Friday, May 30, 2008

What I'm Listening to This Week

1. Antibalas - Who is This America?
There are few genres of music that so seamlessly blend liberation into their sound as Afrobeat. It actually sounds like anti-colonialism. Antibalas are from Brooklyn and so that liberation spirit is broadened into statements against war, racism and greed that are, above all else, eminently danceable.

2. Various - Dead Man Walking Soundtrack
Now that the Supreme Court has given the green light for states to start lethal injections again, it seemed appropriate. There are some truly great songs here; Patti Smith, Johnny Cash, Eddie Vedder, Suzanne Vega, Springsteen. The best, though, would have to be Steve Earle's beyond haunting "Ellis Unit One."

3. Jean Grae - leaks from her upcoming Jeanius
These leaked on the web a while back. The album drops June 3rd. Recently, however, the rumor going around is that this is her last album and Jean is retiring from hip-hop. This would be a big loss, both for hip-hop and for the cause of strong women in music.

4. Saul Williams - The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust
Thanks to that desperate industrial feel introduced by Trent Reznor, Williams' poetry is so much more potent, subtle, urgent. This album becomes one of those gems that has something new to discover with every listen. Tracks that you weren't crazy about last time will suddenly become the song you can't get unstuck from your head.

5. The (International) Noise Conspiracy - Armed Love
I keep coming back to this album recently simply because the wait for their new one has been so drawn out! Latest news is that they are almost done mixing, but the whole process has been very private. There's no better proof that the return of garage rock has created an opening for revolutionary politics than this group.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Pop-Docs that Really Pop

The Doors' Ray Manzarek has announced that he will be helming a documentary. on the iconic group. According to him, it will be the "anti-Oliver Stone." With all due respect to Stone, hearing that is quite a relief. Though Stone's film wasn't a documentary, the Hollywood-ization of the whole story (Val Kilmer... really!) is not only below the director's capability, it sells short a potentially fascinating story.

The Pop-Doc has undoubtedly come into its own as a genre. The problem is that the scope of groups they focus on is intensely narrow, and as such they tend to at best skim the major issues driving the subject artist. There are some incredibly notable exceptions, such as the recent Joy Division doc "Control," "The Filth and the Fury," and "2Pac Resurrections" definitely exceeded many people's expectations with the amount that it went into Pac's political upbringing and background. Word is that not one but two documentaries on Bob Marley are on the way. Let's keep our fingers crossed. On the whole, though documentaries tend to be unable to deliver anything resembling real meat of the artists' stories.

In that tradition, here are five Pop-Docs I would like to see made in my lifetime:

1. A documentary on Rock 4 Choice that examines the musical and political background that lead to its rise and its undeniable decline.

2. The story of Jam Master Jay and how the NYPD almost deliberately fumbled the investigation of his murder.

3. A behind-the-scenes of the Beastie Boys' creative process and the amount of thought and creativity that goes into making an album for them (which is reportedly quite intensive).

4. An adaptation of Judith LeBlanc's book Pretty in Punk, which examines how women find their voice in a scene based on rebellion that is nonetheless male dominated.

5. An expose on how truly oppressive and draconian the music industry is, examinating payola, the consolidation of radio, the systematic scamming of artists, the underselling of music by artists of color and women, and of course the crackdown on downloading.

Friday, May 23, 2008

What I'm Listening to This Week

1. The Arcade Fire - Funeral
I returned to Funeral just for a change of pace from Neon Bible, and it's still hard to believe that this album was topped at all! Indie rock, even "baroque pop" rarely gets this emotionally honest. Favorite line: "Children, don't grow up / Our bodies get bigger but our / Hearts get torn up."

2. Miles Davis - Kind of Blue
What else can be said about this album? Not much. Miles, Trane and Cannonball on the same disc. All are at their absolute best. Drummer Jimmy Cobb may have been waxing egotistical when he said that Kind of Blue "must have been made in heaven," but it's hard to disagree. That's what's made it the highest-selling jazz album of all time.

3. Radio 4 - Enemies Like This
Singer Anthony Roman said this album represented a lyrical turn for them away from raw sloganeering (which they did pretty effectively on those earlier recrods; see "Calling All Enthusiasts"), and toward a more subtle politic without compromising their militancy. Polyrhythmic at times, guitars that veer between scratchy and dissonant, Radio 4 are proof that the NYC post-punk sound is still alive and well.

4. Dilated Peoples - Neighborhood Watch
It's telling how narrow the mainstream conception of hip-hop has become when a talented duo of MCs like Dilated Peoples get the biggest amount of attention only when they collaborate with Kanye West. This ablum runs so much deeper, though. The opening "Marathon" really captures the whole album: intelligent lyrics that take their time crafting their point while maintaining a real urgency.

5. Le Tigre - Le Tigre
The Riot Grrrl movement has faded in the 21st century, and given the increasingly second-class status women face in music, bands like Le Tigre are sorely missed. This is their first album; the group at their most raw and brash. And yet, at the same time, songs like "Hot Topic" show off a real versatility and ability to bob heads. One of the most underrated albums from one of the most underrated movements in rock.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Her Voice, Our Voices

Roslyn Zinn died on May 14th. She was a painter, writer, and social activist. The wife of well-known left-wing historian Howard Zinn--whose People's History of the United States has revolutionized the way we think of American history--she could have easily ended up playing second-fiddle to her well-known historian husband.

That was far from being the case, though. Roslyn, or Roz as she was known, was someone who spent her life on the front-lines just as much as Howard. Neither were just academics or armchair activists. Roz marched with the civil rights and women's movements, was there every step of the way in the movements against the Vietnam war and, health permitting, Iraq.

Her painting, which only became a large part of her existence later in her life, was intimately tied in with her outlook on life and hope for a better world. In the introduction to "A Painting Life," a collection of her works published after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she wrote: "After years as a teacher and social worker, I turned seriously to painting, which throughout my life had sparked and enlivened my spirit... What I see in the world, so burdened and troubled, and yet beautiful in nature and in the human form, impels me to seek to create images that give the possibility of hope."

And so it is fitting that a tribute to her life should seek to blend arts and activism in such a profound way. On May 16th, in Portland, Oregon, the scheduled performance of Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove's "Voices of a People's History of the United States," companion to Zinn's book, was dedicated to Roslyn Zinn.

Throughout the night, artists, actors and activists read selected pieces from "Voices." Michael Ealy from Showtime's "Sleeper Cell" read Malcolm X's "Message to the Grass Roots." NYC-based singer Shontina Vernon sang a "blood-chilling version" of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit." And Viggo Mortensen read John Reed's "Whose War?" All the performances were met with often stirring applause.

The final performance of the night seemed to be especially poignant. Eddie Vedder, who had simply sat in the crowd--though had been acknowledged as in attendance that night--sang his own "The Long Road," and dedicated it to Roslyn: "Without you something's missing...Now I wish for you again/And the wind keeps blowin'/And the sky keeps turning gray/And the sun is set..."

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Relocating to Chicago

I will be relocating to Chicago in August. Reasons for the move are personal, but the advantages for moving out there as a music journalist are many.

DC is a city with a vibrant musical history. But that's all it is, really: history. Every major city in the US is coming to grips with the economic consequences of gentrification, but DC's small geographical size, coupled with how much space is already taken up by "the Hill," means that the cheap rents and independent communities are fading even quicker than in the bigger cities.

A look at the city's historic U Street shows this off perfectly. This street used to be the epicenter of DC's Black Renaissance in the 1920s. Duke Ellington was born just a couple blocks away and played some of his first shows on the strip. Now, the street is filled with trendy wine and martini bars. A condominium complex opened a few years back called the Ellington. A bar called Marvin has opened at the corner of 14th and U named for another DC music legend, Marvin Gaye. Its drink prices can climb to up to $20.

The Bohemian Caverns are still standing near U Street. The Black Cat still soldiers on too. Both host some great acts in jazz, rock and hip-hop. But there's very little soil for a true scene to sink roots. The community centers that hosted a thriving hardcore punk scene have been shut down more and more in recent years.

It would be naive and bald-facedly wrong to say that Chicago too doesn't have the same kind of gentrification encroaching upon it. A look around the artsy neighborhood of Pilsen will reveal several walls with "Save Pilsen" sprayed onto it, in protest against the high-end development taking place there now. However, there is still a good amount of neighborhoods where rent doesn't cost three quarters of your monthly pay. There are still areas friendly to artists and musicians.

Like DC, Chicago has a long history of groundbreaking music. Jazz fluorished there, and it was one of the birth-places of urban blues. That continues today, with a punk and indie scene that has produced some great groups over the past few years. It's also the hip-hop scene that has given rise to Kanye West, Common, and Lupe Fiasco.

Possibly the most telling sign that this is the right move is the difference between each city's main newspapers. The Washington Post doesn't have a music sections, and it rarely reviews albums by new artists. The Chicago Sun-Times does.

DC is a city that deserves a lot more than it is getting. The unfortunate upshot in the meantime is that it's currently not a very good place for music journalists to work from.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Poisoning Our Public Space

Fort Reno has been iconic of my time in DC. The park in the north-west district of the city has long been host to an outdoor concert series bringing in all manner of acts. I saw Fugazi there as a teenager, and still can feel the rain on my face from when they launched into "Turnover." Friends of mine met Henry Rollins at an Evens show at the park. One of my best memories in recent years has been seeing Q and Not U at one of their final shows there, with Son of Nun opening for them.

This summer, however, the concert series has been postponed indefinitely. Why? Because earlier this week it was discovered the park has a high level arsenic in its soil. That's right: arsenic! An element proven to be a cancer-causing agent. Measurements put the levels as high as a thousand parts per million--more than twenty-five times the EPA recommended safe limit. As a result, the National Park Service has closed Fort Reno.

The cause of these absurdly and dangerously high levels of arsenic remains unclear. For their part, city officials have been reluctant to admit any culpability. The theory being floated right now is the fact that about 70 bodies of soldiers were embalmed at Fort Reno during the Civil War. There is also the possibility of the arsenic originating the World War I era munitions that were stored in nearby Spring Valley. Neither of these theories imbue citizens with a healthy trust in their local government. The harmful effects of arsenic have been known about for well over a hundred years, and yet it takes them this long to check?

The instinct to deflect responsibility is understandable, given that DC's overall urban development and maintenance policy easily allows for these sorts of things to happen (tap-water anyone?). Arsenic is used in paint, dyes, metals, pesticides and fertilizers. DC, like all major cities in the US, is going through break-neck paced gentrification. Countless construction sites dot Northwest Washington. It's not hard to do the math.

Because it's unsure how long the arsenic has been present in the park, there's no way to tell how many people have been affected by it, but any amount of reasonable speculation reveal some horrible possibilities. Two schools are right next to Fort Reno. People play catch, walk their dogs, go running in that park. How many toddlers have trundled through the grass (an especially horrifying concept considering young kids will put almost anything in their mouths)? And how many thousands of kids over the years have come there for the free concerts and been exposed?

The loss of one of the district's most beloved public parks and concert spaces is a small glimpse into how toxic our planet is becoming. Despite the resource wars already taking place, and the growing food riots caused by oil crises, environmentalists are still looked at by smug reporters as wack-jobs. Al Gore, for as admirable as his recent ad campaign is, can't encourage people to seek meaningful solutions to global warming because that would mean losing his shares in Occidental Petroleum and being held accountable for pushing NAFTA. Instead he sponsors worldwide rock concerts that leave a massive carbon footprint to promote "awareness." Not only is the urgency of the issue undersold, but those who are most responsible are let off the hook.

The closure of Fort Reno hits home, though. The park was one of the few left of a dying breed: a place for kids to come and experience live music without the high cover charge or parasitic promoters. More and more of the community centers and theatres that were crucial in the gestation of DC's thriving independent music scene are being shut down in the wake of the city's shameful excuse for urban planning. I didn't think it could get much worse. But that was before one of the last venues standing became a toxic waste-dump.

Friday, May 16, 2008

What I'm Listening to This Week

1. The Roots - Rising Down
Check out my review from earlier this week. Like all Roots albums, Rising Down defies expectation. It speaks so many uncomfortable truths, while remaining thoroughly listenable and sonically unique. A lot like Radiohead, the Roots are true artists in a genre that can be truly lacking sometimes.

2. The Selecter - Too Much Pressure
When anyone mentions late 70s/early 80s British ska, people have a tendency to think of the Specials and Madness before all else. For as great as they are, that groups like the Selecter often get overlooked is unfortunate. Not only did they capture the mix of punk attitude and Jamaican groove as well as either of them, Pauline Black's voice brings a slick and strong female presence into a scene that was admittedly male dominated.

3. The Beatles - 1967-1970
Nicknamed "the Blue Album," this picks up where 1962-1966 ("the Red Album") leaves off. For a "best of" album, it's pretty comprehensive, not just focusing on hits or singles, and including great songs that received lesser attention. It's hard to not appreciate a double album where "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" appears next to "A Day in the Life."

4. Massive Attack - Danny the Dog Soundtrack
Mediocre movie, intense album! Perhaps because it's a soundtrack, the group experiment with a lot more delicate atmospherics here that are enjoyable, even if they are uncharacteristic for Massive Attack, and there are no vocals throughout most of the album. But that same harsh, almost hypnotic grittiness is definitely still here.

5. M.I.A. - Arular
I can't believe it's been so long since I listened to this record! If I've said it before I've said it a million times: M.I.A. is the future! There are maybe five other acts making music today that integrate unapologetic militancy into both the lyrics and sound like she can.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

We are the Champions

Two books I recently finished related to music: Rip it Up and Start Again by Simon Reynolds and Nick Hornby's High Fidelity. There is much to say about the former, and I will be writing on it later (and hopefully landing an interview with Reynolds). For now, though, I think a few thoughts on High Fidelity are in order.

I love Hornby's work. His Fever Pitch was a treat for any fan of the real football, but more broadly was a tribute to those of us whose passion for popular culture is so all-consuming that it becomes hard for us to think of anything else. Perhaps it is obvious why someone like myself finds such affinity with this.

Like Fever Pitch, High Fidelity is a view of life through the lens of that obsession. Obviously, it is a different obsession (music), and instead of it being a "coming of age" story, it deals with the much more interesting and tribulations of love, sex relationships, and being firmly ensconced in adulthood and still having no clue what your life is all about. Those who have seen the brilliant film version will know how relatable this can be.

Hornby's Rob just broke up with his girlfriend, Laura. He is a former DJ who runs a struggling record shop, Championship Records, selling "punk, blues, soul, and R'n'B, a bit of ska, some indie stuff, some sixties pop--everything for the serious record collector, as the ironically old-fashioned writing in the window says." He's a guy with hang-ups and insecurities, someone capable of depth and kindness, but can also be a bit of a jerk sometimes. In short, he's the everyman as music-obsessive.

Emphasis on the music-obsessive. Like most of us, he channels his neuroses into something external, in this case pop music. As a result, everything--and by that I mean everything--is related back to a song or album or artist. He met Laura while DJing when she asked him to play a Solomon Burke song (which she later says she didn't like that much, sending Rob into a tizzy). He relates his intimacy issues through such things as wanting to date a musician so he can be mentioned in the liner notes.

Strip away the music-obsession and a few of the quirkier behavioral moments, and the story really isn't too interesting: boy and girl break up, boy gets depressed and starts questioning his life and past, does a few things he wouldn't do were he not despondent, has epiphany, gets girl back and with her changes his life for the better. The book's enjoyability come from how realistically Hornby renders Rob's emotional turmoil as intertwined with his passion for music.

A note on gender roles: Rob is not a shining paragon of feminism, but he is, despite his glaring faults, a good rendition of the alienated, modern male trying find that balance between doing right by himself and doing right by others. Of course, he falls flat on his face at times. Hornby hasn't idealized anything about today's men, but that's what makes Rob so ultimately relatable. Though he is existing in early-nineties London, he could just as easily be the Brooklyn hipster trying to grapple with a world that really doesn't make a lot of sense.

I also disagree with quite a few of Hornby's ideas about music itself. His lackluster review of Radiohead's Kid A, an album widely considered to b one of the most important works of our young century, have lead many to label him a "purist" or "traditionalist." While I can't be this dismissive, it's hard to deny that his musical tastes can sometimes be undynamic and nostalgic.

This traditionalist prejudice is in High Fidelity. For example: all the characters (all of whom are music junkies extraodinaire), are completely dismissive of hip-hop.

That being said, the book is smashing! My own hardcore Marxist criticisms of Hornby should not lead readers to write him off (pun intended). Hornby did someting important in this book: he integrated pop music into the everyday emotional turmoil of modern existence in a way that is consummately organic.

The most classic example would be the ubiquitous "Top Five Lists." These have become synonymous with High Fidelity not because Hornby came up with them, but because he was the first writer to catch on to how many of us do them--especially music geeks--and portay it in a believeable way!

To Rob, and Hornby too, music isn't just entertainment. It's a living and breathing part of everyday life, organically and essentially connected to our outlook and experiences. Rob may seem just another eccentric, but before we put him in a different category than the rest of us, it's worth pointing out that there isn't a single one of us with a situation in life that they can't relate to a song. Rob's just much more open about it.

This book can get even the most closeted music geek to come out.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Serious Hip-hop for Serious Times

On the night of April 28th, the Roots took the stage on The Late Show with David Letterman dressed almost entirely in black. They wore t-shirts and pins denouncing the recent verdict in the Sean Bell case. It was an act of protest that eerily pointed out how few things have really changed in the "post-civil rights" era. The next day, the Roots' tenth album Rising Down was released on the sixteenth anniversary of the Rodney King verdict.

Rising Down does indeed fit the chaotic and frustrating times we live in. It is sonically dense, often dark and atmospheric, emotionally fraught and confrontational. And the lyrics? Well, the subject matter isn't exactly light. On the contrary, it is hard-hitting, unflinching, and serious as a heart attack. The group waste no time setting the album's tone on the opening title-track, employing steady-flowing drums and a simmering guitar-line as MC Black Thought, along with guests Mos Def and Styles P, take on the wealth gap, urban racism and global warming:

"Between the greenhouse gases and earth spinning off its axis
Got Mother Nature doing back flips, the natural disasters
Its like 80 degrees in Alaska, you in trouble if you not an Onassis
It ain't hard to tell that the conditions is drastic
Just turn on the telly check for the news flashin'"

The Roots have long represented the leading edge of "conscious" hip-hop. In fact, Rising Down seems to be almost a gathering of some of hip-hop's most political artists, from Common and Saigon to Mos Def and Talib Kweli. According to drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson Rising Down is "probably our most political album to date dealing with addiction, nihilism, hypocritical double standards in the prison system and overall life in Philadelphia."

While the group's hometown of Philly plays a central role on many tracks, the sheer scope of issues taken on means these stories could be about almost anywhere in America and even the world at-large. The track "Criminal" puts the very term on its head, telling a story of being forced into a world of violence by powers bigger than yourself. In a recent interview, Black Thought described the song's message: ''It's about being persecuted and having no other alternative." ''You could also see it from the angle of the Rockefeller [anti-drug] laws,'' adds ?uestlove, ''certain groups of people get persecuted and others get away with it.''

The same repression and violence surrounds this album's much more unsettling stories. The subjects of "The Singer" are, in order, an American school shooter, African child soldier and suicide bomber in Iraq. The track is at some points disturbing, but its utter frankness and willingness to get inside the heads of the alienated and oppressed make it hard to disagree with.

Moments like these have lead some in the music press to label Rising Down a downer. Most reviews understandably have focused on the album's harsh soundscapes and brutal honesty. Rolling Stone criticized Black Thought's lyrics as being "so terminally stern that even his jokes sound like harangues." Then again, the Roots have never really given much creedence to what outside forces have to say about them, including the music industry. In rap, a genre constantly painted into a corner, this is not easy. "[T]he new minstrel image of black people is in vogue now," says Black Thought, "that's the image that's being sold to you. It's really hard to hold on to your dignity and not resort to shucking and jiving to sell records.'' This is taken up on "I Will Not Apologize," a proudly defiant track that refuses to back down from one's artistic principles. The track is also one of the album's most eclectic and catchy songs, relying heavily on contributions from Talib Kweli and samples from Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti.

What most reviews miss is that by unabashedly portraying life as it is, Rising Down raises the possibility of something better. Positioned close to the end of the album, with its buzzy synthesizers and snare-rolls, "The Show" (featuring Common and Dice Raw) is positively militant in its sense that another world isn't just possible but necessary:

"They got hopes and plans of gettin' rid of me
I'll hit 'em like Ethiopia hit up Italy
Swift as the bullet that killed King and Kennedy
You know the battle is on for infinity"

For the Roots to maintain this kind of uncompromising outlook, even strengthen it, in this kind of political climate had undoubtedly been a challenge. In an interview with Vanity Fair, ?uestlove recently ruminated on the demoralization that many politically conscious artists (especially of color) have taken through the hard-knocks of the Bush aministration: "It’s just a numbing period for artists left-of-center. Why did it take Erykah [Badu] eight years to do a follow-up record? Why haven’t you heard from [Rage Against the Machine’s] Zack de la Rocha? D’Angelo? Lauryn Hill? Bilal? All the left-of-center, politically charged minority artists--Dave Chappelle included--like, what happened?"

The Roots, like many others in the hip-hop community, have thrown their lot in with the Obama camp recently. How much faith the group have in the Illinois senator is unclear, but listening to the lyrics one gets the feeling they would like to see something a lot more fundamental than Obama is capable of. Despite all the talk of this album being a po-faced lecture to a world that doesn't get it, Rising Down delivers a lot more truth and hope than you possibly could from anything on the campaign trail.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Fire Last Time

I recently watched Across the Universe for the first time. Initially, I was lukewarm about seeing it. The attempted reboot of the musical movie format over the past few years has had some disastrous results, and I thought that such a film using the Beatles had great potential to fall embarrassingly on its face. However, hearing the film was directed by the visual master Julie Taymor, my interest was peaked.

Across the Universe takes place during the 60s, using the music of the Beatles to track America's evolution from post-McCarthy conservatism into a nation swept up by social and cultural upheaval. It's an appropriate move, given that the Beatles' own evolution of course ran parallel to the rapid changes taking place in that era, from the pop of Help to the trippy experimentation of Sgt. Pepper to the grassroots outlaw grooviness of Let It Be. The movie itself is the story of a group of young American kids (and one Liverpudlian emigre) as they break out of their isolated middle-American existence into one of war, repression, rebellion and protest. And of course, it was that kind of experience that thousands of young people (including the Beatles) went through, that made the songs symbolic of that era.

Taymor's portrayal of the 60s is a lot better than what passes in Hollywood nowadays too. Most directors get away with slapdash footage of hippies and a few protests and leave it at that. Taymor, however, integrates often overlooked and yet key aspects of the 1960s landscape into the picture: the bohemia of Greenwich Village (which was the hub of artists and radicals long before the rest of the country caught up), the Detroit riots, even the increasing radicalization of the anti-war movement is part of it all.

Of course, using such iconic songs written well before the making of the musical has its pitfalls. Some of the song placements seem stretched, and the need to get from song to song can make the plot seem a bit rushed. And I have decided that the version of "I am the Walrus" during an acid trip featuring a disguised Bono as the character of "Doctor Robert" was just annoying. But those isolated spots don't take away from some absolutely mind-blowing sequences and overall a very enjoyable movie.

Taymor brings her own rich creativity to this film, and not just in her amazing visual sense (those who have seen "Frida" will know what I'm talking about). Apart from few aforementioned awkward stumbles, Taymor's imaginative interpretations of the songs actually work. And when they work really well they are not only a visual feast, but incredibly poignant. Such is the case with the heart-stopping gospel version of "Let It Be" during parallel funerals of a young soldier killed in Vietnam and a black boy killed in the Detroit uprising. The sequence when a supporting character is drafted is jaw-droppingly menacing. Here is where Taymor's creativity is at its best: posters of Uncle Sam coming to life to sing "I Want You," with the heavy, driving, swirling guitar part playing as the draftees trample over the Vietnamese jungles while carrying a massive Statue of Liberty!

It's debatable whether the ending is sufficient in relation to the rest of the movie or if it comes up short. Somehow singing "All You Need is Love" while the war continues seems to be somewhat of a cop-out. However, it's hard to argue with that sentiment. What are people today fighting for if not for a world of more love? At the same time, for all the effort that Taymor puts into being true to the protest movements of the 60s, one would think it might be in her interest to show that said movement actually succeeded in stopping the war.

Then again, the war didn't end until 1975, five years after the Beatles had broken up. It would be close to impossible to stretch the parallel that far.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

First of May... Take a Holiday!

That International Workers' Day was started in the United States and yet is widely recognized in every country in the world except the United States is one of history's cruellest ironies.

Not that things are hopeless this year. On top of the tens of thousands who will be taking to the streets for immigrant rights today for the third year in a row, the west coast members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union are going on strike today in protest of the occupation of Iraq. Immigrant rights marches in the Bay Area are coordinating with these strikes, and actions in solidarity with them are being held by postal workers and the Vermont AFL-CIO.

It feels good to know you're doing something that's making Joe McCarthy roll in his grave.

So, why is this being mentioned on a music blog (albeit one that is avowedly socialist in outlook)? Because music has historically been a big part of not only May Day, but the workers tradition in general. It runs through the Internationale, the songs of Joe Hill and the Wobblies, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. It was severely interrupted in the 50s when the workers movement was destroyed by the anti-communist witch hunts, which is tragic considering that rock 'n' roll lends itself perfectly to rebellion and workers' culture.

In other countries, however, where workers' traditions aren't nearly as atrophied at they are in the States, one sees the intersection between music and radical politics alive and well, as I discovered while living abroad. For instance, The (International) Noise Conspiracy are celebrating today at the Festival Proti Rasismu in Prague, a high profile festival consciously organized around far-left politics.

There is plenty of reason to believe workers can accomplish that kind of hearing for socialist ideas and other radical politics. It's not like we don't have plenty of homegrown musicians and artists without radical beliefs, from Steve Earle to Ani DiFranco to the Coup.

This is only one facet of what we are trying to rebuild when we march today. Nobody can make politics truly relevant to working people except working people themselves. When politics becomes more relevant, it's amazing what else does too!

May Day Playlist

The (International) Noise Conspiracy - "Communist Moon"

Son of Nun - "One Solution"

Violeta Parra - "El Pueblo Unido"

John Lennon - "Power to the People"

Tom Robinson Band - "Don't Take No for an Answer"

Victor Jara - "Vientos del Pueblo"

Ani DiFranco - "Cradle Will Rock"

The Coup - "Ride the Fence"