Roger Waters’ ‘This is Not a Drill’ concert on November 21 at Estadio River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina, began with his voice announcing across a darkened stage and stadium:
“Firstly, out of consideration for your fellow patrons, please turn off your cell phones. And secondly, if you are one of those ‘I-love-Pink-Floyd-but-I-can’t-stand-Roger’s-politics’ people, you might do well to f*** off to the bar!”
The packed stadium erupted in loud cheers.
Where most international megastars in both movies and the music industry have refrained from speaking out against Israel’s military brutality in Gaza, Roger Waters, co-founder of the legendary group, Pink Floyd, continues to be an exception.
There is nothing subtle about Waters’ activism. Not only does the musician wear the Palestinian kheffiyeh when he performs, but the gigantic screens behind his performing stage also bear constant witness to his political beliefs. Names and photos of political prisoners, persecuted activists, slain journalists, and those who have died in Gaza scroll across the screens. And then, of course, there are the actual lyrics of his songs.
Waters’ activism has, naturally, come at a cost. Some of his recent shows nearly got cancelled in South America and some hotels cancelled his reservations with no reasons given. He continues to be called ‘antisemitic’ by many in the mainstream media and elsewhere. Waters’ response to the accusation is perhaps best captured in an open letter he wrote to fellow musician, Madonna, in 2019:
“Because I support human rights and criticise the Israeli government for its violations, I am routinely accused of being antisemitic. That accusation can be used as a smokescreen to divert attention and discredit those who shine a light on Israel’s crimes against humanity. I should point out that I support the fight for human rights for all oppressed peoples everywhere. The religion of the oppressor is neither here nor there. If I support the Rohingyas and deplore Myanmar’s persecution of them, it doesn’t make me anti-Buddhist.”
Waters’ first encounter with Palestine came in 2005 when during a musical tour of Europe, his agent suggested that since they had a few days between gigs, they could fit one in Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park. Waters agreed, but almost immediately started getting appeals requesting him not to, including one from Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, (and incidentally, a recipient of the Gandhi Peace Award)
Barghouti informed Waters that Hayarkon Park, the venue for the proposed concert, was, in fact, built over Palestinian graves.
Waters, who by his own admission, did not know very much about the condition of the Palestinians at the time, agreed to shift the venue to a multi-faith agricultural community, called Neve Shalom, halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The gig, with 60,000 people attending, was a success by any standards.
At the end of the show, Waters appealed to the Israeli youth in attendance to live in peace with their Palestinian neighbours.
The audience, euphoric till that point, suddenly went very quiet. But it was not the quietness of acquiescence.
Waters described the moment in a recent interview to TRT World, “It was uncanny. They went very, very quiet. I went back the next year and went on an extended tour … all over the West bank and it was chilling beyond anything I could ever have imagined. The absolute disdain and disgust with which the young Israeli border guards treated us, including me with a British passport in an UNRWA vehicle! I remember thinking at the time, if they’re like that to me, what must they be like to the Palestinians?”
This was back in 2006. Today, Waters’ voice breaks as he speaks of the continuing massacre in Gaza. “I spend my life teetering on the verge of tears.”
Waters has tried to be the voice of conscience to his fellow musicians as well. He publicly asked Madonna not to play at the Eurovision song contest finals in Tel Aviv in 2019.
Reminding her of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he asked whether she stood by them, and if she did, “would she help her brothers and sisters in their struggle for human rights or would she cross over and walk on by the other side?”
He went on to say:
“Some of my fellow musicians who have recently performed in Israel say they are doing it to build bridges and further the cause of peace. Bullshit. To perform in Israel is a lucrative gig but to do so serves to normalise the occupation, the apartheid, the ethnic cleansing, the incarceration of children, the slaughter of unarmed protesters …”
Madonna went ahead with the show, regardless.
Waters speaks often of his father who died fighting the Nazis in Europe in World War II. Although he was too young at the time to have any memories of him, he makes it a point to credit his mother for teaching him how to make difficult moral choices. According to him, when he was still in his teens and struggling with a decision, she would suggest that the young Roger read up as much as he could on the topic at hand, educate himself thoroughly on all sides of the issue, and then do the right thing. This is advice that the music icon seems to be following right up to his 80s.
Waters has been accused of a lack of subtlety. But looking at the carnage, death, and devastation that the Palestinians are facing daily at the hand of the Israeli army and air force, perhaps the time for subtlety is now over. Perhaps now is the time to take a page out of Waters’ book and call the situation in Gaza for what it really is – a genocide and war crime unlike any this century has seen.
Rohit Kumar is an educator, author, and independent journalist, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was originally published in The Wire on Dec 9 and has been reproduced with permission.