Friday, January 29, 2010

Thank you Professor Zinn

Many are probably aware by now that Howard Zinn passed away on Wednesday. The countless tributes from both mainstream and alternative news outlets are all a testament to what a massive impact he has had on our present culture. It would be impossible to quantify exactly how many people were moved by his writing and convinced that they too have a role to play in shaping our society from the bottom up.

Like many of my generation, I was first exposed to Professor Zinn's work through A People's History of the United States. I was lucky enough to have the book required for my history class in high school. Though the teacher also incorporated more traditional works in an effort to be more "balanced," Zinn's profound and painstaking narrative of America's untold history opened my eyes more than any other history book before or since. It wasn't long before I was corresponding with him via email, and it was him who initially encouraged me to get involved in the radical left.

These were the reasons that some have referred to Howard Zinn as "the historian who made history." To him, it wasn't just about learning facts and spouting them back in tests and term papers. It was about knowing the story of your side so as better to change its future.

The affect of Zinn's work on me didn't end with A People's History, either. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, I happened to pick up Artists in Times of War. By this point I was a committed revolutionary, and though I had continued to love and examine art, I had seldom thought of how the two dovetailed. Zinn's passionate insistence that artists have a role to play got me thinking. It wasn't just that art and society happened to cross over at times, it was that there was always a relationship between the two:

"The artist thinks, acts, performs music, and writes outside the framework that society has created. The artist may do no more than give us beauty, laughter, passion, surprise and drama. I don't mean to minimize these activities by saying the artist can do no more than this. The artist needn't apologize, because by doing this, the artist is telling us what the world should be like, even if it isn't that way now. The artist is taking us away from the moments of horror that we experience everyday--some days more than others--and showing us what is possible.

"But the artist can and should do more. In addition to creating works of art, the artist is also a citizen and a human being."

These words shook me. They set me off on an exploration of the intersection between artists and the world around them. It's an exploration that I find unable to drop. I'm certainly not alone here. Zinn introduced unknown numbers of young people not just to a different interpretation of history, but a different way of thinking. It's a way of thinking that isn't just more accurate, but is ultimately more hopeful and inspiring than anything we could learn from "business as usual." And for that, we can be infinitely grateful.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Someone old, someone new

The new Gil Scott-Heron drops on February 22nd. If you haven't hear from him in a while, then you're not alone. The '80s and '90s were hard on Gil, as they were on most black radicals. But around the turn of the millennium, a new generation came around to the massive contribution that he made to the insurgent music of the black power struggle and beyond.

But that doesn't mean Gil Scott himself has had any opportunity to wallow in the past. This video of "The Devil and Me" from the upcoming album sounds very little like the kind of thing he would release back in the early '70s. Gone are most of the soul and jazz base that his music relied on back then. Unlike a lot of artists of his ageAnd it's been replaced by an almost post-industrial sound, somewhat akin to Saul Williams and Trent Reznor's '07 collabo NIggyTardust.

Time has not been kind to Gil's voice. The bell-clear baritone that was so familiar in the '60s and '70s has been replaced by a semi-strangled growl like you would hear in the aging blues men. Given the overwhelming menace of this song (especially the tempo switch at around 3:50), it's a sound that works. All in all, it's a pleasant surprise. Rather than cash in on a blank nostalgia, Scott-Heron has proven himself to be willing to change with the times without selling himself short.


Monday, January 25, 2010

Hope For Haiti When?

So far, the count is $58 million. That's how much has been raised by this past Friday's "Hope For Haiti Now" telethon. The event was impossible to ignore. Every major television network broadcast it, and if you had even a basic cable package, then your options were somewhere around twenty channels.

To be sure, $58 million is an impressive amount. More than that, it's a record for any televised event of its kind, and it's also proof that ordinary people in this and other nations of the developed world don't have hearts made of stone. In the wake of the 7.0 earthquake that rocked the small nation earlier this month, this number flies in the face of the notion that ordinary people are fundamentally selfish in the face of an unimaginable disaster.

Having a bevy of celebrities and music stars on the telethon's side doesn't hurt either. George Clooney managed to assemble a list that was quite impressive: Justin Timberlake, Madonna, Bono and the Edge, Sheryl Crow, Jennifer Hudson, Bruce Springsteen, Mary J. Blige, Taylor Swift, Sting, Beyonce, Jay-Z, and the list goes on. Put that lineup on a flier, and you'll have enough notice to raise more than a few bucks.

But a question bears asking: how much of this large sum will be actually making it to the people of Haiti? As the death toll from the earthquake seems to climb ever higher, it's apparent that real aid is undeniably needed. News from the country itself, however, reveals that what has been coming its way looks more like a military occupation than anything resembling help.

The presence of the US' "stabilization force" has actually meant that barely a fraction of the aid headed to Haiti has actually gotten into people's hands. As American activist Ashley Smith wrote, "the US is using its position of power to impose its control over the country and impede relief efforts, turning away planes from Doctors Without Borders, the Mexican government and the Caribbean Community and Common Market."

Some, like "The Daily Show"'s John Stewart, might insist that "now's not the time" to bring up politics. But if not now, when? If politics aren't mentioned now, then who will in the end speak for the Haitian people who are asking the world for help and instead having guns shoved in their face?

The effectiveness of the funds raised by "Hope For Haiti Now" are probably best reflected in the foundations the show was designed to benefit. And truthfully, it's a mixed bag. The beneficiaries of the telethon were a mish-mash of genuine grassroots organizations and corporate-funded charities who have a history of bowing to the orders of the US military. Partners In Health, an organization that has worked on the ground in Haiti for twenty years, and puts an emphasis on coupling healthcare with economic justice, can certainly use the funds. The same could be said for Doctors Without Borders.

Other charities, however, raise a few eyebrows. For starters, there's the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund. Anyone who remembers Clinton's strongarming of the Haitian government during the '90s or the denial of Haitian refugees into the United States, not to mention Bush's own mishandling of Katrina, should definitely question whether these two former presidents have the nation's best interests at heart. In fact, given the current roadblocks that the US military has put on the flow of aid into the country, it's seriously worth wondering whether any of the funds collected by these two commanders in chief will reach the people of Haiti at all.

This kind of blatant contradiction was on display throughout the entire night's performances. Bruce Springsteen's version of "We Shall Overcome" was a moment that couldn't help but remind viewer of the magnetic power this song has carried for the oppressed struggling against all odds. On the opposite end of the Boss' humble simplicity stood the arrogant Kiplingisms of Bono and the Edge. And everywhere in between, I frequently found myself the same dumbfounded question, but with a different name inserted ("what the hell is Shakira doing there?" "what the hell is Coldplay doing there?" etc). All too often, one got the feeling that most performers were there to assuage some sense of Hollywood liberal guilt rather than draw attention to the Haitian people.

In fact, for a benefit meant to drum up sympathy for ordinary Haitians, there were perplexingly few Haitian musicians performing that night! The real tragedy of this is that Haiti is a nation with a rich and varied musical history, one of the places where European, African and Indigenous sounds first collided. What could have been an opportunity to reveal the unique intertwining of different cultures through history was squandered, and in the end only reinforced the notion that Haitians themselves were little more than set pieces for this telethon.

As Jesse Lemisch wrote on the website for New Politics:

"Clooney's telethon gave us Anderson Cooper patting on the heads of little black children who had been pulled from the rubble, expressing genuine affection for them but offering a classic tableau of white paternalism... But most notable was the relative absence of Haiti itself from the music and sets (missing the color and wonder of Haitian art), conveying the accurate impression that this was something done for rather than by Haitians."

And then, there was Wyclef Jean. Aside from Jean and Emeline Michel's brilliant version of Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross," Wyclef was pretty much the only Haitian presence onstage in a lineup of well over twenty acts. Indeed, he was one of the night's emcees. This in and of itself speaks volumes about the telethon's contradictions. By mixing Afro-Caribbean rhythms with hip-hop and R&B, Wyclef has probably done more than any other musician to expose the world to Haitian music. This does not, however, mean that he stands in the interests of the slum-dwellers and toilers in Port-au-Prince.

Far from it. Wyclef Jean comes from one of the most affluent and well-connected families in Haiti. His uncle, Raymond Joseph, is currently Haiti's ambassador to the United States, and is working hand in glove with the Obama administration to ensure that as few refugees get into the US as possible. In the days directly following the quake, Wyclef released a public statement demanding that the American military invade his country.

But then, this isn't the first time that the musician has sucked up to US interests. Back in 2004, in the weeks leading up to the undemocratic ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Wyclef used his musical bully pulpit to demand the president step down despite Aristide's persistent public support among ordinary Haitians (which was pretty much the line of the Bush administration). His uncle Raymond, prior to becoming ambassador, had also operated Haiti Observateur, a right-wing newspaper that had beaten the drums against Aristide since the early '90s and publicly supported the death squads murdering supporters of the president.

All of this might lend some credence to the allegations of misused funds leveled last week against Wyclef's Yele Haiti Foundation (another beneficiary of the telethon). But of course, none of this was mentioned last Friday. Politics of any kind were conspicuously absent. No questions about how the $58 million will be spent. No talk of how the illegitimate and ineffective Haitian government is a product of US intervention. And nobody dared speak up to say that if we really want to help the people of Haiti, then we should demand the IMF forgive the country's debt and pay reparations.

In essence, "Hope For Haiti Now" displayed the stark difference between charity and solidarity, between throwing a beggar a few coins and standing with him shoulder to shoulder. The world's attention is pulled toward Haiti right now, and any artist or activist who cares enough to speak the truth will have a wide audience. But Clooney and company couldn't put any of them onstage. Doing so might reveal that the boots currently on the backs of the Haitians are keeping all of us down too.

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


Friday, January 22, 2010

Defend Marc Hall, End Stop-Loss

For around six weeks, Georgia-based Army Specialist Marc Hall has been locked up by the US Army in the Liberty County Jail. His crime? Writing and recording a hip-hop joint protesting the draconian policy of "stop-loss" in the US military, in which soldiers have their contracts and tours extended beyond their original end-date.

Hall, who goes under the moniker "Marc Watercus," is himself a veteran of the Iraq war, is himself among the 120,000 soldiers who have been subject to this policy since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. He recorded the song "Stop-Loss" when he was off-duty.

”My first sergeant called me into his office to discuss the song’s nature," said Hall in a statement released on January 5th. "I explained to him that the hardcore rap song was a free expression of how people feel about the Army and its stop-loss policy. I explained that the song was neither a physical threat nor any threat whatsoever. I told him it was just hip-hop.”

Hall was locked in the County Jail under Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which is supposed to prevent “all conduct of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces.” Apparently, the Army considers songs like this a threat. Stop-loss is an unpopular policy among troops themselves, and in the midst of two increasingly unpopular occupations, the brass are making an effort to keep a lid on any possible dissent within the ranks.

In an article by anti-war journalist Dahr Jamail, Jim Klimanski of the National Lawyers Guild explains that “It’s a political case, and the military should know that. I think they are overreaching and overreacting because of Major Hassan (who went on a shooting spree at Fort Hood on November 5), and I can understand that to some degree, but cooler heads should prevail and they should deal with stop-loss, and maybe we’ll get the case thrown out. One would hope that common sense would prevail.”

In fact, the Hassan case is being used as outright pretext for Hall's imprisonment. the Army's charge sheet claims that Hall's song makes "threats of acts of violence," and that he had told fellow soldiers that he was planning to "go on a rampage" at Fort Stewart.

To add insult to injury, the Army is now also charging Hall with refusal to deploy. Hall has said publicly that he is opposed to the occupation of Iraq and would refuse to go back, but that's not why he missed his current tour. His unit deployed in mid-December--when Hall was already in jail!

Hall is receiving support not just from the NLG, but from groups like Courage to Resist. His case deserved similar support from anyone opposed to war, empire, or the scapegoating of music.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Beats, Rhymes and Power

With a year of the Obama presidency under our belts, now seems an opportune moment to pick up Somebody Scream! Nobody who paid attention to music could ignore the way in which hip-hop culture and rap music in particular rallied around Obama’s campaign for the White House. The sense of enthusiasm among artists for electing the young senator could be felt quite apparently in songs like NaS’ “Black President,” or Young Jeezy’s “My President is Black.”

Now, like so many inspired by Obama the candidate’s message of “change” who are coming up against the realities and limitations of Obama the president, rap is asking itself that tried-and-true, history-making question: “what next?”

As the old chestnut tells us, you can't know where you're going without knowing where you've been, and Somebody Scream! does the latter surprisingly well. Scream is yet another addition to the recent crop of books that reflect a growing thirst for knowledge of hip-hop’s social and political roots (Jeff Chang’s Can't Stop Won't Stop, Michael Eric Dyson’s Know What I Mean? and so on).

Weaving together the evolution of rap and the history of “post-black power America” isn’t a new concept. As author Marcus Reeves points out, “[p]eople have been making the link between the two for years.” No writer has utilized Reeves' own strategy, however: examining the careers of some of rap's biggest icons.

The value of this is more than meets the eye. As a music journalist, I’ve encountered countless young activists over the years who, when describing their musical tastes, feel the need to qualify their interest in rap—“as long as it’s ‘conscious’”—a distinction they don’t make with other genres like rock, punk or electronica. Somebody Scream! cuts against this unintended elitism, forcing those who believe that music has a role to play in social movements to think twice before being so dismissive toward rap’s most marketable elements—and instead view them in a context.

Reeves’ format might cause the reader to expect a series of short hagiographies, but that thankfully isn't the case. A former deputy music editor for The Source magazine, the author is skilled at applying a critical eye to each performer—from Run-D.M.C. to Tupac Shakur to Eminem. In doing so he reveals that rap’s connections to black power, far from being faded with time or relegated to the fringe, run deep within even the most mainstream of artists.

The first two chapters of Scream! make this case right off the bat in an undeniable way. Black power was part of rap’s very DNA. Architects of the music like DJ Kool Herc would incorporate James Brown's “Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud” into their sets. Afrika Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation took much of its own ideology from the Black Panthers, and viewed itself as a “revolutionary youth culture.” If the movement itself was destroyed and in decline by the late ‘70s, then rap’s young upstarts sought to appropriate its legacy for themselves—sonically.

The chronological examination of rap’s key figures provides a surprisingly good schematic for how this dormant spirit manifested itself as the ‘70s gave way to the Reagan ‘80s. The militant Afrocentrism of Public Enemy played as a soundtrack for the anti-Apartheid movement gripping US campuses. Los Angeles’ urban blight and the racist drug war provided fodder for N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton, which more or less laid the basis for the ghetto-gangsta-as-folk-hero aesthetic.

But Scream doesn't dodge any of the hard challenges that face rap’s rise. His chapter on Salt-N-Pepa sees Reeves employing a deft even-handedness on the issues of sexism and censorship. Tackling the 1990 federal obscenity ruling against 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty as They Wanna Be, the author calls it for what it is while not apologizing for the album's misogyny:

“Yes, many blacks (women and men) agreed that 2 Live's album was vulgar, sexually derogatory toward women, and not the best (or even the most authentic) that rap had to offer. But the persecution and banning of their music (black music), and deeming its purchase a criminal act, reeked of the racist sentiment that had been rising since the early 1980s.”

Reeves never waivers in his defense of rap. He rightfully recognizes the music’s potential—its rebellious spirit, its connection to the experience of the oppressed and downtrodden, its penchant for speaking truth to power. But rather than fall into the clap-trap of hero worship that all too many music journalists fall prey to (especially ones of his profile), he places each influential artist and movement in context of the social, political and economic forces that affected them.

Doing so certainly forces Reeves to face some unflattering truths—it also allows him to argue for its progressive potential. Perhaps the best example of this often tricky navigation is his analysis of “bling-bling.” Instead of renouncing the aesthetic—cars, mansions, money—and insisting that rap had “lost its way,” Reeves objectively sees it as more complex, an expression of the deep-seated desire to get out of the ghetto influenced by rap's attainment of music industry powerhouse status.

“The subtext of this new, garish materialism was celebration,” says Reeves in his chapter on Jay-Z, “paying homage to hip-hop as a generation's golden ticket to social, cultural, and economic legitimacy (even if only as an emblem for those who couldn’t benefit).” In the context of the late '90s economic boom, as “the first black president” Bill Clinton parroted the line of “there is no alternative” even while slashing welfare and upping the prison population ten-fold, the want to escape could only come out in such a way.

This same chapter, however, displays one of the book's key weaknesses: Reeves’ reticence in pinning down an exact definition of “black power.” Throughout the book, he speaks of the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, and mainstream black Democrats in equally favorable ways—even as he is forced to admit that elected African Americans have done little to improve the overall lot of working-class blacks. This catch-all treatment of a term that has taken on myriad interpretations leaves the reader wondering how Reeves himself envisions black liberation coming about. Is it merely through liberal reforms? Militant separatism? Cultural nationalism and “knowing your people's history?” A healthy black capitalism? Revolution? Or perhaps all of the above?

Questions like these aren't just for the academic. Reeves’ vagueness is almost certainly a choice, and as a result Somebody Scream! can appeal to hip-hop fans of almost any left-of-center political background. Still, his own hesitancy means that the author himself falls victim to the same contradictions of his subjects.

The weakness is especially shown in his chapter on Tupac Shakur, who simultaneously embodied hip-hop’s hope and pain the way few have before or since. As Reeves explains, Shakur’s mother Afeni was herself a former member of the Panthers, this would have considerable influence on Tupac's work. His mantra of “Thuglife” (which stood for “the hate you give little infants fucks everybody”) was equal parts gangsta lifestyle and an urgent plea for fundamental change—a stance Reeves dubs “gangsta-revolutionary,” and can be seen in such radical acts as Dead Prez and Immortal Technique. In his short yet prolific career, Shakur would release amazing protests against poverty, injustice and inequality (“Brenda's Got a Baby,” “Changes”), but would also be pulled by hip-hop’s ascendancy in the music biz.

Reeves notes the shift in Shakur’s persona with his 1996 album All Eyez On Me: “Gone were the messages of resistance and painful urban blues, replaced by a postprison hedonism, materialism (thanks to the bundle of money provided by his label), and an egotistical drive to commercially crush his rap competition.”

Yet even as we understand Shakur’s contradictions in a social context—and do not ultimately see them as taking away from his importance as an artist in any way—Reeves’ own refusal to square these contradictions with the political content of his own mother's past leaves the reader thinking that it couldn’t be any other way.

As a result, Reeves’ application of the critical eye to rap can sometimes morph into a kind of pessimism—a belief that the failures of the ‘60s has left young African Americans with little choice than playing within the system, however unsavory that might be.

That being said, the chapter on Shakur is one of the most engaging in Somebody Scream! Whatever ideas author or reader may hold on how black power is best achieved, Reeves writes in such a way that the ideology's rebellious push toward justice can't be denied. Seeing how Shakur—who had perhaps the most organic connection to the apex of black power in the ‘60s—made it relevant for the hip-hop generation teases forth an idea of the music and culture's inherent instinct for something better.

One of Scream’s virtues is that it makes clear the many ways that this instinct manifests itself, be it through the muscular menace of Yonkers rapper DMX, or even the uber-controversy of Eminem. Once again, Reeves refuses to apologize for the artist’s contradictions (violence, sexism, homophobia) while recognizing the rapper’s significance. Eminem’s massive success in the late ‘90s and early 2000s brought rap’s new status into relief. That a white man could become a respected icon in a typically black art-form—indeed, most people who bought rap albums were white by the dawn of the 21st century—revealed the influence that the music had attained within all races.

Examining Eminem’s own poor, trailer-park upbringing and hard-won climb to the top, Reeves nails down what lay beneath this shift: class. “Instead of being among the legions of middle-class suburban white kids fascinated with looking at black urban angst through a hip-hop lens, Eminem was a product of America’s other invisible nation, the white underclass, unable to shake the contradictions of race and class (America screws white folks, too) and coming of age in close proximity to black folks.”

And so, despite provoking unprecedented outrage among many sectors for his well-publicized homophobic and misogynist lyrics, Eminem was nonetheless driven to release songs like “Mosh,” an unapologetic call for unity against at George W. Bush in the run-up to the 2004 elections.

Reeves’ chapter on Eminem scratches beneath the surface of rap’s present position. Given its release in early 2008, mere months before the Obama phenomenon began to gain real steam, the book might be construed as lacking. While the flowering of outspokenness from within hip-hop’s ranks that the ‘08 elections provoked is, of course, nowhere to be seen, Scream! is essential in showing how this outpouring wasn't an isolated incident.

Somebody Scream! is not intended to be a totality of rap's character. The author glosses over artists like Lauryn Hill, Outkast and A Tribe Called Quest: artists who may not have been the heavy-hitters in defining hip-hop's evolving zeitgeist, but were nonetheless influential—and were arguably more conscious in maintaining the music's link to black power.

Still, Reeves' examination of the icons breaks down a false divide between the “empty-headed mainstream” and the “progressive underground” so often constructed in conversations on rap. Even in its darkest, most over-marketed moments, rap has always spoken in some way to the condition of the downtrodden and forgotten. No matter how much crap of the ages is heaped upon the music, these roots can’t be totally erased. With hip-hop as culture more influential than ever before among young folks of all colors, that’s reason to be hopeful.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of New Politics.


Monday, January 18, 2010

Aid Not Troops: Why Wyclef is Wrong About Haiti

Last week's massive earthquake in Haiti has horrified the world. All eyes seem to be on the small nation, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, as people watch a population that has had a the rawest of raw deals dealt to it suffer through even more tragedy and death.

With possibly a hundred thousand dead, the outpouring of sympathy is to be expected. But amidst the Clooneys, Streeps and other Hollywood big-wigs trotting out their even bigger bucks, is there a voice missing? Where have we heard a single Haitian voice since this crisis began? In the midst of a gargantuan humanitarian crisis that has sent shockwaves through every country, doesn't the world deserve to hear from one of those hit hardest?

So far, we haven't been lucky enough to hear any of these voices. The closest we have is Wyclef Jean.

Wyclef has been rightfully loved and admired for his music. The way that he has brought Caribbean rhythms and music into a hip-hop sensibility has been truly unique over the years, and as probably the most recognized Haitian musician in the world, he finds now finds himself in a position like no other to speak on behalf of his own people.

He hasn't. And the recent accusations against his Yele Haiti foundation (claiming that the foundation has grossly misused funds earmarked for disaster relief) are only the tip of the iceberg. In fact, the only interests he has spoken in support of so far have been those who have ravaged Haiti for 200 years. In a statement released days after the quake, Wyclef demanded that "We must act now. President Obama has already said that the US stands 'ready to assist' the Haitian people. The US Military is the only group trained and prepared to offer that assistance immediately. They must do so as soon as possible. The international community must also rise to the occasion and help the Haitian people in every way possible."

It looks like Wyclef got his wish. On Monday, 12,000 American troops landed in Haiti (joining the 1,000 already there) to deliver "aid" to the Haitian people.

So far, the act of sending troops in has been more or less unquestioned in the Western media. Recent footage of looters on the streets of Port-au-Prince seem to add to the image of a brown-skinned nation descending into chaos. In a weird twist, the now disgraced Pat Robertson's insistence that Haitian independence is on par with a "pact with the devil" seems to bear a great amount of logic for those in power.

The devil, however, didn't kick the Haitian people into grinding poverty. A corrupt and ineffective government that finds itself incapable of responding to the crisis isn't the work of Satan. No, that honor goes to... the US government. It wasn't long ago--a little less than six years, in fact--that the US and UN supported right-wing death squads in removing the democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power for the second time in fifteen years. Aristide, despite his contradictions, was widely supported by the people of Haiti for poverty-relief and job creation that simply rubbed the IMF and World Bank the wrong way.

And where was Wyclef during all this? During the intensified street-fighting that lead up the coup, he was tailing the line of George Bush and the State Department in demanding Aristide step down. Referring to the CIA-trained groups that were wreaking violence in Aristide strongholds, Wyclef told MTV "I don't consider those people rebels. It's people standing up for their rights. It's not like these people just appeared out of nowhere and said, 'Let's cause some trouble.' I think it's just built up frustration, anger, hunger, depression."

Wyclef is right: these armed groups didn't just "appear out of nowhere." They were funded and spurred on by the cabal of rulers who had been selling off Haiti's resources to the highest bidder. Wyclef should know; his family is among this cabal. Seldom included in the artist's biography has been his uncle: one Raymond Joseph. According to the Haiti Information Project, Joseph is:

"the highest-ranking official abroad representing the U.S.-installed government in Haiti. He is the un-elected government's representative in Washington. Wyclef's uncle, who he has often praised, is responsible for fomenting outrageous lies about Aristide and members the Lavalas political party that has contributed to the current climate of witch-hunts, arbitrary arrests and murders in Haiti today. Wyclef's uncle is also the co-publisher of Haiti Observateur, a right-wing rag that has been an apologist for the killers in the Haitian military going back as far as the brutal coup against Aristide in 1991."

What would be a devastating humanitarian disaster in even the richest of countries is, thanks to this kind of history, a social catastrophe.

To say the least, it's a disappointing light in which to view Wyclef. On the surface, he seems to merely be bringing some "common sense" to the devastating situation in Haiti. But common sense also tells us we should consider the source. Though countless people may rightfully be moved by the music that Wyclef Jean has given us over the past fifteen years, he certainly isn't speaking in support of the Haitian people. Tragically, he is speaking for the forces that have sought to keep Haitians under their boot for 200 years.

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

To help with aid for the people of Haiti, please go to the Haiti Action website.


Friday, January 15, 2010

American Idol: we can do better

The ninth season of "American Idol" has kicked off, and it's not much of a surprise that it's already caused a stir. It won't do any good to repeat what I've said in past articles about the show ad nauseam. For the most part, I stand by what I've already said. Ultimately this show is little more than an attempt at consolidating the music industry, but a few things bear adding into the mix:

Watching the first two nights, as the ticker along the bottom came up describing the myriad auditioners for "AI," it was striking how many were listed as "unemployed." A few were papered over with descriptions like "recent college graduate" (which is pretty much the same thing in this day and age). Taking this into account sheds a completely different light on why people are showing up in such droves to audition for the show. The massive reserve of talent that exists among working people is as evident as ever on this show. Compounded with the economic crisis, the "job-loss recovery," and the growing frustration among the ranks of laid off and unemployed, the coming years may provide some fascinating musical expressions.

Whether this will be reflected this year on "Idol" is yet to be seen, but don't hold your breath. Adam Lambert's presence last year made for an interesting parallel to the rising LGBT militancy that continues to spring forth in the US (despite his reticence at actually coming out until after the show was over). Though the young glam-rocker seems to be navigating the industry clap-traps with a relative amount of grace, it can't be ignored that the biz has still put a notable amount of pressure on him to conform. (As a side-note, is it possible that the producers' recent inclusion of Ellen DeGeneres on the judges' panel might be an effort to reach out to the demographic that they were previously dismissive of before Lambert's rise?)

So though this year's show may feature some incredible singers and performers whose auditions are last-ditch efforts to escape the grip of deep financial insecurity, renditions of Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues" or Bruce Springsteen's "Youngstown" aren't likely to be in the cards.

As one of the last remaining effective bulwarks protecting the music industry status-quo, the folks in charge of "American Idol" have a main task: boil everything down to its lowest possible common denominator. Need proof? Look at "Pants On the Ground." The screeners who work the lines knew exactly what they were doing when they let a contestant through who was more than twice the proposed age limit for the show. Maybe having wacky old vet come in and perform a hilariously bad song rehashing the Cosby-esque "pull up your pants" routine is funny to the producers. To me, though, it's insulting on more than one level. And I'm sure I'm not the only one who thinks so.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Attention Bono!

An excellent response to Bono's recent New York Times column published this weekend at CounterPunch, written by Alison Weir (executive director of If Americans Knew). As readers will remember quite recently, the whole column is condescending nonsense, but here Weir takes on particularly his idiotic insistence that the Palestinian people "find their Gandhi."

Dear Bono,

In your recent column in the New York Times, "Ten for the Next Ten," you wrote: "I’ll place my hopes on the possibility — however remote at the moment — that...people in places filled with rage and despair, places like the Palestinian territories, will in the days ahead find among them their Gandhi, their King, their Aung San Suu Kyi."

Your hope has already been fulfilled in the Palestinian territories.

Unfortunately, these Palestinian Gandhis and Kings are being killed and imprisoned.

On the day that your op-ed appeared hoping for such leaders, three were languishing in Israeli prisons. No one knows how long they will be held, nor under what conditions; torture is common in Israeli prisons.

At least 19 Palestinians have been killed in the last six years alone during nonviolent demonstrations against Israel’s apartheid wall that is confiscating Palestinian cropland and imprisoning Palestinian people. Many others have been killed in other parts of the Palestinian territories while taking part in nonviolent activities. Hundreds more have been detained and imprisoned.

Recently Israel has begun a campaign to incarcerate the leaders of this diverse movement of weekly marches and demonstrations taking place in small Palestinian villages far from media attention.

The first Palestinian Gandhi to be rounded up in this recent purge was young Mohammad Othman, taken on Sept. 22 when he was returning home from speaking in Norway about nonviolent strategies to oppose Israeli oppression and land confiscation. He has now been held for 107 days without charges, much of it in solitary confinement.

The second was Abdallah Abu Rahma, a schoolteacher and farmer taken from his home on Dec. 10, the only one to be charged with a crime. After holding him for several days, Israel finally came up with a charge: “illegal weapons possession” – referring to the peace sign he had fashioned out of the spent teargas cartridges and bullets that Israel had shot at nonviolent demonstrators. (One such cartridge pierced the skull of Tristan Anderson, an American who was photographing the aftermath of a nonviolent march, causing part of his right frontal lobe to be removed.)

The third was Jamal Jumah’, a veteran leader in the grassroots struggle, who was taken by Israeli occupation forces on Dec. 16th and is now being held in shackles and often blindfolded during Kafkaesque Israeli military proceedings.

Palestinians have been engaging in nonviolence for decades.

When I was last in Nablus I learned of a massive nonviolent demonstration that had occurred in 2001 – estimates range from 10,000 to 50,000 Palestinian men, women, and children taking part in a nonviolent march. All sectors of Nablus had joined together in organizing this – public officials, diverse parties, religious, secular, Muslim, Christian.

Modeling their action on images of Dr. Martin Luther King, they marched arm-in-arm, believing that Israel would not kill them and that the world would care. They were wrong on both counts. Israeli forces immediately shot six dead and injured many more. And no one even knows about it. At If Americans Knew we are currently working on a video to try to remedy the last part; there’s nothing we can do about the dead.

But there’s a great deal you can do, Bono. You can use your talent and celebrity to tell the world these facts. You can write a New York Times op-ed about the Palestinian Gandhis in Israeli prisons and call for their freedom. You can sing of these Palestinian Martin Luther Kings you wished for, and by singing save their lives.

For the reality is that nonviolence is only as powerful as its visibility to the world. When it is made invisible through its lack of coverage by the New York Times, the Associated Press, CNN, Fox News, et al, its practitioners are in deadly danger, and their efforts to use nonviolence against injustice are doomed.

In the New York Times you publicly proclaimed your belief in nonviolence. Now is your chance to demonstrate your commitment.

Weir faxed this letter directly to Bono's management agency. At the time of publication, he had yet to respond.


Monday, January 11, 2010

Flirting With Death: What Vic Chesnutt Can Tell Us About the State of Healthcare

Vic Chesnutt couldn't be described as a "star." Most likely, he would have bristled at the term. First and foremost, he was a songwriter. And though he never reached the heights of fame and fortune, the seventeen albums he released during his twenty-year career earned him the undeniable respect of critics, fellow musicians, and just about anyone who heard his songs. When he died of an apparent suicide this past Christmas Day, he was a solid fixture in the underground and indie scenes. Some of the major newspapers were forced to take note with a short piece buried in the entertainment section, but next to the Jacksons, Cronkites and Kennedys that shuffled off this mortal coil in '09, his death seemed a blip on the radar.

He was no less important, however. In fact, Vic Chesnutt's name and story should be etched into each of our brains. As congress sputters toward a health care bill that seems likely to do more harm than good, his relative anonymity should make his tale hit very, very hard.

For most of his forty-five years, Chesnutt was wheelchair-bound. A car accident at the age of eighteen left him mostly paralyzed from the waist down. A few weeks before his death, on an appearance on NPR, he told host Terry Gross that he had no real use of his legs and only partial use of his arms and hands.

Chesnutt had been a musician before the accident, and he was relieved to realize soon afterwards that he could still play guitar (though his playing was limited mostly to simple chords). After leaving his hometown of Zebulon, Georgia he moved to Nashville, Tennessee and spent the next several months voraciously reading the work of such poets as Whitman, Dickinson and Auden. In interviews, Chesnutt would cite these writers as a key influence in his own vivid lyrical style.

By all accounts, his passion for music was left unbowed by the accident. In 1985, he moved back to Georgia--this time to the thriving underground rock scene of Athens. A short stint in a band called the La-Di-Da's was followed by a string of solo performances at the city's 40 Watt club. It was here that he came to the attention to none other than REM's Michael Stipe, who encouraged Chesnutt to record. By 1990, the two had completed Chesnutt's first album, Little--a folk-and-country tinged piece of contemporary alt-rock--in less than a day.

Little stands apart for its simplicity and beauty. Though the album rarely consists of more than acoustic guitar and vocals, there is an eloquence in its content. Already apparent in Chesnutt is a rare talent that no amount of physical dexterity or musical virtuosity can bring: the ability to bear your soul and pour your heart into every note you sing. Chesnutt's vocals are raw, fraught with emotion and passion throughout every single line.

The compelling nature of Chesnutt's lyrics came from his ability to mix bleakness and beauty with seemingly little effort. Though it would be wrong to boil this down to the accident alone, one can't help but get the sense that this is a man who understands the inevitability of death and ugliness, but nonetheless soldiers on for the tiny slivers of light that are bound to peek in. "Other people write about the bling and the booty," Chesnutt would say in 2005. "I write about the pus and the gnats. To me, that's beautiful."

It was this wry honesty that ultimately made Chesnutt's songs so relatable. In 1998, he told Rolling Stone how shocked he always was to learn of his songs' profound impact on countless fans. “I guess the very emotional nature of my songs attracts emotional people, and they become quite, um, emotional,” he said. “They come up to me after the shows, and I don’t know what to say to them. I don’t want to be an asshole or anything, but I think I do my best communicating alone in my room, when I’m writing songs. But I do appreciate them very much. If it wasn’t for them, I would’ve killed myself a long time ago.”

As his career progressed, his musical palette would expand to include full bands, and he would frequently collaborate with groups as diverse as Widespread Panic and Elf Power, but his lyrical abilities and gut-wrenching stories would never get lost in the shuffle.

Music might have provided an outlet for Chesnutt's demons--something we should all be so lucky to find--but that didn't help him overcome the simple reality of his disability. His physical condition required constant medical care--medications, doctor appointments, physical therapy, operations--and it didn't take long for the bills to pile up.

In 1996, Chesnutt's story became widely known with the release of Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation, with proceeds going to help artists and musicians struggling with the costs of health care. Showcasing the amount of support and sympathy his case had garnered, Sweet Relief featured such artists as REM, Garbage, Indigo Girls, Smashing Pumpkins, Soul Asylum and even Madonna all covering Chesnutt's songs.

By the time the twentieth century ended, despite never getting much airplay on MTV or mainstream radio, Chesnutt's work had become a staple. His prolific output continued, and his shows continued to bring out healthy crowds of loyal fans.

Looking back on the twenty years that his musical career spanned, it's quite stunning how much music has changed--and not often for the better. In a musical landscape that had all but eliminated the phenomenon of "singer-songwriter," he seemed unfazed by the changing of the times. His work never failed to provoke, never stopped exploring the dark depths of human existence while reminding us that through all the shit, there remains something pure and worthwhile.

Still, it would be hard to chalk the darkness of his work up to mere existential waffling. By the time Chesnutt released his 2009 album At the Cut, despite being insured, he had racked up a staggering $70,000 in medical debt. Even with a robust catalogue and respectable living he had made off his music, this was simply too much to pay.

Upon At the Cut's release, Chesnutt shared with the Los Angeles Times how infuriated he was by the situation. "I'm not too eloquent talking about these things," Chesnutt said. "I was making payments, but I can't anymore and I really have no idea what I'm going to do. It seems absurd they can charge this much. When I think about all this, it gets me so furious. I could die tomorrow because of other operations I need that I can't afford. I could die any day now, but I don't want to pay them another nickel."

This kind of calm defiance is evident throughout At the Cut. After he died, many journalists seemed transfixed by the uncanny nature of songs like "Flirted With You All My Life," which Chesnutt described as "a breakup song with death."

A organ-driven, almost Dylan-esque roots song, the lyrics can easily be mistaken for a run-of-the-mill heartbreak song if not for the third verse:

"Oh death, you hector me
Decimate those dear to me
And tease me with your sweet relief
You're cruel and you are constant"

"I've been a suicidal person all my life," said Chesnutt, who also admitted to having attempted suicide three or four times in his life. "And that song is me finally being 'screw you, death.'"

Comments like this made Chesnutt's own suicide all the more shocking. On December 23rd he took an overdose of muscle relaxants and remained comatose for two days before passing away.

Calling Vic Chesnutt's story tragic or heartbreaking would be insufficient. More accurately, it's such an outrage that anyone with a heart should be seeing red. Chesnutt was a man whose voice helped others come to grips with the turmoil and tragedy in their own lives. His death is heartbreaking because that voice is now snuffed out. It's outrageous because it didn't have to be this way.

At the time of his death, some of Chesnutt's bandmates were from Canada. These bandmates were, according to Chesnutt, perplexed. “There’s nowhere else in the world that I’d be facing the situation I’m in right now. They cannot understand what kind of society would inflict that on their population,” he said. “It’s terrifying.”

Chesnutt's music, with its frank, no-frills emotive power, makes it easy for us to see him as one of us. His art didn't buy him mansions and caviar, and it sure didn't buy him a gold-standard healthcare plan. How many more people like Chesnutt have fallen victim to the same willful neglect of the insurance industry is a number no history book can ever hope to calculate.

As for the health care "reform" working its way through congress, it might be best to give Vic's pull-no-punches approach the last word: “What will pass will be weak, the powers that be will be happy and the insurance companies will be thrilled."

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


Saturday, January 9, 2010

More on the King

Some excellent comments here from Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers. Sent out via the Rock & Rap Confidential mailing list. Once again, it's refreshing to see some commentary about Elvis' 75th birthday that doesn't just try to shrink-wrap his legacy.

Elvis didn't invent Rock but he crossed boundaries that brought it to the little white kids in bland segregated 50's America. Anyone who looks to the 50's as America's "Glory Days" was most likely white, middle class (or above) or actually born later.

Nonetheless, the 50's must have looked great to Elvis as his mother was still alive, he was young and ridiculously beautiful and
literally conquering the world. A "white trash" redneck boy from Tupelo MS (about 50 miles from my hometown) with seemingly no future at all thrust into a life of fame and fortune never imagined.

The personification of the American Dream the likes of which no one has ever or will ever repeat. No wonder the 70's left him bloated and strung out, hanging out in Vegas and looking up to the likes of Nixon. Trading in his straight stand for a boom stand so he wouldn't knock it over with his gut when he shook his fat ass.

Gillian's song juxtaposed Elvis' rise and fall with the beginning of the industrial revolution and the mythical death of John Henry. Elvis' death paralleled with the end of America's industrial might shortly before Reagan brought us all a metaphorical boomstand so we could shake our bloated asses without knocking over our microphone. (Pat Boone's daughter had the #1 record in the land the day Elvis died with "You Light Up My Life" so Rock and Roll wasn't much healthier than Elvis).

The song Patterson refers to is Gillian Welch's "Elvis Presley Blues," which I've included below:

History has an uncanny talent for coming full circle. Plenty of people will undoubtedly notice the eerie coincidence of Elvis' 75th coming right on the heels of Michael Jackson's death--the other "King" of popular music. Like Elvis, MJ's music represented a key point in the rise of pop. Both have become symbolic of times when racial barriers were broken down in music. Indeed, Jackson's star as a solo artist began to rise almost right after Elvis passed on. It was almost as if he was taking over for him.

And like Elvis, Jackson was a man manipulated and commodified by the industry until he almost didn't exist apart from his over-hyped public persona. Both men were arguably victims of this very same process.

It's a contradiction that's repeated time and time again in pop music. On one hand, the glorious flourishing of creativity, the amazing power of music to kick down boundaries personified in the best artists. On the other, the incredible strength of the system to take that power and creativity and turn them into a gimmick, and to transform the artists themselves into little more than a piece of dead capital.

If we're to truly pay tribute to Elvis and others like him, then we're obliged to take this double-edged sword into account.


Friday, January 8, 2010

Elvis' heir apparent: Lil Wayne?

Today, on what would have been Elvis Presley's 75th birthday, there will no doubt be plenty of tributes to "the King" that examine him as a static relic, simply recalling his music, his life and achievements as if they were stuck in time without any real mention of why we should care in the here and now. Which is why Ann Powers' piece in the Los Angeles Times is actually quite a breath of fresh air--a reminder of music's ever-evolving penchant for shaking up the status quo.

There will no doubt be plenty of aging, nostalgic purists who would consider it heresy to compare Elvis to Lil Wayne (we all know these types: the ones who pine for some fictional, bygone era when music was more "innocent"). But as Powers makes clear, the two artists have much more in common than one might originally think:

"Both artists leaped to stardom out of a troubled South: Elvis on the verge of the civil rights movement, Weezy in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Both gained fame on the strength of vocal performances that took established styles (rockabilly and urban blues; syrupy rap) to startling extremes.

"Both combined a dandyish sex appeal with the classic American charm of someone getting over--sneaking across the sturdy boundaries of class, race and region by deploying a talent that delighted its owner by coming naturally. Both have been compared to space aliens."

For sure, the image of the "bad boy" never gets old. As long as there is a stale status-quo to rebel against, the attraction of the rebel will never fade. If the bad boy can figure out a way to relate their experience to others like them, however, then they cross over from being a mere archetype into capturing the mood of the moment the way that politicians wish they could.

The boundaries that Elvis broke down by blending the music of both the black and white communities still has a long way to go. But Powers communicates a sense that something has come full circle--that just as Elvis came at the beginning of something new and powerfully different in American culture, so might Wayne be tapping into the beginning of a kind of new musical multiculturalism that could have never been predicted even a few years ago:

"I don't believe in the term 'post-racial,' but I do think pop has entered a new phase, in which rock is no longer the defining force in American popular culture. Weezy's desire to be a rock star, embodied in his often-stalled Coldplay and Lenny Kravitz-influenced album Rebirth, seems like the rock era's last transgressive gasp as it gives way to a new kind of hybrid that hasn't yet completely emerged."

This is an incredibly prescient observation to make. Essentially, it's an insinuation that the musical moment we live in is greatly thanks to the broad consensus that exists among young folks today. More than any other generation on record, today's "post-civil rights" youth are in general profoundly intolerant of anything smacking of racism or discrimination. Despite the very real shadow of de facto segregation that looms over them, this is a generation that has most absorbed the values of the past struggles for equality. Is it any wonder that some observers think we may be on the verge of a new multicultural revolution in music?

Let's not forget that boundaries don't fall easily. Elvis' music was banned and denounced by all manner of right-wing figures in the McCarthyite 1950s. Rap itself came to prominence by doing everything short of declaring war on a stale, rock-oriented culture--as can be seen in the video for Run-DMC's "Sucka MCs," or, as Powers points out, in the famous "Elvis is a racist" line in "Fight the Power."

But none of this is to say that the battle lines of yesteryear are set in stone. Both rock and rap have already reshaped the way we think about race and class in the United States. If the two may be set to become something bigger than each one can be on their own, it's definitely worth taking notice.


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Blockades can't stop music

This past Monday, "Long Live Palestine Parts 1 & 2," a song by British rapper Lowkey, became number one on Amazon's UK hip-hop download chart. The song was ahead of artists like Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Eminem and the Black Eyed Peas, the most downloaded hip-hop song on Amazon UK.

This is far from insignificant. Britain is almost as craven in its support for Israel's apartheid state as the United States. Last year's assault on Gaza received full public support from the likes of Gordon Brown and his cabinet. This didn't stop thousands of activists from taking to the streets in both countries to protest the bombings, or countless campuses from being occupied by students demanding their colleges divest from Israel.

It seems that Lowkey himself is all about the divestment campaign, going so far as to list a bevy of products whose manufacturers do business in Israel. Lowkey himself is half-Iraqi and among Britain's most outspokenly radical emcees, allying himself with the anti-war movement and playing benefits for such groups as Love Music Hate Racism. He has also maintained his support for hip-hop coming from Palestinians themselves (though "Part 1" mostly showcases Lowkey, "Part 2" highlights such artists as Shadia Mansour and DAM--who true to form, rap totally in Arabic).

It's worth noting that the success of this single comes at a time when the global solidarity movement is seeking out the next steps. In December, 1,400 activists from around the world looking to take part in the Gaza Freedom March were prevented from entering Gaza by the Egyptian government. Protesters defiantly demonstrated in Cairo instead (not an easy task considering the repression meted out to most demonstrators). Just yesterday, the Viva Palestina convoy seeking to deliver aid to Gaza was attacked as Egyptian riot police looked on.

As this post goes up, "Long Live Palestine" had slipped to number 2 on the top downloads list. But as activists around the world recognize the one year anniversary of the involvement and seek to push the new anti-apartheid movement forward, it's good to recognize the widespread sympathy that exists for the people of Palestine.


Monday, January 4, 2010

Whose Decade: Bono's or Ours?

If the last year of the "double-Os" is any indication, then the coming decade will be one of growing anger directed at the richest of the rich. By now it's hardly news that there is a palpable resentment for the Goldman Sachs execs or insurance honchos that lead the world into a crisis of mammoth proportions.

It's just a shame that nobody told Bono this. Judging from his ongoing "guest columns" in The New York Times, the U2 front-man hasn't picked up a newspaper in quite some time. If he did, he might see that folks of his ilk aren't getting a lot of love from the masses right now. Even his own group spent much of 2009 dodging accusations of tax evasion and criticism of their mega-expensive 360 Tour. None of this, however, seems to concern the singer.

For the past year, Bono has penned ruminations on everything from "What Sinatra Taught Me" to his own top-down solutions for African poverty. Try though you might, you will be hard-pressed to find anything even remotely resembling keen insight in any one of them. He's like Thomas Friedman with cool shades: someone whose own privilege has created a love affair with the free-market--and completely divorced him from any kind of reality.

And this couldn't be more obvious in his most recent column to ring in the new year: his list of "10 things that might make the next 10 years more interesting." It's a surreal glimpse Bono's world-view--sometimes quizzical, sometimes infuriating, always supremely out-of-touch. Much like the man himself, this grocery list's innocuous veneer gives cover to something much more sinister underneath.

His overall thrust can be best summed up in a parenthesized line that he surely intends as a throwaway. While proffering an individualized version of cap-and-trade as a solution for climate change (essentially rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic), Bono lets slip that we should "[t]rust in capitalism. We'll find a way."

Given the company he keeps, this should be no surprise. Bono has spent the past several years hobnobbing with some of the richest people on the planet--not to mention some of the world economy's key architects.

This kind of blind faith often takes on a tone that's simply backward. He takes time to insist that automobiles should be "sexier" before saying they should be made cleaner. He lauds new advances in cancer research--"In a world worrying about whether it can afford health care, advances in prevention are at a premium"--but says little about whether the prevention itself will be affordable. One might say that Bono is putting the cart before the horse, but then, it's been some time since Bono's kind have had to wait for their chariot.

Then there are moments when it is clear just how much he has come to believe his own lines. Turning his attention to the war on peer-to-peer:

"A decade's worth of music file-sharing and swiping has made clear that the people it hurts are the creators--in this case, the young, fledgling songwriters who can’t live off ticket and T-shirt sales like the least sympathetic among us--and the people this reverse Robin Hooding benefits are rich service providers, whose swollen profits perfectly mirror the lost receipts of the music business."

To be sure, Bono offers nothing new here--just the hackneyed arguments of the music industry claiming that they are really protecting artists rather than their own increasingly useless position. It bears asking, however, if file-sharing hurts new artists attempting to get their voices heard, then why are so many releasing their material for free online? Why would so many rather bypass the industry than sign a contract? Why has, ten years later, no definitive link been found between file-sharing and the music industry's decline in profits?

This isn't the first time that Bono or others in his cabal have opposed peer-to-peer. In 2008, Bono and his manager, Paul McGuinness, attended the World Economic Forum, where, among other things, they publicly lashed out at Radiohead for releasing their album In Rainbows in an online "pay what you can" scheme. The WEF is one of the few places where the ruling castes of the world let their mask slip. Apparently, Bono felt comfortable enough in their presence to do the same.

Other moments--perhaps the most infuriating--merely play as egalitarian fig-leaf. Like Bono's famed Red campaign, though, they belie much scarier implications. Bono puts forth that a "Festival of Abraham" based on using art and music to bring together Jews, Christians and Muslims may be possible in the Middle East "if there's a breakthrough in the Mideast peace process."

As a music journalist, as someone who believes sincerely in the power of music to draw folks together, it's an idea that appeals to me in the abstract. But Israel's assault on Gaza one year ago was proof about how effective the peace process has been in the past. This says nothing, of course, about the ongoing turmoil brought by the US to Iraq and Afghanistan, or the recent revelations that the Mideast economic powerhouse of Dubai is standing on shaky economic ground.

Several years ago, Bono announced that he bought a large share in Forbes magazine, a publication that had recently come out in favor of invading Iran. Bono's claim was that he agreed with Forbes' "consistent philosophy." Despite all the craven pleas for "world peace" in his songs, he clearly has no problem rubbing elbows with the likes of Robert Gates, Madeleine Albright and Tony Blair. Given the kind of "peace" that these figures want to build in the Middle East, Bono's Festival of Abraham is likely to take place with backing from Lockheed Martin.

This kind of masquerade as a man of peace continues when the front-man expounds upon his version of nonviolent revolution. He starts, aptly, quoting President Obama's recent Nobel acceptance speech: "As someone who stands as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence."

Of course, Bono says nothing of the fact that Obama, in the same speech, attempted to justify the ramping up of troops in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the singer continues:

"So, he might have added, are the Germans and Eastern Europeans who came out a couple of months ago to celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Wall. And so are the brave Iranians who continue to take to the streets despite the certainty of brutal repression. Like Neda Agha Soltan, they are living (and bleeding and dying) testimony."

Once again, he needs to pick up a newspaper. Even a cursory knowledge of the struggle in Iran will show that ordinary Iranians have been more than willing to engage in street battles with Basij militias (and these are the same Iranians that Bono has indirectly endorsed bombing).

As for Eastern Europe and Germany, Bono seems completely unaware of the irony that he himself was a part of during the 20th anniversary celebration at the Brandenburg Gate. Here was a festival ostensibly held in commemoration of a wall coming down. And yet, the concert's organizers had no bones about constructing a wall to keep excess crowds out.

Bono's version of non-violence is that of the head of state who claims he was "forced" to go to war. Bono loves to reference Martin Luther King as an inspiration. But as Rock 'n' Rap Confidential's Dave Marsh has pointed out:

"Dr. King spoke of the 'triple evils'--racism, war and poverty--as inextricably connected. He eventually concluded that opposing one of them without opposing all of them didn't make any sense."

Dr. King's legacy has long been co-opted and spun into a friendly, more harmless version to serve the needs of the powerful (which is worth remembering as we approach another MLK Day). And ultimately, this is what Bono represents. He speaks vaguely of world peace while doing nothing to oppose actually existing wars. He claims to care deeply about ending poverty, yet claims that solutions lie in the same powers that have created an underclass in the first place.

Irish writer Eamonn McCann tells a story about a young fan at a U2 concert in Scotland. Bono, taking center stage and clapping his hands in a slow rhythm, proclaimed that "every time I clap my hands, a child in Africa dies." The anonymous fan jokingly shouted "well fucking stop doing it then!"

All jokes aside, though, Bono's crusade does more harm than good. Though he wraps himself in the flag of the people, in reality he is little more than a mouthpiece for the rich and powerful. The world they have in store for us is a frightening one indeed. Whatever the next decade brings, we would do well to ignore pretty much everything Bono says.

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


Sunday, January 3, 2010

Southside kids and parents end '09 demanding better Chicago schools

The nation's eyes became drawn to Chicago's Fenger High School back in September when a cell phone video of 16-year-old Derrion Albert being beaten to death fanned out across the airwaves. To be sure, it was horrifyingly brutal proof that little has changed for poor communities of color in America.

There were predictably all-too-many mouthpieces ready to place the blame of Albert's death squarely on the shoulders of the community itself. And of course, plenty of talking heads did their best to link up the tragedy with the state of modern hip-hop. Students and parents themselves, however, clearly have a different take on it. This past Wednesday about 20 students and their parents showed up at Mayor Daley's office demanding he do something to fix the city's piss-poor schools.

Kermilia Wellington, a senior at Fenger who attended the protest, told the Chicago Tribune that Fenger doesn't even have an up-to-date computer on location, while the nearest library is two bus rides away. "It's too late to apply to most schools [colleges]. If I can't do it in time, I'm going to the Navy," she said.

Fenger became severely overcrowded in 2006 when the public high school in nearby Altgeld Gardens was turned into a selective-enrollment military academy and Altgeld students were bused to Fenger. The overcrowding, combined with already slim resources, has lead to building tensions between kids from the two neighborhoods, which contributed to Albert's death. Activists at Daley's office demanded he push for a new school in Altgeld. Keep in mind that this happens against the backdrop of a full frontal assault on Chicago's schools. More than fifteen have been shut down over the past year, even as millions were poured into the failed campaign for the Chicago Olympics.

The solutions posed by the city--from more cops to increased surveillance in schools--provide little promise for an end to the troubles in Chicago's neglected South Side. On the contrary, they paint a picture where the victim is somehow to blame. Though this protest is undoubtedly tiny, it also shows that today's kids don't buy that line, as evidenced by a poem that Wellington gave to Daley's press secretary:

"We don't have a library, we don't have a school
So Mayor Daley, what do you want us to do?
We don't want to rob, we don't want to steal,
And we are tired of seeing teens get killed."