Friday, September 28, 2007

One Note of Defiance: Billie Holiday and Strange Fruit in the 21st Century

By Alexander Billet

Published in Dissident Voice

If anything is blatantly obvious in the post-Katrina era, it is that the foul stench of racism still permeates American society. This spring showed that in spades as the Imus debacle was absurdly twisted into a frontal assault on hip-hop culture. In some ways, though, Imus was only a warning shot. This hot summer has also seen thousands of Katrina survivors denied their right to return. The Supreme Court decided “separate but equal” was an okay deal after all in our schools. And a spate of “southern justice” has poked its head out across the country that would make Bull Connor proud.

The message coming from Jena, Louisiana–that Blacks are expendable while white bigots get protection–has not been lost on the hard racists of this country. White supremacists have posted addresses and phone numbers belonging to family members of the Jena Six, calling for “justice.” The first week of classes at the University of Maryland were marred by someone hanging a noose similar to those in Jena in front of the Black cultural center. Several other campuses have reported an increase in race crimes. And this week, Black students at Borough of Manhattan Community College were beaten by a group of six white men outside of a bar in NYC while calling them “niggers” and shouting “this is what slavery feels like.” The initial reaction of the NYPD? Arrest the victim, Marquis Scott, a member of the BMCC basketball team.

Nooses and posse violence can’t help but conjure up images of Jim Crow lynch mobs, where whites were allowed to dole out their brutal form of summary justice without fear of repercussion–police would be a part of the mobs just as often as turn a blind eye. And, of course, the “strange fruit” left swinging from the trees would come to symbolize one of the darkest sides to American history.

Now seems as good a time as any to talk about this song. It is said that history goes in circles until it learns to correct itself. If so, then the memory of “Strange Fruit” continues to be important today.

It is truly amazing how heart-rending this song remains. Almost seventy years later it still sends chills up the spine and sticks hair on end. It’s author, a radical teacher from Harlem named Abel Meeropol, wrote the words for his union magazine in the mid-30s. After setting it to music it became a popular protest song around New York City. Yet of all the jazz musicians who would come to embrace the spirit of resistance in their music, none would do so quite as effectively as Billie Holiday in her version.

Hers is a sparse and haunting song. Its piano is limited to well-spaced chords and the occasional fluorish. Twice in the song a lone trumpet belts out a solo that is as mournful as it is defiant. Those two emotions, sadness and outrage, sway back and forth in a kind of forbidden dance throughout the song. As the trumpet clears the way for Holiday, her smoky voice conveys that same frustration. She is surprisingly calm as she recounts the lynching and burning of a southern Black man with vivid imagery:

Southern trees bare strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Think about this: the equation of a man with fruit. It is a horrifying concept that a human may be so easily regarded as a thing to be picked and tossed around. As she sings, there is almost a tinge of sarcasm in Holiday’s voice. The south, long celebrated for its tobacco, its cotton and Georgia peaches, was now, according to Meeropol and Holiday, known for growing a much more sinister commodity. They’re not commodities, though, as Holiday states in the graphic second verse:

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Brash honesty mixed with stirring instrumentation proved to be a powerful mix. “The first time I sang it, I thought it was a mistake,” she later said. “There wasn’t even a patter of applause when I finished. Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then suddenly everyone was clapping and cheering.” Holiday herself admitted to breaking down in tears after performing “Strange Fruit.”

Lady Day’s performance expressed perfectly the absolute horror of living in a country under the shadow of Jim Crow. There was no question that the chord she struck with both Black and white ran deep. “Strange Fruit” was not just a song bemoaning the sorrows of racism, though. It’s heart-felt and darkly poetic honesty was itself a protest. As the song ends, Holiday sings “this is a strange and bitter crop,” with the final word being on an uncharacteristically high, sustained note. In a way that final note was a bit of resistance against the degradation she so movingly sang about.

Holiday’s version soon crossed from being a mere protest song into the anthem of the anti-lynching movement in the 30s, and established Lady Day as the legend she is today. It was a tragedy that she died in 1959. The same movement that she helped inspire was starting to exert real power to break the chains of segregation.

That may be the real lesson of “Strange Fruit” today; that while the horrors of bigotry still loom over this country, it is indeed possible to resist. The nooses swinging in Jena have already been met with protests that dwarf the small town’s population. The noose at the University of Maryland was met with a speak out of thousands where speakers made direct connections back to Jena. Already several high profile leaders have called for a new Civil Rights movement. And despite the images of hip-hop as depraved thug music being fed to us, some of the most visibly conscious MCs of our time have taken a vocal stand against the injustice in Louisiana; Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Immortal Technique, Common, all have long lent their voices to growing chorus of discontent with modern Jim Crow. And Thursday’s release of Mychal Bell already shows the effect such a chorus can have.

It took nothing less than a movement to crush the strange and bitter crop. As the new seeds are planted today, we should all let Lady Day’s note of defiance ring in our heads until the chains are finally broken once and for all.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Single Mother Takes on the Industry... And Wins!

Accusing the RIAA of shady business practices has almost become too good for them. Thanks to the folks at RRC for sending this out. -AB

*****

Victorious RIAA defendant gets attorneys' fees, turns to class-action plans
By Eric Bangeman | Published: September 24, 2007 - 09:39AM CT

from Ars Technica

Calling the RIAA's case unjustified "as a reasonable exploration of the boundaries of copyright law," a federal magistrate judge late last week awarded former RIAA defendant Tanya Andersen attorneys' fees for her nearly two-and-a-half-year fight against a copyright infringement lawsuit.

Andersen is a disabled single mother living in Oregon with her now 10-year-old daughter. In February 2005, she was sued by the record labels, which accused her of using KaZaA to distribute gangster rap under the handle "gotenkito." From the outset, she denied all wrongdoing, and in October of that year, filed a countersuit against the record industry, accusing it of racketeering, fraud, and deceptive business practices.

The RIAA continued to press its legal claims against Andersen, despite any evidence other than an IP address tying her to the alleged infringement. Andersen even provided the name, address, and phone number of the person she believed was responsible for the "gotenkito" account. Inexplicably, the RIAA chose not to contact him for over two years, then chose to take his denial at face value, choosing instead to continue prosecuting the case against Andersen.

Throughout its prosecution of the case, Andersen accused the RIAA of underhanded investigative tactics. These included what Andersen describes as inappropriate attempts to contact her daughter. In one instance, the RIAA's investigators allegedly contacted her elementary school, posing as a relative in an attempt to speak with then-eight-year-old Kylee Andersen about the alleged infringement. Even the RIAA's own forensic investigator reported that he could not find "any evidence whatsoever" that Andersen had used KaZaA.

In June of this year, the RIAA finally came to the conclusion that it had an unwinnable case and decided to drop the case prior to its going to trial. The parties stipulated to a dismissal with prejudice—unusual for the RIAA, since it made Andersen the prevailing party and eligible for attorneys' fees. Andersen dismissed her counterclaims without prejudice (meaning she can refile them) after she filed a malicious prosecution lawsuit against the RIAA.

In his order awarding Andersen attorneys' fees, US Magistrate Judge Donald C. Ashmanskas noted that he had to make a decision on this case "without ever addressing the merits of the claims or the counterclaims." Despite that, Judge Ashmanskas noted that there had been a "material alteration of the legal relationship of the parties," and that with the sole exception of attorneys' fees, Andersen had gotten "all the relief available to a defendant of a claim for copyright infringement."

Judge Ashmanskas also cited the RIAA's admission that the "evidence uncovered during discovery proved inconsistent and inconclusive," a fact for which the labels could provide no explanation. He concludes that the RIAA lacked the prima facie evidence to support the claims of infringement.

"Whatever plaintiffs' reasons for the manner in which they have prosecuted this case, it does not appear to be justified as a reasonable exploration of the boundaries of copyright law," wrote the judge. "Copyright holders generally, and these plaintiffs specifically, should be deterred from prosecuting infringement claims as plaintiffs did in this case."

While Andersen's attorney adds up the bills, Andersen is seeking class-action status for her malicious prosecution lawsuit. Saying that the RIAA "has engaged in a coordinated enterprise to pursue a scheme of threatening and intimidating litigation in an attempt to maintain its music distribution monopoly," Andersen wants to make a class from those who have been wrongfully sued by the RIAA; if successful, the RIAA could find itself locked in a long and costly legal battle.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Bowie Donates to Jena Six

Bowie? Really? -AB

*****

from NME.com

David Bowie has contributed $10,000 to a defence fund for the 'Jena Six', a group of black American teenagers who many believe are innocent of the assault of a white classmate.

One of the teenagers, Mychal Bell, was convicted of second degree battery in June, although this verdict was later overturned by the Third Circuit Court of Appeal as he was sixteen at the time of the crime but was tried as an adult.

Despite this, however, Bell remains in jail, unable to raise $90,000 needed for his bail.

Commenting on his donation, David Bowie said: "There is clearly a separate and unequal judicial process going on in the town of Jena. A donation to the Jena Six Legal Defence Fund is my small gesture indicating my belief that a wrongful charge and sentence should be prevented."

It's estimated that up to 60,000 protestors will march through Jena tomorrow (September 20) in protest at the affair and other cases of racial tension in the area. It's not yet known whether charges will be brought against Bell again.

Julian Bond of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said: "We are gratified that rock star David Bowie was moved to donate to the NAACP's Jena campaign. We hope others will join him."

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Toumani Diabate on Music and the World

Diabate is an accomplished Malian kora player. Take note of his ideas on music as a forum for communication, the notion that it can do much more than just entertain.

"My music has a history and a legend. My music has a geography. It's for peace and love and culture, and I think it's for communication. I think the best way to communicate today is the music."

Read the interview here at Pitchfork.

Friday, September 14, 2007

MIA's Kala: Real World Music

Published in Znet

By Alexander Billet

The past twelve months have been anything but uneventful for MIA. Last year, she was planning on making her new album in the states. When US Customs denied her a visa, though, her plans were quickly scuttled. The reasons were never officially stated, but when your dealing with Maya Arulpragasam, a popular and radical MC, the daughter of Tamil Tiger rebels, it's pretty obvious why the US balked.

So, Maya took her show on the road. Liberia, Australia, India, Japan. And rather than back down from her militancy, she's let the experience enhance it. While her last album, Arular, was characterized by dense sampling and rapid-fire beats, it's the sound of each of these nations that make this album pop. The swinging tunes of Bollywood, slinking didgeridoo, banging temple drums all play on the same level as samples from the Pixies, Jonathan Richman and the Clash. It's a kind of musical internationalism; a chance to give a voice, however small, to that ninety percent of the planet who are routinely ignored in western music.

She comes out of the gate swinging from the first track. Though she's been around the world and back, it's clear that she's shunned the role of the condescending tourist. Instead, on “Bamboo Banga,” she's taken the voice of the street-kids and shanty-dwellers; the ones rightfully viewing the rich vacationers with disdain. It’s an intimidating track with the memorable line “I’m banging on the doors of you Hummer, Hummer,” which seems to set the tone for the rest of the record.

This is a recurring theme throughout the album, sometimes with the added ingredient of live ammunition in songs like “Paper Planes” and “World Town.” “20 Dollar” is especially effective: “Do you know that cost of a.k.s / Up in Africa / 20 dollars ain't shit to you / But that's how much they are / So they gonna use the shit just to get far.”

Extreme? Yes. So is the legalized pillage of Africa. Not too many mainstream artists are willing to support the arming of the people of these nations. After all, the only other time we hear the people of Africa mentioned in music is from the likes of Bono and Geldof, who have peddled to us the image of the helpless savage waiting to be fed by the magnanimous west. MIA’s take is quite different. She isn't afraid to raise the banner of By Any Means Necessary.

The flak doled out to her because of these ideas hasn't been small. And not just for her lyrics, but for being a vocal woman of color: "From day one, this has been a mad, crazy thing: I say the things I'm not supposed to say, I look wrong, my music doesn't sound comfortable for any radio stations or genres..." The album's best tracks confront this head on. Maya proves she can give it as well she takes it on “Boyz,” as she confidently asks “How many, how many boys are crazy? How many boys are raw? / How many, how many boys are rowdy? / How many start a war?”

There are a lot of differences between this album and her previous Arular. There aren't the same catchy tunes like "Sunshowers" and "Galang" on here. But the collision of the beats, the eclectic sounds and Maya's own cocky, streetwise vocals give the whole album an almost hypnotic quality. The world it so irresistably draws you into may seem strange and harsh, but that's because the daily crimes carried out upon it go unnoticed every day. That's this album's biggest strength, and what makes MIA one of today's most important artists.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Mos Def Appearance on Bill Maher Was Off the Hook!

I was considering writing an article about this, but Mos goes off on so much stuff it's just much better for folks to read the transcript.

Mos talks not only talks about the Jena Six, but the war, the bankrupt way democracy is run in this country, and challenges Maher's backward ideas about Islam.

If anyone wants to see the true face of hip-hop, read it right here!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Hip-hop Caucus Leader Attacked at Anti-War Protest

Police are really cracking down lately here in DC. A few days ago a similar action was shut down by Capitol Cops. Medea Benjamin and Cindy Sheehan were also among those arrested. And for nothing more than trying to go to an open meeting. -AB

*****

For Immediate Release
Hip Hop Caucus
Contact: Liz Havstad - liz@hiphopcaucus.org or 510 206 6749

Rev. Lennox Yearwood, Jr., president of the Hip Hop Caucus, was attacked by six capitol police today, when he was stopped from entering the Cannon Caucus Room on Capitol Hill, where General Petreaus gave testimony today to a joint hearing for the House Arms Services Committee and Foreign Relations Committee on the war in Iraq.

After waiting in line throughout the morning for the hearing that was scheduled to start at 12:30pm, Rev. Yearwood was stopped from entering the room, while others behind him were allowed to enter. He told the officers blocking his ability to enter the room, that he was waiting in line with everyone else and had the right to enter as well. When they threatened him with arrest he responded with "I will not be arrested today." According to witnesses, six capitol police, without warning, "football tackled" him. He was carried off in a wheel chair by DC Fire and Emergency to George Washington Hospital.

Rev. Yearwood said as he was being released from the hospital to be taken to central booking, "The officers decided I was not going to get in Gen. Petreaus' hearing when they saw my button, which says 'I LOVE THE PEOPLE OF IRAQ.'"

Capitol Police are not saying what the charges are, but an inside source has said that
the charge is assaulting a police officer. Rev. Yearwood is scheduled to be transferred to Central Processing to be arraigned tomorrow morning.

The incident was recorded by an observer and is available on YouTube WhyNotNews http://www.youtube.com/watch/v=qiradcejA6o

Monday, September 10, 2007

Mos Def Speaks Out on the Jena Six

From the NME

Can anyone seriously call hip-hop nihilistic when stuff like this is going down? -AB

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Radiohead's Next Album is Complete

They've always surprised listeners with what they're capable of. It's exciting to think of what they may have accomplished with this record without a label hanging over their heads. -AB

From NME.com

*****

Jonny Greenwood: New Radiohead album is complete!

But when will we get to hear the new record?
07.Sep.07 9:14pm
Radiohead's seventh album is done and ready to be released, says guitarist Jonny Greenwood.

We just had a meeting about that today," Greenwood told Paste.com "We're very relieved to have finished recording, now we have to decide what we should do with it."

The band completed their six-album deal with EMI in 2003 when they released 'Hail To The Thief' and are currently unsigned, with no suggestion of who will release the new record.

Meanwhile Greenwood is preparing for his orchestral performance in New York City early next year when he brings the BBC commissioned 'Popcorn Superhet Receiver' to the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Manhattan.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Hilly Kristal: Freedom Deferred

By Alexander Billet

From Dissident Voice

When Hilly Kristal died this past week at the age of 75, it was less than a year after his legendary club closed its doors forever. Kristal, who had battled with lung cancer in recent months, founded one of rock n’ roll’s most influential clubs: CBGB. Its closure was a tragedy, and with the death of Kristal the chance of its return in any form is most likely dashed.

It is impossible to express how huge a loss this is.

It’s humorous today to think that a club whose initials stood for Country BlueGrass and Blues could end up an oasis for the insurgent punk movement, but that’s exactly what it was. Kristal was an accidental Moses, bringing something real to the underclass of a city in deep turmoil. While New York went bankrupt, endured blackouts and was sent into a frenzy by the Summer of Sam, it became only natural that punk would spring up there. Without CBGB, though, who knows if it would have taken root?

The Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie, Talking Heads, Bad Brains, Television — all brought the rebellion and grittiness back to rock, all nurtured at CB’s. Smith recalled exactly how much the club meant to her after Kristal’s death:

“I’m not trying to romanticize anything because in some ways it was a shithole. The sound was crappy, there was always things breaking down and glasses breaking and people vomiting and the rats scurrying around in the back, but it was our shithole and that was the greatest thing. I’ve played a lot of places and it was the only place I’ve ever played that felt like our place. He had put the community on the map. It doesn’t matter where I’ve been in the world, people have CBGBs T-shirts. It’s not just some marketing thing. CBGBs wasn’t just about Hilly or the people who played there or New York City, it represented freedom for young people. To me the name CBGBs could be a slang term at this point meaning freedom. Hilly offered us unconditional freedom.”

Through the years, Kristal continued to play host to the loud, the brash, the uncompromising. Hardcore became a fixture at the club’s Sunday matinees. Art rock and indie would be featured there. It’s impossible to exactly place where musical innovations take place, but from the looks of it, a lot of them were at CB’s.

The millennium turned, and the city changed. In the name of progress, the oases were bulldozed and replaced with glossy nothingness. Alphabet City? Gone. Harlem is being eaten alive by Columbia University, and Brooklyn is steadily on its way to becoming Hipsterville. It was only a matter of time before the sights were set on CBGB.

In 2005, the Bowery Resident’s Committee sent Kristal a bill for $91,000 back rent. Krystal had never been informed of a rise. First he tried to negotiate, then he took legal action. When that didn’t work he filed for historic landmark status for CB’s. A campaign was launched to save the club. But when cities are willing to cast aside decent housing for the poor, why should they give a damn about the music?

The final show was played on October 15th, 2006. Patti Smith headlined. Kristal planned to strip the club down to the bare walls and take everything he could to Las Vegas and reopen the club there.

Kristal died on August 28th. There is no word if anyone else plans to reopen CB’s. Perhaps it goes without saying that it wouldn’t be the same anyway.

Little Steven Van Zandt, who campaigned hard for CB’s salvation, wrapped it all up when he spoke of Kristal’s death:

“Losing CBGB meant it was only a matter of time until Hilly followed. It was his whole life… There would be no Ramones without Hilly Kristal. And who would want to live in a world without them? He loved this city and in the end, the city spit in his face… CBGB was a tragic loss New York will never recover from and maybe it’s better Hilly doesn’t have to watch the town that invented personality slowly turn into the Mall of America. Rock and roll will miss him.”

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Winehouse Makes Comeback at Mercury Music Prize

It's good to have her back, and in top form too.

From the NME

Amy Winehouse made a surprise live comeback at the Nationwide Mercury Music Prize ceremony tonight (September 4).

Speculation had been rife throughout the evening as to whether the singer, who had recently returned to London following a holiday in St Lucia and spells in rehab to tackle her drug addiction.

Organisers of the awards did not known if Winehouse would play or even appear until earlier this evening, however the singer arrived at the Grosvenor House Hote at 17.00 BST and soundchecked.

Later on, after performances from the other nominees including a rendition of 'Flex' from Dizzee Rascal and a sped-up run through of 'Salvador' from Jamie T, presenter Jools Holland introduced Winehouse.

Taking the stage wearing at 19.55 BST wearing a yellow dress she sang 'Love Is A Losing Game' backed by just an acoustic guitar.

She looked composed and sober, thin but healthy.

After performing she said "thank you", then stepped down from the stage and kissed her husband Blake Fielder-Civil before joiner her family at her table.

The winner of this year's Nationwide Mercury Music Prize will be announced just after 10pm BST, stay tuned to NME.COM live coverage of this year's result.