Saturday, December 22, 2007

They Shoot Musicians, Don't They?

In Mexico, in the last 18 months, thirteen musicians have been violently murdered, some of them tortured before finally expiring. Three of these murders have occurred in the last month.

The music of Western culture has always contained an element of danger involved in its creation and aftermath. Murders abound in its history. Mozart was likely poisoned to death out of jealousy (although not by Antonio Salieri as a certain Hollywood film would have you believe). Robert Johnson was poisoned to death, likely for sleeping with a roadhouse owner's wife. Who can keep track of the murders associated with Hip Hop and Gangsta Rap anymore - Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, DJ Scott LaRock, Jake Robles, Yafeu "Kadafi" Fula, Deshaun Holten (AKA Proof), King Tubby, Michael Mensen, Brandon Mitchell, The Mac, Charizma, Mr. Cee, Hitman, Seagram Miller, Jo Jo White, Dion Stewart, Fat Pat, Malcolm Howard, MC Big L, MC Ant, Bugz, Freaky Tah, Q-Don, Bruce Mayfield, Eclipse, Lloyd "Mooseman" Roberts, Tonnie Shepard, Jam Master Jay, and the list, spanning roughly 15 years, goes on. And let's not forget the suicides - Ian Curtis, Richard Manuel, Michael Hutchence (although many consider that one debatable), Kurt Cobain, of course, and a slew of drug overdoses that may or may not have been deliberate. Troubled people are drawn to creative pursuits, and their ends are often untimely. Unfortunately with the rap scene many of these performers come from criminal backgrounds in which violence is an all too common response to conflict resolution. Music is a dangerous game, as evidenced by its casualty list, but this fact has been largely ignored in the main stream press - these were not typically public deaths and there seemed to be a sense of "well, they probably had it coming" amongst those who weren't fans and didn't know the details.

Two events occurred in the U.S. that have played a role in reversing this attitude. The first was the vicious rape and murder of Mia Zapata, lead singer of Seattle punk band The Gits, on July 7th, 1993. The police and the press tried to foist this off as "bad girl gets in bad place and inevitable happens", but the Seattle music community was not content to let a brush off be the end of the story of this talented, passionate, well-adjusted and much beloved musician. Largely through donations and the help of some fairly prominent national rock stars, not to mention the dedication of one bad ass private investigator, this cold case was solved in 2004 when Mia's assailant was brought to justice. It opened quite a few eyes to the fact that musicians aren't just a bunch of junkies living on borrowed time.

The other event was the on-stage murder of "Dimebag" Darrell, former Pantera guitarist, on December 8th, 2004 at the Allrosa Villa in Columbus, Ohio. This tragedy (whatever you think of Darrell's music it was still unarguably a tragedy) opened people's eyes to the fact that musicians are as much targets as politicians, labor organizers, or other prominent public figures. That such a thing hadn't happened before in the roughly fifty years of rock history is kind of amazing.

In Mexico, we're starting to see the assassination of cultural figures as a political tool. Some of these artists performed what is known as "narcocorridos" - songs which glorify the underworld life, sometimes choosing to glorify the exploits of one gang or cartel over those of another. Some others are directly affiliated with underworld organizations and serve as a fifth column for them. These, however, appear to be in the minority. To the degree that it is understood by Mexican authorities many of these artists are being "adopted" by various gangs and cartels without their approval or often even knowledge. When one cartel wants to hit another, they take out their enemies' unofficial "mascot", both making their point and expressing to the authorities, "You can't touch us - we kill celebrities at will. Who else can we successfully target if you come after us?". It is therefore not unsurprising that all of the thirteen murders remain unsolved. This would seem to be the case with Sergio Gomez, lead vocalist of K-Paz de la Sierra, who was abducted December 2nd of this year and found beaten, tortured with a cigarette lighter, and strangled to death the next day. K-Paz de la Tierra has no political or underworld affiliations and specialized in performing torch songs of unrequited love.

How long before such tactics appear north of the Rio Bravo? As Oppenheimer put it so depressingly and succinctly after the first successful test of a nuclear weapon, "The genie is out of the bottle." It's hard enough trying to make a living as a performer without a gang of knuckle-dragging thugs hanging a sword of Damocles over your head. Such a prospect will certainly do nothing to encourage music with strident social and political messages - the kind of messages that have kept rock 'n' roll so vital for so long.

Maybe the mantra will bear out this time - "It can't happen here!" I some how doubt it. I also doubt that this turn of events will somehow reverse the long, painfully slow spiral of American culture into its ultimate, uninspired cesspool.

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