To the Limit with Outernational

Issue 251

‘Start a fuck’n band,’ the Clash’s Joe Strummer told Miles Solay. He did.

Celestina Billington Oct 6, 2019

I dream of fire but I sleep so cold
I raise the red flag on the Alamo
I want to show you how our lives unfold
Deep inside underneath it all.

These are the opening lyrics of Outernational’s most popular song, “Todos Somos Ilegales,” or we are all illegals. The revolutionary ballad decrying the injustice of the border system and American hypocrisy was produced by Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and served as the title track for the band’s second record — a concept album, a journey north.

“On the one hand you bring lived experience — the hopes, dreams, aspirations, fucking courage and sacrifice of being driven from your homeland and leaving everything behind,” says Outernational frontman and cofounder Miles Solay, discussing the sojourn the record seeks to convey.

“You basically risk life and limb to just be able to survive,” he said, wearing a t-shirt with a black and white print of a Pancho Villa-esque figure on it, the name of his band emblazoned above. “On the other hand, you are forced to come to a country that is responsible for so much immiseration and suffering all over the world, but in particular those very same freaking countries that so many people are forced to leave to come here.”

Released as a single eight years ago, on the heels of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found Arizona had run afoul of the Constitution when the state’s governor deputized local law enforcement to scrutinize anyone suspected of being an undocumented resident, “Todos Somos Ilegales” continues to resonate in the age of Trump.

The single’s initial popularity led to opportunities for Outernational at festivals in Europe and Latin America, with appearances at the likes of SXSW and Viva Latino! The tours continued up until 2015 when the musicians took a sabbatical to reboot. But recently they’ve picked back up, joining a growing Latinx music scene here in New York, where, across the city, musicians are responding to the racist ideologies shaping the nation’s border policy with imagination, charisma, and zeal.

Benefit shows and decolonizing concerts have blossomed, with proceeds being donated to activist and legal aid groups like No Mas Muertes and RAÍCES. Recently Bleachers frontman Jack Antonoff pledged to match all donations to initiatives supporting children at the border up to $10,000. Though musicians across genres have been participating in the movement, unsurprisingly, the loudest among them have been the punks. Groups like Outernational and deafening hardcore thrashers Junta are utilizing every method at their disposal — from social media to the stage — to give voice to the resistance.

Solay founded Outernational with bassist Jesse Williams. The two met at Revolution Books in Manhattan as teenagers during the mid-1990s and quickly began collaborating. At 15, Miles smooth-talked his way backstage at a taping of Saturday Night Live where Rage Against the Machine was headlining. There he forged a lifelong friendship with Morello, which eventually led to the “Todos Somos Ilegales” collab. Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer Chad Smith and Puerto Rican rapper Residente also appear in the song.

Yet by far the biggest influence on the band’s diverse style — which features sounds common in reggae, mariachi, hip hop and punk — is the Clash.

When Solay and Williams were first beginning to jam together they met former Clash frontman Joe Strummer at an after-hours bar. “It was like seven in the morning,” Solay recalls. “He leaned in like kissing close, and was sort of like, ‘Start a fuck’n band.’ And you know, my whole face got wet.”

Like his heroes, Solay sees his work as emblematic of his social responsibility as an artist.

He has some advice for his fans: “Even if you’re in America, which is on the top of the trash heap of humanity, don’t turn away. Don’t turn away from the connectedness of humanity and how integrated everything is. It’s time to get out of the comfort zone. That will require courage. I don’t mean courage like ‘I’m so tough.’ I mean courage like epistemological courage. If you start searching, really searching for the answers, then you gotta keep digging, even if it challenges some of your most deeply held assumptions.”

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