As former singer for the archetypal political punk group the Dead Kennedys,
Jello Biafra knows all too well the importance of preserving free speech and the battles that
have been fought over this basic right.
After all, his band split up amid a free-speech legal war with California authorities over
controversial art included in the Dead Kennedys' Frankenchrist album. In all these
years, he has never forgotten the cause and continues to fight for it.
One of the scariest aspects about the case of convicted killer and former journalist Mumia
Abu-Jamal, according to Biafra, is just how far a government will go to quell the free
speech of its critics. "He's a textbook illustration of how if America wants to silence a
political dissident, our kangaroo courts can be just as nasty as Stalinist Russia," said
Biafra, who recently released an album of Jamal's audio essays in an effort to get his
To ensure that the world hears Abu-Jamal's unique perspective from Pennsylvania's death
row, the former DK's singer and owner of the Alternative Tentacles record label
recently released Mumia Abu-Jamal Spoken Word with Music by Man Is the
Bastard ["Who Is Not On Death
Row" (RealAudio excerpt)].
Abu-Jamal, an outspoken supporter of radical African-American organizations such as the
Black Panthers and MOVE, has served 15 years on death row for the 1981 murder of
Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. He has consistently maintained his innocence.
The unique collection features several Abu-Jamal commentaries on subjects such as police
violence, the war on drugs and the prison system, along with four
cuts by the California hardcore band Man Is the Bastard and additional
exposition from the late poet Allen Ginsberg,
civil rights activist Assata Shakur and Biafra himself.
Abu-Jamal's supporters -- including Amnesty International and South African
President Nelson Mandela -- have called for a new trial, asserting that
local police intimidated witnesses into identifying him as the shooter and
that ballistics tests, if completed, will prove his innocence.
In 1994, Abu-Jamal recorded a series of essays for National Public Radio,
but NPR, under pressure from critics who called the perspective unbalanced,
never aired the commentaries. Seven of those compositions now appear on
Mumia Abu-Jamal Spoken Word, proceeds of which will go to Abu Jamal's legal
"I thought it was something we could do to illuminate his horrific
situation for more people," said Biafra, 38, by phone from his San
Francisco home. "He's a textbook illustration of why the death penalty
should be abolished."
Man Is the Bastard bassist and singer Aaron Kenyon said the band made its
contributions to the album with unusual speed to maximize its fundraising
potential. "We wanted to get it out as fast as possible so he'd still be
alive to reap the benefits of the thing," said Kenyon, 27, who added that
the album is in keeping with the band's mission to "bring up the negative
to direct toward the positive."
Dale Wilcox, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police,
said he was unaware of the album, and did not want to comment on the case.
"The FOP is not interested in creating a controversy so that this guy can
sell records," Wilcox said. "Our position is the same as the position of
the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the City and County of Philadelphia:
He's a convicted cop killer. The law in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
is that people convicted of killing police officers face the death penalty."
Abu-Jamal's defenders are hoping that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will
grant him a new trial. Should the court deny his appeal, Governor Tom
Ridge has pledged to sign a death warrant immediately.
"They're trying to kill him as quickly as possible so they don't have to
admit they're wrong later on," Biafra said. "But after that, the guy's
gone. What are you gonna do about it?"
The label head said that by including Ginsberg, Shakur and himself on
Mumia Abu-Jamal Spoken Word, he intended to illustrate that concern
for Abu-Jamal "is not confined to any kind of radical fringe community. It
should be a concern of anybody who has a strong sense of right and wrong,"
Kenyon, songwriter for two of the MITB's tracks on the album, agreed. "We saw it as
this bringing together of heavy-duty minds which are really on the consciousness tip, on
the social change tip," he said, calling Pennsylvania courts' past denials of Abu-Jamal's
appeals an "old school, old boy, old world attempt to keep the system closed."
"I'd like to see some interference in this process," Kenyon said.
"I'd like to see someone come in and say, 'Look, you guys are not going to
play your power game anymore. We're going to have to take this power away
from you because you've obviously abused it.' " [Mon., Nov.
24, 1997, 9 a.m. PDT]