Music as a Way to Raise Awareness of Labor Exploitation
TheUse’s Single Release + An Interview with Rachel Mason
I met Michael Durek from Pas Musique, a group from New York, when I saw a noise gig in a punk house in Eastern Jakarta right after I finished work. They were playing with other musicians such as Bloater, Numbfoot, Jahiliyya Fields, and Remon Red.
After the show he told me that his solo project, TheUse, has just recently released a single (released by Aagoo records), collaborating with Rachel Mason, a renowned artist from New York. Shauna McLarnon, from Shameless Promotion PR, sent me the press release of “On My Death Bed” and “Journey to Truth” feat. Black Saturn and Charvak R. Jagtapand from there I’d like to say that there is an issue that must be raised.
“On My Death Bed” is the English translation of poetry by Xu Lizhi, the FoxConn worker from China who committed suicide. Heather White, the director of a documentary film Who Pays the Price? The Human Cost of Electronics, says “Xu Lizhi’s poems underline the alienation and despair felt by those trapped in a dead- end existence, where work is the only measure of one’s daily experience.”
I remember in 2015 I had a class called Business Environment: Sociology and Politics where the first meeting was watching a few minutes of the film Metropolis (1927), an epic science fiction drama film directed by Fritz Lang. The story was set in the dystopian future when capitalism has reached its peak. The course started off discussing capitalism and its impact, and how the movie could be an insight of what might happen when the laborers are alienated and dissociated from the work they do. Xu Lizhi’s suicide comes as a warning of how even closer we are into moving towards the dystopia that Lang has illustrated. The issue touched me because Lang’s movie moved my heart and made me decide that I’d help protect laborers if there was a chance given. From there I messaged Rachel to ask a few questions, out of curiosity and for other people to gain insight into the issue and what inspired her to raise it.
Dea: I’m curious, how did you find out about the Poet, and what was your first reaction and initial thoughts to the story? What sort of impact would you like to see after people hearing about the music and the story behind it?
Rachel: I first started hearing about the plight of factory workers like many people in America, with a story that was featured on This American Life, a radio show when Mike Daisy- an independent performer and amateur journalist was featured on an episode. He spoke about visiting Foxconn in China because he wanted to understand who made his iphone. Perhaps a year later, I heard about a woman who was making a film about individuals who had suffered terrible ordeals while working in factories in China. Limbs were crushed, and people were getting poisoned. I reached out to the filmmaker and met with her- Heather White, is her name, and the film is “Who Pays the Price.” I wanted to think of how I could help, and as an artist with limited resources, I wasn’t sure what I could really do. Then about another year went by when I learned of the story of Xu, the poet who committed suicide. And it was so clear to me, because I am a musician- a singer/ songwriter. I felt like his poetry just sung to me and beckoned a song. I wanted his poetry to go further and to help her film, so she and I spoke and I offered that the song could be used in her film and that I would share her film’s story when we released the song. It all happened because of the amazing work of one of my favorite producers, Michael Durek, (TheUse) and the record label Aagoo, who put the song into the world.
Dea: And also China and New York is very far away, how do people react to the story in your community? Are many people aware of the hazards of the electronic industry (or any industry that exploits cheap labor) in Asian countries?
Rachel: I think that people in my community, if you want to just say America-because I was in New York when I first recorded the song (I’m now in Los Angeles) in general are troubled when they hear stories of real people facing serious illness from chemicals and working such long hours that they become suicidal and get hurt on the job. I think that Americans are on the whole, like everyone else. No one wants to see people suffer. I really don’t believe the majority of people in the world want products that have such tortured stories behind them. I think people are both addicted and in love with their devices, but also becoming scared by how much we rely on technology, and how little we really know about our products. How they are made, and even how we are effected by the technology.
Films like “Who Pays the Price” and the work of journalists in general are really helping educate all of us. I am grateful for those people who make the effort to learn about who is making our products, that not just we in the West consume, but really, the whole world.
And I’m very, very grateful to the people who found and published the extraordinary poetry of Xu Lizhi. In fact, I wish he had posthumously won the Nobel prize for Poetry instead of Bob Dylan. Because I think what Xu has done with his poetry is open a window onto a world that so few people know- and there is no closer way to get inside of a person’s heart and mind, than through poetry. So, I hope that the people who made the effort to put his poems on the internet see this article, and learn of my deep, personal gratitude.
Dea: Is it limited to the artist community, or it has been a big topic of discussion in various communities? From Mike I know that you also want to raise funds, how is the fundraising going and what are the obstacles?
I hope that people buy the song when it gets released in November because proceeds go toward an organization that helps fight for workers- but more than that, I also hope that they consider donating to the film which is in production, and also to just consume fewer electronic devices. I personally feel that we humans are just consuming way too much of everything and I would love to see more people be conscious of their carbon footprint across all industries.I am guilty of not being mindful, and its a constant process to try to use less of all material products. I hope that companies move in the direction of fair treatment of their workers- and I do think that films and journalism will continue to put pressure on them to do so.
It happened in China, but why should us Indonesians care?
I studied economics and management for my Bachelor’s, and between the theories and formulas, the lecturers always talk about how Indonesia’s resources were exploited; both human and natural. Indeed, in a way, capitalising on cheap labor by moving their factories in developing countries does give an economic boost on the country, but all has its price (both morally and economically). For example, it would be harmful to the current era of information where creativity is becoming increasingly important and the creative industry and small micro businesses serves as one of the ways that could improve the well-being of marginalised groups.
Aside from being another country that has documented exploits of its factory workers (see The New Rulers of the World documentary), it needs a worldwide movement so that it could raise awareness. Us Indonesians might not be aware that this could happen to us (and usually take action AFTER damage has been done), and considering the increasing power of global trade agreements, if we don’t do something it might well be another story like “The Poet Who Died For Your Phone” (http://time.com/chinapoet/). Awareness is a starting point. Indonesians, let’s also join the worldwide discussion.
(Personally, it’s amazing to see that how people from other sides of the world can join together to raise an important issue. Together we can achieve something great)
If you want to support this movement please donate to https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/who-pays-the-price-stretch-goal-75-000-film-technology#/