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How the Panama Papers Rocked Pop Culture

Band names, dozens of song titles, a racehorse and even cigarette rolling papers. Seven years on, the ICIJ-led reporting collaboration that sparked a global political earthquake continues to show up in surprising ways.

n early 2021, Eli Luchak, a bartender and singer in New Orleans, was trying to conjure up a name for the Southern sludge/metallic hardcore band he and five other twenty-something friends were putting together.

One early idea for the group’s name had been Poodle Moth, a reference to a mysterious and fluffy insect that’s been spotted just once, in the Gran Sabana region of Venezuela. But that didn’t capture the kind of loud and politically passionate music Luchak and his bandmates were gravitating toward.

So he started thinking about a global event that had caught his attention back in 2016, during his sophomore year of high school in Philadelphia: the Panama Papers investigation.

For Luchak, the collaborative journalism initiative had been a moment of political and economic illumination that helped him understand “how the world works.” The Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation, which revealed names and other specifics of powerful figures who exploit offshore financial secrecy at the expense of the rest of the world’s population, offered Luchak a possible name that could speak to his awakening.

He suggested calling the band Mossack Fonseca, after the Panamanian law firm at the center of the Panama Papers. Or Panama Papers Shredders, playing off the idea of hidden documents being destroyed but also the “shredding” style of guitar work often used in heavy metal.

Neither of those quite clicked. He and the band decided that a straight-forward and alliterative name — Panama Papers — was the way to go. After an intense period of songwriting and practicing, they’ve been playing under that name at house parties and clubs around New Orleans for a year now.

The band’s name is a testament to the cultural impact that the Panama Papers investigation has achieved since it debuted on April 3, 2016 — seven years ago today.

The investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and more than 100 media partners helped oust prime ministers in Iceland and Pakistan and sparked arrests, new laws and government probes in dozens of countries. Today the Panama Papers endures as a catchphrase that helps frame and fuel public debates about corruption, financial crime and inequality.

At the same time, the Panama Papers’ influence has stretched far beyond legislatures and courthouses. The investigation has penetrated deep into global popular culture, inspiring movies, books, artworks and a variety of musical projects — all of which have helped keep its memory and impact alive in public consciousness.

The New Orleans-based band Panama Papers is one of at least five musical groups around the world that have named themselves after the investigation. At least 11 record albums are named after the 2016 investigation. And musicians in multiple countries and languages have written, recorded and performed at least 38 songs titled “Panama Papers” or some variation, such as “Panama Papers Blues.”

These songs rise up from many genres, including punk, funk, metal, techno, ambient, lounge, dubstep, indie rock and free-form jazz. Some are instrumentals, but others feature lyrics that directly address injustice and inequality and their enablers in the offshore financial world.

Vanquished Kingdom, an Australian metal band, released a song called “Panama Papers” in 2018 that includes these in-your-face lyrics:

White washed tombs, corrupted hearts
the Almighty Dollar’s shills,
it’s all legal, never mind
who it robs or kills

Siebe Pogson, the band’s bassist, says his bandmate and cousin Zac Anderson wrote the song “as an angry reaction to the story as it was breaking” — including the revelation that Australia’s prime minister at the time, Malcom Turnbull, had been director of an offshore company set up in the British Virgin Islands.

“It was one of our favorite songs to record and play live, especially as it has so much energy,” Pogson said. “We were always able to get the crowd going at the end with the chant” — a man, a plan, a canal, Panama.

Another Panama Papers song that features an audience-rousing chant was created and recorded by Shaolin Temple Defenders, a French funk band with an affinity for James Brown and kung fu movies.

When the investigation was released, the band was in the middle of recording its sixth album. Its vocalist, Emmanuel “Brother Lion” Guérin, had already written a song about offshore secrecy titled “Another Daily Robbery.”

As news of the investigation rocketed around the world, becoming the No. 1 trending topic globally on Twitter, Guérin and his bandmates decided the song needed a new name.

“The scandal came,” bassist Jeremy Ortal said, “so we decided to change the name to ‘Panama Papers’ because it symbolized all this behavior of finance and tricks. . . . We were sure people would be intrigued by the name.”

Their artistic mission, Ortal said, drives them to raise their voices about “painful truths.” He said whistleblowers like Panama Papers’ John Doe “should have a statue in each town of the world. They are the new freedom and justice fighters.”

The band performed the song live most recently eight days ago at a show in Geneva, Switzerland.

They were singing about tax havens in perhaps the world’s oldest and most notorious tax haven, belting out a chant that tries to provoke listeners to take action:

Give back all the money
Gotta take back all the power.

Doom and noise

The Panama Papers investigation has had staying power as a cultural phenomenon in part because it hits home for many people in an era when billions of lives have been affected by political and corporate corruption, the widening gap between rich and poor and the social media-driven spread of disinformation and authoritarianism.

Mac Fisher, a guitarist/vocalist and bandmate of Luchak in the Panama Papers band, was also in high school when the Panama Papers came out. At the time, real estate impresario and reality TV frontman Donald Trump was closing in on the 2016 Republican nomination for president, fueling her concerns about how the power of the mega-wealthy was hurting people trying to get by from day to day, paycheck to paycheck.

The Panama Papers was “formative” for her as a teenager growing up in Asheville, North Carolina, she said.

“It was amazing how something so enormous could just get swept under the rug by so many people,” Fisher, now 23, recalled. “It was a reminder of who was benefiting from that — and that they, in fact, had names and addresses and corporeal forms. And it showed how much we were willing to accept and just how many unspoken, awful truths there are in the way our world operates.”

For Fisher, Luchak and their bandmates — drummer Omar Shbeeb, bassist/vocalist Soumya Ramineni and guitarists Cameron Slate and Thomas Henry Williamson — wealth inequality and economic exploitation aren’t theoretical issues. They play before audiences made up largely of young adults looking for a head-banging respite from working  soul-crushing shifts at low-paid service industry jobs.

The band says its music is influenced by a variety of genres, including “doom, noise, Southern rock, bluegrass, dance, post punk, hip hop, prog, dream pop and indie rock.” The band hopes to record its first album soon.

One song that may go on the album is called “Nasdaq Prescott.” Luchak, who wrote the lyrics, came up with the song’s name by combining the name of Nasdaq, one of the world’s largest stock exchanges, with the name Prescott, which has an “old money” ring to it.

The song is a dialogue between a rich man and a not-rich person. It starts in the voice of the rich guy:

Tied to these offshore holdings
These tricks and guilts all-knowing
You breathe and sleep so hardly
I lie and kill so calmly

Source: ICIJ