Podcast: The Coda
Lissette Gonzalez leads the investigations and research team at PROVEA, a Venezuelan human rights organization. She knows the tools of human rights activism– the narrative change strategies, the reports and the campaign slogans. As important as that work is, she knows that those outside the world of activism don’t always find that messaging resonant. A poem on the other hand channels what people are feeling and can have greater impact. She makes her case with Rodilla en Tierra, by Oriette D’Angelo.
In the early 1970s, a group of disabled American teens found themselves at a summer camp with new freedom to think for themselves. The selfhood, courage and joy they tapped into was to power a revolution in US culture and policy towards disability. The story of those activists is told in the documentary film Crip Camp, and Mexican disability activist Maryangel Garcia-Ramos explains how much it means to her.
Vince Warren is a renowned human rights lawyer and leader in racial justice who leads the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. Like so many others, he found himself locked down during the pandemic. Disruptive and destabilizing though that period was, Vince was grateful to be able to take refuge in his lifelong passion for music. A drummer and performer over many years, he took the chance to write some new songs and has recently released them on an EP. He reflected on the connections between his human rights and musical identities.
Saint Woke, Hard Feelings, Round to It Records released, May 25, 2023
“Dividing Line (Mr C’s Love Song)”
“Where were you?”
In recent months, a sustained uprising in Iran, led by women, has inspired admiration and support across the world. It is by no means the first time in over 40 years of fundamentalist Islamic rule – there have been repeated waves of courageous protest since 1979. The poem in this episode’s Coda is by the late yet still beloved Iranian poet Simi Behbahani, and was written during a moment of rebellion in 2009 when citizens came out to reject election results they believed had been rigged. Human rights activists Farnoosh Hashemian reflects on what the poem – and its author – mean to her.
Music: “Morgh e Sahar” (Bird of the Dawn) by Ostad Morteza Naydavoud, performed by Kayhan Kalhor (Kamancheh or Spiked Fiddle) and Yo-Yo Ma (Cello).
Human rights advocate Dilrabo Samadova marvels at the way poems show up in absolutely every aspect of life in her country, Tajikistan. She says solidarity, justice, and equality feature in Persian poetry as far back as the sixth and seventh centuries, proving these are not “foreign values.”
For Tutu Alicante, human rights lawyer and longtime activist against dictatorship and corruption in Equatorial Guinea, it has sometimes felt like a long and uphill struggle. But there are some new kids on the block – young artistes who are using their music to condemn the illegitimate wealth of the president and his family, and the shocking poverty of the country’s people. “It gives me a lot of hope,” says Tutu, “it’s become very clear to me that we need other avenues to combat autocracy, to combat kleptocracy, high level corruption. And music is a universal language.”
Music featured in the Coda:
Negro Bey “Carta al Presidente” from the album “Reliquia”
Russo Nnangdong “Cuestión de Libertad” from the album “Kuestiones”
Two years ago, Nigerian environmental rights campaigner, Ken Henshaw, had never heard of black lesbian feminist, Audre Lorde or her lecture, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. But when someone gave him a copy of Lorde’s fiery take-down of white feminist academics for avoiding discomfort and hanging on to their privileged connection with the white patriarchy, Ken was transfixed. Could he apply the ‘Master’s Tools’ metaphor to his own activism? Had he really been challenging the oil companies and the government, or was he working within limits they prescribed?
Seamus Heaney’s poem Casualty, written amid the troubles in Northern Ireland, circles around themes of violence, complicity and freedom. It turns on an event that followed Bloody Sunday, the day in 1972 when British soldiers shot dead 13 unarmed civilians in Derry as they were protesting internment without trial. Criminal defense lawyer Chris Stone reads the poem about a friend of Heaney’s who refused to abide by a curfew called by the IRA, and reflects on its brilliance, and the profound impact it had on him.
Johnson Ching-Yin Yeung, a social justice and rights activist in Hong Kong, knows that setbacks in his work are inevitable, but rock climbing teaches him an important lesson. Climbing with ropes requires you to trust your fellow climbers. You will certainly fall from time to time but their support, a determination to succeed, and the prospect of a magnificent view from the top – keeps you going.
For minority communities it can be exhausting to sustain morale and self-confidence in the face of exclusion and stereotyping. Raheel Mohammed, director of Maslaha, a London-based organization dedicated to defending and supporting muslim communities, has been moved and inspired by the writings of Saidiya Hartman on waywardness – as a strategy to refuse oppression, even when you are incarcerated.
Last month, Ferdinand Marcos Junior was elected president of the Philippines, thirty-six years after his father was chased from office by the People Power revolution in 1986. For activists like Mary Jane Real, this is grim news, bringing back memories of brutal rule, torture and impunity. But an essay by Rebecca Solnit has given her a surprising insight.
For the human rights defender forced to leave their home country to get away from threats of violence or detention, there is a strange life ahead – of dislocation and adaption to a new culture, while remaining umbilically connected to their place of origin. Guatemalan activist Gabriel Wer shares a poem by celebrated Argentinian poet Juan Gelman who lived much of his life in exile.
Denise Levertov’s poem, Making Peace, says that we bring peace into the world by speaking it, and for Ryan Figueiredo, there’s special meaning here for the social justice activist. Fighting to make rights and justice a reality inevitably causes in friction but that’s not a negative, Ryan says, it polishes us in the work that we do. Perhaps we are – as the poem has it – “facets of the forming crystal” we hope to grow.
In recent years, human rights lawyer and racial justice activist Nani Jansen Reventlow has been helping to build a vibrant digital rights field. But as important as online spaces are for advancing rights, she’s worried about people forgetting that real change only happens in the real world and she’s calling on Gil Scott Heron – the late but still much beloved poet, musician and social critic – to help her make the point.
“The Revolution will not be televised” by Gil Scott-Heron was featured on the album Pieces of a Man released on the Flying Dutchman label in 1971
Economic and social justice campaigner Ignacio Saiz tells us about a song that means a great deal to him – Balderrama, by the great Mercedes Sosa. It celebrates a famous bar in Argentina’s far northern town of Salta, whose musicians and regulars cherish the community that gathers there.
Inspired by the late US Congressman John Lewis, young activist Namatai Kwekweza reflects on the difference between bad trouble and good trouble and explains why she’s determined to keep making a noise about injustice: “I personally believe that if the noise didn’t really achieve anything, then they wouldn’t be telling us to keep quiet.”
Yemi Adamolekun is inspired by the Gospel of Matthew which calls on Christians to project their values and shine so that all can see their faith in action. But on the reluctance of Nigerian churches to take a stand on issues like corruption, she comments: “I’ve come to realize that being light and being salt will make you unpopular. It’s much safer not to be seen as anti-government.”
When Jim Goldston arrived El Salvador as an early career lawyer in 1987, he was appalled by the right–wing junta’s violence against its own citizens. He quickly joined local efforts to document the atrocities perpetrated by El Salvador’s state-instigated death squads. While there, Jim constantly encountered the story of Archbishop Oscar Romero – a Salvadoran religious leader who was assassinated in 1980 for speaking out against state repression. Romero’s words, and memories of his leadership, were still fresh in the minds of Jim’s colleagues and he quickly found himself renewing his commitments to a career in rights.
Suliman Baldo has been an advocate for human rights in Sudan for decades, working outside the country with organisations and citizen groups to support those standing up against the oppressive regime of Omar El Beshir. Engaging young activists and organisers of the uprising in 2018-19, he saw how musicians, artists and poets were playing a key role in expressing popular hope and seeding the language of protest. He shares a poem by the late Yousif El Badawi, and then quotes verses by Azhari Mohammed Ali that were chanted in the streets.
Kazi Nazrul Islam is the national poet of Bangladesh, writer of impassioned political verse and composer of songs encouraging his people to rebel against British rule and throw off the colonial yoke. Lifelong human rights campaigner and lawyer Adilur Rahman Khan grew up hearing Nazrul at home and continues to feel energized and inspired by his legacy.
Jessica Montell is a veteran human rights activist in Israel, where she leads HaMoked, an organization dedicated to supporting Palestinians in the occupied territories whose rights are being violated by Israeli government policies. She is a past leader of the human rights organization B’Tselem and of SISO, an Israel-Diaspora partnership against the occupation. She shared her reflections on a poem by Marge Piercy, called To be of Use.
“To be of use” by Marge Piercy Copyright ©1973, 1982 by Marge Piercy From CIRCLES ON THE WATER, Alfred A. Knopf. Used by permission of Robin Straus Agency, Inc.”
The song seemed straight-forward. The singer is fed up with his domineering partner and warns: in spite of you, things are going to be OK. The day will come when you will pay for the tears you have caused. But the lyrics of singer-songwriter Chico Buarque’s Apesar de Voce carried a dual meaning and Brazilians living under military dictatorship understood the true target of his critique. Activist Alessandra Orofino tells us the song is still inspiring her today.
Juana Inés de la Cruz was born in the mid-seventeenth century in Mexico and – exceptionally for a woman in that time – grew up to be an intellectually brilliant and passionate philosopher, musical composer and poet. She was under pressure to marry but chose instead to enter a religious order where she continued to study and write and dazzle her intellectual community. South African human rights lawyer Kayum Ahmed came across a scorching poem – “A Philosophical Satire” – she wrote to denounce the contradictory attitudes of men towards women and he was stunned by the power of her fiercely independent feminist voice.
In our podcast’s first episode, Afghanistan Human Rights Commission chair Sharharzad Akbar said of daily life in her country, under a constant barrage of terrorist attacks, that “when you leave in the morning, you don’t know if you’ll come back in the evening, every single day.” She told us that she wanted to be able to offer her commissioners and staff encouragement even when she could not be certain there was a positive future ahead. In this episode’s Coda, she shares a poem that reminds her that hope is always within reach.
This episode’s Coda spotlights a brief but — to the participants — momentous encounter in 1963 between young black activists in the US civil rights struggle and a prominent African anti-colonial fighter. Kenya’s Oginga Odinga, shortly to become his country’s Vice-President, was on a tour of the United States at the invitation of the State Department when leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, got wind of his presence in Atlanta and asked for a meeting. Charles Cobb Jr, then a field organizer in Mississippi, was in the group that sat down with Odinga – a meeting commemorated in a song by the SNCC Freedom Singers.
Veteran human rights defender Murat Celikkan has been in jail three times — he knows what it is like to be locked up for your beliefs. Formerly a senior journalist and editor whose solidarity with Kurdish journalists was the cause of his most recent incarceration, he now co-leads Hafiza Merkezi, or Truth, Justice and Memory Center, in Istanbul which works to uncover the fate of numerous individuals forcibly disappeared by the Turkish state in the late 90s and never seen again. For the Coda, Murat chose to share a poem by Ariel Dorfman that speaks intimately and powerfully to the issue of abduction and the anguish of those left without information or contact about their loved ones.
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, in his role until 2018 as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, had the task of urging member states to meet their obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and calling them out when they failed. The role required him to take a tough stance in defence of rights yet he came to acknowledge the limits of his role as a supporter of those fighting for their rights. In this episode’s Coda, Zeid shares a poem by 14th Century poet Hafez on the perils of arrogance