Conceptual artist Jenny Holzer created a series of graphic T-shirts in the early 1980’s that have become memes with staying power. One of the most famous, “Abuse of Power Comes As No Surprise,” is a cultural maxim, even finding life as a motto of the #MeToo movement. But as familiar as this phrase has become, we are regularly caught off guard when the abuse actually happens.
Last week the German government confirmed that Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny was poisoned with a nerve agent. Poisoning has become a well known assassination method of the KGB. Essentially, those who speak against the standing government get hit-listed. You could call this terrible practice a “tradition” that goes back to the Soviet’s “Special Office” founded in 1921 to create poisons which were undetectable postmortem.
When I read the article about Navalny, Trigger Warning, a song from my newly released EP, War Is On Its Way, came to mind. It is also a tale of governmental abuse of power, only more gruesome. On October 2, 2018, Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident, Jamal Khashoggi, was brutally murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by secret agents. As we learned of his fate, and witnessed a sham public response and cover up, my stomach turned. As justice rapidly faded my outrage grew. How can a man be murdered on the world stage with no consequences?
I wrote verses about this flagrant abuse of power as I tried to comprehend it. They began:
They could make me disappear / In newspaper and string / Ruby bursts on window panes / A victory without wings…
A human being reduced to lamb chops at the grocery…. It was a disturbing and terrifying image that I couldn’t let go. Variations of these verses sat in my phone notes for months.
One weekend in February I decided I wanted another track for War…. I began by creating a drum loop from a mic test recording that had been sitting on my hard drive. The loop ended up in 7/8 time, which was a bit tricky for me, but also a welcome challenge. As I layered synths and guitars over the loop I scanned my notes and came across my lines about Khashoggi.
Out of curiosity I had picked up some antique records on a trip to Dubai in 2018. The labels were mostly in Arabic but they did have an imprint, Sono Cairo, which I later learned was an Egyptian record label that was taken over by their government in the 1960’s. I felt a connection as I worked on my new song and had an idea to make loops from the scratched discs and use them as an intro. One of the records began with four ominous notes then began to skip. It was perfect! I felt like the sample rooted the song in a time and place, but even with its addition the intro didn’t feel done.
I started thinking about what more I wanted to say. I felt like the politics of the situation were only half the story. It’s easy to compartmentalize this victim as a political pawn. Yes, Jamal Khashoggi was a journalist, dissident, and activist, but he was also a fiancé, going to the consolate to pick up papers related to his pending marriage. His fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, sat in the car outside the building while her future husband stepped out for a quick errand from which he never returned.
I began listening to Cengiz’s speeches online. One she gave on the anniversary of Khashoggi’s death stood out to me for its vulnerability. I sampled a phrase and placed it at the beginning of the song immediately after the fanfare. She said, “I was a girl in love, waiting for my man.” Her quote reminded me that this was not just about headlines. It was about both horrific abuse of power and personal loss. It was a cold act against a warm body. It was a lover losing their love.
Last week Trump repeated the claim that the media is the enemy of the people once again. It’s a trite and dangerous slogan. He’s done an effective job of sewing doubt across America, dismembering the integrity of journalism, dividing us as a country and a globe. It’s also just a stage of abuse that can be escalated with an executive order. History teaches us this. Khashoggi’s murder teaches us this. And Navalny’s present circumstances do too. The end of facts, and the end of the freedom of the press, will be the end of personal freedom for us all. Don’t be surprised.