Awesome Men Throughout History: Jello Biafra
Okay, so I’m going to try focusing on a living person again for this week’s Awesome Men Throughout History. With any luck, I won’t unintentionally kill our subject through some unclear kismet penalty system, like what happened when I wanted to profile Vaclav Havel. So everyone cross their fingers that Jello Biafra will live through this write-up, because he’s a vitally necessary person who speaks truth to power and tries to spread the gospel of social justice and civic engagement as far and wide as he can.
Before settling into his current career of professional gadfly, Biafra was the hyperactive frontman for Dead Kennedys, who were the best hardcore punk band of the Reagan era, bar none. They were also the first band in American history to be taken to court over a music album; Frankenchrist, their fourth album, featured a fold-out poster by H.R. Giger that was considered obscene enough for the Parents’ Music Resource Center to take legal action against them in 1986. The band was acquitted, but the strain of the trial broke them up, and relations have been chilly between them ever since.
Biafra’s political activism started during his time in the band, though. In 1979, he ran for mayor of San Francisco in a race that included incumbent mayor Diane Feinstein and her Republican challenger, Quentin Kopp. Biafra’s platform, which he wrote on a napkin at a Pere Ubu concert, would have banned cars from the city and forced businessmen to wear clown suits within city limits, legalized squatting in abandoned buildings (which many companies kept purposely vacant as tax write-offs), and developed a legal board of bribery to set rates for stuff like liquor licenses and building code exemptions. Say what you will about the clown suit stuff, but that last idea is genius. And even his stupid ideas were more practical than anything Carly Fiorina or Meg Whitman ever said.
In any case, Biafra has become an activist for various causes, including the Green Party, and regularly lectures about the merits of anti-corporatism and pranks as political action. He has covered both Democratic and Republican national conventions for independent media outlets, and once mooned the cameras at a HOPE conference to protest government surveillance of American citizens. You can find pictures on the Internet, but I advise against it.
Point is, Jello Biafra has dedicated much of his adult life to turning angry subcultural energy into something productive by encouraging people to be active members of their communities and to not let their tastes (and lives) be governed by disposable pop culture or team jersey politics that miss the bigger picture. Being an individual who can still act collectively towards a greater good is a huge part of being an awesome man, and Jello should be commended for supporting that, whether you like his politics or not. His talks on grassroots organizing and voting in local elections are especially helpful, and his letter to Obama after the close of the 2008 election is a damn fine piece of political writing. Above all, he tries to not be a holier-than-thou frowny-face defeatist, which is an example that the rest of the American left should follow.
I’ll leave you with this classic clip of Jello, fresh off the obscenity trial that ruined his band and nearly bankrupted him, giving Al Gore’s wife Tipper a piece of his mind on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.