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Rocking for life

Culture | With painted nails, tattoos, and an eyebrow ring, Bryan Kemper brings pro-life message to the MTV crowd

Issue: "Worldview warehouses," July 17, 1999

Listening to the buzz around the "Green Room," the backstage celebrity holding-pen at ABC's Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, it's easy to tell which guest panelists are liberals: Heather Tom (The Young and the Restless), John Fugelsang (America's Funniest Home Videos), Jim Rose (a circus impresario whose bizarre acts include Mexican transvestite wrestling). What's hard to tell is which Politically Incorrect panelist at the June 10 taping more aptly personifies the show's title-the Reverend Jerry Falwell or Bryan Kemper of the Gen-X group Rock for Life (RFL). True, Mr. Falwell is the bogeyman of choice for many secularists, but Mr. Kemper is so in-your-liberal-face that producers actually make him change his clothes before OK'ing his appearance on the program.

The problem is his T-shirt. The burly, tattooed Mr. Kemper lumbers out of the producer's office and plops down on a sofa near a plate of mini-quiches, smiling. "I knew they wouldn't go for it," he says of the black shirt that screams "ABORTION IS HOMICIDE" in four-inch white letters. "That's why I brought a spare." Mr. Kemper's biker-style wallet chain jingles faintly as he plunges emerald-painted fingernails into a travel bag to rummage for the replacement. He produces a T-shirt with a tamer logo-"UNASHAMED"-and, after a quick change, pins on a button-"Proud New Daddy"-in honor of his daughter Kimberlee, three weeks old. "At least they're consistent," says Mr. Kemper of ABC's policy on ideological promotion. "When Pamela Anderson was on, they wouldn't let her wear her 'People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' shirt either."

Unlike Ms. Anderson, Mr. Kemper is more concerned with the ethical treatment of people. As national director of RFL, a division of Virginia-based American Life League, he leads a posse of young musicians who crusade against abortion. Through rock concerts, compilation albums, education booths at concert venues, and a network of pro-life bands, RFL reaches out to youth with a message designed to provoke a collective national cry: "Stop killing our generation!"

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Mr. Kemper co-founded RFL with fellow rocker and pro-life activist Erik Whittington in 1996. For two years, the pair operated from a basement office in Portland, Ore., living on donations and the support of friends. In 1998, Rock for Life fused with Why Life?, another pro-life youth group, and together the two groups formed a youth division of American Life League. Since then, RFL has spun off 34 chapters in 19 states.

But, despite demographic growth, the silent chasm separating Rock for Life and its member bands from mainstream secular music still yawned wide-until RFL went for the wallet. Last fall, the group began publicly "outing" and calling for boycotts against mainstream artists who financially support the abortion industry.

The first targets: singer Joan Osborne (whose career isn't exactly skyrocketing), and singers Paula Cole and Jewel (whose careers are). Following Ms. Osborne's recording of public service announcements for Planned Parenthood, RFL chastised the singer in print and urged consumers to boycott her concerts and records. In January, RFL issued another release slamming Ms. Cole, Jewel, and others for a benefit concert for Zero Population Growth (ZPG), a population-control advocacy group.

Then, on May 25, RFL fired a media bullet that really jangled record industry nerves-and drew return fire. When Lilith Fair, the ultra-hip and hugely popular summer concert series founded by singer Sarah McLachlan, advertised Planned Parenthood as one of its charity beneficiaries, RFL's news release was a dead-on hit: "New Lilith Fair CD Helps Pay for Deaths of Future Fans."

Instead of ignoring RFL's broadside, Lilith Fair organizers struck back. Lilith Fair fired off a press release denying that it gives money to Planned Parenthood; the release contended that the tour merely allows the group "to have a presence on the tour" to "distribute educational material." But soon journalists who picked up the story pointed out that Lilith Fair's website lists Planned Parenthood among three organizations that benefit financially from the concert series.

"Money is going from Lilith Fair to Planned Parenthood, that's all there is to it," Mr. Kemper says. "I want to know why they're ashamed of it."

But RFL's most significant breach in the dividing wall between secular, pro-abort bands and pro-life musicians was an open letter on Spin magazine's website from Van Halen lead singer Gary Cherone, who is pro-life, to Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder, who is avidly pro-abortion.

After hearing Mr. Kemper speak, Mr. Cherone, who says he is in the process of returning to a close relationship with God, decided he could no longer keep silent about his pro-life views. He approached Rock for Life with the idea of writing the open letter to Mr. Vedder, a high-profile abortion supporter whose band has ridden high on the charts throughout the 1990s.

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