Award-Winning Soul Singer Esperanza Spalding Calls for Closure of Guantánamo in New Song, “We Are America”

19.11.13

In the long and ignoble history of the “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, those who have fought to secure its closure have generally labored without the kind of celebrity endorsement that tends to secure mass appeal for political causes. This year, however, celebrities began to take notice when the majority of the 164 prisoners still held embarked on a hunger strike to draw the world’s attention to their ongoing plight, and to remind people that over half of them — 84 men in total — had been cleared for release by an inter-agency task force that President Obama established shortly after taking office In January 2009.

The fact that these men were still held — and that justice appeared to have gone AWOL in the cases of the majority other prisoners still held — encouraged the best-selling novelist John Grisham to write an op-ed about Guantánamo for the New York Times on August (which I wrote about here), focusing on the case of Nabil Hadjarab, an Algerian national, who, Grisham discovered, had been prevented from reading his books. Nabil was freed soon after, although sadly the decision by the British singer-songwriter P.J. Harvey to record a song about Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, did not lead to his release, although nearly 100,000 people have listened to the song.

The latest celebrity to call for the closure of Guantánamo is Esperanza Spalding, a singer, songwriter and bassist who won a Grammy for Best New Artist in 2011. Her song, “We Are America,” with its accompanying video that features cameos by Stevie Wonder, Harry Belafonte and Janelle Monáe, is posted below, and is excellent — a soulful call for justice that ought to be rallying cry for all Americans who believe in the law, and who ought to be appalled that men are being held indefinitely without charge or trial at Guantánamo.

This is the chorus of “We Are America”:

I am America
And my America
It don’t stand for this
We are America
In our America
We take a stand for this

In addition, noticeable amongst the lyrics is Esperanza’s call, “Let them out,” which refers to the 84 prisoners cleared for release but still held, and her call for “justice for the men who should be free.” Also featured in the video are quotes from significant figures — including President Obama and Sen. John McCain, speaking about the need for Guantánamo to be closed.

I do hope you have time to watch the video, and that you will share it as widely as possible.

The video is accompanied by the following message, urging US listeners to tell their Senators to support the version of the National Defense Authorization Act that the Senate is voting on this week, which will help President Obama to close Guantánamo, and which I wrote about in detail here:

Take a stand. Call the US Capitol Switchboard (1-202-224-3121) to connect you to your two US Senators and your Congressional Representative. Tell them:

  • I am your constituent and I want you to support closing Guantánamo.
  • Indefinite detention and unfair trials are illegal, un-American and unnecessary.

Here’s the video:

Esperanza Spalding – We Are America from ESP Media on Vimeo.

Below I’m posting an op-ed that Esperanza Spalding wrote for the Los Angeles Times, and also an interview conducted for Amnesty International by Josefina Salomon.

I was also pleased to note that the Wall Street Journal covered the story, in which Esperanza said (by phone from Spain, where she was on tour), “I don’t have any prison experience, but it’s really hard to fathom being imprisoned in a place against your will and not to be charged with anything, not to have the ability to defend yourself, and to be there indefinitely. It’s hard to wrap your mind around it.”

She also said, “My wish is that the information in the video will pique people’s interest enough to go, ‘Hmm, I didn’t know all that,’” and, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “prompt them to learn more.”

I was also interested in the response to the song from the authorities at Guantánamo, as reported in the Miami Herald. Although Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale called it “an evocative performance,” he added, “the artists involved in this particular song and video leave out this crucially important piece of information: Until Congress changes the law regarding the transfer requirements for detainees held at Guantánamo Bay, the department will continue to humanely safeguard those in its charge there.”

Whilst it was predictable that “humane” treatment of the prisoners was stressed — despite medical professionals agreeing that force-feeding is abusive and unacceptable — it was interesting that Lt. Col. Breasseale specifically blamed Congress for the fact that  Guantánamo is still open, even though the blame also lies with President Obama, who has largely lacked the political will to challenge lawmakers, or to use a veto in the existing legislation to bypass them completely. However, it was also interesting to see that Lt. Col. Breasseale also followed the White House line about why the prison’s continued existence is unacceptable, when he said, “To be completely clear: We agree with the President. The facility is wildly expensive, it lessens cooperation with our allies, and keeping it open is outside of America’s best interests as it serves as a continued recruiting tool for extremists.”

Below is Esperanza Spalding’s op-ed and the interview:

Music to shine a light on Guantánamo Bay
By Esperanza Spalding, Los Angeles Times, November 18, 2013

I finally read all of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” this spring while I was on tour for my album “Radio Music Society.” At about the same time, the hunger strike at Guantánamo Bay detention center hit the headlines. Soon, scores of men were being force-fed. The more I learned about what was going on at Guantánamo, the more I realized that the truths King expressed in his famous letter were back in our faces: “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

I vowed to do something. When I got home, I called my representative and senators and expressed my support for a just closure of Guantánamo. Then I called my friends and asked them to do the same. But that wasn’t enough: 84 men cleared for release by our national security agencies years ago were still sitting at Guantánamo. I left to go back on tour, but the burning question remained: What else can I do?

At a “Radio Music Society” band dinner, we talked about Guantánamo and realized we shared a deep concern about the issues it raises. Those talks inspired a song, and then a music video — “We Are America” — that we hope will mobilize support for closing the facility. As the project crystallized, I reached out to more friends — some who happen to be quite well known — and they agreed to support our effort by making cameo appearances in the video.

Throughout the process, and after consulting with the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch, our resolve kept growing. We believe that the blatant injustice of detention without charge at Guantánamo violates not just U.S. human rights obligations but also our basic values and principles.

Of the 779 men who have been held at the facility since it was opened in 2002, only seven have ever been convicted of any charges in military tribunals. Two of those convictions have been overturned on appeal. Another six men are on trial now, and the government says it will only prosecute seven more. That means that of the 164 men being held (many of whom have been there for almost 12 years), about 150 are being held without charges, and they will never be charged.

King’s Birmingham letter emphasizes that concern for justice and equality is not enough to remedy the systematic violation of human rights: “[I am] compelled to carry the gospel of freedom far beyond my own home town…,” he wrote. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

With the release of “We Are America,” we hope to shine a light for our fellow Americans on these nitty-gritty facts:

The Obama administration has the ability to transfer the 84 detainees who have already been cleared for release out of Guantánamo, and other detainees could soon be cleared by newly established review boards. However, current law needlessly places obstacles in the way of accomplishing that.

Now, the Senate has begun to change that. Provisions in the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act passed out of the Senate Arms Services Committee will break down some of these obstacles and give the president more flexibility to make transfers out of the detention facility. The full Senate will begin debate on the act, and those provisions, in the coming days.

Specifically, Sections 1031 to 1034 of the Senate’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act would permit the transfer of “detainees who have been ordered released by a competent U.S. court” and “would permit transfers for the purpose of detention and trial.” Since 9/11, federal courts have prosecuted hundreds of terrorism cases, and those convicted are currently serving long sentences in high-security federal prisons.

If the Senate and the House of Representatives agree to the Guantánamo provisions in the defense act, the few prisoners in the detention center who face charges could be prosecuted where it makes the most sense, in federal courts.

Radio Music Society (and friends) made “We Are America” because we believe that, while not all of us are called to the front lines like Martin Luther King Jr., we can all support our elected officials in doing the right thing.

Why did Esperanza Spalding record a song about Guantánamo?
By Josefina Salomon, Amnesty International, November 18, 2013

Q: What motivated you to start this whole project to begin with, what was the spark?

Esperanza Spalding: It was the first time I heard about the hunger strike. I was touring in Europe and I was appalled and embarrassed about what was happening. I remember I started researching online to see what I could do about it and I saw that I could download this action pack. With that you had some important info to use to call your representative. And I did, I did call my representative and Senators. In fact, I got a letter back from one Senator who basically said that she was not going to proactively deal with it but that they would ‘keep my comments in mind’, or something like that.  But I really wanted to do more. And my band actually came to me first and said they wanted to do something too.

Q: And why do you think this particular issue is important to you — I mean there are a lot of causes you could latch on to — why this one?

Esperanza Spalding: Well, I guess from seeing my mom stick her neck out for other people many times over the years. She is someone who can’t stand injustice anytime. I think her example has affected me, but I’m usually not as brave as her to speak up. At some point in our lives, we’ve all been a silent witness to someone getting screwed over and it can be really confusing and scary to stand up for them. Particularly when they may be part of an unpopular or stigmatized group. I guess in this particular case, I was thinking of the man who has been picked up in his country or a country he was visiting, minding his own business, thrown into this detention center where he is degraded and humiliated; his holy book, his holy text that he sees as sacred, is desecrated, is disrespected; he doesn’t even have access to a fair opportunity to defend his own innocence. I see that and I think: “Oh my god!” He needs a champion.

Q: And what exactly do you mean by champion — what kind of champion are you talking about?

Esperanza Spalding: Well, I know that he has a champion in his lawyer. He has a champion in his family. He has a champion in the human rights community, in these organizations who are working tirelessly for his freedom. But I think he needs a public champion. They need a public champion that helps make it clear that, it’s not about him as an individual, it’s about him as a representative of humanity. That you, him and I have equal rights on this planet. That we’re entitled to those rights just by being a member of our collective humanity and that while I may not identify with or relate to or agree with someone — I could even hate someone — that person is still equally entitled to their own God-given, whoever-given, whatever force-given rights. Intrinsic basic human rights which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that my country ratified, protects.

So, in manifesting that belief, somebody’s got to be a public champion for these men. And I always thought that if I ever got well known in music, that I would want to use my “celebrity” to be a champion for people. So with this particular issue, I noticed the lack of a public champion, a well-known figure anyway. For example, when you think environmental degradation, you think of Leonardo DiCaprio or Matt Damon who have been very vocal about it. Or when you think of child malnutrition or poverty, you may think of Angelina Jolie. But when you think about the human rights violations happening at Guantánamo , you think of people in orange jumpsuits tying themselves to the fence in DC — they are the most public figures connected to Guantánamo . And I thought that’s not fair. So I thought if … if my star is bright enough, I can be their champion for this — I want to be that.

Q: And you mentioned your mother just a bit ago — what about her or your background do you think has had an impact on your motivations with this project?

Esperanza Spalding: I remember in elementary school, there was this little bratty, annoying and destructive little boy in my class that the teacher had a hard time with because he was such a pain in the butt! He was acting out and really just behaving terribly. He didn’t do homework, and would never behave. I remember distinctly my mom seeing past all of that and one day noticing he was squinting in the direction of the teacher. My mother asked him if he could see the chalkboard. I don’t know how she had the insight to do that. He didn’t really answer. She just had a feeling, so she convinced the school nurse to give him an eye exam, and it turned out he was nearly blind. This kid was nearly blind. And he was in a home situation where his parents didn’t really care that he was nearly blind, and so she, my mother, became his surrogate advocate at school. She made sure this kid got glasses. Not that it changed his behavior immediately because there were much deeper issues happening. But, what she was championing for was his ability to participate in education.

Q: So she recognized that there might be something else behind what was going on there?

Esperanza Spalding: Right! And she was his champion even though it wasn’t her “duty” — she just proactively did it. That was not out of character for her, but once I could grasp that he was suffering, on some level, I felt embarrassed because I had always joined in with the general dislike of this kid. Then, there goes my mom patiently talking to him, the only one who thought of taking this kid to get his eyes checked. That really had an impact on me — on my mind. And now I think, “Wow, go Mom … that was great!” you know? So, something in that experience is related to my concern for this issue. We have to see past all of the stereotypes, all the negativity, the stigma, the culture of resistance and fear, and go straight to the basic intrinsic rights of all people and fight for that. So that it’s not for any individual person, it’s about the basic human rights of all people.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here – or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the four-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

26 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Holly Elizabeth Stevens wrote:

    I think the key point is if he (Obama) “is prepared to find the will to do so…” Let’s hope so.. The video is great, but kind of lets those quoted (obama, powell, mc cain) off the hook and implies that they would close it immediately if they could..do you think this is the case? Is it just a matter of congress blocking it?

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Holly Elizabeth Stevens wrote:

    Obama could have/SHOULD have free shaker ameer a long time ago and all the other innocent and cleared prisoners, right?

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Holly,
    President Obama certainly came up against stiff opposition from Congress around three years ago, after he had released 60+ prisoners – particularly, the requirement that he and the defense secretary had to certify to Congress that, if they wanted to release prisoners, it was safe to do so. This put the onus on him, so that if any released prisoner took up arms against the US, it would be his fault, and, of course, Republicans would use this to their advantage.
    However, this doesn’t let Obama off the hook. He became lazy in the face of Congressional opposition, and only addressed his inaction on Guantanamo, and promised to resume releasing prisoners, in May, when the hunger strike awakened media interest and people’s outrage worldwide.
    Since then, he’s only released two cleared prisoners, which he did in August, when he certified to Congress that it was safe to release two Algerians. He did it then, so he can do it again. After all, there are still 84 other cleared prisoners (including Shaker Aamer), men who, nearly four years ago, his task force said the US didn’t want to keep holding, and didn’t want to put on trial. Still holding them is what’s so unacceptable, and it requires Obama to act, rather than just saying the right thing when pushed to do so.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    When my friend Christine Casner posted the video on Facebook, I wrote:

    A great song, Christine. I’m very pleased that Esperanza Spalding was so upset about what is being done in her name that she wrote this song, and made this powerful video. I’ll be writing more about it, and doing my bit to publicize it soon.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Christine Casner wrote:

    You already do more than most of us, Andy. I am glad to share this, but please, friend, take time for YOU, too. Love && Light, CC :-)

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    I try to make sure I look after myself, Christine. I no longer do Guantanamo 24/7, like I did for five years, from 2006-11. I still write about it most days, but I make sure that I balance that with lots of cycling around London, taking photos. I’ve been doing that since May 2012, and will be launching a new website soon!

  7. Singer Esperanza Spalding against Guantánamo torture prison | Dear Kitty. Some blog says...

    […] From Andy Worthington’s blog: […]

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Holly Elizabeth Stevens wrote:

    Thanks for taking the time to respond. It’s just so infuriating! I understand that this video is an important and useful call to action and I thank you for all you do.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Holly Elizabeth Stevens wrote:

    I will read more of your articles soon.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Holly. Happy to help clarify the issues, and it’s good to hear about your interest. You should find plenty to read on my site!

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Pnac Attack wrote:

    I was going to sent that video yesturday for you but I forgot :) All the best for you Andy! :)

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the kind wishes, Pnac Attack. I saw on Monday that the song had been released, but didn’t listen to it until Tuesday morning, when I was delighted to realize that it was politically powerful and seriously funky.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Susan Chunco wrote:

    But what was that bit about supporting Obama in closing Guantanamo?? He has no interest in closing it.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    I think he does, Susan, or rather there are people within the administration (Obama included) who realize that it’s not helpful to have Guantanamo open forever – it costs a fortune, it creates enemies for the US, and, basically, it was a bad idea.
    That doesn’t make Obama a saint, of course. Although he has persistently refused to send anyone new to Guantanamo, which is a good thing, he prefers to kill anyone he thinks might be an enemy through the use of drones, which is nothing to be proud of. Also, although he and some of his advisers theoretically want to see Guantanamo closed, the reality is that they are scared of the political fallout if a single released prisoner turns out to bear a grudge against his former captors. The thing is, though, there’s no way out. Obama and the Democrats either get over themselves, or the place drags on forever, and people die there 10 years from now, or 20 years from now, or 30, 40, 50 years from now. There’s no automatic mechanism to shut the damn place down, so it requires clear, strong, moral leadership – something in short supply.

  15. Gary Rudd says...

    I wrote this in 2002 and have been performing it ever since. I wish Esperanza every success but I am not holding my breath.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WbmT0WdzeSI

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the link, Gary. I’m not holding my breath either, but this kind of high-level support undoubtedly helps more people to understand why Guantanamo is so unjust.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Dejanka Bryant wrote:

    Nice! Great article Andy. Shared.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks as ever, Dejanka. Great to hear from you!

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    After Christine Casner posted a link to this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Thanks, Christine. It’s a great song, isn’t it?

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Christine Casner wrote:

    YESSSSSSSS!! (I have listened to it AT LEAST a bazillion times!) ♥

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    That’s great, Christine. It would be nice if Esperanza heard that!

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Christine Casner I would love for Esperenza to hear this, Andy! I do not know how, though. Oh wait — let me see if she has a Book of Faces page!! :-)

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    She’s also on Twitter, Christine, @EsmeSpalding. If it was me, and someone tweeted that they’d listened to my song a bazillion times, I’d notice!

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Dhyanne Green wrote:

    Bless her.

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    Yeah, Dhyanne!

  26. Esperanza Spalding – We Are America | maraahmed.com says...

    […] Throughout the process, and after consulting with the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch, our resolve kept growing. We believe that the blatant injustice of detention without charge at Guantánamo violates not just U.S. human rights obligations but also our basic values and principles. More here. […]

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