Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A blast (quite literally) from the past


Twenty-five years ago, bassist, producer and all-around music wizard Bill Laswell introduced rap innovator Afrika Bambaataa to former Sex Pistols front-man John Lydon (formerly known as Johnny Rotten). Laswell was helping out Bam with his Time Zone project, which was essentially an album that not only showcased the artist's amazing skills with a mic and production, but featured collaborations with a varied array of other artists.

This was the early '80s; hip-hop had only just emerged from the Bronx and was starting to tear up the downtown avant-garde art scene. By this time the Sex Pistols were a faded memory in Lydon's head and he was doing admittedly much more interesting work with Public Image Ltd. PiL's sound, in many ways, was a perfect example of punk's continued evolution into an extremely experimental genre. When the two got together, this was the result:



It's quite obvious that this video was produced at the height of the Cold War. Themes of nuclear annihilation, urban decay and Reagan-as-the-devil were commonplace during this era (even on MTV, believe it or not). As a piece of video art, it's mediocre (can someone please tell me what the point was of having that sequence where Bam is dressed as a vampire-pimp?). Nobody can deny, though, that the song a stunningly effective piece of work. Austere, foreboding, snarling, cocky, brash, even menacing at times.

What's also notable is that it can't be easily labeled as either punk or rap. In essence, it's a hybrid. Keep in mind that this is 1984, a full two years before Run DMC and Aerosmith joined forces for "Walk This Way." But while "Walk This Way" was basically a party song, "World Destruction" attempted to play the role of giving a voice to the seedy underbelly of Reagan and Thatcher's world order. Both rap and punk had long felt the pull of having their anger and defiance watered down for consumption, but Bam and Lydon at that point had mostly resisted this pressure.

By all accounts, "World Destruction" is most likely the first experiment in rock-rap collaboration! Little wonder, then, why it was so subversive. It's also little wonder why it's been mostly ignored in favor of "Walk This Way."

*****

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Rise of Indie in the Age of Discontent


I couldn't help but notice a few days ago that the trailers for the movie version of Where the Wild Things Are is being marketed to young adults just as much as children, as evidenced by the inclusion of Arcade Fire's "Wake Up" in the commercial. Indeed, that whole movie's soundtrack is done by none other than the Yeah Yeah Yeah's Karen O.

In a way, that one ad seems to sum up what "indie" has come to symbolize: youthful rebellion that contrary to other past sub-cultures seems to want to hold on to some sense of innocence--or at least a sense of fun. But then, "indie" has always been something of an amorphous term. So broad has it been that it seems to have no limit to the ways in which it reinvents itself.

Essentially, this is what is put forth by Nitsuh Abebe in Pitchfork's "The Decade in Indie," part of the site's run-down of the first decade of the millennium. As Abebe lays out, this past decade has become one in which "indie" music has gone from, well, being "indie," to more or less the dominant fashion among young people today. It's also become very, very marketable.

That's a pretty hard trend to pin down--on all fronts--given that indie has never really had an easy definition, and insofar as it has it's been more than ready to shed any labels in favor of something new and fresh. It's interesting that the term itself started out referring not to a sound, but really a method of distribution. "Indie," of course, was short for "independent." In the wake of punk (and to a lesser degree hip-hop), young artists opted to go their own route on a level that really hadn't been seen before. Rather than vie for the major record contract, they simply started their own labels.

That most of these bands were either directly punk or part of the post-punk generation might explain how indie initially became a sub-section of rock. And like punk before it, the rise of indie was seen as a breath of fresh air. When the genre peeked its way into the mainstream somewhere around 2000, it had to shove aside the likes of macho nu-metal, meat-headed post-grunge, and a hip-hop schema that, with some very notable exceptions, seemed dominated by bling. While "alternative rock" had either faded into the background or become reappropriated by the industry, many of its own figures had spent the past several years regrouping and bringing its resolute independence back to the table.

As Abebe points out (and you'll have to excuse the long quote):

"This music was pleasant, accessible, and aesthetically interesting, but without making a whole lot of noise or sudden moves about it. There were things about the songs that were comfortable and traditional, which was how consensus got built around them: They were easy to like. But there were also things about them that, in the context of their time, seemed rare and special and worth getting behind. Some acts were soft-spoken and wry, which was a big contrast not only from pop but from buzzy, earnest alternative. Some, like Belle & Sebastian or Cat Power, had a sense of privacy and withdrawal to them, like they lived in your bedroom instead of blaring everywhere-- like there was something precious about them. There was a level of fantasy and whimsy around a lot of records, a light psychedelia, that hadn't been heard in a while and couldn't be gotten elsewhere-- this sense, when listening to the Lips or Stereolab or Elephant 6 bands, that the artists were picking up different aspects of pop music and painting swoony little dreams out of them. It felt thoughtful, a quality that's hard to define but a very big part of what made it appeal. Thoughtful and, of course, different. Music your parents could like, but probably found strange: This could feel subversive, somehow, in a world where youth culture was presumed to be aggressively loud."

The thing is: it can be loud. But it can also be docile, introspective. Or both at the same time. And both can plausibly be called "indie." Even at the beginning, there was a wide diversity in indie. Over the past decade, however, it's become nothing short of a big-tent. It's not just rock bands that are "indie" anymore. Dance-punk acts like Radio 4 and !!! have found a wide audience. Neo-folk groups like Fleet Foxes and Noah and the Whale have risen under the indie umbrella. Santigold is an indie darling right now despite the fact that her electroclash/R&B pastiche doesn't let rock anywhere near it really. Synth-pop groups like Passion Pit or Black Kids are dominant in large sections of the scene.

It would also be a mistake to think that indie has remained predominantly white too. Hip-hop appears to have gotten a strong dose of indie, with artists like Kid Sister, the Knux, U-N-I and the Cool Kids embracing a stridently fun and bare-bones approach that has gotten them unfortunately labeled "hipster rap." Even Jay-Z has shown up at Grizzly Bear shows and said that it's indie's job to challenge hip-hop. And then there's M.I.A., whose mere existence seems to personify both the legitimacy and broad scope of indie.

In short, there's really no way to figure out what the next turn of indie will be. But whether these groups are rap acts or rock, or something entirely new even, whether they are signed to a major label or not, isn't so much the relevant point as is the attitude. What seems to still be tying indie as a fashion together right now is its suspicion of the corporate mainstream (Urban Outfitters and American Apparel aren't as popular among today's scenesters as one might think). A high premium is placed on artistic integrity and individual expression. While this has been true in past sub-cultures, not all have maintained such a stance.

Indie, however, true to the name, accepts as commonplace that top-down culture is essentially bankrupt. That this outlook has become somewhat hegemonic among young people today speaks to the kind of time we're living in. The rise of the mp3 and an unprecedented access to technology, plus the genre's quickly-evolving, slippery existence means that the industry have had a hard time keeping a lid on it.

What this means for the future is anyone's guess. But it's also incredibly enticing. As Abebe points out:

"I'm not here to make predictions: The last thing I want is for the music I follow to be predictable. But what this adds up to is a feeling that something is coming-- some kind of spasm, some rearrangements of where things stand. Yet another big shuffle of who stands where under indie's umbrella, and where indie's umbrella stands in the first place."

Where the author falls short, though, is putting all this in a context. Is it any coincidence that the greatest wealth gap in American history is accompanied by a very real mistrust of anything that comes from the corporate addled mainstream? Opposition to wars, dissatisfaction with the direction of the country in general coupled with greater embrace of diversity have characterized this decade. That impulse to go outside the acceptable parameters for the specific intention of finding something fresh and new, something with integrity, something that says something, is one that has always characterized the indie ethos. Matched with a growing anger against the powers that be in this country, that kind of musical "spasm" may be something more along the lines of an explosion.

The revolution may not be televised, but from the looks of it, it very may well be in hyper-color.

*****

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ghetto Rock ...or... Death by Def


The rediscovery of the band Death earlier in the year has proven something of a revelation. Years before Bad Brains, years anyone was using the word "punk" to describe to a mass musical movement, three black kids from Detroit were rocking manic, aggro tunes that made the Buzzcocks sound like Tiny Tim. Despite never really finding a widespread audience, their music and very existence has forced a few to tweak their conceptions of punk's apparently lily-white roots.

So significant is the discovery that their story has now been taken up by one of hip-hop's finest: Mos Def. Last Friday Mos announced he is in the process of working on a rock-doc about the band's short career with Roc-A-Fella co-founder Damon Dash. "It's going to be great," Mos told Filter. "These dudes were pre-Sex Pistols, pre-Bad Brains, pre-all that shit and nobody knows them. I don't understand how the whole world could forget them."

Death, comprised of brothers Bobby, Dannis and David Hackney, were together for only a few short years in the early-to-mid '70s. They released a handful of singles, but their ferocious, unyielding electric sound might still be forgotten today if not for Bobby unearthing a demo recorded in 1974 that had been hiding in his attic. The demo was released earlier this year under the title ...For the Whole World to See by Drag City Records. The vitriolic rage and raw power of songs like "Politicians in My Eyes" and "Freakin' Out" provide a missing link between early proto-punks like the MC5 and the "year zero" punk explosion in 1977.

Still, one might ask why Mos Def, a hip-hop artist, should care. On the surface the notion of a rapper exhibiting creative passion over a punk band might seem odd. Even Pitchfork approached the story as something of a novelty, pointing out that Mos and Dash have collaborated on rock-based projects before, and snickering that "pretty soon, these guys will be rocking matching tie-dye. Just watch."

Pitchfork's signature snarkiness notwithstanding, it's a comment that really reflects the stagnant, withdrawn way that both punk and hip-hop are presented today. Namely, that they have little or nothing to do with one another. It's an outlook that's frustratingly backward--especially when one realizes that the sway that each continue to have over young people thirty years on. Loosely translated, it's something along the lines of "hip-hop is black music, and punk is white music, period."

Perhaps that's one of the reasons that Death have become such an eye-opener since their unearthing earlier in the year. Their very existence dislodges Bad Brains as an oddity. Furthermore, they show, three decades later that the lines drawn between races and genres are a lot more fluid than we might think. Mos' taking of the helm in relaying Death's story to the world is actually one of countless examples of punk and hip-hop taking inspiration from and challenging each other--from the Clash to the Beastie Boys to Rage Against the Machine.

The era that Death existed just about says it all. Those couple of years, '73 and '74 were ones when the post-war boom collapsed and placed working-class living standards--white and black--on the chopping block. That punk and hip-hop both gestated during these harsh months says a lot about the roots of the youthful rebellion that would explode powder-keg style as each broke out of isolation. That this group of young black kids from Motor City were some of the first to channel this energy says a lot about the common struggle that hip-hop and punk held in common.

It also says a lot that Death are finally getting their due in this specific day and age. Of course, whether Mos Def's doc effectively contributes to this new swell of attention won't be clear until it comes out. To the artists' credit, however, Mos has always (correctly) insisted that African Americans have never really received fair recognition for their contribution to popular music. If this doc can play a role in reversing the trend, it will have already been successful. At a time when artists are increasingly suspicious of the segregation of our music, it might hold the potential to do a lot more than that.

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

*****

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Why unions should defend piercings


Biking though the downtown area last week, I came across a small group of folks standing outside a hotel under renovation. There were about five of them, wearing AFL-CIO aprons that declared "on strike." Naturally I stopped and talked to them for a bit. It turned out that they weren't so much on strike as simply bringing awareness to the fact that the company taking on the renovation of the hotel was refusing to hire union elevator construction workers.

As is to be expected, they were in agreement on almost every issue: the bailouts are bullshit, health care should be universal, and workers should be getting better than a raw deal right now. There were, however, some very telling signs of the AFL-CIO's hesitancy to take up any kind of militant mantle. They weren't really up on what was going on at SK Hand Tools. When I brought up this past winter's occupation at Republic Windows, they seemed eager to dodge the issue: "well, it worked for them."

Then, the fellow I was talking to said something that stuck in my craw a bit. He mentioned that he was bothered that the construction company inside the hotel wasn't only allowing the people they hired to show up dirty and disheveled to work, but that they had been allowed to keep their piercings in while on the job.

I questioned him about this. He insisted that he had nothing against people who wear piercings, and it wasn't even a safety concern for him. Rather, that folks with metal in their faces "reflect badly on the company and on our union."

To be blunt, this is not something the unions should be concerned about. Granted, the labor movement has bigger fish to fry right now than defending piercings. Still, the remark seemed to reflect the way that the union officialdom has back-tracked over the past several decades, parroting much of the line that it's more about personal responsibility than defense of our rights at work--including the right to not hide what sub-culture you belong to.

First of all, having a lip-ring or tongue-stud has zero affect on your ability to do your job (unless they are a safety risk, which most aren't). Second, the notion that they shouldn't be allowed on the job just gives credence to the notion that the working class are a bunch of white, socially conservative males. If anything, young workers are more attracted to alternative sub-cultures--be it punk, hip-hop, indie, whatever--than their middle-class counterparts because they allow a degree of belonging that mainstream society doesn't offer up to the most exploited sections of society.

Third, and most importantly, it cedes an amount of control to employers, which is the exact opposite of what unions are supposed to do. By preventing certain workers from being themselves on the job, they make them less confident, and less likely to see themselves as having something in common with their co-workers.

The conversation reminded me of a passage from Lauraine LeBlanc's excellent book Pretty in Punk, a feminist analysis of women's experience in the sub-culture. LeBlanc records the story of a woman working as a stage-hand for a soap opera who comes into work one day with her lip pierced:

"And my boss turns around, he goes 'that ain't staying'... I was like 'yeah right... you're my grandfather right?' And he was like 'no, really... that's not staying... I don't like it... I don't care what you do with your off-time, but I don't have to look at it'... and I said 'that's discrimination... you can't tell me that'... And my next five-minute break, I went to the phone and called the union and I said 'is there a dress-code set by our union?' And they said 'no, what are you talking about?' And I said straight off the bat, I said 'look, you know I'm a freak. I'm into the crazy punk thing. I know you don't like the way I look, but I'm a good worker... I was just told by my boss that I cannot come to work with my lip piercing and I want to know if there's a code set by the union for safety or dress.' And they were like, 'no, the only ones that would have a code would be the company employing you. If at all'... By the time I got upstairs, the union had already called my boss and he was fuming for twenty minutes. 'She went over my head! She went over my head! You went over my head!' I was like 'you told me you didn't like it... and you had no right.' 'You went over my head!' But I didn't get fired."

The account is an instructive one--if for no other reason that it reveals that not all unions are as conservative as this particular guy wishes they were. It also supports the notion that workplace dress-codes are designed to tamp down self-expression, and as such should be fought along with any other provision that limits workers' voices.

Last year, it was reported that union membership grew for the first time in almost a decade in response to the economic crisis. It's an encouraging development for sure. It's also likely that in most cities, the sub-cultures that attempt to provide solace and space free from the world's slings and arrows have also grown. Even the smallest of punk shows here in Chicago seem to have increased attendance since the onset of the recession. Young, smart, class-conscious workers today recognize that this isn't mere coincidence.

*****

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I've said it before and I'll say it again... We need this here!


The spirit of Rock Against Racism lives! Last week, 20,000 people turned out for an all-day anti-fascist festival from Love Music Hate Racism. Hull is a city of only about 250,000, so for the carnival attendance to approach a tenth of the area's population is saying something.

First, some background. Since the chair of the fascist British National Party, Nick Griffin, won a seat in this past June's EU elections, the BNP and other groups that share their basic outlook have gone on the offensive, attempting large public festivals of their own, marching publicly, and sending storm troopers to intimidate Arab and Muslim communities. The economic crisis, along with the apparent bankruptcy of New Labour has given them the space to scapegoat and present themselves as a legit alternative.

The approach has been met with incredible resistance, however. Activists from Unite Against Fascism and other groups have been there almost every step of the way. The BNP's "Red, White and Blue" festival was literally surrounded by anti-fascists this past summer. Demonstrations by the thuggish English Defence League have been shut down by large amounts of counter-demonstrators in Birmingham and Harrow. Not long after, about 30 EDL neanderthals who attempted to disrupt a pro-Palestine march in London failed miserably.

This is the climate in which the LMHR carnival was held--one of an increasingly confident far-right, yes, but also one of rising class anger and militancy from England's highly multi-racial youth. Significantly, LMHR has managed in the past to gain the support of the UK's most popular artists. The Hull carnival featured Chipmunk, a grime/garage artist whose music has raced up the British charts. Indie rockers the Paddingtons also played.

By my reading, though, the best group to play were the King Blues, possibly one of the best political punk bands to come out of Britain in at least a decade. Itch, the group's lead singer, mentioned from the front how inspired he was that an audience of young workers would come out to this kind of festival.

It's a great example of the role music has to play in mobilizing people to defeat bigotry on our own streets. The tea-party assholes might think twice about marching on Washington if we were able to build this kind of presence here in the States.

The lesson can be boiled down to a few words from the King Blues own song: "I see dem comin' fi di youth, me say no!"

*****

Monday, September 21, 2009

Rap doesn't kill people, people kill people


The media has found yet another opportunity to turn popular music into the enemy. This past weekend, Virginia police arrested Richard McCroskey, a twenty-year-old man from California for the brutal murder of four people in the town of Farmville.

As of now, there is no known motive for the killings, though CNN and the rest seem to have found an ample substitute. McCroskey is an aspiring rapper in the "horrorcore" sub-genre, going under the moniker Syko Sam, whose lyrics focus heavily on the subject of murder and violence. Neighbors have described him as a "loner" who almost always wore black, and his MySpace page warns fans that "I hate everything, and I hate everybody." One of the victims in the murders was a fan of McCroskey's music.

I have no idea whether McCroskey killed these four people. To call these deaths a horrific tragedy would be an insulting understatement, and there are no words for what the victims' families and friends are going through right now. However, whether McCroskey is guilty or not, the character of the news coverage so far guarantees that his trial will be a circus. His music will be carted in as "evidence" and used to help convict McCroskey.

In a legal sense, there is no way that music can prove motive or provide concrete evidence linking McCroskey to the crime. That hasn't stopped courts in the past, however, from using popular music to paint defendants as "the other." To not do so might be to admit the myriad ways in which mainstream society itself promotes violence. Worst case scenario: the case will become an excuse to put horrorcore under a microscope. I'm no fan of horrorcore, but I shudder to think that targeting the sub-genre might lead to a broader witch-hunt against our music.

If music can be trotted out as a way to link people to violent crime, then anyone who listens to punk, hip-hop, metal or any other kind of popular music may find ourselves the victim of gross miscarriages of justice. Let's be honest: this is a system so unjustly flawed that it's put black men on death row for driving a car and taken every opportunity to frame up anyone associated with the Black Panthers.

Nobody could feasibly compare McCroskey to the Panthers or Kenneth Foster. But when the ulterior motives of this justice system mix with the scapegoating of music, the consequences can be dangerous. Don't believe me? Look at the West Memphis Three.

*****

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Pearl Jam Pass the Torch


Nobody can deny that Pearl Jam are a truly impressive rock band. Vedder and company have been playing music together for almost two decades. And despite spending most of it as one of the biggest music acts in the world, they’ve managed to steer far from the ravenous black hole of pop mediocrity that often sucks in such artists.

It’s an especially notable feat considering the fate of their closest peers. The other “big four” of the grunge years have all imploded. Soundgarden caved under the weight of fame, while the lead singers of Alice In Chains and Nirvana both became well-publicized casualties of heroin addiction. If not for Pearl Jam, the critics who pegged grunge as inherently self-destructive might actually be proven right. And nobody wanted that to happen.

With their ninth album Backspacer out Tuesday, these same naysayers might have to keep their mouths shut a little longer. At just eleven songs and under forty minutes long, it might be hard to believe that this is one of the group’s most poignant efforts. But that is in fact the case.

When word spread, per lead guitarist Mike McCready earlier in the year, that Backspacer would be heavily influenced by (gasp!) new-wave, fans balked—given that PJ have always been firm believers in the power of a crunchy, loud guitar. Rest assured, though; the distortion and feedback have gone nowhere. Rockers like “The Fixer” and opener “Gonna See My Friend” burn with just as much jagged garage punk fury as almost anything off of Vitalogy. Between these tracks and the introspective melancholy of such songs as “Just Breathe,” Backspacer sees the group walking the same line they’ve become so adept at treading without becoming stale or parodic.

One ingredient that is missing, however, is the imprint of a major record company. Backspacer is solely on the group’s own Monkeywrench label. Furthermore, all eleven tracks are already streaming in their entirety on their MySpace page. Nobody familiar with Pearl Jam’s long-standing beef with the industry can be surprised they took such a route when the opportunity finally arose.

That being said, Vedder’s fierce brand of political outrage also seems notably absent on Backspacer. It’s especially striking considering since the release of 2006’s politically charged self-titled album, the lead singer has by no means stepped back from activism. On the contrary, he’s been involved with everything from voting drives to assembling the bevy of acts that comprised the Body of War soundtrack.

Vedder’s lyrics seem to have turned inward, focusing on themes like love, loneliness and addiction. By the time we get to the closing track—aptly titled “The End”—we hear Vedder pining for (another gasp!) the simple life: “people change, as does everything / I wanted to grow old / I just want to grow old.”

Coming from a musical movement who personified rock’s “live fast, die young” ethos, that’s a gutsy thing to admit. But that is, alas, what those of us inspired by Pearl Jam’s early message did. We moshed, we raged, we gave our parents the bird and let them know we had no faith in their order. And when the music we loved so much was sucked back into the system we loathed some time in the mid-to-late ‘90s, we did, in fact, grow up. Those of us who came out with our souls intact, still believing we had the power to change things, were a lucky few.

Now, that faith in something better is coming full circle. There are countless acts taking up the same torch Pearl Jam kept burning all these years—acts willing to push the creative envelope while saying something meaningful. They might be outside the realm of the major labels, but that hasn’t stopped them from gaining loyal fan-bases and urgently relating to the world at large.

Perhaps the biggest strength that Pearl Jam have brought to Backspacer is their maturity. Rather than laughably strutting a fake youthfulness and acting like they’re still the vanguard—as so many established acts are wont to do—they admit that it’s time to step to the side and let the youth do their thing.

That being said, they aren’t going anywhere either. Good thing, too. It’s not often that the giants on whose shoulders you stand look up to give you advice.

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

*****

Friday, September 18, 2009

GaGa for gay rights


Few issues today seem to be as polarizing as that of LGBT liberation. Likewise, the work of Lady GaGa provokes a "love it or hate it" attitude among music fans. It's appropriate, then, that she has announced that she will be hosting a fundraiser for the upcoming National Equality March for gay rights.

The "dance-a-thon" rally scheduled to take place in New York City at Santos Party House on October 3rd, will be featuring music from well-known figures of NYC nightlife and DJs including Peter Rauhofer, Larry Tee and DJ Lina. All proceeds will go to help put on the NEM in DC on October 11th.

I normally am suspicious of high-profile celebrity fundraisers, but this one is well worth going to!

First of all, it bears pointing out that the NEM will not be the kind of gay rights march that people are used to seeing. As Sherry Wolf, author of Sexuality and Socialism pointed out recently, "[u]nlike marches of the recent past, this one will not be brought to you by Miller Beer, Citibank or any other corporate entity." While mainstream LGBT groups like the Human Rights Campaign have always had the wallet to roll out the big celebs, the high-profile of endorsements for the NEM have come sheerly through the swell of grassroots organizing around LGBT rights that has sprung up since the passage of Prop 8 in California. The NEM's budget is shoestring; GaGa and other big names are spending their own dime to attend the march. The success of this march can bode well for the future of a militant, bottom up LGBT liberation movement.

In some ways (and stay with me here), the success of Lady GaGa represents how much ordinary folks' ideas have shifted around concepts of gender and sexuality in the US. Whether one is a fan of her stuff or not, it can't be denied that there's is a bit more to her than just run-of-the mill pop schlock. Though there is no doubt that her look and music are frequently caught up in many of the sexist trappings that abound in today's popular culture, but its extremity and absurdity seem to almost subvert these trappings. Interviews with the artist show a much more thoughtful and intelligent artist than we may be used to from female pop stars, and she clearly sees her look and music as part of a concept.

"I very much want to inject gay culture into the mainstream," says GaGa, who is openly bisexual. "It's not an underground tool for me. It's my whole life. So I always sort of joke the real motivation [for her music] is just to turn the world gay."

Of course, her contradictions can't be ignored either. And that's why it's worth mentioning that this shift around LGBT liberation is merely in its infancy. As this movement grows, so might the number of acts who are ready to throw narrow concepts of sexuality onto the trash heap and know how to rock (paging the Gossip, please come to the front desk).

*****

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Kanye, the VMAs and the Spectacle of Controversy


Over the years, MTV's notion of "controversy" has become about as enticing as a trip to the corner store to pick up toilet paper. That the media can't stop talking about Kanye West's "outburst" is proof that they're really grasping at straws. The formula has become quite predictable at this point. Always, at both the VMAs and the MTV Movie Awards, there is going to be some outrageous act that everyone will be talking about. At the MMAs it was Sasha Baron Cohen dressed as Bruno landing on Eminem's lap.

Now we have commentators fulminating over Kanye's "ego" and "inappropriate behavior" after he rushed the stage during Taylor Swift's acceptance speech and proclaimed that Beyonce should have won. Many commentators have denounced that the hip-hop star for just trying to keep himself in the spotlight. Even President Obama is rumored to have called Ye a "jackass."

First of all, as I've more or less said before, nobody should be allowed to speak of any musician's "ego" until Bono's mouth has been sewn shut. Second, today's culture commentators aren't exactly shocked and dismayed at Kanye's behavior. On the contrary, it gives them an opportunity to keep playing the role of the public's moral guardian, spinning the whole thing around to set up their rising starlet Swift as the frail, helpless damsel in distress being overtaken by a "misbehaving Negro."

Kanye's outbursts tend to get lumped into the same oblique category of "Kanye being Kanye." But there is a notable difference between this kind of stunt and when he goes in front of a camera during a live broadcast event on NBC and tells the world "George Bush doesn't care about Black people" in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. There's no doubt a portion of the industry that would love it if he kept his mouth shut, still another that loves the attention he grabs for them as long as he does it within their parameters. The only problem is that Kanye, as a living breathing person with free will of his own, isn't ultimately under their control.

It can never be forgotten that Kanye is indeed a Black man living in a white man's world. He is a performer in an industry that is greatly dominated by exploitation and oppression. As LBoogie over at The Democracy and Hip-Hop Project explains: "Kanye's arrogance, his braggadocio, his loud-mouth interventions are scattered pieces of an anti-racist sentiment that historically has been a rallying cry for people of color to reclaim what is rightfully ours."

Furthermore, a large portion of the anti-Kanye backlash seems to forget that the kinds of truly unpredictable outbursts he has become known for used to be a much bigger part of MTV's makeup. Maybe it's just me (and I'm about to sound old here), but I remember a time when the VMAs were worth watching to a greater degree. When it was more about the music and whatever controversy sprung up was rooted in that. Of course, these were the days when "Straight Outta Compton" was on the airwaves. When Pearl Jam would play Unplugged and Eddie Vedder would scrawl "pro-choice" on his arm in magic marker. The days of Yo! MTV Raps and 120 Minutes, shows that displayed a propensity for edgier and at times groundbreaking videos.

There has surely always been a large element of spectacle to MTV (they are, after all owned by Viacom), but now such shows have been replaced by TRL and Cribs. Hero worship reigns supreme, whereas there used to be at least a little room for folks to "kill your idols."

Now, with so many exciting things taking place in music, MTV has become truly stagnant. Artists are experimenting with form and content in so many ways that it boggles the mind. In eras past, this would be called the "underground," but thanks largely to the internet and the ascendancy of the mp3, the underground isn't so underground anymore. Both hip-hop and rock are experiencing a massive shift in their style and dynamic (some of which Ye helped usher in). And because so many of the artists behind it are opting to go around rather than through the industry (which wasn't as much of an option fifteen years ago), the suits have no idea how to relate to them.

MTV, as an important component of that industry, is more or less getting left in the dust. While there have been moments that include a healthy dose of real substance in the past, their position and imperative as a profit-making media outlet means that it is their role to appropriate it, sanitize it, and shape it into spectacle. It's precisely this that has much of today's generation reaching for the remote.

And yet, they still hold immense power and influence over the way we perceive and consume musical icons. In the absence of a real, bottom-up discussion on race in this country, MTV's sway affects all artists who remain part of it. This extends to Kanye himself. Five years ago, he was considered a renegade, a poet struggling with demons inside his heart and the world at large. But starting with his third album, 2007's Graduation, the hunger and strife seemed to be lacking. By the time he wore out his auto-tune feature on 808's and Heartbreak, a lot of folks were wondering what the hell happened.

What this bodes for the future of Kanye's music and persona is hard to tell. There's no doubt that he won't be shutting his mouth anytime soon. Whether the next controversy he stirs is the kind that imbues our side with real confidence or just gets added to the litany of empty sound and fury pouring out the idiot box is ultimately a question of what the world looks like between now and then.

This article first appeared at SleptOn Magazine.

*****

Monday, September 14, 2009

"There will always be a poem"


Jim Carroll died last Friday. There are countless people out there who know him because of Leonardo DiCaprio and The Basketball Diaries. The exposure brought to him and his work by that film isn't to be discounted (I'm among that crowd). But to those who knew his writing past what Hollywood told, he was something a lot bigger. To me, as well as many others, he was a consummate punk rock poet.

Carroll grew up in NYC at that time when the city was rotting from the inside out. As he unflinchingly chronicled in Diaries, he went to a Catholic school on a basketball scholarship while writing insatiably. He got addicted to smack at 13, became a prostitute to support his habit, and had his first book of poetry, Organic Trains, at 17.

After getting clean, he became a fixture in the downtown punk scene. Becoming a regular at CBGB along with such musical and literary luminaries as William Burroughs and Patti Smith, his brash and straightforward writing meshed well with the burgeoning movement. The same urban decay that gave birth to the chaotic sounds of the Ramones and Television were just as present in Carroll's words.

That came to a head when Smith urged him to form a band. The Jim Carroll Band was never a big sensation--but it's highly unlikely that Carroll himself gave a damn. Most releases never got wide distribution. One of his songs, "People Who Died," did become something of an underground hit after the release of the film, and appeared in movie soundtracks like the remake of Dawn of the Dead.

Still, it's undeniable that Carroll's poetic honesty curried a long-lasting favor in punk and its inheritors. Over the years, he collaborated on recordings with Pearl Jam, Rancid and Lou Reed among others. Not long after seeing The Basketball Diaries, I heard him reciting poetry on the track "Junky Man" off of Rancid's 1995 album ...And Out Come the Wolves. At the time I was just starting to get into punk, and after reading Wolves liner notes and learning more about Carroll, I found that the movement I had until then only dabbled in was rooted much deeper than just mohawks and three chords.

Conversely, he was yet another writer who proved that poetry wasn't just reserved for stodgy academics and cozy armchairs. The streets, the tower blocks, the concrete alleyways (reality in other words) have their own poetry worth listening to. It's the kind of vital and necessary poetry that Jim Carroll knew how to channel.

Update: I figure I may as well put this video up. It's spliced with scene from the movie, but that doesn't take away from the song itself.



*****

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Solidarity Hip-Hop Style


"Solidarity is not a matter of sentiment but of fact, cold and impassive as the granite foundations of a skyscraper. If the basic elements, identity of interest, clarity of vision, honesty of intent, and oneness of purpose, or any of these is lacking, all sentimental pleas for solidarity, and all other efforts to achieve it will be barren of results." -Eugene Victor Debs

When massive numbers of students at Howard University in Washington, DC threatened to take over the campus's A Building in early September, most newspapers turned the other cheek. Perhaps it was the demands of the demonstration--after all, few students in the midst of this recession can relate to drops in student financial aid or bureaucratic administrations (and yes, I'm being sarcastic).

It wasn't until the celebs came out of the woodwork that the story got any kind of national attention. Specifically, it came when hip-hop mogul and Howard alum Sean "P. Diddy" Combs Twittered--yes, Twittered--his support for the students:

"NO JUSTICE! NO PEACE!!! Let me know if yall need me to come down there yall! I got yall BACK! Let's go!!!"

It's almost as if he were actually there. Except he wasn't. Reading the story on TMZ was to soak in a strange moment when the politics of celebrity, technology and the hip-hop generation collided in a rather warped way.

Diddy isn't exactly a stranger to Howard's legacy of protest. During his time as a student there in 1989, the campus exploded--once again taking over A Building in opposition to the appointment of Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater to the Board of Trustees. The uprising was so big that both Atwater and University President James Cheek eventually stepped down. What was young Mr. Combs contribution? Turning pictures of the building occupation into posters and selling them for $15 a pop!

Today, when both music and politics are a business before all else, Diddy's own personality has seemed to embody hip-hop's ethos--at least to the mainstream media. Much ink has been spilled debating how effective Vote or Die was. Diddy's Twitter certainly brought the protests more exposure, and you can't knock that. But in the end, his own position as a captain (or maybe a lieutenant) of the music industry naturally limits his ability to relate to the grassroots and the anger boiling in most ordinary heads' stomachs.

If corporate news outlets can crank out endless stories about a Twitter message and act as if a hip-hop mogul's support for a student activists is such a novelty, that's probably because so few of them are acquainted with the real power--and real solidarity--that the music can display.

One need only look to last spring when the acquittal of Sean Bell's murderers in blue provoked an array of tracks dedicated to Bell and protesting the verdict. Thanks to the internet, artists like Bun B, Papoose and Joell Ortiz were able to crank these songs out and get them to folks' ears within days.

Even past that, though, hip-hop holds a real potential to concretely link arms and push forward. I saw it myself this past April at quite possibly the best hip-hop show I have ever been to: Roots of Resistance.

Presented by the Gaza Aid Project and several local activist groups, Roots of Resistance was a direct response to Israel's bombardment of Gaza this past winter. The outrage provoked by this most recent crime of apartheid can still be felt now in the revitalized "BDS" movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) on campuses across the country.

Walking into the Logan Square Auditorium, it was clear that the organizers weren't pulling any punches about their solidarity with the people of Gaza. Palestinian flags flew from the front of the stage, which was also flanked by large portraits of Leila Khaled and quotes from Assata Shakur.

Even more significant was the diversity of the crowd: Black, white, Arab, Asian, Latino, sporting all different kinds of styles and dress, out to see an absolutely killer lineup. Rebel Diaz, Shadia Mansour, and DAM, along with M1 from Dead Prez rounding out the night.

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After a few local opening acts--including the inimitable BBU, whose brash and bouncy sound will later get them an excellent writeup in Pitchfork--DAM take the stage: "Are you read for some Palestinian hip-hop?" emcee Tamar Nafar shouts into the mic. Naturally, the crowd goes wild.

Thanks largely to the film Slingshot Hip-Hop, DAM's international profile has grown exponentially. Hailing from the Israeli town of Lod, all three identify as Palestinian, rapping exclusively in Arabic. Surprisingly, the language barrier is a non-issue. It may sound corny, but different tongues can't overcome the fact that hip-hop's instinctual rebellion is itself a global language. "I learned English by having my dictionary in one hand and Tupac's lyrics in the other" says Tamar.

Mahmoud Jreri, also of DAM, takes it one step further. I'm lucky enough to interview him before the group takes the stage. "Music can connect people. And if I can use it so that I can bring a message or deliver something to the people that they don't know in a cool way--and not in a suit and tie and speaking down to them--just coming from the street and speaking their language, maybe they will know more about it because it's cool to hear it."

DAM's set is spectacular. Funny, poignant, infinitely energetic. But throughout their songs, there's little question what they are there to do. Their final song is possibly their best known: "Meen Erhabe (Who's the Terrorist?)." Loosely translated, their lyrics are a searing indictment of Israel's crimes against Palestinians:

"You attack me, but still you cry out,
When I remind you it was you who attacked me,
You silence me and shout:
'But you let small children throw stones!
Don't they have parents to keep them at home?'
What?!?!
You must have forgotten you buried our parents
Under the rubble of our homes.
And now my agony is so immense.
Who's the terrorist?"


Try finding that kind of outspokenness on MTV.

I ask Mahmoud a frank question: what would have have to say to a young Black or Latino hip-hopper who hears DAM's rhymes but wonders why he should care. "I think we share the same social and political struggle," he responds, "or any minority living in a different place on this earth. If I can bring them my message through music, they can bring me their message through music. I knew about Latin and African American music through hip-hop, and how they live. I hope that I can bring my life to them, tell them how I live. It's a world-wide struggle for equality and for ending the regimes so people can be equal."

Shadia Mansour takes the stage after DAM. She is a slight woman, wearing a traditional Arab thob. And though her music is steeped in tradition, there is nothing meek or conventional about it. "I can never get onstage and perform without letting the Zionists have it," she says dryly.

Mansour performs a gorgeous mix of hip-hop and Arabic folk. One would think this would make for an awkward mix, but in her case, it works incredibly well. Her songs are delivered in a singing voice that is haunting as her flow is fierce. Once again, the lyrics are in Arabic, but like with DAM's set, it's no question where her sympathies lie: "If the struggle lives in Palestine, then the struggle lives in Africa, it lives in South America, it lives all over the world."

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Shadia Mansour is the last Arab act to perform that night. But that feeling of unity in struggle doesn't dissipate in the least. Rebel Diaz, the trio of revolutionary lyricists from the South Bronx, go on directly afterwards. There is an undeniable urgency to their songs--a steadfast, unrelenting stomp that simply refuses to let go. I've interviewed them beforehand, and judging from the words of the group's RodStarz, it's obvious that the urgency isn't an act.

"This is needed because right now, we're in Logan Square, a community that's being gentrified--Puerto Ricans getting displaced left and right. The reality is that some of these young people coming out for a hip-hop show tonight are going to leave with a message: the shit that's going on in Gaza is an abuse of human rights, it's inhumane, it's genocide. So it's needed because that's why hip-hop is here. Hip-hop is here to say 'listen!'"

It's hard to not listen to Rebel Diaz's set. They don't just move around the stage. They own the stage! As each of the three--RodStarz, G1 and Lah Tere--take turns on the mic, you can see the other two completely focused on what's being said. Over the years they must have played and performed these lyrics hundreds of times. But hearing them delivered tonight, it's apparent that not one word has become stale or played out.

The crowd, for their part, are lit up by this. They gladly listen as the group pleads to connect the dots between Gaza and the US: "When we talk about Palestine, we need to talk about freeing Puerto Rico, about stopping police brutality, we need to talk about immigrant rights." When Lah Tere, the group's sole female member, speaks up for the brothers in the crowd to respect their sisters in the movement, the audience applauds loudly.

In light of all this, M1's set is somewhat anti-climactic. Given that he's performing Dead Prez tracks with only half the group there, much of the performance is disjointed. That being said, there are real moments when the spirit of the night comes to an appropriate high point. He kicks off with "Turn off the Radio," and performs most of the group's favorites (often including stic.man's verses).

It's important to point out that without Dead Prez, some of the performers at the Roots of Resistance show might not be here. What's more, it's entirely possible that some of the organizers might not have been where they are either. M1, along with stic, have built themselves up over the past fifteen years, turning countless young heads onto radical ideas of struggle and liberation. But it's not about M1 tonight. It's about all the groups, and--more importantly--the broader world they are attempting to change for the better. This is apparent when he brings up all the other acts to perform with him during "Hip-Hop."

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During these few short hours, Chicago's Logan Square Auditorium became a bit more than a mere venue. It became a platform stumping for real, tangible solidarity. As G1 told me, "it creates a space where we can lead struggles." This might be interpreted as hyperbole, but given everything that is going down in the United States right now--from racism and homophobia to the very assault on our right to a decent living--ideas like these are carrying a lot more currency.

It's been five months since this show, and it's example sticks in my head as a sterling example of what is possible through music and hip-hop. For years, I had read about the Rock Against Racism shows during the '70s, which brought punk and reggae acts together to fight a growing fascist threat on the streets of Britain. The accounts of dynamic, immediate music channeled into a bottom-up social struggle--which in essence admitted that music had a natural and vital role to play in the real world--had seemed like something urgently needed today.

This is the kind of solidarity that a Twitter message simply can't get at. Even the Vote or Die campaign, with its top-down, celeb-focused modus operandi, couldn't quite play at the possibilities of hip-hop that were displayed at Roots of Resistance.

Music itself can never be "the weapon." As Mahmoud Jreri said, "music is important, but for a real revolution you need more than that. You need people who fight, you need people who take your issue to the media, and you need people who fight for your rights. And this is how you will get your freedom."

That may be true, but one can't knock the role that music--hip-hop especially--plays in not only giving that fight a voice, but providing a glimpse of what this world might look like if all our voices mattered.

Roots of Resistance is far from the last word. As the world-wide recession continues unabated, the struggles that could open up can't be predicted. Young people's anger isn't going anywhere, but neither is their creativity, their intelligence, and their ability to reach across boundaries and link arms in the fight for something better. There's really no limit to what can get done when that energy is unleashed. It's just as true for music as it is for activism, and even the notion of running the world for ourselves.

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

The above photo was taken by Matthew Cassel and appeared in a photo essay on the show at Electronic Intifada.

*****

Friday, September 11, 2009

This is not a music video

Sometimes the most subversive stuff to come out of any artistic moment is that which you can't even totally comprehend. Dada. Surrealism. Psychedelia. While some artists take the bankruptcy of the status quo head on, others find value in deconstructing its various parts and skewering them beyond recognition. There's a lot to be said for simply pushing aesthetic boundaries to the breaking point--and even further. "Statements" won't always be part of these artistic movements, but looking closely enough at them will reveal why fascists and right-wingers have labeled them "degenerate."

Enter Black Moth Super Rainbow. This group has made quite a few waves in the underground over the past few years. Classifying their style is a bit like trying to train a cloud to perform parlor tricks--futile. Their sound is heavily influenced by the avant-garde, manipulating traditional noise through analog instruments like the vocoder and Novatron. They'll often take a single sound, filtering and re-filtering it until it holds little resemblance to its original incarnation. Take that an expand it to entire songs--entire albums even--and you've got BMSR.

This video for the song "Tooth Decay" is from their album Eating Us, released in May. If your initial reaction is "what the hell was that?" then it's a good thing. Analysis of this clip would yield little, but it's worth noting the split-second images of traditional authority in the midst of that theme of decay.



I saw BMSR live this past summer when they played at the Bottom Lounge--a club right smack in the middle of Chicago's crumbling industrial corridor. This is what I wrote on my note-pad that night. Though it was never included in an article, I think it nonetheless sheds some light on why groups like this are so important:

"BMSR's set is the kind of thumping, orgiastic experience any fan would expect. They are artistically daring to the point of near-incomprehension. But if you can simply expect nothing and shed any kind of aesthetic expectation, they are the kind of mind-expanding art that stays with you. During their set, the band stays off to a single corner of the stage. Stealing the focus is a screen that displays a panoply of images, from children's show puppets to disturbing B-movie footage to rotting fruit. Opposite the band is a group of four female dancers, one of whom happens to be a man in drag. There is nothing choreographed about their moves--it's sheerly improvised.

"There is a joyfully maniacal kind of nihilism to all this--a send up of any sort of convention one might hold dear. And yet, there is something liberating here. Almost as if their music gives us something to believe in. What that thing is I have no idea. There is something about their warped, processed humanoid vocals over their dark and soaring synths that paws at a decaying past and an uncertain future. At a time when our generation seems to have few resources left at our disposal save for the flotsam and jetsam of prosperity past, BMSR's music screams that nothing is sacred--and that's precisely what makes it ours.'"


*****

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

How is hip-hop being used?


The right got their ass in a sling this past Labor Day weekend over Van Jones, who, following revelations of his past political activities, resigned as President Obama's "green jobs" czar. Fox News' Glenn Beck lead the charge in leading a weeks-long campaign against Jones, who was radicalized by the Rodney King verdict back in '92 and later joined a small Maoist group known as STORM (he left a few years later).

Jones had some impressive organizing credentials for sure, not the least of which was the formation of Oakland's Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. The Baker Center, since its establishment in 1996, has lead some important programs in the Bay Area, including ones against police brutality and the prison industrial complex. The center also hosted the Third Eye Movement, which was lauded as a prime example of hip-hop activism and lead a campaign against California's Proposition 21 (a 2000 prop that would have increased sentences for youth offenders).

It's really no wonder that the right hates Van Jones. The racism was in full-force as they sought to villainize him. One comment on a Fox News message board read "Proof Positive that you can send a THUG to and Ivy League school and all you get is and slightly educated arrogant THUG. He only got in by using the school's quota system not by merit..."

Jones stepped down just days after RNC chair Michael Steele showed up at Howard University in DC as part of his "Freedom Tour." There were more than a few things wrong with Steele's speaking engagement. First, he showed up at a historically black university and had the first row of the auditorium reserved for white members of student Republican groups. He then declared from the front that "[i]nstead of becoming rappers, young people should set higher goals for themselves, such as owning their own record companies."

Steele has long used street lingo to try to appeal to the hip-hop generation. He's said publicly that he wants the Republican Party to welcome "hip-hop Republicans and Frank Sinatra Republicans," and when asked about economic reform stated "the American people don't have that kind of bling-bling in their pockets." At this specific event, he attempted to jokingly encourage students to study business using the phrase "mo' money." I'd imagine the only people who laughed were the white folks in the front.

This was before he literally turned his back on an audience member whose mother had died because she couldn't afford her cancer meds, then told her that shouting accomplishes nothing and she should listen instead.

That the right-wing can villify a liberal's former street cred while allowing their own party to use hip-hop culture as a fig leaf for their agenda is shameful. That Obama refused to come to Jones' defense is an M.O. that is becoming frustratingly familiar.

It's further proof that hip-hop is safest in the hands of folks at the bottom. Days after Steele left, Howard erupted in a day of raucous protest against the university's cuts in housing and financial aid. These folks are the ones who get it.

*****

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

RF and FB... G!

For all you Facebook addicts out there: you can now follow Rebel Frequencies through the NetworkedBlogs feature. Every time a post goes up here at RF, it will get sent straight to your F-book home page. It's damned convenient if you ask me!

To become a "follower" scroll down to the NetworkedBlogs icon at the bottom of this page. And ignore the little red letters that say it hasn't been installed correctly. It's working fine, trust me. Or, you can go to the link to join here.

And spread the word, too. Rebel Frequencies is certainly going to be broadening its horizons in the fall. Don't let yourself or your friends miss out!

*****

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Fund Arts, Not Banks


It was about March, and I was standing in a dingy, mold-infested basement in South Chicago trying to stop my allergies from acting up. A few large-ish speakers were crammed into one side of the room while kids set up drum sets and tuned their guitars. I was waiting for a local hardcore band to take the "stage." Everything was in short supply here except the beer and fliers for upcoming punk shows. Even the lighting was little more than floodlights bought from the local Home Depot duct-taped to the rafters.

Despite the lack of resources, though, one couldn't help but notice how creativity flourished even as mainstream society did its best to ignore this neglected and abused section of Chicago's vibrant music scene. Nobody was supporting these kids except themselves. Few seemed to care that this show was even happening. And that's a shame, because if given the opportunity, these kids might just give a few folks like them something to hold onto.

DIY. Short for "Do-It-Yourself." It's practically the lifeblood of punk rock, an ethos that has enabled adherent artists to do the seemingly-impossible over the past 30 years: make their living off their art. Hip-hop too has launched itself to a global industry largely on the relentless sweat of emcess, DJs and budding impresarios steadfast on giving their message and outlook a platform. The reasoning is simple: if the world won't give you a mic, then you pick up the megaphone, kick in the front door and make them listen, dammit!

Most musicians have little choice in the matter. No serious music fan needs to be reminded how spineless most major record labels are when it comes to music that pushes the status quo. And today's young generation of punks, hip-hoppers and indie rockers have been raised when the concept of "public funding for the arts" has been more or less erased from mass consciousness. It's been almost 20 years since the National Endowment for the Arts was gutted by Congress amidst conservative accusations of offensive material. Even before then, though, funding for the NEA had been anemic for quite some time.

President Obama gave the NEA a bump earlier in the year when he increased its funding for 2009 to $155 billion. It's certainly an improvement from the paltry $80 million it had to operate off of under Bush, but still below what it was even under Reagan. Meanwhile, the millions of working people trying to make it as poets, painters or musicians are dealing with the same unemployment and wage cuts as the rest of us.

There seems no better time to talk about a renewed public arts program. Most industrialized nations have robust public subsidies for arts and culture that put the NEA to shame--even in times of economic boom. Theaters and film studios that can assemble ground-breaking works without fear of going bankrupt. Art galleries that can support painters and sculptors whose art isn't "mainstream." And, of course, stipends for musicians to live off and buy new instruments while they work on their craft.

It doesn't seem likely that any of this will cross Obama's lips in the near future, as the prez seems bent on proving to the Limbaugh-Beck crowd that he isn't--he really isn't!--a "socialist." But the teabag cabal might be shocked to learn that there was a time in this country when the kind of "subversive" art that their ilk detest was created on the government's dime.

In fact, the largest project to fall under the umbrella of FDR's second New Deal was "Federal One," projects that covered artists, writers, actors and musicians. The Federal Music Project was responsible for sponsoring concerts, composers and performers. Though the FMP is most remembered for bottom-lining symphonic music, it was also responsible supporting folk and jazz artists. In other words, it wasn't just "high art" that the FMP helped out, but music that came from the bottom up and pushed the boundaries. Folk greats like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger played shows sponsored by the FMP. So did jazz innovators of the bebop era like Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach.

Federal One and its public subsidies for the arts were effectively rolled up right before the dawn of World War II under pressure from the Republicans and right-wing Democrats in congress. They were called "wasteful," the "hoodwinking of the public," and alleged that the programs bankrolled communists (and many artists were indeed radicals). But put on a Charlie Parker album and then say with a straight face that these programs were a waste.

The benefit that a modern-day FMP might have can be seen on a microscopic scale today at any community cultural center working for meaningful change. Batey Urbano, located in Chicago's heavily black and Latino Humboldt Park neighborhood, is a prime example. On top of providing youth empowerment programs, the center also regularly hosts hip-hop performances and slam poetry--the kind you won't see on MTV (which, coming from this writer, is a compliment).

Examples like this can be found in every city in the US. With a shoestring budget (often reliant entirely on donations) and bare-bones staff, community organizers have given young artists the creative space so sorely needed for them to find a voice. With ordinary folks' pocket-books drying up, though, many of these very same centers may quite soon find themselves on the chopping block.

If there is anything that the past thirty years of neoliberal bootstrap-ism has shown us, it's that kids will find a way to make their voices heard no matter what. Art is, after all, inherent to what makes us human, and young artists have often played the role of truth-teller when few others will. The boost that community centers could get from a healthy federal subsidy could have the potential to radiate well past the artists themselves in this time of recession. As Jeff Chang pointed out in a May article in The Nation, "[t]he economic crisis gives us a chance to rethink the role of creativity in making a vibrant economy and civil society. Artists as well as community organizers cultivate new forms of knowledge and consciousness."

The rumblings of the demand for a public arts program can already be heard. In January, an internet petition for an "Arts Stimulus Plan" demanding that one percent of the proposed stimulus bill go to the arts gained thousands of signatures in a matter of days. According to Chang:

"Cross-cultural dialogues have begun between older activists inspired by the example of 1930s WPA arts projects and 1970s CETA [Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of 1973] cultural development programs and the post-NEA meltdown do-it-yourselfers raised on the independent aesthetics of hip-hop and punk. Such discussions could help shape a framework for a cultural policy that focuses on the demonopolization and reregulation of the culture industry... promotes a radical spirit of diversity and unshackles creativity to rebuild communities and the national economy."

The possibilities are more than a little tantalizing. These two musical movements have survived and managed to deliver their rebel message off little more than sheer grit. Any one of us can name vibrant and talented artists whose work is overlooked by the corporate music industry. Imagine the new and exciting music that could be created--and the hell that could be raised--if these artists had a few government bucks thrown their way.

It would be wrong to paint too rosy a picture of such a program in this country. It would be up to artists and activists to make sure that a public arts program would remain relevant and sustainable if it were ever initiated. The history of Federal One is littered with stories of artists being forced to organize and demand more from the government--from better living stipends to the right to create their art without censorship (fights they frequently won). But the space to do so that would be created by a revived FMP would be exponentially bigger than the cutthroat free market of the record industry.

Is it a tall order? Sure. But so is universal healthcare and the right to organize a union. That doesn't make them any less urgent. The right to create and experience art can't be seen any less a fundamental one. To win it, though, it's going to take more than simply hoping for the government to change its mind. It's going to require an energy that doesn't limit itself to our basements and iPods, but spills into the streets, workplaces and communities.

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

*****

Friday, September 4, 2009

Iconoclast non-stop

Anti-Pop Consortium. Reunited. New album, Fluorescent Black, out in October. Mind-bending avant-garde rap. Critics and haters just don't understand!

Now listen.



In order to save music, we must destroy it first.

'Nuff said.

*****

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Don't call it a crossover...


Hip-hop and indie are often separated by an absurd iron wall when either are reported (despite the fact that sites dedicated to both genres will frequently cover each other). I blame it on big record stores; keeping the two in completely separate areas of the shop? Come on. Young folks today aren't looking for just one thing in their music, so why should we pretend like they do?

The fact is that hip-hop and the punk/indie aesthetic have long affected each other and shared a comradely (if somewhat volatile) relationship. Case in point: Jay-Z showing up at Grizzly Bear shows. As Pitchfork reports, Jay has an intelligent reply for those wondering what he's doing showing up in Williamsburg at the indie favorites' shows, saying he hopes that Grizzly and the whole "indie rock movement" will "push rap:"

"The thing I want to say to everyone-- I hope this happens because it will push rap, it will push hip-hop to go even further-- what the indie rock movement is doing right now is very inspiring. It felt like us in the beginning. These concerts, they're not on the radio, no one hears about them, and there's 12,000 people in attendance. And the music that they're making and the connection they're making to people is really inspiring. So I hope that they have a run where they push hip-hop back a little bit, so it will force hip-hop to fight to make better music. Because it can happen. Because that's what rap did to rock."

Jay's own position may make his words a bit suspect as one of the most powerful moguls in the biz (Rosa Clemente is correct when she refers to him as a "hip-hop capitalist"), and Grizzly Bear are far from my favorite rock group currently making music. But that doesn't mean Jay-Z wrong. Indeed, the doors have often swung both ways. Instead of rap and rock being thought of as adversarial, polar opposites, they need to be thought of much more as having the same goal, the same rebel mission. In a time when crisis and culture are pushing both together, there are already experimental and exciting collisions taking place.

Here's to the future. May it always rock harder than the present!

*****

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

What is Music? It's not Money!


Jarvis Cocker never ceases to walk the balance between erudition and insight. This short interview in The Nation sees the former Pulp front-man delivering some thoughts on how music as a concept has changed in recent years, and how, with one of his more recent experiments (playing with a band in an art gallery in Paris), he's attempting to change it further:

"Now that it's no longer a supposedly viable commercial venture, would the gallery system be a valid way of disseminating it? That sounds very dry and academic, but it isn't. We set up in this small gallery space and rehearsed, and every now and again we'd have hours where people would bring an instrument and play along, and then we provided the music to different classes, like a yoga class and a belly-dancing class. What I liked was that there were spontaneous moments--the music happened for ten minutes or however long it took, and then it was gone. So many things in our culture are based around repetition and being relived, and it's nice to have something that comes out of nowhere and returns to nowhere."

"No longer a supposedly viable commercial venture." Interesting. What's more interesting is nobody can really credibly disagree with Cocker. More interesting still is that Cocker doesn't really seem to be mourning the demise of the industry. Later on, he does seem to show some concern about how the over-proliferation of music in the digital age might somehow lessen its impact, but ultimately he's much more fascinated by the possibilities than he is disheartened by the changing landscape. Might it be that Cocker is exploring how the separation of art and commerce might be... liberating?

And one more thing: though the admits that he never downloads music, he does defend the rights of peer-to-peer: "If you can't get what you want, you're within your rights." It's a quick read, and worth it.

*****