Saturday, November 28, 2009

I wonder if the tickets are "Expensive Shit"

Below is a review by Ben Brantley of The New York Times of the musical "Fela!" now playing in New York. Though there's no denying that Fela Kuti's life and music make for a great piece of theatre, I'm still a bit dumbstruck that it's playing in NYC (albeit Off-Broadway). Of note is the fact that the musical's orchestra is none other than Brooklyn's Antibalas (who by most accounts are probably the best-known, currently active Afrobeat band).

I can't say whether Brantley's review is accurate simply because I haven't seen the show. Still, this musical seems to be only the latest part in Kuti's legend--which continues to rise a good twelve years after his death. True, Fela was a worldwide icon during his life--especially at the height of the Black Power and Pan-African movements--but his status had faded quite a bit by the time of his death. Now, however, he's acknowledged as probably one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Today's young muso reveres Kuti, an admittedly fascinating character no matter what your favorite music is. That this musical is being backed by Jay-Z and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith seems to hammer home how influential he's become more than a decade after his death.

It also speaks to the increasing bottom up globalization of music itself. Fela's present status--somewhere along the same level as Victor Jara's or Bob Marley's--is only among the upper echelon. Manu Chao, Rachid Taha and others who share their worldview and eclectic musical influences are steadily becoming more influential in America's pop music scene. Rappers like K'NAAN and Blitz the Ambassador (from Somalia and Ghana respectively) are rising quickly in the hip-hop world. That M.I.A. remains one of the biggest figures in music highlights the fact that Fela's legacy is very much alive and growing.


"Afrobeat's King, Recrowned"

The big-talking title character of “Fela!,” the pulse-racing new show about the Nigerian musician and activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti, is not someone you rely on for literal truth. For this self-defined “black president” of his own republic of rebellion, to speak is to magnify, to exaggerate, to mythologize.

But the grandiose claims that Fela, played with inexhaustible swagger by the remarkable Sahr Ngaujah, makes for his music wind up feeling dead accurate. In the percussion section in his band, he says early in the show, you feel “the pulse of the world, the impulse of life.” And darned if 10 minutes into this production, which opened Thursday night at 37 Arts, you don’t find yourself believing this as gospel truth.

As played by the Brooklyn band Antibalas, standing in for the army of musicians that accompanied Mr. Kuti on his world tours, this is music that gets into your bloodstream, setting off vibrations you’ll live with for days to come. And the choreographer and director Bill T. Jones has come up with startling visual equivalents for the primal and sophisticated fusion of cultural elements that is Afrobeat, the music of Fela.

That the beat goes on, insistently and persuasively, makes “Fela!” nigh impossible to resist. If you set aside your basic nervous and circulatory systems, though, you might observe that by the standards of the well-made musical, “Fela!” leaves a lot to be desired.

The structure of the book, written by Jim Lewis and Mr. Jones, feels slapdash to the point of confusion. For all the impudence and exuberance of the wall-to-wall music by Mr. Kuti that is used here, a pious haze of hagiography hangs over the show, creating the blinkered view of a great man martyred.

Yet the ascendancy of the music in “Fela!,” and the three-dimensional translation of it by Mr. Jones and his vibrant design team, makes such criticism irrelevant for as long as you’re in your seat (or out of it, since the audience is regularly encouraged to stand and undulate). What’s more, “Fela!” isn’t just one helluva party, though that it definitely is.

In giving physical life to Mr. Kuti’s songs of political rage, sorrow and satire, Mr. Jones and company offer exciting music and its social context in one breath. There are occasional filmed images of Nigerian crowds and narrative segments meant to orient us in history.

But it’s the performance of song and dance that allows Western audiences to grasp on a much deeper level the complex, culturally layered world that Mr. Kuti was responding to. I suppose “Fela!,” in shaping a show around one artist’s songbook, fits into the category of jukebox musical. But the word jukebox suggests containment, confinement. “Fela!” is a show that melts walls.

This is fitting, since Mr. Kuti himself resisted confinement throughout his life (1938-97), though he was regularly incarcerated as a political prisoner. The son of an Anglican minister and a social reformer who became Nigeria’s leading female activist, he grew up to create a sound that melded tribal Yoruba rhythms and incantations with ingredients from the jazz, pop and funk he heard while living in London and the United States.

The expansiveness of his music was reflected in his performances (he traveled with a full choir of singers as well as an orchestra-size band) and his personal life (he married 27 women in one ceremony). His songs spoke out against the corruption and tyranny of Nigeria’s military government, and he became Africa’s foremost pop star as folk hero. He did indeed run for Nigeria’s presidency (for his own Movement of the People party) and declared the compound where he lived its own republic.

That “Fela!” is able to suggest the scope of such a life in a cramped Off-Broadway theater is no mean accomplishment. (Occasionally it does feel overcrowded.) The show is set in the Shrine, Fela’s nightclub in Lagos (vividly recreated by Marina Draghici), on the night of what he says will be his last performance there.

The script squeezes in a lot of information, using patterning devices like Fela’s imagined movie about his life (to be called “Black President”) that are picked up and abandoned fitfully. The show’s arc, such as it is, traces Fela’s attempts to commune with the spirit of his heroic mother, Funmilayo (the heavenly voiced Abena Koomson), who died from injuries suffered when government troops raided his compound.

Our awareness of that arc comes and goes, like a watery rainbow. But I at least was never less than fully engaged. Mr. Ngaujah’s Fela is a compelling master of ceremonies in his Elvis-style jumpsuit, a musical theater multitasker who sets the pace for his band and plays saxophone as well as conducting a personal tour of his life with a cocksureness that goes beyond the meanness of arrogance. He gives the impression of leading with his hips and his head at the same time.

Early in the performance he breaks down his brand of music for the audience members, teaching them to tell time with their hips, a lesson that has the effect of tattooing the show’s propulsive rhythms onto them. He then lets each of the dancers strut their individual stuff in a show-stopper number called “Originality.”

This spirit of individualism has been central to Mr. Jones’s work as a choreographer during the past several decades, both for his own company and more recently for the Broadway production of “Spring Awakening,” for which he won a Tony. Here he plays off naturally assertive identities against the social regimentation and repression that Fela sings about, especially in the numbers “Shuffering and Shmiling,” which presents a haunted parade of stooped silhouettes, and “Zombie.”

Fela’s group marriage to his back-up girls makes saucy and elegant use of one of the show’s greatest assets: the deliciously self-possessed, vulpine women who play Fela’s adoring “queens,” who are always on hand to towel his brow and light his joints between numbers. (The smashing Sparlha Swa is featured as Fela’s great love, though her role in his life is never made clear.)

By the time Fela finally crosses into the afterlife to make contact with his dead mother, you may have forgotten such a journey was the point of this gathering. You are unlikely, though, to forget the otherworldly land that Mr. Jones conjures in a tribal ballet, artfully enhanced by Ms. Draghici’s costumes and Robert Wierzel’s lighting. It is truly heaven on earth. Or do I mean earth in heaven?

Fela was not, by most accounts, a great political mind. His blueprints for societal change never went far beyond the credo of power to the people. But like all great popular musicians he embodied a culture’s joy, pain and restlessness with an instinctual grasp that politicians can only wish for.

The sweet potency of the idealistic, energetic rebel is already being demonstrated this season in the Public Theater’s rousing revival of “Hair.” Mr. Jones and company have given us an African variation on the same theme that triumphantly stakes out its own pioneer territory in the expanding land of musicals.


Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Day of Mourning

In 1970, Wamsutta Frank James, a leader of the Wampanoag people, was invited by the Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce to speak on the 350th anniversary of the Mayflower landing. His speech was censored. This is what he was not allowed to read:

"Today is a time of celebrating for you...but it is not a time of celebrating for me. It is with heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my people...The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn...

Massassoit, the great leader of the Wampanoag, knew these facts; yet he and his people welcomed and befriended the settlers...[B]efore 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoags...and other Indians living near the settlers would be killed by their guns or dead from diseases that we caught from them...Although our way of life is almost gone and our language is almost extinct, we the Wampanoags still walk the lands of Massachusetts...

What has happened cannot change, but today we work toward a better America, a more Indian America where people and nature are once again more important."

After he was not allowed to speak, the United American Indians of New England dubbed Thanksgiving to be a National Day of Mourning.


This song was written by Buffy Sainte-Marie, though it is better known today as performed by the Indigo Girls. Perhaps one of the reasons for that is Sainte-Marie herself was censored and silenced by the US government at the height of her career. The daughter of Cree natives, she was orphaned and raised by relatives in Maine, where she was told that she "couldn't possibly be an Indian because all the Indians are gone."

"Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" is a song dedicated to but a sliver of the US' crimes against Native peoples, drawing together the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre and the Native resistance of the late '60s and early '70s, ending on the brutal repression meted out to activists when they tried to take back their reservation in 1973.


"Indian legislation's on the desk of a do-right Congressman
He don't know much about the issues
So he picks up the phone and calls the senator out in Indian Country
A darling of the energy companies ripping off what's left
Of the reservation

I learned a safety rule, I don't know who to thank
Don't stand between the reservation and the corporate bank
They're sending federal tanks
It isn't nice but it's reality
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee

I said deep in the earth
Won't you cover me with pretty lies
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee

We got these energy companies, they're trying to take the land
And we got churches by the dozen trying to guide our hand
And sign our Mother Earth over to pollution, war, and greed (no, no)
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee

Bury my heart at Wounded Knee
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee (I said deep in the earth)
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee (Cover me with pretty lies)
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee

We got the federal marshalls, we got the covert spies
We got the liars by the fire, got the FBI
They lie in court and get nailed but still Peltier goes off to jail
The bullets don't match the gun!

Bury my heart at Wounded Knee (an eighth of the reservation)
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee (transferred in secret)
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee (got your murder and intimidation)
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee

My girlfriend Anna Mae talked about uranium
Her head was full of bullets and her body dumped
The FBI cut off her hand and told us she died of exposure (yeah right)
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee

Bury my heart at Wounded Knee
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee (I said deep in the earth)
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee (Won't you cover me with your pretty lies)
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee

We had the gold rush wars, why didn't we learn to crawl?
And now our history gets written in a liar's scrawl
They tell me, 'honey, don't be so uptight you can still be an Indian down at the Y on Saturday night'
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee

Bury my heart at Wounded Knee
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee (deep in the earth)
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee (cover me with your pretty lies)
Bury my heart at Wounded Knee"


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

ABC's homophobic "Lam-ban"

Adam Lambert appeared on CBS' "Early Morning" show today. Where he didn't appear was on ABC's "Good Morning America," where he was originally slated to perform. But after Lambert's provocative performance at the American Music Awards Sunday night, the network hastily pulled the plug on him, citing "objectionable material."

A quick run-down of said material: Lambert fondled another male dancer, kissed his performance keyboardist (also male), and for a split second allowed another male dancer to simulate oral sex. All in all, it's nothing that we haven't seen from female pop-stars a million times before. When it's done by an openly gay man, though, the corporate honchos are ready to take up arms against "obscenity."

ABC (which is owned by Disney--a fact that spokespeople have said had nothing to do with the decision), reportedly more or less knew how racy Lambert's performance of "For Your Entertainment" was going to be. The explicit dancing was all apparently given the green light. The kiss, however, was evidently improvised.

In other words, when Britney and Madonna do it, it's hot. When two guys do it, though, it's verboten.

Lambert himself voiced his concern over this a few days before the show: "There are a lot of double standards as far as that goes... We've seen female pop and rock performers do that for the last 10 years. They've been very provocative, owning their power and sexuality. You just don't see men doing it very often. And I'm hoping to break down that double standard with this number."

Though it's questionable whether stunts like the Brit-Madge lip-lock were really about owning their power (it seems to be more in the Katy Perry vein of turning lesbianism into straight-guy porn), Lambert is otherwise right on. Not only is ABC being puritanically homophobic with this banning, they're way behind the times. Aside from few comments on the network's website applauding their "Lam-ban," today's young Americans are by far the most open to LGBT sexuality in history. That Lambert himself came within a hair's breadth of winning "American Idol" (and will most likely have a longer, more visible career than winner Kris Allen) hits the point home even further.

But then, the sagging ratings of "Good Morning America" cause one to wonder if this youthful demographic is even on their minds. Judging from the show's content, probably not. But that's another issue entirely.


Monday, November 23, 2009

Blurring At Windmills

"I'm not a betting man, but if I was, even I wouldn't bet on me winning." So says Blur drummer Dave Rowntree about running for British Parliament. Rowntree is set to run in the upcoming 2010 elections as the Labour Party's candidate in the Cities of London and Westminster constituency. The skin-man's candid pessimism might stem from the fact that this particular seat has been a safe Conservative haven for almost six decades.

Far be it from me--a yank--to tell the British how to vote. It's simply not my place. I have, however, spent time living and working in London (not too far from Rowntree's constituency), as well as organizing on the far-left during my stint there. I am also, as luck would have it, a big fan of Blur, as I am for most of Britpop. But when I heard Rowntree was running, when the read the substance of his platform, even all the way on this side of the Atlantic, I scratched my head.

I'm still scratching. Why exactly would Rowntree, a self-professed "activist," a man nominally of the left, spend his time campaigning for a political party in deep crisis in an election even he is sure he'll lose? Though his face isn't exactly one of the most recognized in Britain, Blur remains one of the best-known acts in the UK. Typically running for an elected post isn't something a rock musician takes up save for the sake of publicity--be it for the group or a cause. But Rowntree's low-key earnestness is something to admire, which makes his choice of running all the more baffling.

Rowntree's platform revolves around housing--certainly a key issue as the economic crisis continues to wreak havoc on working Britons' lives. "It is a particular concern of mine" says Rowntree, "because it sits at the top of a pyramid of lots of other issues. If there is bad housing then you also get drug problems, mental health problems, unemployment, crime and anti-social behavior."

As a leading member of the recently formed Featured Artists Coalition, his record on defending the rights of artists and fans alike is also definitely admirable. And as news broke this past summer that Members of Parliament (MPs) had been using taxpayer pounds to pay for their own luxuries--houses, cars, vacations--Rowntree took the opportunity to call for "broad political reform" and holding MPs accountable.

Moments like these echo of the drummer's long-past youth as a squat-punk and Marxist whose nickname was "Shady Dave." There may even be some echoes here of what many of today's British voters consider a thing of the past: a Labour Party that actually fights for the rights of working people.

Still echoes can't be misconstrued for a real voice. Currently in the UK, and especially in London, these same workers are increasingly fighting for themselves as jobs are cut, wages gutted, and social services being privatized. While the upswing in strikes and other workplace actions in Britain over the past year can't be characterized as a full-on wave of revolt, the tension is palpable--along with the growing anger of Britain's working class.

But Rowntree has said nary a word supporting these strikes. His website mentions nothing about them, and no mention has been made of him walking the picket line with any one of them. Compare this to MP George Galloway--a former Labourite who after being expelled sought to build a left alternative in the Respect Coalition--who has spoken repeatedly in support of such actions and actively built solidarity with them.

Most troubling--and telling--is Rowntree's own views on the occupation of Iraq. In contrast to his bandmate, lead-singer Damon Albarn, an outspoken opponent of the invasion and prominent face on many an anti-war march, Rowntree was in full support! This, of course, puts him at odds with the majority of the population, who have always been vastly against Britain's involvement in the US-led slaughter.

Rowntree's imminent loss may best be foretold by his previous run last summer--when he sought a seat in the Westminster city council in a safe Labour district and was trounced by the Conservative candidate. It was the first time in recent memory that the seat went to a Tory! Still, this didn't stop Labour from selecting him to run for parliament. The saying tells us that if it ain't broke, don't fix it... but if it is in fact broke, aren't you supposed to at least tinker around with it a bit?

Rowntree's loss was part of a massive sweep in defeats for Labour in last summer's elections. Reduced to not just second but third place, the rejection of the once dominant party has been rightly blamed by many on the party's abandonment of the interests for which it used to stand. Those interests--in short--were, well, the kinds of things that working people care about (it is after all a party of labor): jobs, peace, equality, healthcare, schools, affordable housing, and a bevy of others that Labour appears to have left in the dust as it's revamped itself over the past two decades as "New Labour." Blair's hard support for invading Iraq was, for many, the last straw, and their tacit response to privatization in recent years has just been icing on the cake.

In contrast to the exodus of young people out of Labour, the fortysomething Rowntree opted in to the party. In this respect, the drummer may be the perfect New Labour candidate. Earnest and likeable, yet ultimately unwilling to go anywhere past mealy-mouthed half-measures, and, ultimately, unelectable.

Especially sad about all this is that Blur's music, during its height in the mid-90's--represented a vibrant outpouring of youth's voice in Britain. Just like grunge gave expression to the alienation and anger that seethed within "Generation X," so did much of Britpop represent the same for young folks in the UK--albeit with a great deal more optimism and verve than their stateside counterparts. Blur's continued legacy is one that placed a badly needed appendix to the Who's old quip: "the kids are all right... but they also know something's up." That's a legacy built upon today by countless British acts who bring a political and social urgency to their work.

Rowntree, of course, is free to make the political choices he wants. However, it's hard to not look at this run for parliament (seated as I am all the way across the pond) as an opportunity lost. In Britain and in the US, more and more artists are seeking to use their music and words in a way that can shake things up and speak truth to power. As today's youth are staring down a world that views them as disposable, these are the kinds of artists we really need. Rowntree could have thrown in his lot with them. Instead, in his age, he seems to be more under the allure of that battle call of the uninspired: "pragmatism!"

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


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Their music sucks... and so does their racism

Perusing the pages Northern Kentucky University's student paper The Northerner would probably yield the usual fare: reports on campus life and sports events, student viewpoints on national news, various columns of supposed interest. But lately, its content has included something a bit more troubling than sub-standard student journalism.

A small uproar was caused earlier this month when students noticed a nondescript advertisement for Resistance Records. At first glance, it seems like the site is little more than your run-of-the-mill, DIY label, advertising a variety of punk, rock and other genres likely to pull in the average college-aged indie music fan. Harmless enough, right?

But those of us who have fought against racism in music know exactly what Resistance Records is. Resistance was founded in 1994 by members of the Neo-Nazi National Alliance, and to this day sells what it calls "the soundtrack for the white revolution." You don't have to go far to find evidence of this. The website promoted in the ad (which I refuse to link here at RF) is filled with well-known white-power bands--some old, some new--and also contains links to NA publications, Nazi flags and bonehead clothing.

NKU has recently apologized for the ads in The Northerner, though one still wonders if there is any kind of screening process for advertisers in the paper.

There will no doubt be readers out there saying something dismissive along the lines of "that's what you can expect in Kentucky." But apart from the elitism of this statement, there is something a lot more troubling about a fascist music label gaining a platform for reaching young folks in a time of economic crisis. Hate groups like the National Alliance, the Klan and other far-right organizations are growing right now, pointing the finger at any non-white as the root of our problems.

State colleges like NKU are the first to face budget-cuts and tuition hikes. Without any kind of real alternative being posed, the discontent felt by countless white students on these campuses can easily be turned from the administration to their fellow students of color. In times like these, racism and fascism become "the socialism of fools."

But then, it would be wrong to paint things as overwhelmingly bleak. The angry, multi-racial protests that swept the University of California system this past week are an incredible example of what happens when that discontent is pushed in the right direction. And on the music front, there continue to be independent artists and labels--like Insurgence Records' recent Project Boneyard compilation---that fight against racist filth. It's these kinds of struggles that need to be built and spread today.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Children of Woody Guthrie

Never underestimate the ability for pop culture to water down its most firebrand figures--especially after they're dead. Luckily, there are people like Antonino D'Ambrosio. His book Let Fury Have the Hour: The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer, released in 2003, is essential reading for anyone who wants to learn who the Clash front man really was. D'Ambrosio's new book A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears is a passionate examination of Cash's album protesting the conditions for Native peoples in the early 1960s.

Here, D'Ambrosio talks to Alexander Billet about the new book, his influences, and his thoughts on music and politics.


There are a lot of folks who say that art, and specifically music, doesn't mix with politics. But a lot of your writing, from Let Fury Have the Hour to A Heartbeat and a Guitar and many of your articles, takes a different point of view. What do you have to say to these people?

I think that's probably one of the most political statements you can make. When people say that art and politics shouldn't mix, or there are artists who say that their work doesn't reflect the current political climate, that's more political than when Cash did Bitter Tears in my opinion.

What I mean is that you're taking a very strong stance in support of the current dominant political ideology or system--that you're willing to remain on the surface in the hopes of not damaging your career. It's kind of a crass opportunism.

I also think it's not a very sophisticated view, because we all live in a political structure--we're all informed by it, we're all shaped by it, and we all respond to it every day. The very nature of the comment that says, "I'm not political," is very sad on one hand, and it's also very harmful, because I think the most important thing about art is its ability to try to achieve the pursuit of the truth.

That's what the power of art really is, whether it's Picasso's "Guernica," or Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears--those pieces of art respond to a certain human condition arising out of politics. And they tell the truth about their situation!

Do you think a lot of that view that art and politics don't mix is informed by the way we're taught about politics? You know, we're told that politics is something you only do every two or four years in a voting booth. Do you think that has a lot to do with it?

Of course! There's a great deal of de-politicization that goes on in this country. And that's one of the reasons why in my work I try to uplift "popular culture"--not "pop culture" but "popular culture," because I distinguish between the two. Like the work of the Clash or Johnny Cash, or "Guernica," or Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring"--these were popular culture works informed by politics that helped to change things. I don't think art can change things on its own, but it can help; it can create inspiration for people to aspire to get involved.

So, of course, there's a manipulation, and the media's very effective in its use of a kind of soft power through pop culture. Even the way the news is now; it's much more info-tainment than it is actual journalism. Stories will be skewed, they'll be off-balance, and when you have that, you undermine critical thinking.

When that happens then you really get into a situation where people may shy away from fighting for change. They may get into a routine, but again, that's where art like Bitter Tears comes in because it can rip off the scar tissue and try to really heal the wounds that plague this country.

What you said about the news definitely rings true. Compared to alternative media, mainstream news seems to be deliberately sealing itself in a bubble. You can see that in a lot of pop culture, too--a refusal to address the world at large.

Absolutely. To me, it's part of the American exceptionalism that grew out of the Reagan era. That notion that says, "America is the greatest country in the world," is a big problem because real art is made by what I call "citizen artists": people who can't help but see themselves as citizens not just of one country, but of the world. And that requires you to see yourself as interconnected and interdependent with the people outside your door and the people that are thousands of miles away.

I think any really good art--and you can apply this to almost any area of society--manages to do that. You're not always going to be successful, but you have to attempt. And that itself is a great challenge to the divisiveness and the power of the elite that reigns across the country.

The power to break down divisions is something you go into with your own experience in the beginning of Let Fury Have the Hour, when you describe first hearing the Clash's song "Clampdown." It sounds like that was one of the major moments that set you down the path you're on now, and it's probably an experience that countless people have had themselves with music. Could you describe that experience?

When I was 12 years old, my cousin had this kind of audio room--stereo systems were huge back then. And I remember that day clearly, because it was also the first time I heard the Replacements, the Jam and Elvis Costello--it was a transformative time for me. I was like, "Wow!" because it was filled with the sounds of the world to me! You could feel it! There was an energy and a spirit in that music that had been lacking before.

That being said, my parents were immigrants and came here in the '60s, and my mom was greatly informed by Elvis, the Beatles and also by John Lennon, so I remember that very clearly. But the transformative moment was when my cousin put the needle of that record player down on "Clampdown."

Hearing that story about working-class struggle--you know "wearing blue and brown," that's something my uncles would wear. I remember thinking that they weren't just talking to me, but they were telling my story. I was only 12 years old, so I guess you could say that at that moment, my world became bigger than my one block.

It's something that set me off in trying to seek out the music that influenced the Clash. The Clash was influenced by all kinds of sounds. So that's how I got to Jimmy Cliff, and Toots and the Maytals, and lots of different reggae. And I got into American roots music because of the Clash: blues. I got into cumbia when I was 14 years old--music that I probably never would have heard in my life where I grew up. And it's all because of the Clash in that moment.

I think music can do that the way other art forms can't. This is something I write about in Let Fury Have the Hour and A Heartbeat and a Guitar--that music is art's story about life. There's something that's very transcendent about music, but also something that is deeply personal.

The power to break down boundaries is something you go out of your way to talk about when you examine the influences of the artists you profile. In doing so, you show that so many of the most influential artists in music have been people who stood for something.

To me, that's the very definition of humanism. You know, Joe Strummer and [Clash guitarist/vocalist] Mick Jones are two very intelligent and curious human beings. Johnny Cash was the same way; he was very, very smart. And whenever you're able to explore yourself in relation to the world, I think it's almost impossible to not seek out in defense and in support of the very human conditions that trouble you.

If you really look at all the artists who have been influential in their day, they can be progressive in their work and progressive in their life.

And that's not a coincidence either. I think a lot of people may read that and think it's just happenstance, but I don't think so.

No, I think that the more they drill down deep within their soul, the wider their world view gets. And I think that Johnny Cash was a great example of that. The "Walk the Line" metaphor is very interesting to me, because everyone knows that song along with "The Man in Black" and "Folsom Prison" and songs like that. But the line he really walked and really kind of tiptoed on gracefully wasn't love--although, you could say he had great love for his fellow human beings--but he had this way of being clever and getting his message out there that transcends political platitudes.

That's something that both Strummer and Cash share: a very real sincerity and authenticity in who they are, and also a willingness to be completely open. I think that kind of openness is important to being creative because it's not always about the posturing of being a celebrity or superstar. That's an important thing--especially with Johnny Cash.

While Strummer might have had a bit more of a comfortable life growing up, Cash had the whole gamut: he grew up in rural poverty, had struggles with his family, and he had his own battles with addiction. And I think that complexity, that messiness in their lives and how they created was important to show to people, because that's the way we all are. That's the way the world is. It's not polished.

That's something I really try to pull out in my work. I want to cut against "Johnny Cash the Hero" or "Johnny Cash the Genius." Same thing with Joe Strummer or any of these artists. These guys don't work in a vacuum. They live within a society just like we do, and they're affected by the social upheavals that are happening around them just like we are.

They tell the stories that need to be told. These are the people we need; they create what I call "sonic documentaries" of an important time in world history that, without their voices, we may not know about.

I mean Bitter Tears is 45 years old, and it's the only record that I can really point to by an artist of this caliber that takes up this issue, and the issues of Native people haven't gone away either. Bitter Tears stands as a testament to that time and that struggle. I mean, the Native part of our population is almost invisible in this country--it's like they don't even exist. And that's troubling.

Strummer and Cash haven't been dead that long, and yet there already seems to be a push to mainstream their legacy--to sanitize them and make them safe for consumption. Do you think there's a need today for us to remember what set artists like them apart in the first place--their rebellious nature and willingness to tell the truth?

I see it as an act of cultural rescue. It's reclaiming a culture that can get calcified in myth and cemented into caricature. I mean the folk scene--I never paid attention to it! I used to think, "Oh my god, this is so uncool" and things like that. But then I kind of fell into it while researching A Heartbeat and a Guitar, and you meet people like Peter La Farge or Tom Paxton or Buffy Sainte-Marie, who are just phenomenal musicians and incredibly courageous and beautiful human beings that care about the state of the world.

It's something that I see as an obligation in my own work--to say, "This is not the way it really was." There are always certain things that rise to the surface in looking at this history that become the dominant way of seeing things because they're comfortable to see. And that may be a part of the whole picture, but the other 90 percent is unknown. That's certainly true with Johnny Cash. And what I tried to do in my book is flip on its head the way that Johnny Cash is used today

A lot people think of him as playing at "Folsom Prison," or as "The Man in Black," which is a phenomenal song, and what he did for prisoners was great, too. But if you listen to Live From Folsom Prison, it's essentially a greatest hits album. Bitter Tears is the only album he made that is dedicated entirely to one social issue. He made that in '64, at a time when the country was just awash with division. And he made that album then! This was a risky venture for Cash--unwittingly for him. But it was a creative obligation for him too, because he considered himself a folksinger. Joe Strummer did, too.

One of the things you really drive home in A Heartbeat and a Guitar is that kind of folksinger tradition--not just the stories that are told but, how effectively they're related in the songs. That kind of storytelling is largely forgotten today in much of pop music. The exception to this would definitely be hip-hop--and that's a pretty big exception given how dominant hip-hop culture is today.

At my book launch recently, someone asked me, "Who are the new folk musicians?" And my view, just my view about punk, is that it's much broader than that one genre. I think that Chuck D and Public Enemy are great folk musicians, because they're telling stories. And if you listen to these records a hundred years from now, they're going to be valuable, important and interesting.

Hip-hop today is most certainly the most vibrant kind of "folk" music out there now. Of course, so much of it has been co-opted by the system. But I think that anyone who aspires to really reach people with their music has to be a storyteller--they have to be interested in what's happening around them. Are people in love? Do they have opportunity? Do they hope? Do they have freedom or justice? These are basic elements that are key to survival.

That's why Bob Dylan found such success by being a folksinger first. And that's why Johnny Cash returned to it with Bitter Tears--because he was so influenced by the Carter Family and Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. These guys were the traditional musicians of the era and they got that way by writing folk songs--songs about folks.

Looking around the world, young people really are getting the shaft. They say the recession is ending but unemployment is still going up, and I can't think of a time when people are more in need of art that reconfirms their humanity. Are there any musical rebels around today that are carrying on this kind of tradition?

That's a tough question. When you're talking about Johnny Cash and Joe Strummer, you're talking about extremely successful musicians. Are there musicians of that kind of level of success like them in this country today? I'd have to say no. I could say Manu Chao, I could say Rachid Taha, I could say Caetano Veloso, or Mercedes Sosa who just died, or Los Fabulosos Cadillacs. These are huge bands with big followings around the world.

Here in the U.S., though, the artists who are saying something are not at that level yet: the Ted Leos, the Radio 4s, the Mos Defs. Mos Def is more out in there in pop culture through his acting now, but his music is incredible! Black On Both Sides is a tour-de-force record. But when it comes down to how well-known he is in the culture, Jay-Z just trounces him. I could walk outside my Brooklyn door right now and ask 10 kids in one block, "Who do you like better? Mos Def or Jay-Z?" and I'd be willing to bet that nine of them would say Jay-Z.

There are scores of artists that say something, but they're just not at level where they're affecting the wider culture the way that Johnny Cash or Joe Strummer did. Green Day is at that level, and American Idiot is a powerful statement. I would say certainly Green Day is there, but they're an exception. But we're also in a period of transition right now.

That's definitely true; things are changing really quickly right now. If you look at "indie" culture--which has come to include not just rock but folk and hip-hop artists--it's becoming the dominant culture among kids. Mos Def, Ted Leo and Radio 4 are all incredibly popular in the indie milieu too. And I think a lot of indie's popularity has to do with the crisis the music industry is in: kids can go to the Internet to find a wider scope of music than the industry is willing to allow. Do you think this might make it easier for artists who are saying something to rise to a greater level of popularity?

I think that's absolutely true. And I would also throw in Thievery Corporation and TV On the Radio. And I would definitely include Antibalas too! The reason I think they're one of the best bands in the country right now is that they're reflective of the kind of change we need in the world. You know, they've got a 15-piece orchestra with members from all over the world, they're from all different backgrounds and ethnicities--and I think that's more representative of where we're headed.

You mean something more all-encompassing and organic?

Right, because more people see that the consolidation and the vertical integration of the capitalist system is not working, and that goes for pop culture too. When I came up, when I was a young kid in the '80s and going into the '90s as a teenager, 7-inches dominated my life from all these independent labels like Touch 'N' Go. And they'd teach me something new, I'd discover new music through them.

It's almost as if the mp3 has become the modern-day 7-inch: it's compact, it's just a snippet of an artist, but it's a lot more accessible than an overpriced CD is, and it allows people to discover new music.

I think that's a good way to put it. I think that this is a very hopeful time that we need to seize. The window is starting to close, but it's not closing as quickly as I thought it would. So we really have an opportunity here to level the playing field and create a reality where the hundreds and hundreds of bands that don't make it or the bands that have something to say have room as artists so that they can contribute to the wider culture.

You mentioned Antibalas. One of my favorite things their horn section did recently was show up on Jimmy Fallon's late night show, where the Roots are now the house band. And they appeared with Public Enemy and the Roots doing a version of "Bring the Noise" that was out of this world! The Roots have always had an incredibly political edge to them, and that performance really illustrates what's possible to me right now in terms of getting real rebel music out there to a wide audience--and also some of the challenges.

It's interesting that you say that because I've become good friends with some of the guys in Antibalas, and one of the guys--Martin, who plays the bari sax--was giving me the background behind the Roots becoming Jimmy Fallon's house band. And the reality was that it provided them with the stability they needed.

For, years I've thought that the Roots are one of the best bands in America, but it's hard staying out on the road when you get older and you've got families. But I'd rather have the Roots around than not. It's also that we can't be so rigid and slipping into thinking that you're more pure than anyone else because when you do the same thing as people that you're trying to oppose.

I think performances like that, when they reach a wide audience, can be incredibly powerful. And you couldn't ask for better spokespeople than the Roots, Chuck D and Antibalas. These are real musicians!

What I mean by that is that they breathe the history of music, which means that they understand and contextualize that history--not just by their music but by their very presence. That's so much more powerful than Kevin Eubanks on the Jay Leno Show. I don't want to diminish Kevin Eubanks, but the difference between him and the Roots is kind of like the difference between Britney Spears and the Clash.

Given all this, do you think there's room for the legacies of Cash and Strummer to continue on and be revived?

I do. I'm always ultimately hopeful and optimistic because there are always going to be artists out there who respond to the moment. They're going to produce work that becomes the next chapter in the progressive movement of humanity. I think ultimately, in a way, music is that.

The very idea of making music is a rebellious act. The Reagan ideology we were talking about has been proven as not sustainable. And a lot of the kind of shallow pop culture that's out there today for the most part is not sustainable. I'll put it this way: you're not going to hear Creed or Nickelback 50 years from now. What you will hear is TV On the Radio.

This article first appeared at


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Rap Doesn't Kill People... Governments Do

Hip-hop fans knew what was coming in the wake of Derrion Albert's death in Chicago this past September. Here was the ultimate urban tragedy: a sixteen-year-old kid beaten to death in a blighted, neglected community. It's close to certain that the media wouldn't have caused such a stir had his death not been caught on tape. Alas, it was, and it was only a matter of time until the theatre of the absurd took root.

The "blame hip-hop" refrain has been a minority of the aftermath, but it's still worth noting. Several parents groups' have pointed the finger at our "violent culture" (thinly veiled code for rap music nowadays), and many journalists have followed suit. Most shocking of all was when Lupe Fiasco went on Chicago radio station WGCI and declared that the music must "take some of the fault" for Albert's death.

Meanwhile, none of the "national task force" charged with investigating the incident have offered any real solutions. Security cameras and more cops are the most trotted-out band-aids. That Albert was killed right outside Fenger High School, one of the most over-crowded, under-resourced in the city, doesn't seem to have any relevancy. But then, one of the task force's most visible members is Obama's Education Secretary Arne Duncan--who as CEO of Chicago schools oversaw the kind of closures and privatizations of schools that led to Fenger being neglected in the first place.

With Duncan and his ilk unwilling to address any of the underlying causes of community crime (doing so would be to tacitly admit complicity), the blame is only more likely to follow the same individual lines of personal responsibility (as opposed to social responsibility) from rappers to the kids who listen to them to the community itself.

Of course, times like these can also give a resilient hip-hop the chance to shine. In the weeks following Albert's death, NaS wrote an "open letter" that expressed his condolences for the young man's family, and urging kids to not fall into the trap of "the game." He also, crucially, took the time to defend hip-hop. Showing up on CNN, where his 1999 song "Shoot 'Em Up" was accused of glorifyin violence, NaS shot back "I feel like it's the obvious thing for the media to kinda point out one of the most violent lyrical records that I made... I've made records about children, about struggle, and those are never the songs that are talked about. There's no love for those songs. There's only attention put on the songs where there's violence in it. But the reality is I'm only speaking about reality"

Few understand this reality better than David Banner, an artist who has blended his music with philanthropy and activism every chance he's gotten. Banner certainly sees things differently than most of the talking heads and politicians willing to blame these tragedies on the kids:

"The one thing I hate about politics and politicians is that they try to point the finger at children. They never talk about the lack of jobs, the lack of recreation, the poor school systems and the environment that is conducive to violence. Who would I be to come out of that environment and point fingers at kids who are only responding to their environment? Innocent children are bystanders affected by the byproducts of the neighborhoods."

To this end, Banner, a native of Mississippi, has teamed up with a veritable powerhouse team to produce "Something Is Wrong." Co-produced by 9th Wonder, "Something Is Wrong" is meant to set the record straight. It's a song with real urgency; the sampled R&B loop sung by Lisa Ivey gives it the feel of a modern "Inner City Blues." And while the original features only Banner and veers into rather quizzical lyrical territory by the end, the recent extended remix packs a punch.

Banner has included some of Chicago's best for the remix: Twista, Naledge of Kidz in the Hall, Skooda Chose and Rhymefest. Each holds their own on the track. Banner delivers his brand of "what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-you?" lyrics. Naledge's chill swagger gives the track an air of assuredness even as he asks some tough questions, and Twista's rhythmic, rapid-fire wordplay wraps it all up on a strong note. The whole track is an urgent plea to young folks, begging them to turn the guns away from each other without drifting into finger-wagging.

But it's definitely 'Fest who steals the show, pointing out some of the most poignant connections between urban neglect, racism and violent crime. If Chicago politicans are ready to point the finger, Rhymefest is ready to expose the other three pointing back at them:

"They raise a hundred million dollars for an Olympics that we ain't even get
But you starvin' on the streets and you can't even get a hundred thou?"

'Fest goes on to ask how it is that the cops only show up to poor neighborhoods to terrorize them but can still manage to guard Barack Obama's Chicago residence when the prez isn't even there!

These are the kinds of hard truths that none in power seem comfortable asking. They're more than ready to shirk the blame, pass it on to artists and emcees--and by proxy, the kids who listen to them. It's a tired formula that few actually buy nowadays. It's not a coincidence that crime is on the rise at the same time as unemployment and foreclosures climb to their highest in decades. And it's about time that the ones in charge have that connection rubbed in their face until they do something about it. For that reason, we shouldn't be blaming hip-hop. On the contrary, it's moments like these that we should be damn glad it's here.

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


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Building new boundaries with U2

Celebrations for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall have been underway for the past couple weeks. All the pomp and circumstance definitely reflects the deliberate re-writing of history: that the wall was brought down by "great men" like Reagan and Gorbachev, not by a popular revolt that swept the Eastern Bloc--and insofar as it did, it was lead by those who hungered for the "free market," rather than real freedom.

Never underestimate the ability for the world's rulers to take a legitimate struggle and exploit it for their own uses. Sounds like the kind of thing that would be right up U2's alley! If Bono's pleas for compassion and freedom don't ring hollow already (and they do), then this blunder of a move says it all.

According to the Associated Press, the group played an overblown commemorative mini-concert at Brandenburg Gate, right where the Wall originally came down twenty years ago. Their November 5th concert was about a half hour long and was attended by about 10,000 people who managed to snap up the free tickets beforehand. The problem? That the supposedly free concert was closed to all but the ticket-holders... by a wall!

"Both Berliners and tourists alike saw the irony in building a wall around a concert dedicated to the wall that already has come down... 'It's completely ridiculous that they are blocking the view,' said Louis-Pierre Boily, 23, who came to Berlin even though he failed to get U2 tickets. 'I thought it's a free show, but MTV probably wants people to watch it on TV to get their ratings up.'"

You can't make up this kind of bone-headedness. Chalk it up to bad planning or poor choices on the part of the promoters. It's still intensely inappropriate: a show intended to commemorate liberation and freedom by creating the opposite. Nobody can seriously equate the prevention of fans from attending a show with the systematic repression of the East German people, but it does provide a bit of a glimpse into how much "freedom" the music industry is actually willing to tolerate--and perhaps how U2's own shameful hubris is becoming increasingly obvious.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

Strong Medicine Man

It's hard to disagree with the sentiments expressed in "Shuttin' Detroit Down," a song released in April by country music sensation John Rich—one half of the multi-platinum duo Big & Rich. In the bare-bones composition, the singer blends sorrow and outrage into a powerful mix directed against bankers and executives running off with our tax money as ordinary folks lose homes and jobs. There's one problem: Rich chose to debut the song on the nightly show of his "good friend," Fox News's Glenn Beck, and its release was scheduled to coincide with Rick Santelli's venomous anti-tax "tea parties."

What's the lesson here? Merely that context counts. Not only did Rich's song lend credibility to the wolf-in-sheep's-clothing "populism" of Fox News, he bolstered country music's long-standing image as the chosen music of backward, everything-phobic "rednecks." Believe it or not, that image hasn't always been accurate.

It's here that Antonino D'Ambrosio's new book comes in handy. A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears is a passionate and painstaking portrait of one of country's greatest legends—and the album that launched him into the center of a controversy.

By the early 1960s, Cash had become a superstar in popular music. In less than a decade, the son of poor Tennessee sharecroppers had gone from an artist with gospel ambitions to one of a handful representing the intersection between country, folk, and the burgeoning genre of rock 'n' roll. Record companies saw him as a golden boy.

And yet Cash, far from feeling liberated by fame, felt hemmed in. One of his reasons for parting ways with Sam Phillips's Sun Records in favor of Columbia was that he felt the latter to be a place that provided more creative freedom. Cash had been raised on some of the best traditions of American music, songs that personified a stark reality of work, struggle, and hope—Merle Travis, the Carter Family, Woody Guthrie. These were the artists whose legacies Cash hoped to continue.

Bitter Tears is an often-overlooked album. In a recent interview, D'Ambrosio points out "most of the biographies on him have one paragraph on it or a page maybe. But it's funny because in all the research I did, Bitter Tears is one of two or three albums that he always said were his favorite and best. "

Released in October 1964, Bitter Tears was met with immense hostility from the record industry and country music establishment. Radio stations refused to play songs from it. The irony today is that the album contains what is possibly one of the best-known songs in all of Cash's repertoire, "The Ballad of Ira Hayes."

Hayes, an indigenous Pima, is himself immortalized as one of the four Marines photographed raising the Stars and Stripes after the battle of Iwo Jima during WWII. But, as the song shows, his story was far from one of triumph. Initially coming home to a hero's welcome, Hayes was soon reminded that he had fought for a country that hated him. His own demons became too much to bear and he was found dead at the age of 32, having drank himself to death on the Gila River Reservation ten years after Iwo Jima.

The plight of Native peoples like Hayes was a deep concern for Cash (who claimed Cherokee ancestry) and this theme runs through every song on Bitter Tears. In his book, D'Ambrosio weaves together the stories of the myriad figures and groups that influenced the album's content—both directly and indirectly.

The list of people isn't just the early figures of country music, but radicals and subversives that might shock even the most learned Cash fan—in particular, the Greenwich Village folk scene. The people and art that emanated from this small section of New York City would have a profound effect on countless musicians of the decade, including Johnny Cash.

D'Ambrosio spends an ample amount of space divulging details of Cash's connection with the Village scene. Of particular note is the relationship to a young Bob Dylan. The two were much more than casual acquaintances. As the author chronicles, Cash had such respect and affection for the young folksinger that he was one of the few to stand up for him after his notorious electric performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

Then there was Peter La Farge, a Navy veteran who spent years as something of a wandering soul before settling in the Village. Son of Native rights advocate and writer Oliver La Farge, Peter and Johnny Cash shared a lot in common. Both were steadfast on putting meaning into their songs and fought tooth and nail with record companies for their right to do so. Also, both struggled with an addiction to pills.

The mistreatment of Native peoples stirred both of them to absolute outrage. When the two met in May 1962—after Cash's disastrous, Dexedrine-fueled appearance at Carnegie Hall—they connected immediately. "Johnny Cash loved him," says D'Ambrosio, "and in the short time they spent together he was incredibly inspired by La Farge." Of the eight songs that would appear on Bitter Tears, La Farge wrote five, including "The Ballad of Ira Hayes."

In some ways, A Heartbeat and a Guitar is just as much a biography of Peter La Farge as it is a story about Johnny Cash. This is certainly not to the author's discredit, because despite his important contribution to the history of folk and protest music, La Farge largely remains a footnote today. His death in 1965 contributes to his present-day obscurity.

Just as important as the stories of the people in A Heartbeat and a Guitar are the stories of what was happening around them. D'Ambrosio steers clear of the tired formula of music biographies that tend to portray their subjects in a vacuum. As the author traces the development of Cash's career and music, the reader gets a sense of the Civil Rights movement, the McCarthy-ite hangover that still plagued much of the U.S., and the burgeoning movement for Native rights.

Cash had long been at odds with record labels over his content. While Columbia put pressure on him to be a pop star, the singer couldn't help but be moved by what was going on around him. Making an album like Bitter Tears certainly didn't ingratiate him with the big-wigs. D'Ambrosio makes the case that, "It was hard to be a vocal supporter of Civil Rights—this is 1964. To even go a step beyond that and support Native people—there's a lot of bravery and courage in that."

After radio stations refused to play "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," Cash reached into his own pocket to pay for a full-page letter in Billboard magazine lashing out at the "gutless" music establishment that refused to let artists relate to the world around them. "'Ira Hayes' is strong medicine," he said in the letter, "so is Rochester, Harlem, Birmingham and Vietnam."

The censorship that Bitter Tears encountered prevented it from gaining the acclaim Cash's previous work had garnered. This might account for its present diminished status among his massive catalogue. To those in the Native American rights movement, however, the album was of great importance. Dennis Banks is quoted in the book as saying, "Cash's album is one of the earliest and most significant statements on behalf of Native people and our issues."

Johnny Cash could have played the role of the compliant country star, bowing to what the establishment expected of him: shut up and sing. But then, that wouldn't have made him into the Johnny Cash so widely admired today. A Heartbeat and a Guitar makes the case that his work is intimately intertwined with his deep sense of social conscience. The brewing storm of the 1960s gave that conscience—and his will to test the limits of what was acceptable—the room to thrive.

If nothing else, this book can help bring attention to an incredibly important album that has yet to receive its due. Bitter Tears is a testament to what happens when the boundaries between art and politics are broken down. As D'Ambrosio says, "This is the truest representation of Johnny Cash. He tried to do something different and say something different. And I think that really, that's what good art is about."

This article first appeared in Z Magazine.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Less Schlock, More Rock

It seems like not too long ago (and in fact, it wasn't: only two years) that Radiohead sent a buzz through the music world by announcing they were releasing their new album In Rainbows as an online "pay what you can" scheme. Now, such an occurrence won't even bat an eyelash for most of us.

The amount of musical material that hits the world-wide web everyday is staggering. In sheer numbers alone, the access that the internet has afforded both artist and fan dwarfs previous eras. Even for signed artists, the net has greatly increased their output. From hip-hop mix tapes to teaser singles to bonus tracks, official albums alone don't even scratch the surface of what a musician can put out there.

Keeping up with 300,000 albums a year (what the record industry would release during an average year a decade ago) was hard enough. Now, with the countless songs that hit the web every year leaving that number in the dust, whipping out the old adage "less is more" seems even more tempting. Before, the massive amount of sub-standard material put out by the big biz appeared to be enough to drown what little quality music that did exist in a cacophony of mediocrity. It was yet another symptom of a sick system that viewed human creativity as just another commodity.

Mat Callahan, in his enlightening 2005 book The Trouble With Music, described the end result of this dynamic:

"There is too much music and there is not enough. More must be continuously made and thrown away, because music has been made disposable... A small number of musical products generate enormous profit, while the vast majority cost more than they earn--all of them more or less quickly become residue, waste. Since there is no place [in the industry] for the 'timeless' moments music is capable of producing, there are only the limited, measured moments of shallow enjoyment that must continuously be replaced by new versions of the same shallow enjoyment-producing units."

We've all experienced it, whether we're aware of it or not. That last year's one-hit-wonder was recently dropped from their contract and discarded like yesterday's newspaper doesn't negate the fact that radio and television are perpetually filled with such artists. It's a the same cartoon logic that tanks the economy by producing "too many houses" while thousands remain homeless.

So it may indeed be easy to look at the mass of sounds pouring from our computer with the same suspicion--only multiplied now. Except for one crucial factor: control. By now, the notion of the internet wresting a great amount of power from the industry and placing it in the hands of fans and artists is hardly a revelation. Stories of artists gaining wide followings by going around the record labels are becoming commonplace. Lily Allen was rejected by every label she took her songs to; it was only after her MySpace page gained thousands of fans that the suits sat up and took notice.

One of this year's biggest success stories in the world of hip-hop has been Blitz the Ambassador. The Ghanaian Brooklyn-based emcee was also turned down by most record companies, prompting him to put his stuff out on the web. He went viral, and has now released what is easily one of the best albums of the year completely independently.

The fear that we've somehow gone from too much to way too much assumes something that we've all known to be patently untrue for quite some time: that the record industry puts quality before quantity.

This gets at one of the underlying causes of the present, years-long slump in album sales. The RIAA love to harp that the peer-to-peer phenomenon it to blame. In a way, they're right--but only because their own output (what Callahan referred to as the "measured moments of shallow enjoyment") has become unsatisfactory, and an alternative has finally become available. Never before have so many people had such unprecedented access to so many varieties of music, and often for free too. And--importantly--never before have artists been able to reach such a wide audience regardless of the decisions made in corporate boardrooms.

That kind of power (the kind that literally can't be bought) can be felt the most in hip-hop. While mix tapes are about as old as the music itself, it's only been since they've gone web-based that they've become this widespread. Miles Raymer, music columnist for the Chicago Reader, wrote in a recent article that "[w]hat's changed in the past few years is that people who don't know the right places on Canal Street in New York or on the south and west sides of Chicago have access to them."

The changes this has prompted within hip-hop itself are also of note. Raymer continues: "Where rappers ten years ago tried to emulate Jay-Z's rapper-as-CEO formula, these days they're looking to Lil Wayne, who despite giving away a majority of his music [online] can move multiplatinum numbers of the records he does charge money for."

In other words, the sheer volume of material hitting the web has started to drag the industry behind it. And major labels and their lawyers love to prattle on about the internet "stealing" from artists, examples like these are proof that the same artists may stand to make more money without the executives' "help."

No doubt, there is plenty of crap released online--just the same as in any big record store. But the millions of songs released online don't fall into the "less is more" category for the very reason that it actually empowers people to find more real gems than the business is willing to produce. It's not a simple matter of quality vs. quantity. It's that the possibility of quality has been greatly heightened because the quantity is in our collective hands.

How many talented young artists have been ignored because their songs don't jive with the narrow and insulting concept of "marketability?" How many fans have had their love of discovering and enjoying music thwarted--either because there's so little out there or for simple lack of funds? Now the game has changed, and for once, we're the ones making the rules.

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


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Punk is dead... long live punk!

Granted, this tour is already halfway over, but I couldn't let it pass without saying something about it here at RF.

Afro-Punk is currently embarking on its first ever national tour! "What is Afro-Punk?" you ask. In short, it's a movement lead by kids of color seeking to shake up the perception that punk is sheerly a white people's thing. Says the AP website:

"When Matthew Morgan and James Spooner joined forces in 2002, their focus was giving a voice to thousands of multi-cultural kids fiercely identifying with a lifestyle path-less-traveled. Morgan, a visionary with 15 years in the music industry, instinctively understood that the indie rock/punk/hardcore scene had powerful appeal beyond the predictable Caucasian audience; the passion evident in writer-director Spooners hours of riveting hand-shot footage was the indisputable proof. The result: 2003s Afro-Punk, the seminal cult classic film spotlighting Black Punks in America.

Afro-Punk became a touchstone of a cultural movement strongly reminiscent of the early days of Hip-Hop. Alternative urban kids across the nation (and across the globe) who felt like outsiders discovered they were actually the core of a boldly innovative, fast-growing community."

It's not hard to find representatives of this movement among some of the most influential figures in the avant-garde. For one: Saul Williams, who is more or less considered an architect of the genre--and is headlining this tour. Living Colour (yeah, remember them?) are something of a godfather act, which makes perfect sense given their role in founding the Black Rock Coalition in the '80s. Living Colour have also graced the stage at the AP tour stops.

Evidence of the phenomenon's global appeal is evident too; folks may remember the piece that appeared at RF this summer on London's Ebony Bones, who was easily the highlight of July's Wicker Park Festival (despite being shunted off to one of the side-stages).

To be sure, though the movement adheres to the punk outlook there's a great amount of eclecticism within Afro-Punk--far more than "three chords and the truth" (which isn't really surprising; today's "indie generation" has long ago taken up the task of redefining each genre for its own uses). Its sound pulls from electro, rap, old-school hardcore, just about anything the artists can get their hands on. What ties them all together is a complete disregard for convention and an emphasis on folks of color being in the front.

The past several years have seen AP limit itself to a short (if incredibly notable) festival in Brooklyn that highlighted some of the best acts within the new movement. Now, with Afro-Punk taking to the road, it's giving voice to the countless multi-racial scenes whose main modus operandi is breaking down musical and social boundaries. Taking a step back, the whole phenom certainly reflects the attitude among youth today: brash, uncompromising, with a deep respect for the myriad musical movements that have become part of our culture's DNA, and with no respect for any authority that seeks to keep young folks needlessly divided.

With any luck, this tour will be yet another step in building a musical and cultural movement that can really shake the streets.


Thursday, November 5, 2009

The industry's case falls apart... again!

An interesting tid-bit of news from the UK's Independent newspaper:

"People who illegally download music from the internet also spend more money on music than anyone else, according to a new study. The survey, published today, found that those who admit illegally downloading music spent an average of £77 a year on music--£33 more than those who claim that they never download music dishonestly."

The exchange rate puts this roughly at $150 and $65 respectively. If the same is true for here in the US (and there's no reason to believe it wouldn't be) then this finding flies in the face of one of the music industry's long-standing gripes with peer-to-peer file-sharing: that those who download "illegally" would otherwise be buying the albums in the stores and are costing the record companies money.

There's never really been any evidence to back up this claim. RF has (more than a handful of times) referenced a 2004 Harvard-UNC study that not only showed very little link between downloading and the decline of CD sales, but actually revealed a possible correlation between peer-to-peer and increased sales of the most popular albums. This most recent finding seems to jive with that study.

In Britain there is a plan in place for the government to implement a "three-strikes" clause, where users who don't obey written warnings from ISPs could have their service permanently terminated. Similar possibilities have arisen here in the US. But such measures, far from protecting the music industry, will most likely only further seal its fate. The article goes on as quoting Mark Mulligan of Forrester Research as saying that "[t]he people who file-share are the ones who are interested in music... They use file-sharing as a discovery mechanism."

This gets at yet another key point for defense of file sharing. Record companies more or less killed the single a long time ago, and in doing so, did away with what little power music fans had in sampling records before they buy them. Mp3s put this power back in kids hands. As the numbers, show, these aren't the people looking to rip off artists. Far more likely is that they're people who are rightfully picky about the music they're spending their money on.

And this, in a way, may reveal what is actually behind the years-long slip in album sales. If the industry wants to rebuild itself, then it should be more concerned with putting out a quality product, not scapegoating the people who very well may have the most respect for music itself. But then, this is the same cabal of people willing to bankrupt a single mother of two over a handful of songs. Clarity in thought clearly isn't their strong suit.


Monday, November 2, 2009

Between Sounds Faded and Sounds Made

It's been a year since the world watched at Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. I remember sitting in a Chicago bar and hearing the crowd erupt into cathartic applause when the news was announced. Not only were eight years of Bush finally drawing to a close, not only was John "One Hundred More Years" McCain prevented from taking over, but a biracial man was elected in a country built on racism--and after running a campaign that appealed to the broad hunger for "change" in this country.

The wave of young discontent that swept Obama into office was no mirage. It was the result of a palpable frustration that had been brewing among young people for a long time. The 2008 elections saw a massive amount of 18-to-22-year-olds expected to go to the polls--the biggest since the baby-boomers. Naturally, the fervor for not just something different but something better could be felt in almost every sector of youth culture, especially music.

As I pointed out in an article last year:

"Artists as disparate as the Arcade Fire, Common, Vampire Weekend and Santogold threw a considerable amount of weight behind the Obama camp. Looking back it seems impossible to even list all the artists who took the opportunity to lend their voices. Compare this to the fact that John McCain couldn't even get Abba on his side, and you start to get the picture of how much things have swung...

What is striking to this writer, however, is how many of the artists backing Obama this time around want a lot more than just a new face in the White House. A recent issue of the indie-music magazine Under the Radar produced especially for the election carried a photo-spread of of artists holding up self-made placards with demands like "End This War Now!" (Sharon Jones) or "Subsidize Wind and Solar Energy," (the Decembrists), outrageous facts like "96% of musicians lack healthcare" (the Dresden Dolls), or simple sentiments like "I Want to Live in Woodrow Guthrie's America" (Akron/Family)."

The list goes on and on. Who can forget the inclusion of Will.I.Am's "Yes We Can?" Or how Young Jeezy was forced to publicly endorse Obama after comments of his were taken out of context? And nobody who follows hip-hop can forget the Russell Simmons/DJ Green Lantern produced Obama mixtape.

Musically, election '08 wasn't the usual humdrum of bands and artists trotted out for the stale ploy of "turning out the youth vote." Rather, music reflected how the Obama camp had become a lightning rod for all manner of discontent among a generation of young, in-debt working people staring down the barrel of a world well beyond their control.

The past year, though, has also given us a hard dose of the difference between Obama the candidate and Obama the president. We've seen his method for dealing with economic crisis: crumbs thrown to the same working people whose tax dollars are used to bail out the companies that sank it. We've seen him waffle on Guantanamo and ramp up the occupation of Afghanistan. And we've seen him cave to the far-right fringe on healthcare time and again. It's clear that if any "change" is going to come from this administration, it's going to be forced by us.

In a few ways we've already seen what such a bottom-up rising can look like. The outpouring of support for LGBT liberation has best been seen in the form of the large National Equality March last month; so large was it that Obama attempted to "head it off" the night before by announcing he would end the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" rule in the military.

But the ways in which our music was pulled out into this same realm a year ago have to a great degree scattered to the wind. At a glance, however, it might be easy to credibly ask that same question that arises in times of turmoil: "where is the protest music?"

Tom Morello, who remains possibly one of the best-known (and most prolific) artist of real rebel music, hit it right on the head when he recently told the NME:

"For those who want a more just world, there’s still reason for optimism because we don’t have this Attila The Hun-type character in the Oval Office. But change doesn’t come from the top, it comes from people like readers of NME who stand up for their rights where they live, work and go to school... It’s very important to have people in the world of culture offering dissident voices at all times – it was true under Clinton, it was true under Bush, and it’s certainly true under Obama."

It's not like these kinds of acts have really gone anywhere. The Ted Leos and KRS-Ones of the world are still doing their thing (and doing it quite well too). But the experience of the election is instructive. Real, relevant art needs the space to breathe and thrive. Obama's own tactic of invoking the history of social movements may have been the calculated move of a politician, but it also gave a real opportunity for young people to rally around something bigger than an election. The amount of young voters now turning to grassroots activism today is proof that the election wasn't the end.

This kind of outpouring from the bottom-up (albeit in the context of a top-down election) was what allowed these artists to not only throw their lot in with Obama, but gave them the confidence to speak out on everything from healthcare to the war to police brutality. If this kind of flowering of dissent on artists' part seems to have faded to the background, it's only because the election was no substitute for the kinds of movements that can shift a whole society.

Anyone longing to see our music transformed into a vibrant and groundbreaking platform for real and radical change can't help but think of the risings that came about in the late '60s and early '70s. How many commentators have we heard comparing today's acts to Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Marvin Gaye or Earth Wind and Fire? Popular conceptions of the '60s lead us to believe that this era was just that way and that's the end of it; the music and protest went hand-in-hand. But it was only the radical movements for racial equality and against the war in Vietnam that changed the terrain enough for artists to start speaking out.

Contrary to the celebrity-centric ways in which we're taught to think today, it can't be forgotten that artists are themselves people whose own confidence and emotions have a relationship to the world at large. There's no denying that the ongoing economic crisis, the lack of jobs, the continuing scapegoating of anyone outside the norm, all have provoked a wide anger among young people--the kind which we haven't seen in generations. And though this anger hasn't gone anywhere since the election, this crop of youth are only just figuring out how to fight back.

The formula's simple: if we want more relevancy in our music, then we need to make ourselves relevant. When we finally figure out how to make that happen, then the music of the elections will seem like a tea party in comparison.

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