Justin Dillon became aware of human trafficking in 2004, and has been fighting to make others aware of it and inspire change from the ground up. He released the “rockumentary” Call + Response last year. The film features performances by several musicians, including Matisyahu, and interviews with advocates like Gary Haugen, the president of International Justice Mission, interspersed with footage of people trapped in slave situations.
We spoke to Dillon about the power of music and how all of us can fight modern-day slavery.
What prompted you to seek out and expose the issue of modern-day slavery?
I think the issue actually found me. Modern-day slavery is something that is both new and extremely old. And I think we have the tools to actually make a bigger dent in slavery than any generation ever has. For me, I came across the issue first by reading about it in a New York Times article, and then seeing it for myself. A lot of times you don’t have the opportunity of both, but for me it was learning about it. Slavery doesn’t look like what it looked like back in history. It’s something different, and it’s almost a little bit more sinister in the way it operates. So learning what modern-day slavery is, and then I took a trip to Russia and was playing music in Russia, and started meeting these girls who were being offered these opportunities to come to the West as domestics and models. The same offers they were being given, I just read about a few months later in this magazine. Had I not known what it looks like and how it works, I don’t know if I would’ve recognized it. And that’s why slavery is able to be so successful today, is because people don’t know what to call it.
Where does the name, Call + Response, come from, and why is music such an important aspect?
That was a big journey for me, and understanding why this is a connection. What I’ve come to realize in making this film is that even down to verse and chorus, which is basically a play on tension and release, we didn’t have verses and choruses before we had slavery here in the United States. It came out of the music of the oppressed people here. That was, in a sense, call and response. So, we partake in slavery even when we listen to a modern pop song.
Emmanuel Jal, one of the musicians in the film, said, “Music is the only thing that can enter someone’s heart and mind without their permission.” How have you seen that to be true?
We’re bombarded with information all day, every day. And we get it, but we can gauge how much it’s going to affect us. But music has a way of getting in your head—it just enters, and you can’t get it out of your head. It can annoy you, but somehow it has that power. I wanted to couple music with information. It’s a “rockumentary,” not just a documentary. Using music as a tool, as a delivery agent. Music also gives us the courage to understand. There’s never been any great social justice movement without music, it gives courage. In the film, I wanted to couple the two, so the information goes a bit further than one’s firewalls might allow.
What story is symbolic to you of what Call + Response has been, and what God is doing with it?
History typically looks at a few people and says, “Well those are the ones that made the difference,” and there’s no recognition of the people who actually got it started, who were messy or weren’t popular. What I’m seeing is group after group doing these bottom-up movements based on what they’re interested in. It’s kids interested in fashion, and they’re figuring out ways to engage the fashion industry. It’s kids interested in sports, and they’re figuring out how to use their games and sporting events to affect slavery. When you see “open-source activism,” it’s scary because you don’t control it. But it’s also exciting, because you have no idea what’s going to come out of it. I wholeheartedly believe that is what activism looks like for the twentieth century.
A great call-to-action quote in the film is one from Cornel West, who said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” How have you seen that play out?
Justice requires a level of intimacy and vulnerability because it requires you to put yourself out, sometimes all by yourself without anybody around to applaud you and give you comfort. We have tremendous opportunities right now to change the world, but it’s going to require people who step out without needing someone to applaud them, or to be part of a group. When I hear “justice is what love looks like in public,” I hear a vulnerability in an individual who’s willing to say, “I refuse to believe and accept that this is the way the world should be,” and they step out, whether they’re with a group or not.
That seems especially true with modern-day slavery because it’s an issue no one wants to talk about.
And you know what? No one really wanted to talk about it 150, 200 years ago. It wasn’t until abolitionists started showing pictures, drawing sketches of what the slave ships were like. Someone was able to sneak in and then be able to show that to people who were saying, “No, slavery is OK. It’s part of our economic system.” The question that shames every one of us is, “What are we pretending not to know?” And it doesn’t have to be about this, but about everything. If you know that there are 10 times as many slaves being brought into the United States right now than there was 150 to 200 years ago. What are we pretending not to know? If we like to jump on top of some moral superiority complex and think, “Oh, I would’ve been on this side of women’s suffrage,” or “I would’ve been on this side of the Civil Rights,” or “I would’ve been on this side of the Holocaust,” but you can’t get on this side of this, then maybe we need to question what side we would’ve been on if we were to be transplanted back to history. Because it’s the same thing, it’s still human rights.
Another interesting point made in the film is that our backyard is all around the world, not just the few feet behind our house. How is this happening on a local level, as well as a global level?
I could dull you with statistics, but I think they’re important to understand when I say “ten times as many.” The CIA/FBI estimates we have close to 18,000 people being brought in every year to be slaves in the United States. There are anywhere from a quarter of a million on up that are actually operating under duress without any opportunity to walk away here in the United States. Now we have fancy words for those two things: we call them immigration and prostitution. We like to put things in boxes. I’ve taken it on as my job to recapture the vernacular of slavery, and say, “No, actually, we need another box.” There are people that are enslaved. Yes, they may be operating in the sex industry, or operating in the food industry, or in the service industry, but if their passport has been taken away, or their VISA has been taken away, if they are here under duress, if they’re trying to pay off a loan and they can’t walk away, that’s slavery.
What are some changes people can make that can impact their local realm, but also the global realm.
We’ve been talking about sex trade, but a big part, in fact a probably larger part of the issue, is forced labor. This is something that affects all of us. The sex trade probably doesn’t affect most of us, hopefully not, but the forced labor side does. Everything that we use, from our cellphones, to our clothes, to the coffee we drink, there is forced labor in all of that and it’s just as gruesome. The reality is that this is something we can do, because we’re the last link in the supply chain.
So looking at that, you’re like, “Wow, global, multi-national corporate supply chains, how do we affect that?” Well, you just yank them. You yank the chain if you’re the end of it. We created a website, called ChainStoreReaction.com. We took all the brands we could put together and created a letter-writing campaign to their corporate responsibility VPs or their CEOs. Basically it’s a consumer letter directly to them saying, “Hey, you make stuff. I buy your stuff. We have a relationship. I’m sure you know there’s slavery going on, and I’m sure you know that it’s far beyond the factory floors and the sweatshops that you’re doing such a good job of cleaning up. We actually have to get down to source materials, I want to know that you’re going to do that. Please sign this survey.” Every time an email goes out under their brand, it tallies how many letters have been sent. So we, the community, have sent out over 35,000 emails to 50 companies, from Dolce & Gabana to the Gap, to Levis, have come back and signed our survey and said, “We’re going to engage this further.” That may seem like a small step, but when you get a multi-national company to step up on something like this, that’s huge. That goes everywhere, and it’s leveraging something that you do every day, which is purchase things.
What do you think the first step should be for people to get involved in this?
Not awareness, but understanding is the first thing. The second thing, I really want people to call this slavery. I don’t want people to call it human trafficking. We define [slavery] as being forced to work without pay under threat of violence, being economically exploited and unable to walk away—that’s slavery. That fits a lot of what we’ve been talking about. If people could work the term “slavery” back into their vernacular, and take it out of antiquity and put it into current events, that’s actually quite huge.
The next thing is, we’re at a point in what history may call the 21st-century abolitionist movement. Like anything that moves society forward, we need commitment and innovation. There’s never been a disease that has been eradicated, or a human rights issue that has been wiped out without both of those two things. The open-source model for this is the perfect one, because when it’s laid out across the public, those are the people that can remain committed, that have the capacity to be committed and they can take chances. We’re going to have to see a lot of people taking chances around this issue. And so the third piece I would ask is that people would adopt this into their lives, and be committed to be as innovative with that as they are with other things, and be committed to it.