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A musical performance and the shrinking public discourse

June 2, 2023 at 6:00 pm

Image of Roger Waters on 29 March 2011 [Alterna2/Wikipedia]

Seventy-nine-year-old singer Roger Waters’ new show has caused a stir. Waters’ moment of fame is not about art this time. Rather, it is more about ‘cancel culture’.

The controversy surrounding the show centres around Waters’ political stances. The Pink Floyd co-founder has been labelled an anti-Semite and a “Putin apologist”. Some of Waters’ positions have angered many people. For example, he condemned the invasion of Ukraine but criticised the latter saying it “was not unprovoked”; such views led to his concerts in Poland being cancelled.

He won a legal battle to perform in Frankfurt after accusations of anti-Semitism (which he strongly rejects). As soon as allegations of anti-Semitism surfaced, a campaign was waged against the artist by members of the Krakow City Council, the Berlin Police and MPs from the British Labour Party. They joined the chorus against Roger Waters, who was brandished as a Nazi sympathiser.

The first salvo of criticism began with Roger Waters’ objection to the US involvement in the Ukraine war and his refusal to join the art and media bandwagon on this issue.

In an open letter to Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska, he described Western arms support to Ukraine as “throwing fuel, in the form of armaments, into a fire fight”. Later, after intense criticism, he also wrote an open letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin; “…stop playing the desperately dangerous game of nuclear chicken that the hawks on both sides of the Atlantic seem so comfortable with.”

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Waters’ political viewpoints, it is clear that ‘cancel culture’ is out of hand in the West.

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This issue could have been part of an acceptable political debate. However, the city of Krakow declared in September 2022 the renowned artist persona non grata after the Zelenska letter. As a result, the 2023 concerts scheduled in Krakow as part of Waters’ ‘This is not a Drill’ tour were cancelled.

Things did not stop there. Recently, Berlin Police announced that an investigation had been launched into Waters allegedly wearing a Nazi costume during his concert at the Mercedes Benz Arena. The artist performed in Frankfurt amid controversies over the cancellation of future shows. Meanwhile, some MPs from the British Labour Party have published messages calling for the cancellation of Roger Waters’ concerts in his homeland in June. MP Christian Wakeford described Waters’ crime: “Mr Waters performed in Berlin this week and used the name of Anne Frank to stoke division, performed whilst dressed as an SS soldier…”

Waters’ comparison of the teen killed in the Holocaust and Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh killed by Israeli occupation forces last year, caused a lot of controversy. The official Israeli state Twitter account tweeted: “Good morning to everyone but Roger Waters who spent the evening in Berlin (Yes Berlin) desecrating the memory of Anne Frank and the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.”

As the Berlin police investigate the famous artist’s “Nazi costume”, one should know that Roger Waters did not wear the SS costume for the first time in his career in 2023. He did so in 1990 at his Berlin concert, which became one of the symbols of German reunification and perhaps the most popular show of his career. At that time, while the song ‘In the Flesh’ was playing, band members wore costumes similar to those of SS soldiers, almost identical to the ones Waters wore on his last tour.

The context is that Roger Waters’ album ‘The Wall’, including the song ‘In the Flesh’ and has a narrative centred around the protest against war and fascism. The album relates the story of a child whose father lost his life in the Second World War. This child is Roger Waters himself, who lost his father, Eric Fletcher Waters, when he was five months old. This context better explains how the fall of the Berlin Wall, perhaps one of the most painful legacies of the Second World War and fascism, and Waters’ 1990 Berlin concert is full of symbolism in that regard.

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When it comes to Anne Frank and Abu Akleh, one of the themes Waters uses in his shows is to project names on stage, especially those killed by state violence. In his latest show, those are not the only names projected on the stage, the name of Iran’s Mahsa Amini was also on display.

The enthusiasm surrounding the Berlin 1990 concert contrasts dramatically the mood in 2023. The tolerance and introspection of the 1990s have given way to intolerance and cancel culture 33 years later.

Being accused of anti-Semitism is not unusual for Roger Waters and many other human rights activists who have turned their attention to Palestine. However, political and media flak against opposition speech has escalated more than ever. This unbelievable tragicomic story reveals how the realm of acceptable discourse is shrinking fast.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.