Wednesday, 29 September 2010


Noah Levine discusses with John Malkin the complementary worlds of punk rock & Buddhism
Noah Levine has been going “against the stream” his whole life. Early on, punk rock mirrored his own desire to smash through personal and social patterns of ignorance and delusion. Later, Buddhism offered the internal tools to skillfully and gently engage in this upstream journey.

I invited Noah Levine to be a guest on the program I host on Free Radio Santa Cruz, a commercial-free, unlicensed radio station with roots in anarchist self-organization and nonviolent direct action. When I told Noah that I had interviewed a wide spectrum of people with views on social change and spiritual growth, from Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh to Greg Graffin, lead singer of the punk rock band Bad Religion, Noah laughed and said, “Well, now you have both in one!” Mindfulness in the slam pit, anarchy laced with compassion. I was thrilled to find another person who loved punk rock and Buddhism, and to realize that there is a whole community of “dharma punx” out there just like me!

Noah Levine is appealing to a new generation by blending the energy and action of punk with the wisdom and compassion of the Buddhist dharma. Punk rock and Buddhism share the fundamental philosophy that each of us creates our own reality. Real freedom is available as we learn to be aware in each moment, to take notice when we are caught in habitual streams of destructive thoughts or actions, and to experiment with consciously choosing to change those patterns.

In 500 BCE, the Buddha taught that any individual can wake up and be free from suffering. 2470 years later, the Sex Pistols proved that anyone could pick up a guitar and be in a band. The Buddha taught the importance of discovering the truth for one’s self, through direct experience, not by simply taking someone else’s word for it. The last teaching given by Buddha was, “Be a lamp unto yourself.” A punk rock credo is “D.I.Y.” – Do It Yourself.

In his recent book Dharma Punx, Noah Levine illustrates his own transformation from serving time in jail to serving others who are suffering in jails and prisons. He tells the stories of his life with an urgency that reveals his deep intention to be of service to those who are suffering, to bring Buddhist practices to young people who are struggling as he did.

Noah currently teaches meditation in juvenile halls and prisons around the San Francisco Bay Area and is director of the family program at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California. The son of author and teacher Stephen Levine, Noah lives in San Francisco, where he is still deeply involved in the punk rock scene. – JM


John Malkin It is hard not to notice your arms and the artwork on your skin. You are covered in images of deities and spiritual teachers. Buddha, Krishna, Mary, Hanuman and Tara. Tell me about the tattoos on the tops of your hands that say “wisdom” and “compassion” with a lotus flower.

Noah Levine A couple of years ago I was doing a long, silent meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. And during the retreat my mind was making its plans and fantasies and at one point I had this vision of: “I want to get wisdom and compassion tattooed somewhere on my body.” And since I already had sleeves and was pretty much covered in tattoos already, the tops of the hands were the optimal place, a very visual place to say, “This is what my intention for my life is and what my practice is. The cultivation of wisdom and compassion.”

JM You went through a lot to come to this place, where you are devoted to service and developing wisdom and compassion. How have Buddhism and punk rock come together in your life?

NL The simplest way to explain it, for me, is that both are about the desire for happiness, the desire for freedom, and seeing the truth about life. As a kid I saw the truth about life. I was in a lot of pain and there was suffering everywhere. Inequality and oppression and war and racism. Capitalist-driven media crap. I just knew that happiness couldn’t come from that.

My search for happiness, acceptance and freedom led me to punk rock. Punk had the energy, the information and the politics that I resonated with, but I took it to the nihilistic, self-destructive, drug-addicted, crime side of things. To that extreme. There definitely was an intense drive to escape from my own mind, from my emotions and my body. Drugs and alcohol offered that escape for a long time. To the point where I was so numb that I wasn’t even aware of the crimes and the pain that I was causing myself and others. And on a whole other level I just didn’t care, because I had really lost hope and wasn’t able to take responsibility for my actions. There came a point where I was strung out and locked up and I had even lost my punk ethic in the pursuit of oblivion.

But that same energy of dissatisfaction and suffering eventually led me to start meditating while I was in prison. At the time, I thought that doing spiritual practice would be like completely fucking selling out. That was for hippies and that was for my parents and brain-dead religious followers. That was the masses to me. But I had lost all other hope. I felt like I had nowhere else to turn.

Meditation was a profound experience for me. I was able to just be present for that moment in my cell, rather than in the terror of prison and shame and regret for the crimes I had committed. I had been looking for that experience of freedom in punk and drugs and sex and crime, but I hadn’t found it there, that real freedom.

JM You wrote in Dharma Punx that the spiritual path described by the Buddha is one of being against the stream, against selfish desires and ignorance and that “this fits in perfectly with the punk rock ethic.”

NL Yeah. As I began to meditate and it really worked, I thought, “Actually, most people aren’t doing this. This isn’t mainstream! This isn’t selling out. This is the punkest thing I’ve ever done.” To learn to tell the truth after living a life of lies, to learn how to be kind to myself and to other people, that was the most rebellious and difficult action I have ever taken. This isn’t buying in. This is waking up, waking up from this delusion that I have been in. And it is rebellious to do it.
I found a teaching where the Buddha said that practice is “against the stream,” or an act of rebellion. Most people are suffering and don’t even know it. They are so attached to pleasure and seeking pleasure all of the time that they will never wake up. So, I understood that teaching, because my whole life has been against the stream! There was a resonation, a deep knowing and reminder of something that I already knew. So I began integrating the punk ethic – that anti-establishment acknowledgement of suffering in the world – with the Buddhist philosophy that awakening, happiness and freedom are possible by acknowledging suffering and its causes, and cultivating awareness, morality and wisdom.

JM Your father, Stephen Levine, is a prominent Buddhist teacher in America. Because he writes and teaches about healthy relationships, forgiveness, calmness and meditation, were there assumptions that he must have a happy family? Was this an extra burden you had to carry?

NL Honestly, I didn’t feel that pressure. On some level, I think it is the nature of children to rebel against their parents, so maybe there was some of that natural anti-parent rebellion going on. But I didn’t really feel that. Really, I feel quite fortunate that I had this loving family. And on a whole other level, I may have had some karmic reincarnation. I might have come into this lifetime needing to exorcise these demons. I don’t hold much blame. Actually, I am incredibly grateful that I had my father there when I was seventeen, to support and love and encourage me to quit fucking around and start practising.

JM You were in jail and you got a phone call from your dad. He offered you meditation instructions over the phone and that was maybe the first time that you practised meditation, there in jail.

NL Yeah. In a gentle and supportive way, he just said, “Look, what you’re doing is just not working. Why don’t you try something else?”
It was the first time that I ever meditated. I had been around it since I was a kid, but I’d never tried it. That was the turning point for me, of having the direct experience of it. I am a pessimist. I am skeptical about everything, so until I experience something for myself I think it’s bullshit. And that was the first time I experienced it for myself. I was in enough pain that I was willing to even check out meditation. I thought, “Wow, this actually works to relax me a little bit. To calm me down a little bit.” For a half a breath at a time. Not for hours. Not for days. But just for that moment of awareness. So I feel incredibly fortunate that I had my father on that level. There is a way in which it did save my life.

JM You emphasize how important direct experience is for you. Tell me more about your experiences with meditation.

NL My experience is that meditation develops slowly, over years. In no way is it a good time, all of the time. It is not like every time I meditate I feel great. What it is, is that every time I meditate I get in touch with the truth. And I am very interested in the truth. I get in touch with the truth of how distracted I am, of how crazy my mind is and how much pain my heart is in. I begin to take it all less personally. I understand how impermanent all phenomena are. And that I don’t have to do anything, to push it away or hold onto it. And that when I do try to push it away or hold onto it, it creates this extra level of discomfort, of suffering, of dissatisfaction.

I certainly wasn’t someone who came to meditation peaceful, looking for more peace. I came to it in tremendous suffering, looking for freedom. And I’ve found that. And it is not freedom from pain. It is freedom from identification. Freedom from the dissatisfaction that is inherent in trying to control the uncontrollable – the mind, the body, the world.

Meditation has, in my experience, led to an incredible sense that everything is unfolding in its own way. And I can have total intention without expectation on the outcome for my happiness. I can have full acceptance of what is happening in the present moment, with the intention to go somewhere else. Which I think is a huge, yet subtle distinction. People come to spiritual practice, and I have done this myself a lot, and say, “It’s all about letting go, it’s all about acceptance, so I just have to accept how fucked up everything is.” But, it’s more about how, “I don’t accept how fucked up everything is and I want things to be better. I want to be happier, I want to be peaceful. I want to help other people.”

JM There is a lot of suffering in this world that needs to be addressed. There is sometimes the view that if you are “working on yourself” or developing spiritual practice, then you are not addressing the suffering of others.

NL In my mind, they go hand in hand. I think that engaged action in the world is the total integral part of any spiritual practice. We have this vision of the Buddha as a renunciate. He was a renunciate, but he renounced greed, hatred and delusion. He renounced his possessions. But he stayed incredibly engaged in the societal issues of his times. He spoke out against racism and sexism, war, hatred and violence.

So, my practice arises simultaneously through the intention to purify my own mind and heart and to find freedom, along with the intention of discovering how I can use the freedom that I find to serve others. These two things have to be married, in my mind, in any kind of mature spiritual life.

The Buddha pointed out that there is suffering. This is the credo of punk rock. There is suffering and we don’t like it; it sucks! The Buddha took it a step further and said, “Yes. And there is a cause of that suffering and there is a solution, an end to it, in the individual.” Ultimately, I believe that there always has been and always will be corruption and suffering in the world. And I am not waiting for that corruption and suffering to end before I end my personal struggles. Punk made me aware of political injustice and Buddhism has taught me how to respond to it skillfully.

JM Many people committed to spiritual practice struggle with the ideas of living as a monk versus staying in the world, or celibacy versus having a family. I wonder where you are at in that. And do you think that it is a struggle that can be resolved?

NL At one point, I thought I would become a monk, but I just wasn’t ready. Too much attachment, too much fear. Unresolved relationship issues in my life. So, I was in the monastery and it was just awful. It was painful to be there and not really be surrendered to being there. I may have been able to stick it out. I don’t know. But I didn’t.

I came home and felt very committed to being in the world and being of service. I started working in the jails and prisons, with my community and my generation. I thought, “This is it for me.” But then a couple of years ago, when I was on a three-month retreat, about halfway through the retreat, I was really getting a deeper and deeper sense of my spiritual experience. My mind went totally toward monasticism. I felt, “This is so great. Why would I want to do anything else with the rest of my life? Why not just live in robes? How can I organize my life to live in robes and practise full-time?”

So, no, I don’t think it is resolved within me. I will say that for the most part, I am leaning much more toward being a householder, living in the world, being in relationship.

I would like to speak to this question on another level, too, though. On the level that we have in the West, this delusion of Buddhist practice, of spiritual practice, as needing to be one of pseudo-renunciation. We have this idea that if I am going to do spiritual practice, I need to live incredibly simply and I can’t have money or nice things. I think that is really wrong. I have had that attitude a lot myself. One of my teachers told me recently that actually the Buddha said “Renounce everything and become a monk or a nun or if that is not your karma, if you’re going to live in the world and be a householder, don’t skimp to the point where you’re struggling all of the time. Where you don’t have anything extra to offer to anyone else.”

I don’t feel like I have all of the answers about this, but I feel pretty passionately that if you are not going to be a monastic and you’re in the world, work! And do something that is of service to others. And use your life’s energy to benefit other people. Use the money that you have in a skillful way. Don’t think that you have to be broke. Love what you love. Have enough to share.

JM I would like to hear briefly your story about meeting the Dalai Lama.

NL He came to a meeting of all of the Buddhist teachers in the West in 2000 at Spirit Rock. I was there as Ram Dass’s attendant, pushing him around in his wheelchair. You had to be teaching for ten years or something to be at the conference, so they kind of snuck me in as Dass’s attendant.

One day, when the Dalai Lama was leaving the room after teaching, I was standing there and he was walking by blessing people that he came to and I was bowed, with my hands together in the prayer position. I was excited, knowing he was going to come and bow to me. And actually, when he approached me, he grabbed my hands in his and he saw the tattoo of Buddha and the tattoo of Krishna and Tara and some Tibetan images that I have and he looked right back into my eyes. My whole body was vibrating as he looked back at my arms and back up into my eyes and then he just says, “Very colourful!” And I just start cracking up. And everybody is cracking up and I am kind of, almost, leaving my body. It is just an overwhelming experience – the Dalai Lama is grabbing my arms and talking to me and making a joke about my tattoos. It was a powerful experience for me. Just a beautiful gift.

JM Like you said, most people don’t come to spiritual practice from a place of peace looking for more peace. Sometimes we have to face some very difficult things about ourselves. What would you say to young people who are starting to engage in some kind of practice?

NL The Buddha said that this path is “against the stream.” It is not natural. It’s not easy. It takes tremendous effort and most people will never do it, because it is too subtle and difficult. But that is why we need to have the fellowship of the sangha, in the Buddhist term. Our generation has lived through the Cold War and Reaganomics and the birth, death and maybe rebirth of punk rock. To actually have a whole crew of punk rockers, or Generation Xers or Ys or whatever it is now…Wow!

There is something incredibly special about having a community of spiritual rebels. Spiritual revolutionaries. Being a punk rock Buddhist is really fucking lonely. I did it for ten years on my own. The only one, the only young person, the only tattooed person, the only punker at the meditation retreats. I wanted the teachings so bad that I didn’t care. But I must admit that I do care! I love the fact that I have a community. That is why I wrote the book. To take the hippy, peace-loving stigma off of spiritual practice. To say that punks can do this. Punks maybe even have a head start because they understand suffering so well. Buddhist practice is simple, but it takes the courage of a warrior.

John Malkin hosts a weekly radio program on Free Radio Santa Cruz ( every Wednesday evening at 7 p.m. (PST). The program explores social change and spiritual growth, nonviolence and anarchy. Free Radio Santa Cruz is a commercial-free, all-volunteer radio station that has been broadcasting for nine years without a license from the US government. John is currently editing a book of interviews and writing a book on punk rock and Buddhism.

...And some videos on Noah's work...

Noah Levine's new DVD: Meditate and Destroy

Interview with Noah Levine

Noah Levine on "Anger"

Another Interview

Sunday, 19 September 2010


Palestinians and Native Americans:
The Inherent Struggle for Freedom and Justice
By Ramzy Baroud - Jan 14, 2003

Ramzy Baroud

Palestinian-American journalist, author and former Al-Jazeera producer, Ramzy Baroud taught Mass Communication at Australia's Curtin University of Technology, and is Editor-in-Chief of the Palestine Chronicle.

"Ramzy Baroud's sensitive, thoughtful, searching writing penetrates to the core of moral dilemmas that their intended audiences evade at their peril. Few are spared his perceptive eye, and only the morally callous will fail to respond to his pleas to look into the mirror honestly, to question comforting beliefs that protect us from facing our elementary responsibilities, and to act to remedy the terrible misery and injustice that he exposes to our view, as we surely can." -- Noam Chomsky.

Few can be as blunt regarding the legacy of the United States toward the native people of this land as the 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. In his narrative, "The Winning of the West," Roosevelt spoke about the "spread of the English-speaking peoples over the world's wasted spaces." He wrote: "The European settlers moved into an uninhabited waste...the land is really owned by no one.... The settler ousts no one from the land. The truth is, the Indians never had any real title to the soil."

In an interview with the British Sunday Times, on June 15, 1969, former Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir made similar claims, stating, "There was no such thing as Palestinians. It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country from them. They did not exist."

While Native Americans and Palestinians were the ancient indigenous peoples of their lands, this was of little or no relevance to the foreign settlers. What really mattered was "Manifest Destiny", what really mattered was "Zionism".

Roosevelt goes on: "The world would probably not have gone forward at all, had it not been for the displacement or submersion of savage and barbaric peoples as a consequence of the armed settlement in strange lands of the races who hold in their hands the fate of the years."

In the mid forties, David Ben-Gurion declared that Israel is adopting a system of "aggressive defense. With every Arab attack we must respond with a decisive blow: the destruction of the place or the expulsion of the residents along with the seizure of the place."

My grandparents, mother and father, along with nearly one million people were expelled from their land after the brutal destruction of 418 villages and towns, and the murder of thousands of Palestinians. They spread in all directions, mostly on foot to clear space for the Chosen People. They settled in refugee camps, concentration camps, which are still in existence until today. My grandparents along with my mother and my older brother are buried in one of those camps. My farther and my brothers are still living there.

Ben Gurion retired in 1963, four years before Israel invaded the rest of Palestine, the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. It created another tragedy, another dispossession, all with the hope that the state of Israel can become purely Jewish. Israel defied international law that called for the right of return for Palestinians refugees. Instead, it instituted its own law, shortly after its establishment in 1948, issuing the right of return for Jews only. Any one of Jewish race, anywhere in the world was and is still allowed to come to Palestine, granted citizenship, to live free of charge on a land that is not his, in a place where he does not belong.

Amid this savagery, land grabbing and dehumanization of the victims, both the United States and Israel have managed to convince themselves that the way they treated their victims was in fact humane and civilized. "No other conquering or colonizing nation has ever treated savage owners of the soil with such generosity as has the United States," Roosevelt said.

But General Didi, from the Israeli army begs to differ. He oversaw the historic invasion of Jenin last year.

On April 02, 2002, Israel attacked the camp for two weeks amid complete silence of the international community. For two weeks, hundreds of Israeli tanks, US-apache helicopters, F15 and F16 warplanes and thousands of soldiers brutalized and terrorized the 13,000 inhabitants of the camp living on just one square kilometer or land. The people of the camp fought as much as homemade explosives, kitchen knives and a few bullets could take them. They fought and refused to give up since they new that this defeat would be their last. By the end of the invasion, scores of Palestinian bodies were left to decompose in the streets of Jenin as the Israelis refused to allow access to the Red Cross to evacuate the dead. The entire population of the camp was forced to evacuate, and nearly 2,000 homes were destroyed and severely damaged by Israeli army tanks, bulldozers and air bombardment. .

This is what an Israeli army bulldozer driver, who is known as "Kurdi Bear" said in his testimony, of what took place in the camp as he narrated to the Israeli newspaper Yidiot Ahronot:

"Many people were inside the houses we started to demolish. They would come out of the houses while we where working on them. I found joy with every house that came down, because I knew they didn't mind dying, but they cared for their homes. If you knocked down a house, you bury 40 or 50 people for generations. If I am sorry for anything, it is for not tearing the whole camp down. This is the way I thought in Jenin. I didn't give a damn. If I had been given three weeks, I would have had more fun. That is, if they would let me tear the whole camp down. I have no mercy."

Let me refresh your memory with what Roosevelt had said about the conduct of his armies. "No other conquering or colonizing nation has ever treated savage owners of the soil with such generosity as has the United States."

Roosevelt's words echoed, just a few months ago, by the Israeli army Jenin commander, General Didi.

The Israeli army has behaved as "as the most moral army in the world and the most careful army in the world."

Please allow me to shift the course of my thoughts to finish with these great words from the 1927 Grand Council of American Indians:

"We want freedom from the white man rather than to be integrated. We don't want any part of the establishment, we want to be free to raise our children in our religion, in our ways, to be able to hunt and fish and live in peace. We want to be ourselves. We want to have our heritage, because we are the owners of this land and because we belong here.

"The white man says, there is freedom and justice for all. We have had their "freedom and justice," and that is why we have been almost exterminated. We shall not forget this."

Similar are the sentiments of Abdelrazik Abu al-Hayjah, the Palestinian Administrator of the Jenin refugee camp, who concluded his testimony for the book "Searching Jenin":

"If they will destroy the camp many times, the people of Jenin will rebuild
it, because with every time the peoples' courage and determination intensify.

The more Israel brutalizes Palestinians, the stronger their resistance shall
be. Israel cannot resolve its problems by force. They have to understand that Palestinians' quest for freedom cannot be stopped. Its only human nature for people to resist, to regain their freedom.

"The people of Jenin do not hate Israelis because their names are different, or because their language is different. Nor do they hate them because they have anything against the Jewish religion, but because they are occupiers, and as long as they are occupiers, the resistance will go on. The Palestinian resistance shall live as long as the occupation lives."

*Ramzy Baroud is the editor-in-chief of and the editor of the anthology "Searching Jenin: Eyewitness Accounts of the Israeli Invasion 2002."

Searching Jenin: Eyewitness Accounts of the Israeli InvasionMy Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold StoryThe Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People's Struggle

some of the books by Ramzy Baroud, visit his website and get the books!


"If Che Guevara were around today

this is the one CD

he would have in his backpack."

- Scrawl Magazine

"RICANSTRUCTION spits manifestos

that pistol-whip an insurgence in the blood..."

- Philadelphia Inquirer

" I give them a year until the CIA shuts them down."

- The Flashing Astonisher

We are absolutely delighted to present a reprint of 3 amazing interviews with the now dead punk/hardcore band RICANSTRUCTION. Take a deep breath and learn about the hispanic puerto-ricans struggle for the liberation of Vieques and Puerto Rico. Viva La Raza! Sigue Machetero!!!

Taken from Issue #35 (Dec 2005) issue of:

Clamor Magazine

Burning Down Babylon

An Interview with Ricanstruction’s Not4Prophet - By Ari Paul

Crossing over from the sea of wealth that is Manhattan’s Upper East Side into Spanish Harlem (or East Harlem), you can see the contrasts New York’s Ricanstruction — a Puerto Rican punk/Afro-Latin beat band — have experienced. The ghetto attributes abound: Soviet-style public housing, malt-liquor bottles on the street, an excessive NYPD presence. This Puerto Rican and African American neighborhood is one marked by resistance, insists Not4Prophet, Ricanstruction’s lead vocalist. Everything from the political graffiti to the murals of Che Guevara to the community gardens exudes both resistance and autonomy.

Ricanstruction hesitates to classify itself; Not4Prophet doesn’t even like to use the word “anarchist” to describe the band’s politics. Songs like “Mad Like Farrakhan” and “Bulletproof” bring Latin beats (and political experience) to fast-paced vocals and guitar riffs. Slower, darker rhythms in songs like “Abu-Jamal” (about American political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal) feel more like the finale of a tragic opera with Not4Prophet’s pleading tone, often inspired by Bob Marley as much as Jello Biafra.

While failing — thankfully — to fall into the rock-rap genre that gave us Rage Against the Machine or 311, Not4Prophet’s love of hip hop is essential to the band’s ability to fuse the resistance culture of white anarchist punks and his own Spanish Harlem community. Their latest release, Love + Revolution (Uprising Records), includes appearances from hip hop icons such as Dead Prez and Chuck D from Public Enemy. The band members are still active artistically and politically on their home turf.

As of late the band has grown in numbers as well as in its means of expression. Formerly a four-piece, the band has picked up Taina of Anti-Product as an additional vocalist. And along with the filmmaker Vagabond, Ricanstruction’s members and music have appeared in several short political films. Their recent feature film, Machetero, starring Not4Prophet and Isaac De Bankole (Ghost Dog, Coffee and Cigarettes), has already been shown on the West Coast, in Canada, and in New York.

Not4Prophet came to the United States from Puerto Rico when he was five years old. As a non-English-speaker in his new country, he was referred to remedial education, an experience he found condescending and now sees as an all-too-familiar part of the immigrant experience. Raised by Puerto Rican nationalists, he was pushed to rebellion after witnessing the destruction of lives by cops, poverty, and drugs in his community. He started sneaking into CBGB when he was 12 years old and began adding bands like the Clash and Dead Kennedys to his musical and political repertoire. This mixture eventually created the band’s mission of encouraging the tradition of resistance in East Harlem and bringing that experience to the New York punk scene.

CLAMOR: You described Ricanstruction as forming organically. What do you mean by that?

Not4Prophet: Basically, it was cats on the street [that] were just kind of around. A lot of us were graffiti writers. We didn’t necessarily look at it as a political act, even though it is a political act. It was just for voiceless people trying to get their names known. But as we became a little more aware, we tried to figure out what things we could do to battle or resist the system. Then our graffiti started to become a little more politicized. But a lot of people weren’t graffiti writers. And that’s when people started discovering their talents: People could play instruments, and then there’s a band. It was just something that came about, because we didn’t have any political power, we didn’t own or control anything. All we had was — for lack of a better [term] — our natural abilities.

When and how did you guys have a political awakening?

It’s a funny question. As Puerto Ricans or as minorities, your life is political from the jump. You don’t have a political awakening, but it happens for different people for different reasons. The moms of the cats who get killed by cops, those moms may not have thought they were political and next thing you know they’re activists. So for everybody it’s their own thing. For me, walking down the street every day, cops are stopping me just because I fit a description. One day you realize, “Okay, this is all political.” And you start figuring out what you can do about it or you don’t, but you’re still confronted with a political situation.

There’s the concept that punk is very white music. For you to have entered that scene what has it been like — or do you not agree with that?

I grew up listening to hip hop, so that was our music. And that was . . . music of rebellion, and punk was also music of rebellion but for a different group of people, which tended to be white. But, I mean, the first punk bands that I liked weren’t white. Bad Brains, Black Flag had tons of Latinos in the band — the Adolescents, or Dead Kennedys. And those were the bands I was listening to, not because they had people of color in them, but because I happened to like those. So, I personally never saw punk as white, but I do understand that it is, compared to hip hop, white music. We’ve never thought of ourselves as a subculture. As Puerto Ricans we were already a counter-culture. Any time you stand up against the system, in any real way, you cease to be a subculture people can ignore and you become a counter-culture. I think for me the problem I always had with punk as we know it is that it tends to be a subculture and it tends to not embrace other aspects of struggle politics.

You get these subcultures where people say “this is pure punk.” Yeah, but right now you sound like Good Charlotte, so what threat is there to the system if the system can co-opt you based on your sound?

My definition of punk is something that is going toe-to-toe to try to dismantle and eventually destroy a system. If you’re saying, “No, no, no, we work outside the system and we live off the grid,” then you’re not doing anything to dismantle or destroy the system. Maybe in some ways you’re disrupting the system.For us, we’ve always wanted to free Puerto Rico, with the understanding that eventually we free everyone else. But I think a lot of punks create these little ciphers for themselves, and they’re fine with the fact that, “Oh, I’m not corporate!” We got called punk because we’ve always been DIY and anti-corporate. We are whatever you want us to be as long as you understand that what we are is something that is trying to thwart this system.

So when you take the stage at CBGB — in addition to working with artists like Dead Prez and Chuck D — do you ever feel like you confuse people?

Most of our base has been anarcho-punks. And they know that they have to create coalitions with others. Dead Prez is on a corporate label. But there’s the understanding, the question we ask ourselves: “Why does Dead Prez feel the need to be on a major label? Why did Public Enemy? Or Rage Against the Machine?” I think a lot of punks get into that “punker than thou” thing. They say, “Oh, they’re sell-outs!” I say, “Maybe they are sell-outs. Find out why.” Why do disenfranchised people or so-called minorities feel the need to deal with the corporations? Why do they feel the need to use inexpensive housing given to them by the city rather than squatting? We — as minorities — know that the system has been created to either destroy us or make us part of the apparatus that runs the machine, whether it’s cleaning toilets or working behind the counter at McDonald’s. That’s what we exist for in the capitalist system. We don’t have the liberty to be all crazy and pretend like we can do whatever we want. We have to be more methodical and we have to be revolutionary and have more of a concept of what that entails before we do anything.

You want to replace the system?

We’re not trying to replace anything. Let Ari be Ari, let Not4Prophet be Not4Prophet. People here in East Harlem don’t consider themselves anarchists, but there are tons of people in this community who feed and clothe each other. They see a cat on the street with no place to live and they bring them in. People want to call that anarchism because somebody named it. I personally feel it is instinctive. And that’s how people in most of these communities live until the forces of evil come in and say, “No, this is what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to work for me. You’re not supposed to support your brother or your sister.” Is East Harlem, or any other place that you’ve lived, self-reliant or autonomous? Less and less. My parents weren’t anarchists; they were Puerto Rican nationalists. Because of the fact that they were here, and not only the U.S. government having problems with them being nationalists, but other Puerto Ricans who were like, “Oh, you guys are scary. I agree with what you’re saying but I don’t agree with you on political tactics.” So they had no choice as nationalists but to create these little autonomous communities. They had collectives where they would all live together. That’s how they lived and they didn’t call it anarchism. They didn’t call it nationalism either. They called it survival. And that’s another thing, when we talk about squatting. There’s a squatters’ movement and there’s squatters. Squatters are people who don’t have a place to live and would be homeless. They don’t wave the squatters’ flag, or any flag, they just need a place to live. Because if you’re Puerto Rican or African American and you wave your squatters’ flag, then you’re out of there and in prison the next day. There’s always been autonomous communities around here, but it’s harder, because if you walk around East Harlem, especially at night, you’ll see a cop car on every corner. That’s a real challenge. And there’s a McDonald’s and a Wendy’s. And they replace the bodega. It’s still New York; it’s still the United States.

Could you talk about your new movie, Machetero?

It’s about the liberation of Puerto Rico from the perspective of a cat who is basically saying, “I want to liberate Puerto Rico but I want to liberate myself and I want to liberate everybody.” So he’s this ideal ideology of freedom. We’ve used the music of Ricanstruction to tell the story. On the one hand, it’s our way of talking about ideas we have as — for lack of a better word — anarcho-independistas. On the other hand, it’s a way to talk to our community about ideas that are not so specifically nationalist in the way people think of Puerto Rican nationalism, because it’s always been socialist. So we’re injecting ideas of — for lack of a better word — anarchism. We want to make it a natural and organic thing, not us saying, “Hey, we’re anarchists and this is what we’re about.” How do you describe the Puerto Rican experience in relation to the United States? We’re the only colonial subjects. There are a lot of neo-colonial subjects in this country, but our experience for over 500 years has been strictly a colonial commission. Pedro Campos, the nationalist leader, once said the U.S. wants the birdcage without the bird. This country could do quite well without having Puerto Ricans, but it’s the island that’s of value. Whether it’s as a strategic military location to watch the rest of Latin America, or the fact that the U.S. has nuclear missiles in Puerto Rico, one of the problems nationalists have always talked about is the fact that if somebody was going to go toe-to-toe with the U.S. and they had nuclear missiles of their own, one of the first targets would have to be Puerto Rico — even though we have no military. By the same token, in disproportionate numbers we have been fighting in U.S. wars since World War I. We were made U.S. citizens in 1917 and then sent off to fight in Europe and then it happened again and again. We don’t have a say-so in that. Bush is not our president. We’re not allowed to vote. The only other U.S. citizens besides us who can’t vote are felons. That’s a phenomenon no immigrant has to experience because once they become American citizens they get to vote. I only speak Spanish to people who don’t speak English, like my parents. I never really cared that much about Spanish any more than English because they were both colonial languages that were forced on us. But at the state we’re in now, you come to realize even Spanish becomes an act of resistance for us. The U.S. tried to make English the official language of Puerto Rico. And the people fought it. In the court of law in Puerto Rico, the spoken language is English.

Ari Paul has also written for In These Times, Z,Time Out Chicago, and Citizen Culture.

Taken from Winter 2004 issue of:

Ugly Planet Magazine

The Music Of Struggle • by Rob Los Ricos

Ricanstruction’s music and message dismantles borders, knocks down walls, and even insinuates it’s way into (and out of) the mental and physical prisons of this ugly and beautiful planet. By rican-figuring punk, hip hop, salsa, reggae and other sounds from the streets, with a radically refreshing mensaje for the masses, and an ideology of independence at all costs, they’ve managed to create art that is truly for and by the people. As the visionary voice of ricanstruction, vocalist Not4Prophet has taken his brothers (and sisters) in arms from the bombshelters and barrios of america, straight to a neighborhood almost right near you.

UGLY PLANET: When I think of Ricanstruction, I get a mental image that’s like a multi-media collage. There’s the band itself, but then there are also other performance aspects to your collective, as well as video and film production. How would you describe ricanstruction, both in the way you function as a collective, and as an arts/performance group?

NOT4PROPHET: We’re basically an autonomous anti-authoritarian (dis)organization made up of people who feel compelled to use art as activism, and see art as having a direct line and function as a tool of resistance against the shitstem, as well as one of the ultimate forms of freedom. We don’t really have “members”, we just do. If someone feels compelled to do something, they go do it. If others are diggin’ what someone’s doing (which is most often the case) they join in with them. And others who are perhaps not involved in that particular project might still go out and steal paint or film or make markers or commandeer a sound system. Artists become actors, musicians become painters, and angels become outlaws, and along the way we tear down the borders and transform the landscape of liberation.

Do you use all your media skills in your performances as a band, or are they separate projects?

Depends on what we are doing at the moment. If the action calls for certain types of skills then that’s what we utilize in order to seize the time and moment. We’ve done outdoor ”guerrilla” performances where we were out in the street and set up our musical equipment by a whitewashed wall that we picked for its “aesthetics” (and because it was near a light pole where we could plug in for electricity), and brought a video camera and started showing our films on the wall to whoever was walking by and decided to stop and watch. And then, after the films were over, played some music while painting on that same wall and inviting writers from the neighborhood to burn, as a means of pointing out that property (private and otherwise) is theft.

Is there space or interest in remaining together as a collective, even if the various members develop more of a focus on one project and lose interest in or inspiration for others, or do you see yourselves breaking up as the individuals within the collective evolve? I’m curious, as I can see how many artists might feel limited by being part of a collective.

Well, we try to mutually support artistic expression and growth amongst anyone who may come into our ”cipher”, but there are always people who will be there until they’re not any more. But it’s actually better that way, because in this day and age when big brothers got surveillance cameras on every corner, and every phone is tapped, and your computers are being screened, and we’re all being monitored, and every radical is a terrorist, and every citizen a potential terrorist, it makes more sense to act individually, anonymously, rather than being a “member” of any “organization”. But as I said, we are just “doing” as opposed to classifying ourselves as a collective with membership and tasks and jobs.

Was there ever this “click” moment when you “ individually and collectively“ were suddenly inspired to perform as a band?

When we started out we were mostly a bunch of Puerto Rican ex-vandals from Harlem and the Lower East side of Manhattan who (forvarious reasons) felt the need to fight the powers that be. Some of us were graffiti writers and some were just adept at throwing bricks through windows, but we didn’t necessarily see ourselves as “artists” as much as just plain ol' angry anti-authoritarians. For us, graffiti was an ”illegalized” activist act (which is the best kind), but it wasn’t necessarilly any kind of boricua bohemian artistic endeavor. As we discovered that we had all sorts of “talent” out in “the streets”, our graffiti became more”artistic”, as did our brick throwing. And when we discovered that some of us could play musical instruments, we started to jam together for fun and no profit. Eventually we started playing benefits and rallies and demos, and gave ourselves a “band name”, which was ricanstruction. Guess that’s about as ”clich” as it gets for us.

Who or what inspired you?

The range is pretty wide, from Che Guevara, Pedro Albizu Campos, Oscar Lopez Rivera, Malcolm X, Lolita Lebron, Assata Shakur, George Jackson, Fred Hampton, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis, Emma Goldman, Luisa Capetillo, Martin Sostre, Kuwasi Balagoon, Lorenzo Komboa Ervin, Ricardo Magon, the Zapatistas, Sandanistas, the FALN, FMLN, Macheteros, Tupac Amaru, Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, Bad Brains, Curtis Mayfield, Hector Lavoe, Nina Simone, Public Enemy, to our mothers and fathers who struggle and resist every day within the belly of the beast. We’ve seen people freezing, sleeping in the streets, stealing to feed a family of five, dumpster diving to survive, living in skin and bone, battling babylon with a sling and a stone, I guess we find our inspiration in the streets and the struggle, and souls of the people mostly.

From what I’ve read about you and heard on radio interviews, Ricanstruction expends a lot of energy to keep from being pigeon-holed into any certain musical genre. So I wonder, who comes to your shows: Is it mostly Puerto Ricans, or are you getting culturally diverse audience?

It’s a pretty diverse group of people by now. When we first started out, we were playing in the streets, so anyone who was around or walking by was our audience. That audience was pretty much poor people from the hood. Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Africans, white (and black and brown) “punks”. Since we were influenced and inspired by everything that ever came into our cipher it never made sense that we would do one thing, or be tied to a particular genre. It wasn’t any kind of deliberate attempt to be some kind of fusion band or something, just being honest about what moved us. My parents listened to bomba y plena, and my sisters loved salsa and merengue. But my brothers liked soul and funk. And I was into hip hop and punk rock, and other cats in the band were into jazz and other so-called genres. So naturally we had to commit what we called genocide in order to function in a way that would work for all of us.

Do you have a following based on your message, or do you get a lot of people coming just out of curiosity?

Early on I guess it was pretty much out of curiosity, with the exception of the people who knew us as friends and companeras and knew our “politics”. But it was always important to us that people get what we were trying to say or discuss or debate, but we also knew some folks would just wanna “rock out” or see what the crazy Puerto Ricans were up to. So we tried to create something where you may have come to “rockout”, or just out of straight up curiosity, but once you were there, you would be confronted by an in your face, radical stance, and a no compromise revolutionary message. We also overstood that pushing the envelop and smashing stereotypes and genres and borders with music itself was also a revolutionary act, so we always did all we could to not be “pop” or mainstream, and eventually folks started to “get it”and get with it.

Musically, Ricanstruction seem to mix it up a bit, even doing covers that come from various sources ranging from punk rock to reggae to jazz and salsa. You do a version of Bob Marley’s “War” that I think is amazing. Do you do this more out of the band’s desire for artistic expression, or are you trying to challenge your audience to maybe expand their horizons?

I’d say both. We started out doing it simply because we were inspired by the particular song and the particular artist, but we also wanted people to feel what we felt when those songs (or that artist) inspired us, and to know that music is infinite and everywhere, and that genres are bullshit borders created to sell product and nothing else.

Do you ever confuse your crowd or find your self thinking “well, that didn’t work out the way I thought it would?”

Not often. But we have done shows where we cleared the room. But this tended to be out of town shows were we were booked with a bunch of bands who's apolitical vibe was totally contrary to ours, and subsequently to an audience who simply wasn’t feeling us and had no intention of trying. At this point I usually start shouting at them about the evils of babylon and how they are babylon, as they leave the room. So at that point it definitely works out the way I thought it would.

Now, I enjoy listening to and playing songs for fun and to express moods and emotions, but music that speaks out to larger issues, particularly oppression, injustice, sexism, racism (the list could goon and on, but I suppose it can be summed up “vaguely“ as oppositional politics), is what really takes me to a different level. Songs like Peter Tosh’s (and Bob Marley’s) “Get Up Stand Up”, or even U2’s Pride (In the Name of Love), take me to a higher plane and engage my entire being, mind, body and soul. It’s one thing to be out on the streets as an activist, but it’s completely different to be an activist on stage.

It’s definitely a different vibe, but it’s just another “stage” in the struggle. Malcolm X used to stand on a stage on 125th street in Harlem and speechify, but Che went to Cuba, Africa, and Bolivia to make revolution, while George Jackson organized in prison. I always believed that the (musical) stage was as legitimate as any other stage for revolution. You get to talk to people in, as Malcolm said “a language everybody can easily understand”, and rage like Marcus Garvey or Bob Marley, and dance like Emma Goldman. At the same time, you gotta overstand that the music “business” is a soapbox that’s been co-opted (and is controlled) by the fat cat corporations, and therefore your cultural coup may actually be filling some vampire’s capitalist coffers, while you claim (or believe) you are ”making revolution”. So you gotta be realistic (and honest) in what you are doing and trying to do, when you decide to make the “stage” your platform for revolution.

Have the policies of the Bush junta provoked any change in your activism on stage?

Not really. Maybe the rhetoric has changed in our performance, just like it has changed in the performance of the latest junta, but we know that Bush is really just a bolder face of the same babylon that has been in control for hundreds of years in the un-united states. So the struggle is still the same for us. I have, however, noticed a change in some of the audiences we’ve played to, where the Bush juntas outrageous actions (like the dismantling of the constitution and the latest war on Iraq and the “terrorist” witch hunts) have either made them more”radical” or more afraid. We’ve actually been asked a few times since 911 if we’re not worried about voicing our views so openly. I don’t think we were ever asked that before, at least not that I can recall.

The corporate media almost exclusively produces corporate propaganda and covers up for the Bush junta. Ricanstruction and other collectives of “conscious” artists can play a crucial role in overcoming misinformation and can help shed light on the dark doings of those in power.

I guess we see (and overstand) that our biggest responsibility (besides kicking out the jams, of course) is to provide food for thought, to oppose the views and misinformation that the corporate media force feeds us. This is why we’ve tried to not only make music, but also films and street art. This is also why we’ve been involved in (and supported) alternative forms of media, like listener sponsored radio and pirate radio, and independent media on the internet as well. There are ways to get around and overcome the propaganda that they’re suffocating us with, so, yeah, this is definitely something “conscious” artists and artists of conscience need to make a priority.

We’re hearing more anti-Iranian and North Korean propaganda on the news everyday. It looks like it’s only a matter of time before Bush has another war to wage...

Yeah, my biggest disappointment is seeing the millions of people who attend demonstrations and rallies opposing these wars and rumors of war, but then seeing how ineffectual this opposition is. It’s pretty obvious that if we wanna really stop these unjustifiable “wars” then we gotta step up our tactics.

His ruling junta has also taken environmental racism to a whole new level From Iraq to Afghanistan, if they have their way, there will be a radioactive wasteland, because of the huge amounts of depleted uranium used in the wars there.

Which is why we gotta quit fucking around. No more marching, and speechifying, and lobbying, and pleading, and singing. As Malcolm said, “it’s time to stop singing and start swinging.” We’re in a real state of emergency, a war of terror and destruction is being waged on the planet and all its inhabitants. We obviously need new tactics. Frantz Fanon said “violence only yields to violence.” Think about it, Is there time to sit around and discuss what we should do about that?

And the stuff stays toxic for four and a half billion years, so it will be killing indiscriminately for as long as there is life on this planet. This is way more evil then anything done by humankind before, the damage being done is incalculable. D.U. kills forever, and the radioactive dust from central Asia will eventually be blown across the desert, across China and over the arctic to North America. It’s a small world after all.

And the U.S. military has been testing weapons, missiles with depleted uranium, in the tiny island of Vieques, Puerto Rico for decades, and the cancer rate in Vieques is double that of the rest of Puerto Rico. And those same weapons that they first test in Puerto Rico end up dropping depleted uranium on Iraqis on the other side of the world today, and who knows who tomorrow. Yeah, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

And this is just one aspect of the gross incompetence that the Bush junta and the rest of the ruling elite display in their gross mismanagement of world affairs. As the worldwide opposition to the conquest of Iraq demonstrated, the elite couldn’t care less what people think or feel about decisions made behind closed doors, in secret meetings, by unelected politicians and corporate heads.

But it’s all about overstanding the reality of our surroundings and where things are at. If the ruling elite doesn’t care what the rest of us think or feel, then it’s up to us to find a way to remove them from their position of control, authority, and power. Permanently. This is also why it’s necessary to find ways to get alternative views out to the people. So we can all have our eyes wide open and can act intelligently and from a position of strength and empowerment. Ho Chi Minn said “the poet must lead an attack.” We do try to take this very seriously, because it is very serious.

Whatever the future holds for us, it looks scary right now. How do ya’ll keep from losing hope or giving up?

Well, for us, for so called Puerto Ricans, this struggle, this war, has been going on for at least 510 years, so if we haven’t given up hope yet then we probably never will. If anything, our music is about this on going struggle, which for us by now is life itself. The fact that we still have the capacity to resist, after so many years, gives us hope and keeps us from giving up. But really, we have no other choice. Like Assata said, we are caught up in the music of struggle and we can’t stop dancing.

Taken from Issue Three of:

AWOL Magazine

Self-christened "Puerto Punx," Ricanstruction’s music is salsa/hip/hop/jazz/punk/rock/anything else you can think of. It’s been described as "Bob Marley, Nina Simone, Public Enemy and Bad Brains teaming up with Marvin Gaye live in person in the studio." Their ability to transgress and cross musical borders extends to their politics, and they blend issues most people stick in separate little boxes. AWOL caught up with Ricanstruction’s voice, Not4Prophet, to talk about struggle, revolution and all the different wars people of color live.

AWOL Magazine: What caused the creation of Ricanstruction?

Not4Prophet: Ricanstruction’s creation was pretty organic. Brothers in the barrio, banging on garbage cans, throwing bricks, writing on walls and shouting in the streets, became musicians who realized that we could be heard (and listened to) if we (dis)organized ourselves as a kind of collective of counter cultural chaos. We always had something to say and we always overstood that as ghetto dwellers and members of the colonized nation known as Puerto Ricans, we were part of the struggle, part of a history of resistance, so it has always been the natural state of things for us to make music and make trouble.

AWOL: Why did you title your new album "Love and Revolution?" What does love have to do with revolution?

N4P: Che Guevara said the true revolutionary is guided by the greatest feelings of love. Love has everything to do with revolution. The true revolutionary loves life more than herself, and is willing to give her life to help make a world based on equality, justice and humanity; create a world of love for the earth, for humanity (and other animals), nature and nurturing. There is no better way to show love than to struggle to put an end to injustce. Love is revolution. Otherwise, why bother?

AWOL: Do you get scared to use words like revolution in these days and times?

N4P: It’s especially during times like these that we need revolution. Revolution comes when there is no other way out. Yes, we are living in a time of war, but there has been a war declared on us since day one. So these times are only somewhat different because war has come out of the closet, so to speak. The (un)elected U.S. government has at least partially taken off its mask and is stating clearly that we must make wanton war on other nations and remove as many freedoms from U.S. citizens as possible in order to ensure "freedom." So, yes, there’s certainly no better time to battle back with a revolutionary attack. No better time to dissent and resist. Malcolm said, "It’s time to stop singing and start swinging." Our music does both. But we always have to remember, while we dance in the streets, others are dying in the dirt.

AWOL: The highest recruited group in the country by the u.s. military right now is Latinos. How does that affect your work, musically and politically?

N4P: With our music and our other actions, we try to talk about the reality of our surroundings. Yeah, there are many reasons for joining the U.S. military, none of which have anything to do with being a patriot or going off to kill and die for oil or any government. A lot of young Latinos (like a lot of other young people in amerika) see their lives as a dead end. A stylish commercial and a fast talking recruiter can make travel to far off lands, learning a trade, making a career, and being a hero when you return to your sound damn enticing when you’re desperate for anything different, anything new. Of course, it never really comes up that one day you may be traveling to those far off lands to kill people (who in most cases are brown , like you), and your trade is death, and your career is war, and that if you’re really lucky, you may return to the hood as a hero in a pine box draped in an Amerikan flag. So unless we can start creating (and letting it be known) that there are alternatives to the military and murder, there will continue to be plenty of people willing to be cannon fodder for a bunch of old white capitalist men pushing buttons in clean offices far away from the trenches and the stench of death.

AWOL: How does the war in Iraq, the war on terrorism and all that impact the work yall do, as artists, as strugglahs, as Puerto Punx?

N4P: Well, it just means we gotta try that much harder to get our music to the masses, through the concertina and barbed wire of the mind, and the roadblocks and police lines of the soul. Some people who normally would have known better are now wrapping themselves in amerikan flags and hiding in apartments-turned-bomb shelters with masking tape on their mouth sand alarms on their windows, believing all the fast food for thought that the mainstream media is force-feeding them on a daily bases. As strugglas, we still think about Mumia and the many other New Afrikan and Puerto Rican prisoners of war who are still in U.S. prisons. We still think about Vieques and the colonial condition of Puerto Rico. We still think about the liberation struggles throughout the "third world." And as artists and "Puerto Punx," we still think about freeing the land, squatting, sabotaging and subverting mainstream media, and making music that is the next shit.

AWOL: What's the track you submitted to AWOL, "Prison Psalms," about?

It’s a love song about a brother in the belly of the beast and a sister on the outside who sustains him by continuing la lucha hasta la victoria. Just another aspect of the internal war that is raging in amerika.

AWOL: A lot of people are feeling depression right now about the future of the world: how do you get through a day?

N4P: A companera of mine once reminded me that "depression is collaboration with the enemy." So we get through the day by staying, as the rastas say, "upful," and finding ways to make mini subversions and create semi-seditions, and straight up sabotage of this shitstem. This always puts a smile on our faces.