Racetraitor: Politics Are Still Part of Hardcore’s Fabric

A year after the George Floyd protests we chat with Racetraitor's singer Mani Mostofi about the band's politics and underlying anti-racist message.

📸 Koen de Gussem

Born in the early 1970s in a family of Iranian immigrants in Chicago, Mani Mostofi is among those people with a special perspective on politics within the hardcore scene.

“I was only age three or four but I have distinct memories of seeing anti-Shah protests. Family lore is that I was even tear-gassed. I am not sure to what extent the Revolution shaped my perspective directly but being the son of immigrants from a country known for a massive social change certainly made me see the world as a big dynamic place from a young age,” recalls Mani in a 2016 interview.

In 1996, Mani formed the political metallic hardcore band Racetraitor together with guitarist Dan Binaei, whose father came from a religiously persecuted minority in Iran. At the height of the politicized hardcore scene in the US, Racetraitor worked tirelessly to bring up topics of race and class in ways that few bands before them ever had, often at the expense of controversy.

Some 20 years later, the band reformed with new material and more live shows. Prompted in part by the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police murder of Michael Brown, the Standing Rock protests, and the tense political climate around the Trump presidential campaign in 2016, their return came as no surprise to anyone following the band since their early days. More relevant than ever, as Racetraitor’s politics and activism are inseparable from their music, I sat down over a Zoom call with Mani Mostofi exactly one year after the George Floyd protests to discuss some topics I’ve always been eager to ask the band about. The full and unedited version of this interview was published in the first issue of my latest zine Светло бъдеще that came out in the beginning of June 2021.

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📸 Koen de Gussem

Chicago is a place known for its diverse immigrant community, in what ways has the town and its politics shaped the world to you as an Iranian immigrant yourself and to Racetraitor as a band?

I’ve always thought of Racetraitor as a band that is very much a product of Chicago. When I was growing up there, Chicago was one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the United States but it was also hypersegregated. Each neighborhood has different ethnic groups. The South Side, Chicago is the Black area, and there are predominantly White areas, Latino areas, Irish areas, Italian, Eastern European, etc. Living in the midst of this hypersegregation I became really aware of how the city was divided by race and class.

From a young age I had a feeling that all this was unfair. The neighborhood I grew up in, Hyde Park, is where the University of Chicago is. It’s one of the most prestigious universities in the US, certainly the most prestigious one in Chicago. So the people all around are more or less affluent. But then you go five blocks beyond the university in any direction, and you have some of the poorest parts of Chicago. Basically, I lived on the border between one of the most affluent, educated areas of Chicago and some of the most underdeveloped, under-resourced areas. It was very clear to me that this was unfair, unjust… and that feeling sort of carried me through my entire life. So I don’t think it’s strange that the band Racetraitor eventually became what it was.

What happened is we got into some of these politics with Racetraitor because we lived in Chicago and we met the former partner of Fred Hampton, who was a Black Panthers leader that got assassinated by the Chicago police. And that kind of got us into radical race politics. Racetraitor’s politics and ideas were informed and influenced by that kind of Chicago’s history of political struggle. 

I’m a very light skinned person from the Middle East but I knew I was different from the people that were called the White people in the US. That sort of gave me, how to say, ‘outsider/insider’ perspective on the US society. I knew I wasn’t part of it, but understood intimately. That kind of undefined position in the US society allowed me, when I got older, to have a more nuanced critique of American politics, racism and white power. As a person experiencing racism as an Iranian immigrant, you know, Iran is not a country that the US loves. The American population kind of think of Iranians in general as terrorists or Islamic extremists, and so on. So I’ve always experienced that kind of racism and it actually got worse when I left the city and moved to the suburbs. But at the same time, as I said, I’m light skinned and sort of blended in a lot of situations as an undercover white person.

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I was very young in the mid-90s but from what I’ve heard Racetraitor seemed to be a very confrontational band since the beginning. It seems that bands like Racetraitor and Vegan Reich were among the most misunderstood bands at the time. Do you agree?

We started the band as a combination of anger and frustration with the scene. And I would also say a level of arrogance that kind of motivated us to be super confrontational. I guess this was an artistic decision. It was a little bit inspired by the band 108. I think that those people that were around in the 90s will remember that there was 108, and there was Shelter. These were the two main Krishnacore bands. And I’d say Shelter was the kind of hippie Krishnacore band, associating Krishna consciousness with positivity and making it a happy thing. But 108 had a level of anger within them, and when they played they were very confrontational about their beliefs. They were not hesitant to get into arguments, and I remember witnessing a huge argument where Rob Fish of 108 was surrounded by so many people. Someone asked him why he is always being such an asshole, and he said “I play hundreds of shows and I talk about my beliefs, and at the end of the show everyone goes home like nothing happened, but if I’m aggressive and confrontational then all of a sudden, there’s a crowd talking about my ideas after the show.” To me, as 20-something hardcore kid angry with a scene that was not when it needed to be with its, that was a great idea. So that’s essentially what we decided to do with Racetraitor. At every single show we were trying to be as confrontational as possible. And the result was actually exactly what we’d anticipated. After every show there would be big debates, we had shows stopped in the middle of our set that turned into arguments. We’ve had one time that turned into a physical fight. In the end, everybody was kind of forced to talk about what we wanted them to talk about. They just couldn’t ignore us. 

In a way, it was also very polarizing. I’ve lost some friends, some people just started hating me because of the band. Some people took this very personally even if it wasn’t really our intent. On the other hand, there were some people who were very devoted to what we were trying to say, in a way we felt uncomfortable with. Like having no critical thought, people were just waiting for us to tell them what to think. So that was kind of the reason why we’ve changed our project at the time. In the beginning, the controversy was certainly part of the strategy.

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Racetraitor at Hellfest 1999 in Syracuse, NY. Photo courtesy of Trustkill Records.

As to why we got misunderstood, I think the people failed to realize we were actually pointing fingers at ourselves. The whole idea of race treason and class treason is that whatever power you are granted by your identity or social class, should be used for liberation of all people. This is basically what we were trying to say. So our critique of privilege included us. Some of us were pretty privileged. Not all of us though, we had working class members in our band, but for myself, although an immigrant, I was also from an upper middle class family. So people would always point at us “oh, those are the rich kids, who are they to educate everyone on politics?” But the whole point was we were talking about ourselves, we were talking about rejecting privilege, rejecting status, rejecting class. About using whatever you might get from privilege and class into a radical liberation and into action. 

We also stressed it was important to listen to people from different spaces, listening to Black and Indigenous people, people of color, and having them tell you their stories. To have them tell you what Black liberation and social justice mean to them. The hardcore punk scene at the time was full of white kids thinking they are the saviors. They thought they were the people who were enlightened. Hardcore kids were like “We’re the enlightened Vegan Straight Edge Leftist kids and everyone else is kind of brainwashed Nazis”. We were basically there to say that’s fundamentally arrogant since you come from a mostly white, suburban, American-centric music community. And to think you don’t have things to learn or listen to the political leadership of people of color and the marginalised communities in the country, is the height of white supremacy in a sense. That was the kind of message that kind of got lost to a lot of people.

What’s funny is that almost everybody from Chicago and some other cities who hated us around 1996-1998, and thought we were just like some preachy rich kids, almost every single one of them has told usfive years, ten years later—“You were right, I was wrong.” It took time but I think we planted a lot of seeds. We created questions about what white privilege was, what white supremacy really meantthat it’s not just about people with Swastika tattoos, but it’s a system of oppression, a system of keeping people in social and economic cages. We planted a lot of questions in people’s heads that through the time, as they experienced more, started being answered and I’d say most of them started to come along with our point of view. Misunderstanding was only a temporary thing.

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Was the Racetraitor reunion a reaction to the election of Donald Trump?

Yeah, it was a reaction to a lot of things that were happening at the time. One of them was Black Lives Matter. Also the Standing Rock protests. The fact that there were these movements happening in the US, led by Black people, Indigenous people, by people of color, in a way we haven’t seen in a long time in US history. Around 2010, ‘11, ‘12, the people started talking about the things that Racetraitor was talking about in the ‘90s. These things sort of started being part of the mainstream political discussion, and we felt relevant as a band. Our message is more relevant now and we make more sense, than in 1996 when we were around. But it was when Trump started running a purely White nationalist presidential campaign that kind of made it so that as individuals we needed an outlet. We didn’t have some illusion that we are going to change the American political landscapeor even a landscape in punk and hardcoreby reuniting as a band. It was much more selfish, it was much more like we wanted a platform to discuss these things. And the result was we met many other people in the scene that wanted a band like us to exist, other people were having the same reaction to the BLM movement, the same reaction to the Trump administration, etc. Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of bands like us around. There certainly were some but us coming back gave people in the scene something to feel like it’s their own. In a sense, this is exactly what I think hardcore is. We like bands that we feel represent our values. There is a certain amount that is about music but there’s a certain amount that’s about values, about beliefs, about politics and aesthetics. Racetraitor filled maybe a void for some people in terms of how they were feeling about the time being. In that sense it felt right that we came together and it’s been great ever since.

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📸 Brian Santostefano

2020 was a turbulent year in the US and around the world, so how did the pandemic and the the political events in the country affect Racetraitor and the hardcore punk community around you?

In some ways, it put the band on hold. We were in the process of recording a record but stopped since you can’t travel, can’t go to the studio. We obviously canceled all our tours. Right before the pandemic we did a tour with Refused in the US, we did eight shows with them and that was great. 

On a political level the pandemic  really brought out the social disparities in the US in terms of race and class. At the time the pandemic broke out, I was living in Brooklyn, and literally New York City was the focal point of the pandemic in the US. And this was before we knew a lot about the science, how it was spread. Everyone who had money, which is mostly white people, had just fled the city. They went to the countryside, etc. And the people who were left in the city were mostly brown and black, poor people. And you saw how the infection rates were just isolated in places like the Bangladeshi neighborhood in Queens, etc. You could see how the entire economy shifted essentially towards white people who had professional jobs, who can work on Zoom and on their laptops. They stayed at home, stayed in a sanitary environment. But the working class people, the immigrants in the city, were the people who picked up the groceries, who picked up the meal delivery and brought it to the ones staying safe. It sort of became a very abusive relationship where all these people were externalising the risk of the pandemic, mostly white and affluent people, on brown, immigrant and poor people. In NYC it was so pronounced, it was so clear, that the only people you have on the streets were immigrant delivery workers. So it became a confirmation of everything that you know and believe, but it was a confirmation of the worst things that we know and believe. That the entire system is just built to protect those people who have access to money and power. In the middle of a crisis the social divisions are just so clear.

That sorta inspired us, we had a song that we recorded before the pandemic, but we then interpreted the song in the form of a video about the effect of the pandemic on the social divisions, and we linked it to the history of colonialism and white supremacy in the US. I think we witnessed the same things as everyone else did, but we really wanted to say those things through our music.

What are the topics and ideas behind those new songs that you haven’t released yet because of the pandemic?

Yeah, we’re working on a new album now. It will probably be our last full-length that we ever do as a band. So we think about this album like some sort of a reflection on how we got to where we are as people, in terms of our political consciousness by exploring the things that affected us most personally. It’s going to be about different places. In the beginning you asked about Chicago, and there will be a song about Chicago. About what we saw in Chicago that made us who we are. There’s a song about Iran; maybe a song about Guatemala and the civil war, about the things that the death squads were doing. Things we witnessed to some degree. We will have a song about migrant labor in the Gulf because that’s something I worked on a lot in my personal life. It will be an exploration of all those places and the politics in those places that have directly influenced us as individuals in the band. And that we think is sort of a good way to do our last release.

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“Dar Al-Harb”, one of your most confrontational songs so far, is about the situation in Palestine. It’s a topic that’s been brought up a lot recently and still creates a lot of divisions and big debates within the hardcore punk scene. Did your opinion change in some ways since you wrote the song and what’s your take on the current Israeli politics as someone coming from a Muslim background?

I think, my view is less influenced by someone who’s coming from a Muslim background but more as someone who’s always been anti-racist and anti-colonial. Israel has created an apartheid state on a settler-colonialism model, that’s horrendously oppressive on the Palestinian people. I’ve been to the West Bank, I’ve never been to Gaza. I’ve been to some of the poorest places in the world, I’ve been to places like Guatemala at the end of the civil war, I visited massacre sites, I mean I’ve seen some things in my life. The situation in the Occupied Palestinian territories was like the most surreal things I’ve ever seen. It was literally like a science fiction movie. The presence of the IDF is controlling the very basic things about individual lives. I’ve been given a tour of the city of Hebron by a guide who works in an organized youth sports league, a Palestinian guide. And he was giving me a tour when we’ve reached this Israeli checkpoint, and I remember they told me with my US passport I can go through the checkpoint but this Palestinian guide who lives there, he was born there, he was held there for 45 minutes. There was an Israeli guy in a sniper tower that looked no older than 18-19 years old, who had a machine gun pointed at us as we sat there the whole time just because this Palestinian guy who organize their soccer league dares to cross their checkpoints as a Palestinian. And then a bunch of other Palestinian guys stood next to us also being checked, imagine this is in the middle of the city, this isn’t crossing over into Israel. And these other Palestinian guys next to me find out I’m from the US and started asking me about US hip-hop, if I listen to Jay Z, if I listen to Nas. They were like normal teenagers, but they live in this hyper abnormal state. 

I understand it’s a touchy subject. We’ve been kicked out of shows, we ran into confrontations with promoters and other people because we speak about Israel and Palestine. But, to me, it’s a pretty clear issue that this is an oppressive system that’s based on a slow ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Obviously, we can’t react to oppression with oppression, especially when it’s a displaced oppression. It’s unfortunate that it’s a controversial topic, it shouldn’t be because we should all be against it. No one looks back at what happened to the indigenous people of North America, no one looks back at that historyand present I should addand says the way they were displaced, the way they were treated with violence, that there are two sides to that story. I know in some sectors of European hardcore it’s more controversial, I know there are those anti-deutsch people, but when we actually played in Germany one of those people came to one of our shows. And they said, we’ve heard that Racetraitor is an anti-Zionist band and that’s really problematic. But nobody came and talked to me about it. They talked to the people from Sect who were on tour, but they didn’t talk to us directly. If it’s controversial, it’s fine. That’s a controversy we’re willing to bear blowback. We need to speak about the things we see going on in Israel and Palestine.

White rain falls across the walls of new Jerusalem…to the ashes of disbelief…cry your filthy lie…venomous embodiment of wrath and hate…the star burns bright scorching the land clear for repopulation….repopulation…swallows whole…your Zion crushes whole…caging every life for the devil’s prize…country gutted out…nailed through the foot…christened in power…the beast’s power….the beast’s power

—”Dar-al-Harb” by Racetraitor

It seems that Israel is the closest thing that we have in the world right now as a pure etno-state. The far-right agenda is definitely on the rise around the world, but do you think that the whole concept of these gated communities and etno-state is ultimately bound to failure and collapse under its own weight?

It’s a really good question. The gravity towards the etno-state, at least in the past 200 years, is undeniable. Because the concept of the nation state is redefining narrower and narrower definitions of ethnicity, and what we are dealing with right now are two directions of this concept. One is towards the broadest definition of what a nation is, and on the other hand we have countries like Israel who are the forerunners of the narrowest definitions of what an ethno-state should be. It’s actually no wonder that Richard Spencer, the poster child of white supremacy and Alt-Right in the US, clearly said that what we want in the US is what Israel already has. So that’s certainly the direction where the people on the far right want to take things. But if you ask me if I think it’s bound to fail, I can’t honestly say yes. 

I don’t believe in any sort of deterministic politics. We can’t clearly say that some movements are so fundamentally flawed that they are going to collapse under their own weight. I mean, Marx was saying that about capitalism since the first day it was identified as a system that it’s going to collapse under its own weight. And now, it’s still going. So I think we need to make these systems collapse but this could happen only through organized mobilization and struggle. I’m hoping that with the US election and the defeat of Trump, a president who has been a catalyst for the far right movement on a global level, the beginning of the collapse. But we saw Obama being a supporter of the Ukrainian fascist right just because it’s part of the American geopolitical interests in terms of the Russia – Crimea dispute. So just because the US is not run by an ethno-fascist in the traditional sense, the neoliberal state will still make common cause with ethno-fascist politics in the world. They do it with Netanyahu and they will do it with others. 

People should organize on multiple fronts and it’s going to take making political alliances with people who are also antifascist but might not share the same political worldviews that we do, but I think it’s the biggest threat in the world right now. It’s the far right fascist movement. They are far right not just when it comes to ethnicity and immigration. It’s far right when it comes to economics. It’s far right when it comes to the environment. Climate change is the most existential crisis that the world is facing. And if anyone’s thinking that the far right is going to deal better with climate than the neolib capitalist, they are absolutely deluding themselves. So it’s the biggest threat on multiple levels, and I’m glad there’s some level of global response to it. But even if it’s dying out, the struggle will be far from over and we’ll still have to deal with all the problems in the world that neoliberalism is causing.

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📸 Dan Patrick

Do you believe that DIY punk can still be a place for important conversations and organizing to happen? How do you see hardcore and metal as part of the culture of the future?

That’s a really good question. I think that one thing that created Racetraitor as a band was the realization that the scene has never been as progressive as it thought it was. I think that the scene as a whole is far more progressive now than it ever was. I think the younger bands might be less political as bands, but the individuals going to the shows are more progressive and more political. In that sense, I’m more optimistic about the future of the scene as a place where people could gather with like-minded people. I don’t know if there’s the same level of new ideas. Back in the ‘90s there were definitely more conversations. If you think about all the ideas that came out, you’ve had all the race and class politics of Los Crudos, Huasipungo, and all those bands. There was the feminism of riot grrrls and bands like Spitboy. There was veganism and animal rights with Earth Crisis and all those Vegan Straight Edge bands. There were Marxist straight edge bands like Manliftingbanner, Nations on Fire. There was Krishnacore, there was Christian hardcore. All these ideas were at their height in the ‘90s. I know, the conversations and debates about them weren’t always intelligent, but they were always there, at the forefront. I think, that’s still part of the fabric of what hardcore is. 

There’s still debates, there’s still fights in the scene. There’s an ongoing discussion on sexual abuse and harassment at least regarding some bands in the scene. I think that’s a really important one, a long overdue one. And that’s really valuable and I think that’s part of the fact there are more women in the scene than there were in the ‘90s. But is the primary focus of the scene the ideas and the politics? I kind of don’t think so. Not anymore. But I think it’s always gonna be a progressive scene. That’s built into its fabric and I want to see it as a place where people can come have more discussions about values attached to the community rather than just the music itself.

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