Thursday, May 15, 2014

Change the People

Illustration by Anton Weflö for Jacobin
This article appears in Issue 14 of Jacobin magazine. It was written and edited while its subject -- revolutionary musician Fred Ho -- was in the final stages of battling cancer. On the very day the proofs were sent to the printers, Ho passed away. Though this article doesn't reflect his passing, the author has also written an obituary for Ho in Jacobin. 


Fred Ho has been staring death in the face for almost a decade. In 2006, the prolific avant-garde saxophonist and composer was diagnosed with cancer. In late 2012, his doctors told him that the cancer had metastasized. A statement posted on his website in January of last year reads:

In 2012 we learned that the cancer had now reached stage 4b metastasis. A condition considered terminal.
But having optimized himself with a raw extreme food diet, spiritualizing himself with the elimination of ego, immersion in the love of so many friends, his family and supporters from around the planet, and coming to peace and carrying no baggage of any kind, Fred’s legacy is monumental and will be celebrated throughout 2013.
This seems an idiosyncratic way to greet the news that you may be dying, but to anyone who is familiar with Fred Ho’s art and music, it’s hard to imagine him taking it any other way. In Yellow Power, Yellow Soul: The Radical Art of Fred Ho, he is described with eccentric yet vivid labels, at once a revolutionary Marxist and a self-professed Luddite, an ecocentric matriarchal socialist, a devout atheist who, in his own words, is “trying to find a sound that will bring down the walls of Jericho.”

Summing up Ho’s corpus of work is likewise a slippery task. The music he composes and performs is instantly recognizable as jazz, yet it also incorporates elements far beyond most conceptions of the genre. Ho himself dislikes the very term “jazz,” describing it as a word with racist origins used to diminish the importance of non-white music.

Nor is his music confined to albums or performances in dark clubs; he has composed and collaborated on several large-scale operas that incorporate whole orchestras, dance, martial arts, and multimedia. He has authored a handful of books exploring the nexus of art and politics. He even designs his own clothes, seeking out fashions that are at once bold and completely original. To say Fred Ho defies convention is such an understatement that it’s almost an insult to the man.

It may go without saying that, despite being honored by contemporaries and his alma mater of Harvard, emissaries for the Big Three record labels aren’t banging down Ho’s door (not that he’s particularly bothered by that). Neoliberalism’s assault on the cultural resources of working and oppressed people, combined with the tight consolidation of the record industry, has left precious little space for discussions of aesthetic liberation. Notions of the avant-garde are perhaps more marginal than they’ve been in decades. Which, ironically, makes such discussions all the more urgent.

Further complicating matters is Elvis Costello’s adage that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” A book like Yellow Power, Yellow Soul, intended as a thorough examination of Ho’s work, naturally comes up against this sticky truth. Editors Tamara Roberts and Roger Buckley have taken a somewhat novel tack; the book includes not just essays on Ho’s compositions, operas and life, but anecdotes and ruminations from friends and collaborators; there are even a few poems inspired by the man peppered throughout. It’s an unorthodox tack to take, but ultimately effective. What one takes from the book is a sense not just of the importance of Ho’s work but of how a new, vital, politically engaged, even dialectical avant-garde art might look.

Returning to the Source

Ho’s mantra, repeated several times in one way or another throughout Yellow Power, is straightforward. Revolutionary music, as he sees it, must “go to the people, speak to the people, change the people.” It’s certainly simple, and yet it opens up a whole host of questions about how one reaches listeners on the almost subconscious levels in which art flourishes. How does one provide for an audience an art that breaks the mold while at the same time giving them something they want to hear?

Diane C. Fujino’s essay “Return to the Source” is a particularly illuminating starting point for this question, providing a view of Ho’s early ideas on art vis-à-vis the New Communist Movement of the 1970s and 1980s as well as mapping the limits of the New Left’s aesthetic practices. Fujino’s title is taken from a speech of the same name by liberation leader Amilcar Cabral of Guinea-Bissau. She refers back to this speech in order to insist that Ho’s work is similarly informed by a desire to celebrate art forms popular among Asian and African-American masses in order to reassert their independence:
Cabral asserted that no colonizing force or oppressor can successfully dominate without destroying the culture of the oppressed peoples. Maintaining one’s culture, turning back toward one’s cultural heritage, or recreating a liberatory culture (because as Cabral emphasizes, no culture is fixed or flawless) in the face of colonialism is thus a revolutionary act…. Rooted in Cabral, Ho asserts, “Oppressed people don’t begin to fight their oppression until they resist the identity and historical image their oppressor makes of them.”
This is particularly prescient given Ho’s Chinese heritage. Asian Americans are constantly held up as a “model minority,” the racial category that proves racism doesn’t really exist and assimilation is the key to prosperity. Ho’s own upbringing, illustrated at several points in the book, provides a corrective to those myths.

Much of what Cabral lays out — particularly the rejection of cultural assimilation in favor of racial pride — is what attracted Ho to Maoism in the 1970s. While much of the Old Left was seen as having equivocated on questions of racism, the New Communist Movement saw it primarily as a question of national liberation. Inspired by struggles in the Third World, a great many artists from the Black Arts Movement — including the recently departed Amiri Baraka — made a turn toward Maoism because of the movement’s refusal to compromise on the issue.

In fact, both Baraka and Ho were for a time in the same organization: the League of Revolutionary Struggle. The League was the result of a fusion of a handful of Third Worldist and revolutionary nationalist organizations. These groups were prone to sweeping statements and demands on many issues, including art. At the same time, there can be little denying that many of their adherents and sympathizers produced compelling artistic expression. Some of them — Archie Shepp, for example — provided key innovations in the field of free and avant-garde jazz.

That the Asian-American movement isn’t as widely recognized as the Black and Brown Power movements is tragic in its own right; not least of all because the jazz created by Asian and Pacific-American artists as a complement to that movement could be equally magnetic. Just as BAM jazz artists often experimented with African polyrhythms and genres in order to emphasize the specifically non-Western nature of their music, so did Ho and other Asian artists explore ways to inject the sounds of their heritage as signifiers of cultural pride: Cantonese opera, Japanesetanka poetry, Filipino randallia music. But this approach also brought with it a severe shortcoming. Says Ho:
By and large, these attempts at a revolutionary theory of APA art and culture simply reiterated standard [Marxist-Leninist] views (mostly from Mao’s Yenan talks on literature, art and revolution) on the political and class nature of art, the propaganda value of popular forms, the question of aesthetic form and its dialectical, yet subordinate, relationship to revolutionary proletarian content…. The major limitation of the American Left’s theory and practice in cultural work has stemmed from the influence of socialist-realism (the Zhdanov policies of the Soviet Union), commonly regarded as agit-prop. This theory regards art solely for its utilitarian value as a vehicle for propaganda.
It is worth unpacking this history, because Ho’s best work has sought to face the quandary of how art can attack the evils of capitalism — racism, sexual oppression, exploitation, and imperialism, not to mention what the culture industry does to music itself — without becoming forgettably propagandistic. What’s more, despite Ho’s urge to move beyond the narrow confines of effective Zhdanovism, the approach yielded an essential ingredient in his recent work.

The “Popular Avant-Garde”

Take, for example, “No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger” from The Sweet Science Suite, Ho’s “choreographed musical tribute to Muhammad Ali,” which premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this past October. The composition is at once catchy and profoundly challenging, veering from orchestral jazz to the instrumentations and arrangements of Vietnamese folk music to fleeting moments of soul and funk that signify the Champ’s signature swagger. Obviously, Ho’s baritone sax plays a key role. Though there are no words, those with even slight knowledge of Ali will surely catch on to the theme of Afro-Asian solidarity embodied both in his well-known rebuke to the draft and in the music’s incorporation of sounds that at first listen don’t seem to mix.

Ho’s works — his operas, performances, and compositions — generally proceed from this logic. He is fond of calling himself a “popular avant-gardist,” employing an irreverent, almost deconstructionist ethos to material lifted from pop and folk cultures. His operas generously borrow from Asian fables, Japanese manga, and Bruce Lee films and invert them with aplomb. Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon! uses the popular manga Lone Wolf and Cub as its starting point to tell a tale of individuals’ awareness of their place in history’s battles. His womanist opera Warrior Sisters: The New Adventures of African and Asian Womyn Warriors features Asian women performing African roles and vice versa in its attempt to embody Afro-Asian solidarity.

The most informative and engaging passages of Yellow Power, Yellow Soul are those that illustrate just how this approach sets itself apart. Ho’s outlook, as Kevin Fellezs posits in his essay, shares with Antonio Gramsci an understanding of “‘the popular’ as a locus of intersecting interests, rhetorics, and representations, a space of both conformity and opposition to elite culture.”

This interweaving of different genres is a far cry both from the static, Kipling-esque presentations of “world music” and the low-ball cynicism of postmodern pastiche. Arthur J. Sabatini, in his piece dissecting Ho’s operas, cites both Walter Benjamin and Soviet literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s writings on the “carnivalesque” to describe the meaning of these artistic gestures. Broadly stated, this is a concept in which elements of society segregated from each other by social or legal practices come together to create new narratives that challenge the established order. And so it is with Ho’s bringing together of various aesthetics that convention tells us don’t work. It is not only the juxtapositions that create the interest, but the new kinds of instinctive consciousness that can potentially spring from them.

The Need for Utopia

Perhaps one of the more controversial choices on the part of the editors and writers is to include discussions of Ho’s lifestyle — his vow to live on $15,000 a year, the “extreme raw diet” mentioned above — in Yellow Power, Yellow Soul. Some of the more anecdotal contributions to the book, from friends and collaborators like Ruth Margraff, Magdalena Gómez, and Kalamu ya Salaam, stray into similarly personal waters, examining his interactions with fellow artists and, fleetingly, some of the darker corners of his personality.

This may at first glance seem a misstep, and admittedly these sections can be repetitive. An interesting supposition arises from the discussion of Ho’s lifestyle, however: namely that as an artist, it’s his job to underscore the ways in which the personal is political.

And indeed, Ho’s artistic transgressions in this light — his gender-bending costumes, his juxtaposition of characters and musical modes that seem disparate — take on an enlightening air if we keep in mind that capitalism has shaped literally all aspects of our lives. Bill Mullen’s piece, “In Fred Ho’s Body of Work,” summarizes just such a holistic outlook. Framing Ho’s integration of the personal and political through his art with a quote from Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Mullen reminds us of just how profoundly commodification and production for profit have warped our connections with nature, with sexuality, with our very sense of what it means to be human. While it may not be constructive to investigate our own lifestyles in, say, a strike committee or a tenants’ organization, art is where we may ask questions that open the door to other, more fulfilling ways of being, free from the strictures of a system that views us and our labor as disposable.

Art may in fact be one of the only methods through which we can ask such questions of spiritual and ontological vocation in a fruitful and productive way. In the words of Angela Davis, quoted by Fellesz in his essay:
Art is a form of social consciousness — a special form of social consciousness that can potentially awaken an urge in those affected by it to creatively transform their oppressive environments. Art can function as a sensitizer and a catalyst, propelling people toward involvement in organized movements seeking to effect radical social change.
There will surely be those who read this and dismiss it as utopian pretense. But one of the contemporary American left’s greatest weaknesses is its skittishness regarding the concept of utopia. The ways in which neoliberalism has cut us off from the belief that humans can collectively build a better world goes hand in hand with the sidelining and co-optation of the avant-garde. It’s hardly a coincidence that these projects have been written off as fanciful and elitist.

This is precisely what makes Yellow Power, Yellow Soul such an edifying book. There is naturally no substitute for actually listening to Fred Ho’s music and seeing his productions. It is these compositions that inspire, not the descriptions of them. That this collection gets closer than most to bridging that gap speaks to its strengths. Though he has been tragically unsung, Ho’s work is a connection to the vibrant and wonderful tradition of the radical imagination. However much longer he may be for this world, there can be little doubt that he’s left important lessons for a nascent radical culture to grab hold of.

First published in Jacobin

Monday, April 21, 2014

Fred Ho's Far Out, Radical Journey

In February, National Public Radio ran an interview with radical composer Fred Ho, then in the last stages of the battle with colorectal cancer that would eventually end his life on April 12th. Even with just audio, it’s clear that Ho is dying; his voice is tired and frail. Nobody would have blamed him for slowing down after the cancer metastasized in 2012, but that was clearly the last thing on his mind.

“The metaphor for my life is to turn pain into power,” he told NPR. “It’s to never become a victim, [but to] become a revolutionary.”

Ho’s attempts to fuse art and revolution can be seen on the front of any of his albums. On the cover of Big Red!, his face peeks out over vibrant patterns of yellow, blue, red and green. Malcolm X is pictured on one side, Mao on the other, Mumia squarely in the center. The album’s trajectory veers from jazz to the musical traditions of the Ewe people in modern-day Ghana and Togo, to the vocal styles of Korean singer Rami Seo.

There is a clear polemical edge to the album; Ho intended one track as a response to Branford Marsalis’ disparaging remarks about avant-garde composition. The title track is a dedication to free jazz great Archie Shepp (with whom Ho once worked). And just as Shepp once penned his own “Blues for Brother George Jackson,” on Big Red! Ho also celebrates America’s best-known political prisoner in his “Free Mumia! Suite.”

Straddling completely different eras and aesthetics, the album is a reminder that while art can’t directly challenge capitalism, it can challenge the logicundergirding the system. While Ho’s work provided a living connection to a tradition of musicians who attempted to do just that, he was also an artist who attempted to take on the contemporary stagnation of art under capitalism during an era decidedly hostile to such projects.

Naturally, this put him well outside the mainstream. But that didn’t prove much of a hindrance. According to his friend and sometime collaborator Bill Mullen: “In some ways the lack of recognition was Fred’s greatest gift: he reinvented ‘the radar’ for revolutionary artists who wanted to fly higher.” This spirit of reinvention was of course key to Ho’s life and work.

Ho never shied away from describing any of his own painful experiences. His father was a Chinese immigrant who was subject to vicious racism when Ho was young — an anger he then brought home to take out on his family. His mother bore the greatest brunt. His father wouldn’t allow her to get a job or even learn English, and she was placed on a paltry allowance. At the age of six, Ho saw her arrested for shoplifting sanitary napkins.

When he was fourteen, he discovered the baritone sax: “This big horn that has this unwielding, raw and uncontrollable sound … that became my voice.” This was the early seventies, when many Americans of color were discovering their voice through artistic, cultural, and social movements. Ho looked to religious and then political organizing, briefly joining the Nation of Islam before turning to socialism and revolutionary nationalism in the Marxist-Leninist group I Wor Kuen, which soon merged into the League of Revolutionary Struggle.

The concomitant musical milieus were just as diverse at the time. Ho and other members of the LRS were inspired by and participated in the flourishing Black Arts Movement. BAM was as broad as it was radical, incorporating not just free jazz but soul music and poetry, playwriting, performance and painting. Though Ho’s own music wouldn’t hit its stride until the mid to late seventies, just as these movements’ influence was beginning to wane, he stayed conscious of the need to be just as experimental as those who shaped him.

Key to Ho’s compositions was the notion of “the popular avant-garde,” a formulation that sought to resolve the contradiction pondered by Clement Greenberg, Theodor Adorno, and other cultural radicals. At its heart were two truths: that there is nothing intrinsic in “popular culture” that requires it to be so woefully manipulated by the narrow horizons of the market, and that the avant-garde should not only be the purview of the elite.

The contradictions between the two can’t be resolved without the music industry and the broader society’s thorough reorganization. But this did not make Ho’s experimental work any less engaging. As Robin DG Kelley notes in his introduction to Wicked Theory, Naked Practice, an anthology of Ho’s essays: “What makes Fred Ho unique is that he actually struggles with cultural theory as a framework for practice, not simply as a mode of analysis.”

Mullen draws this out even further:
The point was that art should honor histories of struggle: class struggle, struggles for self-determination, struggles against women’s oppression. He didn’t so much fly below the cultural radar as smash it. Like Bertolt Brecht, Fred wanted everyone in his audience to walk away from one of his performances with new tools and ideas for challenging exploitation and oppression.
The end result was a profoundly flexible idiom, one that could be as unpredictable as it was fascinating. His music could mash up the music of Japanese sugar cane cutters and the rhythms of Pacific Islanders and American funk without stumbling for a second. His operas could pull on anything from comic books and martial arts movies to African anti-colonial rebellions to the far reaches of outer space for inspiration. His protagonists could be androgynous monkeys, Chinese peasant leaders, or Assata Shakur.

These were not lazy amalgamations thrown together for the sake of novelty — they were carefully crafted, innately curious experiments that demanded the same sense of curiosity from the audience and constructed new narratives that ran counter to what is acceptable in popular culture.

Ho undertook all of these projects while jazz was becoming muzak-ified, its subversive edges filed off so that it might become better accompaniment for mall browsing. This may at least partially explain Ho’s rejection of the very term “jazz,” though his feelings ran deeper than that. His was not background music, something listeners could let drift to the back of their minds as they went about their daily lives. Ho demanded the same acknowledgement of his artistry that beboppers and free jazz composers before him did. It is no coincidence that as the music industry sought to produce music that was more palatable and thus easier to sell, Ho searched for ways to make his music more complex, challenging, and organically unorthodox.

A few months ago, I wrote a review of Yellow Power, Yellow Soul: The Radical Art of Fred Ho for Jacobin. It appears in the next print edition — sent to the printers mere hours after Ho passed away on April 12, before news of his death had begun to spread. In the review, I recounted the way Ho had reevaluated everything in his artistic practice and personal life after being diagnosed with cancer in 2006.

His diagnosis led to his authoring two books: Diary of a Radical Cancer Warrior, which unflinchingly and graphically described his struggle with ten surgeries, several rounds of chemotherapy, and the general physical and psychological toll they took; and Raw Extreme Manifesto, which recounted his rejection of allopathic medicine and embrace of an extreme raw vegan diet. As Ho insists in the title, it was a way for him to change his body, his mind, and the world.

There are many of examples of revolutionaries demobilizing by shunning struggle and adopting of nonconventional lifestyle choices. But, as I write in the review:
While it may not be constructive to investigate our own lifestyles in, say, a strike committee or tenants’ organization, art is where we might ask questions that open the door to envision other, more fulfilling ways of being, free from the strictures of a system that views us and our labor as disposable.
This was Fred Ho’s great strength as an artist: he allowed his life and his art to reflect the vicissitudes of an inhumane and unsustainable social structure. He was fond of saying that capitalism is the cancer — that the disease’s proliferation wasn’t just a result of the near-absolute toxicity wrought by globalized capitalism, but that cancer was itself an allegory for capitalism’s dominance.

Even as the cancer ravaged his body and chipped away at his abilities as a musician, Ho continued to battle and explore ways for his art to transcend. “This cancer was a gift to me,” he says in the as-yet unreleased documentary Fred Ho’s Last Year. “Despite the physical losses, I was gifted with tremendous philosophical and creative gains.” In a stark way, Ho allowed himself to become a microcosm, embodying at once the degradations and violence of our economic system and the relentless creativity that can come when we resist with every atom of our being.

Contemporary culture writers love to describe well-known artists and their work as “immortal” without much explanation for what exactly that means. Always implicit is the notion that the art was somehow successful by the standards of profit and marketability. Ho’s standards were markedly different.

“I consider my ‘success’ not in mainstream bourgeois terms of ‘fame and fortune,’” he wrote for an essay that appeared in Wicked Theory, “but in the fact that I have been able to unite my career, my art, and my revolutionary politics.” In the last years of his life, he went to great lengths to make sure that other musicians took up that mantle. If that ends up the case, then Ho needn’t have been concerned about his legacy.

First published at Jacobin magazine.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Artful Soapboxing

For the past three months I’ve wracked my brain over what to say about Rebel Diaz’s long-awaited debut album Radical Dilemma. It’s not exactly out of the ordinary among American revolutionaries to say you’re a fan of the group, and that I am. But the stakes are potentially high with an album like Radical Dilemma. After so many mixtapes that relayed a rough urgency around a host of struggles the group identify with, one would hope that a full-fledged album would deliver something on a higher level, a cohesive arc and worldview that dug down into the hip-hop imaginary of post-Great Recession America. A tall order if there ever was one.

One concern that arose in my own head prior to the album’s release is whether they would include their boom-stomp reimagining of Florence Reece’s “Which Side Are You On?” Given that it was simultaneously the track that put Rebel Diaz on many radars and yet was also somewhat played out after all these years, would there be room for it on Radical Dilemma? They deliver an impressive answer; not only is “Which Side” included on the album, but they’ve recorded a new version featuring guest appearances by dead prez and Dilated Peoples’ Rakaa Iriscience. It doesn’t disappoint.

Still, it has been difficult to pin-point exactly what makes this album stand apart. The lyrics are clever but also of a suitably blunt nature. You can definitely picture RodStarz and G1 delivering them on street-corners. And indeed, many of us have. I remember in particular during the height of Occupy Chicago, when I was first helping assemble what would become the Rebel Arts Collective, introducing Rod and G to perform a capella before we attempted to take Grant Park. Naturally, they killed it.

Remembering this is when it finally clicked. There are a great many dilemmas that the group are referring to on Radical Dilemma, but the one that sticks out is one that is perpetually hidden in plain sight: In an era when the hip-hop industry is so hegemonic, when rebellion is so easily turned into money, how do artists of any true revolutionary consciousness relate to their audience in a way that is as engaging as it is uncompromising? How does one make the aesthetic of rebellion genuinely rebellious and not just a gimmick?

These questions are partially answered by walking the walk as well as talking the talk. We take the words of Rebel Diaz or Boots Riley or Tom Morello as genuine because they have walked the picket lines and marched alongside us. But Riley and Morello have also made art that occasionally faltered in its aims; that put the politics before the art and as a result missed the mark on both. They’ve been rare instances, but they have happened.

What prevents those moments from being few and far between on Radical Dilemma is the layered connection between the lyrics and beats. DJ Illanoiz has been proven to be a crucial part of the group here. Just as the words sound like they could be soapboxed effortlessly to the listener, so does the album’s audio make it seem as if the world itself springs from the cracks in the pavement.

The first full song, “Revolution Has Come,” takes more than just its title from the Black Panthers. The track’s swaying flute and smoky guitars are accompanied by generous sampling from Bobby Seale expounding on fascism in America. Without these elements, it’s not hard to imagine Rod and G’s lyrics feeling somewhat rootless. As they stand here we’re reminded that there’s something being built upon here.

“Revolution Has Come” ends, appropriately enough, with a sample of Tupac explaining his views on violence. The Panther-hip-hop connection isn’t lost here; it’s also not lost through the short track “The Origins” two thirds of the way through the album, sampling Afrika Bambaataa expounding upon the way the Black Power movement lives on through hip-hop culture.

Describing all this in an article may appear old hat. After all, who doesn’t know at least a little bit about these lineages in this day and age? A year ago those connections bubbled to the surface once again when the Obama administration added Assata Shakur to the FBI’s Most Wanted list. That seems all the more reason to connect the dots as boldly as possible though; and even more so to present the two ends as emerging from the same urge for basic freedom.

That those connections are being actively uprooted hits home right now, particularly for Rebel Diaz themselves. Gentrification in the group’s home base of the Bronx is reaching a fever pitch right now. This past fall saw the final elimination of the graffiti mecca at 5 Pointz. Rebel Diaz’s own arts collective space was evicted and shut down just about a year ago. One wouldn’t know it from the mainstream discourses, but at the grassroots, hip-hop is under a state of siege in Obama’s America.

What Radical Dilemma affirms, however, is that those roots run deep. That even if our infrastructures of dissent are barely skeletal, what persists is the notion itself. That it can persist even when the other side has the upper hand shows how much it has soaked into the fabric of our world. Revolution, after all, isn’t just a matter of political ideas, strategies and tactics. It’s about making possible a full reimagining of everything we see around us. With our communities, resources and the planet itself being shoved to the brink, that kind of imagination is probably more important than ever.

Published at Red Wedge

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Sound of the Small C

Pete Seeger’s life and work have a strange symmetry. He lived almost a century, yet until his dying day seemed frozen in time -- not a relic, but a reminder that despite all mainstream arguments to the contrary, American culture has always had an organic and irresistible socialist streak living within.

It speaks volumes that even Fox News has heaped a kind of awkward praise on Seeger’s music and persona. But even as most outlets equivocate about his membership in the Communist Party, it’s impossible to separate Seeger the artist from Seeger the communist (with, as he was a fan of saying, a small “c”).

He lived one of those extraordinary lives which track history’s ups and down: Joining the Communist Party at the height of the working class rebellions of the 1930s, leaving after World War II as the heavy-handedness of Stalinism became clearer. Along with Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson, he was among the leftists who literally had to flee for their lives from a mob of KKK members looking to shut down a Civil Rights benefit concert in Peekskill, New York in 1949.

Those riots weren’t just an opening shot for McCarthyism. They pushed folk music off the streets and into the coffee houses on society’s margins. Seeger himself was sentenced to jail and blacklisted for giving the House Un-American Activities Committee a hard time.

During the Civil Rights and anti-war movements and their attendant folk revival, Seeger served as something of an elder statesman; he claimed it was he who changed the line “we will overcome” to “we shall overcome.” He sang for the anti-nuclear and environmental movements during the 1980s and supported Solidarność in Poland as a potential force for real socialism against its Stalinoid pretender.

Like much of the Left, he was enthusiastic about Barack Obama’s election in 2008; he and Bruce Springsteen performed “This Land Is Your Land” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial the day before the inauguration. No matter how quickly the hope faded, the performance is breathtaking by any standard. But a better indicator of his legacy is the performance he gave during Occupy Wall Street, along with Guthrie’s son Arlo. He marched with Occupiers to Zuccotti aided by two canes at the age of 91.

Seeger did not actually write many of the songs he became known for. They were old folk standards that had been updated by him or his collaborators. The folk music milieu of the 1930s was a profoundly communal atmosphere, with musicians frequently borrowing from each other at will. And yet, even performing others’ work, Seeger’s arrangements and sensitivity, his depth of musicianship, made him compelling. There was a certain amount of understated theatricality when he sang -- an element that seems overlooked today by many when they think of folk music.

His version of “Jarama Valley” with the Almanac Singers, dedicated to Spanish Republicans slaughtered by Franco’s fascists, sounds as if it’s sung by ghosts, right down to the gentle whistling in the background. There is an appropriate menacing satisfaction in “Buffalo Skinners” when he describes leaving an unscrupulous boss dead on the plains, “his bones bleaching in the sun.”

But he also had a true talent for humor. His lilting tenor had a versatility to it that made him capable of the sly shifts in tone necessary for communicating sarcasm and wit. A 1963 live performance of Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes” truly brings the impish absurdity of the song to the forefront. Listening to it now we can hear why an audience eager to be rid of stultifying McCarthyism would laugh at the notion of bland suburbanites being “made out of ticky-tacky” and getting “put in boxes.” And of course, every labor song he performed had the rousing collective heartbeat of an anthem.

Not that he was a lightweight in songwriting. A key instance of his sophisticated capabilities with words is found in the original version of “Union Maid.” Though the words telling the story of the woman union activist “who never was afraid” are well-known, the original lyrics are far more dramatic, even grotesque. Co-written with Woody Guthrie during a trip to Oklahoma, they describe the real-life torture of Anna Mae Merriweather, a black organizer with the Sharecroppers Union in Alabama. It’s a harrowing tale, mixed with a righteous wrath straight out of the Old Testament.

There are hundreds of others. “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “Turn, Turn, Turn” — these are some of the most recognized songs in popular music. It seems appropriate that just as Seeger popularized songs written by others, so were these songs transplanted into the ether of the 1960s by the likes of the Byrds, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary.

All of this makes for an impressive obituary. But appreciating Seeger’s importance requires a much deeper understanding both of the state of popular music in the 1930s and its interaction with the class struggles that characterized that decade.

Seeger, raised in a family of highly-trained classical musicians and musicologists, became attracted to folk music when he was sixteen. At that time, the very notion of “popular music” was still very novel.

The industrial revolution brought the production of sheet music and later recorded sound, making it possible for songs to travel quickly and thus gain a following from workers across disparate areas. Come the stock market crash of 1929, it wasn’t just the phonograph but radio that made this possible. Folk genres like the blues, jazz, hillbilly, and cowboy music had been hitherto a marginal force, provincialized and isolated, rarely taken seriously. Now they were able to travel, crossbreed, and influence listeners from hundreds of miles away.

Yet the Communist Party that Seeger joined in the mid-1930s seemed itself rather stuck, even snobbishly dismissive of the potential that existed in the popularization of folk culture. He was, as Joe Klein describes,
something of a renegade member of the Pierre Degeyter Club, a society of American Communist musicians … Just as Communist labor organizers were attempting to form their own separate trade unions in the early 1930s, Communist musicians wanted to develop a new, distinct “proletarian” music — music the victorious workers would enjoy after the revolution. To the Degeyter group, this seemed to mean the ponderous, hortatory choral tradition of the German Communist Hanns Eisler. Their idea of proletarian music was a “workers’ chorus” singing clangorous, oddly formal compositions like “The Scottsboro Boys Must Not Die” or “The Comintern.” When Seeger brought Aunt Molly Jackson, fresh from the Harlan County coal wars, to the Degeyter Club and had her sing “I Am a Union Woman,” the reaction was “That’s very nice, but what does it have to do with proletarian music?”
Though Klein’s characterization is mostly spot-on, he mistakenly positions Seeger’s outlook as opposed to that of Eisler. In fact, as Mat Callahan argues in The Trouble With Music, Seeger saw his work with folk music as complementary to radical cultural theorists and composers such as Eisler, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer. But while these thinkers had at best a complicated relationship with the new popular music, Seeger threw himself headlong into it, arguing that there was something in such music that workers not only identified with but that might set their own natural creativity ablaze.

Some of it sprung from Seeger’s own almost primitivistic sense of simplicity. He often spoke in glowing terms about the communism in pre-class societies. He was also, however, quoted as saying, “If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production.”

This was romantic anti-capitalism personified, fighting “against the tide of modernity” as Michael Lowy would say, against the robbing and regimentation of time that was sapping workers’ lives away. But there was also something profoundly modernist about it -- not coincidentally, popular culture and modernism both hit a turning point in the 1930s.

This was not the overwhelming of the sophisticated by the crude, of “serious music” by the “lowbrow,” as many have argued. It was a conscious political and cultural outlook for which the tasks of lifting up forms of art forged in the subaltern and pushing against the formalities of bourgeois culture could be one and the same. Though Seeger was key in pushing the argument within the Communist Party, he represented many others in the progressive and radical ranks of artistic expressives.

His father Charles was classically trained, but he also served as an administrator in the Federal Music Project of the WPA, and was known to occasionally help his friend Alan Lomax in cataloging folk songs that otherwise may have been lost to the lawnmower of industrial capitalism. The younger Seeger’s stepmother is herself to this day regarded as one of the most important modernist composers of her time, but was also fascinated with folk music and contributed arrangements to Carl Sandburg’s American Songbag. The Greenwich Village where Seeger spent his teenage years was awash with avant-garde artists looking to redefine Americana.

This was a reinvention right at the intersection of artistic bohemianism and political upheaval, both balanced upon a tipping point in the history of recorded sound. As ideas of socialism became nearly hegemonic among ordinary people, the idea floated within popular culture that they could reshape the arts just as they could the world at large. The very term “popular culture,” still so new at that point, practically begged its audience to take ownership of it.

It was here that Seeger’s own artistry, his skill at reinterpreting and dramatizing songs, updating their subjects, was so crucial. These performances, with the Almanacs, the Weavers, or by himself, gave voice not to some abstract world later to be won, exciting though that can be. Their lyrics consciously voiced that microcosmic feeling of triumph when workers are able to steal back time and reassert their own control -- be it on the picket line, the union hall, or even enjoying a day off.

Such ideas were rife within the culture that emerged from the era in music, film, theater, art, literature. The Communist Party would end up embracing folk music as a tactic of its Popular Front phase. And though most of the aesthetics that rose from the Popular Front years hewed closer to the realist than the experimental, very few of them would survive the hammer of McCarthyism. Folk, on the other hand, would endure well beyond the decline of the American CP.

When folk resurfaced as a significant cultural force during the struggles of the 1960s, entirely different progressive and militant organizations were leading the way. Seeger made it a point to be there. He may have allegedly wanted to take a hatchet to Bob Dylan’s PA at the Newport Folk Festival, but folk-rock’s mixture of jangly amplification with honest storytelling was in keeping with the spirit of reinterpretation that Seeger’s generation had introduced to music. By then the notion that Seeger had pushed -- that if something has become stale and used, it should be scrapped or remade -- was embedded in popular culture.

Folk itself has gone through countless more iterations, swerving into and crossing over with many other genres, always somehow finding its way back to the rallies and grassroots actions. Some things just never change. And some on the Right are still shrieking about communists plotting to infiltrate popular culture. Maybe they’re onto something. It’s not hard to imagine Pete Seeger laughing at them, even now.

Published at Jacobin

Sunday, December 22, 2013

What the Fuck You On About?

The arrival of a new M.I.A. album is always a thing to behold. Music critics are sure to be polarized, as are the usually ham-handed attempts to better categorize her work to make it less controversial than it is. Snide remarks about Matangi, however, have been relatively muted in the two months since its release.

Maybe that's because we’ve had at least an inkling of what the album has in store for some time now. “Bad Girls,” one of Matangi’s lead singles, first saw the light of day on the Vicki Leekx mixtape two years ago. And much like that mixtape, Matangi plays as one long track, displaying a certain bravado that feels very comfortable; M.I.A. knows how to own the space. It’s a reminder that at its best her music can feel like an event, a movement almost. That’s a frustratingly rare phenomenon. And in the title track she’s happy to remind us: “If you’re gonna be me you need a manifesto / If you ain’t got one you better get one presto.”
This, of course, is trademark M.I.A. As are the lyrics to “Boom Skit”; the track -- about a minute and fifteen seconds long -- essentially serves as something of a moral lynchpin for the album:
Brown girl, brown girl
Turn your shit down
You know America don't wanna hear your sound
Boom boom jungle music
Go back to India
With your crazy shit, you're bombing up the area
Looking through your Instagram
Looking for a pentagram
All I see is poor people, they should be on ghetto-gram
You don't get our underground
Brofest or overground eat ham
Fist pump, even throw your dick around
Yeah you try to stick around
Do you do you bikram?
Let you into Super Bowl, you tried to steal Madonna's crown
What the fuck you on about?
Think about goin’ to France, quelle heure est-il
This ain't time for your terror dance
Eat, pray, love
Spend time in the Ashram
Or I'll drone you
Kony 2012
Now scram!
It’s all here: the weird provocative wordplay and stutter-step delivery, the invocations of globalization’s refugees, the spiky rebukes to her establishment haters and their ingrained sense of Kipling-esque privilege. Not to mention the opportunity she takes to flash that famous middle finger yet again at the prudish reactions to her Super Bowl halftime show.

This is one of the characteristics that used to be far more common in music but has been sidelined over the past few decades: the idea that songs are part of a conversation, with all the specificity that comes with such sharp exchanges of ideas. When Greenwald and Snowden revealed to the world that the NSA has been spying on literally all of us literally all the time, M.I.A. was rightfully quick to savor an “I told you so” moment at the expense of those critics who called her a paranoid conspiracy theorist. Word is she even got Julian Assange to help out with one of the songs on Matangi.

The NSA revelations, the Arab revolts, Occupy, the massive protests from Turkey to Brazil; all have bolstered and sharpened the basic awareness that there’s an us and a them, and the two are inexorably opposed. If the return of a musical conversation is in the offing, then that conversation is unified by ideas of a very real and never-ending crisis.

These events haven’t proven the tipping point they first seemed, however. Far from it, they’ve left much of the world asking “what’s next?” So it is with an artist like M.I.A. Radical musicians have long and famously employed non-Western sounds as means to "decolonizing music," and she’s done it in a singularly fascinating way. But what does this mean nowadays, when living standards in "First World" countries like Greece and Spain are circling the drain and those closest to redefining their own destinies are found in "developing" nations? What does it mean that even while the music business persists with the hackneyed, Orientalist concept of “world music,” an artist like M.I.A. can gain wide praise and acclaim?

M.I.A. hasn’t been asking herself these questions per se, but she has been asking existentially-tinged queries related to her own work. In interviews she’s mentioned amount of reflection she’s done over the past few years, asking where she and her music fit into this chaotic and often dismal existence.

This push to flip the doom on its head, to create some sense of a future for both herself and her audience, is evident throughout Matangi. The name of the album itself comes not just from M.I.A.’s namesake -- Mathangi Arulpragasam -- but from the green-skinned Hindu goddess of music and arts. It’s certainly evident in opening track “Karmageddon.” “Y.A.L.A.", an open rejection Drake’s viral “You Only Live Once” refrain, essentially revolves around the idea that such notions of the future are inescapably real.
YOLO? I don’t even know anymore, what that even mean thoughIf you only live once why we keep doing the same shitBack home where I come from we keep being born again and again and againThat’s why they invented karma
It may be hard for Western listeners to hear this without New Age condescension springing to mind, but key in this passage is the notion that karma is invented; humans made their circumstances and can unmake them too. This kind of exploration makes for an album that may not be M.I.A.’s most successful, but is certainly her most self-aware and mature to date. The sampling of bhangra, reggae and Middle Eastern rhythms; again, all the markers are here.

Sonically it’s all been stripped down to an inch of its life. It’s also used in a notably more restrained way than we’ve previously seen. While previous records have shown M.I.A. to be a specialist in the art of pastiche, there is more of a center on Matangi. A sense that even at those moments when an outlier soundwave is thrown in there it knows exactly where it’s landing. On top of this, she’s frequently happy to have a song be little more than a simple beat and her rhymes. Several songs are just this, particularly for the first several tracks. In fact if one is only planning to listen to it in passing, or merely as a way to “fill the space,” they’ll discover that this album simply won’t do.

All of this makes Matangi a challenging album to get hooked on; as a collection of songs it demands active engagement over passive consumption. By the time the gaps start to fill in, if we’ve willingly taken the role of active listener, we’re more involved, almost as if we’ve been allowed to insert ourselves into the empty spaces that populate the first few tracks.

Ultimately Matangi comes off not just as a negation but a valiant attempt to provide an answer in the affirmative. Not just a rejection of the "world music" bullshit (which has always been part of M.I.A.’s oeuvre) but an insistence that the myriad genres and styles have lives and paths of their own that bob and weave, intersect and diverge of their own accord. Certainly M.I.A. isn't the only artist who has made this insistence, but with the album’s bar raised by the participation it demands, we’re left with the sense that perhaps we actually have a role in reshaping these sounds and senses. It’s a potent mixture, and one that seems worth deepening.
Published at Red Wedge.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Yeah Right, Like I'm Afraid

By now, the broader cause of the thousands flooding the streets of Greece in recent days must be well known: Six years of full-blown economic depression. An austerity regime crammed down the nation's throat by international finance that has sent wages plummeting and left 65 percent of all youth unemployed and a social safety net buckling under the pressure. This is to say nothing of the unchecked rise in anti-immigrant scapegoating and racist violence. Or the fact that no fewer than 18 admirers of Hitler now sit in Greek parliament.

But the most direct and immediate cause of this latest unrest -- the push toward a potential tipping point -- can be traced to the violent death of a left-wing rapper.

In the early morning hours of September 18, not long after midnight, 34-year-old Pavlos Fyssas was walking with a group of friends on the streets of Piraeus. According to friends and eyewitnesses, Fyssas and his companions were leaving a cafe when a group of around 20 thugs wearing black T-shirts and military apparel -- identified as members of the far-right Golden Dawn party -- accosted them, threatened them and got violent.

Fyssas' crew tried to escape, but after turning down a one-way street, they were confronted by another group of fascists. A car pulled up, blocking the exit, after which the driver got out and stabbed Fyssas; once in the stomach, twice in the heart.

It took 20 minutes for the ambulance to arrive. During that time, Fyssas slowly bled out, but managed to identify the man who stabbed him: 45-year-old Giorgos Roupakias, a supporter and likely member of Golden Dawn with ties to the nearby Nikaia branch of the party. Not long after reaching the hospital, Fyssas died from his wounds.

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Fyssas wasn't an "unknown." He wasn't an immigrant whose death or assault the government was able to shrug its shoulders at. Golden Dawn has already been implicated in plenty of those cases, and more often than not, its members have walked away scot-free. Fyssas, however, was native-born, a dedicated and respected member of the left and the anti-fascist movement to boot. Shameful as it is that it took the death of a "true Greek" to get the government's attention, that appears to be the case.

As Spyros, a 25-year-old member of the radical left party SYRIZA told Vice magazine, "First, they were allowed to beat up immigrants, and now they've started freely attacking anyone with views opposing theirs."

What's more, Fyssas had a high profile. His hip-hop persona, Killah P, is described by the Guardian's Athens correspondent Helena Smith as one of Greece's best-known rappers.

Initial reports painted the attack on Fyssas and his friends as fairly random, originating back at the cafe when one of his friends made a remark against Golden Dawn. This wouldn't be surprising; fascists aren't exactly known for taking criticism well. But as more details have become known, as the nature of the attack has unfolded, it seems more and more likely that he was targeted.

One anonymous former member of Golden Dawn, when asked about Fyssas, admitted that he was well known in the organization, and "was in the crosshairs, because he had anti-fascist songs. There were verses which offended Golden Dawn...He was anti-fascist and sang about it, and they knew it." On top of that, sources have recently revealed that Roupakias received several phone calls from the party's office in the hour leading up to the attack. This was no random scuffle, it seems; this was a planned ambush.

Making matters worse are reports that though police were nearby, even witnessing what was happening, they did nothing. Again, not a first for the Greek police, around 50 percent of whom voted for Golden Dawn in the last election.

That a gang of Nazis attacked and killed a left-wing, anti-fascist hip-hop artist while police looked on is so bitterly predictable that it almost seems strange to try and unpack it. Golden Dawn have gone out of their way to terrorize artists deemed unacceptable before. Last fall, a run of Terrence McNally's play Corpus Christi, which portrays Jesus Christ as gay, was forced to shut down after attendees and actors were assaulted several nights in a row by members of the group--including at least one member of parliament.

Clearly, the party has only gotten bolder since then; Fyssas' murder came only days after 50 fascists attacked a group of Greek Communist Party members and put nine of them in the hospital with serious injuries.

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All of this carries obvious echoes of Italy and Germany, the squadristi and brownshirts storming through towns and targeting anyone and everyone outside their approval. Socialists, trade unionists, Jews, gays and disabled persons driven underground. Surrealism and jazz declared "degenerate," a whole generation of musicians, artists and composers whose futures disappeared in the horrors of Treblinka, Sobibor and Auschwitz. And just as the avant-garde of the '20s and '30s represented all that was impure and threatening to Mussolini and Hitler, hip-hop's history as a style and sound originating in poor communities of color naturally puts it on modern fascism's hit list.

For its own part, Killah P's music seems to have been an exploration of the link between the personal and political--that place where one's alienation leads them to reach defiant, radical conclusions. The day after Fyssas' death, a video of his song "Siga Mi Klapso, Siga Mi Fovitho," or "I Won't Cry, I Won't Be Afraid," including an English translation of the lyrics, was posted online. At the time of writing it's gotten over 200,000 views.

Musically, the song takes a cue from Greece's experimental music scene. Sampling Giannis Aggelakas' folk-rock-poetry collision "There's No Way I'd Cry," the song's jaunty arrangement is sped up and tightened into a tense, almost manic beat.

Lyrically, it's not hard to see how so many young, futureless, radicalizing kids would want to identify with what Killah P is saying:
And to those that threatened me with burning chains,I want them to know that I will not bother with fear.Let them come and find me at the mountaintop,I'm waiting for them and I will not bother with fear.
Appropriately enough, Fyssas' refrain in the song -- that he "won't be afraid" -- itself carries a political importance. Part of that importance is in the twists of translation. According to Greek-American socialist Stavroula Harissis, "The phrase usually gets translated as 'I will not fear' though it's actually much more linguistically rich and complex. Personally, I think a better translation is something like 'Yeah right, like I'm afraid.'"

This sarcastic rebuke -- a bold thumbing of the nose when directed at violent thugs like Golden Dawn -- has by now become a common slogan in the Greek antifascist movement. It can be heard in chants on demonstrations, and seen on stickers plastering over racist graffiti.

More than a political turn of phrase, it's become a visceral declaration of dignity in the face of circumstances that are increasingly and undeniably inhuman.

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Clearly, a segment of the Greek population have again taken this message and run with it. Even before Killah P's death, public sector unions had declared a 48-hour strike against government-mandated firings on the 18th. But as the news of his murder quickly spread, anti-fascist demonstrations were also called in over 20 major cities.

In Piraeus, the anti-austerity demonstration of 5,000 quickly gave way to clashes between anti-fascists and police. In many other cities -- Athens, Thessaloniki, Larisa, Trikala -- anti-fascists joined demonstrations of teachers and hospital workers.

Some have called these demonstrations the biggest in recent years; from the looks of it they certainly seem to be the most violent. In Athens, police fired tear-gas cannisters directly at people's heads, resulting in one protester losing an eye. In the western city of Patras, demonstrators hurled molotovs and bricks at Golden Dawn's offices. Similar scenes played out in Chania, on the island of Crete.

Meanwhile, Golden Dawn have been somewhat put on the defensive. Spokespeople denied any involvement with Fyssas' death. Nonetheless, a speech by party leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos scheduled for the next day in Nikaia -- where Roupakias has attended branch meetings -- was abruptly canceled. There is now open talk among politicians of declaring Golden Dawn an illegal party. Several anti-fascist marchers and protesters -- particularly young people -- have declared Fyssas' death the beginning of the end for Golden Dawn.

All of this was set in motion mere days before representatives of the notorious "troika" -- the European Union, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank -- visited with conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras on Sunday, September 22, to discuss the terms of Greece's financial future. Samaras has spent his past several speeches insisting that the worst is behind them, even going so far as to label his reforms a "success story."

Vasiliki Angelakou, a striking teacher in Athens, had a simple reply to this: "Where is the success story when our kids are going abroad because there are no jobs?"

More civil service strikes have been called in the coming week, and teachers have announced that they'll be staying out at least through Monday and Tuesday.

The scale of protest, as well as the connections being drawn between the struggles against fascism and austerity, have some wondering whether Greece is entering a new phase of resistance. Writing in the newspaper Ekathimerini, journalist Nikos Xydakis has speculated whether Greece has crossed a "red line" of sorts.

If it has, then the divisions are stark. Golden Dawn has a clear view of the world it wishes to build; one in which expression, diversity, creativity and ultimately all that makes us human is summarily banished. Just as clear is how the government's vicious austerity members have left the door open for fascists and racists to exploit people's fears. The choice between a more just, democratic world and abject barbarism has seldom been clearer.

Whether the radical and revolutionary left -- along with the masses of workers -- are able to not just counter this horrifying vision but present a tangible alternative to it is certainly the most urgent challenge ahead. There's much more at stake here than the memory of one emcee. But if Greek workers are, as Fyssas declared, truly losing their fear, then there may yet be hope on the horizon.

First appeared at

Friday, September 13, 2013

Love and Robots

There’s no denying that Janelle Monáe is one of the most original voices out there. There are plenty of indicators in her music and creativity that we see elsewhere -- a renewed interest in Afrofuturism, the willingness to bend genres with ease, a signature visual style, and what Colorlines’ Jamilah King describes as “her unapologetic embrace of blackness and womanhood.” It’s not impossible to find these elsewhere, but they’re arranged in such a way as to make Monáe very hard to peg.

Her new album, The Electric Lady, presents a similar challenge. What, exactly, do you make of the skits that appear on the album, emulating a radio show hosted by soul-loving cyborgs, big-upping everyone’s favorite android fugitive Cindi Mayweather, and fielding callers who think “robot love is queer?” These sketches appear three times on the album by the way.

It would be admittedly harder to nail down if Monáe were only just introducing all this to us. But this is her third release, and all of them have represented another chapter or two in the saga of Mayweather, a robot on the run for falling in love with a human and struggling to save all of android kind from time-travelling exploiters.

We also know by now the archetype that Mayweather is supposed to represent. In Monáe’s own words: "The Archandroid, Cindi, is the mediator, between the mind and the hand. She's the mediator between the haves and the have-nots, the oppressed and the oppressor. She's like the Archangel in the Bible, and what Neo represents to the Matrix." So yes, it’s easier to encapsulate all this. But not by much.

Musically, what we’re given here is a complex and varied opus. It’s redundant at times and could easily be 25 percent shorter. As with previous album The ArchAndroid we’re not sure whether it’s neo-soul or psychedelia, R&B, jazz or hip-hop; maybe it’s all or these or none, but it’s impressively cohesive and has an arc. Most importantly it’s a work that in the midst of shrugging cynicism and soundbite hits, dares you to give yourself over to it, listen to the whole thing all the way through, and take the story seriously. If you can do that then you can probably understand what makes Monáe one of the most important artists to burst into music in recent years.

By now we’ve had four months to really absorb the feel of lead single “Q.U.E.E.N.” Its stripped-down funk guitar and keys, its provocative themes of queerdom and defiance -- not to mention Eykah Badu’s notable guest turn -- are a fair encapsulation of the album’s mode. But hearing it after the album’s epic opening credits overture and the swagger of “Give ‘Em What They Love” (in which you will squeal at the mere presence of Prince), “Q.U.E.E.N.” comes off as even more of an “us against the world” tale than even this bold rap might suggest:

I asked a question like this
Are we a lost generation of our people?
Add us to equations but they'll never make us equal.
She who writes the movie owns the script and the sequel.
So why ain't the stealing of my rights made illegal?
They keep us underground working hard for the greedy,
But when it's time pay they turn around and call us needy.
My crown too heavy like the Queen Nefertiti
Gimme back my pyramid, I'm trying to free Kansas City.
Mixing masterminds like your name Bernie Grundman.
Well I'm gonna keep leading like a young Harriet Tubman.
Bookended further through the album is “Ghetto Woman,” a glittering, polyrhythmic celebration of female strength, clearly springing from Monáe’s own working class upbringing in Kansas City: “When people put you down, yeah way down and you feel / Like you’re alone / Let love be your guide / You were built to last through any weather / Oh Ghetto Woman hold on to your dreams / And all your great philosophies / You’re the reason I believe in me, for real.”

These of course aren’t so much the fictional stories of Cindi Mayweather’s life as Monáe’s own. And yet they’re also Mayweather’s, and Monáe’s as Mayweather’s and vice versa. Add in the skits and we’re presented with a concept work that shifts back and forth between autobiography and fantasy with such ease that the two really become one and the same.

And, at the risk of stating the obvious, there’s a rather clear parallel here between Mayweather’s story and the story of Monáe’s life over the past several years. She comes onto the scene, people have no clue what to make of her but they know they dig her effortlessly righteous vibe; now everyone seems to know her and is talking about her, even though they still aren’t quite sure what it is she represents. The inkling, however, is that she’s facing down some very real limits with which any oppressed person is well acquainted. (And it’s worth noting the easiness that Monáe has when speaking of oppression; not as if it’s an academic concept she’s trying to force into reality, but as just a hard, honest fact of life.)

Will she succeed? That depends. Cindi Mayweather has about as much a chance of taking down her enemies, the forces keeping her from her love and all android-kind down, as Harry Potter did in taking down Voldemort. Which is to say it’s up to the author. Monáe herself is certainly aware that a work of art won’t break down the boundaries in any real way. Queer-bashers, misogynists and bigots will certainly get their hackles up at Monáe’s existence, but they won’t be shut up just by her music. Whether the music itself is successful is a different question.

At her concerts, Monáe is known to hand out copies of her “Ten Droid Commandments,” which encourage the readers to embrace their individuality. The trope of a mass-produced robot grappling with identity is practically as old as sci-fi itself, and is put to a fairly contrived use here. But given the overall thrust of Mayweather’s story and Monáe’s music, it’s not hard to see what message she is trying to send to her young audience. Which, demographically, is the most multi-racial and sexually tolerant generation in recent history, and is probably also the most neglected in several decades.

That’s what makes The Electric Lady work. It’s a composition of fantasy that is simultaneously grounded not just in one specific moment in time, but several. It’s clearly planting its flag in a moment begging for people to assert a radically intersectional identity. And yet the album’s subtle nods to the experiments and explosions in soul, funk and R&B of the 1970’s (explosions largely driven by the upsurge in Black Power and the general flourishing of movements in that decade) also root it in an oppositional stance. It’s something Lady Gaga, with her Little Monsters and burqas, tries and largely fails to do, if only because she ends up placing more emphasis on herself than the tribulations of her audience.

In the end, the harkening of Afrofuturism, the comparisons to George Clinton and Sun Ra, aren’t for nothing. Perhaps the most significant and uplifting thing about Janelle Monáe, Cindi Mayweather and The Electric Lady is that they confide to us that there is a future for the freaks. It may be a future of struggle, hard scrabble and staring down a faceless, all-knowing opponent, but at least we can face it in style.

First published at Red Wedge magazine.