Freedom for Palestine song echoes anti-apartheid era
Although often seen shaking his diminutive hips, Archbishop Desmond Tutu isn't a man who regularly gives his support to a band or a song. But last week, the South African human rights activist voiced his encouragement for the single Freedom for Palestine, the first track by an international musical collective calling itself OneWorld, which goes on sale in the UK today.
"In South Africa, we could not have achieved our freedom without the help of people around the world, and musicians are central to our struggle," Tutu says on a video made for OneWorld. "Through music and art, we speak to a common humanity - one which transcends political and economic interests. For this, I am proud to support Freedom for Palestine by OneWorld."
Written by Dave Randall, a London-based musician best known as the guitarist with the dance band Faithless, the catchy, up-tempo and soul-infused song features lyrics that speak out about the injustice perpetrated against the Palestinians, the illegal separation barrier and the hardships faced by those living under Israeli occupation.
Randall, who has visited both the West Bank and Gaza frequently since the late 1990s, says the song was inspired by what he witnessed on these trips. "When you see it with your own eyes, you want to do something, however small, to show your solidarity with the Palestinians. For me, as a musician, the thing I thought I could do was write a song."
Giving him a nudge in the right direction was Jerry Dammers, the renowned ska musician who composed Free Nelson Mandela in support of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa in 1984, a track that reached number nine on the UK charts and was performed on the BBC's Top of the Pops. "I was chatting to Jerry about the relationship between music and the anti-apartheid struggle and said it would be great if musicians did a song against Israeli apartheid. And he just said, 'well, you know, why don't you do it'."
To give the song broad appeal, Randall turned to his contacts in the industry. Under the collective name of OneWorld, he brought on board his bandmates from Faithless, along with Jamie Catto from 1 Giant Leap, the producer LSK, members of the London Community Gospel Choir and numerous others, many of whom feature in the video. Strengthening the ties with the anti-apartheid movement, the Durban Gospel Choir also contributed their considerable vocals.
Ahead of its release today, Freedom for Palestine has already gathered sizeable momentum. As well as the support from Tutu, the track has received endorsements from a number of well-known names, including the award-winning US author and civil rights activist Alice Walker (who is currently on board the latest flotilla to Gaza), Roger Waters, Ken Loach, Julie Christie, Massive Attack, Benjamin Zephaniah and even the cosmetics company Lush. Since the video was put up online, it has amassed more than 250,000 views. With proceeds going to the UK charity War on Want for projects in Palestine, the track has also been backed by organisations including the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Jews for Justice and Friends of Al-Aqsa. "The response we've had so far has far succeeded my expectations," says Randall.
A significant boost came from Coldplay, who heard about the song and posted a link to the pre-order site on their Facebook page. As might be expected, this backing provoked strong reaction on both sides of the argument. Bizarrely, the move brought about Freedom for Palestine's most unexpected publicity. Having heard about Coldplay's support, the outspoken US neoconservative broadcaster and commentator Glenn Beck took to his Fox News show to unleash his usual fiery rhetoric in staunch support of Israel. Branding the song "evil" and "propaganda", Beck went on to bring out the tissues (not for the first time), resorting to dramatic sniffles while urging people to stand up against such criticism of Israel.
"Obviously, his allegations that the song is evil are laughable, ridiculous and offensive," says Randall. "As is the idea that it is propaganda. I wrote this song because of what I saw in the West Bank and Gaza. I was moved by what I saw. If being moved by something and therefore trying to write a song in order to articulate those feelings makes the song propaganda, so be it. But the song is completely heartfelt."
Unfortunately for Beck, his performance has been the source of much ridicule online and has inevitably resulted in far more support for Freedom for Palestine. "It's fantastic that Glenn gave us airtime, so I'd like to thank him for that," laughs Randall.
Purely by coincidence, the track is due for release in the UK at a time when the BBC has been criticised for alleged bias over the Palestine issue. Just last month, the words "Palestine" and "Gaza Strip" were drowned out from two hip-hop freestyles on the BBC's 1Xtra station, with the corporation citing issues of impartiality.
The issue provoked strong reaction, being described as "an extraordinary act of censorship" by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and reigniting a debate within the BBC that has been raging for years.
While Freedom for Palestine was written with the objective of raising awareness of and money for the Palestinian cause, with the recent censorship row at the BBC there is a real determination for it to enter the UK singles charts. "If this happens it will make it much harder for the BBC to ignore or censor the song," says Randall. "They'll certainly try to ignore it, but if we get a position in the top 30, I think they're obliged to at least play the song in the chart countdown on Radio 1."
A few thousand copies sold would probably be enough to get Freedom for Palestine into the UK top 30, something that Randall and OneWorld are hoping will come from pre-sales and the song's high-profile international endorsements.
"It will put the BBC in a difficult position and shame on them for it being a difficult position," says Randall. "Since when was Palestine an expletive?"
Although its subject was released from prison in 1990, Free Nelson Mandela is still an internationally-renowned anthem that has become synonymous with the anti-apartheid movement and is still performed with the same passion as it was in 1984. The hope is that Freedom for Palestine will help achieve the same results in the Middle East. And perhaps get Archbishop Desmond Tutu dancing again.