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Ste­fan Christoff is a musi­cian and a long-time activist based in Tiohti:áke, or Mon­tréal. He is also the co-ordi­na­tor of Musi­cians for Pales­tine, a net­work of musi­cians from around the world com­mit­ted to speak­ing up in sup­port of Pales­tin­ian human rights. Scott Neigh inter­views him about the work involved in build­ing a glob­al ini­tia­tive of this sort, and about the network’s most recent state­ment, which was released in Sep­tem­ber 2022

Christoff’s grass­roots polit­i­cal work start­ed when he was a teen, and he has par­tic­i­pat­ed in strug­gles relat­ed to every­thing from oppos­ing police bru­tal­i­ty, to anti-cap­i­tal­ism, to migrant jus­tice. He has been very involved over those years in Indige­nous-led land defence strug­gles across so-called Cana­da, most recent­ly those by the Wet’suwet’en peo­ple against the Coastal Gas Link pipeline. And, for more than two decades, he has worked in sup­port of Pales­tin­ian strug­gles for jus­tice and liberation. 

Christoff has always seen the Pales­tin­ian strug­gle as inte­gral­ly inter­con­nect­ed with both Indige­nous strug­gles with­in and against so-called Cana­da and with the waves of anti-colo­nial resis­tance around the world in the 20th cen­tu­ry. All are fun­da­men­tal­ly about the land. The colo­nial states involved draw from sim­i­lar reper­toires of oppres­sive prac­tices. And the strug­gles are inter­con­nect­ed too, not just in an abstract way but con­crete­ly. Con­tem­po­rary man­i­fes­ta­tions of Pales­tin­ian strug­gle clear­ly draw on lin­eages that include the anti-apartheid fight in South Africa and the lib­er­a­tion move­ments that threw off the yoke of Euro­pean empire in the mid­dle of the last century. 

As for his music, Christoff has been releas­ing it publically for about ten years. His work is gen­er­al­ly instru­men­tal, and often exper­i­men­tal. He uses music as a way to process the demands of con­stant front­line orga­niz­ing and to nour­ish him­self. And he uses it as a way to build com­mu­ni­ty, through the shared plea­sure and cre­ativ­i­ty of play­ing togeth­er, and also through putting on musi­cal events meant to raise aware­ness and some­times funds in sup­port of par­tic­u­lar struggles. 

For over a decades, he was involved in orga­niz­ing a series of con­certs in Mon­tréal called Artists Against Apartheid, which he said were try­ing to cre­ate a com­mu­ni­ty space for artists to speak togeth­er about what’s hap­pen­ing in Pales­tine, and impro­vise and work togeth­er to basi­cal­ly have cre­ative moments of shared com­mu­ni­ty.” He empha­sized that often the music at these con­certs wasn’t super slo­gan-based, but it was often more beau­ti­ful and reflective.” 

He con­tin­ued, I think that that’s impor­tant, right? To have that space to reflect, to have that space to cre­ate. And to see that as part of the process of activism. I think that often activism is under­stood as only the moments that are in the head­lines. But it’s much broad­er than that. To be involved in these issues over a life­time, you need to take dif­fer­ent approach­es. And music has been a real­ly impor­tant part of that for me.” 

Around Pales­tine and oth­er issues, Christoff has often seen musi­cians ask­ing the same ques­tion that many of us ask when faced with some great injus­tice: What can we do? In response to the Israeli state’s mil­i­tary assault on Gaza in May 2021, there was once again a surge of such ques­tions. So he decid­ed to make use of his expe­ri­ence as an orga­niz­er and worked with oth­ers to build on the engage­ment around these issues that had been hap­pen­ing with­in Montréal’s mul­ti­ple over­lap­ping music scenes over many years, to cre­ate Musi­cians for Palestine. 

From these local net­works, peo­ple then reached out through net­works of musi­cians that spanned the globe. It was a long, chal­leng­ing process requir­ing many one-on-one con­ver­sa­tions, with lots of lis­ten­ing and lots of grass­roots edu­ca­tion­al work. In addi­tion, it all hap­pened in ongo­ing dia­logue with Pales­tin­ian com­mu­ni­ties on the ground, and Pales­tin­ian-led activist orga­ni­za­tions like the Pales­tin­ian Cam­paign for the Aca­d­e­m­ic and Cul­tur­al Boy­cott of Israel, the Boy­cott, Divest­ment, and Sanc­tions Move­ment, and the Inter­na­tion­al Sol­i­dar­i­ty Move­ment. Ulti­mate­ly, Musi­cians for Pales­tine was able to release a col­lec­tive state­ment in sup­port of the Pales­tin­ian peo­ple endorsed by hun­dreds of musi­cians from around the world. 

This ini­tial statement in 2021 was, Christoff said, a great suc­cess. As hoped, it was cov­ered by many of the major out­lets in the world’s music press, and after its release, hun­dreds, maybe thou­sands, of musi­cians wrote us want­i­ng to also join this process.” 

This year, Musi­cians for Pales­tine devel­oped a sec­ond state­ment, which it released in Sep­tem­ber 2022. Christoff said that the goal this time was to basi­cal­ly out­line that, despite Pales­tine not being in the head­lines, there’s a lot of inter­est to con­tin­ue express­ing, col­lec­tive­ly, sup­port for Pales­tin­ian human rights, as musicians.” 

Across the two state­ments, one or both have been endorsed by musi­cians like Pat­ti Smith, mem­bers of the Roots and the Son­ic Youth, Boots Riley, Asian Dub Foun­da­tion, The Hal­lu­ci Nation (for­mer­ly A Tribe Called Red), FKA Twigs, Lido Pimien­ta, Den­zel Cur­ry, plen­ty of young hip-hop artists asso­ci­at­ed with Black Lives Mat­ter orga­niz­ing, and hun­dreds and hun­dreds of others. 

A key ele­ment for Christoff in build­ing sup­port for these state­ments is main­tain­ing a clear dis­tinc­tion between the Israeli peo­ple and the Israeli state – it is the lat­ter that is the tar­get of crit­i­cism and orga­niz­ing, much like when we oppose the role of the Cana­di­an state in colo­nial vio­lence against Indige­nous peo­ples here. And he said that in the time he has been active on this issue, he has seen a real shift. Not only have main­stream human rights orga­ni­za­tions like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al come to rec­og­nize that Israeli state prac­tices meet the def­i­n­i­tion of aparhteid” – which Christoff explains as the clear delin­eation of rights based on racial cat­e­gories that is trans­lat­ed on the ground through an occu­pa­tion [by] the Israeli mil­i­tary and a series of laws that dis­crim­i­nate direct­ly against Pales­tin­ian peo­ple” – but he also said that increas­ing num­bers of peo­ple in North Amer­i­ca are com­ing to real­ize the impor­tance of speak­ing out on the issue. 

Christoff encour­ages musi­cians who wish to be part of the process around Musi­cians for Palestine’s next state­ment, which they will devel­op and release at some point in 2023, to get in touch. He also encour­aged musi­cians to take oth­er kinds of actions. Musi­cians are well-placed, for exam­ple, to put on fundrais­ing events for Pales­tin­ian orga­ni­za­tions. He empha­sized that while the mon­ey raised in such efforts can be use­ful in sup­port­ing impor­tant work on the ground in Pales­tine, often the val­ue in orga­niz­ing events is less about the funds. It’s more about the process of speak­ing togeth­er, of cre­at­ing a space, and for peo­ple to gath­er and to talk about what’s hap­pen­ing in Palestine…to talk and to cre­ate com­mu­ni­ty around these issues, to talk about inter­con­nec­tions. You know, what’s the par­al­lels we can under­stand between the Cana­di­an colo­nial state and the Israeli colo­nial state? What does sol­i­dar­i­ty look like? How do we learn more about what’s hap­pen­ing in Pales­tine? [About] what Cana­di­ans arms com­pa­nies are doing, in terms of export­ing to the Israeli state mil­i­tary com­plex? You know, all these ques­tions. That’s what cre­at­ing small events can do, is cre­ate con­ver­sa­tion in com­mu­ni­ty. And that’s what’s important.”