The Beastie Boys walked up to the VMA mics in matching utilitarian grey outfits, Ad-Roc sneered at the cameras as if to imply it was about time. Behind him Mike D and MCA (aka Adam Yauch) in single file fashion, not particularly cheery, followed stiff as if walking to the gallows. After a brief round of thank you's from Mike D, Yauch approached the mic facing the screaming crowd and assumed a solemn tone. He began, "I think it was a real mistake that the U.S. decided to fire missiles into the Middle East. I think its very important that the U.S. look into non-violent means of resolving conflicts." Applause from the crowd mixed with a few loud heckles. Yauch attempted to calm the room and explain what he had meant, knowing full well his message needed to be concise. The year was 1998.
A month earlier Yauch was booed at a show in America’s heartland for the same thing.
It was a sign of things to come; a foresight to the pioneering rapper. "Hold on gimme one second here," he continued. "Those bombings that took place in the Middle East were thought of as retaliation by the terrorists and if we thought of what we did as retaliation certainly we're gonna find more retaliation from people in the Middle East. From terrorists specifically I should say, because most Middle Eastern people are not terrorists." The usual high energy party MC self-corrected, carefully choosing his words to delineate "terrorists" from innocents. A mistake that American media made all the way up to, and past, 9/11.
Fresh out of the compassion crushing blow of his attempts to save Tibet, he recognized something was happening to America's heart. He added, "I think that's another thing America needs to think about is our racism, racism that comes from the United States towards Muslim people and towards Arabic people and that's something that has to stop and the United States has to start respecting people in the Middle East in order to find a solution to the problem that's been building up over the years.”
In this now historic speech Yauch simply asked the audience to listen to themselves and pay attention, almost as if pointing out a deafness that would plague American society for decades.
As the magnitude of Adam Yauch's passing increases those who gave the Beastie Boys little to no attention wonder what the big deal is. Why should we care about a Jewish kid from Brooklyn who rapped about his “right to party”? Yauch m might have jumped onto the scene as a scruffy beer toting punk in '86, but as time went on we all got to mature with the Beasties. When Yauch dropped the heavily musical, slightly trippy "Check Your Head" we all examined ourselves literally checking our heads, asking "So whatchya, whatchya ya want," and questioning our superiors, "So where'd you get your information from punk? Ya think that you can front when revelation comes?"
The boys redefined themselves outside of the definitions they created as "white" hip-hop artists releasing entire instrumental funk albums showcasing their musicianship while playing tiny venues in their hometown, specifically the underground of Brooklyn. It was a special day when your local Brooklyn pre-Internet friends called each other announcing a secret Beastie show. The two Adams and Mike put on a show for the masses in one large venue and another for us, the Brooklyn kids. Had you ever attended a secret Beastie Boys show in a Brooklyn heavy metal club you knew the feeling. You would have seen a large smattering of every diaspora packed into a room inches away from their heroes, sweating with the rest of us, delivering lyrical call and responses that left you swollen with inspiration until the next year.
Adam Yauch emerged in the late nineties a 1990s as a Buddhist convert, having closed the first chapter of his life after a life-changing experience with the Dalai Lama. Reborn an outspoken advocate of the Free Tibet movement, he created the Milarepa Foundation, which brought attention to the cause and led the Beastie Boys into new territory. Tibet became the cause célèbre with Yauch and the crew. The yearly shows were ambitious with good intentions, and allowed concert goers to enter a Buddhist temple space near the core of the event. Attendees would be encouraged to find sobriety and peace there alongside real Tibetan monks. It was at these events where we were exposed to passive non-violent resistance and meditation.
And it was these memories that made me, years after the polarization of 9/11, years after being judged and marginalized as America's worst enemy because of my religious derivation, years after the Tibetan Freedom Concerts that I imagined the Beastie Boys playing in Kabul. I fantasized of an Afghan Freedom Festival. I still hoped Adam Yauch, my Brooklyn homeboy icon, and his crew would save the world. I hoped the Beastie Boys would save all of America from the hatred in their hearts spread through covert funding programs and religious zealots.
I had plenty of reason to believe MCA would save Muslims and non-Muslims included. He was the first, and so far, literally the only celebrity pop star to assert anything into the media sphere about the growing racism against Muslims. The Muslim rappers, of which there were many, as a whole created reactive and retaliatory songs that could only enflame further fear and doubt. Whether the violence tinged extreme conspiracy rap of Immortal Technique or spinning uncontrollably in the whirlpool of Lupe Fiascos 5 years too late lyrical anxiety, I remembered the days of 1998. Misunderstood at the time, Yauch made a national compassion plea before Islamophobia was even a word.
Where was Rakim's statement, Q-tip or Mos Def even? What was the holdup? Our cultural elders who we looked to bridge gaps left me with spiritually vacant songs bereft of purpose or worse, reverse hate-mongering tirades against America, my homeland. Hip-hop lacked even the simple hooks that invoked the simple act of standing up for what is right instead replaced by spectacles of rhyme over who could name more "secret societies" than the next. Us grown-up Brooklyn kids awaited the secret sauce from our homeboys with frustrated patience. The Beastie Boy call-for-healing album drops on a different world, where anti-war meant you were weak and peace was treason.
The Beastie Boys album "To the 5 Boroughs" is released with the song "An Open Letter to New York." Yauch spits in the last verse, "Dear New York I know a lot has changed/2 towers down but you're still in the game/Home to many rejecting no one/Accepting peoples of all places, wherever they're from." The call for healing amidst racial polarization was clear.
Yauch was standing up to a disease of hate infecting this country even though he couldn't cure his own illness. He passed away at the age of 48 in a world of uprisings, non-violent hunger strikes and continuing Occupy movements. He leaves Tibet colonized and the Dalai Lama still in exile. He departs an America sick with hatred of Muslims, which he foresaw before anyone. We can only hope for a Yauch at every turn, rather, artists focused on healing rather then aggravation. Before his name stops trending on Twitter and the flood of Adam posts declines let's remember Adam Yauch as an artist, an activist, a filmmaker, a father, a friend, a leader, and above all else a healer. Adam Yauch was our Muslim hero and America's personal Jewish Gandhi.
This article was originally published on Al-Jazeera. Photo credit Glen Friedman. http://idealistpropaganda.blogspot.com/2012/05/why-you-see-h.html