Hardcore Legends Racetraitor Are on a Mission to Defeat White Supremacy

Stream the reunited, militantly anti-racist Chicago metallic hardcore partisans' new album, '2042,' and read our in-depth interview with vocalist Mani Mostofi.

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Oct 12 2018, 4:30pm

A few months ago, I went to a metal bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to see La Armada—a killer Dominican-turned-Chicago hardcore band we’ve covered here before—headline a benefit show to raise legal funds for migrant families detained at the U.S. border. I got there earlier than expected, and had planned to while away the extra time with a whiskey at the bar, until I spotted the second-to-last band’s name: Racetraitor. I’d never heard of them, but was more than willing to let my curiosity get the better of me—especially after I passed their merch table and saw that they were selling shirts with the phrase ‘DEFEAT WHITE SUPREMACY’ printed in big block letters on the back.

I had initially been content to be the old lady in the back clutching an overpriced Bulleit, but soon as Racetraitor stepped onstage and their singer Mani Mostofi grabbed the mic, I snapped right the fuck to attention, and pushed my way closer. They were on fire, and stayed lit up throughout their entire short, sharp set. It was only afterwards that I looked them up and realized I’d stumbled into a little piece of hardcore history—and that the band who’d bowled me over with their machinegun riffs and impassioned between-song political speeches were reunited legends.

Racetraitor’s original run was short-lived, even in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em hardcore scene. As Mostofi says, they were active during the second half of the 90s, then broke up in 1999. They released two records— the furious Burn the Idol of the White Messiah LP on Uprising Records, and a split EP called Make Them Talk via Trustkill—before disappearing. The members remained close and occasionally crossed paths in other projects throughout the years, but ultimately followed their own pursuits. Some chose graduate school or full-time activist work; others switched musical gears.

Mostofi, whose family is Iranian, works with human rights defenders in the Middle East. F. Drummer Andy Hurley joined pop punk outfit Fall Out Boy (alongside occasional Racetraitor fill-in bass player Pete Wentz), and is now also part of hardcore group Sect, with whom Racetraitor will soon embark upon a European tour. They never ruled out the idea of a reunion, and rumors of a Racetraitor resurrection floated around for years, but, simply put, life kept getting in the way.

Eventually, though, the time was right. Racetraitor reunited in 2016, and added a new member, guitarist Andrea Black (formerly of Howl and A Storm of Light), who the band knew through mutual friends in the music world; she started out as a touring member, but they immediately clicked, and she was soon invited to join the band outright. The new lineup released a new EP on Organized Crime Records and promising a reissue of Burn the Idol of the White Messiah.That was all they’d originally planned to do, but as Mostofi explains, “As soon as we started writing, that EP turned into an LP almost immediately. We had 12-13 songs within a period of a month. I think part of that is that we are really highly motivated; we’re putting as much as we can of ourselves into this because it is a personal way of us expressing our take on what’s going on in the world.”

The result of those sessions, a full-length called 2042, is a barn-burning blast of metallic hardcore fury that screams by with guns blazing and fists held high. In classic Racetraitor fashion, the title itself is a provocation—as Mostofi explains, the year 2042 is when the census predicts that white Americans will fall below 51 percent and no longer make up a majority of the country’s population. As one might imagine, both right-wing FOX News gasbags like Tucker Carlson and the outright white nationalists at Breitbart have been collectively losing their shit over this information, and Mostofi notes their decision to nab this particular title as a nod to that particular brand of fragile white fear, and a thumbed nose at the inflammatory xenophobic, Islamophobic rhetoric fueling the right wing’s terror.

They see 2042 as, basically, their own metallic hardcore version of Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet. Noisey is extremely proud to be streaming it below alongside a condensed transcript of an in-depth conversation I had with Mostofi earlier this week, a few hours after he’d come back from a meeting at the UN.

Noisey: What brought Racetraitor back? I know it’s been a very long time since you were out here—like, a real long time.
Mani Mostofi: The thing that really made the conversation serious was Ferguson. When the Ferguson uprising happened, we just thought like, “OK, this is really something that we want to lend solidarity to, and we feel like our music could do that in a way.” It was a slow conversation—and then Trump came on the scene. It became really self-evident that we had to jump into the fold and do something—if not for the larger community—for our own sanity.

Since you got together, how have people reacted? Has it felt like more of a homecoming, or a reintroduction?
It’s a little bit of both. We had very divided reaction back in the 90s, so when we were coming back this time, we didn’t really know what to expect. We were very critical, confrontational band, and we basically went to war with the punk scene—not particular individuals, but with the concept of the punk/hardcore community thinking it was always the good guys. And we were challenging them. You can’t just assume the mantle of anti-racist, anti-authoritarian because you wear the right T-shirt and go to the right shows. It has to be a practice.

Now, a lot of [concepts] we were talking about—like white privilege—have become commonplace, so we’re no longer thematically cutting-edge in any way. I don’t necessarily think we’re changing people’s minds. What I think we’re doing is making people feel less alone, feel more connected to these ideas through music and art, and that allows them to become more active and more conscious. We are cheerleaders for people who want to stand up to fascism and white supremacy.The insanity of the Trump campaign and the rise of the Alt-Right catching everybody off guard made us a band that people welcomed.

We still see internet trolls who will say things like, “The band Racetraitor invented white genocide,” [but] that stuff is to be expected in this era. And the other thing that has been heartwarming is the fact that, for some people in the metal and hardcore community, they feel like supporting us is a way of contributing. Our label Good Fight is backing us pretty intensely and it’s really because of what we’re about. They feel like they have to contribute what they can, and as a label, what they can do is put out a band like us.

It’s interesting to me that you mentioned label support as a means of getting involved politically. I’ve seen that happening, too—labels that up until a few years ago didn’t talk about politics are now signing bands that are actively anti-fascist and anti-racist. It’s like watching the marketing aspects of a political message unfold in real time. What is that like from your perspective?
I was once working with a group of activists on solidarity work with pro-democracy movements in Iran. I said, “Look, in some ways all activism, the sort of awareness-raising activism or acts of solidarity, is marketing. It’s the same set of tools.” That pissed a lot of people off. When we market ourselves as a band, it’s the same thing as marketing an idea, and the trick is, how do you convince people that it’s not performative? There’s a big critique for example, that anarchism is dumpster diving and growing out dreads; it’s not about developing a movement for fundamental change in the way we structure our societies. For us, an inescapable part of what we are as a band is saying that if you want to fight white supremacy, you’re getting involved with struggles where communities of color are empowered, and you’re trying to dismantle the system of hierarchy based on race. That’s how you do it. It’s through activism; it’s through community involvement. It’s listening to people most impacted by oppression. It’s inescapable. For us, are we marketing our politics? Sure, but our politics get involved in more than the superficial. That’s how we reconcile it.

We’re at a time where neutrality is not an option, so if people are taking political stances, it’s at least an opportunity to engage them, and translate that into deeper deeds. I was just chatting online with people about whether Taylor Swift saying she doesn’t like homophobia, sexism, and systematic racism is a good thing. Of course it’s a good thing! It doesn’t mean it’s sufficient, [but] I’m all for the fact that she said that, and that opens the conversation with her or her fanbase to push the envelope. At this time, we shouldn’t really talk about who needs to be excluded from the movement. If anyone wants to lends their voice in support in one way or another, I don’t think we should immediately question their intentions and try to ostracize them. We’re very, very much on this precipice of not just evil and neoliberal capitalism that we’ve been living in, but actually fascism. As bad as things have been, that’s actually worse, so we need to have a big tent approach.

You’re also bringing racism and the ongoing exclusion of people of color from these genres to the forefront. Because it is such an overwhelmingly white scene, there seems to be an awkwardness and silence around these issues, because most white people don’t know how to address it. How we can make more space for bands like you?
Hardcore and metal are still really white; there’s no argument there. Sometimes for people of color, that becomes exhausting, and it pushes them away from the scene. It’s hard sometimes for white kids to understand what that means, because white kids aren’t trying to be racist or exclusionary. It’s just that sometimes people feel, I can’t really be myself here. There’s certain things that people don’t get about my experience. I will say is that from 1999 to 2018, right, even though it’s an extremely white scene still, at least in hardcore and punk, there’s a more inclusiveness than there was. I would say especially more women than people of color that are taking prominent roles. When I was around, there were a lot women involved in the scene, but they did zines, and other aspects of what makes the scene, but ultimately when talking about the music scene, the band is the center point, right? There’s a lot more women in bands now in prominent roles, and that’s been different. And there’s definitely more people of color.

That’s been a great thing and what we do, as Racetraitor, is we introduce this idea of what does it mean to actually be involved in anti-racism. You can be personally anti-racist, all you want, but the schools around are designed in a certain way, how people have housing and generational wealth has been designed a certain way. You live under white power whether you choose to or not, and we’re saying, “Make a conscious choice not to,” and we’re often saying that in predominantly white spaces intentionally. The fact that that is acceptable part of the scene that this band could come here and say these things I think has value.

How do you make more politically conscious bands? Part of it is you try to celebrate the bands that are saying the right thing. We think of ourselves as anti-authoritarian radical music scene; whether that’s metal or punk or hardcore, all these genres try to buck norms. We try to say to buck norms to buck power, otherwise it’s just what costume you’re wearing, and that’s just as shallow as anything else. That gives this type of music power. Makes it threatening. Makes it a form of cultural resistance. The more we celebrate that, the more people will feel empowered to express those ideas through music or whatever else they do to contribute to this community.

Yeah, there’s nothing very dangerous or status quo smashing about parroting Rush Limbaugh talking points. There’s this prevailing thought in parts of the metal community that metal and music in general is meant to be about escapism—that you shouldn’t have to think about the art you are consuming. And I find that so frustrating.
Metal has always had political bands. If you want to ostracize those bands from metal, go ahead, but you lose a lot of the most pivotal bands. I totally get escapism. Escapism is actually not something we should disparage; it’s something we can celebrate. It’s just whether or not you get all consumed by it. If you don’t want to listen to political metal, that’s fine. There’s plenty of other stuff to listen to. I’m not saying you have to listen to political music. I’m saying I use music to say how people should live more political lives. I don’t care what music you listen to. I care about, are you apathetic to suffering around you? If you don’t want to express your lack of apathy by listening to my band or any other political band, that’s cool, but some people, myself included, when I put on a band that tested my ideas or reflected my values, it made me feel like I was part of something bigger. And that gave me courage or motivation to actually be part of something bigger in real life.

I know for a fact there’s people that just listen to our band for the riffs, because that’s all they comment on. That’s cool. We also think our riffs are heavy. That’s why we play them [laughs]. So that’s fine. Let’s not forget, the music that we play is sonically violent, right? And the scene both in terms of visuals and in terms of lyrics has always used violence as a way of conveying ideas, right? It’s weird, because if you think about a liberation politic, the ultimate goal is to minimize violence. It’s really easy for people who actually want to promote violence and right-wing thought to infiltrate our type of music. Rush Limbaugh is actually the perfect example. Why? Basically he just tells a bunch of dudes to just go ahead and be assholes. You’re being your true self by just being a total dickhead.

We use that type of music because we feel that violence inside, and we’re trying to exorcise it; we’re trying to get it out of our system and we’re trying to put it in the world and give it a positive shake. That’s also sometimes part of the escapism. You listen to aggressive music as a healthy outlet, and we take that one step further and we turn the healthy outlet into a political philosophy. But you could see how it could become the other way. You take the violence and the aggression and sense of fuck you, and you make it about empowering the individual to take on the rest of the world around them, and sometimes that means hating people because of their nationality or race. Sometimes it means hating women. Sometimes it means hating queer people. It’s very easy to transform this type of music into those negative ideas if you’re not conscious about it. It can infiltrate everything we do. A lot of people don’t buy into it; there’s a lot of cool people in these scenes. But is it contested territory? For sure.

So if a younger kid comes up to you at a show and says, “Hey I just walked in because your riffs sounded cool, and I really like what you had to say. I’m into metal and I’m into punk but I don’t know much about this political stuff but I want to do something .” What would you tell them to do with their energy?
I wouldn’t necessarily tell someone go join your local socialist organization chapter or anarchist affinity group; what we have always stressed is grassroots local organizations that are not necessarily about one political ideology of another. The way the members of this band got into activism was through working with people in affected communities.We tell people to work with communities that are trying to figure out how to survive, and turn the process of survival into an act of greater social change. That creates a lot more empathy, and it’s more grounded in human values.

We all derive influence from different ideological thoughts on the left, but I would never tell somebody to just become all consumed by ideology. For us, activism is about people. People live in communities. So it’s really about finding those community groups you agree with and working with them on whatever issue it might be. It might be gentrification in your community. It might be immigrant rights and supporting refugees. It might be working with queer teenagers. It might be working with women who survive sexual assault. Working with those communities make a big difference, and then in your own brain, thinking about how that is part of a struggle for a more just society as a whole.

What came first for you: punk rock or politics?
It depends on how you define punk rock! I was into post-punk bands at a very young age, like Joy Division or the Cure, and the term I use for those bands was punk when I was 12-13 years old; I didn’t know there was another word for them. At the same time, I’ve always sort of had a sort of political consciousness as a really young kid. It sounds weird, but I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t thinking about these issues of race and class. I was born in Chicago in the late seventies, and my family’s apartment was really on the line between the rich part of Hyde Park and the poor side of Inglewood. Maybe because I was the son of immigrants—I was from an Iranian family—I never really felt like I totally fit in. At a young age, I started thinking about, ‘So, there’s different races, there’s different incomes.’ I didn't have a word for class, but I knew some people could afford shit and some people couldn’t. I was picked on as a kid for being Iranian. I can’t tell you how many times they told me my father is a terrorist. If you feel like you hate the system of oppression around you, this is the music for that, right?

So where did you get the name Racetraitor in the first place?
There’s lots of different disputes about where the name of the band came from, but the person that came up with it was our guitar player, Dan [Binaei]. His family is from small town Kentucky, but Dan grew up in Chicago and got into progressive politics in high school. He always felt like, this was his family, but there was a level of disconnect with them. He remembered watching an episode of Jerry Springer or Donahue, where they had KKK members on, and they started calling white people in the audience who were speaking out against racism “racetraitors.” It just sort of clicked with Dan that, in his environment, maybe there are people who think of him as a racetraitor. He proposed that name to the rest of the band, and we just thought it was so crazy that we had to do it.

When I’m just talking to someone and I tell them I’m in a band called Racetraitor, within like ten seconds, I always make sure to say it’s an anti-racist band, because it’s such a crazy term that people don’t always get the idea that we’re trying to reclaim the term, take it away from the white nationalists, and turn it into something that’s a badge of honor. Not everybody gets it right away, but that’s one of the victories of the band. From the first second you’re introduced to us, you have to process something.That’s sort of our success and our curse, you know? I’ve read reviews that call us a band that’s really unpleasant and challenging—and that’s a good thing. That’s the road we paved for ourselves, and it starts with the name.

Kim Kelly is burning idols on Twitter.