From Rock Musician to Anti-Slavery Activist

By Jaeah Lee 
Mother Jones

Justin Dillon with Tremolo in 2007.Tremolo/MySpace 

You’ve probably never heard of Justin Dillon or his band, Tremolo. After all, until fairly recently, his career was pretty unremarkable: By 2003, Tremolo had developed a following playing the usual tour circuits. They’d even landed tracks on a few films and television shows, including How to Deal, a romantic comedy starring Mandy Moore, and were awaiting an offer from Capitol Records to cut their first album.

“It was a weird phase where Capitol had a hold on us and we were all excited,” Dillon recalls earlier this month as we sit in his sun-basked office in Oakland, California’s iconic Tribune Tower. Wispy haired with hazel eyes, Dillon sports a militaristic look: khaki-green Mao cap, dark-washed jeans, black boots, 10 o’clock shadow.

Not wanting to sit around stressing about the record deal—which never materialized—the band accepted an invitation from a nonprofit to spend a week performing in a remote corner of Eastern Europe. Soon, Tremolo was in a town in Kalmykia, a Russian territory bordering the Black Sea. “Like, way the hell out there,” Dillon says. “It wasn’t hard to impress people because there was nothing to compare us to.”

There, the musicians befriended local kids who spoke of hopeful plans of leaving to work in America. On a hunch, Dillon pressed them for details. It soon became clear that some of these young people were unwittingly setting themselves up to be sold on the slave-labor market. The singer, who had no previous experience in activism, wanted to do something about it, but he didn’t know what. So after returning from Russia, he cold-called a few human-rights activists. “I’m not popular or anything,” he recalls telling one. “But I’ll do anything to help.”

The call led to more calls, culminating over several years into Call + Response, a 2008 musical documentary featuring artists like Natasha Bedingfield, Matisyahu, and Imogen Heap, and interviews with the likes of Madeleine Albright, Cornel West, and Nicholas Kristof. Dillon had never made a film before, but he had friends who had. After his years of recording and producing songs, he says, editing footage came naturally.Call + Response had a limited release in 50 theaters across the US, but it sold out nearly every night. Dillon was hailed as an “accidental filmmaker,” a musician who set out to combat modern slavery. Read story at Mother Jones 

                                  © Mother Jones

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