandom — I’ve spent way too much time talking about the band’s politics and not nearly enough sharing its music. Here are a few particularly resonant tracks for our current moment, one for every year Fugazi has been away. You can find the music on streaming platforms, of course, but it seemed wrong not to share live versions.

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“Bulldog Front”

Resist: “Ahistorical / You think this shit just dropped right out of the sky / My analysis: / It’s time to harvest the crust from your eyes. / To surge and refine / To rage and define ourselves / Against your line / So sorry friend, you must resign.”

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“And the Same”

Resist: “Yes, I know this is politically correct / But it comes to you spiritually direct / An attempt to thoughtfully affect your way of thinking / That is, if you believe in race… / If you have to carry a gun / To keep your fragile seat at number one / This is a bullet you can’t outrun”

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“Repeater”

Resist: “Did you hear something outside? / It sounded like a gun / Stay away from that window, boy / It’s not anyone that we know / only about ourselves and / What we read in the paper / Don’t you know ink washes out / Easier than blood? / But we don’t have to try it / And we don’t have to buy it”

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“Merchandise”

Resist: “We owe you nothing / You have no control”

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“Blueprint”

Resist: “I’m not playing with you / I clean forgot how to play / But you can still come around / In fact, I invite you down / Maybe together, / We can wipe that smile off your face / ‘Cause what a difference / A little difference would make”

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“Reclamation”

Resist: “These are our demands: / We want control of our bodies / Decisions will now be ours”

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“Smallpox Champion”

Resist: “Bury your heart U S of A / History rears up to spit in your face / You saw what you wanted / You took what you saw / We know how you got it / Your method equals wipe out… / Memory serves us to serve you yet / Memory serves us to never let you wipe out”

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“Target”

Resist: “The torch is passed, it’s yours to return / Lay at their feet now, use it to burn / For marketing the use of the word ‘generation’ / A false alliance of money persuading… / Now if you want to seize the sound, / You don’t need a reservation”

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“Place Position”

Resist: “All origins are accidental / You’ve got no papers and no / roads lead home anymore / Chance is the root of all / place position, all maps are / random, all scales are wrong / Legal, Illegal / Legal, Illegal / False premise forge the nation”

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“No Surprise”

Resist: “No CIA / No NSA / Could map our veins”

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“Five Corporations”

Resist: “Buy them up and shut them down / Then repeat in every town / Every town will be the same / ‘This one’s ours, let’s take another’ / Five corporations / There’s a pattern”

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“Cashout”

Resist: “Talking about process and dismissal / Forced removal of the people on the corner / Shelter and location / Everybody wants somewhere / The elected are such willing partners / Look who’s buying all their tickets to the game”

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“Ex-Spectator”

Resist: “If I make that call, / Why can’t I make that change? / I’m an ex-spectator”

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“Argument”

Resist: “It’s all about strikes now, / So here’s what’s striking me: / That some punk could argue / Some moral ABCs / While people are catching / What bombers release / I’m on a mission / To never agree”

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