GeoFugazi: The Radical Geography of Fugazi by Dana Williams


Corporate globalization and local empowerment. The anonymity of the city, and the unique autonomy and collective identity of community.

The tension between these themes surface repeatedly in the recent work of the rock band Fugazi. The likelihood of a stridently outspoken and independent band creating some of the most poetic and poignant statements on present-day geographical thought is both surprising and welcome.

As a Washington D.C.-based punk band, Fugazi grew out of the fury and passion of the early 1980s hardcore scene, with some members playing instrumental roles in the development of a highly influential record label (Dischord Records, the label which Fugazi is on), pivotal bands, and of supporting D.C.'s political activism.

Fugazi is at the musical epicenter of the D.C. underground punk scene. Probably no other band is as well known and respected in the Capitol City. A Rolling Stone reader's poll rated Fugazi the “Best Live Band in America”. Spin magazine places Fugazi at #31 on this list of “Greatest Bands of All Time”—something extremely profound considering they are the only musicians not on a major record label.

Over the course of their seven albums and 14-year history, their music and lyrics have evolved (as all great musicians do) to where the music no longer sounds like “conventional punk”, and the lyrics are not your typical punk sloganeering. Their music is more engaging and involved today than 14 years ago, and more ideas can be derived from their message. One key element is the importance of place. Fugazi's last three albums (Red Medicine, End Hits, and The Argument) have placed the deepest emphasis on location, geography, and place, and this article will draw heavily from those works.

the farther i go
the less i know...
the answer is there
but, there is not a fixed position

“Long Distance Runner”, Red Medicine, 1995

Fugazi ended their 5th album with these lines, a somber, reflective song that mused over the tendency to get bogged down in life, to be brought to a physical and mental halt. Guitarist and singer Ian MacKaye sang of his need to keep moving in order to resist the pull of gravity.

This song sets the stage for a philosophical look at the attitudinal approach towards geography. Getting stuck for too long in one's surroundings can become stagnating, and in order to resist the eventual death (of the body, of creativity, etc.), one must remain in motion, open to other ideas, locations, and experiences. At the same time, MacKaye notices that the more he travels (in his mind and on the earth), the less things are “for sure”. Nothing is guaranteed, and life's diversity and inexplicability is enforced by every post-modernist step forward.

Always present in Fugazi's music has been the challenge to listeners to view the world differently and to question what they are told. This anti-authoritarian message shows up most clearly in its critique of corporate globalization. The sterile and callous advance of corporate power throughout the world is portrayed in the song “Five Corporations” (End Hits, 1998):

grows so smoothly
moves so slowly
takes completely
it's as if they belong
and they've been here all along...
buy them up
and shut them down
then repeat in every town
every town will be the same

Here, MacKaye sees the homogenization of the landscape and its potential being lowered to the least common denominator as huge chain stores (Blockbuster, Barnes & Noble, McDonalds, Starbucks, et al.) come to diverse communities and, piece-by-piece, remove all semblance of uniqueness. Left behind is the shallow, empty hull of a city that looks exactly like every other city: gigantic parking lots, gaudy storefronts, glaring billboards, immediately recognizable commercial logos, and mile after mile of strip malls. The result is a loss of autonomy and local control over commerce, a reduction of choice, reckless and ecologically destructive urban sprawl, and a dehumanizing and alienating consumer-culture.

The sudden realization that these corporations have completely supplanted our expectations and past memories—to the point where we can't even remember a different world—is a shattering one. The screamed line, “every town will be the same”, is a cry against the prospect of a monoculture future in which all power and choice is held by unanswerable, bureaucratic corporations and not by citizens.

Guy Picciotto, Fugazi's other lead singer and guitarist, pens this line in “Oh” (The Argument, 2001): “now there is no foreign soil”. The removal of “trade barriers” (i.e. human and environmental laws) has lead to a world where capital no longer is impeded by national borders. The traditional restrictions of tariffs and regulations are dropped, in favor of a neoliberal approach that allows multinational and transnational corporations to move from country to country without penalty or control. Now, in an ironic sense of “equality”, everyone in the world may be exploited as equally as everyone else. However, his message is not one of acquiescence and he hints at growing global resistance by “there's a call coming on the other line / your secret's out”. Unsustainable greed and a global economy gone awry is headed for a crash, and Picciotto revels in his repulsion (by way of civil disobedience): “I'm changing all the locks / I'm pissing on your modems / I'm shredding all the stock”.

Of course, only capital moves unfettered throughout the world; humans are still the only “commodity” that the world's powerbrokers refuse to acknowledge as being global. The song “Place Position” (End Hits, 1998), explores this:

all origins are accidental
you've got no papers
and no roads lead home anymore
chance is the root of all place position
all maps are random
all scales are wrong...
may all your borders be porous...
the violence of a fence-builder's dream
that masks the phrasing of:
“all the pleasures of home”
legal, illegal
legal, illegal
i want to go home

Here, Picciotto seems to allege that the analysis and theories of political geography violate the inherent human rights that all the world's people share. Maps and national boundaries have almost always been drawn by dominators and purveyors of violence. From the period of European “exploration” to the time of its decolonization, lines have been drawn on the earth's surface over top the lives of powerless humans. From the Americas to the Middle East to Africa, those without voices have never been able to stop the compartmentalization and fragmentation of human communities.

Fugazi notes that “we draw lines and stand behind them / that's why flags are such ugly things” (In On The Killtaker, 1993). An attitude of confrontation and separatism reign when differences are emphasized over similarities. Common humanity and the interpersonal links of people are lost when militarized fences are erected (in Berlin, Korea, or on the Rio Grande) or when gated communities are established, preventing the “undesirables” from tainting the upper-crust's [artificially-perfected] reality.

The chorus “legal, illegal / legal, illegal” accuses everyone in the world with being foreigners in some way or another. Nearly no one in the US has had permanent ties to their present location. As Chicana/o activists say “todos somos illegales”—we are all illegals! No one's family has deep roots in any one place, whether their forbearers came from White Europe as colonists or laborers, from Africa as slaves, from Asia as cheap labor, or from The South as seekers of a better life. Even indigenous people – those who are left – likely did not always reside on the land they are now besieged upon in reservations; they roamed freely throughout the continent, and were only penned-up like livestock when White America pushed them off the land, further and further West, into eventual obscurity and annihilation.

Bass player (and occasional singer) Joe Lally, intones on “The Kill” (The Argument, 2001):

born into race and nation
accept family and obligation
i'm not a citizen

His lyrics reject the less-important legacy of country for the more-important heritage of humanity. Lally asserts that it is ridiculous to impose restrictions or form allegiances that do not serve the greater good of the world since all people are in essence merely products of their own environment, culture, and families. In doing so, he is stating the not-quite profound (but rarely acknowledged) truism that all humans, regardless of their origin on the earth's surface, are equal. By this radical perspective, an Iraqi life is just as valuable as an American life, and vice-versa. Thus, the longer we perpetuate barriers of “citizenship” the longer we shall be shackled by dogma and ignorance of each other.

Lally focuses on the plight of immigrants to the US from “Recap Modotti” (End Hits, 1998), as he sings of an immigrant cab driver:

you find you feel at home everywhere
you'll get by
with so much less than anyone

He views the actual physical location as less important than the reality that humans create for it and the value they ascribe to it. By such logic, New York City's Chinatown is as much a legitimate Chinese community as the country of China itself. The cab driver's free will is obviously paramount here: he has chosen (or perhaps was compelled) to seek a better life elsewhere, but that does not mean he is required to give up his values or identity. He is, indeed, the same person here that he was there.

The protagonist of Lally's narative rises above the material restraints of American culture, and places value upon his surroundings and his loved ones, to whom he writes in a letter: “take care of the children / we'll send for you soon”. The clash of cultural priorities has been a never-ending theme throughout the history of the US, as foreigners have fled for American soil, in pursuit of a better life, only to have their traditions, priorities, and ways of life burned by the American “melting pot”, which boils away uniqueness and local culture into an emphasis on “making it” and the pursuit of the American DreamTM.

The violent and community-destroying nature of capitalism is seen in “Cashout” (The Argument, 2001), where MacKaye comments on the counter-suburbanization (or gentrification) of inner-city communities:

forced removal of the people on the corner
process and dismissal
shelter and location
everybody wants somewhere

Again, the message is clear: if your land is desired by someone more powerful than you, then your rent will be raised, your property taxes will be made un-payable, and you will be forced to leave for a “more affordable” area of the city, while the affluent move into the prime real estate – ironically abandoned decades ago by the rich as they fled to the suburbs to escape from the poor. This reversal of suburbanization does the same damage that suburbanization does: it pushes the “undesirables” out of their neighborhoods by “passive” economic methods. Regardless of a person's right to land, and without income and wealth equalization, the poor are easy prey for those who can pay to get whatever they want. Yet, MacKaye realizes the obvious: “everybody wants [to be] somewhere”. Of course they do, and he asks, Why should the poor be forced from their communities simply because of their economic straits?

Even though Fugazi lyrics sometimes appear to merely lament the overwhelming threats posed by corporate and state power to humanity and its infinite communities, moments of optimism and strident resistance consistently crop up, as in “No Surprise” (End Hits, 1998):

no C.I.A.
no N.S.A.
no satellite
could map our veins

The powerful and manipulative forces at work in the US and world will never cease to misunderstand the human spirit to resist and rebel. No matter how much we are monitored and spied upon by hidden cameras, police, military satellites, and wiretaps, humans will remain unpredictable and be able to creatively resist oppression. Across the US, decentralized networks of community activist groups continually spring up, resisting domination and exploitation in their communities and throughout the world. It is inconceivable that such complex and organic relationships can be monitored and understood beyond their basic structures by outsiders. The motivations for resistance are basic human empathy and solidarity, yet the powers-that-be continue to remain ignorant of this and continue to act as although humans need to be controlled and dominated.

Fugazi's geographical philosophy is one that champions human globalism: it respects the common humanity of all the world's people, yet places importance upon the individual and collective merit of local communities and their right to remain independent and unique. Their vision is in fact an anarchistic one that values human freedom over hierarchy and authority, values the ability to freely associate and federate without compulsion, and to retain the original and creative spirit that we all share while appreciating and sustaining the amazing diversity surrounding us.