By Haseena Manek

Three Little Birds is an Ottawa-based group that recently came under fire for their song “Apartheid.” It’s members – Amelia Leclair, Angela Schleihauf and Eirn Saoirse Adair – have been performing the song for three years, and they played it on CTV Morning Live in Ottawa on June 18. A month later, an online video clip of the performance provoked a new kind of reaction.

Honest Reporting Canada, a pro-Israel organization that claims to promote “fairness and accuracy in Canadian media coverage of Israel and the Middle East,” set out to delegitimize the band. They alleged that the song, from a “fringe musical group,” was anti-Semitic.

The group rejects the charge. Schleihauf originally wrote the song in response to Carleton University’s decision in 2009 to ban a poster advertising Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), a weeklong conference of lectures, film screenings and events designed to promote principled student and community dialogue about Israeli Apartheid.

University administrators often attempt to undermine students’ efforts to organize IAW events. They do so in large part because IAW organizers support the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS): cultural and economic boycott of the state of Israel until it dismantles its apartheid system and complies with international law. The movement calls for companies to divest from Israel or Israeli companies, and for people, companies and organizations to participate in the boycott.

The cultural boycott has already inspired many artists to participate by refusing to perform or participate in events in Israel. These artists include filmmaker Kevin Loach, writers Eduardo Galeano and Arundhati Roy, actors Dustin Hoffman and Meg Ryan, and musicians Massive Attack, the Pixies, Carlos Santana and Elvis Costello, to name a few. In addition, over a hundred other artists are members of the organization Artists Against Apartheid.
Many artists still perform in Israel. Recently there was murmuring about Madonna’s decision to perform in Tel Aviv. A high-profile show like that is a blow to BDS campaign work. And I won’t pretend that I wasn’t disappointed when I heard that Cirque du Soleil decided to perform there. But, despite these high-profile losses, the movement continues growing.

Some artists choose to incorporate the struggle for a free Palestine into their music itself. Three Little Birds describe the “dirty ride through apartheid” in the lyrics to their controversial song. “Every artist can do what they want,” explains Leclair, “but it’s very powerful to include political messages in music… It allows people to get closer to the root of the issue.”

Music is arguably the most universally appreciated art form. Not everyone likes to read, and not everyone can appreciate a good painting, photograph or installation, but almost everyone enjoys a solid beat or a good melody. Mix that with a particular message and you have a huge opportunity to make an important idea more easily digestible. A good song can bring debates to the forefront of public discourse. Even if people don’t agree, they are at least talking about the problem.

This is the fear of those who slandered Three Little Birds: that the message of their song will get people thinking. For political activism and campaign work, music is a powerful tool that ought to be utilised. As Leclair says, “the more people involved, the better.”

Haseena Manek is a freelance journalist based in Toronto.