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Tracing the Beastie Boys’ history of apologies and activism

After a park in Brooklyn named after the late Adam Yauch was vandalised with swastikas and pro-Trump graffiti, it’s important to remember the band’s tireless work fighting hate

“This is more than just someone in New York City linking Nazi Germany to Donald Trump in a ‘hell yeah’ kind of way,” said the Beastie Boys’ Adam ‘Ad-Rock’ Horovitz on Sunday, addressing a crowd in Adam Yauch Park, a playground in Brooklyn named after his late bandmate Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch. “This is about the KKK putting up flyers on Long Island, this is about neo-Nazis targeting synagogues in Jackson County, Missouri, and this is about hate crimes against Muslims soaring to their highest level since post-9/11.” The park had been defaced with swastikas and pro-Trump graffiti on Friday (November 18), and an outpouring of condemnation came swiftly, with several hundred people of different religions, races, sexes, ethnicities and orientations gathering for an anti-hate rally to show their support.

Whether it was a deliberate attack on Yauch’s Jewish heritage or simply a cruel coincidence, the fact that Adam Yauch Park was targeted is significant, as Yauch was an artist who worked tirelessly to fight against hate within his lifetime. Addressing the crowds at the rally, Horovitz described Yauch as “someone who taught non-violence in his music and in his life, to all of us.” From their origins as a four-piece hardcore band under the name The Young Aborigines to how we see them today, the Beastie Boys were always a band who aimed to challenge authority in their own way. In their early years, this was channelled into an image that portrayed them as a band your parents should be afraid of – boomboxes, custard pies and all – but they later matured to become one of the most socially conscious and outspoken bands in modern music.

While they were always aware of their status within popular culture and hip hop, more importantly the Beastie Boys realised the importance of using the platform that their fame afforded them to encourage social change. After trekking in Nepal in 1991, Adam Yauch spent much of his life as a key figure for the Tibetan independence movement, creating the non-profit Milarepa Fund in 1994 alongside social activist Erin Potts – originally founded as a way to pay royalties to the Tibetan monks sampled on the Beasties’ fourth album Ill Communication, the organisation would go on to raise millions of dollars for the cause through the Tibetan Freedom Concerts that took place between 1996 and 2003. On 1994’s “Sure Shot”, one of Yauch’s most prominent lines in the track was an apology, addressing earlier lyrics which, in retrospect, he saw as offensive:I want to say a little something that’s long overdue / The disrespect to women has got to be through.A few years later, he spoke out against a rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric and the dangers of American intervention in the Middle East after winning a Vanguard Award at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards. And the band’s work with organisations like AIDS charity Red Hot, the ASPCA, Food Bank For NYC, and Habitat for Humanity were as important as they were extensive, while their continued fundraising efforts have benefited everyone from Pussy Riot to The Pablove Foundation (in action figure form).

The Beastie Boys’ widespread humanitarian work echoed their status as ambassadors for the many different identities within New York. As three kids of mixed-religious heritage, born in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Upper West Side respectively, they were local champions of their boroughs as well as universally relatable characters. They were as much a punk band as they were a hip hop group, a personification of two cultures whose roots are embedded in New York City. Their ability to weave between genres while retaining their critical credibility was, on one hand, down to their talent and innovation – they recorded one of the first hip hop skits with “Beastie Groove”, and they brought the hip hop acapella into the mainstream with “Hold It Now, Hit It”. On the other hand, simply put, they had the luxury of being white. While that was what made them unique within hip hop, it was something that caused many of controversies in their early years. On Licensed To Ill they fused their influences of The Clash, the Dead Kennedys and the Misfits with hip hop, bringing their punk and hardcore upbringing to a rap world that was still finding its feet amid heightened police scrutiny of the genre. Famously, LL Cool J blamed the Beasties in 1987 for “messing up a lot of things” for him after police across the country set their targets towards rap in the wake of their Licensed To Ill tour, which saw caged girls dancing on stage and a ten foot tall inflatable penis used as stage decor.

“Whether it was a deliberate attack on Yauch’s Jewish heritage or simply a cruel coincidence, the fact that Adam Yauch Park was targeted is significant, as Yauch was an artist who worked tirelessly to fight against hate within his lifetime”

After the release of Licensed To Ill with Def Jam Records, they parted ways with label founders Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons (the latter describing their initial adoption of hip hop as both an insult and a form a blackface) and shunned the frat boy persona they became labelled with. They condemn their actions in their early years to this day. “I would like to formally apologise to the entire gay and lesbian community for the shitty and ignorant things we said on our first record,” Horovitz wrote in a letter to Time Out New York in 1999. “There are no excuses, but time has healed our stupidity.” This sentence was supported more bluntly by his wife, Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre. “I could’ve totally written 18 records about how Adam (Horovitz) is stupid, how he wrote ‘Licensed to Ill’ and (how) I hate his guts,” she said in 2013. For Yauch, his work with the Tibetan independence movement resulted in him forming a close bond with the Dalai Lama, a relationship that inspired his conversion to Buddhism in 1996 and, in relation to his earlier lyrics, urged him to “take a step back and realise how those things affected other people”.

While the Beasties may have changed and matured from the late 1980s, the city they were from didn’t always evolve at the same pace. New York has always been a city of the haves and the have nots, something perfectly personified by Donald Trump, who made much of his fame and fortune in the city’s real estate industry during the band’s rise to prominence. While NYC’s wealth was being built up in the 80s, its racial divisions were growing stronger. The Beasties’ 1989 album Paul’s Boutique was released just three months after The Central Park Jogger case began, which saw five teenage males – four black, one hispanic, aged between 14 and 16 – wrongfully charged and jailed for the rape and assault of a white woman. Just two weeks after the attack, Donald Trump placed full-page ads in four New York newspapers calling for the death penalty to be reinstated for the teenagers, an issue that reared its head again during his presidential campaign. Though this is just one example in the timeline of racial fracturing within New York, it acts as a stark parallel to the troubles across America today, and despite the message of unity that came from Sunday’s rally, Trump’s name – whether spray-painted in Adam Yauch Park or printed in a newspaper – has once again become a signifier of the racism that’s always existed in a city that often paints a picture for itself as a liberal bubble within an ugly America.

In some ways this can be seen in the way that it treats its own champions, glorifying the names who they feel represent their city in the best possible way. While the Beastie Boys are more than deserving of their status as one of rap’s golden crews, contemporaries who talked of NYC’s underbelly haven’t always been acknowledged in the same way. While the Beastie Boys created art as seen through the eyes of three middle-class white kids, Nas, Jay Z, Lil’ Kim, the Wu-Tang Clan, Biggie, and countless others who turned injustice into artistry presented a different yet equally strong identity of the city. Yet they’re often seen to represent NYC’s past struggles rather than its current ones, and ignoring that side of the city makes what the Beastie Boys stood for futile.

That’s not to detract from what the Beastie Boys stood for. On the contrary, it enforces it. The Beastie Boys represent the bravado of a New Yorker – “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” and “An Open Letter To NYC” are odes to the city that created them – and their continued work as humanitarians showcase a community-conscious city formed by immigrants of different religious and racial creeds. As Horovitz said, “this is more than just someone in New York City.” Yauch and the Beastie Boys were not just a voice of New York, but the voice of the world, and if there’s one positive to take from the vandalism in Adam Yauch Park, it’s the importance of that message. The Beastie Boys urged us to fight for our right – let’s heed the call.