Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Rebel Music: Thirty Years of Rock Against Racism

By Alexander Billet

"Art and politics don't mix." So we are told time and again whenever an artist or musician dares to speak out and be heard. Politicking, it seems, is best left to the politicians, and musicians are better off leaving it that way.

The Carnival Against the Nazis, staged by Rock Against Racism in Britain 30 years ago today, was one of the many moments in history that prove what utter bollocks that is. While racism trolled the streets of Britain, this festival united black and white, immigrant and native born, punk rock and reggae in opposition. It was one of those iconic moments when the interplay between popular struggle and popular culture stepped forth for all to see. Yet again, it was proof positive that in the fight against oppression and inequality, music can indeed play a crucial role.

British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor summed up the influence Rock Against Racism had at its high-point on April 30th, 1978: "[F]or those who attended the original concert in 1978 it was a show that changed their lives and helped change Britain. Rock Against Racism radicalised a generation, it showed that music could do more than just entertain: it could make a difference."

The Ugly Spectre

Looking at Britain in the late 1970s, it's hard to argue that something different wasn't definitely needed. The UK was in the grip of an economic crisis. Unemployment and inflation were rife. Earlier in the decade, the British government, broke, had gone to the International Monetary Fund looking for a bail-out. The IMF agreed, but with the stipulation that social services were slashed throughout the Kingdom. By the mid-70s, welfare had been gutted, and the financial security of the working class wasn't any more secure.

It was only a matter of time until the crisis in the broad country reached the world of music. On August 5th, 1976, the legendary Eric Clapton took the stage in Birmingham's Odeon Theatre and delivered a drunken racist tirade. He said Britain was on the verge of becoming a "black colony," and that "we should send them all back." He urged a vote for racist Conservative politician Enoch Powell in order to "keep Britain white." Powell had become infamous in British politics eight years earlier when he delivered his infamous "Rivers of Blood" speech (as in "if Britain doesn't stem the tide of immigration, rivers of blood will flow through our streets").

There was, of course, a great irony to Clapton's comments. Most of his music wouldn't have existed if not for African American blues. And, of course, his career had been floudering until his smash-hit cover of Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff" a few months prior. For him to be promoting the complete separation of black and white was laughable.

Irony aside, there was a much more sinister context for Clapton's diatribe: the rise of the National Front. The National Front was a political party founded in the late 60s by far-right former members of the Conservative Party and hardcore racists. They preyed on the fear of ordinary people by pointing the blame at Britain's sizable immigrant community of Asians and black Caribbeans. The NF toed the line heard from the Minutemen in the US today: that thieving and depraved brown-skinned invaders were stealing the jobs of respectable, hard-working white people. Though the NF tried to couch their platform in legitimacy and distance themselves from the "racist" label, they allowed white supremacists and neo-Nazis to join their ranks from the beginning. Even more horrifying was their increasing profile in the mid 70s. By the spring of '76 the NF had polled 40 percent in the northern city of Blackburn. "Paki-bashings" were becoming more frequent; in July Asian immigrant Gurdip Singh had been beaten to death by a gang of white youth. The public response of the NF's John Kingsley Read was "one down - a million to go."

Thankfully, the kind of ideas being spread by Clapton and the Front wouldn't go unopposed. The initiative was taken by Red Saunders and Roger Huddle, two artists who had been radicalized by the global uprisings of 1968. Both had been fans of Clapton and most of the artists that had revolutionized music in the 1960s. As anti-racists, they were disgusted by Clapton's comments. Upon hearing of them, they phoned up several friends and acquaintances, fellow artists and activists, and wrote an anti-racist manifesto that appeared in Sounds, Melody Maker and the New Musical Express, Britain's three largest music rags, along with the Trotskyist newspaper Socialist Worker. To say the letter's language took Clapton to task is an understatement: "Come on, Eric... Own up. Half your music is black. You're rock music's biggest colonist... P.S. Who shot the Sheriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn't you!"

More than just a letter, though, Saunders, Huddle, and their co-signatories called for the formation of a organise "a rank and file movement against the racist poison music" to challenge the message of the National Front head-on. The name of this organization would be Rock Against Racism. Almost immediately, hundreds of letters began pouring in from people expressing enthusiastic agreement and wanting to know how they could get involved.

Battle Lines Drawn

As it would turn out, Huddle and Saunders had impeccable timing. "The founders of RAR were all soul fans," said Huddle, "but what really propelled it into what became a mass movement was the explosion of punk." White youth in Britain had tired of the pre-packaged version of rock 'n' roll being fed to them by major labels. Punk, with its visceral, back-to-basics approach, and uncomprosmising willingness to tell it how it is had found an incredibly enthusiastic audience. To many in the punk movement, Clapton's comments were yet more evidence that he was about as relevant to the times as woolly mammoth dung.

It seems that punk was something of a kindred spirit with RAR. Billy Bragg, a well-known politically active musician in his own right, made the connection right away: "I had seen the Clash on the first night of the White Riot tour and I remember thinking that the fascists were against anybody who wanted to be different - once they had dealt with the immigrants then they would move onto the gays and then the punks. Before I knew it the music I loved would be repatriated."

In the black community, the urgency of the real world was also finding an expression in music. Jamaican reggae had taken an increasingly militant turn in the 70s thanks in large part to the low-level civil war in that country. That militancy clearly resonated with a Caribbean immigrant community targeted not just by the NF, but by the police supposedly keeping them safe. Three weeks after the Clapton incident, London police incited a riot during a Caribbean carnival in Notting Hill, in what would become a well-remembered uprising against police racism. Around the same time punk was forcing its way onto the charts, London based Caribbeans would start making their own version of the heavy roots sound emanating from the islands in groups like Steel Pulse and Aswad.

The fields were clearly fertile for something potent to grow. Three months after the initial call to form went out, Rock Against Racism held its first show in East London featuring Carol Grimes. RAR started popping up all over the UK. Kids would call up from smaller cities asking what they could do to set up a local chapter. They attracted immigrant and British-born youth, punks, rastas, artists, dock workers would show up to shows and work security. Groups of musicians were signing up left and right to play RAR benefits. Roots reggae stalwarts like Steel Pulse, Aswad, and Misty in Roots often headlined. The vanguard of the punk movement, including the Clash, Buzzcocks and Sham 69, were frequent endorsers.

The organization also reaped the benefits of, and in some ways helped foment, the burgeoning Two Tone movement. Two Tone was the logical result of the collision between reggae and punk: multiracial bands that played Jamaican ska with a decidedly punk attitude. Groups like the Specials and the Selecter had a look, sound and message that proudly touted racial solidarity and most were regulars at RAR gigs.

Before long, the organization was publishing a magazine, Temporary Hoarding, which, in Huddle's words, was "the only really revolutionary cultural paper in Britain then or at any time." It's first issue summed up their political and musical mission in a page one editorial: "We want rebel music, street music, music that breaks down people's fear of one another. Crisis music. Now music."

While the starting point for RAR was fighting racism, they made clear from the start their opposition to all oppression. Some of RAR's earliest supporters were the Tom Robinson Band, a group of agit-rockers whose front-man, Robinson, had long been outspoken about his own sexuality. Organizers were keen on including women artists, and Temporary Hoarding frequently drew the connections between fighting racism and sexism, and commented frequently on the crisis in Northern Ireland.

After all, the National Front were also virulently homophobic; they were on record as saying rape wasn't really a crime; and they were staunch believers that Northern Ireland belonged to the British Empire. The NF had made their cause out to be one side of a cultural war between what was "English" and what wasn't. RAR also saw it as a clash of cultures, but reshaped the parameters. As the name of the magazine suggested, RAR were drawing battle lines. A early slogan was "Reggae, Soul, Rock 'n' Roll, Jazz, Funk, Punk - Our Music." Another read "NF = No Fun." This was clearly a fight between a culture of repression and one of freedom. Like Billy Bragg, RAR saw a direct link between fighting oppression and a vibrant and fluorishing youth culture.

We Are Black, We Are White, We Are Dynamite!

That cultural war was only going to get more heated. In 1977, the National Front announced plans to march through the majority black neighborhood of Lewisham in London. Their move was made even more inflammatory by their slogan claiming that 70 percent of muggers were black. The NF's momentum, however, was about to hit the mother of all brick walls. The call for their march simply angered way too many people. On August 13th, 1977, the NF attempted to march through Lewisham, and were faced with thousands of counter-demonstrators; community members, union workers, socialists and other militant anti-fascists confronted the racists as they attempted to march. It didn't take long for the police line to crumble and demonstrators clashed. In the end, the National Front was prevented from reaching their final rallying point. What would come to be known as the Battle of Lewisham was a historic victory against the British fascists, and would inspire the foundation of the Anti-Nazi League.

The Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism were natural allies. Both were uncompromising in their anti-racism and their belief that the Front should be opposed head on, leaving no platform for the Front to spew their hate. RAR and the ANL's membership overlapped from the beginning. Bands associated with RAR would frequently attend ANL demonstrations. And so when the ANL planned a large march through the National Front strongholds in East London, it made sense for Rock Against Racism to provide the entertainment afterwards.

It's somewhat funny that the Carnival is what's remembered today given that the march was originally intended to be the main event. The Anti-Nazi League worked hand in hand with Rock Against Racism. While the march would send a political message, the music festival would be a celebration, a glimpse of the freedom and dynamism that a world without oppression might have to offer.

The day of the event exceeded all possible expectations. Richard Buckwell, a member of the organizing team describes it: "we expected 10 or 20,000 people, which would have been excellent, a big rise in the numbers who came on the marches and the demos. But on the day there were tens of thousands of people there." The march started in Trafalgar Square with about 10,000. When it ended in Victoria Park, the ranks had swollen by thousands. People had come from all over the country: punks, hippies, trade unionists, immigrant shopkeepers, bohemians, women's rights groups, gay activists; all had come to watch the carnival. By the time the headlining acts took the stage, the crowd was estimated at 80,000.

This naturally blew the organizers away. At most, they had expected 20,000. The PA system they had procured for the event couldn't blast much louder to accomodate more than that. The Carnival Against the Nazis had no corporate backing, and was run on a shoestring budget, heavily dependent on donations and volunteer labor. Tom Robinson, whose band headlined, describes what it was like: "At the park the gig was a ramshackle affair. Nowadays outdoor pop concerts make us think of corporate sponsorship, backstage catering, TV crews, guest lists, security guards, hospitality and VIP areas. But the Carnival Against the Nazis had none of that - RAR operated completely outside the showbiz establishment."

Perhaps that's why so many in attendance found the show so electrifying. All the artificial filters imposed by the music industry (ultimately composed of the same people who argue against confronting the Nazis) were completely absent. Very little came between the message of the performers and the audience.

That message was carried throughout the day by the brilliant acts. More than that, RAR's mission of fighting oppression with music seemed to actually work, if for no other reason than the sheer diversity and passion of the bands. The carnival was kicked off by X-Ray Spex, not only a Two Tone band, but one fronted by Poly Styrene, one of the most underrated front-women of the 1970s. Accounts of Steel Pulse's performance seem to always include their performance of their single "Ku Klux Klan" with them wearing white hoods in a salty and provocative act of satire. The Tom Robinson Band's performance of "Glad to Be Gay" was an explicit demand for solidarity between oppressed groups. And the Clash's set has become the stuff of legend, with Sham 69's Jimmy Pursey joining them onstage for their encore of "White Riot" (which had ironically been misconstrued as a white supremacist song upon its release; not that anyone could make that mistake now!).

And what of the audience? Did they just come for the music? Not likely. It seems that there were a good number in the crowd who had come to be inspired, who, through music, had been introduced to the idea that a world without racism may be more than just a pipe dream. Among the crowd was Gurinder Chadha, today a filmmaker, but in the 70s the teenage daughter of immigrants. She had to lie to her parents to come to the carnival, but it was something she wouldn't forget: "The whole of the park was jumping up and down to the Clash," Chadha says. "It was an incredibly emotional moment because for the first time I felt that I was surrounded by people who were on my side. That was the first time I thought that something had changed in Britain forever."

It was the first of many anti-Nazi carnivals held throughout Britain. The next few years would see festivals in Leeds, Brixton and Manchester, turning out tens of thousands. Countless other small shows were held, and an unknown number of people were inspired and moblized by Rock Against Racism. When the organization folded in 1981 at a carnival in Leeds featuring the Specials, the National Front was in shambles. Indeed, the Front's former deputy would later state years later that both the ANL and Rock Against Racism were key in the organization's collapse.

We Still Want Rebel Music

Today the National Front is a shadow of its former self. However, the threat of racist scapegoating at the ballot box is far from over. The economic ineptitude and soft Islamophobia of the Blair and Brown Labour governments has opened the door for the British National Party, whose origins lie in the NF, to use the same anti-immigrant racism as their predecessors to make gains in local councils. With the London Assembly elections taking place on May 1st, the BNP is within reach of getting a seat. Luckily, the fighting spirit of Rock Against Racism is also still alive, and the Carnival Against the Nazis is revered by anti-racists of all stripes.

Rock Against Racism was relaunched in 2004 as Love Music Hate Racism. It has been active over the past four years combatting the BNP's influence with the help of Unite Against Fascism, heir apparent to the ANL. This past Sunday, the 27th, LMHR held a 30th anniversary festival commemorating the Carnival Against the Nazis in Victoria Park. Tom Robinson performed, along with some of today's most dynamic acts such as Roll Deep, The Good the Bad and the Queen (featuring Paul Simonon of the Clash) and members of Babyshambles. The carnival was more than a celebration, though. Throughout the day, performers and speakers spoke of the need to openly oppose the BNP on the streets, campuses and in the workplaces. And, if only because it seems hard to top the original carnival, it's amazing to know that over 100,000 turned out this time around!

There is a lesson for artists and activists on this side of the Atlantic, too. The notion of using popular music to organize political protest may seem a foreign one when surveying the pop-addled airwaves. There are plenty of signs for hope, though. The resurgence of garage rock in the mainstream has signalled a return to the gritty confrontation of punk rock. Hip-hop holds countless talented, politically active MCs in its ranks. And if anyone believes that the youth in this country aren't angry, then they simply haven't been paying attention. From a meaningless war to a hopeless economy, to our own homegrown versions of racism and scapegoating, it seems clear that youth are getting dealt a bad hand. What would happen if the same music kids listen to in order to escape and make sense was actually pointing the way to something better?

Rock Against Racism and the Carnival Against the Nazis answer that question brilliantly. Both are undeniable proof that music isn't something merely to be bought and consumed. Music, ultimately, belongs to us. It reflects our experiences, our worries, our hopes and dreams, and if we fight hard enough, it can bust the walls down and give us a taste of what's on the other side.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Lars Ulrich... Still a Tool

It's been the better part of a decade since Metallica's Lars Ulrich lead the charge against digital downloading. Since then, the battle has both been won and lost. Yes, the record companies have sunk their claws into the format via iTunes and others, but they've been completely unable to wipe out the "illegal" downloading of mp3's. They never will be able to either.

This interview in Rolling Stone makes it seem he has softened up in recent years. Metallica now has their music available online. But it's worth thinking of the folks who are now having to incur massive debt because they were taken to court by the RIAA for downloading seven songs. Lars Ulrich's presence in the anti-downloading campaign from the very beginning provided legitimacy, a fig leaf if you will, to the big labels' attempt to crack down on listeners.

Ulrich also touches on what the next Metallica album will sound like. Many purists will point out that the group's sound hasn't been the same since the Black Album. They are right. Around the early nineties the standard-bearers of metal cut off all their hair and tried to cash in on grunge and alternative by softening their sound. The visceral intensity was completely absent from Load--which was, well... a load--and every album since.

Isn't it interesting that their sound became pabulum around the same time Ulrich threw the group's hat into the same ring as the record labels?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Rebel Music is more than Good Music

The 30th anniversary of the legendary Carnival Against the Nazis is coming up. Love Music Hate Racism, the modern continuation of Rock Against Racism is holding a carnival in Tragalgar Square in London to celebrate.

This show will not just be a commemoration, though. Racism is alive in well all over the world. In London, the British National Party (BNP) don a veneer of respectability to get themselves a platform to spew anti-immigrant racism. They are much more than just a thorn in people's sides.

The BNP has won local council seats, and are polling higher than normal in the upcoming London Assembly elections. This recent statement from Babyshambles bassist Drew McConnell lays out the threat that the BNP presents to multicultural London.

"[L]ast time the BNP were just 5,000 votes off getting a seat. That might sound like a lot, but 5,000 votes is actually just 0.1 per cent!" That is truly scary.

Here in the US, where we see similar scapegoating of immigrants, this kind of action is needed too. The example of LMHR is one that musicians and activists can learn from in the US. LMHR has brought in some very high profile acts in recent years, not just Babyshambles (as well as the Libertines), but Roll Deep, Dizzee Rascal, David Gray, Mick Jones and Carbon/Silicon, and many more. That these artists aren't afraid to speak out shows that something similar is possible in this country.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Wait until you hear her version of "Fight the Power"...

On some level, this was a humorous read. The NME's website reports that Alicia Keys is demanding an apology from Blender magazine regarding comments she made taken out of context that apparently made her out to be a racist and conspiracy theorist.

The humor comes not when you hear about the tiff itself, but when you think about what the music press is willing to sensationalize. The comments in question were her insistence that "gansta rap was a ploy to get black people to kill each other." Keys is going after the mag for making her sound like she thought the government was responsible for gangsta rap.

She is also upset over a sequence where she reveals the meaning behind an AK-47 pendant she wears around her neck: as a symbol of "strength, power, and killing 'em dead."

At first, I thought what most other readers are probably thinking right now: "Alicia Keys?!?! A militant!?!?! Really?!?!"

Keys' comments, as her public statement reveals, were in fact taken out of context. However, the real issue at play regarding her first comment seems that she actually didn't say anything that was untrue! Elected leaders, along with the music industry, have indeed played a role in portraying hip-hop as uniquely violent and depraved. Ever since the biz wrapped their tentacles around the genre, there hasn't been a single gangsta rap album that really takes up the issues that groups like N.W.A and others took up in the early 90s. It's gone from "in the streets" to "In Da Club."

As far as the second comment: "Regarding the AK-47 reference, AK-47 is a nickname given to me by some of my friends in jest, as an acronym for Alicia Keys and a metaphor for wowing people with my music and performances, 'killing 'em dead' on stage. The reference was in no way meant to have a literal, political or negative connotation."

It's probably just as well. I doubt anyone can picture Keys standing on stage singing "The revolution has come, time to pick up the gun."

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Disney-fication of CBGB

There is something obscenely wrong with what sits in the former location of CBGB. Some of what defined the legendary rock club remains; a few walls are still covered with fliers and graffiti. But the stage has been replaced with a tailoring shop: the kind you see at Brooks Brothers. And the floor where kids once danced to Television and Bad Brains is now filled with clothing racks adorned with $1600 leather jackets.

That's because the place that was ground zero for the New York punk, hardcore and No Wave scenes, is now home to a boutique for high-end fashion designer John Varvatos.
Varvatos, who has designed for Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, seems at least somewhat aware of the hallowed ground on which he now stands. He has attempted to integrate the look and feel of CBs into his new store. He promises to hold a fundraiser for young musicians in May. Varvatos told the New York Post: "I wanted to combine music, fashion, memorabilia, and really make it a cultural space."

The question is, whose culture is he talking about?

There's always been an attraction among the affluent toward the culture of the "underclass." The austere, bohemian ethos of living outside the accepted parameters of society is enticingly romantic and edgy. And yet, anyone living in an urban area today can rattle off the laughable ways in which yuppie-dom has tried to appropriate this lifestyle: "loft" style apartments, complete with exposed concrete and piping sold for 400 grand; pseudo-hipsters who spend $75 to make their hair look like they just rolled out of bed. And from Williamsburg in Brooklyn to the Mission District in San Francisco, the once safe-havens of Bohemia are being encroached upon by developers and spineless city councils. Their promises to retain the "flavor" of the neighborhoods ring hollow.

Enter Varvatos. In trying to pay tribute to the iconic CBGB, he has made it impossible for any of the former regulars to return, even if they wanted to. His idea of a nod to the Ramones is selling special edition Chuck Taylor All Star tennis shoes... for $110!

Robert Hollander, a resident and community activist in Manhattan's East Village, hit the nail right on the head: "It's kind of ironic because they've made this gesture to preserve a little bit of history, but the reason CBGBs is gone is because places like this have opened up in the neighborhood."

Indeed, CBs has been one of countless casualties of the new urban policy. When owner Hilly Kristal closed the club in October 2006, it was against a backdrop of skyrocketing rents, forced evictions and police crackdowns. The city's willful neglect in the 70s and 80s had allowed the Lower East Side to become an incubator of punk rebellion and artistic experimentation. "The sense of self and new energy was instantaneous," says Patti Smith, "the confidence it inspired was strong, and the sense of community was immediate. William S. Burroughs lived down the street. He came all the time. We gave him a little table and a chair, and he'd sit there. All of our friends came -- Robert Mapplethorpe, Jim Carroll. CBGB was the neighborhood -- the artists and poets and musicians -- and we all inspired each other."

The gears shifted in the 90s. As more developers made their way downtown, squats were cleared out to make way for condos, apartments that had gone for a few hundred were suddenly worth thousands. True to form, CB's landlord started demanding tens of thousands in fabricated back-rent from Kristal. Callous seems to be an understatement when talking about shutting down this kind of cultural hub, but this is the NYC of Giuliani and Bloomberg. And policies designed to mow over working people's very right to exist certainly don't give two thoughts to the culture trampled in the wake.

Herein lies the sick irony Hollander talked about. The very same exorbitant rent that forced Kristal to shut it down is mere pocket change to Varvatos. Alice Cooper, whose gold records now adorn the walls of the new Varvatos boutique, thinks it's a chance for the rabble that frequented the club to move up the world: "now all the old CBGB punks will become the best dressed CBGB punks in the world." As most of these same punks were pushed out of the neighborhood long ago, it's hard to believe they'd come back to pay $130 for a t-shirt.

It's only one of the myriad cultural tragedies in the age of the Shock Doctrine. CBGB, an artistic community that altered the course of history is brushed aside and replaced with its feeble, Disneyland equivalent. It's happening in every city, to every artist that lives on the fringe. No matter what Varvatos says about paying homage, his store's mere presence can only be a reminder of the creativity and enthusiasm crushed under the iron heel of the free market.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Hardcore Troubadour

The new issue of Socialist Worker has an interview with Steve Earle. It's an interview that hits on a lot of points. The interviewer, Jack Trudell, asks Earle questions about the politics of New York City, baseball, anti-death penalty activism, the state of the socialist movement in the United States, and more.

It's a fascinating read. Earle has that kind of Johnny Cash/Joe Strummer talent of trimming all the fatty rhetoric off to get to the meat of an argument. He's an immensely intelligent man, talented musician, and someone who the left is lucky to have on its side.

The interview's high point is when Earle talks about the expectations that many people have projected onto Dylan over the years, and some of the similar expectations foisted onto Earle today. Washington Square Serenade is a lot less political than Earle's last two albums. It's tempting for those on the left to criticize him for that, but that amounts to putting rules on an artist, which restricts the potential for both good political art and good art in general.

One thing that the interview doesn't go into is a question I have been dying to ask of Steve Earle myself: it's regarding the politics of country music. In much of mainstream consciousness, country is thought of as "red-state" music. Of course, the very existence of everyone from Woody Guthrie to Johnny Cash completely belies this, but it seems over the past few years, between Earle and the Dixie Chicks, the argument that Toby Keith's hawkish drivel is the "real" face of country no longer carries water. If one really thinks about it, the conclusion is obvious: if country is blue-collar, down and out music, then its marriage to conservative values is an unnatural one indeed.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

It's Tricky to Rock the Vote

Pham Binh recently posted on his blog, Prisoner of Starvation, regarding Obamamania's effect on the hip-hop world. Readers may recall that I released an article on a similar topic not long after the Will.I.Am video took off.

As Binh explains, the trend has only deepened since then. Russell Simmons' announcement of an "Obama mixtape" seems to be a bit of an "I wonder how" moment until it's revealed that heavyweights like Common and Q-Tip will be contributing.

In recent weeks, there has been a big push on the part of African-American leftists like Danny Glover and Bill Fletcher to encourage progressives to vote for Obama. There is no doubt that he has positioned himself as the candidate for anyone looking for an end to war and racism. But his success is much more contingent on his ability to tap into an energy for change that is emerging independent of his narrow aspirations. That's why the most encouraging moments in the Obama phenomenon are when endorsers insist that his election is not enough, and that those who voted for him will have to hold his feet to the fire.

Such is the case with the hip-hop community. Reading Binh's post, it is easy to surmise that some of rap's most eloquent voices are those demanding fundamental social change beyond the mere act of the vote. The paragraph summing up the exchange between Rhymefest and Lupe Fiasco seems to illustrate this drive quite well:

"...The debate started when Lupe said he wasn't impressed by Obama and brought up the latter's hawkish stance on Iran. Ironically, Lupe went on to say that he hoped Hillary would win, the same Hillary who sponsored legislation to label part of Iran's military a 'terrorist organization.'

Rhymefest had a fit and took Lupe to task for implying that Obama was in favor of launching an attack on Iran and dissed him for being arrogant and ignorant. Lupe backpedalled and stated that he was against the whole system. He went further, arguing it didn't really matter who was running the system and said that the reason he wanted Clinton to win was simply that 'I believe the act of a woman leading the strongest nation in the world will have unforeseen side effects and may act as a catalyst for change the world over more so than that of a black man.'"

Lupe's frank criticism of Obama and Clinton, and his insistence the system needs to be dismantled no matter who is running it gets it exactly right.

(As a side note, Lupe is a practicing Muslim, and his view shatters the Imus/Fox News logic that both Muslims and rappers hate women.)

But, as always, best ideas are the ones being articulated in the actual rhymes. The ability to have a debate within the music is one unique to hip-hop, from street-corner battle rapping to the Nas/Jay-Z beef. Now, we're seeing talented MCs like Joell Ortiz and Papoose raising well needed criticism of Obama, even if (in the case of Ortiz) they're appearing on a mixtape endorsing the man!

In a more broad sense, it has been some time since we have seen such fervent debate coming from within the hip-hop community about how to best change society. Whether this is solely due to Obama's candidacy may oversimplify the shift in US culture we are seeing right now. But if this debate continues past November (as it very well may), then we may finally see hip-hop take its rightful place at the forefront of a movement for radical social change.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Songs of Survival and Hope

By Alexander Billet

What is the human cost of war? Ask Tomas Young. In 2004 an Iraqi insurgent's bullet ripped through his spine, paralyzing him from the chest down. His physical and emotional struggle as both a veteran and anti-war activist is the subject of the new Phil Donahue/Ellen Spiro produced documentary Body of War. This film is significant, given that the voices and experiences of soldiers, a quickly growing section of the anti-war majority, is routinely ignored by the mainstream media--as evidenced by the blackout on the recent Winter Soldier hearings.

For similar reasons, the soundtrack of the film has garnered a great amount of attention in the music press. Young himself selected the songs that would tell his story. The result is a two-disc set entitled Body of War: Songs That Inspired an Iraq War Veteran. Young recently wrote about why he took the time to compile these songs on journalist Bill Moyers' blog: "[M]usic like the songs I chose for the Body of War CD compilation inspired a particular emotion in me that made me want to act towards the goals of ending the war and bringing light to the need for better veterans’ health care. These things are bigger than all of us and need to be paid attention to, so I can only hope that music of any kind helps and inspires you as much as it has helped me."

He had plenty of help along the way, from Donahue and Spiro through what was often a gruelling filmmaking process, but also from those in the music community itself. While filming the project, word got around to none other than Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, a musician who has never been shy in his own opposition to the war. Vedder requested to meet Young, and was inspired afterwards to write what has ended up being the keystone of the soundtrack.

The song, "No More", is noticeably stark. Vedder's familiar voice is accompanied by little else than acoustic guitar and the background vocals of Ben Harper, who performed this song live with Vedder at this past summer's Lollapalooza festival. Though it is obviously a song written in opposition to the present war in Iraq, its passion and simplicity are reminiscent of the late sixties, those iconic years that belonged to protest-singing folk heroes like Dylan, Phil Oakes, Joni Mitchell.

Originally, "No More" was meant to stand on its own in the film, and the producers had no intention of releasing a full soundtrack. But Young is a big music fan. "Eddie asked if there was anything he could do for me," he told Rolling Stone "[i]t dawned on me that there was the possibility of making an album with songs that inspired me to keep going through the anti-war movement." Before long, Young was getting in touch with all manner of artists, some of whom had been heroes of his, to contribute to the soundtrack. Almost instantly there was a great amount of enthusiasm among artists to contribute. Many offered their work free of charge. "Rage Against the Machine wanted to contribute, and so did Roger Waters. If you're an anti-war activist--or a music fan--how do you turn that down?" Young asks.

The connection drawn between old and new in Vedder's "No More" is an important one. While there is a direct tip-of-the-hat to the protest music of yesteryear (John Lennon's "Gimme Some Truth" is present, as is Neil Young, though one of his more recent tracks), the bulk of the two discs is very much made up of artists familiar to today's youth. Given that Tomas Young is himself only twenty-seven, this is hardly surprising. Many music journalists and activists have wondered over the past five years where the protest music is for today's generation. With this album it would seem these folks have their answer.

Young was in no short supply for artists able to articulate his own righteous outrage against the war machine. Indeed, that outrage is peppered throughout the discs. There's the maniacal anger of System of a Down's "B.Y.O.B." when they ask why presidents "always send the poor" to die, the confrontational boom of Public Enemy's "Son of a Bush," the folky sarcasm of Bright Eyes' "When the President Talks to God." Those who came up in the mosh-pit will be pleased to hear the anti-empire rant of Bad Religion's "Let Them Eat War," as well as the Bouncing Souls' "Letter From Iraq" (a song notable for its lyrics, which were penned by anti-war vet Garrett Reppenhagen). Hip-hop heads can hear contributions from Lupe Fiasco and Dilated Peoples, as well as Talib Kweli's collaboration with radical scholar Cornel West: "Bushonomics." And of course, no protest record would be complete without Rage Against the Machine's "Guerilla Radio."

The emotional depth of this album goes well beyond anger, though. Bruce Springsteen's contribution, the introspective "Devils and Dust," is told from the point of view of a soldier trying to hold onto his humanity in a world of utter inhumanity:

"I've got my finger on the trigger
And tonight faith just ain't enough
When I look inside my heart
There's just devils and dust"

At the same time, it would be patently false to call this a collection of "downer" songs. Given that these are songs that inspired an Iraq war veteran, Young treats the listener to a good helping of uplift. Though Michael Franti's "Light Up Ya Lighter" delivers some hard truth, its reggae-infused bounce delivers the kind of hope Franti thrives on. The simple indie-folk of the Moldy Peaches' Kimya Dawson does the same.

Young has called these songs his "personal soundtrack of survival." "They keep me going every day to continue in this struggle... They remind me that there are things bigger than myself." If that's true, then this soundtrack can serve the same purpose for the rest of us. Tomas Young has seen and experienced the unmentioned cost of war the way few in this country have. This film, and its soundtrack are testaments to how powerful troops' voices can be when they speak out against war. To highlight that, the proceeds from Songs That Inspired are going to Iraq Veterans Against the War. As we cross the grisly threshold of 4,000 troops killed, and as opposition to the war reaches an all-time high, the voices of these men and women become more important every day.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Gathering Moss

The Martin Scorsese-directed film about the Rolling Stones Shine a Light hits theatres today.

There's much reason to be optimistic for this film. Scorsese, after all, directed one of the greatest rock 'n' roll performance docs of all time, "The Last Waltz," about the last public performance of The Band. The idea of him tackling the Rolling Stones certainly peaks the curiousity.

A lot has changed in 30 years, though. "The Last Waltz" was, among other things, a tribute to the volatility of rock 'n' roll. And yet the film displays how that very same instability, that need to dance dangerously close to the precipice, is precisely what makes rock 'n' roll great.

The Stones haven't even seen the precipice in almost three decades. Their sound stopped evolving right around the time of "Start Me Up." And they've since become, simultaneously, the stuff of legend and one of the biggest symbols of capitalism on the face of the planet.

In a rather lackluster AP review on "Shine a Light," Christy Lemire says that "now that they're in their 60s, they (read: Mick) almost seem like parodies of themselves." There's a big element of truth to this, but the real tragedy of watching Mick, Keith, Ronnie and Charlie doesn't come from age, it comes from the knowledge that everything that once made the Stones incendiary and defiant is now just an empty act.

When five working class white boys from Britain started speeding up African-American Blues and R&B in the early 60s, there was something deliberately provocative about it. When they swaggered onstage like proud peacocks, it was enough to make the establishment bristle. But as the record industry found ways to evolve, adapt, and contain, the ever successful Stones became intertwined with that same establishment. The appearance of Bill and Hillary Clinton in "Shine a Light" only highlights this. And a flashy stage show is a poor substitute for actual substance. From Jagger's famous strut to the monster light shows, all of it can certainly be called spectacular, as long as you remember that the root word is "spectacle."

The Stones have become the artistocracy in a musical genre that was never meant to have an upper-class. While they will always retain a basic enjoyablity, it's hard to even think of them without being reminded of this contradiction.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Tribe's Legacy and Meaning Today

The most recent issue of Filter magazine is crucial. It's cover story is on the massive effect that A Tribe Called Quest had on hip-hop and music in general during their hey-day.

It is impossible to overstate the contribution this group made. Theirs was hip-hop that took itself seriously as art. Their positive Afrocentrism was a breath of fresh air to what the mainstream was putting out in the rap genre. The interview with Q-Tip reveals much of what was going on in the world when they came along and how they affected what came afterwards.

This is a contribution often overlooked. As a testament to how truly important they were, there are two solid pages of quotes from figures in music who have been taken inspiration from what Tribe did, including the Beastie Boys, Janet Jackson, Pharcyde and Talib Kweli.

Even for Filter, this article goes above and beyond.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Back from the sickbed

I have returned, and with a vengeance! Much is to come, including changes to this very site.

I am packing in the "Tune of the Week" feature, as it seems redundant considering that I try to have one article a week out anyway. The "Weekly Playlist" will remain.

While I was sick I had the chance to read two essential books for any music junky: High Fidelity and Simon Reynolds' Rip it Up and Start Again. Both of these books deserve a rather extensive commentary, as will be coming on this blog.

The new article coming this week (considering it has been almost a month since my last) will be a review of the soundtrack for the upcoming documentary Body of War.

Stay Free,
Billet