These days, Prodigy leader Liam Howlett stares at television images of
thousands of Albanians marching toward exile from a country that is hardly
recognizable, and he finds himself feeling sad and bewildered.
"Sitting there and watching it fall apart now is pretty freaky," Howlett,
27, said as he considered images of the war-torn Yugoslavia -- images
that have polarized the world and sent top political leaders searching
for answers to a problem that seems insurmountable.
But they are not alone.
As the crisis in Yugoslavia worsens, concerned rock musicians -- including
Howlett, Wyclef Jean of the Fugees, Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the
Machine and Michael Stipe of R.E.M. -- are voicing their concerns with
what's happening in the world.
Prodigy, one of Great Britain's pre-eminent electronica acts, played in
Belgrade, Yugoslavia, last year. Howlett, the group's
songwriter and musical arranger, said the band enjoyed its time there;
the mayor even gave the group a key to the city.
But today, Belgrade and the province of Kosovo are in ruins -- the result
of a centuries-old conflict between ethnic Serbs and Albanians in
Yugoslavia. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization two weeks ago began
a bombing offensive against Yugoslavia's Serbian leadership, which has
reportedly stepped up its campaign of genocide -- or "ethnic cleansing"
-- against the Albanians in Kosovo.
Howlett was not alone in his incredulity. Stipe, de la Rocha, Michael
Franti of the R&B/hip-hop/reggae ensemble Spearhead and Fugees rapper
Wyclef Jean each offered opinions on the bombing and the human rights
In a statement issued by his publicists, de la Rocha denounced the
bombing. He compared the Western allies' campaign to the death sentence
of Pennsylvania prison inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal. Abu-Jamal, a Philadelphia
radio journalist, was convicted in 1981 of murdering police officer
Daniel Faulkner. Abu-Jamal's lawyers -- and the members of rock-rap band
Rage -- have fought for a new trial, citing procedural errors and
"The U.S. has made a business out of violating the human rights of the
world community," de la Rocha, 28, said. "A crime is a crime regardless
of the tools used in the trade, whether it's a stealth bomber over
Belgrade or a sham trial and a syringe in Philadelphia. Both murder
innocent civilians, both are premeditated, and both are gross violations
of international law."
De la Rocha is scheduled to speak on the death penalty Monday before the
International Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.
Franti, 31, sided with de la Rocha in questioning U.S. military aggression.
Franti commented on the issue after returning from Cuba, where he
participated in a songwriters' expedition with 42 other U.S. and British
musicians. The prospect of violence against Third-World residents for
political reasons in Cuba -- and in Kosovo -- concerned him.
"I mean, if the U.S. can bomb Northern Africa, and if it can bomb Kosovo,
who's to say it can't bomb Cuba?" Franti asked.
Increasingly, Stipe, 39, has taken advantage of his public role as leader
of a multiplatinum rock band to advance the cause of human rights.
He was in New York as a member of the board of directors for the Reebok
Human Rights Awards on March 24, the day NATO ordered the air strikes
against the Serbs. He expressed displeasure that night with both sides,
but he ultimately hinted that the human rights atrocities being perpetrated
against the ethnic Albanians were too great to ignore.
"It's ridiculous to bomb a country. But, again, that situation is really
horrible," he said.
Recently, Stipe refused to comment on the situation. But last month he
spoke of a human rights advocacy group in Kosovo that sent a plea for
help to Witness, a human rights watch group started by rock singer Peter
"It came in via fax," he said. "Some stuff from some people in Kosovo ... just
describing what was going on there, saying they were trying to get some
tapes [documenting the situation there] through [international mail] but
were unable to. Everything is completely shut down. It's that bad."
The conflicts that have ravaged the Balkans this decade -- Serbia waged
similar offenses against Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia in 1991 -- are the
result of nationalist feelings that date back centuries, said Professor
David L. Phillips, head of the International Conflict Resolution Program
at Columbia University in New York.
Serbian resentment of the region's other ethnic groups, Phillips said,
is culturally grounded in the Ottoman Empire's conquest of Serbia in
1389. He said Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic, a Serbian nationalist
who came to power in 1987, has used that centuries-old defeat to spread
the "psychology of victimization" to justify genocide.
Serbia's fervor, Phillips said, has grown to the point where rock bands
in the province of Montenegro are staging a round-the-clock concert with
lyrics supporting the killing of the Albanians.
"There's something deeply troubling about manipulating a culture for the
purpose of hatred," Phillips said.
At a tribute to the late Biggie Smalls (a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G.) in
New York last week, Jean, 27, did not offer his opinion on the
Yugoslavian issue specifically, but he did express his desire for world
"I always have my own personal opinions like Nostradamus had his," Jean
said. "But I always keep them to myself, because I don't want anyone
misquoting me. But I definitely believe in peace and in harmony. ... And
I think we all need to stop the fighting and start loving."
Howlett said he knows firsthand the pain that goes with restoring love
after war. The Prodigy also played a show in Beirut, Lebanon, last year,
where the results of the 1983 U.S. military initiative are still apparent.
"Obviously, that war ended years ago," Howlett said. "But the place
[still] looks like it was bombed last week. You think, how many years does
it take for the infrastructure of the country and the city to get back
to normal again? It takes f---ing years."
(Staff Writer Chris Nelson contributed to this report.)