Monday, May 25, 2009

A Change is Gonna Come?

"Separate but equal." It's a term that is unavoidably associated with one of the most shameful episodes in American history--when racism and bigotry were legally codified, when a whole section of the population were denied the most basic of human rights. Today, "separate but equal" is taken seriously by nobody who actually believes in real equality. And yet, it's a logic that is shockingly alive in modern America.

The inequality that continues to divide this country was on full display this past week on, of all places, the season finale of "American Idol," where Adam Lambert, the glam-rocker from San Diego with the golden pipes was beaten out by Kris Allen, an Arkansas native so white-bred he makes John Mayer look dynamic. Lambert had been considered a shoe in for the next Idol all season. His stage presence, charisma, his unique song arrangements and sheer vocal range put him miles ahead of any other performer on the show. How the hell did he get beaten by Allen?

I have no illusions of "American Idol" being a platform for real progressive social change. Despite its populist bent, it is, at its core, a show run by and for the benefit of the music industry. With this in mind, it would be easy for any of us to write the whole thing off. In this case, however, attention must be paid.

Rumors of Lambert's sexuality have surrounded him this entire season. Many have been demeaning--as if eye makeup and tight pants make necessarily make a man gay. When pictures surfaced of the singer dressed in drag and kissing another man, Bill O'Reilly found reason to throw his screed into the ring, speculating whether the pics would "have an effect on ['Idol']."

Lambert himself has been reticent to comment on whether he is gay, straight, or bi, though he did acknowledge that it is indeed him in the pictures. His studio version of Tears For Fears' "Mad World" includes a verse, cut from the live performance, where he switches the words "hers" for "their" and "girl" for "person." Regardless of how public he has been about his preferences, the media have been quite willing to present him as someone with a "different" sexuality.

So producer Simon Fuller knew exactly what he was doing when he selected Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" for Lambert to sing on the "Idol" finale last Tuesday. The song, possibly one of the most moving in the history of popular music, was written by Cooke in early 1964, four months after the Black artist had been arrested while checking into a whites-only hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana. As the American South was swept by the Civil Rights movement, "A Change is Gonna Come" tapped into the rising hopes of millions:

"I go to the movie
And I go downtown
Somebody keep tellin' me
Don't hang around

It's been a long, long time comin'
But I know a change is gonna come
Oh, yes it will

Then I go to my brother
And I say 'brother, help me please'
But he winds up, knockin' me
Back down on my knees"

It's no exaggeration to say that Lambert's searing, gut-bucket Blues version of the song spoke to many on the same level Cooke's did. The passage of Proposition 8 in California on election day has ignited a new movement for gay civil rights in our time. Demonstrations for same sex marriage have drawn hundreds of thousands onto city streets across the country. And in a turn of events that show how much public opinion has shifted in recent years, four states have now passed legislation that allows people of the same sex to be married.

How all of this played into Kris Allen's victory over Adam Lambert last Wednesday is impossible to tell, but it seems to provide a twisted proxy for the battle of ideas taking shape. Lambert, a gender-bending glam-boy surrounded by rumors about being gay electrifies one of America's most-watched television shows with consistently strong performances, only to lose to a dime-a-dozen guitar plucker, who also happens to be an Evangelical Christian.

Despite this, most polls show support for gay rights at the highest it has ever been in this country, while Allen's own beliefs appear to be in steep decline. Not that you would be able to tell from the past several weeks. The newly empowered Democrats, lead by Barack Obama, the supposed arbiter of "change," have been largely indifferent to the new movement. Their silence on Proposition 8, their tacit support for the Defense of Marriage Act (signed into law, let's not forget, by Democratic President Bill Clinton), has enabled a Christian Right that was utterly defeated in November to somehow define the terms of the debate.

Their desperation, however, is just as palpable--to the point where they are willing to let a publicly shamed beauty queen become their figurehead. Carrie Prejean may be little more than a puppet in all of this (that's a beauty queen's job, after all), but many in the knuckle-dragging anti-gay community are surely thankful she came to prominence when she did.

And so, what millions watched on "American Idol" last week was a lot more than a music show. When the world finds itself in its current situation, sometimes the shallowest forms of culture can become fascinating allegories for real-life struggles. Millions waited with baited breath as the results were announced for "Idol" last Wednesday. Just as many will be doing the same as California's supreme court announces its decision on Prop 8 this Tuesday. If it is overturned, it will be further proof that movements work. If it's upheld, it may leave many in the LGBT community wondering when their own "change is gonna come."

This article originally appeared at The Society of Cinema and Arts.


Sunday, May 24, 2009

"This scene, it's something to live for:" an interview with Intifada

The word “Intifada” has become damn-near ubiquitous over the past several years. Loosely translated, it’s Arabic for “uprising.” Since the beginning of the second Palestinian mass rebellion in 2000, it has re-entered the English lexicon as a slogan for all kinds of resistance. So, it’s not really surprising that four guys from Chicago’s thriving hardcore scene would take it up as a name for their band (a quick search online will reveal that they’re not the only ones who’ve taken the moniker). It’s a fitting word for their music: defiant, frenetic, unpredictable, and sure to put a frown on the face of anyone who adheres to the least bit of tradition.

But when I sat down with drummer Alberto, guitarist Joey, bass player Oak, and vocalist Noe, they made clear that the band’s name isn’t just vague propaganda. One of the more recent additions to the WindyCity’s diverse array of punk bands, they were more than happy to delve into all sorts of deeper ideas regarding their origins, their attempts to overcome divisions within punk, and the relationship between the personal and political in their music.

Billet: How did the band get together?
Noe: High school. We met each other individually and we started introducing each other to one another.
Alberto: I first met Noe when I skipped my band class in high school. I was chilling with my friend Manny, and he ran in a circle with this cat (Noe), so he introduced me. I knew Oak from just seeing him wear a punk jacket…
Oak: I was the most punk to begin with. I was like the punk punk with the mohawk and the jacket, and all that shit…
Alberto: Yeah, so I knew Oak and he introduced me to Joey…
Noe: We just started hanging out…
Oak: Yeah, and me and Joey had this Screeching Weasel kind of band called the Hendersons. And then me and Noe had this street punk band called The Defiled. And then these guys, everybody else but me, started Intifada with two other different bassists, and they were trying to get some shit started. They all kind of knew me, and their original bassist couldn’t make it to the first three shows, so they asked me to play in his place, and I just ended up being part of Intifada.
Billet: So you usurped him. [laughter] When was all this? It was ’05, right?
Noe: Yes.
Oak: Summer of ’05.
Billet: We were talking earlier about how your sound has evolved a lot since then…
Noe: Yeah, it’s developed so much, and we’ve gone through so many phases. Our first stuff, I think we can all agree, was definitely a bit more original, and then with everything else we took a lot of influence from the stuff we were listening to.
Oak: It was weird because these guys were playing, like, fast… really fast hardcore before we even started listening to really fast hardcore, and then we tried to play that. And then—I don’t know, dude—our new stuff is all over the place and crazy. It’s just some crazy shit! Every fucking band and every genre I’ve listened to is mixed up in my mind, I’ve formulated this sound, and it’s coming out in our new stuff.
Joey: Imagine this, okay? Punk rock, hardcore, in the lotus position… [laughter]
Billet: Oddly enough, that seems about right. Now, hardcore has kind of this undeserved stereotype, especially from outside the scene, as being an angry white kids thing…
Oak: Ha!
Noe: It’s true, though. It’s true, because it’s in the ‘80s that it blew up and it was all the white kids—except for Bad Brains. But it was all the white kids and then, I don’t know, some time around Los Crudos (recognized as one of the first Latino punk bands in Chicago) that shit just flipped around.
Alberto: Yeah, that was one of my biggest influences was that during the ‘90s, Crudos was setting up stuff in the hood because they weren’t getting invited to North Side shows and stuff like that. So, you had the whole DIY Latino explosion right here.
Noe: Actually, we’re all North Siders.
Alberto: Yeah, we’re all North Siders. Everbody thinks we’re from South Side (which is predominantly Black and Latino). But there’s Latinos in the North Side too. I’m from AlbanyPark. All the Guatemalans live there, so…
Billet: That actually leads me to the next question. Where are all you guys originally from?
Oak: Born and raised Chicago, straight up. My parents are from Thailand so I’m Thai by descent. But straight up, live in the same house I was born in.
Alberto: I was born in uptown Chicago, and lived here all my life. My parents are of Guatemalan descent, both of them.
Noe: Yeah, I’m the only one with a story. [laughter] I was born in Mexico. I came here when I was about seven years old.
Billet: What part of Mexico?
Noe: Guadalajara. I was born there. I came here. I went through all the legal bullshit, and I was lucky enough to get all my papers and all that stuff. About three years ago I became a legal citizen, and I’ve been living in HumboldtPark for about thirteen years now.
Joey: I was born in Kenya. [Lots of laughter because he obviously wasn’t.] No, I was born in Chicago. I don’t even know where I was born. I think I was born somewhere in the South Side.
Billet: Now, Chicago is a bit of a unique city because it has a Latino punk scene that is a scene unto itself but still relates to the broader hardcore scene. And you guys, I’m assuming, see yourself as part of that.
Alberto: Well, we definitely started off as part of the South Side label—Southkore, that’s run by Benny from No Slogan—and that’s actually because Noe’s brother played bass for No Slogan. So, I guess that’s how he got introduced: Noe seeing Southkore shows. You know, it was a spot for Latino bands to play because Chicago’s really segregated as far as a city—always is, always was, probably will be always. It’s always that you’ve got your anarcho-punk kids on the South Side, your straight edge kids, your Latino scene scattered everywhere.
Noe: You do what you can, though. I mean, just last week, we had a couple of straight edge bands playing with La Armada. They just came here a couple of years ago from the Dominican Republic…
Joey: With a lot of weed…
Noe: Yeah! I mean the biggest potheads were playing a show with the biggest names in straight edge hardcore here in Chicago. It’s definitely good to see that, but there’s still a divide. And like Alberto was saying, there always will be, I think. We can do as much as we can do, and hope that it works out.
Alberto: I started setting up shows here in Chicago about a year and a half ago. So, obviously, at first I would hook up my friends, the bands I knew and was tight with. But then I started realizing that I was pretty sick of this segregation bullshit—all the bands playing their own little scenes, and kids weren’t coming out. It didn’t have a name back then, but right now it’s called Inner-City Hospitality.
Joey: Where you get a handshake and a shank. [laughter]
Alberto: Yeah, exactly… Welcome to Chicago, man! [mimics stabbing someone] No, but what I try to do usually is mix bands from all over because, obviously, in every scene there’s cool people, and there’s good bands. So we don’t want to segregate that. We want to bring it all together. It’s my little skewed view of unity, but at least I’m doing something.
Noe: When you put on a show like that you can definitely bring in a good crowd and hopefully they all get along. And for the most part get along pretty well.
Billet: Chicago is also a big hub for the immigrant rights movement, nationally, after it sprung up here back in ‘06. Have you noticed, since that movement, a bit of a breaking down of those boundaries?
Joey: Well, I was a major figure in the Black Power movement in the ‘70s. [laughter]
Billet: Oh, so you came straight from Kenya into the Panthers? [more laughter]
Noe: No, but honestly I can’t say how it was before, because it’s word of mouth. You know, like Alberto was saying with Los Crudos. They had to bring it into their crowd, but I think there’s definitely been an improvement since then. And let’s face it; these past eight years it was commonplace for everyone to hate a common person. Hate really brings people together, as bad as that sounds…
Billet: When you have a common enemy…
Noe: Yeah, but it’s true. And I definitely think it’s gotten a little easier for people to mingle.
Alberto: It’s always that segregation. I mean, even just how Chicago is built—you go to a block and you’re in a Latino neighborhood. You go a few blocks south and you’re in a Polish neighborhood. You go a few more blocks south and you’re in a Black neighborhood…
Noe: And then you’re in Gold Coast…
Alberto: Exactly! Then you’re in some yuppie-ass hood! But for the most part, what I’ve been trying to do and what these guys are trying to do here is really just trying to bring the people together. It’s something hard to do, but if you’re not taking that initiative, nobody’s going to do it. Still, you see all these shows with the same people putting it on, and the same shows will be the same few bands every time.
Oak: Also, it’s hard because we’re pretty much the youngest. All those scenes—the Latino scene, the straight edgers, South Side—were around before we were arriving. We just kind of jumped in. Like I said before, I started as a street punk kid and I went to street punk shows, and I realized after a year that it was fake. None of the kids were actually involved in anything; it was like a party scene. I really didn’t see anything going on. Then Noe invited me to ChicagoFest, and I saw the scene—the real scene! It blew my mind! And I was like, “Holy crap, I want to be a part of that.” Even though it was all segregated before, I never saw that. I saw it as “the real scene” and “the fake scene.” To me, even though we see it from different views and we’re all different, we’re all working together and we’re all a part of the same thing. We all live in the same city, and although there is segregation, I believe we can always work together. That’s the way I’ve seen it, and even though we’re the youngest, I feel like we have the potential to pull everybody together because I’ve always seen past all that shit.
Billet: A name like Intifada conjures up a lot of images of political resistance. Has that affected your activity as a band?
Noe: It’s sad to say, but we have to confess to it: We’re not as politically active as we would like to be. When we first started, when Alberto first approached us with the name, we took no political stance to it.
Joey: It sounded cool…
Noe: Yeah, it sounded cool. And then there were other bands that were like, “Fuck them. Let’s show ‘em up.” [laughter]
Joey: We started the MySpace revolution of Intifada bands.
Billet: Yeah, I did notice a few other bands called Intifada on MySpace.
Joey: There’s like ten! [more laughter]
Alberto: Honestly, I did think about it when I chose the name because I like the theme of uprising and stuff like that. But it’s such an ambiguous term—you can uprise against whatever the hell you want. Mainly, in Noe’s lyrics, I see more of a social struggle than it is a political struggle. A lot of his stuff is pretty personal. Like he told me before, “You’ve got to change yourself before you can change anything else.”
Billet: Do you think that can dovetail sometimes: the social, the political, and the personal?
Noe: Definitely! I try to steer away from writing the political lyrics because there are a lot of bad bands that do it horribly. But the way I’ve always seen it is, politics are always social. Politics are always individual because whatever is said or whatever is working around you always affects you personally. And it’s about taking it from your perspective. Definitely taking it from your perspective within an entire community, but always starting with the individual.
Alberto: You know, we all have a common struggle. For us, growing up in the inner-city, being of color, we face certain racism, certain feelings that people have against us. But at the same time, we’re just trying to change individuals and individual thought, you know?
Billet: Between Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and the recession, do you think there is an opening or an increased interest in bands that bring the political, the social, and the personal together?
Alberto: There definitely can be a leeway into that. But again, we’re not there. We’re not experiencing it. We can never see from the perspective of some dude in Palestine who’s getting his fucking house bombed to shit every day. So you can speak out about it, but honestly, it’s not going to be the same as somebody speaking out from there.
Billet: Do you think it’s possible for bands like this to play a role in solidarity with Palestinians?
Noe: Yeah. I mean we’re playing a benefit for the School of Music in Gaza! Every show, I believe, should have some sort of direction, some sort of impact, where you can influence something. It’s nice to have an outlet where we can be angry, where we can say what we want to say and have fun, but it needs to go in a direction, too.
Billet: How did the Gaza benefit come together?
Noe: We actually just got invited. There have been a few earlier this year. This is the first we’ve been asked to. And it’s pretty cool because we’re getting a pretty good mix of the punk crowd and hip-hop crowd and everything. I’m really glad that we got invited to participate.
Alberto: I guess one of the main goals would be, you know, just don’t be apathetic. Raise concern of what you want to be concerned about, and don’t just sit on your ass and talk smack about it without doing anything. That’s a good way to approach it. If you’re going to be a band from the U.S. that can go home and not get your house shot to shit, that’s pretty sweet. You’re not there, but it’s good not to be apathetic. That’s why another thing we try to revolve around is the idea of saying what you want. Feel it from the heart, start your own band, do what you do.
Billet: Any final thoughts—the scene, your band—any last words for the good people at home?
Noe: This whole thing saved and ruined my life. [laughter] I can easily say that this whole punk thing, thanks to my brother, ruined my life forever—and honestly saved it. I don’t know where I would be if it weren’t for this band.
Alberto: I’d probably be running around in a gang in Albany Park if it weren’t for this. Straight up, this scene, it’s something that we live for. I mean what else would we do on the weekends? We’re trying to do it. And, Inner-City Hospitality—if your band needs a place to stay…
Joey: Fuckin’ self-promotion!
Alberto: No, man! I’m just saying…
Joey: Yo, man, let me tell you something: if it were not for Intifada… I would probably be a Reggaeton star right now man! [laughter] I fuckin’ hate these guys! [loud laughter] I wish that somebody would shake the fuck out of them! [even louder laughter]
Noe: It’s love…
Joey: No, but seriously, man… I can’t imagine being any-fucking-where except a dingy basement, playing on half-working equipment, and a duct-taped up guitar. That is my fucking life! Working forty-plus hours a week, that’s just in-between time really, just killing time until I play the next show. That’s all it is!
Oak: I guess all I have to say is, man… I think somebody said it before: Stand for something, believe in something, or fall for anything. Fucking find your own fucking truth, think it through and through, look within yourself, and find what you think is most worth fighting for, and follow through. In any form, it doesn’t even have to be music—in your fucking life. What you believe in the most, just do it, and believe in it, and don’t fucking listen to anybody else. Listen to yourself, listen to your inner-voice and follow that always!

This article originally appeared at Razorcake.


Friday, May 22, 2009

Calling for a boycott in Sri Lanka

M.I.A. has been in the news, and on this blog, quite a bit lately. It's little wonder why, with her being declared one of the most influential people in the world by Time, her clothing line, and the featuring of "Paper Planes" in not one but two hit movies. And as one of the only Tamils with a high profile in the west, she has understandably become a spokesperson against the vile human rights abuses taking place against her people at the hands of the Sri Lankan government during the recent upsurge in the country's civil war.

That war was officially declared "over" this week. This doesn't, however, mean any kind of relief for Sri Lankan Tamils. As Tamil socialist A Sivanandan recently wrote: “There will be no peace because the causes of the military struggle have not been addressed—massive discrimination, racialisation of everything, massive censorship, the murder of journalists in the south and anybody else who speaks up.”

Ms. Arulpragasam is, unsurprisingly, continuing to speak out on the situation. In a recent post on her Twitter, she listed several companies that do business in Sri Lanka, including Ralph Lauren, Hanes, Tommy Hilfiger and Wal Mart. These are all companies that have, in the past, been implicated in using sweatshop labor in far-east countries, so it's only fitting they benefit from the ongoing Tamil exploitation.

M.I.A. isn't the only one calling for a boycott of these companies. She links to a recent editorial in the London Times goes more in depth into other outfits the do business in Sri Lanka, and likewise calls for people to not buy from them.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

RF: the blog, the 'zine, the legend

I'm pleased to announce that Rebel Frequencies will be producing its first ever 'zine for release in mid-June! If all goes according to plan (which it rarely does), this will be the first issue of a quarterly released DIY magazine version of RF.

The reasons for releasing this 'zine are many-fold: first, the events of the past several months in both music and the world at large call for a need to reach past the traditional, web-oriented audience for RF. There are countless music fans out there who haven't yet been exposed to this blog's content who would dig it, and an RF 'zine is a great attempt to reach them. Second: the content, not just of the mainstream rags, but also in the 'zine world, just doesn't seem to really be taking up the sea-change in that is taking place in music--among musicians or audience members. And third, the DIY ethic I picked up during my Hardcore Punk days dies very, very hard, and can only be somewhat satisfied by a mere blog.

Be sure to get a copy! While the 'zine will feature content that has appeared here before, there are also going to be articles that haven't. Don't miss out! If you live in the Chicago area, you'll be able to pick it up at such book and music retailers as Quimby's, Reckless Records, and Myopic Books.

If you don't live in Chicago, you can order it through RF! More will come later on how much this will be, but rest assured, it will be affordable!


Monday, May 18, 2009

Whose Country Is This?

The battle lines have been increasingly drawn over the past several months--in politics, culture, art, and in music. The economic crisis has provoked a palpable outrage among ordinary people that can't be denied. Unemployment continues to climb, schools and hospitals are being shut down, all the while bankers take their bailouts and laugh all the way to... well... wherever the hell bankers laugh all the way to.

None of this means, however, that it is always easy to recognize what side everyone is on. Case in point: Country artist John Rich's latest single "Shuttin' Detroit Down." Rich, one half of the Country duo Big & Rich, has made "Detroit" the lodestone of his second solo effort Son of a Preacher Man. The song is old-school, shedding the stadium-oriented sound that country has taken on in recent decades in favor of pared down acoustic and steel guitar.

When in late March, "Shuttin' Detroit Down" shot to number 12 on the Country music charts. Listening to the lyrics, it's painfully obvious why:

"Now I see these big shots whinin' on my evening news
About how they're losing billions and it's up to me and you
To come running to the rescue

Well pardon me if I don't shed a tear
'Cause they're selling make believe
And we don't buy that here

'Cause in the real world they're shuttin' Detroit down
While the boss man takes his bonus pay and jets on out of town
And DC's bailing out them bankers as the farmers auction ground"

No working person in their right mind can disagree with any of this. But as the saying goes, context counts. And the context that Rich has couched himself in is very ugly indeed. A quick search for "Shuttin' Detroit Down" will reveal where this song got one of its first televised appearances: Fox News.

On the day Son of a Preacher Man was released, Rich performed the song on the nightly "news" show of verbal diarrhea master Glenn Beck. Beck, who John Stewart rightly described as "a guy who says what people who aren't thinking are thinking," made a name for himself by masquerading as a regular guy and spouting off some of the most foul right-wing bigotry one can hear. When Rich appeared on his show, he was over the moon. For his part, Rich dedicated the song to "all the hard working men and women out there watching Glenn Beck today."

The timing was prescient, as March was also when CNBC editor Rick Santelli's "Tea Party" rallies began to sweep the country. Santelli's rallies have tapped into the anger of disaffected middle class Americans against the bailouts and directed it not just at the bankers, but at welfare programs, affirmative action, immigrants and the very people being evicted from their homes, who Santelli refers to as "losers." Beck's interview with Rich was juxtaposed with footage of people carrying signs that read "Say No to Socialism!" On tax day, he performed the song at the Tea Party held in Atlanta.

Rich's sincerity can't be doubted. The sentiments expressed in his song are shared by millions of people facing the loss of their jobs or homes. He doesn't, however, see a contradiction in expressing those same sentiments on Fox. Neither does he see how his own support for such politicians as Fred Thompson and John McCain undercuts his supposed sympathy with workers.

Fox News, after all, is steadfastly against the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it infinitely easier for workers to organize a union. They are also, famously, against the right for undocumented workers to citizenship, seeing it easier to point the blame at them than the massive companies that exploit them. All of this is what makes Fox's attempt to wrap itself in concern for working people all the more devious and horrifying.

What's truly disturbing about all this isn't just that Rich is wittingly allowing his song to be exploited by the most stomach-turning elements in this country. It's that in doing so, he's enabling the ongoing strangle-hold of conservatism on Country music. Contrary to popular belief, Country hasn't always been a cesspool of jingoism and bigotry. From Johnny Cash to Steve Earle, Country's affinity for the down-and-out has lent it to progressive or even radical causes.

But the past several decades have seen a fictional "Middle America" intertwined with NASCAR and Confederate flags to the point where they may seem indistinguishable. Right-wing politicians have been able to paint liberals and progressives as big city elitists ready to gut the livelihoods of hard-working Americans for the sake of some kind of soft communism.

The past couple years have proven what a sham this Red State/Blue State dichotomy is, though. For the first time in thirty years, most Americans support more government spending on schools, hospitals and jobs. They want a universal healthcare plan. They want a racial and sexual equality that simply hasn't been forthcoming. And yes, they want the damn bankers to give them their money back!

The faux-populism of Santelli, Beck and Rich doesn't turn the outrage of ordinary people into something productive. On the contrary, it exploits that anger and uses it to keep people divided. Ordinary Country fans gain nothing from buying into these politics. Here's to hoping that a new breed of artist can take the stage back from Rich and his ilk.

This article first appeared at The Society of Cinema and Arts.


Friday, May 15, 2009

Don't miss RF at Socialism 2009!

Just a friendly reminder: I'll be speaking at Socialism 2009 in Chicago. The title of the talk is "You Can't Stop Us Now: Hip-Hop in a New Political Era," and will be at 11:30am, Friday, June 19th at the Wyndham O'Hare Hotel.

Events of the past few years have a lot of heads wondering "what's next?" There is a lot going on in Hip-Hop, and with the economic crisis drawing more and more people onto the streets, the possibilities for collision between struggle and culture are more potent than they have been in quite some time. This is a talk that no serious music fan or activist should miss!

That can be said for S'09 in general. This event will bring together some of the most dynamic activists, writers and speakers in the country and the world. Don't be left behind. Check out the schedule and register today!


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Rising from the Middle

It might be easy to think Chicago's Hip-Hop scene is on the decline since the release of Kanye's 808's and Failure... I mean... Heartbreak. Hip-Hop evolves at a breakneck pace; by the time you put your finger on a trend, it's already yesterday's news and most heads have moved on to the next thing.

Chi-town, however, is still going strong. This was asserted in, of all places, the Red Eye, the free daily distributed by the Tribune. If one of this town's establishment papers is crowing the virtues of this scene, you know it's been stomping around for a while.

The piece highlights four rising Chicago MCs to watch. It's no surprise that Naledge from Kidz in the Hall, who has his first solo dropping in June, is on there. This writer's personal favorite, however, is Mic Terror, who recently got a big bump in popularity after M.I.A. discovered one of his tracks.

Terror's material captures the transition that Rap is in right now. It's bouncy, intense, paying equal tribute to what came before--East and West Coast, Old and New School--while adding a unique spin. The contradiction that is Chicago, it's decaying urban life butted up against slick "development," seems to drip off his beats and rhymes. That's a contradiction everyone is trying to navigate right now.


Monday, May 11, 2009

Reality Relapse

Music has changed a lot in the past five years. It's become more urgent, more immediate, gained a higher degree of calculated grittiness and a slightly lower tolerance for bullshit. Pity nobody told Eminem that.

Back in the late 90s, as well as the first half of this decade, Mr. Shady set the pace for artists around the world. His unbelievable ability with a mic and unabashed willingness to speak his mind--no matter how much controversy it stirred--put him at the forefront. As the first white rapper to carry real credibility among all sections of the Rap community, he helped usher in an era when Hip-Hop was to become an unstoppable global phenomenon with universal appeal well beyond the limits of the American ghetto:

"Look at these eyes, they be blue baby, just like yourself
If they were brown, Shady lose, Shady sits on the shelf...

Let's do the math, if I was Black, I would have sold half
I ain't have to graduate from Lincoln High School to know that"

Lyrics like these from 2002's "White America" displayed how aware Em was of his role--and all the contradictions in American culture that it brought to the forefront.

Which means he should know better than anyone that Hip-Hop shifts at a pace unseen in any other popular genre. Why then, one might ask, is he releasing an album that sounds like it was recorded five years ago? Relapse is Eminem's first album since 2004, and listening to the singles leaked on the internet, it certainly shows.

"We Made You" just about sums it up. Em still has a great skill with rhyme and flow. His penchant for skewering pop culture icons remains intact as ever, leading him to lambast everyone from Kim Kardashian to Samantha Ronson. But five years after he went into recluse, it doesn't seem irreverent so much as self-referential. Even the Dr. Dre-produced beats seem recycled, as if they were created in a bubble where nothing ages or evolves.

None of this has stopped Interscope from putting every ounce into generating positive publicity for Relapse. Street teams have slapped up posters in every major urban area in the country, and the web has been abuzz with hype for the album for weeks now. The album's content, however, has been met with little more than shrugs and yawns from critics and fans alike.

It's not simply that Eminem hasn't kept up. All the alienation, the raw and untempered outrage he once tapped into is still there in millions of young people. In times like this, however, it takes a much more dynamic and focused form. The bottom-up rumblings that have made themselves known since the beginning of the recession cry for a soundtrack that directs its anger at something more specific than the celebrity elite. What's truly confusing is that Em has been more than happy to sharpen the point of his lyrical spear before. In a time that calls for it to be sharper than ever, Mr. Shady has chosen to hold back on giving his barbs some real purpose.

Compare this to the current status of M.I.A., the seemingly unlikely standard bearer whose star never seems to stop rising. The Tamil refugee turned super-artist has a lot more in common with Eminem than one might think: an unapologetic willingness to speak her mind, a background not stereotypically associated with Hip-Hop (aka "she's not Black"), and an aesthetic that bends the boundaries of her genre and dares her audience to shed their preconceived notions.

Record execs are either oblivious or begrudgingly accepting of the fact that "Paper Planes," one of the most recognized songs in the world right now, is essentially about robbing white tourists in a Third World country. More broadly, though, it's about taking back the wealth stolen from these countries by the West.

It's not far-fetched to say that the global explosion of "Paper Planes" is indicative of a shift in mass consciousness the likes of which hasn't been seen in almost two generations. Surely, this shift has been a long time coming, but it has only been in recent months that it's made itself known. Where yesterday's youth seemed divided and out for themselves, today's young people were willing to vote a Black man in as president and are keenly aware that their collective futures are at risk of being flushed down the crapper.

Musically, the new direction of this energy is best embodied in an artist like M.I.A. A refugee, daughter of a freedom fighter, an unabashed militant whose vision of the future doesn't include compromise. Though she spent her early career as a favorite in the Indie scene, her music has always been unmistakably Hip-Hop. Its collision with Punk and Electronica and her ability to gain acceptance in multiple sub-cultures highlights just how much people's ideas have changed in recent years.

When she was selected at one of Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People" last month, it took many people, including this writer, by surprise. To some it might be her first step toward selling out. The events of Time's honorary gala, though, show an artist as willing as ever to speak truth to power. What's more, she was in the rare position to speak it to its actual face.

Writing on her MySpace blog, M.I.A. recounted the admittedly odd experience of meeting such figures as Oprah Winfrey, and actually urging her to speak out on the Sri Lankan war against Tamils. In her signature tongue-in-cheeky style, she also wrote:


What seems surreal about this is the sheer clash of interests taking place. It's worth taking a step back to note the real significance of the whole phenomenon. Here is the daughter of a guerilla fighter, a woman who has never shied from making clear whose side she is on, being pointed to by one of the most establishment magazines in the world as a major influence. Ultimately, very little has changed in M.I.A.'s outlook. What's changed is the way ordinary people look at the world around them and what they are willing to fight for.

When cultures shift, it's not uncommon to see a new and dynamic future alongside the stale, rehashed past. It's unfortunate that the latter of the two can be found so pronounced in an artist who not so long ago was on top of his game. The embodiment of the former, however, in a musician who sees the world in a radically different way is something that can give us all a lot more hope.

This article first appeared on The Society of Cinema and Arts.


Sunday, May 10, 2009

A "Very Special" Weekly Playlist

As readers may have noticed, it's been slow getting the traffic at RF up to par since returning from illness two weeks ago. After gaining a real momentum, it was hard to put down the pen for a full week and then pick it up like nothing happened. Why? I'm not quite sure, but the conclusion I came to was that I needed a good listening to my own "classics," those records that have had the greatest affect on me and have inspired me to write about music in the first place. These are some of my favorites, my own High Fidelity top five.

This list may seem prosaic, perhaps even a bit opportunistic, but hey, we all reserve the right to narcissism every now and again. These are some of the records that have not only had a lasting impression on this writer, but also on the way we think about music, culture, and even politics in recent years. It's by no means comprehensive, but it is a stab at looking at some of the dominant trends in music that are defining our culture.

1. M.I.A. - Arular
A recent addition to Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People" list, M.I.A. is undoubtedly the new big thing in today's musical landscape. It's amazing to think that when Arular came out, she was little more than an Indie favorite, but that alone may have been an indicator of her massive future success. For a British/Sri Lankan rapper to become such a phenom in a white, Rock-based scene marked an important convergence of aesthetics that foretold a growing, bottom-up multiculturalism and instinctual radical outlook that continues to blossom today. Despite its lead video being banned by MTV, Arular put M.I.A., and an entire generation's hopes and dreams, on the map.

2. The Clash - The Clash
Ever since Strummer's death in 2002, The Clash's influence has become more pronounced than ever. It's a bittersweet irony. Nonetheless, we can hear their rebel sound reified in countless groups in Rock and Hip-Hop. Though London Calling is in many ways "the quintessential Clash album," the original, self-titled release is the one that started it all. Its raw metallic edge, its embrace of Reggae, its unrelenting anti-authoritarianism are what any moderately good Pop song has been built on today. "Punk" isn't about a sound (though if it were, then this album was definitely a template), it's an attitude, a feeling of struggle and solidarity, and a desire to live one's life accordingly. Here's the blueprint.

3. Talib Kweli - Quality
Coming a few years after "conscious Hip-Hop" had hit its peak, Kweli showed that the genre is a lot more fluid than that. The beats on this album are incredibly diverse, featuring from hard Rock guitar to Nina Simone samples and blending them all together into an energy that plays just as well on the streets as it does in the club. Quality launched Kweli into a spotlight that had done its best to ignore him up until then; he even ended up doing promos for Smirnoff Ice not long after! What's amazing is that as accessible as this album was, it managed to pull it off without compromising anything. The outsiders' urgency that made him a staple of the underground remained intact, and cleared the way for a whole crop of artists today that can't be neatly categorized as "conscious" or "mainstream."

4. Ra Ra Riot - The Rhumb Line
Ra Ra Riot's versatility and depth aren't quite paralleled in any other "Indie" act today. They are intelligent without being pretentious, emotional without laying it on too thick (eat your heart out, Andrew Bird). Though one can argue that they themselves would not have become what they are without trailblazers like Arcade Fire and The Decemberists, Ra Ra Riot take it to the next level simply due to their simplicity. They also bring a sense of play to even the most serious of subjects a la Flaming Lips. All of this is a rather specific blend that draws together previously disparate elements within Indie Rock. When these unique ingredients come together within a single genre, it normally foreshadows bigger plateaus.

5. Lady Gaga - The Fame
A shocker in this list? Of course. But Lady Gaga represents the same thing that Madonna did in the early 80s: that urge to party while the world crumbles around us. More than that, the insistence that we have the right to find beauty in the ugliness around us, that we're not animals or sub-humans. Mark my words, Lady G is a lot more intelligent and knows a lot more about what she's doing than any other recent addition to Pop music. Don't believe me? Watch the video for "Just Dance." She may be wrapped up in all the contradictions of our time, but if we ask for purity in times of increasing crisis, then we'll be standing on the sidelines until it's completely rotted from the inside. She says a lot about the state of our culture--both good and bad.


Friday, May 8, 2009

Check out Adoree at SleptOn FM

The good people at SleptOn are in the process of assembling a new internet music surface: SleptOn FM, a site dedicated to groundbreaking music that frequently goes under the radar of the mainstream. Though the site has yet to be launched, KT and Bizzy are more than happy to deliver some great artists to us all in the meantime.

Adoree's stuff is truly unique. Refusing to pigeonhole herself, she is willing to experiment with a variety of genres, from Soul to Gospel to R&B and Jazz. It's this ability to simply say yes to herself that has brought her to the same stage as dead prez, Erykah Badu, Common, MeShell Ndegocello and many others.

She is of a fiercely independent spirit, one that isn't likely to be deterred by the lack of a record deal:

"I'm not trying to find a deal, I'm not trying to be like everyone else, I want to explore many different styles of music."

You can listen to Adoree's "Phobia" here, and find out more information at her MySpace page.


Monday, May 4, 2009

The Spirit of '69?

It's that time of year again. When swarms of music junkies shake off the winter cold, emerge from their bars and seedy venues, and converge at public parks, stadiums and racetracks all over the world. There's no doubt about it; summer belongs to the music festival.

This year will be bringing us as many as ever. Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Pitchfork, Hideout, tours like Warped and Rock the Bells, all bringing hundreds of today's most dynamic acts to hundreds of thousands if not millions of people.

This plethora is especially significant this summer, where we are guaranteed to be hearing about the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock. In the world of summer music festivals, Woodstock is undoubtedly the granddaddy. Its youthful exuberance and spirit of freedom is what every major concert promoter attempts to capture in today's fests.

But the core legacy of those legendary three days is relived in today's festivals questionably at best. Another particular issue for this year's fests is particularly poignant: who exactly will be able to afford to go to them?

As the current economic crisis develops, there will undeniably be a smaller pool of ordinary music fans able to pay the hefty price for these events, which can often be at least a couple hundred dollars. Promoters have already reported a decline in sales for concerts since the recession began last fall. If you thought the presence of trust-funded frat boys as these shows was annoying before, just wait until they're the only ones there!

It's a basic contradiction in the formulation of the music festival: all the freedom and rebellion they are supposed to embody is chained down by the hold of the industry. People come to festivals to experience something that can't be duplicated: a connection with their favorite groups. With countless people losing their homes and jobs, that connection may prove to be reserved for the relatively well off.

It gets to the heart of a potentially explosive situation. The entry to these festivals isn't the only exorbitant cost. CDs, t-shirts and other souvenirs are pricey too. Promoters are even as bold as to charge outrageous prices for essentials like food and water. It raises a question: how long will fans tolerate being treated as little more than cash machines?

This question isn't out of thin air. Ten years ago, many music journalists were shocked perplexed as Woodstock '99 ended in mass riots and vandalism. Some blamed the artists. Other, more savvy commentators pointed to the high ticket prices, too few port-a-pots and lack of access to clean water.

What this head-scratchers forgot, though, was that the original Woodstock wasn't everything its myth portrays. Woodstock started out as a corporate music festival like any other, complete with the paltry accommodations, exorbitant prices and chain-link fences that made it feel more like a prison than anything else.

The difference was that in 1969, kids had lived through the uprisings of the '60s. They had marched for civil rights and been inspired by the Panthers. They had occupied their campuses against the Vietnam War. And countless had been radicalized by the insurgencies of 1968. These were young people who had no compunction standing for their rights.

It was this radical and youthful energy that brought the fences down at Woodstock and attracted hundreds of thousands to the festival who couldn't be bothered to pay for their right to music. It wasn't just chaos. In many ways, it was a reclamation.

Ultimately, that is what makes Woodstock so legendary today. For those three days, a music festival captured a tiny bit of the liberation that young people craved. Today, it's worth asking whether we can tear down a few gates of our own and hear our music without waiting for permission from industry parasites.


Friday, May 1, 2009

Let Each Stand in Their Place

Today is May Day. International Workers' Day. Hundreds of thousands of workers are marching today for a world without war, inequality and injustice. As the economy worsens, there couldn't be a more urgent time to continue reviving this tradition here in the United States.

There's really only one thing to do here at Rebel Frequencies on a day like this. You'll see it below.

I could put up an older, more classic version of this song. Billy Bragg's certainly has its shortcomings. I also wish I could find a version with the American lyrics. But Bragg's is dynamic enough. And no matter what version of the song you listen to, no matter what language it is in, its stirring, rousing sound continues to inspire those who fight for a better world.