“Okay. We’ve been asked to do some shows this summer in your country and, with the heaviest of hearts, I have regretfully declined the invitation.”
It was 2005 when the high priest of house sent his uncluttered note to the Faithless fans in Israel.
“It’s fair to say that for 14 years we’ve been promoting goodwill, trust ad harmony all around the world in our small (but very loud) way.
“While human beings are being wilfully denied not just their rights but their needs for their children and grandparents and themselves, I feel deeply that I should not be sending even tacit signals that this is either normal okay. Its neither and I cannot support it.
“It grieves me that it has come to this and I pray every day for human beings to begin caring for each other, firm in the wisdom that we are all we have.”
His sign-off was customary. Beautiful. “One love. Maxi.”
Six years later- after Faithless had turned down that invitation to tour Israel for a third time- his voice is unimaginably familiar on the other side of the phone, so the heart pounds. In the background, the TV is on and from kilometers away, the world is quietly watching a revolution being unleashed in Egypt. The original frontiers are being challenged. King Abdullah has dissolved his parliament in Jordan.
Tunisia has been on the burn. And for two of the gods of Faithless- Maxi Jazz and the guitarist Dave Randall- these are events that are more fundamental to their music than many fans will realise.
Always at the heart of what they play and what they say now, is the war on Gaza. Democratic Israel still refuses to accept Palestine’s own democratic election results. There’s no meaningful peace process. There’s no promised security of all states. If Jazz sounds tranquil on the phone, the lyricist who best projects universal grace, his writing is not as peaceful.
“I’m Jamaican, so I know what its like,” he begins to explain. “I understand that position: I will not have you tell me what to do. The average Israeli won’t take finger-wagging , and that’s fair enough, except it’s not going to help people move on.”
On the eve of Faithless’s visit to South Africa, consciousness about their pro-Palestinian position is having to be raised on the margins. It feels as if Real SA, the organisers of the band’s two concerts in Cape Town and Joburg, might not be comfortable talking politics. But the lobbyists carry on regardless. The cause, after all, is too great to counter.
“When somebody’s absolutely driven with fear,” says Maxi, “It’s difficult to talk to them. When somebody’s absolutely determined to believe their life’s in danger, it’s even harder. Israel is the most fearful nation on earth, along with the Americans, and when fearful people have guns, then we’re really in trouble.”
His own enlightenment is fundamental to his argument.
“As a young man, I would feel that when certain people looked at my black skin, they would see a criminal. I wanted to be treated like a normal human being. I expressed that in ways some people found difficult to accept. Now my attitude has changed. I’ll be driving the same car, doing the same things, but my attitude has changed. I can do something about my attitude, but I bow to nobody.”
To some, all of this may come as a strike of lightning.
The band’s youngest fans may not have listened carefully enough. The older fans may have heard, but are they listening?
Randall, also on the phone from England, is proud of the position the band has taken. And with a sound in the background of human clashes battering through Cairo, he says what is happening in Egypt is the best thing “for the long-term prospects of Palestinians”.
Both musicians admit they have faced robust disagreement with others in the band on their stance. Yet even if there is not universal agreement on it, Faithless have joined the cultural boycott against Israel.
It’s now become a deliberate part of who they are. “It’s so important that people start to speak about what is really going on in the Middle East,” says Randall. “If we haven’t before, we must start to speak about history of the region.”
He relates how he became politically aware, saying his interest in Palestine and Israel “goes back a long way”.
“When Faithless played Tel-Aviv in 1997 we had one day off and I decided to spend that day travelling down to Gaza City. Back then, you could make that journey in a few hours. With my British passport, I could get in relatively easily, and it had quite a profound effect on me- and, I imagine, anyone making that journey. I was only beginning to know how desperate their situation was, and by 2005 when Faithless played there again, there were private conversations happening between musicians, sharing a sense of unease, talking among one another about what was going on in Israel and certainly what was going on in the West Bank and Gaza.
“There was concern about privately entertaining people in an uncritical way while several groups in Palestine called for a boycott. So by the time we were invited to come back, we had been thinking about a lot of things. People’s understanding had shifted quite dramatically, and especially maxi Jazz and I felt strongly about leaving it at what could have seemed like complete indifference.”
So both operate in the open air.
They want to talk about how they feel to widen the window.
“There are amazing people out there,” says Maxi. “Israelis I’ve met have been consistently fantastic. They want peace. But the mind has to be open enough to accept it.
“The last time Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister, I refused to go. He’s a particular character. The way he views the world made it impossible to go. But their comes a point when you have to ask how much difference can we make if we do go? We can go to attempt to engage with the radical disaffected there, but it’s a little overstated.
“To be there, for me now, goes against every principle that is right and proper. Its not appropriate.”
His cry has always been for the grace of the individual.
“It only takes one person. The lyrical direction of the band is to look within. You’ll see treasures there. But certain ideologies have never sat well with me- intransigent governments holding onto emotional power, where the political aspect is inspired by war. If people are told the same lie for 20 years, to them it can be not in the slightest bit abnormal.”
But neither he now Randall direct enmity at anyone. Randall recalls Lenin’s words about centuries- through his words and Faithless’s music they have come to reflect the fragile living spaces of the most oppressed, on the very margins of the world.
“The past is like a dream I had last night,” says Jazz. “It will never come back, and once I know what is signified, I can move on. It’s a signpost- nothing more than that. I can forget it and move on.
“So some lyrics are spiritual, they’re also about get up and go. If you take the action, the universe will pretty much back you up. You can’t change people’s minds but you can change their hearts. It’s about new convictions- that’s where you attack people. You can’t get them in the head. It’s always going to be about allowing people to understand what’s in their own heart. That’s the quality that made Beethoven, Nelson Mandela and Cassius Clay. They each expressed it in their own individual way. Our lives are linked casually to life itself and people don’t have to be afraid of each other. Under the skin, we all want the same shit. Essentially, that is the force behind lasting peace.”
"To be there [Israel], for me now, goes against every principle that is right and proper: Its not appropriate." Maxi Jazz