Stephan Smith is one of the most promising young protest singers in America. The thirty-six-year-old Smith has been hailed as the Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan for this generation by The New York Times and the Village Voice.
On the first anniversary of 9/11, Smith released his anti-war song "The Bell," recorded with Pete Seeger, as free mp3 over the Internet . "The Bell" was one of the first anti-war statements to make national press and preceded any other musical release by months. "Oh I'm sounding Drums of war," said the man at his desk, "Oh I will not fight your war," said the child and he stood, "Oh But don't you love your country?," said the man at his desk, "Yes, I do, but you donıt," said the child and he stood, "Oh but don't you know the truth?," said the man at his desk, "Yes, you lie and call it truth," said the child and he stood."
Despite the fact that no major industry company ever promoted it, "The Bell" was covered by artists ranging from Dave Matthews to DJ Spooky and printed more than 200,000 times on various compilations worldwide. "While the publishing and film industries have bankrolled and profited from dissent in the past year, the music industry, once the scion of protest, remains timid," says Smith.
Smith sings in nine languages, including Yiddish and Arabic, befitting his eclectic roots. "I grew up in Virginia, steeped in the American musical tradition but my mother is Austrian, my father Iraqi with Kurdish origins and I have a Jewish great grandfather," he says. "So if I can sing harmoniously, Iım sure the whole world can sing in a beautiful chorus."
His father's family lives in Mosul and Baghdad, where four of his aunts and uncles work as doctors in the main hospitals and occasionally report on their daily lives and struggles. They lament the fact that the U.S. media do not relate the level of suffering placed on ordinary citizens. Smith's uncle, Ghazi Kamil, former director of the nation's electrical services told Smith: "Innocent people, women and children, have been killed and are dying of cancer because of depleted uranium, and for what? For a few individuals to control our oil. But Iım not angry at Americans because I know they don't know."
His new album Slash and Burn on the independent Artemis Records started by Danny Goldberg, touches not only on the war in Iraq and the President, but on unethical globalization and its trail of iniquities. Slash and Burn's twelve songs mix political content and pop music and has been described by Smith as "poplitical": "While I am drawing on the ballad legacy of writers like Dylan and Guthrie, Iım inspired by people like Bob Marley and John Lennon who used the sounds of their times to make protest accessible. Protest music can be pop. It must be both infectious and profound to have widespread social impact." The album fuses rap, rock, folk, and country music and advocates global justice and ethical globalization as the only way to stop the current world violence and inequality which breed social division.
The rap, rock, and folk-tinged single "Taking Aim" (at the next world) is, according to Smith, an "hymn to altermondialisme," the French term inspired by the Porto-Alègre slogan "Another world is possible." Smith denounces the ever-increasing selfishness and cynicism of the establishment: "I look around and all I see is inequality/I canıt believe this is the XXIst century/And so I'm freakin', Yeah, I gotta right to be/Thereıs men standing in the way doinı it knowingly/Building fortunes on the back of others' poverty."
"In the Air" is a dance song with a heavy samba beat and rapid-fire lyrics delivered in a Jamaican MC style. Linking economic imperialism with military oppression, Smith makes shout-outs to radical cheerleaders and the landless workers movement (Movimiento Sin Terra) in a poetic rendering of our post-modern world: "While the trees come down in the Amazon/Young kids getting killed fighting tanks with stones/By soldiers like drones/Look out here come the clones . . . /But in Brazil they got people takinı over private land/And in India they go to stop another damn/Kablam the bombs drop in the Sahara Sand/While the Clear Channel Radio plays another Boy Band."
Smith's musical satire "You Ainıt a Cowboy," which addresses an unnamed but obvious American Tartuffe, was pre-released over the Internet on Audiolunchbox.com in what was billed as the first such large-scale mp3 release to benefit a non-profit. It was also one of the first major anti-Bush song released widely in the U.S. With all proceeds going to the political action group TrueMajority.org, the hilarious song was distributed to half a million people on the day of release. With a flawless Southern drawl, Smith depicts Bush as an impostor and ridicules him as a PR creation: "You ain't nothin' but an oil tycoon/You ate yer whole life from a silver spoon/The whole country knows youıre an aristocrat goon,/But you still ainıt got the sense to know when itıs high noon."
Other songs on the album include "World To Come," a hauntingly beautiful appeal to the "next world." The album's title track, "Slash and Burn," with its rebellious lyrics, decries corruption in the music industry. "Bitter Happiness," featuring former Gil Evans trumpeter, Leif Arntzen, is a jazzy elegy to our ravaged environment: "Something odd blows in the breeze/Poison waves the eye canıt see/Permeating every tree/Apple blossoms without bees/The Matterhorn has lost its freeze/There's a shiny layer on the sea/Tell me, what paradise is this, this bitter happiness?"
Smith lets his Appalachian roots come out in his rewrite of the folk standard "Shenandoah," as well as in his rewrite of the classic murder ballad "Omie Wise" in memory of Lee Kyung Hae, the South Korean farmer leader who committed suicide in Cancun in 2003 at the WTO demonstrations.
In 2003, Smith did more than 140 shows across the United States, many of which benefited local peace groups. "In a way, Iım building my audience like Ani DiFranco did through the women's movement but Iım doing it through the global justice movement."
Smith is now gearing up to release his pop song, "Break the Bread," which could be deemed a working class anthem for equality, with its obvious religious resonance, in a joint effort with the FatihfulAmerica.org, a project of the National Council of Churches aimed at galvanizing the progressive religious communities.
"We have to reunite America and the world around the dreams of global justice and equality," says Smith. "We have to be boldly idealistic to reach out to the young, the religious communities and the working class and to appeal to peopleıs most noble instincts instead of to their intolerance and fears."
Natasha Saulnier is a freelance reporter whose works appear in The Independent (UK), Liberation, L'Humanite, among others. She is currently working on the war memoir of Iraq Veteran Marine Staff Sargent Jimmy Massey, "Cowboys From Hell."