A high-speed combination of punk chorus and ska verse, Mustard Plug’s singalong Unite and Fight is just one of a sensational 28 tracks on the Ska Against Racism album compiled by Bad Time Records in 2020 to raise funds for non-profit organisations working to improve education, opportunity and justice for black people in the USA and beyond. With a barrelling momentum and a repudiation of violent action, this uplifting song is a call to arms for those of us committed to disarmament.
Unite and Fight sends a message to the powers that be that a storm is gathering. And it doesn’t paint a charitable picture of the leaders of government and industry who have kept the poor and disenfranchised from organising against them.
“They march us to the slaughter but cannot contain our rage,” sings Tonia Broucek, who shares vocal duties with singer and songwriter David Kirchgessner. “The message then is loud and clear and heard from coast to coast. The power of our unity is what they fear the most”.
Formed in the early 90s in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Mustard Plug has always celebrated the underdog – live favourite Beer (Song) is all about being a beat-down punk and, despite its title, the anthemic We’re Gunna Take On The World is not about being a successful band so much as just enjoying the ride. By comparison, Unite and Fight feels like it’s about being on the winning side for once. But Dave disagrees.
“I think it’s more about doing away with barriers to unify behind attaining a common goal,” he says. “A lot of our songs do come from the point of view of the underdog. It’s certainly a place I feel comfortable in and to a certain extent this song probably does too, but the song is more about uniting than picking a side.”
Nevertheless, with the word “fight” in the title, it’s clear that not everyone is expected to unify. The enemy, in the form of institutionalised racism, hasn’t been cowed by the masses before now. But on Unite and Fight, Tonia sings “this is not a call for violence, we won’t return your hate”. That spirit of pacifism is laudable, but is it really enough? If we are fighting against fascism and white supremacy, where do you take the fight if not to the streets with a half-brick in your hand?
“I should really start off by saying that I wrote all the lyrics to this song,” explains Dave, “so I’m can’t necessarily speak for the rest of the band or for Tonia, but when I wrote the song, I felt that including that line was really important. The word fascism gets thrown around a lot, but I think in this case, specifically what has been happening under the Trump regime, I think it is absolutely accurate.”
“There has been a weakening of – and direct attack on – American Democracy,” he continues. “As much as I’m disgusted by what’s happening and specifically the rise in American hate groups, I feel that to respond to that with violence only rationalizes their tactics. When the left engages in street violence, they’ve basically become the fascists that they claim to despise. At this point we still live in a functioning democracy, and I strongly believe in democracy as essential, and we need support and use that institution to defeat anti-democratic forces. I think the fact that because some members of ANTIFA have used violence (although, I’d argue relatively few), that this has largely allowed Trump to use them as a scapegoat and marginalize what otherwise could have been a much stronger movement.”
Ska Against Racism has been raising money for charities and pressure groups since its first tour back in 1998, founded by Korean American punk singer and activist Mike Park. The Ska Against Racism compilation features Park’s band The Chinkees as well as contributions from Jesse Michaels (Operation Ivy), Less Than Jake, The Interrupters, Five Iron Frenzy and The Skints and many others.
All proceeds have been donated to The Movement for Black Lives, The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, The Conscious Kid, The Alpha Institute and Black Girls Code. The compilation is now completely free to stream and download and Bad Time Records recommends that you learn more about the individual organisations and donate to them directly (see below).
Dave describes the compilation as “pretty amazing” and believes it “added a lot of energy to the ska scene and the anti-racism movement in general”, understanding from his own experience that music can be highly influential on the listener’s world view.
“When I was younger, I was always into musicians that had some political content,” he recalls. “Bands like the Clash, Bob Marley, the Specials, Fugazi… even the Beatles. These were the bands that really meant the most to me. Of course, if a band doesn’t want to talk about politics in any way, I think that’s totally fine too. I just think it’s ridiculous when fans say that bands should stay out of politics or say something like, ‘keep politics out of ska’. It just shows disrespect to the artist and an ignorance of history.”
While Mustard Plug are unmistakeably a good-time band, Dave says he has “always written songs that are politically focused” but also “funny, entertaining and occasionally just silly”, adding that “sometimes that can be in the same song”. Unite and Fight, however, takes its subject very seriously, penetrating to a bitter truth about a divided country led by people who “despise” the “honesty and courage” of ordinary people.
“I think the role of an artist is to communicate truth,” says Dave. “Even if that truth is fiction. Whether it’s a book, or a song or an abstract painting, even if it is a work of fiction or told from the point of view of a fictional character it still should ring true on some level. Even a joke isn’t funny unless there is some element of truth to it.”
With Donald Trump consigned to the murkiest depths of American history, 2021 is undoubtedly a year in which America’s divisions must be healed. But what might President Joe Biden do in his first 100 days to fight for unity?
“I think his personality is just that he brings people together,” hopes Dave, “but I’d rather have him focus on COVID, immigration, the environment, respect for all people regardless of race, class, orientation etc than on trying to reconcile with people who oppose his objectives. Hopefully he can make people realize that these issues are non-partisan but, if he can’t, he needs to move forward anyway.”
“I also think it’s important to restore public accountability, especially for corrupt and unlawful and racist politicians and police, before moving on,” he concludes. “So many fires to put out, but at least we are now led by a fireman instead of an arsonist.”
Ska Against Racism supports the following organisations:
Black Girls Code
Giving young and pre-teen girls of colour opportunities to learn programming, allowing them to become builders of technological innovation and of their own futures.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund
Through litigation, advocacy, and public education, LDF seeks structural changes to expand democracy, eliminate disparities, and achieve racial justice in a society that fulfils the promise of equality for all Americans.
The Alpha Institute
Alpha Institute provides a caring and committed environment to youth in need of educational, vocational and life skills training.
National Black Arts
NBAF is a nonprofit organisation with a legacy of providing stellar artistic and educational programs in music, dance, film, visual arts, theater, and the literary arts.
The Conscious Kid
An education, research, and policy organisation dedicated to equity and promoting healthy racial identity development in youth.
The Movement for Black Lives
A space for Black organisations across the US to work together towards policy, cultural and political goals with the fundamental belief that we can achieve more together than we can separately.
Unite and Fight, featuring guest vocals from Tonia of The Lippies, originally released on the Asian Man Records comp: Ska Against Racism