Political Songs

Karma Refugee

1. Karma

“Liberation is getting out of the toils of Karma.  During your many past lives, you’ve done all kinds of deeds, good and bad and you are reaping the consequences of these deeds today.  And also today, you’re setting up future consequences.  Before you can be liberated, you’ve got to pay off your karmic debts.  All your karmic creditors will come to your door.”
Alan Watts, “The Joker,” YouTube lecture.

Sometime during the recording sessions of 2013, we started calling our virtual and loosely organized band, The Karma Refugees.  We had not played the song together; it was a One Drop song.  But the song title is catchy and curiously contemporary.  Somehow with no one planning it, the name stuck.  And that caused us to revisit the song and to record it again—in 2016.

Karma Refugees, 2016
Song Writing:              Mike J. Opitz
Guitar:                         Mike
Bass:                           Tom C. Daddesio
Keyboard:                   Caitlin M. Brutger
Production:                 Mike and Caitlin

Fragment of dialog from the past:

Mike said, “I feel bad but … last night I had to kill a mouse.”
Diane laughed, “That’s a karma debt … but it’s a small one.”

Since then, I’ve wondered what a karma debt—and later, a big karma debt might be.  I had a simple, pop-culture idea of the concept of karma in mind born of my cursory knowledge of the beat generation.

“What goes around comes around,” I thought.   “You reap what you sow.” Perhaps you reap it in a different lifetime.  I came to think that personal bad behavior incurred a karma debt, and that cultural bad behavior counted as a big karma debt.

Without really planning to, it seems that I’ve embarked on a musical exploration of that idea.

The song, Karma Refugee is the first song I wrote for The One Drop Band. We recorded it in 1998 after playing it live for many years.  At the time, our collective mission was to bring the poetry and power of reggae music to our small college town in Minnesota.  My only goal in writing the song was to make a reggae song for the band to play.  Tom added the bass line that was to be a hallmark of live One Drop shows.   It was track 4 on the band’s only album (The One Drop, Uberaffe Records, 1998).  We called it “a song about cultural Karma debt” in the liner notes and added an epigraph.

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
And they that wasted us required of us mirth

Karma Refugee—One Drop Version

Karma Refugee

I’m a Karma Refugee;
I’m a Karma Refugee.
The sins of my fathers are visited on me.
I’m a Karma Refugee.

I grew up with a lot of things at my hand.
I didn’t have to struggle to be a man.
Little did I understand how that hindered me.
I’m a Karma Refugee.


I feel the absence of a soul.
Seem to be missing my heart of gold.
If I can’t buy it at the mall, it means nothing to me.
I’m a Karma Refugee.

Yes, I’ve got a vacuum for a soul.
Don’t know which way I should go.
But I can feel the visions dawning on me.
A Karma Refugee.


There’s a nation rising in this land.
A reggae reggae nation in this land.
Feel the rhythms of the ancient ones
Struggling to be free.
Karma Refugee.

There’s a nation rising in this land.
A reggae reggae nation in this land.
Feel the rhythms–feel free.
Karma Refugee.

Without Meaning to, I made a list:

Heal the Nation: Recorded by The Karma Refugees in 2015, this song explores the culture of slavery.  (blog entry)

Dancers of the Dawn: Recorded by The One Drop in 1998, this song explores the massacre at Wounded Knee, the genocide of “the Indian Wars,” and The Ghost Dance religion.

Boom: Recorded by The Karma Refugees in 2012, this song links my dad’s experience in WW II with the experience of my generation in the Vietnam War.

The Muse:  Recorded by The Karma Refugees in 2015, this song investigates patriarchal use of language to classify and control women. (blog entry)

I did not set out to write up a legalistic indictment of various cultural karma debts.  Each song just happened as a single song.  However, reflecting on the songs, and applying my limited knowledge of karma, I can see now that each one names and explores a “big” cultural debt. I learned that I expect “all the karmic creditors [to] be knocking.”

The experience of re-envisioning and re-recording a song reminds me of the Zen saying, “You can’t step into the same river twice.”  It will always be at a different time, with a different mind and situation.  My assumption is that some learning takes place in the space and time between recordings.  I learned to expand my idea of Karma.  In Alan Watts’ words:

“If I define myself as a whole field of events—let’s say the ‘organism-environment’ field which is the real me, then all the things that happen to me may be called “my doing.”  And that is the real sense of karma.  But when we speak about freedom from karma—freedom from being the puppet of the past—that involves getting rid of the habit of thought whereby you define yourself as the result of what has gone before.”
Alan Watts, “The Law of Karma,” YouTube lecture.

Alan Watts, “The Law of Karma.”

Alan Watts, “The Joker.”

Alan Watts, “Masturbation, Religion, Love.”

Alan Watts, “Sex, the Ultimate Sin.”

  1. Refugee

 When I wrote the song, “Karma Refugee,” my understanding of the word “refugee” was no greater than my understanding of karma.  The words and the melody just came to me while strumming my guitar on the basement steps.  But I had grown up in a household with an Italian grandmother, Marietta Marcolini.  Her experience of being a woman, and a single mother, alienated and lonely in a strange land—America—got passed on to me through her stories and her tears.  She had come here as a teenager for an arranged marriage.  My grandfather came for a better life.  He had been an opera singer in Italy.  He became a miner and died of granite pneumonia in America.  I have been surprised that I am so drawn to this family history and have explored it in music.

Without meaning to, I made a list:
BanditRecorded by The Karma Refugees in 2012, produced by Tom with Stephanie Franzen on violin, this song is based on my grandmother’s stories and experiences.   Grandmother and the Bandit blog post

Harbor : Recorded by The One Drop in 1998, produced by Gary Neyers with Norb Jost on saxophone, this song is also about my grandmother’s experiences.

Jonah: Recorded by The One Drop in 1998, words by David Hulm, produced by Gary Neyers, this song says, “Feel like Jonah in the belly of a whale” and then, “The name of the whale is Babylon.”

Activist: Recorded by The Karma Refugees in 2015, this song explores how a person can be a refugee from a culture while also being a part of it.

Suitcases: For Walter Benjamin: Recorded by The Karma Refugees in 2013, this song is based on the life and death of philosopher, Walter Benjamin—who died while fleeing the Nazi persecution of Jews.  In our time, the persecution takes many forms.

The time of the refugee:

 It might be obvious to note that this time seems to be the era of the refugee as capital– and its companion war– expands its grasp to all corners of the earth.  People flee both physically and psychologically.  My thinking about the term refugee has also taken a journey.  Today, it resides in the words of Leonard Cohen’s beautiful “Anthem”:

You can add up the parts but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march, there is no drum
Every heart, every heart to love will come
but like a refugee.

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