Liam Howlett, Wyclef, Stipe Speak Out On Kosovo Crisis

Members of Rage Against the Machine, R.E.M., Prodigy talk of human rights, bombing's devastation.

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

issues involved.

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

institutional racism.

"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

Gabriel.

"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

peace.

"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.)