Race is still a major factor in the world, as can be seen in everything from who goes to prison in the U.S. to the economic gap between Europe and Africa. But the question of race isn’t as simple as it was during the 1980s, when a worldwide movement surged against South Africa’s racist apartheid regime.
That movement was strongly reflected in music, first in South Africa, then in England, and ultimately in the U.S. with songs by the likes of Stevie Wonder, the Winans, and Gil Scott-Heron. The pinnacle of Western musical protest came in 1985 with the “Sun City” project, which ignored boundaries of race, genre, and nationality to create a record, video, and book of searing anti-apartheid righteousness.
Today, under a predominantly black government, South African poverty is worse than it was during apartheid. Discrimination, now based on economics, remains intense. The response of the South African government to the surging mass movement against evictions and water and electricity shutoffs has been to dismiss it as criminal behavior flowing from a “culture of non-payment.” In 2002, South African President Thabo Mbeki shocked his disease-racked nation when he declared that medicine which prevents mother-to-child transmission of AIDS was undesirable because it forced the state to deal with healthy orphans. Other than little-known artists such as South African rapper Psyches, no one is making records about any of this.
The changing South African racial landscape finds its reflection around the world, nowhere more clearly than in the growing number of music makers, the majority of them black, who have their own clothing lines. These entrepreneurs profit greatly, albeit on other continents, from the miserable conditions which have defined South Africa under both white and black rule.
Most prominent is Sean “Puffy” Combs (aka P. Diddy). He declares that “I’m as pro-worker as they get,” yet an October report released by the National Labor Committee made headlines when it revealed that much of Combs’ annual $325 million worth of shirts is made under sweatshop conditions at the Southeast Textiles factory in Honduras. Then, on December 19, NLC announced that Combs had brought about major improvements at the Honduran plant, including union recognition, health care, and an end to abuses such as unpaid overtime and contaminated drinking water.
This is good news, but does it let Combs off the hook as a willing accomplice to sweatshop labor? The tip-off should be that he refused to meet with NLC to discuss the problems in Honduras until the story broke in the media. The clincher is that other Sean John clothing is still made under sweatshop conditions in China and Vietnam. When Combs ran the New York City marathon “for the kids” on November 2, his corporate sponsor was McDonalds, America’s biggest sweatshop. When P. Diddy co-hosted the American Music Awards in 2002, he wore a different old school sports jersey every time he came to the podium. Sports Illustrated says that on that night, “Retro sports fashion became a full blown social phenomenon.” These fashions are made by Mitchell & Ness and sell for over $300 apiece. Did P. Diddy ask where they were made before he donned and endorsed them?
The mask of feigned ignorance wears thin in light of the political connections of the fashion financiers. P-Diddy, Russell Simmons (Phat Farm), and Jay-Z (Roc-A-Fella) have all been active in promoting Democratic candidates and in pushing youth voter registration drives that are clearly designed to function as an arm of the Democratic Party in the 2004 elections.
It was the Democratic Party which got NAFTA passed. One result, according to Ooh Papi’s “It’s Getting Sweaty in Here” on the excellent website playahata.com, was that the Southeast Textile factory was moved from North Carolina to Honduras, the better to help the likes of P. Diddy and Jay-Z become billionaires.
Democratic Presidential candidate General Wesley Clark-backed by Madonna and the Eagles and almost certain to be endorsed by hip-hop capitalists if he gets the nomination-was head of the U.S. Southern Command in Panama, which oversees the U.S. military forces in Latin America which provide backing to local sweatshop-friendly regimes. Clark has also endorsed the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, where, according to Amnesty International, Latin American soldiers are trained in torture and union-busting. P. Diddy’s Sean John company recently received an investment of $100 million from Ron Burkle, one of the largest contributors to the Democratic Party and chairman of Ralphs, California’s largest grocery chain. Ralphs is one of the companies which forced the ongoing strike of Southern California grocery workers by demanding that its underpaid employees pay up to $5,000 a year for health benefits.
One way to find out who knows what and where they stand would be to do a reprise of the “Sun City” project. Something along the lines of “Sweat City” or “No Sweat.” Everyone could be invited to participate, including white artists with clothing lines such as Gwen Stefani and Eminem, along with artists whose gear is made under good conditions at SweatX in Los Angeles, such as Jackson Browne and Carlos Santana. Ultimately, we’re well aware that history-before and after “Sun City”-shows that it must be musicians themselves who initiate such projects. RRC, which was very proudly involved in the “Sun City” effort, will do anything we can to help.
LEE BALLINGER is co-editor of one of CounterPunch’s favorite newsletters, Rock and Rap Confidential, where this article originally appeared. For a free copy of the issue, email your postal address to: RRC, Box 341305, LA CA 90034 or send an email to: Rockrap@aol.com