Musicians and the Middle East: there’s no middle ground

Eddie Vedder, Rihanna and more enter the war zone

Eddie Vedder: letter man. (Photo: Getty Images)

Eddie Vedder: letter man. (Photo: Getty Images)


Eddie Vedder, Rihanna, Neil Young and Roger Waters have all have had something to say of late about the living hell that is the Israel/Hamas conflict. How did that go for them? Funny you should ask.

It kicked off when during a recent UK show Pearl Jam’s lead singer broke into the band’s song Daughter to say the following “I swear to fucking God, there are people out there who are looking for a reason to kill. They’re looking for a reason to go across borders and take over land that doesn’t belong to them. They should get the fuck out and mind their own fucking business. We don’t want to give them our taxes to drop bombs on children”.

There was no explicit reference to Israel or Gaza but Vedder’s remarks were taken by some to be an “anti-Israel diatribe”. The band’s social media pages were flooded with strongly worded opinions that echoed the name-calling and finger-pointing in the political world. In an effort to dampen down the going-nowhere debate, Vedder then attempted to contextualise his remarks by writing an open letter.

“When attempting to make a plea for more peace in the world at a rock concert, we are reflecting feelings – I’d rather be naïve, heartfelt and hopeful than resigned to say (sic) nothing for fear of misinterpretation and retribution.”

Enter Neil Young. His Tel Aviv show scheduled for last week was cancelled due to the conflict. “We’ll miss the opportunity to play for our fans and look forward to playing in Israel and Palestine in peace,” said Young, who also made a sizeable donation to an organisation that helps teach Israeli and Palestinian youth to co-exist .

Roger Waters had written to Neil Young urging him to pull the show as the former Pink Floyd man supports a cultural boycott of Israel, comparing the state to Apartheid South Africa. However many big name acts, including Madonna, Elton John and Paul McCartney, are of a different opinion and play regularly in Israel. A debate is now ongoing about whether Young was influenced by Roger Waters’s arguments or was simply advised not to travel to a war zone.

As the death toll mounts and opinions become even more polarised this is becoming a pressing issue for musicians.

Rihanna tweeted the hashtag “#FreePalestine” to her 36 million followers but then deleted it eight minutes later, putting up instead “Let’s pray for peace and a swift end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” That provoked the odd million or so comments, not of all them coherent and insightful, oddly enough.

Across the musical spectrum over the last few weeks artists are either being told to “stay out” of the conflict or “speak up”. Why all of this matters is because – for good or ill – the actions and statements of admired and influential musical figures such as Rihanna and Neil Young carry weight.

The music world loves a crisis – particularly when it’s very far away and comes with the chance of appearing on a chart-topping, image-enhancing number one charity single. But this is different. Hopelessly different.

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