Radical music, graphic history, and the Winnipeg General Strike

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David Lester - radical music, graphic history, and the Winnipeg General Strike

David Lester is a Vancouver-based musician and graphic artist whose work has been woven through with radical politics since he started out in the 1970s. Musically, he is best known as half of the rock duo Mecca Normal, while graphically he has been involved for decades in the creation of everything from pamphlets to posters to graphic novels. Scott Neigh interviews him about the power of combining radical politics with art and music and about his latest graphic novel, 1919: A Graphic History of the Winnipeg General Strike (Between the Lines, 2019), created in collaboration with the Graphic History Collective.

This year marks a century since more than 30,000 workers in Winnipeg set down their tools and took to the streets for over six weeks. Part of the wave of radical mass actions that swept across the world during the years after the First World War, it inspired sympathy strikes in cities across the country and made Canadian elites fear that revolution was coming. While it was ultimately crushed by state and vigilante violence that happened in tight collusion with business elites, it has remained a touchstone for Canadian radicals ever since – and 1919 brings that history to a new generation.

David Lester's lifetime commitment to bringing together art and radical politics made him an ideal collaborator for the Graphic History Collective in this project.

The Graphic History Collective is a grouping of scholars, artists, educators, and writers that for over a decade have been making graphic novel-style books and radical posters to present rigorously researched histories of struggles for justice in engaging, accessible, and entertaining ways.

Lester's politics started with his family. His father was a postal worker during the years of the Candian Union of Postal Workers' greatest militance. His older brother was a 1960s radical who, while Lester was growing up, exposed him to all manner of cutting edge politics, books, and music. And, though he only found this out later, he even had a grandfather who had belonged to the fabled Industrial Workers of the World in the 1910s and who took part in a famous labour battle in Vancouver in the 1930s.

As a youth in 1970s Vancouver, Lester contributed to student publications throughout the city and had a regular column in a US-based youth liberation magazine. After high school, he joined the collective that published long-time anti-authoritarian newspaper Open Road. He was constantly designing posters and brochures and leaflets for grassroots groups. And through all of this, he was playing politically-inflected music.

In 1984, he and collaborator Jean Smith formed Mecca Normal with, as they write, "the express purpose of changing the world." Smith's political, often militantly feminist, lyrics combined with Lester's distinctive guitar work to carve out a unique space in the the independent music scene. Their work has influenced generations of musicians, perhaps most notably some of the founders of the feminist social movement known as Riot grrl that emerged in the 1990s. They still regularly perform today, and find that even their classic tracks from three decades ago resonate with audiences, and not because of nostalgia but because they speak to issues that are still very much current. A new Mecca Normal album based on live recordings done by the CBC 23 years ago is set to be released in March 2019.

Lester has also continued to use his art and writing to convey radical messages. In 2005, he published a graphically innovative book built from statistics about the injustices of our economic system called The Gruesome Acts of Capitalism (Arbeiter Ring Press). His first graphic novel, The Listener, was published in 2011 also by Arbeiter Ring, and he has contributed chapters to two other Graphic History Collective projects, including the newly released Direct Action Gets the Goods: A Graphic History of the Strike in Canada (Between the Lines, 2019). He is hard at work on a graphic history that will explore the final year in the life of anarchist revolutionary Emma Goldman, which she spent living in Toronto.

Image: Modified from "looking up" by David Lester and used with permission.

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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