Montreal's late Lhasa de Sela performed at an Artists Against Apartheid concert last year. Photo: Valerian Mazataud/

Artists play a galvanizing role in shaping popular opinion on the defining issues of our time.

Historic struggles for justice are often remembered at a grassroots level not by campaign slogans or political speeches but via artistic symbols. Art can capture both the human emotion and political energy of critical moments in history, etching cultural expression into our collective social conscious.

Gaza’s humanitarian crisis is alarming the world and accordingly many artists are standing with Palestine in unprecedented ways, including poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron.

A foundational figure to hip-hop culture, Scott-Heron marks contemporary artistic history as a rap innovator but also as a wordsmith, capturing the essence of critical fault lines in America via ruff poetics. Heron’s recent cancellation of a planned concert in Tel Aviv, “until everyone is welcome there,” words directed at the apartheid nature of Israel, is a historic development.

Other artists, like Elvis Costello, are also sounding an artistic alarm on Palestinian suffering, pointing to a fast approaching watershed moment in the global arts movement for Palestine.

“It is a matter of instinct and conscience,” writes Costello, in an open letter on the cancelation of a concert in Israel this summer. “There are occasions when merely having your name added to a concert schedule may be interpreted as a political act that resonates more than anything that might be sung and it may be assumed that one has no mind for the suffering of the innocent.”


Artistic solidarity from Johannesburg to Jerusalem

Today, artists are increasingly backing the global boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign targeting Israel’s apartheid policies, not the first time artists stand on the frontlines of an international movement.

Artistic advocacy for freedom in Palestine builds on historical relationships between groundbreaking culture and struggles for social justice. Co-ordinated global artistic support for Palestine today is echoed in recent history by the critically important role artists played in confronting apartheid in South Africa from the 1960s until 1990, when Nelson Mandela walked free after 27 years as a political prison, symbolizing an end to apartheid.

“Freedom is a privilege, nobody rides for free,” sang artists in Sun City, including Scott-Heron, Jimmy Cliff and Bruce Springsteen, lyrics easily meaningful today as Gaza remains under siege. Sun City, a global hit in 1985, projected a pledge in song from celebrated artists to boycott apartheid in South Africa onto pop radio airwaves, propelling Artists United Against Apartheid into the international spotlight.

Decades prior to flashy music videos featuring Miles Davis and Bono, the American Committee on Africa signalled the first efforts to build an artistic movement for equality in South Africa, in sponsoring a 1965 declaration against apartheid, signed by cultural personalities, reading “we say no to apartheid. We take this pledge in solemn resolve to refuse any encouragement of, or indeed, any professional association with the present Republic of South Africa, this until the day when all its people shall equally enjoy the educational and cultural advantages of that rich and beautiful land.”

Now it is widely acknowledged that artistic advocacy for freedom in South Africa, after decades of persistent campaigning, played a key role in isolating the apartheid regime. Artists took action on South Africa as politicians in Washington and London played politics of complicity, in refusing to perform under apartheid, international artists offered a critical moral boost to South African resistance movements fighting for equality on the ground.

Turning art toward Palestinian freedom

The historical arc of justice that pointed in recent history toward the South African struggle for freedom has shifted toward Palestine.

Over generations Palestinian artists have built a powerful cultural narrative, expressions on exile and resistance. Artists like author Ghassan Kanafani, assassinated in 1972 by Israel in Beirut, or the late national poet of Palestine, Mahmoud Dariwsh, to contemporary artists like Annemarie Jacir and poet Suheir Hammad, all symbolizing a steadfast artistic heart guiding the global cultural shift toward Palestine today.

“Rooted in a century of Palestinian civil resistance, and inspired by the anti-apartheid struggle,” writes Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel — PACBI, the boycott campaign “present[s] a comprehensive approach to realising Palestinian self-determination: unifying Palestinians inside historic Palestine and in exile in the face of accelerating fragmentation.”

Critically important to appreciating the growing boycott campaign is a simple fact, that it is Palestinians who created and continue to guide the international movement.

On the ground PACBI presents a critical Palestinian-led framework on the artistic mobilization for Palestine and now cultural workers globally are taking up the call. Determined boycott campaigning in recent years has contributed to Palestine’s emergence as focal point within global justice movements, a focus also increasingly represented in popular culture today.

As Manu Chao calls out against global injustice in the track Rainin’ in Paradize, towards Palestine the signing chant is aimed, “In Palestinia, too much hypocrisy, this world go crazy, it’s no fatality,” sings Chao, a vocalization on the emergence of the Palestinian struggle for justice within celebrated music today.

Ongoing Israeli military catastrophes in recent years, from the 2006 bombardment of Lebanon, to the IDF military attack on Gaza, and most recently the Israeli navy raid on the Gaza freedom flotilla, have triggered a sense of urgency within progressive artistic networks globally to support the Palestinian liberation struggle.

Montreal artist declaration

Internationally artists are increasingly supporting Palestinian freedom and key developments in this major shift are occurring at local levels around the world, all pieces to the cultural foundation of a global artistic movement for Palestine.

In Montreal artists are uniting under the banner Artists Against Apartheid, a shout out to the South African struggle. Thousands have attended the ongoing Artists Against Apartheid concert series in the city featuring many key cultural figures.

“Montreal’s vaguely socialist and communitarian politics,” outlines a feature in the New York Times, “has produced plenty of opportunities for new and challenging music to find an audience.” Beyond music that explores the edges of art, Montreal also encourages an active engagement between culture and struggles for social justice.

Concerts for Palestine in Montreal have highlighted a diversity of sounds, featuring many musicians who put Montreal on the map for contemporary culture, from experimental jazz, to folk, to hip-hop.

Celebrated Montreal hip-hop artists from the multilingual Nomadic Massive and Iraqi artist the Narcicyst performed along side Palestinian rap crew DAM at Artists Against Apartheid.

Palestinian rappers DAM, first illuminated in the award winning film Slingshot Hip-Hop by Jackie Salloum, project a hip-hop reference point from the ground in Palestine.

“When we fight for justice we are called terrorists, so we are using hip-hop music to tell the world about Palestine,” outlines Tamer Nafar, a founder of DAM.

Performances by DAM throughout North America have worked successfully to cement bonds of solidarity on Palestine between key points in grassroots hip-hop networks globally that shape future directions of hip-hop culture.

As celebrated Algonquin hip-hop artist Samian from Quebec takes the stage for Palestine, or members of iconic rock band Arcade Fire perform at Artists Against Apartheid, a significant shift on Palestine in both popular culture and opinion is clearly blowing in the wind, via hip-hop and beyond.

Last winter 500 artists from Montreal published an Artists Against Israeli Apartheid declaration for Palestine, marking the first time hundreds of artists in one city have collectively backed the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign. Key cultural figures added their support to the Montreal declaration for Palestine, including Quebec cultural icon Richard Desjardins, a celebrated songwriter and filmmaker.

Montreal’s late Lhasa de Sela performed at an Artists Against Apartheid concert last year during the Suoni per il Popolo festival in Montreal and was one of the first artists to support the Montreal declaration. Lhasa is celebrated globally for beautifully haunting music that crosses cultural and linguistic borders, widely listened to around the world, internationalist music from a striking artist who in life consistently spoke out for social justice.

“I am someone who feels a very strong need for freedom and to not allow anyone to be backed into a corner,” reflected Lhasa, today those words ring true toward Palestine, words speaking to a basic human bond of solidarity with the oppressed.

To support or get involved in Artists Against Apartheid or for any questions concerning the five-hundred artist letter from Montreal please write to [email protected]

Stefan Christoff is a journalist, community organizer and musician working with Tadamon! collective in Montreal and regularly contributes to Stefan can be found on Twitter.

Stefan Christoff

Stefan Christoff is a musician, community organizer and host of Free City Radio that airs weekly on multiple stations across Canada. X: @spirodon / Instagram: @spirochristoff