Saturday, February 27, 2010

"Bankers and Gangsters" released this Tuesday!


On top of the large handful of other exciting releases dropping in the coming weeks, folks should definitely rush out to buy the new album by Black 47. Bankers and Gangsters, coming two years after their last album, will be released this coming Tuesday, March 2nd.

As may be expected, Bankers and Gangsters holds a great deal in common with 2008's Iraq in that it is pitched at keeping its finger on the pulse of working people. The anger against the bailouts and frustration that exists among ordinary folks runs deep on this album. Listeners will no doubt find a lot to relate to in these lyrics.

And of course, it will feature Black 47's signature blend of pub-rock, Irish folk and blues. Singer Larry Kirwan, a native of Wexford, Ireland, had been fusing these sounds together for twenty years now, and he's obviously quite adept at it. Just in time for St. Pat's, Bankers and Gangsters will no doubt be much truer to the Irish-American experience than most of the plastic bombast guaranteed to come our way.

Check out the album, and keep your eyes on Rebel Frequencies for an upcoming interview with Kirwan.

*****

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

West Memphis Three to be featured on "48 Hours"


This Saturday, at 10pm ET/PT, CBS news show "48 Hours" will be examining the case of the West Memphis Three. For those unfamiliar with the WM3, it's one of the most heinous miscarriages of justice specifically related to music of our time. Though the defense campaign around these three men (Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelly) has been ongoing since the mid-'90s, this televised profile will hopefully breathe some new steam into it.

Baldwin, Misskelly and Echols were sent to jail for the brutal murders of three young boys. No evidence connected them to the crime, and the prosecution relied mostly on a confession coerced from Misskelly (who was not only a minor, but is mentally challenged). The substance of the case revolved around the three being "outsiders" in a small, southern town strongly swayed by Evangelical Christianity. Prosecutors harped on the young men's black clothes, their love of horror novels (because Stephen King is such a deviant, right?) and, significantly, cited lyrics from albums owned by them.

The case has long garnered support from musicians and entertainers--Ozzy Osbourne, Natalie Maines, Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins just to name a few. Most recently, Johnny Depp publicly stated his belief in the WM3's innocence, and will appear in the episode of "48 Hours" this Saturday.

Even with the new DNA evidence that the lawyers are fighting to be heard in court, it's going to take a lot more than good publicity to get these three men out of jail (and in Echols' case, off of death row). But one can certainly hope that the renewed spotlight can inspire a new generation to take up the cause. It would certainly be a blow to the criminal injustice system to have three of its most high-profile victims go free. And if that's possible, maybe it's within our grasp to tear the whole sick structure down too.

*****

Monday, February 22, 2010

Bruce vs. Ticketmaster: A Bittersweet Victory?


In this day and age, when the answer to the question of "who rules?" is so glaringly obvious, a victory for our side is worth savoring, no matter how small. And so it is with the recent decision that, for once, a company like Ticketmaster actually owes us something!

This past week saw the Federal Trade Commission rule that the ticket-selling behemoth used "deceptive bait-and-switch tactics" while selling seats to 14 shows on Bruce Springsteen's 2009 tour with the E Street Band. The ruling demands that Ticketmaster, which is now part of Live Nation Entertainment Inc, pay fans "upward of a million dollars." It might not be the CEO's head on a pike, but it's a start.

The hubbub started back in early '09 when fans attempting to buy tickets on the Ticketmaster website were redirected to a site for TicketsNow, where the prices were three or four times as originally states. What's more, people who swallowed their pride and ponied up on the new site found out later that they had not actually purchased tickets, but merely the hope that they would get tickets. In essence, what they had bought was a really expensive lotto number! When TicketsNow eventually denied fans their seats, they didn't even offer full refunds! Pitchfork called it a "glorified scalping service," and that seems about right.

When the news reached Springsteen, he was reportedly outraged. In the days following he and manager Jon Landau released a press statement slamming Ticketmaster:

"The abuse of our fans and our trust by Ticketmaster has made us as furious as it has made many of you... Some artists or managers may not perceive there to be a conflict between having the distributor of their tickets in effect 'scalping' those same tickets through a secondary company like TicketsNow--we do."

The FTC called the revelations "pretty shocking" (which has got the be understatement of the month at least). What's really shocking, though, is how quickly Ticketmaster backed down and tried to make nice with Bruce. Days after the Boss took his battle public, CEO Irving Azoff released a statement of his own assuring everyone that the links to TicketsNow had been removed from the site, offering refunds and apologizing profusely to Springsteen.

It's a far cry from the company that viciously attacked Pearl Jam fifteen years ago when the band demanded the ticket-sellers lower their service charges by a whopping buck-fifty. Because Ticketmaster had exclusive agreements with the vast majority of stadium venues, they were able to basically strong-arm Pearl Jam into backing down.

Certainly, it's a moment that anyone who has been ripped off by a large ticket-seller (read: bought anything from them) can really appreciate. But at the same time, the victory may be ultimately pyrrhic.

One of the reasons the FTC's ruling seems like just desserts is that Ticketmaster recently became larger and more powerful than any company should be allowed. Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice decided that the proposed merger between Ticketmaster and concert promoter Live Nation did not constitute a monopoly. This, despite the fact that both are by far the largest in their respective fields, and the fusing of the two will essentially give one company unprecedented power over the two most important areas of the live entertainment business.

What this means is apparent. Concert-goers will now be ripped off even more. There is no scarcity of fans venting their frustration on the web. Music journalists and bloggers have slammed the deal. And, with the opportunistic exception of Billy Corgan, not a single musician has praised the merger.

In the same statement released after the TicketsNow scandal, Springsteen and Landau insisted that "The one thing that would make the current ticket situation even worse for the fan than it is now would be Ticketmaster and Live Nation coming up with a single system, thereby returning us to a near monopoly situation in music ticketing."

That's pretty close to what's now happening. As stipulated in the approved merger, Ticketmaster and Live Nation are to create two new companies to "compete" with the newly baptized Live Nation Entertainment. There is little chance in these new companies gaining any real traction in concert promotion or ticket selling. Ticketmaster already has five-to-ten year agreements with most venues in the U.S. (the same agreements that blocked Pearl Jam's case) and though 20 percent of these contracts are to expire in the next year, the Justice Department has refused to bar the new LNE from renewing these contracts. Rather, the DOJ has flaccidly committed to ensuring the company doesn't engage in "anti-competitive behavior."

Like most commitments from the government to working people, it's hollow. Says Sally Greenberg of the National Consumers League "We remain concerned that these two companies, with a history of anti-consumer behavior, will abide only by the letter, and not the spirit of the settlement agreement."

Over the past fifteen years, the average ticket price has more than doubled from $25 to $60. In a time when most fans are scratching what little they can just to keep their heads above water, this trend does not bode well. And with the power to set prices and lay out terms now consolidated in fewer hands, it's also a trend likely to continue.

Bill Pascrell, Representative for the 8th congressional district of New Jersey, stated it clearly when he said that "The FTC did exactly what the U.S. Department of Justice failed to do in its approval of the Ticketmaster-Live Nation merger--put the rights of American consumers first."

Now, post-merger, the new Live Nation Entertainment is engaging in the same old arrogant posturing that everyone should probably expect. A statement released by LNE after the decision insists that Ticketmaster did absolutely nothing wrong: "We are gratified that the FTC found that Ticketmaster did not engage in any inappropriate transfer or diversion of tickets to TicketsNow or any other resale entity."

The brazenness is truly shocking. Orwell once warned us against people trying to rewrite the past to control the future, but it's doubtful that he foresaw a cabal that would openly rewrite the future even as they are condemned at the same exact moment.

But then, companies like Ticketmaster and Live Nation have always been able to buy their own reality. The rest of us just fly coach.

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

*****

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Our ears are gonna be busy!

And how! The approaching weeks and months are going to provide some really incredible releases. First on the agenda would be the final release of new material that we are likely to ever hear from the Man in Black. American VI: Ain't No Grave represents the last batch of songs recorded by Johnny Cash with Rick Rubin during their American Recordings sessions. Scheduled to be released on February 26th (what would have been Cash's 78th birthday), it's like other albums from those sessions in that it's mostly cover songs. Still, if the lead track is any indication, then the unique, soul-rending take that he brought to all his material is heard loud and clear on American IV.

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March 1st will see the release of the debut mixtape from BBU. The waves this trio have created is impressive considering that this is their first opportunity to get a whole album's worth of material from them. Having heard a few tracks from Fear of a Clear Channel Planet that haven't been released to the public yet, I can say with full confidence that this will be a batch of hard-hitting, energetic and profoundly radical songs (in more than one sense too). Unabashedly outspoken, and yet eminently danceable at the same time. There are only a handful of other acts in any genre that can fuse the politics and aesthetics so well. Don't believe me? Check out the tracks already available on their MySpace page. And for those of you in Chi-town, their release party at Subterranean on the 27th is guaranteed to be a hell of a time too.

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A mere eight days after that, there is the official release of Ted Leo and the Pharmacists' brand new The Brutalist Bricks. Their first album in three years, it sounds to be somewhat a return to form from the organ-driven ska throwbacks of Hearts of Oak (one of my favorite albums of the past several years). From what can be heard of the two preview tracks ("The Mighty Sparrow" and "Even Heroes Have to Die"), there are strong strains of 2004's Shake the Streets here. It's also notably the first album from Leo & co. since the rise of the Obama administration. The last few years of the Bush cabal saw Leo's solo stuff taking a decidedly non-agitational turn, but he was among the wide swathes of artists energized by the events of '08 who took a "vote then organize" approach to the campaign season. It will be interesting to see how the deflation in Obama's bubble will affect the songs' content.

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And then, of course, there's an album that many have been anticipating for quite some time. Distant Relatives, scheduled to drop on April 20th, is the long awaited joint from Damian Marley and NaS. The connections between reggae and hip-hop are hardly a secret by now, but it's been a minute since we've heard a full album's worth of material coming from two of each style's heavyweights. In particular, it's going to be good to hear something positive from NaS given that since his release of Untitled in 2008, all we've been hearing about Mr. Jones lately have been divorce, tax troubles, being pulled over while high and getting the finger pointed at him in the wake of Derrion Albert's death. Hearing "Strong Will Continue," available to stream on OkayPlayer, he's done his best to let it all affect his work without being bowed. Damn glad to have him back on top along with Marley.

And yes, you can expect reviews of all of these albums her at RF! Stay tuned people!

*****

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Mayer of Pigtown


John Mayer is the musical equivalent of Wonderbread: flashy packaging covering a complete lack of taste, substance and anything vaguely nourishing. And very, very white.

There are plenty of media outlets trying to downplay Mayer's comments in a recent Playboy interview. For the likes of TMZ and Rolling Stone, Mayer's crack about having a "n----- pass" and the disturbing notion that he has a "David Duke cock" are "all in good fun." To most of the mainstream press, the fact that he was supposedly making a joke that he is now sorry for is where the matter ends.

None of them are getting at the heart of the issue. To them, the fact that Mayer made a public apology at his concert on February 10 is enough, and time to let bygones be bygones. They're willing to accept his argument that the majority of his touring group is African American, which must be the pop-star version of "I can't be a racist because some of my best friends are Black."

None are willing to point out that his idea of "wit" is likely to offend the very people whose music laid the groundwork for Mayer's entire catalog. In recent years, his music has become much more influenced by blues and R&B (albeit in their most watered-down forms).

If today's music industry treated these musical genres with any respect, this fact alone might have made for a double indictment against Mayer. But that's not the case, so the singer was let off the hook.

But this is par for the course for the mainstream media. For them, history and current events happen separately, and comments like Mayer's are best swept under the rug because they're ultimately harmless and have little to do with the rest of the world.

It's an outlook that even seems to have influenced some on the left. Jay Smooth, host of WBAI's "Underground Railroad" and one of the best alternative pop culture commentators out there, posted a video blog on his Nil Doctrine website in which he insists that focusing so much on Mayer's comments can mean that we're likely to "forget that a whole bunch of the biggest race questions--the ones that impact our lives the most and that we most need to change--are the ones that don't manifest in the form of words or people's emotions. A lot of the most important race issues are institutional, systemic, structural issues."

In one sense, Smooth is right. Racism, sexism and homophobia run a lot deeper than just bad ideas or insensitive words. But letting John Mayer's frat-talk fall by the wayside is to miss the connection between the institutional and the day to day. They may just be the words of a camera-hungry rock star, but in an economically unstable world where race can easily become the new fault line, they can have much wider ramifications.

In fact, entire movements have been touched off by similar comments. During the summer of 1976, when an economic slump had most of the planet in its grip, rock god Eric Clapton took the stage of the Odeon Theater in Birmingham, England, and launched into a drunken racist screed.

Blaming Black immigrants for the sorry state of the Empire, he insisted that Britain was on its way to becoming a "black colony," and vowed support for arch-racist and former Member of Parliament Enoch Powell. (A favorite slogan of British racists back in that time was "I'm with Enoch!")

For Clapton, whose career was built on Black music, to make such a statement was the worst kind of rank and hateful hypocrisy. His career had hit a slump before his cover of Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff." But given that a fascist group like the National Front was at the time trolling the streets of Britain and gaining votes at the ballot box, Clapton's comments were especially dangerous.

This spurred a group of music lovers and activists to write an open letter to Clapton published in Britain's largest music rags. The letter lambasted Clapton: "Come on, Eric. Half your music is black. You're rock music's biggest colonist...P.S. Who shot the sheriff, Eric? It sure as hell wasn't you!"

The letter also called for the formation of a grassroots group mobilized against the "racist poison music" that would become Rock Against Racism. RAR managed to organize a full-on movement, joining forces with the Anti-Nazi League to push back the National Front and bring out some of music's most militant voices--from the Clash to the Specials to X-Ray Spex.

Now, Mayer didn't call for everyone to vote for Sarah Palin. Clapton, drunk though he might have been, was being serious, while Mayer intended his comments as a joke. But it would be irresponsible to say there aren't consequences for what Mayer said in these volatile times. Barack Obama's frustrating inability to deliver on any of the "change" he promised has opened the door for some of this country's less savory elements to exploit the presence of a Black president.

In their heads, the debilitating recession is the fault of affirmative action, "illegal" immigrants, "welfare queens" and entitlement programs. The momentum that their thinly veiled racism can be seen clearly at everything from Minutemen patrols to Tea Party conventions.

The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that far-right hate groups are growing right now. Fascist groups have become increasingly brazen in staking a public presence from Los Angeles to Atlanta. Recently, the neo-Nazi National Socialist Front announced their intention to demonstrate in Chicago on March 21--a date originally chosen by the anti-apartheid movement to highlight South Africa's oppression of Blacks.

Legitimate anger in times of economic crisis can easily be taken advantage of by bigots. Music, far from being separated from the rest of the world, is bound to reflect these kinds of contradictions. What we need is a movement that can challenge racism, sexism and homophobia head on--a movement that can mobilize the power of beats against bigotry in the streets, on the stage and in the music press.

This article first appeared at SocialistWorker.org.

*****

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Modern Heavy Manners


Over a twenty year career, Massive Attack have repeatedly defined and redefined what is possible in electronic music. Few in any genre can claim their ability to deftly change with the times while remaining so profoundly true to themselves. It's a formula that's kept them relevant even as others in their style have faded into the background. With their new album Heligoland, the group seem to have done it again. Most reviews consider it a fine piece of work, and there's no argument here.

But while all this praise is most certainly deserved, so few observers pay attention to the actual meaning of Massive Attack's music. And there most certainly is meaning in these songs. Approaching a group of such legacy, of such sonic breadth, one can't help but think that there is a lot more than immediately meets the ear here. A typical Massive album takes more than a few listens to appreciate, and unfortunately most critics, glowing though their words might be, seem to have passed up the reward of the deep delve for sake of a deadline.

Perhaps it's that each album the group have released just delivers so much to digest. Maybe it's that they've always relied heavily on the vocals of guest artists. All of this can easily push any possible focus on "messages" into the background. But taking this straight road while analyzing Massive's work is to ignore a key component of a group who have never regarded any one musical element with the slightest flippancy. In fact, failing to ask "what do these songs say?" is to shortchange the rich tradition that Massive Attack are building upon.

The world of electronic music they helped create is well rooted indeed. Few genres have the capability to directly and simultaneously pull on so many different styles--dub, reggae, punk, psychedelia, soul. If you can record it, spin it and loop it, then you can process it and mash it up into something totally new. An homage to the past without losing sight of the future. In its infancy in the 1980s, it was nothing short of revolutionary. And without the artists who would later become Massive Attack, it's doubtful that it would look like it does today.

Both members Robert Del Naja and Grant Marshall (plus former Massive member Andy Vowles) have their origins in the Wild Bunch, regarded today as the original sound system crew in the UK (and also the launching pad for the careers of Tricky and Nellee Hooper).

It was a heady time to be making music. Beezer, a photographer who chronicled the Bristol scene (and has also recently released a photo-book of those years), remembers "This was England in the 1980s. It was Margaret Thatcher, it was the Miners' Strike [of '84 to '85]. It was anti-apartheid, CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament]... They were pretty difficult times."

As writer Eamonn Kelly points out, the repressive atmosphere also gave way to very real resistance. "Out of that resistance grew a political confidence to organize, to speak out and, importantly in this case, to open up new spaces to party." When the Wild Bunch came together in the St. Paul's district of Bristol, it was in the wake of a multi-racial uprising against police repression and unemployment that shook the district in April of 1980.

This kind of push toward liberation has continued well through the formation and evolution of Massive Attack. It can be seen even in their most erudite actions as a group. In the past few years they've composed the soundtrack to the movie Battle in Seattle, dedicated a track to Mumia Abu-Jamal, and publicly donated funds to the British Stop the War Coalition.

But this insurgent spirit isn't just to be seen in what they do. Massive's music has always had an organic rebellion woven into the fabric.

It can be heard in the refrain of "Hymn of the Big Wheel," sung by reggae legend and frequent collaborator Horace Andy, from their '91 debut Blue Lines: "The earth spins on its axis / One man struggle while another relaxes."

Or in "Prayer for England"--released on 100th Window a mere month before the US went into Iraq--where none other than Sinead O'Connor pleas "let not another child be slain."

One must ask: what does it mean for lyrics like these to be sung over the organic collision of so many grassroots styles? In Massive Attack's case, it results in a kind of secular, computerized, 21st century millenarianism, resolute in its belief in Bablylon's much-delayed but utterly inevitable defeat. A kind of fearless acknowledgment of today's increasingly heavy manners.

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Now, with the powers that be more obviously in charge than they've appeared in a long time, Heligoland walks this same razor's edge between repression and freedom. The first standalone album (as in, not a soundtrack) in seven years, the group have traded in much of their former lushness for a haunting, often spare sense of foreboding that still manages to make room for a healthy dose of real hope.

The lead track, "Pray for Rain," starts off on an intentionally subdued note. With little else backing him except for the feint glisten of a faded synth, tom-tom drums and a minor-key piano part, TV On the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe sings of a world fallen under its own weight:

"In deepest hollow of our minds
A system failure left behind
And their necks crane
As they turn to pray for rain
And their necks crane

"Dull residue of what once was
A shattered cloud of swirling doves
And their eyes change
As they learn to see through flames"


It's a rather morose opening note, resigned to the extinction of things past--almost as if we're listening to eerie quiet in the aftermath of the apocalypse. But two and a half minutes in, the instruments gradually turn toward a building cacophony as Adebimpe defiantly declares "Drops on rocks fall fast and fleeting / Rhythm laws unleash their meaning / Usher us into the dreaming," before lifting into a cathartic, soaring crescendo.

It's a song that balances both pain and hope with profound, dynamic grace--taking as a given inevitable crumbling and rebuilding. Though it would be wrong to pin any one meaning on the song's lyrics, or look for any direct allegory, one can't help but think of the world financial collapse and the resistance that has started to bubble in its wake.

The failed bank bailouts are mentioned directly in "Splitting the Atom," a dark, twisted neo-dub hand-clapper that coolly and menacingly lambasts systemic lies and deceit:

"They shadow box and they
Paper chase
It never stops
And we'll never learn
No hope without dope
The jobless return
The bankers have bailed
The mighty retreat
The pleasure it fails
At the end of the week"


It's this tone that predominates throughout Heligoland--vague sarcasm floating under serious doom and post-modern decay. Even supposed love songs like "Girl I Love You" hold a subversive edge, with Horace Andy's trembling tenor and dissonant horns undermining a seemingly sweet sentiment.

True to form, there are only rare moments on the album that aren't engaging. Compared the past releases, Heligoland amplifies the use of the empty space between notes and instruments, almost inviting the listener into its surreal and complex universe. It takes a few listens to realize that their world isn't too far from our own.

The deluxe edition available only on iTunes is also worth the extra couple bucks. On top of featuring some fascinating remixes from the likes of Tim Goldsworthy and Brazillian house producer Gui Boratto, it also includes the rare b-side "United Snakes," a tripped-out, bass-heavy track that's best watched with its bizarre animated music video to get the full song.

In some ways, the tendency to gloss over Massive Attack's intensely rebellious predilections and works may be their own fault. After all, they've always done a stellar job integrating words and sounds into a singular and cohesive product. No one element can be separated from the others, and this certainly makes it easy to simply step back and look at the whole painting rather than lean in to examine the intricate brushstrokes. The meanings may not be as overt as plenty of "political" groups who fall back on lazy sloganeering, but everyone has encountered versions of these artists who quickly become faded and hackneyed.

Much harder is the task of injecting the feel of an entire era--the urban blight, the rampant inequality, the simmering anger among the masses--into a musical work. It's the difference between simply describing your surroundings and tapping into how they make you feel. Over three decades, the members of Massive Attack have managed to consistently do just this. As electronic music gets increasingly sucked into the world of cocktail parties and privileged club-goers, Heligoland stands as a reminder that honest, creative music and the drive for freedom come from the same exact place.

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

*****

Monday, February 15, 2010

"SHARP for life!" or "Avanti o popolo!"


Recently, a group of neo-Nazis announced their intention to demonstrate in Chicago on March 21st--a day that was originally chosen by the international anti-Apartheid movement to highlight the oppression in South Africa! It's pretty damned brazen, insulting and goes completely against any sense of basic human decency (but then, humane logic isn't to be expected from their ilk).

I've joined a combination of local activist groups and individuals who have made a call for a united front against these pieces of scum to openly oppose them and demand they get out of our city. Last weekend, upon telling a few friends about what I was doing, one of them responded--rightfully in disgust--by exclaiming "yech! I hate skinheads!"

This naturally put my quills up. The lumping together of "skinhead" and "Nazi" is a mistake as common as it is wrong. Truth is, most skinheads aren't racists or fascists. To this day, a proud tradition of anti-racism continues in most of the subculture. I should know. During my teenage years (the height of my involvement in the punk scene) I often skipped school to hang with a group of skins in Baltimore. This was a multiracial group, mostly affiliated with SHARP (SkinHeads Against Racial Prejudice). One of them, Neil (who actually had a beautiful black and red star tattooed on the back of his bald head), essentially turned me onto anarcho-communist ideas and (after I read Zinn), basically turned me into a radical.

I don't run with the skins anymore. But I still defend the culture unapologetically, and I also understand that the ones doing the biggest disservice to it are the boneheads who wear the style while eschewing its values and embracing an ideology of hate.

It's in this spirit that I'm posting this video below:



The song is the Italian communist anthem "Bandiera Rossa," sung by the Slovenian skin-punk group Pankrti. Originally written in 1908, it became a rallying song for radicals fighting against fascism in the 1920s. The lines "Evviva il communismo e la liberta," were added in after Mussolini's rise.

There are two dovetailing souls that come across in this song. One is the cry for freedom that has always risen from the punks and skins--a cry that can easily be heard coming from any youth subculture today. It's perhaps this that's caused many in "respectable society" to villify anyone associated with it, and labeling them racists and extremists is an easy way to do just that. The other spirit is the notion that within that culture there can be no room for hate or discrimination. It's these two unwavering beliefs that keep punk relevant, and ultimately drive it toward something better.

The Nazis can't be allowed a platform in Chicago, or anywhere for that matter. The economic landscape has hammered working people of all colors, nationalities, genders and sexualities. Allowing these fascists to take advantage of the situation will only allow for all of us to be driven further into the dust.

Those in or near Chicago who care about our future should join us.

*****

Saturday, February 13, 2010

"We Are the World" and the death of rap?


Today, I headed over to one of my favorite hip-hop sites, Jay Smooth's IllDoctrine.com, and was shocked to find this message:

"It is with a heavy heart I must report that on the evening of February 12th, 2010, Rap Music died once and for all. After battling a long illness, our beloved Rap was too weak to withstand the overpowering shame of that We Are The World remake."

I then clicked on the link to another site that I'm familiar with, Rappers I Know, to see this:

"We Are The World 2010 was so terror-ible, that I am shutting down Rappers I Know.

"I am boycotting every artist, actor, personality that was apart [sic] of that project. I think they should all be sent to jail when Weezy goes.

"Haiti has suffered enough!

"Lionel and Quincy, you have failed us. Quincy, if it weren't for
Off The Wall, Thriller and helping make Rashida I'd write you off for the rest of our natural lives."

Wow. It's not every day that a song is so bad, is such an insult to hip-hop and the entire concept of popular music, that it provokes intelligent commentators to shut down their websites! Sure, these comments can be taken with a grain of humorous salt, an acerbically witty jab at the powers that be, and Jay will thankfully continue his video commentary at his new Nil Doctrine. Still, calling "We Are the World" the death of rap is pretty damned profound! So, naturally, the whole situation is worth a few words here at RF.

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First of all, yes, "We Are the World 25" was absolutely dreadful! I could only watch the video of it in thirty second bursts before I started to feel nauseated. Anything that starts out with Justin Bieber is guaranteed to be nothing less than torture! The seventy some-odd artists who participated notwithstanding, this was not an organic crossing of genres. It was artificial, a cheap, music industry imitation of the possibilities that arise when artists take genuine inspiration from each other.

And the politics of the whole thing weren't that much better. As I have written several times on this site since the disaster in Haiti, there is a wide chasm between charity and solidarity. It's the same distance that exists between seeing the Haitian people as as simple savages devoid of their own history (worthy of First World Pity), and acknowledging that the whole country has been and is exploited by the United States and other world powers (which reveals the common cause between Haitians and the oppressed of all nations).

The combination of artists participating in "We Are the World" definitely reflects how much the modern music industry buys into and benefits from the emphasis on "charity." Plenty of talent there, no doubt about it. Jennifer Hudson, Usher, Toni Braxton, and of course Lionel Ritchie and Quincy Jones. But these are also artists who (with the exception of Quincy) have taken an easy artistic route that can be marketed without incident. Then there were likes of Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Jamie Foxx, Julianne Hough, Fergie, one of the Jonas Brothers (I don't know which one... y'all look alike to me). These artists have made their own work practically inseparable from the agenda of the biz.

When Lil Wayne and T-Pain showed up about five minutes into the vid, their voices suitably auto-tuned, it was painful (I was surprisingly unsurprised to know Kanye was involved). This in essence, was the only thing that set this version apart from the original "We Are the World" 25 years ago: the inclusion of rap. In 1985, rap was still considered too controversial and dangerous to include in such a safe, polished song. Now, when hip-hop culture is undeniably dominant, that's clearly not the case.

And then came Smooth's "rapping choir." LL, Busta, Snoop, Wyclef (of course) and many others who, no matter how many contradictions they've embodied over the years, you never thought would stoop to this level. It might be pretty easy to see the "death of rap" in these thirty seconds like Smooth did, because I sure as hell died a little inside.

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Viewing and listening to all of this makes one pine for the "good ol' days" when your hip-hop was brutal and threatening. Granted, most folks, when they talk of those bygone years, are idealizing a past era while ignoring that every musical epoch holds its contradictions. But there is something striking about rappers showing up in this song.

At its core, hip-hop culture, much like that of punk rock, has instinctually put itself in opposition to these kinds of attempts to gloss over the messy truth of oppression and exploitation. Elected officials on both sides of the aisle spent the late '70s and '80s doing away with inconvenient notions like "class," "poverty" and "oppression." Rap, coming as it did from the most ignored and neglected sectors of society, refused to let itself become another cog in the machine.

Like all forms of rebellious youth culture, though, it was only a matter of time until the business came knocking at rap's door. Over three decades, hip-hop has become a worldwide phenomenon, a multi-billion dollar industry that, at the same time, had opened the minds of disaffected folks all over the world. It's evolved. Some of that evolution has been a way to accommodate the pressures of capitalism, other moments have been an attempt to get away from big business.

There's little doubt that hip-hop has been "mainstreamed," and this can result in some rather surreal moments. Common is a movie star now. 50 Cent sells Vitamin Water. Ice-T, the rapper who was once boycotted by the Fraternal Order of Police for writing joints like "Cop Killer," is now playing a cop on NBC! Cube is starring in Disney movies. The manufacturers of Cristal champagne have openly tooled with the idea of shutting down because the brand's strong affiliation with rap (and yeah, that's a racist business decision). And of course, with all the respect in the world to Public Enemy, I'll leave you to insert your own rant against Flavor Flav.

The inclusion of such a throng of rap mainstays in "We Are the World 25" might be taken as a sign that the biz has finally succeeded in separating hip-hop from its own DNA. When a style based on giving a voice to the voiceless is diverted into a Kiplingesque attempt at denying an entire country its own voice, it certainly makes you shudder.

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So is Jay right? Is rap now officially dead? Should we all gather in memory of the dearly departed?

Nope. Folks have been saying hip-hop is dead for years. It should be completely understood that Smooth, who remains one of the best commentators in the culture, could very well be laying on a bit thick (and given that he is continuing his work at another blog, it remains a confusing declaration). He, like few others, recognizes rap's ability to reinvent itself time and again, staying relevant and ultimately rebellious.

That folks like Smooth refuse to blindly accept "We Are the World" the way it is presented to us shows that this instinct remains intact. The operations in Haiti don't have such a massive stamp to public approval that we are lead to believe. Let's not forget that we live in the midst of grave economic insecurity, a time when mistrust of corporations and the government is at a low easily not seen for 30 years. Such circumstances make it a lot harder to sell the idea of "charity" while people are denied basic necessities here at home.

Two weeks ago, another hip-hop benefit was held for Haiti here in Chicago. It was a show called "Every Drop Counts" to get better water filtration services to the Haitian people. Proceeds from the show went not to the Red Cross or the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, but to actual grassroots organizations working with the Haitian people. A glimpse at the artists performing might also be a glimpse at the future of subversive and principled hip-hop. M1 of Dead Prez performed, as did Jean Grae, and these are two artists who have gained a real following without ever making compromises (sometimes possibly to their detriment). Then there were the Cool Kids, Rhymefest, Mic Terror and BBU, a diverse array of acts who have risen in the past couple years and showcase the new vitality of rap.

These are the kinds of artists that give one real hope. They don't buy the notion that liberation comes through compromise and making peace with the richest of the rich. They are also a lot more in synch with the real mood among ordinary folks today.

The condescension and banality of "We Are the World," ever-present though it may be, will not be enough to ultimately derail hip-hop future. On the contrary, the genre and culture have a lot more beautiful insurgent moments in store for us. And no, I will not be shutting down Rebel Frequencies. If "the death of rap" was really irresistible, it would pretty much signify the imminent demise of all rebel music. And this would mean that we're fucked. Thankfully, that's not the case.

*****

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Seven Nation Army... not the US Military


Superbowl ads have always featured a rather shameless amount of recruitment ads for the US military. This year, however, the anti-war movement wasn't the only group that took offense. This week, the White Stripes threatened legal action when they discovered out that the song featured in an ad for the US Air Force Reserve sounds almost exactly like "Fell In Love With a Girl."

As of now, the Air Force Reserve hasn't commented on the situation, but they have removed the clip from their website. And no, this wasn't paranoia on Jack and Meg White's part. Listening to the clip below, it's easy to tell that they're pretty much the same song.

"We believe our song was re-recorded and used without permission of the White Stripes, our publishers, label or management," read a statement on the band's website. "The White Stripes take strong insult and objection to the Air Force Reserves presenting this advertisement with the implication that we licensed one of our songs to encourage recruitment during a war that we do not support."

Anyone who has been involved with anti-recruitment work (or walked by a recruitment table for that matter) can attest to how "cool" the different branches of the military try to make themselves seem. The more elaborate recruitment stations will include everything from climbing walls to video games. This attempt, however, has thankfully failed. Will the White Stripes' refusal to let their work be used to recruit actually make a dent? It's hard to tell. But if there's event the slightest chance, then it's worth taking a bit of encouragement from it.



*****

Thursday, February 11, 2010

There's Got to Be a Soundtrack


Over the past year, the Chicago-based rap trio BBU received glowing write-ups in The New York Times and Pitchfork, and has even been noticed by London's Independent. All of this before they even released an album!

The praise is more encouraging considering the unabashed radicalism of the group. To the three members--Richard "Epic" Wallace, Michael "Illekt" Milam and Jasson Perez a.k.a. "Jah Pizzle da Overkill Killa"--music and resistance go hand in hand. Their energetic sound, rapid-fire delivery and confrontational style are a wake-up call to a hip-hop generation increasingly under the boot of poverty and oppression. Here, Alexander Billet talks to BBU about art, revolution and the challenges facing new and radical music.

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What is BBU?

Epic: BBU is an acronym for "Bin Laden Blowin' Up." The safe name is also "Black, Brown and Ugly."

Bin Laden Blowin' Up...pretty provocative name with the "war on terror" still going on. Why did you pick that name?

Epic: We went through a bunch of different names like "Reagan Babies" or "Reaganomics." And then we were at a club, and we heard that Three 6 Mafia song "Bin Laden," and we thought, "Damn, we should call our group Bin Laden Blowin' Up."

Afterward, we formulated the reasoning for it, the logic behind it. Osama Bin Laden was basically a product of the Reagan years; he was trained by America. He's a product of the '80s, just like we're a product of the '80s. On that note, we have a lot in common. We've also said in a few other interviews that we don't abide by what this dude did, but we understand the mentality behind lashing out against the American government.

Jasson: That was the thing--the lashing out. Even if you did pure numbers, for them, it was 2,000, unfortunately, who died. But when America lashes out, millions die. And afterward, people would ask, "How could this happen to us?" For one thing, that indicates that we automatically think we're innocent, and then for another, that it shouldn't happen to us.

So it's okay to bomb people all over the world and deny them basic needs--whether it's the embargo of Cuba, whether it's the sanctions on Iraq or what's going on in Afghanistan right now--and not expect it to come back. So I think the idea of Bin Laden Blowin' Up was that--just like policies in the inner cities--his foreign policy was directly responsible for this stuff.

This isn't some conspiratorial, far-off notion. This is real. This is Ronald Reagan dedicating the flight of the Challenger space shuttle to the people of Afghanistan, and saying that we're arming and training these people to attack the Russians. And then this person comes back with that training and uses it against the people of the United States.

Illekt: Which is also about blowback, which goes back into the name...

Jasson: Right, and that's our attitude for shit that happens over here, too. So many times when something like the murder of Derrion Albert happens, people ask, "Oh, why did this happen?" Or when the LA riots happened. So that's what Bin Laden Blowin' Up represented to us.

Also, we wanted to be a dope rap group, but lately, it seemed like a lot of so-called "conscious" rap groups didn't have names that challenged the status quo. And we just wanted to have that name that was...

Illekt: In your face!

Epic: Yeah, like back in the day with Public Enemy...

Illekt: Or even in terms of a lot of punk rock bands.

Like the Dead Kennedys or Reagan Youth?

Illekt: Yeah! If you see Bin Laden Blowin' Up on a flier, you would think of a punk rock band before you thought of a hip-hop group! And that's something we try to bring to our shows.

Epic: But that is hip-hop! You know, hip-hop has gotten sidetracked a lot lately, and it's not so much about live performance anymore. But our live performance is just that: it's energy, like back in the day, it's in your face!

So that idea of blowback, of America reaping what it sows, informs the music as well as the name too?

Illekt: Yeah, we're trying to push politics and keep people educated, but we're also trying to have fun with it. We don't want to make something that's boring and can just be tossed to the side. We want to make something that is relevant and new and that talks about something.

Epic: Me and J got together and were organizing a Black collective--it was like a Black empowerment space. And we would go to these spots and do the open mic, and then as soon as we were done with the open mic, we would go see, like, Flosstradamus.

Jasson: I think that one of the biggest things for us was pushing the idea that we have to bring those worlds together--the conscious and the club--because they've been so separated. I feel like activists and organizers get a rap of generally being very boring.

There's a stereotype out there: that political hip-hop has got to be po-faced and serious; it can't be fun, and it can't make you dance.

Jasson: The main thing for us is that doing what we're doing is natural to us because we just wanted to do music from where we came from. You know what I mean? Chicago is juke, Chicago is house. It's not that crazy to have us doing what we're doing over these beats.

Illekt: We were raised on it.

Jasson: Yeah, exactly. We were raised on double-time beats and double-time raps. And I think lyricism has always been part of our city, too: with Resurrection, with Kanye and Lupe. It was organic to us, and it made sense to us.

At that benefit for Gaza back in April ["Roots of Resistance" with Rebel Diaz, DAM, Shadia Mansour and M1 from Dead Prez], we were going back and forth about whether we should even play "Chi Don't Dance." And we finally said, "No, we've got to do it because it's Chicago!" It's juke! It's us! And that's what the autonomous, grassroots stuff is all about, right?

Could you describe what juke is?

Illekt: Juke is a form of music and a dance. It's really fast, club-sounding stuff with usually just chants over it.

Jasson: Yeah, but it's house beats, so it's actually a sped-up house beat instead of a break beat.

Illekt: And then, of course, the dance is just raunchy. You know, grinding and all that...

Epic: But if you think about it, it's not raunchy. I was looking at some video of some African dance, and there's no difference.

Illekt: Well, dance is normally sexual anyway! Even more traditional dances, like the salsa, the tango--those are dances about passion and love. So folks can call it raunchy, but kids have always been dancing close.

Jasson: When I first heard juke, all I was hearing was computerized African drumming. You know, when you see an African drum circle, and it's going fast and crazy--that's all juke was to me, it was just computerized and had a digital sound.

It seems that African music and oppressed people's music in general will always find a way to regenerate itself into something that's relevant. That's why when some people try dismiss juke as just a dance music, we think, "Naw, it's not just some stupid dance music." We have it for a reason, and we need to celebrate it.

You guys are starting to do some shows outside of Chicago. Have you noticed a different reaction as you go to different places?

Illekt: I feel like with any new crowd with us--especially because we start out with "BB-Who?"--you get introduced to the group right away and slapped in the face with what we do. I think everyone is a little thrown back at first. And it takes them a second for them to grasp what's really happening in front of them.

I feel like most of the time, though, by the end, we've won over at least 50 percent of the crowd, if not more. People who know us, they'll go out and get crazy right away, but with people who don't know us, they'll try to figure us out at first.

Do you notice a difference in the crowd between you play a show for a mainly activist crowd--like the Gaza show--or when you play a party show?

Illekt: It's always easier when it's a party or a club because people care more about the beats right away, and they can just dance to anything. I think we do end up winning people over, but of course there is a difference.

Epic: At the end of the day for me, it's more about how you live. I get off work every day. and I go organize with HIV-AIDS prevention work. We're grassroots movement-starters on multiple levels outside of music. It's not just music, it's a lifestyle. You may not get our music, but our lifestyle is something that you can respect.

Jasson: I think that was a big thing when we started, too. We wanted to have a group where maybe we weren't super-revolutionary or anything, but we were those dudes that knocked on doors, that did the work, were at the rallies. That's our lifestyle, that's what we do.

We felt it was important to have a rap group that did that stuff and also rapped relevantly. Even leading up to that Gaza show there were a few things that kind of jarred us because we felt like we actually had the industry giving us more love than activists--you know, our people! When we're at an industry party or a hipster party, we might know 10 people there, but the crowd's going buck! They're loving it!

Jasson: I really feel like BBU is a group that puts their blood, sweat and tears into the movement. We could easily take another route; we could choose other professions or other things to do with our lives. But activism and organizing has always come first. It's cool, though, because we've talked to a lot of friends who say that what we do has helped them--if they're burned out on organizing or burned out on activism.

That get to something I wanted to talk about next. What do you think the role of music in activism is?

Jasson: There was this one quote that I read that went "Art doesn't make a revolution, but you can't have a revolution without art." That's basically how we see it. BBU just doing rap won't make a revolution, but I feel like by living the way we do and also doing the music we do, we're bridging the gap. To us, that's the whole point! We don't feel like those worlds should be separate.

Illekt: There's always got to be a soundtrack, you know? For every movement that's happened, there's always a soundtrack. You can go back to Dylan and Joan Baez coming out to the March on Washington and performing their music. There's got to be the sound, and there's got to be the actual action on the ground for anything to happen.

Epic: That's one of the gifts that we have with Bin Laden Blowin' Up: we're able to cross the boundaries consistently. They have never been able to put us in a box. We're pretty hard to label. First of all, look at the group! There's just about every shade of brown in the group. And everyone's true to their views.

At the end of the day, we have the possibility of reaching groups of people that other groups may not reach. There are people that will go to see Hollywood Holt but won't go to see Dead Prez. And then there are people who will go to see Dead Prez but won't go to see Hollywood Holt.

But all of those are people who may come to see BBU. Some people only want to see us for the politics, others just to dance, but when they go home and play that track and they're repeating those lyrics, slowly but surely they're absorbing our message.

Jasson: Yeah, even if people are just hearing the beats, then they've still got to deal with the name Bin Laden Blowin' Up. You've got to come to terms with those two things...

Illekt: Even if you're hiding it under the couch so your folks don't see it.

Jasson: Yeah! I heard a quote somewhere that said if you make art that your parents can listen to and play, then you're doing something wrong! We want to be that kind of music...dangerous!

We're a year into the Obama administration, and the hip-hop community put a lot of hope in him. He kind of became a platform for a lot of artists to speak about a whole host of issues.

Jasson: Yeah, it became the first time in hip-hop where you couldn't write a verse that said, "Fuck the president!" I'm really disappointed in this first year, though--and this is coming from a person who helped campaign for Obama.

I think it was the Nobel Peace Prize speech when I first started to see what some people were talking about in terms of him being a serious problem for the left. He didn't just defend the troops in Afghanistan; he defended the idea of war as a tool for peace and security. That's scary!

I really thought the foreign policy was going to be a lot different. I thought his stance on bailing out the banks would be different. I thought his stance on Israel's settlements in the Occupied Territories would be different. He made a promise to shut down Guantánamo, and now it looks like it's not going to happen.

Epic: The thing for me was that I voted for Obama to put a Black man in power. I didn't think we were going to change anything, because I realize that for him to get to that level, he's already sold out. He's owned by somebody and at the end of the day he's got to pay the piper.

But for me, it was just the value of seeing a Black man in the presidency. Even though it was a minor change, for the first time young people of color got that shot of hope. That effect trickles down. People feel like they can strive for something better.

Illekt: We've got to admit that was a change too. I can't wait until my kids pick up a schoolbook and flip through these pages and say, "Damn! This country elected a Black man named Barack Hussein Obama!"

So a year later, with this economic crisis, the continuation of two occupations, the hope bubble seems to have deflated a bit. What now for activism and music?

Epic: I feel like if anything is going to spark a revolution, it's this. For once, Black, white, Latino, poor and oppressed all decided on one cause, and that was Obama. There needs to be solidarity for a revolution, and for the first time you've got all these people making a solid stance. The rejection from Obama now--as long as it doesn't create a divide among people of different races...

Like the Tea Partiers are trying to do?

Epic: Yeah. But now we've got working-class white folks pissed off right next to their Black counterparts. It reminds me of what Malcolm X said, which is that a revolution won't have anything to do with the color of your skin--it's going be about whether you're oppressed. And people are really oppressed!

You're talking about GM plants shut down that feed not only Black mouths but white mouths and Latino mouths. Ultimately, if there is a revolution, it'll have everything to do with what we do, whether we organize.

Where does this leave hip-hop?

Jasson: I think before, when hip-hop was on that entrepreneurship and multinational corporation trip--you know, like "I did it, here's my super-label"--it's now coming back around to wanting to be independent. Like, Gucci Mane is still independent! He's built up his career off of mixtapes!

And that's because capitalism didn't have all the answers for hip-hop; it wasn't going to put hip-hop where it needed to be. It wasn't going to get you that radio play or that video. There has to be other ways to do your business, other ways to be more collective about what you're doing. And ways that you have to actually invest in a scene in order to make yourself into a better artist.

Under capitalism, giving away a free mix CD is insane. But now, with the way hip-hop and technology and the Internet are, you can give away a lot of free music! You can give away 10 CDs of free music!

So do you think that same process also creates more room for your kind of radical musical and lyrical content?

Epic: Absolutely! I'm glad you brought that in because if you listen to any of the new lyrics that are out there, there's a lot of content! It's come back around to lyricism big-time lately!

Jasson: Also, the blogs! Which are read by so many more people! And they'll report on everything from a totally different angle and people will care about it more than they will what they read in Vibe or The Source or XXL.

Illekt: With the Internet the way it is, it gives you such a different lane than just what Clear Channel's playing on the radio. There's a lot more music circulated and it's much easier to get your hands on music nowadays.

If all this means there's more room for you guys to do what you do, then I suppose the next question is one that's almost never asked of even political artists: What kind of world do you want to fight for? And what kind of world do you want to live in?

Jasson: For me, it's always about my daughter. I don't want her to live in a world that's run by empire. And I also don't want her to live in a world where she feels the complexion of her skin or the length of her hair is somehow not right, or where because she's a woman she has to worry about being sexually assaulted.

Those are just the basics. I believe everyone's got the right to food and shelter and to live free from the influence of corporations.

Illekt: I think we've got to have a world that's about uplifting people--educating them and having a means for young people to rise to their potential. I know it's really hard to imagine that there's a whole other world out there.

I grew up in Humboldt Park, and I used to be in that shit. I was never in a gang, but I hung out with all the gangs and I had boys from everywhere. I basically did all the shit they did without ever affiliating because there was always a part of me that said "no." But most people don't have those options.

Epic: They answered the question really well. I feel the same way. I know what I want my world to look like, but there are so many components. I think in order for the world to get right, there have to be some extreme sacrifices by the government--if there's a government in my world--to actually start dealing with the psychological damage that's been done to the African American community.

Of course, we've got to stop all the bullshit first--police brutality, the lack of jobs--but after that, there has to be some form of healing and a process to aid that healing. The government's never admitted the effects of locking up a Black man for 25 years and then letting him out. He tries to go get a job and then gets told that he can't get a job because he's a felon. And they try to say this is a free world!

Jasson: We have people on [Illinois'] death row right now after [former Gov.] George Ryan admitted the process of deciding who goes on death row is completely screwed up.

Epic: Or you have [former Chicago police commander] Jon Burge, who committed torture on multiple individuals. My stepfather is a man named Mike Smith, who's currently incarcerated on a 27-year sentence. And we've got checks written by Daley, when he was state's attorney, to an informant.

When you look at situations like that, where we can't even get innocent people out of jail, then the entire system has to be torn down and rebuilt. But after the system's been torn down, there's a whole lot of damage we've got to repair.

This article first appeared at SocialistWorker.org.

*****

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

RIP Alistair Hulett

Alistair Hulett, folk-singer and revolutionary socialist, died in Britain in late January at the age of 58. Any fan of folk music who doesn't know his work should get to know it immediately. It will immediately convey how much poorer rebel music is now that he's gone.

At the age of 18 Alistair, originally from Glasgow, emigrated to Australia by way of New Zealand. After moving he began to write and perform both as a solo artist and eventually as singer and guitarist for the Roaring Jacks. His music carries strong strains of Bob Dylan and Ewan MacColl (both life-long heroes), but there's also an obvious punk influence in his work after its rise.

Said Hulett: “There was an anger and a vitality in punk that reminded me of the folk music that I fell in love with way back in the 60s, when folk music was at the cutting edge.”

Hulett was hardly one to sing his songs from the sidelines, however. He was also a lifelong socialist activist. In the mid-90s he was one of the founding members of Socialist Alternative in Australia. After moving back to Glasgow he joined the Socialist Workers Party and remained a member until the day he died.

There are so many of Hulett's songs to pick from. But ultimately, there's only one song you can play when a comrade leaves us. And Alistair Hulett did a damn good version of it.



*****

*****

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Clash They Represent?


Any band that experiences such a meteoric rise in popularity like that of Vampire Weekend is bound to provoke a backlash. And that's exactly what's happened. Since their new release rocketed to number one last month, a veritable arsenal of pen-ink has been directed against the group. It's certainly an odd about-face. This time two years ago, the New York-based quartet were the darlings of the indie world. Their 2008 self-titled debut, with it's fresh injection of African pop, made almost every "best of '08" list one can locate (including at Rebel Frequencies).

So why the hate? What is it that has caused the same basic contingent that launched the group to prominence to turn on them? The answer is messy, but it also speaks volumes of the changes that the world has endured over the past two years.

Clash fans are bound to take special notice of the new album's title: Contra. While the punk legends' 1980 triple-album Sandinista! was named in solidarity with the left-wing revolution in Nicaragua, Vampire Weekend have strangely chosen to reference the U.S. backed death squads seeking to overturn it.

At first, it might seem just a weird coincidence. After all, it's a word that has more than one meaning. But the band has been quite forthcoming in the influence the Clash had on the album's name and content. And in some ways, the group's incorporation of non-western influences takes a cue from the Clash's work in the early '80s. In a recent interview, singer Ezra Koenig says that groups like the Clash "couldn't be pigeonholed as western guitar music, but it was also incredibly natural in the way it came about."

In this respect, Vampire Weekend certainly deserve some points. Pop music has always remained fresh by appropriating non-white musical genres. It hasn't always been pretty (plenty of black artists have been screwed in the process), but it does speak to the innate ability creativity has to cross borders with relative ease. At least Vampire Weekend are honest about what they do, and have made some pretty damned interesting music in the process.

So once again, why the hate? Music today is probably the most multi-racial it has ever been. The indie generation are acutely aware of how much non-white music has been wrongfully appropriated to suit a white audience. And VW are hardly the only group influenced by the likes of Fela Kuti, Bob Marley or Youssou N'Dour.

It's here that Vampire Weekend's own fashion aesthetic comes into play. Pleated slacks, nicely parted hair and (shudder) Ralph Lauren polo shirts. Hardly the attire of most indie kids. But the look, as well as Koenig's lyrics, have spurred many a writer to label the group as a bunch of preppy kids. Couple this with their strongly "world beat" sound, and you have an image of Vampire Weekend that, as the New York Times says, "smacks of cultural tourism."

As Jessica Hopper of the Chicago Reader points out, "it comes down to class." It would be one thing if the boys in VW were singing about going round the corner shop and nicking a candy bar to ease the boredom. A context like this would make their sound all the more universal. As it is, though, the group's apparent upper-crust origins simply sit with folks the wrong way.

True, the group did all graduate from Columbia University. Ivy Leaguers they most certainly are. Still, in a recent piece in the Guardian, Koenig insists that critics are "attacking a version of [Vampire Weekend] that doesn't exist." And the blue-blooded lad image isn't quite as clear cut. "My dad grew up in a working-class Jewish neighborhood," he says, "and I got a scholarship from my dad's union to go to college. I went there to get an education, not as an extension of privilege." The vehemence with which many writers are willing to peg VW as a bunch of privileged lads might be a little overzealous.

And who really cares, right? In the end, it's not the class you come from that matters--it's the class you represent. Rebel music's history is filled with artists originating in the upper-middle class who in the course of their own work ended up embracing radical social change. Chief among these examples would have to be none other than the Clash's Joe Strummer, who attended an elite UK boarding school before becoming a squatter and radical. A few dogmatic class-baiters aside, nobody can glean anything but a deep commitment to the liberation of the oppressed and exploited from Strummer's actions and music.

Unfortunately, the same can't really be said about Vampire Weekend's work. Though Contra drips with the same Latin influence that moved Strummer thirty years ago, Koenig's lyrics truly make him sound like a privileged brat. The same theme returns time and again throughout the album: rich women. Specifically how sick Koenig has become of them.

Tracks like "White Sky" feature images of expensive Wolford tights and downtown Manhattan apartments. The woman here is obviously someone tiring of their life's persistent idleness, and Koenig seems content to point it out. It's an attempt at satire, but the whole affair is simply painted with too much sympathy to come across very clear. Hopper's Reader article describes the whole process well when she says that "Koenig is trying to have it both ways--to be the mocking outsider while telegraphing his exact position as an upper-class white aesthete through references that connote unfettered living and heavy beach play."

Hopper may be one of the many who paint Koenig's origins with too broad a brush, but she definitely hits the nail on the head here. Contra's lyrics seem to know their subjects too well to have fully shunned the world they parody. So while the attacks against the group may be blunt, they're also perfectly understandable.

For his part, Koenig has weathered the criticism with anything but grace. He may have the upper hand when he rebukes the accusations of white-bred privilege, but when it comes to the content of his songs, the singer resorts to the snarkiest of comments. He claims that people resent the group for using "obscure words" (a thinly veiled way of saying "workers can't read"), and pins the wave of criticism from writers on a deep-seated need to be "activists" (as if there were something wrong with that).

If these comments make Vampire Weekend sound snide and snobbish, if makes them sound as if they first heard Contra's sounds on a Caribbean cruise, then that just about says it all. While there may be blue collar beginnings to Koenig's story, he's now positioned himself as the kind of person the Dead Kennedys lambast in "Holiday in Cambodia" and M.I.A. speaks of robbing in "Paper Planes." (Ironically, Contra samples M.I.A. as a roundabout way of referencing that she did the same with the Clash's "Straight to Hell." In this context the band can almost be heard saying "neener-neener-neener.") Maybe Contra is the right name for this album after all.

When Vampire Weekend released their first album, the financial panic of '08 was still almost eight months away--as was the devastation it would bring to ordinary people's lives. In the year-and-a-half since, the myth of "classlessness" has been punctured big-time. Even in the midst of a supposed "recovery," unemployment and foreclosures continue, and the indie generation is probably the most frustrated it's ever been. While many of these same people are trading in the "hope" of last year in for a healthy dose of anger, Vampire Weekend seem to be still saying "Look! The president is black! Isn't that great?"

Is it harsh to say this? Sure, but only because VW have always held so much musical promise. Hell, they still do. But the question "which side are you on?" holds a lot more water than it has in a long time, and that's why Vampire Weekend's image and lyrics have provoked a bit more ire than they might have otherwise. The Clash understood this and created themselves accordingly. VW clearly don't, which doesn't let them off the hook. The version of Vampire Weekend being "attacked" does indeed exist. Koenig should know; he built it himself.

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

*****

Friday, February 5, 2010

CBS, Censorship and Sexism


Anyone who watched the Grammys this past weekend no doubt noticed the sound repeatedly cutting out on the final performance of the night by Lil Wayne, Eminem and Drake. At first, I thought there was just something wrong with my TV or cable connection, maybe the live feed.

If only it were that innocuous. Earlier this week, CBS admitted to censoring the performance--one of the few that exhibited any kind of real dynamism. Said CBS to the AP: "It was a rousing musical performance, but words were edited from the live telecast that didn't meet our broadcast standards. We have great respect for artists' creative freedom, but there are certain things you can't say, or sing on television."

Sure, there are lyrics in both "Forever" and "Drop the World" that are beyond the "standards" of the FCC. But it's nothing unfamiliar to any hip-hop fan (or, for that matter, anyone who doesn't live in an Amish community). There is nothing especially raunchy here. In fact, if one compares the lyrics from the album to the live version, it's obvious that the artists are already themselves skipping words like "fucker" and "bitch." So, problem solved! No need to cut the sound out, right?

Apparently not. Somehow, there are entire sections of this song unsuitable for viewers' ears. If one actually compares the lyrics to the censored sections, however, it just comes off as arbitrary. It also bears pointing out that this was the only rap performance of the night.

The censorship is especially stomach-turning considering what CBS is airing this Sunday. During the Superbowl, the network will be broadcasting an ad featuring Heisman trophy winner and Evangelical Christian Tim Tebow proclaiming his opposition to abortion! Superbowl ads have always purported to never have any political motive (the sexist beer commercials and armed forces recruiting ads notwithstanding), but CBS has obviously seen it appropriate to air this one funded by the viciously anti-woman and anti-gay group Focus on the Family, even as they've turned down commercials for dating sites geared toward gay men.

In other words, according to CBS, a rapper saying "bitch" and "fucker" a few times is offensive, as is a humorous ad where two men embrace, but airing an ad geared toward stripping women of their right to choose is just fine. The programming honchos must really think we're stupid.

*****

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Sounds of a movement

A worthwhile review by SocialistWorker.org's Brian Jones here. It's a well known fact that music was a huge part of the civil rights movement, but few know the details of how the participants themselves viewed music's role. Contrary to what some today may say, music isn't something that has to be artificially brought into a mass movement. On a base level, music and the need for justice and freedom come from the same place. Despite some real weaknesses (which Jones goes into toward the end of his article), it seems like this film makes that perfectly clear.

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Toward the end of the remarkable new film, Soundtrack for a Revolution, Julian Bond summarizes the civil rights movement as "ordinary people doing extraordinary things."

A persistent danger swirls around this history--the danger that the participants will be canonized, effectively placing them beyond the reach of present generations ("They were so united, so brave...so not like us"). Soundtrack, a film that tells the story of the civil rights movement through its music, reminds us that the people who waged that struggle were just as frail, just as fearful of injury and death as you and I.

But in every meeting, on every march and even behind bars, Soundtrack shows us how the songs of the civil rights movement gave ordinary people like John Lewis, Dorothy Cotton or Charles McDew--who are among the many participants to contribute on-camera interviews--the courage, the solidarity and the confidence to do such extraordinary things.

"They can put you in jail," Lewis muses, "but they can't stop you from singing."

Many of what became movement songs were really revised Negro spirituals. At times, the old lyrics were preserved, but the meaning shifted. "Wade in the Water" became a call to leave the "shore of comfort" and get involved in the movement. When some said that young people shouldn't participate in protests, children sang "This Little Light of Mine" even louder as they marched.

In other cases, the lyrics were revised. When, in 1960, tens of thousands of students launched lunch counter sit-ins to challenge segregation, "I'm Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table," became "I'm Gonna Sit at the Woolworth Counter." Often, new lyrics were improvised on the spot, as needed. Facing police dogs, activists sang, "I Ain't Afraid of Your Dog," or being hauled off to jail, "I Ain't Afraid of Your Jail."

The role of a white couple--Guy and Candie Carawan--in teaching and spreading these songs is a fascinating twist of history. When they taught "We Shall Overcome" to the founding convention of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, it quickly became the movement's anthem.

Soundtrack slips effectively between the first-person testimonies of participants, to black-and-white archival footage, to in-studio sessions with professional musicians. Wyclef Jean, Angie Stone, John Legend, The Roots, Joss Stone and a host of other artists cover movement songs in their distinct, respective styles.

The in-studio sessions lift the songs temporarily out of context, but with the assistance of celebrity singers (and often with instrumental support), we are offered an opportunity to dwell on a particular song--on the poetry and resonance of its lyrics, the mood and emotion of its tune.

Certainly Jean's "Here's to the State of Mississippi" stands out. The studio performance, with a ripping guitar and angular bass, is spliced with the historical footage and interviews, rather than standing alone. The effect transports the viewer to an emotional state where the murder of three civil rights workers--Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner--lands with tremendous force.

The constant presence of personal danger for activists is further reinforced by the dramatic use of titles and photographs. A slick collage of student mug shots pulls back to impress us with the scale of arrests. Later, a series of photos fade in and out with titles that reveal the manner of death--"shot," "bludgeoned," "bombed," "burned" and so on.

Of course the death that hit the movement--and the nation--the hardest was that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Here, Soundtrack dwells on the tragedy of King's assassination on April 4, 1968, but it does so at the expense of exploring the radical turn in King's work in the last year of his life: King's stance on Vietnam, or even of the Memphis strike with which he made common cause.

In 1967, King blasted the war in Vietnam and called the American government "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." In 1968, he joined striking sanitation workers in Memphis and called for a radical redistribution of America's wealth. Perhaps it's not fair to expect this film to cover King's political trajectory, but this reviewer can't help but think that those omissions may have been necessary to pull off the film's final frame--Barack Obama's inauguration ceremony.

While there can be no doubt that Obama's election was made possible by the struggle of the previous generation, it's becoming harder for people to swallow that his administration is the "realization of King's dream" (as it is often put), especially given the president's escalation of the war in Afghanistan and his failure to address Depression era-level unemployment in Black America.

Still, the strength of this film lies in the power of music, and its ability to communicate something essential about the Black struggle in America. "The music is how we know who we are," comments a wistful Harry Belafonte. Through song, we are drawn inside the activists' roller coaster of emotions. What we hear in Soundtrack is the sound of ordinary people summoning the inner strength to do extraordinary things.

*****

Monday, February 1, 2010

Fame Monster Unleashed


"'Oh, why won't anyone give me an award?' 'You won a Grammy.' 'I mean an award that's worth winning.'" -exchange between Homer and Lisa Simpson

This past Sunday, Lady Gaga's outrageously over-the-top opening number loudly declared "here comes the fame monster." It's an apt description of this year's Grammy Awards. Unfortunately it was also the highlight of the show.

The Grammys have never really been good at acknowledging the happenings in the world at large, but this year the disparity was especially stark. Granted, not every talented artist in the world needs to be waxing about rising unemployment and the planet's growing underclass. With these phenomena undeniably here though, the smug self-admiration of the music business seemed to be an especial slap in the face.

The content of Gaga's performance might explain why the producers wanted to get it out of the way as soon as possible. Gaga has built her young career on parodying celebrity culture, and her neo-surrealist medley juxtaposed her bizarre dress with her dust-and-grime covered backup dancers--workers of the "fame factory." After the first few bars of "Poker Face," I was thinking that Bertolt Brecht himself couldn't have done it better.

It wasn't long until it gave way to a typical Grammy number when she was joined onstage by Elton John for a rather lackluster duet. It was a portentous indicator. Despite being nominated in five categories and easily being the most original artist to puncture the pop mainstream in quite some time, Gaga would end the night snubbed.

Females definitely dominated the nominations on Sunday. On the face this might seem to be progress, but on a deeper level it revealed how, with a few exceptions, women still hold a second-tier position in music. When Beyonce's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" won for best female R&B vocal, three men climbed the stage to accept the award--the men who wrote the song. In other words, a song written by men about how all women really want is to get married was being given an award in the 21st century. Beyonce would take home a record six Grammys.

In general, the statuettes were doled out to the safest possible nominees. Beyonce gained a handful, as did the Black Eyed Peas. Next to artists with far more creative daring--Gaga, Adele, Kid Cudi--these winners seemed to be treading paths that were blazed long ago.

This was especially apparent in the best new artist category. One would think that this would be the Grammys' best opportunity to prove themselves aware of music's ever-shifting future. Out of five nominees, three were indie rock groups that have risen in the past two years: Silversun Pickups, MGMT and the Ting Tings. Whatever one could say about these groups' relative merits and shortcomings, it might have seemed that the music industry was finally taking indie seriously as a subculture. And yet, the statuette went to the Zac Brown Band, a country group whose only real innovation has been to reveal that Kid Rock's lifestyle still has a following.

To be fair, there were nominees and winners who are more willing to test the creative boundaries: India.Arie, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Phoenix, Bilal and Imogen Heap. None of these artist were nominated in televised categories, though, and this in and of itself speaks volumes.

This sleight of hand is what the Grammys are best at--taking the hierarchy of the music industry and making it seem horizontal. Haiti was, of course, a recurring theme throughout the night. Wyclef Jean maintained his self-appointed role as face of the Haitian people by thanking the United States for its involvement in the earthquake-shaken country.

His mirror image was acted out by Neil Portnow, head of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, when he took the stage to self-congratulate NARAS for their support of music programs in schools. He didn't mention his close relationship with education czar Arne Duncan, who is giving the green light for charter schools in every major American city. Likewise, he opportunistically spoke against peer-to-peer file sharing, claiming the tired mantle of "protecting artists' livelihoods." No call for artists to be treated with respect by their labels, no demand for CDs or downloads to be affordable in the face of plunging living standards. Just the agenda of the music industry wrapped in populist clothing.

According to Portnow, we're all greeting the next decade under the same umbrella. This might account for the oddly futuristic feel to many of the night's performances. Beyonce and the Black Eyed Peas took the stage with costumes and set-pieces that looked like a suped-up version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Will.I.Am even ended his group's set with "welcome to the future." Hardly a thrilling prospect when more and more experts are predicting an upcoming "lost decade" for young workers.

Other performances were more ambivalent. Green Day's "21 Guns" was performed with the full cast of their recent stage musical version of American Idiot. Though their latest 21st Century Breakdown has been acclaimed as a rallying cry for young people, the feel of the performance (which couldn't decide between punk or Broadway) had me wondering who could really take that cry seriously.

Even the tribute to Michael Jackson was tragically uninspired. Making anything related to M.J. unexciting is no mean task, but it also seemed to reflect the music industry's ongoing crisis. Many writers have speculated that there will never be another "King of Pop," another artist whose scope and influence reach such heights. If this is true, then what creek will the biz find themselves floating down without a paddle? And what does this mean for music in general?

The answer to this question might lie in the few moments when the spectacle dropped on Grammy night. When Eminem, Lil Wayne and Drake performed "Drop the World" and "Forever" toward the end of the ceremony, hip-hop's dominance couldn't be denied. Here were three performers--one back on top after years in the spotlight, one recent phenom and one who has created waves without even releasing an album (!)--who didn't need a flashy stage show. With little else but a modest light show and backup band, these three emcees owned the crowd.

Songs and performances like these embodied the one thing that was otherwise missing from the Grammys: conflict. This side of a massive upsurge from the bottom-up, that's the kind of thing that a self-congratulatory award show can't possibly aspire to, and the years-long dip in ratings only highlights how many folks are aching for something more. By the time Taylor Swift won album of the year, there were probably a lot of people hoping for Kanye to rush the stage.

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

*****