Over the past few months, I’ve been noticing a trend in a lot of the older bands and songs that I really cut my teeth on during college during the late 1990s and early 2000s. During that period, I was really into the “Christian” punk, ska, hardcore music scene that initially revolved around Tooth and Nail. I purposefully put “Christian” in quotation marks because as the years have passed, I really do not like that label in this context, or really any context related to art or media. What started standing out to me, as songs popped up on my phone while I was shuffling through, was the ways that these bands either addressed political or social issues during their early years or as their careers progressed. I have never been surprised by these discussions in hip hop artists such as Sho Baraka, Lecrae, or Propaganda, but I should not be shocked about them appearing in the bands I discuss here. However, what kind of shocked me was how much I missed and how much these topics got sidelined through the major Christian retailers. Over the next two posts, I’m going to discuss some of these songs.
Squad Five-O “Sour State Flag” (1997)
I had Squad Five-O’s debut album, What I Believe, and I know I played it, but I don’t think I played it as much as I did other albums at the time. That’s probably why I totally missed or overlooked “Our State Flag,” a song that directly addresses Georgia’s state flag which flew from 1956-2001. Hailing from Savannah, GA, Squad Five-O was part of the ska core scene on the late 1990s that flourished in the “Christian” music scene, and like other groups from that era, they addressed politics in their music, thus getting What I Believe banned from Christian bookstores, purportedly for the use “questionable language” for use of the word “sucks.”
Squad Five-O begins the song by pinpointing the reemergence of the Confederate Battle Flag following the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 which led to its incorporation into the state flag of Georgia. Taking on the voice of Georgia, John Fortson sings, “You can’t do that to our proud confederation. State of Georgia, Southern pride. We’ll raise a new flag so we can defy.” With this, the band highlights the white backlash to Civil Rights and in the second verse, they detail how that backlash continues today through miseducation when Fortson sings, “But I really think that our memoires fail us. We can’t remember 40 years of lies.” Just as today, they note the ways that memory gets constructed and how the use of the Confederate Battle Flag within the state flag becomes removed from its racist symbolism. Along with this, they also highlight the ways that money and politics, notably the “fears for re-election” cause those in power to refrain from action.
In the chorus, the band repeats, “Separate is not equal, our state flag sucks.” The song concludes with gang vocals repeating “Our state flag sucks.” What’s important about this song is that it directly confronts a symbol of hate that we still see today. Whenever I drive down the road, I see at least two or three license plates on the front of vehicles with the old Georgia state flag, proudly displayed. Each time I see one, I think about this history, a history rooted in racism and oppression. A history that now close to 70 years of lies have attempted to erase and bury beneath the earth so that the imagery, even though it does not fly atop the state capital, remains ever present within the psyche of the state, displayed in various ways on various things, and flown in yards alongside the American flag, Trump flags, and more.
Five Iron Frenzy “Zen and the Art of Xenophobia” (2013)
Seriously, I could have chosen any number of songs from Denver, Colorado’s Five Iron Frenzy. They have multiple songs such as “The Old West” and “The Day We Killed” about the atrocities that the United States has committed against indigenous tribes, and they have numerous songs such as “A New Hope” and “Renegades” that focus on mass shootings, specifically Columbine. “Tyrannis,” a song from their latest album Until This Shakes Apart, addresses Confederate “monuments.” From the outset, Five Iron Frenzy has had a social bent in their lyrics, and for me the lyrics coupled with the video for “Zen and the Art of Xenophobia” stand out, especially in this current moment and the ever tightening entangling of politics and Christianity.
I don’t want to focus on the video, but briefly I want to point out that watching Jesus mow down countless individuals while supporting the United States and its flag reminds me of songs like Glassjaw’s “Radio Cambodia” or even Tool’s “Right In Two,” songs that address the ways that religion serves as impetus for war and the belief that God favors one side over the other. In “Zen and the Art of Xenophobia,” as lead singer Reese Roper points out, “There are few things more embarrassing for me, than the endless parade of jack-wads currently using the name of Jesus Christ for political gain in this country. Historically, the name of Christ has been used since the first century to justify countless atrocities.” This is what we see in the video and in the lyrics for the song.
Throughout the verses, Roper sings about multiple things from Islamophobia and fear of Russian invasion to gun culture and segregation. Each of these things consist of a line or two, and in a way, these snap references lead into the chorus which, like Squad Five-O’s “Our State Flag,” addresses the ways that the history we learn causes us to repeat the same atrocities. As well, the stoking of fears, specifically from the pulpit, leads to the fermenting of Christian nationalism and the use of Christianity to justify various positions and actions. The chorus drives all of this home when Roper sings,
The United States of Amnesia
Make us numb, make it dumb, anesthesia
Cut the cord, close the door, we don’t know ‘ya
It’s the Zen and the art of xenophobia
The amnesia of not only our nation’s history but also the amnesia about what the Bible says leads to the constant intertwining of politics and Christianity that denies both historical fact and Biblical teaching. In essence, it uses the Christianity as a cover for the acquisition of power and prestige. This is what is happening right now with the Conservative Baptist Network’s scaremongering of Critical Race Theory, and it’s something that Larry Norman addressed in 1972’s “The Great American Novel” when he sand about the ways that government and politicians spent money on issues that did not assist citizens but rather worked to merely try and bolster the United States’ position in the world. As Fortson puts it in “Our State Flag,” Politics run amuck, for the almighty buck.”
Next post, I’ll look at a few more songs. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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