A benefit concert for Mumia Abu-Jamal -- Rage Against the Machine, the Beastie Boys, Bad Religion, and Chumbawamba unite for a cause

By Rob Brunner
Updated February 12, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Feed the homeless? Absolutely. Free Tibet? Sure. Demand a new trial for a convicted cop killer? Not so fast. So thought some music fans after learning that a Jan. 28 concert at New Jersey’s Continental Airlines Arena — featuring Rage Against the Machine, the Beastie Boys, Bad Religion, and members of Chumbawamba — benefited death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted of the 1981 killing of a Philadelphia police officer. More than 2,000 people returned tickets after a huge outcry from police groups, the slain officer’s widow, and New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman, who thought a concert benefiting Abu-Jamal ”was deplorable,” according to a spokesperson.

But Abu-Jamal’s case is cloudier than that, and supporters (including Amnesty International) believe his rights have been violated. ”This is as mainstream as human rights cases get,” says Rage guitarist Tom Morello. ”The case is simple and unambivalent: Mumia Abu-Jamal is an award-winning journalist and political dissident who did not receive a fair trial. There’s a mountain of doubt about his guilt.”

At the concert, however, few seemed to care. Although there was no shortage of pushy pamphleteers hawking ”Free Mumia” literature, and a small opposition posse donned ”Death Penalty for Mumia” T-shirts, the mood was largely apolitical, with the bands clearly more popular than the cause. (A portion of the concert’s reported $480,000 proceeds will go to a defense fund.) But for music fans who are interested in the case, the best advice comes from Will Pendarvis of New York alt-rock station K-Rock, who devoted a large chunk of airtime to both sides of the issue: ”Don’t take the word of a disc jockey, for God’s sake, or a guy in a band. Do the research and come to your own conclusions.”