Thursday, February 28, 2008

Balkans, Bjork and Bullshit (of the US variety)

Serbia has announced it has cancelled Bjork's scheduled tour appearance in Novi Sad this upcoming summer after the singer spoke in favor of Kosovar independence earlier this week.

I like Bjork. I will continue to like Bjork after today. She is easily one of the most innovative and expansive artists of our time whose influence on music has been substantial. And anyone who frequents this blog knows that I am certainly not adverse to musicians speaking out against oppression.

But Bjork's comments follow the suit of a lot of the mainstream media's line of "evil Serbs v. victimized Kosovars. Even the article at Pitchfork covering this story gives very little glance to the politics behind the controversy in Serbia right now. This oversimplifies a complex situation that merits more examination.

First of all, how can a region that has spent the better part of a decade under NATO occupation be declared "independent?" This should especially be asked when that occupation has shut down all industry in the region, when the unemployment rate is 60%, and anti-Serb violence is a not infrequent occurence.

The new prime minister of Kosovo is a proven war criminal. While it would be wrong to deny the very real crimes of Milosevic against both Serb and Albanian, the invasion of Kosovo in 1999 was never about putting an end to those crimes. The mass graves given so much hype before the invasion never materialized (a lot like Iraq's WMDs).

Does this sound familiar?

Bjork's intentions were undoubtedly noble. After all, when the word "independence" is thrown out, who isn't for it, at least in the abstract? But the current situation isn't the result of a hard fought independence movement. It's the resultof the US wanting a client state in the Balkans to maintain influence. This makes sense when one notes that the recent Serbian riots haven't been anti-Albanian in character so much as anti-American.

In short, while I certainly don't support the nastier elements within Serbian nationalism, given the volatile situation, I can't say I'm surprised that Bjork got banned.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Kweli Doing what he Does Best

Many thanks to the folks at Amoeba for sending this out.

It's a video of Talib Kweli performing in-store. I thought it worth posting simply because, for as popular as Kwe is getting nowadays, there's something really down to earth about this performance. Relatively small space, no glitz, no glamour, no massive lights show. Just the MC, a DJ, and the crowd. It's the kind of performances that abounded a lot more in hip-hop's early days. We need a lot more of them today.

Monday, February 25, 2008

No matter what the haters say, Moby is still cool

He's become something of a straw-man for electro-purists to knock down over the past few years, ever since Play really. But there's something you can't deny about this guy: he's very independently minded. The interview in the upcoming Spin shows that off pretty well. His new album Last Night is pretty unabashedly "retro," meaning that it sounds like it's from the nineties. Though it's hard to find something redeeming in absolutely everything he says, he's frank, and is unapologetic about doing the music that he wants to do.

Some great excerpts:

Spin: Are you worried that people will criticize you for making a retro record?

Moby: No, that was intentional. The idea was to take an eight-hour night out and condense it into 65 minutes. You wouldn't listen to a White Stripes record and say, "This should have been made in 1971."


Spin: Does it bother you that neither of the two records you've released since 1999's Play have sold as well?

Moby: Not at all. Play was such an accident. A record made by a 34-year-old bald guy in his bedroom featuring dead African American vocalists? It's not a recipe for success. My only professional regret is that [2002's follow-up] 18 was fairly conventional. I was trying to make something that would appeal to people, when I should have thrown that criterion out the window.


Spin: Of all of the songs from Play that were licensed, what struck you as the weirdest placement?

Moby: For a while, Rush Limbaugh was using some of my music. Finally, I think someone called him up and said, "You know, Moby is kind of a hard-core lefty."


Spin: Do you illegally download music?

Moby: Oh yeah, all the time. I download my own, because I have this perverse fantasy of the FBI bursting through the door and arresting me for stealing it. I don't advocate for it, but I will say that as music becomes less profitable, music becomes a lot better. The old days of starting a band because you want to be rich and famous are falling by the wayside.


Spin: As a frequent blogger, you've probably read some of the insults that have been directed at you. What accounts for the persistent Moby hatred?

Moby: I'm way too visible. Musicians are supposed to be vague and esoteric, like Thom Yorke. If I were a weird Finnish musician, I don't think anyone would hate me, except maybe the people in my village in Finland.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Rebel Frequencies will resume regular postings on 2/25

I'm really busy with outside projects this weekend. No article for this week. Will resume on Monday.

Thanks -AB

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

So what exactly is an "oldie"?

I read in the Washington Express this morning that music from the 80s is now being featured on oldies stations.

It struck me a few years ago how little the term "oldies" really means. Sure, naturally everyone thinks of oldies as songs at least a generation old. But consider that music from the mid-seventies like Bad Company and Chicago showed up in the early nineties, yet any of the early or proto-punk was never deemed worthy. The MC5 and the Stooges were late sixties, same time as the Mamas and the Papas and Buffalo Springfield, but I'll give anyone a million dollars if they've heard either of them on an oldies station. And I can't ever remember hearing Hendrix on any of these stations! He's more relegated to the "classic rock" crowd, even though his music is older than much of what shows up as "oldies." All of the Beatles stuff shows up, yet none of John Lennon's solos stuff. How interesting.

Labeling a song an "oldie" doesn't have to do with age so much as making the music harmless. Either it had no relevance to begin with, or someone wants very much to strip that relevance from it. Even the term itself seems to say "this song is written off."

So what are the first 80s songs being played on oldies radio now? "Let's Hear it For the Boy" and "Carribbean Queen."

I rest my case.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Man arrested at gunpoint for using mp3 player

If it weren't so flat-out, embarrassingly ridiculous--not to mention an all-too-familiar story in a time when fear is used as political capital--this story might be almost funny! -AB

Thanks to RRC for sending it out


Next time you're reaching down for that iPod or Zune (or anything else for that matter), take care that you don't alarm the authorities with any suspicious movements -- or you could end up like the UK's Darren Nixon. Apparently, the mild-mannered mechanic was on his way home from work when the Bobbies surrounded him and drew their guns, believing that the MP3 player in his pocket was a firearm. According to the Daily Mail, Mr. Nixon was tracked on CCTV, arrested at gunpoint, swabbed for DNA, fingerprinted, and thrown in a cell -- all for listening to a bootleg of Chinese Democracy on a 4GB Philips GoGear. Said Darren, "I was really shocked when I saw the guns. They were pointing them right at me. It was a pretty scary experience. I had no idea what was going on." After the team of Mentat cops realized their mistake, they couldn't even offer an apology, said Nixon, "They just dropped me off at home and said a quick 'sorry for any inconvenience', and that was all I got from them, which I thought was pretty out of order." Once again, a hot serving of sweet justice.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Tune of the Week: Dead Prez's "Hip-Hop"

Rebel Frequencies focused almost exclusively on hip-hop this week. In itself, this is nothing out of the ordinary, but between the article on Obama and rap, the Rolling Stone piece on "hip-hop's landmark year," and other issues, this does seem to be a week that hip-hop, and particular the politics of it, played a more prominent role than usual.

And so, this week's song is Dead Prez's "Hip-Hop." Listen to it here.

Two reasons: this is a song seems to sum up much of the political potential of rap. That potential is, well, bigger than the music itself.

The other one being that Dead Prez brought that potential into striking reality this past week at Evergreen State University. When campus police arrested an attendee at a performance DP were giving, they urged the crowd to fight back. They did so by surrounding the car and protesting until the cops released the student.


It's bigger than..hip..hop..hip..hop..hip..hop..hip..
It's bigger than..hip..hop..hip..hop..hip..hop..hip-hop

Uh, one thing 'bout music when it hit you feel no pain
White folks say it controls yo' brain
I know better than that, that's game
And we ready for that - two soldiers head of the pack
Matter of fact, who got the gat?
And where my army at? Rather attack and not react
Back to beats, it don't reflect on how many records get sold
On sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll
Whether your project's put on hold
In the real world; these just people with ideas
They just like me and you when the smoke and camera disappear
Against the real world *echos*
It's bigger than all these fake-ass records
When po' folks got the millions and my woman's disrespected
If you check 1-2, my word of advice to you is just relax
Just do what you got to do; if that don't work, then kick the facts
If you a fighter, rider, biter, flame-ignitor, crowd-exciter
Or you wanna jus' get high, then just say it
But then if you a liar-liar, pants on fire, wolf-crier, agent wit' a wire
I'm gon' know it when I play it


Uh, who shot Biggie Smalls?
If we don't get them, they gon' get us all
I'm down for runnin' up on them crackers in they city hall
We ride for y'all - all my dogs stay real
Nigga, don't think these record deals gon' feed your seeds
And pay your bills, because they not
MCs get a little bit of love and think they hot
Talkin' 'bout how much money they got; all y'all records sound the same
I'm sick of that fake thug, R&B-rap scenario, all day on the radio
Same scenes in the video, monotonous material
Y'all don't here me though
These record labels slang our tapes like dope
You can be next in line and signed; and still be writing rhymes and broke
You would rather have a Lexus? or justice? a dream? or some substance?
A Beamer? a necklace? or freedom?
Still a nigga like me don't playa-hate, I just stay awake
This real hip-hop; and it don't stop 'til we get the po-po off the block

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Barack's Big Hype: Is Obama the candidate of the Hip-Hop Generation?

For many, the answer to this question might be an enthusiastic "yes." In recent weeks I have spoken on a radio show on "the hip-hop effect on the Obama campaign." I've talked to politcally active MCs who are beyond stoked that Obama is ahead in the primaries. I've been sent e-vites to online groups called "Hip-hop for Obama." The phenomenon is striking. It seems lately that there is no paucity of those inspired by the righteous message of hip-hop who now feel they finally have a voice through Barack Obama. Indeed, a friend of mine who observed an Obama rally recently told me that "it was like a rock concert." Footage from other rallies seem to back that up. Large crowds, overwhemlingly young and multi-racial, absolutely ecstatic at the thought of an Obama presidency.

At that same rally a clip was played that has become among the most viral of videos online. The "Yes We Can" video, produced by Black Eyed Peas front-man and producer, is something unlike anything I have seen from a mainstream presidential candidate. Various figures from film, television and music, speaking or singing lines from Obama's speeches. It has to be said; there is something inspiring about seeing people like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Common saying that "it was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom: 'yes we can.'"

The precedent is notable: when was the last time that a mainstream presidential candidate openly embraced the work of a hip-hop artist? John Kerry kept Sean Combs' "Vote or Die" campaign at arms' length. I have no recollection of Al Gore dancing to Lauryn Hill (thank god!). And Bill Clinton made it a point to denounce hip-hop artists during his 1992 campaign. As for the Republican side, it goes without saying that they can't even begin to understand a music genre about the Black experience in America, let alone embrace it.

And yet, in a certain sense, it is fitting for a man with Obama's past. It's worth noting that, if elected, Obama would be not only the first Black president, but the first to be a teenager at the dawn of the 1980s. Before he was the polished, silver-tongued, self-appointed harbinger of hope, he was a student transferring to Columbia University in a New York City smack in the middle of a hip-hop explosion. Rap had busted out of the Bronx and was sinking its roots into the culture of NYC. Even for the ambitiously studious Obama, it would have been impossible to escape the phemomenon. One can only speculate if he spent nights in his dorm room digging to Zulu Nation, or bobbing his head to the sounds of Fantastic Freaks.

Far fetched? Perhaps. But the evidence suggests that he could not have been sealed off from the dynamic beats sweeping the city. In his autobiography he speaks of his involvement in campus activism against apartheid in South Africa and in favor of affirmative action. This was no mean feat in the Reagan '80s, and yet similar movements could be found on campuses across the country. Furthermore, being open anti-racist struggles, they had a profound effect on the development of hip-hop's politics. As the '80s progressed, Afrocentrism continued to be a theme in the rhymes of many an MC. South Africa's segregation would feature prominently in the music of the most politically outspoken hip-hop artists.

Today, Obama treats his activist years with a dismissive attitude we've come to expect from politicians. Yet he cannot deny them. Indeed, he seems to have tapped into the experiences of those days in recent weeks. He has invoked the history of the movements against slavery, past union struggles and the women's movement. He has spoken in favor of immigrant and gay rights, and denounced the priorities of prisons before schools. His words against the war have hardened. And he has actually been telling attendees at his rallies that "this is what change from the bottom up looks like." While most candidates prattle on about how change comes from "great men," this is certainly a breath of fresh air.

Have the past months re-ignited Obama's days as a campus activist? Might this, coupled with his own relative youth, provide him with an understanding of music's power in inspiring and mobilizing? Or is it that he has simply read, better than the other nominees, the writing on the wall of a nation that is itself changing? The past few months have seen a sharp swing to the left among the population on a wide array of issues. Most Americans hate the war in Iraq, they want decent healthcare that won't empty their pocketbooks, they want the government to intervene in creating jobs and are angry at the banks foreclosing on their houses.

This hits home even more for the youth of this country, the first-time voters who have known nothing but Bush and Clinton, and know very well what each president's policies have done to themselves and their families. This is a generation who have come of age during a war to which they will be the first sent. They are staring in the face a job market that has little to offer in the way of security. And they have grown up around the biggest diversity of cultures and racial backgrounds that this country has ever seen. They have also grown up during hip-hop's reign as a global phenomenon. Their hunger for change is widespread, and very, very real.

But just like any song, flashy production cannot make up for flimsy substance. The harsh reality is that Obama is part of a Democratic Party that has always put the interests of business before those of ordinary people. Like all other candidates in this race, the vast majority of his campaign money comes courtesy of Corporate America. Maybe this is why he has yet to mention taking on the insurance companies when talking about healthcare. When asked how he would end the war, he states that it would be important to keep some presence in Iraq long-term. And as long as his ideas on hip-hop are on the table, it is worth mentioning that he towed much of the mainstream line on rap in the post-Imus backlash.

In short, the kind of inspiring change talked and sung about in "Yes We Can" is something that Obama himself cannot bring. The shift in his campaign, though, has opened a door. By openly talking about the history of struggle in this country, Obama has created space to talk about what that struggle might look like today. The question is what will happen to the excitement he has tapped into after the primaries, after November, and beyond. It is up to ordinary people to maintain that excitement, and fight for the kind of change that both they, and hip-hop itself, have craved.

Only then will there be some hype worth believin'.

What I'm listening to this week...

The Flaming Lips - Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell
It's hard to believe sometimes that these are the same fellows that did "Vaseline" years back. Aside from having one of the coolest titles ever, this album showcases why this group is one of the most orginal and underrated bands in rock. "Starship Balloons" is exhalting, as is most of the album.

The Beastie Boys - Check Your Head
If you ask me, this is their groundbreaking album! It proved that the Beasties were skillful MCs, tight musicians and producers that were willing to push the boundaries. Though it couldn't possibly be labeled solely as a hip-hop album, it was among many records from that period that showed rap could be a genre of artistic expansion on top of being a lot of fun.

Amy Winehouse - Back to Black
Put the tabloid trash-talk aside. Winehouse is an honest artist, and her near sweep at the Grammys this past week amounts to a kind of vindication given everything the past year has thrown at her. It's still hard for me to believe that this record was made in the 21st century given that she does soul in such a genuine way.

Lauryn Hill - The Miseduation of Lauryn Hill
This album is possibly one of the most important hip-hop albums of all time. Hill has an uncanny ability to pen songs that are poignant and danceable at the same time. Her depth and strength drip from every note on this record. I only wish that we heard from her more often.

Bruce Springsteen - Devils and Dust
As much as I love the E Street Band, I think that Bruce can be just as powerful when it's just him and his guitar. Much like The Ghost of Tom Joad, this record sounds like the subtle feelings of quietly surviving the slings an arrows that ordinary people deal with through love, war, happiness and loneliness.

Friday, February 15, 2008

"Oh snap!"

Rolling Stone's website has a feature up today on 1988, "Hip-Hop's Greatest Year". It is definitely worth checking out!

The list of the fifteen best rap albums of '88 is a mind-trip if for no other reasons it reminds you what a crossroads the genre was at in the late eighties. Disco-based beats were in their last throes. Funk started to feature more prominently. N.W.A made gangsta rap explode as both a musical and political force (an interesting concept given that there hasn't been a really good gangsta rap album in at least eight years). And let's not forget the way Public Enemy absolutely revolutionized music with Nation of Millions.

This was also the dawn of a new age for rap's acceptance in the mainstream. Right around this time is when hip-hop stopped being written off as a novelty that just wouldn't go away. 1988 was right at the dawn of the "Golden Age," and it's no coincidence that this list includes the Jungle Brothers, who were at the forefront of the Native Tongues Posse, a movement that viewed rap as a proud Afrocentric art-form. That outlook can be seen in the best of today's hip-hop, from the Roots to Talib Kweli.

Twenty years... right on!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Writers make gains

From Socialist Worker. Though the strike suffered some setbacks, the gains made are very significant for the future of artists working for major studios--and perhaps record labels. -AB


Writers win gains from studios
February 15, 2008 | Page 11

LEE SUSTAR reports on what Hollywood writers won as a result of standing their ground.

HOLLYWOOD WRITERS won gains following a 14-week strike against TV and film producers that ended with a new contract giving them a percentage of revenue for programs streamed on the Internet--a demand that industry bosses had vowed to resist.

By holding out against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the Writers Guild of America (WGA) was able to establish the right to 2 percent of “distributors' gross”--the fees paid to producers to allow a new TV show to be streamed on the Internet.

This provision won't kick in until the third year of the contract, when the AMPTP must share information on Web revenue with the union to determine the proper amount. However, the WGA did gain 2 percent of distributor's gross for older shows and films dating to 1977, effective immediately.

“The writers' strike has been the most successful strike in this country since the 1997 UPS strike,” WGA West President Patric Verrone said on a Los Angeles radio show. “What it's done is to show that collective action on the part of workers can actually have a successful result. This is historic.”

While the WGA did break new ground on new media revenue, the union came up short on other issues. Besides accepting the two-year delay in the new media revenue-sharing, the union dropped its demand for jurisdiction over writers in unscripted “reality” shows, as well as animation programs.

Another weakness in the deal is that studios don't have to pay fees, known as residuals, to writers for the first 24 days after a program is initially streamed. The studios claim this is necessary to avoid making multiple residual payments for a single show recorded on a DVR device, but it gives them a major loophole.

But these shortcomings must be seen in the light of the studios' original demands--a postponement of talks on new media for three years and rewriting of residual formulas that would have delayed payments for writers until the studios had recovered their costs.

The strike--plus solidarity from the Screen Actors Guild, which has its own contract talks soon--forced studio bosses to abandon their hard-line positions. The WGA hung on even after the Directors Guild of America undercut them by negotiating a separate--and inferior--contract early, while writers walked the picket line.

“Did [WGA] leaders gain enough yardage to justify effectively shutting down the TV business and damaging the film industry, putting tens of thousands of people out of work as recession clouds darken on the horizon?” wrote Los Angeles Times television critic Scott Collins.

“In a word, yes. Against formidable odds, some well-earned skepticism and endless carping from non-writing workers who viewed themselves as collateral damage in a provincial border war, guild officials stuck to their guns and negotiated a contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers that, while maybe not a historic win for labor, improves some terms from the recent Directors Guild of America contract, offers a blueprint for future payouts on digital media and even eases some of the pain of the oft-lamented 1988 contract, in which writers failed to achieve their objectives despite a five-month walkout.”

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

We're the ones who Really Know how to Rock

Obama has swept the Potomac Primaries as it looks right now. Clinton's campaign is floundering, with Obama cutting into one of her key demographics over the weekend. It's still too soon to tell (thanks to the incredibly undemocratic existence of "superdelegates"), but right now he appears to have gained an unstoppable momentum.

A friend of mine went to observe a rally Obama held at the University of Maryland the day before the votes. He said the youthful crowd was absolutely exuberant to be there. He said Obama talked a big game regarding bringing the troops home. He spoke in favor of gay and immigrant rights. He mentioned Jena for the first time ever. He said "this is what change looks like from the bottom up." In short, Obama sounded like an activist! Indeed, the campus anti-war group at UMD was in full force at the rally.

A recent post on the Can't Stop Won't Stop blog makes a good point about Obama's activist past:

"Obama has shown a desire to box away his experiences as a student activist during the 80s. In his autobiography, he has been dismissive of his days in the anti-apartheid, pro-multiculturalism, pro-affirmative action battles at Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard. He regards his experiences in Chicago's Southside, which he still cites as the transformative period of his life, as certainly more authentic. Yet his language--drawing freely from Gandhi and Chavez--suggests he has a more conflicted relationship to his student activism years than he is ready to admit."

Then it occurred to me after reading this: Obama is the first presidential candidate of the "hip-hop generation." He has experience in some of the struggles that defined hip-hop's own rise. My friend who attended the Monday rally (who is not an Obama supporter) called me in the middle and told me that "it's like a rock concert."

If he is "conflicted" as the blog-post suggests, then its because he knows these kinds of images and rhetoric work in mobilizing a country swinging to the left. The kids who grew up under nothing but Clinton and Bush are now of voting age, and they see what those kinds of administrations did to them and their families. These kids won't necessarily roll over and take it if and when Obama starts to turn his back on the "change" he talks of now.

Obama may be dismissive of the struggles and cultures that influenced his own youth, but if he does win in November, he'll have to come to grips with the ones that define our generation in the here and now.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Rock Against Racism to be featured at Glastonbury

Awesome! The NME reports that Britain's largest music festival will prominently feature a multi-artist tribute to Rock Against Racism.

It shows how much festival culture in the States has to catch up with that in Europe. While the festivals here in the US are almost completely corporatized and unaccountable, Glasto allows left-wing trade union groups to be a part of organizing the event. There isn't the fear of mixing in a little activism with the music at the festivals.

Meanwhile, the last time I saw anything like this Stateside was an Anti-Racist Action tent at the Warped Tour almost ten years ago! They've now been replaced by Army recruiting stations and Bud Light tents.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Thoughts on the Grammys...

This year's show was the Grammys as we've come to expect them: lots of spectacle, choices that were completely out of touch with where music is right now. Here are some broad strokes:

-Alicia Keys and Frank Sinatra dueting: suprise opener, or massive cop-out?

-Kanye West had a great album in terms of production with Graduation, but lyrically, Common, Nas, and Jay-Z all had better albums.

-Foo Fighters were a soft option to award best rock record. The riskier option would have been Wilco.

-Why are the "Alternative" categories not worth televising? You would never know that the White Stripes' Icky Thump won three awards if you went off the telecast.

-Beyonce simply does not have the soul to pull off "Proud Mary."

-The amount of Lifetime Achievement Awards handed out during the course of the night merely trivialized the meaning that such an award should have.

-Though I didn't need the Grammys to remind me how important the Beatles were, the tribute using "A Day in the Life" and "Let it Be" was stunning! In particular, the gospel version of "Let it Be," with images of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war (and the ending with peace signs) was a rather poignant testament to how important the Beatles were to young people in those times.

-I sincerely hope that the US consulate has their foot lodged firmly in their mouth after Amy Winehouse's near clean sweep.

-It's worth asking whether NARAS' decision to give "Album of the Year" to Herbie Hancock, while Winehouse took every other award she was nominated for, was a bit of a slap in the face. Back to Black has been much more on the radar that Hancock's album. Were they willing to give all those Grammys to Winehouse, only to deny her the coup-de-grace?

-That being said, I did like what Hancock had to say when he won: "You know it's been 43 years since the first and only time that a jazz artist got the album of the year award. I'd like to thank the academy for courageously breaking the mold this time."

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Tune of the Week: Radiohead's "Electioneering"

An obvious choice for this primary season. It's a great time for candidates to deliver promises. And a great time for us to remember them so that when they go back on them, we have to hold them accountable.

This song is off of Radiohead's iconic OK Computer. It was at that time when the barely registered discontent of the '90s was starting to break into the open. Radiohead managed to capture a whole generation's alienation in both the lyrical content and, most importantly, the sound of that album.

This song is chaotically dissonant, and the lyric "when I go forward, you go backward, and somewhere we will meet" seems to sum up the way our politicians talk to us.

Let's push ourselves forward!


I will stop
I will stop at nothing
Say the right things
When electioneering
I trust I can rely on your vote

When I go forwards you go backwards and somewhere we will meet

Riot shields
Voodoo economics
It's just business
Cattle prods and the IMF
I trust I can rely on your vote

When I go forwards you go backwards and somewhere we will meet

Saturday, February 9, 2008

We Need Rock! We Need Choice! Music Needs a Woman's Voice!

When 16-year-old Jamie-Lynn Spears announced that she would be continuing her unplanned pregancy, the same Bible-thumpers who blamed her for "America's crumbling morality" suddenly found a reason to play nice. Anti-choice zealot Mike Huckabee was the first of the presidential candidates to chime in on the pop-culture controversy: "Apparently she's going to have the child and I think that's the right decision, a good decision, and I respect and appreciate it." Huckabee was never asked what he thought about her decision against having an abortion. But, being a stalwart of the religious right, he couldn't resist the temptation to turn Spears into some kind of poster child for the crusade against women's right to control their bodies.

And so it seems fitting that Jamie-Lynn's older sister Britney personifies women's role in the modern music business. Britney Spears' present function is not so much to be heard as seen (more like ogled). Only in a society where women are viewed, first and foremost, as sex objects could such an artist become one of the highest-selling female singers of all time. Never has there been a more pressing need for a new women's rights movement in music and the world at large. Never has there been a more pressing need for the return Rock 4 Choice.

"Rock For Huh?" "Who For Choice?" Perhaps I should back up a little. Let's go back about fifteen years to the early nineties (do you feel old yet?). The Soviet Union had fallen, and the US had taken its place as the world's only superpower. An economic boom was underway, and all the mouthpieces were shouting about how lucky we are to be living in such a superpower. And those same mouthpieces had finally found the perfect label for the generation coming of age: "Generation X." Thinking back, the moniker still leaves a bad taste. That "X" was their way of writing us off as the do-nothing generation. We were lazy, self-centered, apathetic, and simply didn't appreciate "all the things we had."

Such platitudes were pure bollocks. If the same pundits had bothered to scratch beneath the surface, they would have found very palpable anger, and some very good reasons for not wanting to buy into the system. Young people were the last to share in the new economy. They were the first to be sent to Iraq in America's first post-Soviet war. They were the first to take to the streets of LA in the outrage following the Rodney King verdict. And many of the gains made by the movements of the '60s, which young people would have benefited from, had been rolled back during the '80s.

This was just as true for the gains of the women's movement which had fought through the 1970s. Susan Faludi, in her book Backlash, describes the phenomenon beginning in the '80s: "Just when women's quest for equal rights seemed closest to achieving its objectives, the backlash struck it down. Just when a 'gender gap' at the voting booth surfaced in 1980, and women in politics began to talk of capitalizing on it, the Republican party elevated Ronald Reagan and both political parties began to shunt women's rights off their platforms. Just when support for feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment reached a record high in 1981, the amendment was defeated the following year... Just when women racked up their largest percentage ever supporting the right to abortion, the U.S. Supreme Court moved toward reconsidering it."

It was in this atmosphere of trying to shake off all the repression of the '80s that Rock 4 Choice came into being. If credit were to be given to one band for its existence, it would no doubt be the all-female punk group L7. L7 were the kind of group that completely shook up the accepted notions of women in music. They were tattooed, loud, brash, and man could they rock! Uncompromising feminists, they were the kind of group that wore the enmity of the Christian right as a badge of pride.

In 1991 they told LA Times journalist Sue Cummings that they were horrified by the rash of clinic bombings by anti-abortion groups. In typically in-your-face fashion, they announced they were organizing a "Rock for Coat Hangers" benefit, the proceeds of which would go to a local pro-choice group. Cummings was inspired, and encouraged the group to bring other artists on board. After meeting with the Feminist Majority Foundation, the idea found enthusiastic support, and the first Rock 4 Choice show was held in LA in October of '91 with L7, Sister Double Happiness, Hole, and Nirvana.

The inclusion of many of grunge's biggest names wasn't accidental. Grunge's raw intensity and back-to-basics, DIY approach had pushed the decadence of hair metal and synth-pop to the sidelines. In doing so it also had created space, a pressure release valve for all the frustrations of Gen-Xers. Even groups like L7, who weren't technically considered part of the genre but shared in its confrontational spririt, began to find the recognition they had been denied in the '80s. For that reason, Rock For Choice sought to tap into grunge's anger and incorporate it as a platform for their message.

Donita Sparks, L7's lead singer, elaborated the need to mobilize young people with their own music: "It used to bum me out as a kid when I would go to peace or ERA rallies with my mother, and there would be people singing 'Kum Ba Ya, my sister, Kum Ba Ya,' it was so unmotivating. So we decided that we just had to rock the house. That was a good way to get more people involved..."

Rock 4 Choice grew in the '90s. Eddie Vedder's outspoken support for abortion rights pushed Pearl Jam to become early supporters. "[A]ll these men trying to control women's bodies are really starting to piss me off," Vedder told Rolling Stone. "They're talking from a bubble, they're not talking from the street, and they're not in touch with what's real. Well, I'm fucking mean, and I'm ugly, and my name is reality." It actually was impressive how many male rock bands were willing to lend their voice. Along with Pearl Jam and Nirvana, there were alternative mainstays like Stone Temple Pilots and Red Hot Chilli Peppers, punk groups like Rancid and Fugazi, even Iggy Pop wanted to--and did--play Rock 4 Choice benefits.

But because the group was dedicated to fighting for and protecting women's rights, it rightfully incorporated female acts that could rock just as hard as (if not harder than) the guys. Along with L7, Babes in Toyland, 7 Year Bitch, Liz Phair, Joan Jett and many others were front and center in promoting Rock 4 Choice. This wasn't so much a tactic as a center-piece of R4C's politics: women's voices in favor of the right to control their bodies. It was so effective that R4C was often mentioned in the same breath as the burgeoning Riot Grrrl movement. Though Bikini Kill were the only band from that sub-culture to regularly play shows for Rock 4 Choice, such a connection speaks volumes about the common mission of both movements. As the decade progressed, artists from outside the "alternative rock" crowd became involved. Sarah McLachlan became a proponent. Inlcusion of the newly out-of-the-closet Melissa Etheridge illustrated a common interest between women's rights and those of the LGBT community.

If one criticism could be levelled against the group, it would be that it was almost lily white. Just as grunge had galvinized the discontent of white youth, so had the insurgent sounds of hip-hop in the black community. Though rap was hardly a new concept, it had taken over a decade to shake the mainstream perception of of the music as a novelty. The gutter-level racism that characterized the Reagan '80s had certainly given rap artists a great deal to lash out against. But aside from the inclusion of Salt n' Pepa, the best-known female rap group of the time, the potential for making Rock 4 Choice into a multi-racial musical force was barely explored.

Nonetheless, Rock 4 Choice had clearly found plenty of artists willing to, well, rock for choice. The LA show in '91 became an annual event, bigger and more dynamic each year. The concerts were covered and debated in Rolling Stone and on MTV, leading music fans to ask themselves why some of their favorite artists were supporting this cause. At its height, R4C wasn't just a collection of artists, it was a platform. Such groups, though, can only be truly effective when allied with a strong movement. Rock Against Racism had been vastly successful fifteen years before, but that was because it had teamed up with the Anti-Nazi League, who had as its mission the literal elimination of fascist groups from the streets of England.

An in-the-streets movement to protect abortion rights was definitely needed in the '90s. Bill Clinton's election to the presidency had rightly been welcomed after twelve years of Reagan and Bush the first. However, Clinton began backing down on many of his campaign promises from the very beginning. His Freedom of Choice Act, which had earned him the endorsement of the biggest women's groupts, was never even mentioned after he took office. This emboldened the anti-choice right to chip away at Roe v. Wade, passing one restriction after another. In the last days of the Clinton administration, it had become more difficult for a woman to have an abortion than it had been under twelve years of Republican rule.

Unfortunately, most of the mainstream women's rights groups did not mobilize for fear of alienating the president. Even as a wave of "partial birth" bans swept the country, opening the door for even more restrictions, groups like the National Organization for Women and NARAL Pro-Choice America urged the movement not demonstrate. By the end of the 1990s, much of the pro-choice movement had switched tactics to finding "common ground" with abortion opponents. As the movement became drawn further away from the streets and deeper into the back-rooms of congress, Rock 4 Choice faded from public view.

Today, the group still exists, though it limits itself to small, local concerts, and even then only as a fundraiser for Feminist Majority. Indeed, the last annual concert Rock 4 Choice held was in 2001. The irony of this is that while the group made its voice heard the loudest under a nominally pro-choice president, they have remained totally out of the spotlight under a very openly anti-choice one. George W Bush's presidency has seen even further erosion of abortion rights. His two nominations to the Supreme Court have stated openly their willingness to overturn the Roe decision. Today, 87% of US counties have no abortion provider. Despite the very real possibility of Hillary Clinton becoming the first woman president this election season, abortion rights haven't even been mentioned on the campaign trail. And mainstream pro-choice groups are so withdrawn from the streets that when thousands of anti-abortion protesters marched in Washington on the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, no call was made for a counter-demonstration.

When women are denied the right to control their bodies, the repercussions are felt throughout society. They are felt in the workplaces, in the homes, and, yes, in our music too. Today the airwaves are choked by dime-a-dozen divas: the Britneys, the Jessicas, the Mariahs. The dominance of such artists sends the message that if women want to make in music, then their talents come secondary to their waistline, bust-size, and their willingness to pose in front of the camera. In other words, they are commodities first, artists second, human beings a distant third. When this is the standard, we all suffer... if for no other reason than the fact that the music sucks.

This does not mean that strong woman's voices in music have disappeared, though. Though we may not hear them on the radio or television daily, they are still out there. From the Gossip's Beth Ditto, to Erykah Badu, to the ever-notorious Ani DiFranco, there continue to exist women who are willing to rock out, and would be more than happy to lend their voices to a renewed push for women's rights. If Rock 4 Choice, and the movement it seeks to inspire want to make a comeback, then now's as good a time as any.

What I'm listening to this week...

I haven't been as consistent with this as I would like. From now on, I've resolved that it will come out along with each week's article.


L7 - Bricks are Heavy
My article this week most definitely got me in the mood. I had forgotten what a tremendous album this is! Steady, heavy rock n' roll. While "Pretend that We're Dead" is certainly a welcome blast from the past, the whole record maintainS that gutsy, sneering, strut that made these women such a staple.

John Coltrane - Live at the Village Vanguard
Raucous, incendiary, implosive. You wouldn't think John Coltrane's recordings could be any more of these things than they already are, but the live performance factor on this record definitely adds something. The energy positively crackles here, and it's truly the master in his domain.

Lupe Fiasco - Lupe Fiasco's the Cool
Fiasco has a solid followup to Food and Liquor with this release. There's something that harkens back to the Golden Age here, the days of Native Tongues and the like. But it's also thoroughly modern. It's going to be tremendous to see him on tour with Kanye!

Morcheeba - Who Can You Trust?
This album ranks right alongside Mezzanine and Maxinquaye as one of the best to come out of an incredibly dynamic British trip-hop scene in the 1990s. As their debut, it still features original singer Skye Edwards. I dare anyone to tell me she doesn't have a bad-ass voice!

Interpol - Antics
These guys are on of the bands out there that intersect the best of "indie rock" and "post-punk" (if the two can be considered separate genres). Angular, herky-jerky riffs that manage to be anthemic and emotionally open. Highlight: "Not Even Jail."

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Upcoming radio interview

I will be a guest on WEALLBE internet radio show this upcoming Sunday, February 10th, at 5pm Eastern time.

The topic is going to be Barack Obama and the "hip-hop effect" in the upcoming elections.

Instructions on how to listen are on the website. So... tune in!

Yet more proof that the Blues is Universal

The review of the new John Sayles film in this week's Socialist Worker is an excellent illustration of not only the intersection between rock n' roll and the blues, but the way that race and racism played a role at that early, exciting, and sometimes brutal crossroads.

Sayles is a hell of a filmmaker with a big social conscience, so it's not really surprising that he's able to weave the music's social roots in with a dynamic plot.

That he deliberately includes modern artists like Keb' Mo (whose own material draws some striking connections between blues and hip-hop)reflects an additional savvy.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Race, Gender, Hip-hop, and the Politics of Hope

A virtual dead-heat between Clinton and Obama. It's the first time I can remember such a thing existing the day after Super Tuesday in my admittedly young memory. One thing it makes very obvious is that most people have a lot of hope riding on this election. Who can blame them? Almost eight years of Bush, almost five years of war. People are grasping at anything they can for something better. I too share that desire.

How can it not be a step forward to elect a woman president in a country where a woman's right to choose is under almost daily assault? In a country that sends black kids to jail for beating down a noose-hanging bigot, how can it not be an improvement to elect an African-American?

But it's worth looking at the candidates themselves, the ones riding this wave of hope. It's worth looking back at the last time we had a Clinton jockeying for the presidency, when he played the race card by attacking Sister Souljah's comments. This is the same Bill Clinton who used the racist and sexist image of the "welfare queen" to gut the social saftey net, despite that most on welfare are white.

We saw an eerie repeat of that a couple weeks ago when this Clinton brought Bob Johnson, founder of BET, a man who became the first black billionaire by reducing hip-hop culture to a kind of minstrelsy, onstage to stump. Johnson himself cashed in on yet another wretched black sterotype when he alluded to the fact that Obama admitted to doing drugs in his youth: "[The Clintons] have been deeply and emotionally involved in black issues since Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood--and I won't say what he was doing but he said it in his book--when they have been involved."

Johnson later said he was referring to Obama's community service. If that's true he picked a very odd phrasing. The hypocrisy of this is rife; unless, of course, Johnson believes that, like her husband, Hillary Clinton simply "did not inhale."

As for Obama himself, he has traversed across the country insisting that "it's not about race." To the point that he barely mentions Katrina? What about the fact that the word "Jena" has yet to pass through his lips? And what of his soft-pedaling of the whole Don Imus fiasco? Though he called for the firing of Imus, he later parroted the shock-jock's excuse: "We've got to admit to ourselves, that it was not the first time that we heard the word 'ho'. Turn on the radio station. There are a whole lot of songs that use the same language & we've been permitting it in our homes, and in our schools and on iPods."

I say this not because I wish to condemn the millions who voted on Tuesday, but because as a music journalist I find it repellent that politicians can use the soundtracks of our generation as scapegoats.

In our time, blaming hip-hop has become a proxy for blaming black culture at large. At best, it's a way to say that the problems in the black community lie not with the institution, but with blacks themselves. At worst, it's a way for politicians who normally couldn't care less about women or gays to adopt the white man's burden. Despite the amount of excitement for change that they have behind them, if Obama and Clinton are willing to resort to this language too, then it seems clear that they won't be enough to do away with the disgusting amounts of sexism and racism that permeate this country.

The hope ignited this election season needs to continue. It needs to burn so bright so that no matter who wins in November we are able to hold their feet to the fire. If change is to happen, it has to come from those who want it most.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Welcome to the Jungle...

The polls have been open all day. Lots of hype has been given to this, "the biggest Super Tuesday in history." Rightfully so. For those sick of watching this country swirl around the bowl, there's a lot of hope in this election.

And yet, at this point, the only thing we know for sure is that Mike Huckabee, the man willing to use the sister of Britney Spears as a platform to target abortion, has won West Virginia.

I also had this link for a group called "Hip-hop 4 Obama" sent to me today. I don't know who sent it, but notice it requires a password. My question is why...

Is this what passes for "beef" these days?

The announcement that Jay-Z will be headlining at this year's Glastonbury festival has gotten some mixed reactions according to the NME.

On one hand, Glasto has always sought to bring on artists that bridge the gap between the mainstream and the "underground," and so it's easy to see how Jay-Z simply doesn't fit into that category given that he is associated with the most "mainstream" elements of the hip-hop world.

On the other, he's an immensely gifted producer and rapper. Are the fans who have beef with this just being elitist? It's entirely possible that they're so used to expecting more "indie" choices from Glasto that they aren't thinking about the actual abilities of the performer.

There is also the very real possibility that the discontent comes from the way that "gansta" and "rap" culture are scapegoated in Britian, which goes along the same lines as here in the States, but is heard in a lot more anenas than over here.

I'm only speculating here, but the whole thing seems like fallout from a media that loves to stir things up whenever hip-hop is concerned.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Tune of the Week: Propagandhi's "Mate Ka Moris Ukun Rasik An"

Suharto died earlier this week. As always, the newspapers sheepishly call him "controversial." He came to power by slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Indonesian communists, consolidated his rule by invading East Timor, and drove his own people into poverty for thirty years. Controversial? Mass murderer might be a better label.

I admit to knowing little about the music of Indonesia or East Timor. This song seems to be a good one to dedicate, though. It's off Propagandhi's album Today's Empires, Tomorrow's Ashes.

It was inspired by their meeting with East Timorese activist and refugee Bella Gahlos. Gahlos was imprisoned and subjected to unthinkable abuse for organizing against the US-backed Indonesian occupation. She then fled to Canada.

The lyrics are clunky, as with a lot of Propagandhi songs. But the way they transition from the singer's own story to that of Gahlos, along with the song's thrashy intensity, manages to capture their common anger against Suharto and the West's complicity in his brutal regime.



Dickheads shit-talk
Huddled and single-file
First-world frat-boys and prairie skinheads
Who will never walk a mile
Or mourn a murdered friend
In this tiny woman’s shoes
Drink up and mumble your abuse
I’m still humbled by it all

Around the same time
I was riding with no hands
Busting windows and getting busy behind the sportsplex
Bella was flinching from the sting...

Of Depo Proveran “family planning”
Her own Pearl Harbour and a holocaust spanning
25 years to life
A prison my country underwrote in paradise

And in the shadows of Santa Cruz...

She crossed her fingers behind her back
Built Suharto a Trojan horse
And lay still till the motherfucker sent her north
Where as night fell she emerged
With a box under her arm
That held her pledge of allegiance and her uniform

She laid it at the gates of the General’s embassy
And her whisper echoed into dawn as she disappeared:

The truth will set my people free!

Friday, February 1, 2008

The question is, does Lucas know?

Got this from Pitchfork.

This tour looks like it'll be off the hook. Both Ye and Fiasco on the same stage!

And the tour poster makes it especially cool for that small sector of the population who are both Star Wars nerds and Kanye West fans.

...and before you ask, no, I am not a Star Wars nerd. But the poster is still pretty bad-ass.

Steadfast Mediocrity... Now in Realistic 3-D!!!

I had heard of the U2 IMAX movie. But now the 3-D phenomenon has crossed over with the Hannah Montana/Mylie Cyrus craze. And it's not exactly a shocker that it comes to us courtesy of Disney.

It somehow seems appropriate that of all the enhancing effects you can add to concert footage, Montana/Cyrus get the one that adds the least in terms of actual substance. Three-D movies are cool for about the first five minutes, but they lose their novelty after that.

I only wish we could say the same for the performer's music.

I'm not holding a grudge against the young woman herself. She loves what she does, no doubt. Nor am I saying that the 7-to-12-year-olds this movie is being marketed to should be rushing out to watch "Sid and Nancy." I'm certainly not throwing in my hat with the writers who are luridly speculating as to whether Cyrus is headed down the same road as Britney Spears.

But am I the only one who thinks that young minds deserve better--especially when their school music and arts programs are being slashed left and right?