interview with Ted Sirota, jazz musician, originally on the site Revolution revcom.us
You are the initiator of Degenerate Artists Against Fascism. You have been making it clear that you refuse to live in a fascist America—what is it that you see happening that compelled you to become an organizer of this artist network?
It’s kind of what I didn’t see happening that compelled me to form the group. I saw a lot of musicians sharing their fear and disgust but I wasn’t seeing organization of people coming together to act. I felt that if I didn’t do it, who would? I decided just to put it out there and see what happened. We’re facing an unholy marriage of Christian fascism and unbridled imperialism that are a threat and danger not just to people in this country but the entire planet. All living things are really at stake here, and maybe it doesn’t feel real saying that, but it is real. That’s what I felt compelled to oppose.
And why “Degenerate” Artists Against Fascism?
The lessons of degenerate art in Nazi Germany are important lessons that all artists and really everyone should know, especially in a time like this. When the Nazis assumed power, based on Hitler’s ideology leading up to that, they cracked down severely on artists, intellectuals, professors, free thinkers. Their works were labeled “degenerate art,” and called names like Jewish art, Bolshevik art, communist, and “Negroid” to try to discredit it. They made it a negative example of what was going to be accepted and what was not. A lot of artists were hounded, they were rounded up, some of them went into hiding, some into exile, and some even died in camps. One way or another, so many artists’ and intellectuals’ lives were destroyed by fascism. This was an attack on people as a whole, too, on people’s ability to use imagination and to conceptualize things outside of the norm, which is just intolerable to fascists. That’s why they attacked cubism, expressionism, surrealism, even impressionism—anything that didn’t portray the Nazi ideal of the “Aryan race.” It was attacked, destroyed, stolen, looted, and burned. Right now, they’re working hard on retraining people on how to think in this country.
You have some family connection to fascism and the Holocaust too, right?
My great-grandfather was forced by the Nazis to dig his own grave and was shot into it in Poland. My grandfather and the rest of the family were here in the United States. He had gone back to Poland to tend to family property, from what I understand. Although I’m not a religious person—I’m an atheist—I grew up in Jewish culture and I learned the lessons of the Holocaust and the Warsaw Ghetto as a child, and that stuck with me as I grew and became an artist and musician, and father. This is a very personal attack as well as an attack against all humanity. The main lesson is that you have to call it what it is when you recognize it. Many scholars say the biggest problem in Nazi Germany was the greater part of the population that conciliated, collaborated, and normalized Nazism in so many ways, just like we’re seeing today when so many institutions, the media, etc. are trying to normalize this transition to Trump. What are we doing if we’re not learning that lesson? This is the time to implement what we need to do, based on understanding this lesson of history. Now is the time to act, not “wait and see!”
Since you started Degenerate Artists Against Fascism, what has been the growth of it and how do you see this in relation to the goal of refusefascism.org, which is setting out to stop Trump and Pence before they consolidate power in their hands? What can other people learn from your experience?
I started the closed group online a couple of days before the Call came out, so that was almost two weeks ago. The response has been encouraging and heartening. A lot of people have jumped at the opportunity to be a part of it. Many people have commented that, if there was ever a group I belonged to, it’s this one. A lot of people have been thankful to be added to the group. We’re now up to about 1,500 artists, growing as we speak.
A lot of artists and musicians are not used to organizing politically, many are not used to getting into the streets. Some of them will, and many will step up at this juncture. We need to find avenues so that everybody who opposes and hates what’s happening can play an active role. We need artists and musicians to inspire and strengthen the larger movement. We are uniting with the Call at refusefascism.org—we see ourselves as a contingent under that banner.
I think that people can learn that sometimes you never really know what other people are feeling or thinking until you challenge them to express it. Organizing is hard work. It’s just like being a bandleader—a lot of frustration, rejection, disappointment… but you keep doing it because it has to be done. But if people speak their conscience, especially in a situation as morally outrageous as this one, others will follow suit. Keep pushing for the truth. Keep pushing for a world all children can not just survive but thrive in. You have to step out of your comfort zone. I’m doing that right now. Part of it I hate, because, well, it’s not comfortable. But what kind of integrity would I have as a human being if I didn’t speak up and act now? All my life I realized that if fascism ever came to my doorstep I would have no choice but to stand up and resist.
And how do you see artists contributing to mobilizing all those millions who are losing sleep, angry, and outraged about the cabinet of horrors Trump is assembling? Refusefascism.org has said that that’s what it will take—“tens of millions out in the streets, refusing to go home, refusing to accept a fascist Trump regime creating a political crisis that prevents a Trump/Pence regime from coming to power.” Can you speak to both those points?
Great artists have a way of moving and inspiring people in a way that nobody else can, and we have a lot of great artists involved already. Also, a good thing about artists—we’re creative! And a lot of what we’re doing is unleashing and tapping into the people we have involved. Some people have cachet with their names and will be able to reach thousands and thousands; others of us are everyday working people who can reach people through social media, at our gigs, at our galleries, and everywhere else we travel. And we know that there are also many different ways people haven’t even thought of yet of how to resist and support the resistance because not everybody can be in the streets, and people who aren’t are needed too.
I’ve spent many years debating and wrangling with artists over political situations or current events. Right now people are understanding that this is NOT normal, that it’s a real leap beyond the norm. As a revolutionary I don’t think anything about imperialism is “normal,” but a lot of people are starting to understand that this is going to a whole different level and we don’t want to take that ride with Trump-Pence at the wheel. I’m having conversations, discussions, with people I may have known for years, but I’ve never talked to before about these deep questions. So many people are trying to figure out what the hell is going on, and act at the same time. And this group is a tool and a forum for people to come together to plan and act.
For example, a couple of musicians who are in Degenerate Artists Against Fascism have turned their New Year’s Day gig into an event for Refuse Fascism, “Say Yes to NO!” and they’re donating the door to Refuse Fascism. Their publicity and the event itself are spreading the word and giving people a way to join and connect with this movement and bring friends along! There’s a lot more in the works you’ll be seeing in the days ahead.
Ted Sirota is a graduate of Berklee College of Music, a veteran of Chicago’s rich music scene, and an examiner of the intersection between art and revolution. He has led his jazz group, Ted Sirota’s Rebel Soul, since 1995, and recorded five records with the band. In 2013 he formed the dub reggae band HEAVYWEIGHTDUB! and recorded with dub legend The Scientist. Sirota is widely known in Chicago for holding down the drum chair with Sabertooth at the famed Green Mill Jazz Club, every Saturday night from 12:30 am-5 am, for 22 years and counting.