Artists worldwide drum up call for debt cancellation in online concert-rally

Global Week of Action Event: Rise to the Beat of Debt Justice

October 14 – A rousing call echoed today across global regions as some 300 civil society leaders, activists and artists  gathered online to “Rise to the Beat of Debt Justice!” Through music, poetry and shared experiences, it provided a strong counterpoint to the grossly inadequate “debt relief” schemes pushed by rich countries and other lenders, in the G20 Finance Ministers meeting on the same day and the IMF and World Bank Annual Meetings, October 12-18.

The virtual concert-rally brought together musicians, artists, poets, CSO leaders and activists, from Asia, West Asia, the Pacific, Africa, Latin America, North America and Europe. Weaving themes of freedom from hunger, deprivation, discrimination and fear, disasters and catastrophes, they underscored the aspirations inspiring the call for debt cancellation – a just, rights-based  response to COVID, a life of dignity, and a gender-fair, equitable and sustainable future.

The Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development (APMDD) led in organizing the event, with the collaboration and support of ActionAid, Eurodad, Fight Inequality Alliance (FIA), Asian Music for Peoples’ Peace and Progress (aMP3) and 350.org. Reaching a peak of more than 300 participants from various countries joining the event on Zoom and thousands more watching on livestreaming channels, the event marked a breakthrough in creative advocacy and campaigning forms of online actions.

Filipino folk singer-composer Noel Cabangon set the tone with Don't Owe, Won’t Pay, an original composition that served as a rallying anthem of the debt justice movements of the 80s and 90s.  Cabangon went on to sing original songs on peoples' aspirations for a free world and for solidarity in transforming societies.  Musicians from the Asian Peoples’ Music for Peace and Progress (aMP3) joined another Fiipino artist, Bong Ramilo, in performing his original songs including Ka Ramon on the struggles of the working class.  Alternative folk-rock band Village Idiots expressed their love for social justice in Pagkatapos Nito, a reflection on post-pandemic conditions where poverty and injustice remain; and World Without Banks which spoke strongly against financial institutions’ role in deepening inequality.  Indonesia-born Sandrayati Fay rendered a moving "We Shall Overcome", the gospel-protest song  of the American civil rights movements that has inspired generations of activists to rise in courage and solidarity for justice and human rights.

Young Filipino singer-composer M E G D K  eloquently sang for her generation with the songs Born Into Debt and Fight for Our Future.  Another perspective of young people was expressed by the fighting rap of  the Philippine Underground Artist with their performance of original compositions,  Timbangan Walang Bantay, a political satire,  and Rebolusyon, which spoke of injustices under capitalism and hopes for transformation.

Anglo-Uruguayan theatre artist and activist Alex Etchart led in community chanting based on chants from the poor people's campaign in the UK. He encouraged participants to chant “we won’t be silent anymore!”,  true to his description of his work as “bringing sounds of fire and hope to contemporary social movements amplifying the voice of marginalised groups and social justice campaigns.”

Another young rap performer, Birch, posed the question “if I get everything, what is left for the rest?” in her original compositions on climate change and the consumerist culture promoted by capitalism. She works with the Debt Observatory in Globalization, a project that arose from the “Red Ciudadana por la Abolición de la Deuda Externa” (Citizens’ Network for the Abolition of External Debt); and the climate justice movement Fridays for Future.

Alfredo Barahona, originally from  Cuzcatlan, a Maya-Nahua-Pipil territory part of what is now known as El Salvador, rendered a refreshing and energizing  performance playing a traditional xylophone. He works with KAIROS Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives.

Deudas Eternas – Basta! (Eternal Debts- Enough!), a production by Accion Ecologica, featured the rap artists Banshee, Yela Quim, Prince Shapiro, Ch’umilkaj, DJ Alvarp and Juh D’Lyra who hailed from Latin America, the Maya peoples of Guatemala, the Philippines and South Africa. They sang and danced on the “resistance of peoples who are crying Liberty!” and highlighted the message that “the illegitimate financial debt bleeds our bodies and our land, we demand debt reparation for peoples, women and nature." Singer-songwriter DJ Alvaro, part of the group MARCELA - Move Artists to Create Educate and Liberate, interacted with the other artists who have been an inspiration to her.

Malawi poet Marumbo Sichinga started the fourth hour of the concert-rally with his “Shout Out to Rise to the Beats of Debt Justice.”  Addressing the piece to “loaners of money”, the “IMF-World-Bank”, “and “all who hold the chips”, Marumbo’s powerful lines included “We come to you for cancellation/ Not forgiveness, not pity/ Kids are dying here/ Nine percent of our budget goes to health/ And over 17 percent goes to pay back debt/ Debt that has a rate that is faster than my ability/  To produce great grandchildren who come to this earth to pay debts/ Debts that should rather be cancelled.”

Grassroots women from Oriang in the Philippines and WOMYN in South Africa contributed their pre-recorded messages through songs and chants, joining the call for debt cancellation.

“Debt justice starts with debt cancellation but more importantly leads to transforming the system that gave rise to this problem. Everyday lives have and continue to be shattered by debt burdens. Debt is an obstacle to the survival of peoples and the planet,” said APMDD Coordinator Lidy Nacpil. She stressed that the debt relief measures are “too little and dwarfed by billions of loans being offered for COVID response.” 

Njoki Njehû, the FIA Pan-Africa Coordinator, spoke of the debt burden as “the economic equivalent of a knee pressed on one’s neck” and which “makes inequality that much more outrageous and painful for countries around the world”.  She called for solidarity in struggle to cancel the debt.

Jean Saldanha, director of the European Network on Debt and Development said: “COVID is killing thousands this year. But poverty and inequality has been killing for hundreds of years.” She added that a new debt architecture should be established under the UN, such that the human rights obligations of governments towards its citizens will also be examined.

Mohammad Reza, KRUHA (People's Coalition for The Rights to Water) shared on the World Bank loan conditionality that changed national law to allow the water privatization of Jakarta. This resulted in deeper inequalities as tariffs rose, but with no significant changes in water quality and service. In 2017, civil society pressure against the loan and for water to be realized as a human right led to the reversal of the city’s water facility, from private to public.

Stefano Prato of the Civil Society for Financing for Development Group underscored the depth and intersections of systemic inequalities. He said that “although we may be in the same storm, we’re not in the same boat. Some boats are stronger because they feed on many others. Debt is at the core of the international organization of labor that privileges a few. We need to shift power away from such institutions as the Paris Club and the Bretton Woods institutions. Combining our struggles globally in the UN and for sovereignty at the national level will open more opportunities to realize transformation.”

Liberato Bautista of the United Methodist Church emphasized that"the struggle for debt justice is constitutive of the struggle for restorative justice that cuts across Christian and multireligious practices, just like climate justice, racial justice, gender justice, migrant justice, and so much more...

"Debt injustice is a death-dealing condition for which we must seek accountability from international and multilateral institutions and private actors as much as the implementation of corresponding obligations of States," Bautista said.

Participants were also enjoined to “Sound the Alarm” for debt justice by making noise to highlight the need for debt cancellation as a major response to free public funds for COVID responses, raise awareness on the urgency of the debt issue around the globe and build further pressure for political action. From various countries, leaders and activists rang bells, beat drums, blew whistles, turned on fire alarms, honked car horns and other ways of highlighting the debt issue.

The activity formed part of the Global Week of Action for Debt Cancellation (GWADC) from October 10-17, rallying around the call for debt cancellation and addressing unsustainable and illegitimate debt in the face of the multiple crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, the intensified recession and the climate emergency. More than 550 CSOs, peoples’ organizations and movements came together for the coordinated global event “to generate impact in the period leading up to and during the week and pave the way for a re-invigorated, sustained global debt movement to rise to what will even be bigger challenges in the coming years”.