Monday, June 29, 2009

How Michael Jackson's Music Changed the World

The last fifteen years of Michael Jackson's life are almost enough to obscure the true greatness of this artist. During those last fifteen years we saw the handsome, charming Pop star go through myriad plastic surgeries that made him look more like a latter-day Peter Pan. We saw the trappings of unprecedented fame manifested in beyond bizarre behavior--the kind for which "eccentric" seems a mild term. And then, there are the child molestation scandals. Media were ready to somehow link his strange persona with his alleged sexual abuse of minors--few were willing to draw the same link to his own father's abuse.

It's almost enough to overshadow his legacy. Almost, but not quite.

None of these are what Jackson is being remembered for as millions mourn his sudden passing the world over. They aren't the reasons that we see footage of people breaking down in sobs of grief at news of his death. We are hearing condolences coming not just from musical icons like Madonna and Paul McCartney, but world leaders like Nelson Mandela and Hugo Chavez. Influence like that can't be rubbed out.

Over forty years, Michael Jackson's voice and performance style reached a level of universality that nobody--and I mean nobody--has ever reached in music. One would be hard pressed to find a single soul who hasn't been touched by his recordings. That a video of Filipino prisoners performing the "Thriller" dance can become a web phenomena is but one small testament to this. Thirteen number one singles, 750 million albums sold worldwide. And if you're still skeptical, still searching for proof of Jackson's greatness, let me ask you: is there anyone out there who hasn't attempted the moonwalk? I rest my case.

Soul, Disco, Rock, Pop, R&B, even Hip-Hop--Jackson left his mark on all of them. As his four decade career progressed and evolved, Jackson frequently found himself setting the tone for popular music--even as he embodied its worst contradictions.


In 1970, Motown Records was on top. The Jackson 5's first four singles cemented that status; all would reach number one on the Billboard Pop singles. Though the African-American group's massive success among listeners of all races revealed the growing maturity of a country under the sway of a vibrant Black Power movement (and label CEO Berry Gordy's cutthroat marketing), it was Jackson 5's youthful, almost bubblegum-innocence that attracted throngs of listeners.

At the center of that sound was young Michael. Barely eleven years old, the label nonetheless stated his age as eight in an attempt to up the cuteness factor. Michael was recognized as a prodigy early on, his shining, scampish voice still somehow able to convey the depths of emotion that made songs like "I Want You Back" and "I'll Be There" more than dime-a-dozen love songs.

As the Jackson 5 rocketed up the charts and exposed the young quintet to overnight fame, Michael was being exposed to the first traumatic swipes of music industry tailoring. In 1993, he spoke frankly about his father Joe's emotional and physical abuse. Joe, himself a former musician, had guided the group in their early days and was so intent on the young group making it big that he would sit in a chair with a belt in his hand during rehearsals. According to Michael, "if you didn't do it the right way, he would tear you up, really get you." Busy recording and touring schedules meant that in essence, Jackson had no youth of his own.

Years later, Smokey Robinson would describe him as "an old soul in a boy's body." Did Michael Jackson have his childhood stolen from him? Or did he just never grow up? Perhaps both? In any event, it's clear that the troubled man he was to become had its roots in his early grooming as a musical icon.

The Jackson 5's influence waned as the 70's progressed amid label troubles and a changing musical landscape. Even as the group declined, however, Michael's star continued to rise. His 1979 solo album Off The Wall indicated an uncanny savvy on the part of Jackson and his songwriting team. The glitzy Disco beats were underlaid with a Pop sensibility that seemed to recognize the sound of the 70's was on the way out.

Off The Wall made history by becoming the first album to generate four top ten hits, and sold 20 million copies world-wide. However, Jackson felt the album hadn't made the impact he had hoped for, and aimed to go above and beyond on his next effort.


There is no doubt that his next album achieved this new level of impact. What can be said about Thriller that hasn't been already? To date, it has sold over 100 million copies--a sheerly staggering amount. Listening to it today, it's still a magnificent piece of work, incorporating Rock, Soul, Funk and R&B into a seamless pastiche of musical perfection.

Thriller has become a touchstone of popular music. Any trend that took hold in the 1980's owes its existence to this album. The signature Eddie Van Halen riff on "Beat It" has become one of the most recognizable guitar parts in the world. And as the 80's drew Pop into synthesized, syrupy waters, songs like "Billie Jean" showed that the music could still be gritty, muscular, even sinful.

And then, there was the title track itself. The fourteen-minute video for "Thriller" was more of a short film than anything else, and helped legitimize the nascent art-form of the music video. At its height, MTV aired "Thriller" twice an hour just to meet viewer demand, and the still-fledgling cable station was viewed in a whole new light. It seems no exaggeration to say that without Michael Jackson, MTV might not have survived.

In broadening the scope of videos, Jackson also helped pave the way for other artists of color. Prior to Thriller's release, many had publicly criticized MTV for not playing enough Black artists. When Jackson himself voiced concern, it provoked CBS Records President Walter Yetnikoff to call the executives of MTV personally and declare "I'm not going to give you any more videos and I'm going to go public and fucking tell them about the fact that you don't want to play music by a Black guy." MTV caved, and the rest is history.

That a Black artist could become one of the most popular at the height of the Reagan 80's is truly something to behold. In one of the most surreal moments in music history, Reagan even invited Jackson to the White House in 1984. There is a deeper contradiction at play, though. While Jackson blazed trails musically and socially, he was also being shaped into the ultimate cash-cow. The music industry went through a massive expansion in the 1980's, and for much of that time, Jackson became its main figurehead.


It's no coincidence then, that the 80's were the decade that saw the first public glimpses of Jackson's eccentric and weird behavior. Thriller had launched him into the exclusive realm of superstardom. His lawyer, John Branca, bragged that he had secured the highest royalty rate ever for Jackson, at approximately $2 per album.

This not only meant that the artist was now a multimillionaire, but that he lived in an un-poppable bubble. Jackson started surrounding himself with people who, as some have said, "wouldn't say no to him." He went on million-dollar shopping sprees. He bought a chimp named Bubbles. Rumors circulated of him sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber and attempting to buy the Elephant Man's bones. Both were untrue, but the fact that he circulated these rumors himself highlighted his increasing disconnect from any kind of reality.

It was also at this time that Jackson's skin tone started noticeably lightening. Up until the 80's, his skin had been a medium-brown hue. Some have speculated that he was bleaching his skin, the result of a deeply internalized racism. The actual reason for this, according to spokespeople, was Jackson's diagnosis of vitiligo, and he needed to balance out his splotchy skin-tone with lighter makeup.

Regardless, one can't deny that the singer was undergoing significant physical changes. Jackson began to express desire for a "dancer's body," and began noticeably losing weight. Medical professionals publicly stated that he was suffering from anorexia and body dysmorphic disorder.

As Pop was dethroned by Grunge and Hip-Hop in the 90's, and as Jackson's own life became increasingly mired in scandal, he struggled to stay on the cutting edge of music. This didn't stop him from selling millions of albums or booking the biggest stadiums world-wide. It did, however, highlight his growing reclusiveness and exhaustion. As the 21st century dawned, his weakened voice was increasingly manipulated by autotune, his performances became more infrequent to spare his exhausted body. By the time Jackson was called into court for a second child molestation case in 2003, many former fans had tossed in the towel on him.

It's eerily symbolic that Jackson passes away amidst crushing debt as the world descends deeper into the worst economic crisis in several decades. It's also tragic, given that Pop music is finally becoming interesting again for the first time in a decade. Whether the long string of shows he had recently booked in London would have helped catapult Jackson back to the top is a question that will never be answered.

There is one thing that is indisputable however: there will never be another artist who changes the path of music quite the way that Michael Jackson did. He widened the horizons of popular music to an immeasurable degree, and changed its trajectory forever. No matter what we may think of him as a person, we cannot separate him from the sick world that brought him up. We also cannot ignore that through his music, he changed that world for the better--if only a little bit.

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


Sunday, June 28, 2009

Don't Take No For An Answer!

The Pride march is taking place today here in Chicago, as it is in several cities in the US. As always, history has an eerie way of achieving symmetry, as this year, the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, is also the year that a young, militant LGBT Liberation movement has been ignited around the struggle for same-sex marriage. Make no mistake, we will win this, but only if we fight!

It's in this spirit that I am posting this video. Few artists brought the fight for Gay Lib into the late '70s music scene in the UK like the Tom Robinson Band did. As strikes, protests and general unrest engulfed Britain in the late '70s amidst a crumbling economy, battles against all forms of oppression also took form. Robinson, a socialist, was one of the first British artists to be open about his own sexuality, and his band is perhaps best known for performing their single "Glad To Be Gay" at the Carnival Against the Nazis in April of '78.

I could embed the video for "Glad To Be Gay" right here, but the hard-driving, uncompromising sound of this song better encapsulates the fighting spirit that today's new movement. As folks can see, the band is seen performing at a Gay Liberation march in London:


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Beats of resistance in Iran

Straight up: victory to the movement in Iran! Though the mouthpieces here in the US are determined to somehow spin this into an "Islamic problem," this is bigger than religion and bigger than elections. It's about the economic crisis sweeping the globe that has caused massive unemployment. It's about corruption, human rights and basic democracy.

The video below is for the song "Faryad," from a Persian rapper who goes by Pesare Bad. I couldn't seem to locate the translation of the lyrics, but the pounding beats and content of the video just about say it all. Hip-Hop has always been in a state of semi-legality in Iran, and it should come as no surprise that most MCs and artists have been as vocal as possible in their support of this new revolution.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

It should be on your reading list too...

Regular readers of Socialist Worker will remember Todd Chretien's hilarious letter to Hugo Chavez urging the Venezuelan president to give other incendiary books to President Obama for his "summer reading list" (Chavez recently gave Eduardo Galleano's Open Veins of Latin America to Obama during a visit back in April, and recently expressed interest in giving him Lenin's What Is To Be Done? at a future meeting).

It's certainly a funny article, as Chretien conjures up images of late night Leninist reading groups in the White House basement ("dont invite NSA guys..." classic!). But even as Chretien offers up some essential books for our own reading list, he leaves the door open for our own participation, urging readers to send their own suggestions for Obama (and ourselves) as we head into this volatile political era. The readers' suggestions appeared last week on the SW website, and here is the submission that yours truly made:

Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang
According to some, we're living in the age of the "first hip-hop president." And indeed, Barack Obama was elected with unprecedented support from the hip-hop community.

For his part, Obama has also professed to be a fan of the genre's "spirit of entrepreneurialism," and admitted to having Jay-Z on his iPod. But in the wake of the Don Imus fiasco, Obama proved himself willing to turn the rhetorical guns on hip-hop like any other politician.

This quintessential history of hip-hop puts the record straight: that rap is a lot more complex than talk about "bling and hos." At its best, it has been an outlet for young people's hopes and dreams when nobody else would listen to them. This book belongs on the president's summer stack. If he's going to be a "hip-hop president," then it's high time he learned about the real "change" that today's youth are striving for.
-- Alexander Billet, Chicago

Perhaps a bit predictable, but true nonetheless. I took up this concept even more in depth during my recent speech at the Socialism 2009 conference this past weekend. Stay tuned to this blog for an audio file of the session!


Monday, June 22, 2009

Son of Nun Interview, Part 2

As the evening continued (and the alcohol flowed), my conversation with Son of Nun drifted into even deeper territory. To SON, one of the underground's most socially active rappers, the correlation between art and politics is never static. It is ever shifting, morphing, presenting new challenges to artists who wish to make a difference beyond the strictures of "the music world."

This isn't to say, however, that it's intangible. The history of music and struggle is full of rich and vibrant stories where, even if songs didn't directly change the world, they did give people the hope, courage and inspiration to fight for something better. There is a deeper level on which music exists, however. That's the level that hits people in their emotional core. Plenty of political music misses this entirely.

Music alone cannot organize people, but it can inspire and give confidence if it reaches this deep down place. And if an artist can walk this fine line, then they can manage to do a lot more than make pretty sounds. In truth, it can make people powerful--even dangerously so. It's a true travesty that so few are given the voice they need to put their message out. SON, however, understands all of this, which is part of what makes his music so necessary right now.

Alexander Billet: Has it been hard for you to transition from being a working teacher into being an MC? Because I know that there have been a lot of politically minded acts who have become frustrated with their music and end up abandoning it so they can do more on the actual ground.

Son of Nun: There's a part of me that's like "how do I make a tangible impact?" as opposed to just writing some songs. At the end of the day, it's still a song that I wrote. It's not like somebody can now pay their light bill. My song is not going to do that. But then at the same time you hear the story about Boots Riley (from the Coup). He was an MC for a while before he became political. But he was still a community organizer. And then, the story that I heard that made him want to put politics into his music was that the cops were harassing somebody in the projects, and somebody starting playing "Fight the Power" out of the windows, and then the people who were crowded around started growing and shouting "fight the power," to the cops that were still there. This got to the point where they left the dude alone, got back into their car, really slowly, and they got the fuck out of there. After he saw that, it was like "I'm putting politics in my fucking music!"

AB: That's incredible! See now, those are the moments you don't hear about when we're taught how to think about music. We don't think about how the art can actually affect people. I've never really believed in the idea that "music is the weapon," but I do think there are times when it can give people confidence, which is a pretty important element of fighting back.

SON: Yeah. And honestly, what I've been trying to do lately, something that I've realized. In doing music, especially the music that I do, I need to sometimes look at it from the role of a political organizer. What an organizer tries to do is assess the resources you have and figure out how to use them to see the change you want to see. So what I should be doing shamelessly is like, you know, "hey Alex, I'm coming out with an album." [laughter from both of us] I can't be timid about putting myself out there when I'm saying that this is bigger than me as an MC. If I was just all about "I'm a dope-ass MC, ra ra ra," then I might be more timid, but if I'm not, if I want an interview to go down the way that we're having it, where we're discussing the issues, then I need to not be fearful in any way of being like "yo, this is what I'm putting out, and this is why I'm putting it out. How can we use this as an organizing tool?" Just to put it out there, another pebble in the pond, and hope it stirs up consciousness.

AB: You're touching on something I've been thinking of from my end too. You know, the presence of radical artists and radicals who write about music is so needed for so many different reasons. For one thing, when you talk about being timid, there's this whole structure in the music industry of "critic vs. the artist." And you know what? I can't blame so many artists for thinking of music writers as the enemy because the music press is in such a lazy state right now. Rolling Stone, Spin, all of that. They'll chop up the interview and twist around what the artist is trying to say. So, there's a reason for musicians to look at critics like that. I think that the voice of the musician should be paramount. Specifically when you're talking about political music. The musician's voice matters! There are so many great musicians that take up what's going on right now, but the music press is steadfast on either ignoring them or being openly hostile to them. I want to aid the process in making the musician's voice a weapon.

SON: Right. And an effective weapon too. Because that's the thing: it's crucial, and it's fundamental to be able to empower your community as an artist because that's where you're at. So you need to figure out how to help inspire the people that you're working with on the regular. But it's also about trying to find a wider audience. To know the reason that this doesn't happen more, to know the structure of the music industry, to have journalists pour themselves out on that page who are part of that struggle, giving voice to artists... I think it's fucking crucial. That's why I'm glad to do this interview: because I know you're in it. You've done this work too! It's not just some abstract idea floating around in your head, it's about change. This is something that you love to do that's important and you're tying those two things together.

Putting these ideas out there is crucial because when it comes down to it, if folks don't know this shit they go nuts. This system eats people up. I mean it eats people the fuck up! Period. Hands down. That's what it does. People work for the machine to the point where if you resist it you feel like you're crazy. You're bumping your head up against the wall. You're coming up against the reality of a society that does not value giving you the things that you need as a human being. You're coming up against that inequity. To have people coming together to be like "no, that's bullshit, and we need to support each other."

AB: That's one of the things that I think good music does, be it Rap, Rock, Soul, Jazz: it breaks through that alienation. Whether it's political or not, it reminds people that they're not alone. It gives them hope. But that hope needs to be channeled in some kind of direction. I think there's a real need for songs that can give people hope in today's world--songs that say there is a way, there is an answer, we can fight. Like your song "Fire Next Time."

SON: "Fire Next Time" is a tribute to the rebels of the past who inspire me, the giants of the past whose shoulders I stand on. It also came from the idea that Black History Month doesn't just have to be in February. I wanted to do those two things and then also put it in a context of today. That was "the fire last time," what's the fire next time gonna be like? I tried to write it from the point of view of a soldier in the US Army who's Black and who's disillusioned--who's thinking "this is bullshit, you have me out here guarding this pipeline for Bechtel. Fuck that shit! You're making money, but my community's falling apart."

Jared Ball, who's an amazing activist and teacher at Morgan State, used to be in the military. And he came into the military because he had done some shit and was facing some time. They said to him he could get out of it if he joined the service. So I try to incorporate that aspect into it too. This is where I'm drawing my inspiration from, this is what they did. Another inspiration I mention in there is the Maroons. My people are from Jamaica, and the Maroons were those slaves up in the hills of the cotton-picking country in Jamaica who could not be defeated. They're not perfect, there's some shit that I struggle with about them, but the reason they existed is incredible! So incorporate those things into the song and put it in the context of today. We can do some real shit. That's why I say "the fire next time is comin' to DC." The seat of fucking power. We have the ability to do that, and if you need a spark, you need a reason, here's one. That's why I wrote the song.

AB: When you do that song live the participation of the audience seems so crucial. And even on the album, I notice you leave a blank space. You say "when I say fire, y'all say next time," then you say "we the fire," but there's no vocal where there should be "next time." Are you trying to get people listening to their headphones and chiming in?

SON: Yes. Yes. I was just kind of like "why not?" It's supposed to be call and response. I know that even though people aren't with me there in the studio, I want them to be coming along. Maybe after the first verse when they notice I leave it blank they'll be like "all right, I'll do it next time." You know? Call and response comes out of slave spirituals and that tradition. I wanted to keep that alive in that song. I didn't want to do a different vocal track for that part on the album version. I wanted people to know that so when they go to the show they'll be saying it with their fist raised! Also I wanted them to have the idea that they have to participate in some way.

AB: "Change is Constant" is another one I wasn't quite expecting on that album--especially as a final track. Talk about ending on a high note! First of all the beats are really flowy and laid back.

SON: Honestly, Mentos, the producer on the album--that was his doing. He sent me that beat and the song came out of me. I just thought "this is an amazing piece of music." I asked myself how I could translate it lyrically, how I can reflect it. I wanted to try to tie everything together. I wanted to say "maybe you don't agree with all my perspectives, but if you oppose the exploitation that people are enduring in this country and internationally, regardless of what you call yourself, then this song is something you can identify with."

And also I found that I had to acknowledge the importance of being solid in who you are. That's not something that's popular to do as an MC. I wanted to let people know that it's all right, that you're not crazy to want to resist, and that it's all right to attempt to love yourself and find strength in resisting these things for yourself. Because all of that is coming out of a place of love for humanity too. It might sound like some hippie shit, but that's where I am. I don't do the things that I do because I want to be president, or to increase my own power. I want people to be all right. It's political and it's also in that murky space--that reality that you have to deal with in yourself and in larger society. It's in that in between space. That's where I'm coming from.

AB: Any last words? As a send-off to the folks at home?

SON: As a send-off? To the folks in the struggle, thank you. To the artists that are in the struggle, stay in the struggle. Your strengths will come from there, and your lessons will come from there, as opposed to something that you read in a book. Stay in it, and let it all affect you.

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


Monday, June 8, 2009

Son of Nun Interview, Part 1

Call it a hazard of the profession. I’ve interviewed many artists in all different genres, and while all have been more than willing to open up about their music, cracking into their opinions about all the myriad issues that surround us—politics, culture, race, sex, even the human condition itself—has proven something of a challenge. The way music is presented nowadays, it’s no wonder that so many musicians and artists would rather play it close to the vest. The iron wall that has been drawn between the creator and the reporter is a tough one to breach.

That’s not so with Son of Nun. A former Baltimore public school teacher who put down his chalk in favor of a mic a few years back, SON has become something of an underground mainstay. Hearing his licks, it’s obvious why. This man is full of ideas that drip from his rhymes. They are as literate as they are urgent, as erudite as they are sophisticated. His latest album The Art of Struggle, released last summer, has launched him even further into the minds of activists and Hip-Hop heads alike.

One might think that someone with such a formidable ability with the mic might be the hardest to get to open up. Alas, that is thankfully not the case. When I said down with him recently, he was more than ready to talk about anything that pecked away at his brain—or mine for that matter. With Hip-Hop currently at the biggest crossroads we’ve seen in its thirty-plus year existence, a conversation with Son of Nun makes you wonder if what we need is another hero, another next big thing, or someone as real and down to earth as this MC.

I set out in this interview to give SON a platform, to let him espouse his ideas unimpeded the way so many journalists in the mainstream won’t allow. What I ended up getting wasn’t an interview so much as a conversation, an exchange of ideas that breaks down the barrier between “performer” and “the rest of us.” It was also simply too much good stuff to limit to one article:

Alexander Billet: Let’s get this started: tell the folks a bit about yourself.

Son of Nun: I guess I’ll begin at the beginning. Born in the late ‘70s. Came up with sickle cell. I spent a lot of time in the hospital and shit. It’s a blood disease more common among Africans and people of African descent, and people say that it was an adaptation to deal with malaria. Malaria would infect the blood and essentially kill you. So what the sickle cell would do is that it would elongate the cell so that the malaria wouldn’t be able to attack the blood cells. But essentially the sickle cell itself can end up damaging your organs and killing you.

AB: I think you mention that in one of the songs of Blood and Fire [his first record]: “you want a battle, here’s a answer / first tackle sickle cell and then tackle cancer.”

SON: Yeah, so I dealt with that. Came up still pretty quiet, then I had thyroid cancer when I was in high school. I remember the surgeon being like “there’s a chance you could lose your voice, or your voice could be damaged” because the nerve that goes to the voicebox is right in that same area as the thyroid gland. So when they took it out and I could still speak, I was like “shit!” I was a quiet dude, and it made me realize the value of my voice and how much I had not been using it.

AB: Use it or lose it kind of thing…

SON: Yeah. So that made me recognize that I’m not gonna be as quiet, I’m gonna try to use my voice to do something. And then that turned into Hip-Hop, but that was a process. Not long after that, when I was in high school in the mid-‘90s, I kind of got fed up with Hip-Hop. It was all sounding the same. I didn’t know about the 1996 Telecommunications Act or anything like that so it was like, all this shit is sounding the same, none of it is telling me why things are fucked up. A lot of it is like “things are fucked up and I’m gonna get mine.” I came from the suburbs, so I can’t be like “I gotta kill this negro to get my shit.” It didn’t seem right, I didn’t come up in those circumstances. My mom was a single mother, she worked three and four jobs at the same time to make sure that I didn’t have to want for anything. That reality started to dawn on me, but I still couldn’t connect the dots. I was like “there’s a whole lot of inequity going on.”

My people are from Jamaica. I was lucky enough to get to go there and see that contrast between my family and what they had to go through versus the tourists. All of that stuff came together so by the time I went to college, which in and of itself was a blessing, I was on a mission to figure out what was at the root of all this. I didn’t get it in high school. So I went to college, and when I came out I was still kind of trying to figure it out. I had a better conception through the groups that I met in college, like learning about Mumia’s case, that opened me up. Then hearing his perspective on different issues—that helped me connect the dots a lot more, and I felt like I was on the right path. Then I met different organizations after that, and I started getting it: that it’s actually a system that is responsible for why some people are poor and a handful are rich. It’s capitalism. It’s a system that lets GM make record profits in one year and still close up shop in America and find cheaper labor south of the border so they can maintain record profits.

AB: When during all of this did you start becoming interested and serious about rapping?

SON: Well, as I said I was fed up with Hip-Hop, but at the end of high school I had a teacher in my English class who had us journal. I was shy and all that stuff, definitely not about myself or being a blowhard as many MCs are. She had us journal, and she would actually take the time to reply and leave comments on every student’s journal about what they had written. The impact that had on me was like “oh, somebody’s actually responding to what I’m saying and validating it.” So I started writing poetry after that, and then it was February ’97 when a friend of mine in college said “I heard that you write. Why don’t write something for us so that when we jam we can have an MC?” So I did that, and the first time I picked up the mic I was like “yo…” [laughter] Hearing the poetry back with music live was music just fueled that passion for writing. I started writing more poetry, found out about spoken word and was just amazed by it. This was at the same time I was becoming politicized, so I was thinking of how I can work in what’s going on in my mind into the art that I’m trying to create.

So that’s how I came into picking up the mic. I freestyled with the band, and the DJ had records and instrumentals, so I’d rhyme over that. Then I found Drum ‘n’ Bass. And because I was so fed up with Hip-Hop I was like “yo, this shit is ill.” So I got into that and started freestyling over that. Then, at that time, WHFS had this late night show called “Trancemissions” where they would play electronic music, and the host had a competition because Roni Size was gonna perform at the 9:30 Club. I submitted a CD that I did with a DJ who spun some downtempo stuff that was still Drum ‘n’ Bass. I was like “it’s a DJ competition but fuck it, I’ll just submit this.” And I ended up winning and got to open up for Roni Size at the 9:30 in DC. I was only twenty-one, so I was pumped!

Then it started to dawn on me that the shit I was talking about wasn’t what people in this scene were into. And I want my art to have some sort of impact in some way. I was still doing the slam-style poetry and I realized that there was an underground scene that I wanted to be a part of. So I started moving away from the Drum ‘n’ Bass and got deeper into the slam scene. Then I came across MC’s who were doing the same shit I was. And I started to realize that Hip-Hop is alive, it’s beautiful, and it still has all the things that I remember that inspired me still intact. People are still living that shit and doing that. And I started losing the fear that people weren’t going to get me. There’s a vibrant community of people that are on that level about saying the real shit that needs to be said. And that’s where I want to be. It was a process, I had to pay my dues all over again. So that’s how I came back into Hip-Hop, and started to love it and respect it again.

AB: It seems that you went through a real heavy evolution just coming back into Rap music and discovering what it is you love about it. And really, that evolution I think is ongoing. The Art of Struggle sounds very different from Blood and Fire. I know on Blood there’s a lot more Drum ‘n’ Bass influence, but on Struggle there’s a lot more organic sounding stuff on there.

SON: Man, with Blood and Fire, I love the album but listening to it a few years later there were a few tracks where it was like “maybe this one shouldn’t have made the cut.” In terms of production, in terms of rhymes, in terms of content, I’m one hundred percent proud to have my name on the cover. Period. It was a reflection of where I was at, and a reflection of where my roommate, who made a lot of beats for the album, was at. The Art of Struggle is a reflection of the time that I’ve spent working with different movements. It encompasses my perspective on a lot of issues like immigrant rights, the death penalty, the way that children are impacted the most by debt on the African continent and how that relates to child soldiers. There’s also a lot of pride on the album in term of the rebels that are in my past and my heritage—like the Maroons in Jamaica, and the people from this continent who have put their lives on the line to move things forward. That’s why I’m this pumped about The Art of Struggle. Because you know what? For me this is a dope project, and if you don’t like it then I don’t care. And that’s not to say it’s the best Hip-Hop album of all time. It’s not. But for me and where I’m at, it’s a reflection of my skills and my politics, and I feel like I can argue politically that these are the issues we need to address. It makes the case for solidarity in a way that you can relate to.

AB: At the same time Blood and Fire made a lot of waves on the east coast activist scene. I’ve seen you play at immigrant rights marches, at housing rights benefits. You did the Uprise Tour with Iraq Veterans Against the War, played with folks like Tom Morello, The Coup. Could you go a little more in depth as to how much working with those movements has impacted your material?

SON: It’s definitely impacted it in the sense that I have learned a lot more from the people who are actually in these struggles, fighting this war against their own group. Just hearing their perspective on it—I didn’t know that there was an IVAW doing the same shit that the soldiers in Vietnam were doing. Everyone wasn’t always against the war in this country, but in that context, IVAW was like “no, this shit is fucked up, and we’re not standing for it.” Also, knowing that Iraqis were resisting their occupiers the same way that people here in this country would, tooth and nail. Having those experiences with those movements has been so important to me. There are a lot of political artists out there; everyone doesn’t always know about them. But when you’re a political artist who is also walking the talk, then you know people and you build those relationships. Then when those people are trying to find a way to make their point through culture, you have that relationship. When you walk the talk your ideas bump up against reality, and it helps to shape them, it helps to trim the fat. And it helps you be figure out whether you’re on the level where you’re saying something because you read it in a book or whether you see it’s what the people are actually saying. I have my perspective on why shit is fucked up, but that’s one perspective. And I need to rap with the people who are actually living that and who are actually fighting against that so that it looks like I’m coming in on high to tell you how things need to be done.

AB: There was a lot that happened in between your two albums that have affected Hip-Hop as a whole too in terms of different issues and movements. Hip-Hop had to respond to Katrina, the Jena Six, and a lot of other stuff that has exposed the racism in this society. Seems to me a lot of Hip-Hop artists have been forced to respond to it and have wanted to respond to it. Has any of that affected you too?

SON: No, not at all. [laughter]

AB: Short and sweet answer. I like it.

SON: Naw, man, of course. Of course. It’s like Chuck D said, “Hip-Hop is the Black CNN.” I wish I was the dude who said it. But Chuck D said that shit years ago. So yes. I could not claim to be a political artist, or even a Hip-Hop artist, if I wasn’t talking about the shit that was going on. You know what I mean? You couldn’t be a writer if you didn’t have an experience. And where are you gonna gain experience besides the reality you’re given? Fuck yeah, the last five years a hell of a lot of shit has been going on. Being a Hip-Hop artists is about exposing contradictions and putting them in your face, being like “deal with this.” Why is this? Why does this happen? What that does is it opens up larger questions about the society we live in. Everybody knows that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, but what does that actually look like? People don’t necessarily need that to be pointed out because you know that you’re broke. But it’s like how can I help connect those dots? And in the past five years there have been a lot of dots to connect.

AB: There’s one specific song I’ve seen you do live that takes a real cue from all the stuff that’s happened recently, and that’s “Speak On It.” Tell me about that song, because when I see you do it you’re either holding up pieces of paper with the issues on them or they’re projected behind you.

SON: “Speak on It” is six issues. It’s Katrina, it’s Stan “Tookie” Williams who was executed by the Terminator out in California, immigrant rights, the uprising in Oaxaca from a few years back, military recruiters in schools and it’s also about the bombing of Lebanon back in ’06. My reason for writing that was that I was trying to open up these issues and put them up against each other in one piece so that people would be like “right, this shit happened, and this is how different people are experiencing oppression.” You can’t get around how this same system is responsible for all this. With that song, I wanted to put it all on the table and be like “this is how I see what’s going on.” After you hear that shit, you can’t not have a perspective. That’s not to say that you need to agree with me, but these are things that should be thought about and organized under. There’s a line that I have at the end—usually when I perform, though it didn’t make it to the album—where I say “agonize or organize, stand aside or moblize, close your eyes or strategize,” you know what I mean? That’s what’s going on, what are we going to do about it?

AB: There are a lot of artists that will talk about all these different issues, but I think there’s a big need in this fractured political society that we live in to tie those things together. That’s the job of the left, of radicals, and you do it better than most. Which reminds me of another track on the album, “Child Abuse.” It falls into what you were talking about earlier with how Third World debt actually plays in to the phenomenon of child soldiers. And you know, that’s the kind of stuff you don’t hear from Bono. You know, the man speaks out about Third World debt and all of these celebrities are speaking about Darfur but none of them are really putting it in a context of a bigger system. There’s a line in that song where you say “Kanye came closer than most, but he got shook by King Leopold’s ghost.” I love that line!

SON: I love it too.

AB: It touches on the diamond trade, and colonialism, but also ties it into Hip-Hop really well. Could you expand on it a bit more?

SON: Well, King Leopold was the king of Belgium, and Belgium took over the Congo in the 1800s. And he tried to play himself off as a humanitarian, saying they were going to help the poor and shit. So that’s the backdrop. King Leopold’s Ghost is a book that I did not read, but I saw the documentary. It’s about the history of the Congo. Basically, the Congo was not turning a profit until the need for rubber became more apparent with the advent of the automobile. So once they found out that they had these rubber trees, King Leopold decided he was going to make production sky-rocket. And he had Africans rounded up, forced into slave labor, and said that if they don’t produce enough rubber that they would cut off their right hand and throw it in the ocean. And there were soldiers who would get paid based on the number of hands they returned. At one point, there was a Belgian bureaucrat who said “well, you have all these hands, but how do I know these are from men?” So they had the soldiers bring back the genitals of the men, so they would have to cut off the nuts and the dicks off of men. And all of this would get thrown into the ocean.

So, the reason I put Kanye into that is that he did this song that everyone knows “Diamonds of Sierra Leone.” It was a great track, but what I took from it, and maybe I was wrong about this was that he was saying “yo, this is fucked up, kids are walking around with no hands because of these diamonds.” But he’s also like “I’m not giving these diamonds back.” And even Jay-Z has a line there where he says “the day I give the chain back is the day I give the game back.” So it’s like this hard line, yeah this is fucked up, but this is how it’s gotta be. I hadn’t heard a whole lot of commercial artists make that point or even raise the issue about the diamond trade, but the conclusion was still wack. It’s not just MCs, because diamonds were around before Hip-Hop. Kanye raised the issue but he didn’t take it far enough. All of that I try to put into that line.

AB: Both “Child Abuse” and “My City” take up the connection between how war and globalization affect people at home and abroad. You talk about the inner-cities here in the US and the schools and then also about the Iraqi resistance. First of all, did your experience as a high school teacher affect that first verse? Because that line “my high school never had many computers, but they always had plenty military computers,” that’s one of those lines that hits you. I’ve looked around the crowd after you say that line live and there’s a whole bunch of people in the audience whose faces light up. It’s like their saying, “yeah, me too!”

SON: I mean, it’s just what I noticed. I was a teacher, and yeah there are some computers, but they’re these shitty-ass old—you remember the floppy disc? Back in the day when it was still floppy? That’s the computers they had. They’re old. So it’s like they were lacking in quality computers, but they weren’t lacking in people who were willing to sign folks up for the military. That was the situation. It was tough to come up against that. I’d find myself in the situation where I was saying “look, I don’t have twenty thousand dollars to give you, but the military’s fucked up. You’re gonna have to risk your life and you don’t even know if you’re going to get that money.” And it sucked, because that’s not gonna pay anyone’s bills.

So what I try to do in “My City” is just open it up. This is the situation from a student’s perspective. I wanted to put it out there and expose that inequity. And then at the same time show it from the point of view of an Iraqi who is part of the resistance and the reasons that he would be fighting. So it’s like how do I convey reality through song in a way that’s not cheesy? ‘Cuz that’s another thing; as a political artist you don’t want to be the guy whose CD people buy because they think they should. I also want people to think it’s dope and for it to resonate with them, not just think “well, he’s making reasonable arguments, so I should support him.”

AB: It’s like, why don’t you just go out and buy a Noam Chomsky book right?

SON: Right.

Next week: the second part of my interview with Son of Nun

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


Monday, June 1, 2009

Plague Lovers' Purgatory

In a career almost twenty years long, the Manic Street Preachers have never gained a massive following in the US. In their native UK, the Manics have been among those ranks of bands that everyone knows--their songs became drunken anthems in London's working-class pubs long before the boys of Oasis even formed.

Their music has always skated dangerously close to Rock 'n' Roll's edge--blistering guitar licks, a rhythm section that refuses to be part of the background, and lyrics that play as much with "I-don't-give-a-shit" nihilism as they do with meaning and purpose. While Grunge may have brought a youthful anger back to Rock, few American groups gave it a direction.

The Manics, however, blended their sneering cynicism with a political compass that most bands on either side of the pond couldn't maintain in the crumbling grandeur of the '90s. Their inconoclastic use of media manipulation, their willingness to skewer anything that smacked of stale establishment junk, and their outspoken affinity for radical ideas clearly set them apart, especially because they did it with such style and fearlessness.

Whether it's this refusal to be anything but themselves, or just a consequence of the chronic myopia from which the American music industry suffers, the Manic Street Preachers' American audience has always remained sparse. With any luck, that will change with their new album.

Journal For Plague Lovers is a near-breathtaking piece of work, even by the Manics' standards. It is the first album to feature lyrics penned entirely by the group's backup guitarist and lyricist Richey James Edwards, who disappeared on February 1st, 1995. Edwards' body was never found, though his car was discovered near a notorious suicide spot two weeks later. Edwards, who had long battled with depression, was declared "presumed dead" at the request of his family in November of 2008.

A few days before his disappearance, Edwards gave a notebook filled with lyrics to bassist Nicky Wire. After thirteen years of sitting unused, Journal is the long-awaited result. Though it might be easy to think of this album as a novelty, a fossil of sorts, the shocking reality is that this is their freshest sounding and most relevant album in a decade! Edwards always brought an irreverence to his lyricism that was more harrowing than humorous, and that ethos seems to have soaked into every aspect of Journal.

"Peeled Apples" is a brutally abrasive opener, filled with razor-on-metal guitars. James Dean Bradfield's dangerous wail makes Billy Idol sound like a cat with a hairball problem, and Sean Moore's drums have the determined pound of a wrecking ball smashing through concrete. None of its intensity fades on the second track, "Jackie Collins Existential Question Time," which sees Edwards ruminating on the underbelly of traditional sex and marriage:

"Tonight we beg,
Tonight we beg a question
If I a married man,
A married man begs a Catholic
And his wife dies without knowing
Does it make him unfaithful people
Oh, Mummy, what's a sex pistol?"

This kind of world-view has always been at the heart of the Manics' music. Their keen love of Situationism has inspired them to turn the traditional inside out and lay its own emptiness bare--whether that be sex, work, love, leisure, even the concept of beauty itself. Unlike so many "political" groups who will rail on and on about specific issues that may or may not be relevant in a few years time, Manic Street Preachers play at the much more insidious sicknesses that plague modern capitalist culture. It's not only better song-writing, it's a timelessness that makes their music that much more potent--not to mention amazingly poignant almost fifteen years after the words were written.

This kind of universality comes out full-frontal on Journal For Plague Lovers' title track, which relies on tornado-swirl guitars and Bradfield's joyfully masochistic delivery. More broadly, the song's topic is the unabashed arrogance of absolute power:

"Only a god can bruise
Only a god can soothe
Only a god reserves the right
To forgive those that revile him"

Tell me these lyrics don't ring true in the age of billion dollar bank bailouts--especially when Bradfield sings "oh, sweet stimulus." Screw relevancy, this kind of statement is flat-out dangerous--in the best way possible!

It's a fitting tribute to Edwards' memory that his lyrics can find such immediacy long after his absence. There is obviously no way he could have predicted the present battle of ideas over same-sex marriage, let alone the current economic meltdown, when he lambasted the collisions of sex and power. The material that shows up on Journal finds traction in our own era, however, and that's one of the things that makes Edwards as close to immortal as an artist can get. It's also one of the reasons that more people in today's America need to listen to the Manic Street Preachers.

Originally appeared at The Society of Cinema and Arts.