Jello Biafra on How to Stand Up to Trump, Why Punk Still Matters

"What we're looking at here is Jim Crow 2.0," ex–Dead Kennedys frontman says of coming presidency

Jello Biafra discusses why punk is still a relevant force for social change, why Trump's cabinet choices terrify him and how to get involved. Credit: Marc Broussely/Redferns/Getty

After Donald Trump won the presidential election, Jello Biafra, former Dead Kennedys frontman, fell face first onto his bed, pounding his fists and shouting, "How can people be so fucking stupid?!?" For Biafra, who has spent nearly 30 years as a leftist pundit, doing as many spoken-word appearances as punk-rock shows, Trump's ascendancy confirms his darkest conspiracy theories about fundamentalist right-wingers taking over the world.

"I don't think the upper 1 or 0.1 percent were ever tearing their hair out about Trump," the 58-year-old "California Uber Alles" and "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" singer-songwriter says, by phone from his family home in Boulder, Colorado, where he's helping his mother contact AAA to replace a dead car battery. "They were ecstatic that somebody that right-wing, and that bigoted, came with a built-in fan base – a cult following, even – that you could never build from scratch with a Jeb Bush or a Ted Cruz or a Marco Rubio. Behind the scenes, they love this stuff. They think they can get away with so much more."

After bringing up Trump, Rolling Stone let Biafra do most of the talking for nearly an hour.

A lot of people out there are asking, "What do we do now? How do we join the resistance?" What do you suggest?
I said from the Gulf War onward: "Don't hate the media, become the media." And then I began to see it painted on punk rockers' jackets and things, But we have to be smart about it. This does not mean blogging to an echo chamber of people who agree with you. It means going to people face-to-face. And they may put you down the way Trump put you down at first. And it may turn your stomach hearing their side of the argument but someone has to plant those seeds. They may wake up three months, even three years, later: "Hey, wait a minute, that's true, all these people feeding me all this bullshit are wrong. ... It's not immigrants and brown people taking all these job away; it's the same corporations that the Trump regime is [affiliated with], sending those same jobs out of the country, to Mexico, China, Vietnam, whatever."

And I hope some of those people are asking the right questions about some of these cabinet members too. As laughable as Rick Perry has been as governor of Texas and other [presidential] campaigns, he's also very dangerous. At first they were saying Secretary of Agriculture for him, but then suddenly Secretary of Energy. That dude is in charge of our nukes now and he's also part of a fundamentalist Christian doomsday cult. ... It was basically yet another cult like the one Sarah and Todd Palin prescribed, whose whole mindset was "Jesus is coming soon, and in order to expedite we should be wasting every last natural resource and clear-cutting every tree we can right now because Jesus is coming back again. It's OK to run up further budget deficits, because Jesus loves America, he's going to put the money back."

Oh, boy ...
The last person we want with their finger on the nuclear button is somebody connected to this extreme Christianist doomsday cult.

People are freaked out that Trump has made the head of Exxon the Secretary of State, and the guy is so tight and in bed with Putin – well, there's another part of Rex Tillerson I hope people are going to highlight, too. He's the one who finally admitted climate change existed as head of Exxon, but then he said mankind will adapt and so it's no big deal. ... I'm not sure Trump himself is one of these fundamentalist Christians. He just worships himself. He admitted he doesn't read books and he mainly just reads articles about himself. ... I'm just hoping against hope he freaks out so bad about having to sell his business empire and having his own name owned by somebody else all over the world that he refuses to take the oath of office at all. But then we [have] Paul Ryan and Co. voting in president Mike Pence, the most rabidly anti-gay and anti-choice politician of any high public office.

"I'm just hoping Trump freaks out so bad about having to sell his business empire ... that he refuses to take the oath of office at all."

Sure, Hillary is no prize, and she marches to Wall Street's drum and always has, but, dammit, she wouldn't be pulling all this doomsday supremacist Christian bigoted racist destroy-the-earth-before-Jesus-comes crap that the Trump people are pulling. I would say that well over 75 percent of the people that voted for Trump did not vote for what's about to happen. ... What we're looking at here is Jim Crow 2.0, and they're going to be even more hardcore about that in the 2018 election, to keep anybody with a conscience from being able to vote. Look at who the new Attorney General is going to be, the same guy who in the Eighties said he thought the people in the Ku Klux Klan were all right "until I saw some of them smoked pot."

In an era like this, my thoughts go back to the Dead Kennedys and Eighties hardcore. Is it realistic that something like that could or should happen again?
Well, I don't think all the people who are scared to death of the Trump/Pence/Exxon agenda should depend on one kind of underground music to lead the way. I mean, when you're talking about punk, I don't think it was ever a "movement" – movements have their eyes on a political prize. It's just an inspirational rebel culture that can help energize other movements, as can hip-hop, metal, folk and even country. ... It lets other people scared to death of a bunch of racist neo-Nazis running the show know they're not alone. And that's important. Bullying against bigger, mainstream artists is going to be fierce. Steve Bannon will have his fingers on all sorts of buttons to make sure that happens. But artists should keep in mind that it's not their fans on the other end who are vilifying them. ... On the other hand, let's not buy into this urban legend it was a good thing Reagan was president because so much great punk rock and angry hip-hop came out of that. Wrong!

Yes, I agree with your point on that.
People need to pay a little more attention to their history, and read the dates. Everybody from Sex Pistols to Clash to Dead Kennedys to Bad Brains were all fully formed in music and vision before Reagan or Thatcher ever seized power. The common denominator of most of us is we were anti-corporation and anti-corporate culture, especially the way it was polluting and dumbing down our music.

You ran for mayor of San Francisco in 1979. Are you planning to become more involved in the Trump Era? Would you run for office again or has that ship sailed?
I don't plan too much in advance because I never know what weird and wild and interesting adventures may fall into my lap. I didn't really plan to run for mayor of San Francisco. Dead Kennedys' original drummer dared me when I was folded in the back of his Volkswagen on the way to a Pere Ubu show. So then I told people at the show I was running for mayor [and] wrote my platform on a napkin with a felt-tip pen four feet away from where Ubu were playing. People were so into the idea I couldn't back out of it.

I was watching the first "What Would Jello Do?" on YouTube after the election, where you're screaming, "How can people be so fucking stupid?" and pounding your head against the wall.
[Laughs] That's my general description for the Tea Party: "Someone's got to stand up for the stupid, goddammit!" Of course, the people up top aren't stupid at all. That was the ultimate fake grassroots Astroturf uprising controlled by oil barons like the Koch brothers and others.

Did you script that or was it spontaneous?
I planned to do something like that and decided to shoot that one in my bedroom instead of at my desk because I was worried about how much shit would fall off my desk and fall off the wall. But I wanted something that would get people's attention [laughs].

After the events of last year, I've found myself repeatedly listening to "Nazi Punks Fuck Off." Are you finding people are going to Dead Kennedys and other likeminded, anti-fascist music to figure out how to deal with the return of white supremacy?
The one silver lining I'd rather not have from all the hell that's gone down is that our Nazi Trumps Fuck Off shirts have been flying out the door at [Biafra's longtime record label] Alternative Tentacles and done more to keep us in business than the music we try to get people hip to.

I read that your father died since we last talked.
Yeah there's a "What Would Jello Do?" about that. I shot it on the bridge [in Boulder] after the floods and he died after the floods. ... I go into a lot about why closure is a bogus pop culture concept and this is not going to go away. In a different way, even my sister dying with her husband in the fall of 1996 in Rocky Mountain National Park, every once in a while it just rockets through me all over again. I break down, I cry, I fuckin' lose it. And then I get up and keep moving. And that's what I said at the memorials of the Oakland [Ghost Ship warehouse club] fire victims in the park by the lake in Oakland. I wasn't even supposed to speak, and didn't come there prepared to, but people were poking: "You've got to get near the mic; you've got to say something." I didn't want to step on the people talking about their friends they lost in the fire, but because people were so devastated, I thought maybe I needed to make that analogy, to help people process this whole thing.