Politically, he is a member of the Green Party and actively supports leftist political causes. Biafra ran for the party's Presidential nomination in 2000, finishing second to Ralph Nader. He is a self-identified anarchist who advocates civil disobedience, direct action, culture jamming and pranksterism in the name of political change. Biafra is known to use absurdist media tactics in the tradition of the Yippies to highlight issues of civil rights, social justice, economic populism, anti-corporatism, peace movements, anti-consumerism, environmentalism, anti-globalization, universal health care, LGBT rights, anti-capitalism, reproductive rights, feminism, and the separation of church and state.
His stage name is a combination of the brand name Jell-O and the name of the short lived country of Biafra which attempted to secede from Nigeria in 1967. After three years of fighting and horrific starvation in Biafra, Nigeria regained control of the nascent Biafran state. Jello Biafra created his name as an ironic combination of a nutritionally poor mass-produced food product and mass starvation.
He began his career in music in January 1977 as a roadie for the punk rock band The Ravers (who would later change their name to The Nails). In the autumn of that year, he began attending the University of California, Santa Cruz. He studied acting and the history of Paraguay before leaving to become involved in San Francisco, California's punk scene.
In June 1978 he responded to an ad put out by guitarist East Bay Ray and together they formed the Dead Kennedys. He began performing with the band under the stage name Occupant, but shortly after began using his current stage name. Biafra wrote the band's lyrics, most of which were political in nature and displayed a sardonic, sometimes absurdist, sense of humor despite their serious subject matter. In the tradition of UK peace punk bands like Crass, Dead Kennedys was one of the first US punk bands to write politically themed songs. The lyrics Biafra wrote helped popularize the use of humorous lyrics in hardcore. Biafra cites Joey Ramone as the inspiration for his use of humor in his songs (as well as being the musician who made him interested in punk rock), noting in particular songs by The Ramones such as "Beat On the Brat" and "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue".
Biafra initially attempted to compose music on guitar, but his inexperience on the instrument and his own admission of being "a fumbler with my hands" led Dead Kennedys bassist Klaus Flouride to suggest that Biafra simply sing the parts he was envisioning to the band. Biafra would later sing his riffs and melodies into a tape recorder, which he brought to the band's rehearsal and/or recording sessions. This would later become an issue when the other Dead Kennedys sued Biafra over royalties and publishing rights. By all accounts, including his own, Biafra is not a conventionally skilled musician, though he and his collaborators (Joey Shithead of D.O.A. in particular) attest that he is a skilled composer and his work, particularly with Dead Kennedys, is highly respected by punk-oriented critics and fans.
Biafra's first popular song was the first single by Dead Kennedys, "California Über Alles". The song, which spoofed California governor Jerry Brown, was the first of many political songs by the group and Biafra. The song's popularity resulted in it being covered by other musicians, such as The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (who rewrote the lyrics to parody Pete Wilson) and John Linnell of They Might Be Giants. Not long afterward, Dead Kennedys made a second and bigger hit with "Holiday in Cambodia" from their debut album Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. Allmusic cites this song as "possibly the most successful single of the American hardcore scene and Biafra counts it as his personal favorite Dead Kennedys song. ("Holiday in Cambodia" is now included in the video game Guitar Hero III.) Minor hits from the album included "Kill the Poor" (about potential abuse of the then-new neutron bomb) and a satirical cover of Elvis Presley's "Viva Las Vegas".
Dead Kennedys received some controversy in the spring of 1981 over the single "Too Drunk to Fuck". The song became a big hit in Britain, and the BBC feared that it would manage to be a big enough hit to appear among the top 30 songs on the national charts, requiring a mention on Top of the Pops. However, the single's popularity was slightly less than what was required, peaking at the 31st position.
Later albums would also contain memorable songs, but with less popularity than the earlier ones. The EP In God We Trust, Inc. contained the song "Nazi Punks Fuck Off!" as well as "We've Got A Bigger Problem Now", a rewritten version of "California Über Alles" about Ronald Reagan. Punk musician and scholar Vic Bondi considers the latter song to be the song that "defined the lyrical agenda of much of hardcore music, and represented its break with punk". The band's most controversial album, Frankenchrist, brought with it the song "MTV Get Off the Air", which accused MTV of promoting poor quality music and sedating the public. The album also contained a controversial poster by Swiss surrealist artist H. R. Giger entitled Penis Landscape.
The Dead Kennedys toured widely during their career, starting in the late 1970s. They began playing mostly at southern Californian clubs (most notably the Whisky a Go Go), but eventually they moved on to major clubs across the country, including CBGB in New York. Later, they played to larger audiences such as at the 1980 Bay Area Music Awards (where they played the notorious "Pull My Strings" for the first and only time), and headlined the 1983 Rock Against Reagan festival.
Biafra has been a prominent figure of the Californian punk scene and was one of the founding members of the San Francisco hardcore punk community. Many later hardcore bands would cite the Dead Kennedys as a major influence. Hardcore punk author Steven Blush describes Biafra as hardcore's "biggest star" who was a "powerful presence whose political insurgence and rabid fandom made him the father figure of a burgeoning subculture [and an] inspirational force [who] could also be a real prick... Biafra was a visionary, incendiary [performer].
After the Dead Kennedys disbanded, Biafra's new songs were recorded with other bands, releasing only spoken word albums as solo projects. These collaborations had less popularity than Biafra's earlier work. However, his song "That's Progress", originally recorded with D.O.A. for the album Last Scream Of The Missing Neighbors, received considerable exposure when it appeared on the album Rock Against Bush, Vol. 1.
Music author Rebee Garofalo argued that Biafra and Alternative Tentacles may have been targeted because the label was a "small, self-managed and self-supported company that could ill afford a protracted legal battle. Facing the possible sentence of a year in jail and a $2000 fine, Biafra, Dirk Dirksen, and Suzanne Stefanac founded the No More Censorship Defense Fund, a benefit made up of several punk rock bands, to help pay for his legal fees, which neither he nor his record label could afford. The jury deadlocked 5 to 7 in favor of acquittal, prompting a mistrial; despite a district attorney motion to re-try the case, the judge ordered all charges dropped. The Dead Kennedys disbanded during the trial, in December 1986, due to the mounting legal costs; in the wake of their disbandment, Biafra made a career of his spoken word performances. His early spoken word albums focused heavily on the trial (especially in High Priest of Harmful Matter), which made him renowned for his anti-censorship stance.
Jello had a cameo role as an FBI agent, arresting the main characters played by Tim Robbins and John Cusack, in the 1988 film Tapeheads. His character says, while arresting them, "Remember what we did to Jello Biafra?", lampooning the obscenity prosecution.
On March 25, 2005, Biafra appeared on the U.S. radio program This American Life, "Episode 285: Know Your Enemy", which featured a phone call between Jello Biafra and Michael Guarino, the prosecutor in the Frankenchrist trial. The episode was about Guarino's change of opinion and the reconciliation between Guarino and Biafra.
In October 1998, former members of the Dead Kennedys sued Biafra for nonpayment of royalties. According to Biafra, the suit resulted from his refusal to allow one of the band's most well known singles, "Holiday in Cambodia", to be used in a commercial for Levi's Dockers; Biafra opposes Levi's because he believes that they use unfair business practices and sweatshop labor. The three former members claimed that their motive had nothing to do with advertising, and that they had filed suit because Biafra had denied them royalties and failed to promote their albums. Biafra maintained that he had never denied them royalties, and that he himself had not even received royalties for rereleases of their albums or "posthumous" live albums which had been licensed to other labels by the Decay Music partnership. Decay Music denied this charge and have posted what they say are his cashed royalty checks, although there is no evidence that Biafra ever endorsed and deposited these payments. Biafra also complained about the songwriting credits in new reissues and archival live albums of songs that Biafra claims he composed himself to the entire band. In May 2000, a jury found Biafra liable for fraud and malice and ordered him to pay $200,000, including $20,000 in punitive damages, to the band members. After an appeal by Biafra’s lawyers, in June 2003, the California Court of Appeals unanimously upheld all the conditions of the 2000 verdict against Biafra and Alternative Tentacles.
The other band members reunited without Biafra under the name of "DK Kennedys" (later returning to the original band name), replacing Biafra first with Brandon Cruz, then with Jeff Penalty. Dead Kennedys fans have criticized the new band, owing to Biafra's absence. Biafra himself has also openly criticized his former bandmates' legal tactics and reunion tours, most notably in the song "Those Dumb Punk Kids (Will Buy Anything)", which he performed with The Melvins.
In 1999, Biafra and other members of the anti-globalization movement protested the WTO Meeting of 1999 in Seattle. Along with other prominent West Coast musicians, he formed the short-lived band the No WTO Combo to help promote the movement's cause. The band was originally scheduled to play during the protest, but the performance was canceled due to riots. The band performed a short set the following night at the Showbox in downtown Seattle (outside of the curfew area), along with the hiphop group Spearhead. No WTO Combo later released a CD of recordings from the concert, entitled Live from the Battle in Seattle.
As of late 2005, Biafra was performing with the band The Melvins under the name "Jello Biafra and the Melvins", though fans sometimes refer to them as "The Jelvins." Together they have released two albums, and have been working on material for a third collaborative release, much of which was premiered live at two concerts at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco during an event called Biafra Five-O, commemorating Biafra's 50th birthday, the 30th anniversary of Dead Kennedys, and the beginning of legalized same-sex marriage in California. Biafra is also working with a new band known as Jello Biafra and his Axis of Merry Evildoers, which includes Ralph Spight of Victims Family on guitar and Billy Gould of Faith No More on bass. This group debuted during Biafra Five-O.
Biafra is an ardent collector of unusual vinyl records of all kinds, from 50's and 60's ethno-pop recordings by the likes of Les Baxter and Esquivel to vanity pressings that have circulated regionally, to infamous German crooner Heino; he cites his always growing collection as one of his biggest musical influences. In 1993 he gave an interview to RE/Search Publications for their second Incredibly Strange Music book focusing primarily on these records. His heavy interest in such recordings (often categorized as outsider music) eventually led to Biafra discovering the prolific (and schizophrenic) singer/songwriter/artist Wesley Willis, whom he signed to Alternative Tentacles in 1994, preceding Willis' major label deal with American Recordings. His collection grew so large that on October 1, 2005, Biafra donated a portion of his collection to an annual yard sale co-promoted by Alternative Tentacles and held at their warehouse in Emeryville, California.
In 2006, along with Alternative Tentacles employee and The Frisk lead singer Jesse Luscious, Biafra began co-hosting The Alternative Tentacles Batcast, a downloadable podcast hosted by alternativetentacles.com The show primarily focuses on interviews with artists and bands that are currently signed to the Alternative Tentacles label, although there are also occasional episodes where Biafra devoted the show to answering fan questions.
His ninth spoken word album, In the Grip of Official Treason, was released in October 2006.
His platform included unconventional points such as forcing businessmen to wear clown suits within city limits, erecting statues of Dan White all over town and allowing the parks department to sell eggs and tomatoes with which people could pelt them, and a citywide ban on cars (although the latter point was not considered abnormal by many voters at the time, as the city was suffering from serious pollution problems). Biafra has expressed irritation that these parts of his platform attained such notoriety, preferring instead to be remembered for serious proposals such as legalizing squatting in vacant, tax-delinquent buildings and requiring police officers to keep their jobs by running for election voted on by the people of the neighborhoods they patrol.
For those of them who have seen my candidacy as a publicity stunt or a joke, they should keep in mind that it is no more of a joke, and no less of a joke, than anyone else they care to name.
He finished fourth out of a field of ten, receiving 3.5% of the vote (6,591 votes); the election ended in a runoff that did not involve him (Feinstein was declared the winner). In reaction to his campaign (and that of Sister Boom-Boom, a drag queen who also ran for mayor and handily won the third place spot above Biafra), San Francisco passed a resolution stating that no candidate could run under any name other than their given name.
Biafra, along with a camera crew (dubbed by Biafra as "The Camcorder Truth Jihad"), later reported for the Independent Media Center at the Republican and Democratic conventions. Biafra detailed these events in his album Become The Media, which has resulted in him being credited with coining the slogan "Don't hate the media, become the media". Indymedia and related alternative media often use this line, or the now more apt "Don't hate the media, be the media."
On May 7, 1994 people who believed Biafra was a sell out attacked him at the 924 Gilman Street club in Berkeley, California. Biafra claims that he was attacked by a man nicknamed Cretin, who crashed into him while slamdancing. The crash injured Biafra's leg, causing an argument between the two men. During the argument, Cretin pushed Biafra to the floor and five or six friends of Cretin assaulted Biafra while he was down, yelling "Sellout rock star, kick him". Biafra was later hospitalized with serious injuries, The attack derailed Biafra's plans for both a Canadian spoken-word tour and an accompanying album, and the production of Pure Chewing Satisfaction was halted. However, Biafra returned to the Gilman club a few months after the incident to perform a spoken-word performance as an act of reconciliation with the club.