Matthew Cassel, The Electronic Intifada, 20 April 2010
Dear Gil Scott-Heron,
I’ve always defended your track “Whitey on the Moon” to fellow white Americans who dismissed the song as racist. I argued that considering the centuries of enslavement of your African ancestors, and the continued oppression of and racism against Black Americans, it’s not unfair for a Black person to criticize the “white” system in the United States.
“Whitey on the Moon” is centered around your sister Nell, a symbolic character who represents Black communities long neglected by the US government. The same government which, as you highlight, spends billions sending rocket ships to a place that has no relevance to the lives of most Americans — the moon. Your song exposes the absurdity in devoting our resources and attention to such an endeavor while back on Earth, people are struggling.
Like most of your songs, it has a timeless message that decades later we can still draw lessons from. It’s in the spirit of your music that I understand the importance of cultural resistance against injustice. And it’s in that spirit that I came to understand the injustice in Palestine.
Around the world there are millions of Palestinian Nells. Nell is a refugee born in exile living in a refugee camp, a young girl whose father was killed while working on his farm, a student living under siege and under attack in the Gaza Strip where even schoolbooks are denied by the state that you will soon visit.
Nell could easily be compared to the Handala character created by assassinated Palestinian artist Naji al-Ali. Handala, a young boy with his back turned to the world, represents al-Ali’s childhood as a refugee forced to flee his home in Palestine for a refugee camp in Lebanon and has become an iconic symbol for the Palestinian struggle.
By performing in Tel Aviv next month, you will entertain an unjust system that denies the rights of the six million refugees who Handala represents. For more than 62 years these refugees and their descendants have been denied their most fundamental right of return. Performing in Tel Aviv, in the context of your art, would be the equivalent of you abandoning Nell on Earth and taking off for the moon.
Your scheduled concert in Tel Aviv is also in direct violation of the call by Palestinian civil society for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. A similar boycott, which you full-heartedly supported, was called for in South Africa and helped bring an end to apartheid in that country. Now, decades later, a similar system of apartheid exists in Palestine. Many of those South African activists with whom you showed solidarity are now leaders of the global boycott movement against Israeli apartheid.
When I lived in occupied Palestine a few years ago, I used to share your music with friends during times of Israeli curfew and invasions. We listened over and over to the “Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” as I did my best to explain each and every cultural reference. I’ll never forget one friend smiling and telling me after hearing your song, “The intifada will not be televised!”
Like Blacks in the US decades ago when you wrote “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Palestinians also resist their oppression. In recent years, the intifada (meaning “uprising” in Arabic) has been brutally repressed by Israel. Thousands who have risen up have been killed and injured, and thousands of others have been imprisoned. Some of the friends with whom I once enjoyed your music are now locked away in Israeli prisons for organizing students at Palestinian universities or protesting against the massive apartheid wall that steals land and separates communities.
What message would you have sent to Blacks in South Africa struggling for justice had you played at Sun City? Playing in Tel Aviv will send that same message to Palestinians now struggling for their rights.
In the anti-apartheid anthem “Johannesburg” you sing: “I know that their strugglin’ over there ain’t gonna free me/but we’ve all got to be strugglin’ if we’re gonna be free.” It’s songs like “Johannesburg” that have made your name synonymous with solidarity with peoples’ struggles in the US and beyond. Stay with the people and on the side of justice, show solidarity with those struggling and cancel your concert in Tel Aviv.
Matthew Cassel is based in Beirut, Lebanon and is Assistant Editor of The Electronic Intifada. His website is http://justimage.org.