Friday, April 30, 2010

By the Time We Get to Arizona

"Jan Brewer's decision to sign the Arizona immigration bill into law is racist, deceitful, and reflects some of the most mean-spirited politics against immigrants that the country has ever seen. The power that this law gives to police, to detain people that they suspect to be undocumented, brings racial profiling to a new low. Brewer's actions and those of Joe Arpaio, Russell Pearce, the Arizona State Senate are despicable, inexcusable, and endorse the all-out hate campaign that Joe Arpaio, Russell Pearce, and others have perpetrated upon immigrants for years. The people of Arizona who voted for this bill, as well as those who crafted it, demonstrate no regard for the humanity or contributions of Latino people. And for all of those who have chosen not to speak up, shame on you for silently endorsing this legislated hate."

So says the inimitable Chuck D in a statement released with his wife, Dr. Gaye Theresa Johnson. Staying silent has never been Chuck's strong suit, and recent days have shown that he is thankfully not alone.

Indeed, the passage of SB 1070 by the state of Arizona is the biggest blow to the immigrant community in the United States since the neanderthalic Senator James Sensenbrenner brought his bill to the Senate floor in 2006. Like the Sensenbrenner bill, SB 1070 turns undocumented workers into criminals. Moreover, it opens the door for police to stop and harass anyone they think might be an immigrant (in other words, brown people), emboldening the already draconian actions of figures like Maricopa county Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

But the mood since Governor Jan Brewer signed the bill into law has been far from acquiescent. On the contrary, it looks like what started in Arizona may be serving to reignite the mighty immigrant rights movement. Large rallies have been held in front of the state capitol. Students have walked out of class in protest. And the call for a boycott of the state economy has swept through activist communities like wildfire.

It's here that Chuck has stepped into the fray. In 1991, Public Enemy courted controversy when they released "By the Time I Get to Arizona," a militant rebuke against the state's refusal to recognize Martin Luther King Day. Naturally, the song has taken on a new relevance in recent days. Seeing the parallel, Chuck has once again placed Arizona in his cross-hairs with "Tear Down That Wall," a hard-edged beat-bomb dropped on Brewer and the racist cheerleaders of immigrant scapegoating:

"Understand these pressures in this so-called recession
For the black brown woman and man
It's depression...

I beg your pardon who's savin' ya?
You callin' them laborers
Walk on by and never say hi or consider them neighbors...

Diss the brown brothers and sisters on what they what they done did
This side of the earth, they built pyramids!
My passion comes and what I know and who I am
I refuse to lose or to be
Confused by this new scam, scarred by sarcasm
Uncle Sam's racist orgasm
Was just a spasm, scared of enthusiasm
Of the black and brown planet the jealous say damn it!
Stupid-ass wall!
You can't stop us all!"

Not stopping at a mere song, however, Chuck and Dr. Johnson also call in their statement for other musicians and artists to join the boycott of Arizona.

"I am issuing a call to action," reads the statement, "urging my fellow musicians, artists, athletes, performers, and production companies to refuse to work in Arizona until officials not only overturn this bill, but recognize the human rights of immigrants."

Calls have gone out to artists as varied as Carole King, James Taylor and Pat Benatar requesting that they cancel their concerts scheduled in cities like Tuscon and Phoenix in the month of May. Already, Montreal-based indie pop group Stars have announced they will not be playing any shows in Arizona "until its racist new immigration law is repealed."

A musician's boycott of Arizona might not be as inane as one might think. The state's concert industry is sizable due to the large amount of sports stadiums and smaller venues that pop up around them to support smaller acts. Fender Guitars, the iconic choice of many an axe-slinger, is also headquartered in Scottsdale.

And though it might be true that musicians and artists alone would not bring down SB 1070, their inclusion in a much broader protest and boycott movement would make them that much stronger. During the late '80s and early '90s, countless international acts refused to play in South Africa until the country put an end to its venomous apartheid system (Steve Van Zandt's "Sun City" anyone?). But more important was the anti-racist movement gripping America's campuses and gave these artists' actions space to breathe.

Something similar is possible today. "Arizona boycott" has become the 47th most popular Google search since the passage of SB 1070. The Arizona Diamondbacks have been dogged by protests in front of their away games in Denver and Chicago; similar actions are expected when they come to Houston and Miami. And the immigrant justice movement that commentators referred to as "a sleeping giant" when it first emerged in '06 looks poised to return with a vengeance.

In the long chain of resistance that urgently has to be forged right now, music and art are but two more links that can once and for all tear down that wall.

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

Thursday, April 29, 2010

"We Need Songs For Right Now"

Tom Morello will be celebrating May Day like the radical he is this year.

On April 30, Morello's folk-singing alter ego the Nightwatchman will be playing at Chicago's Bottom Lounge at a show put on by the Industrial Workers of the World.

From Rage Against the Machine to the Street Sweeper Social Club, Morello has survived and thrived as a rare breed in today's musical landscape--a relentless proponent of grassroots struggles for democracy and justice.

Here, he talks to's Alexander Billet about the show, his work and the role that music has to play in fighting for a better world.


Very few artists of your profile would play a show for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Why do you think it's important for you to do so?

Well, first of all, I'm a card-carrying member of the IWW. And I've been a lifelong supporter of labor causes and unions from the time I picked up a guitar.

The Morello family were coal miners in central Illinois, and union values were instilled in me at a very young age. I was very much drawn specifically to the IWW first of all through the music of Joe Hill, who I count as chief among my influences as a songwriter. And I believe that music can be a battering ram for social justice.

The specific event that I'm performing at is also going to be the release of a brand new edition of the IWW's Little Red Songbook, in which they've included the Nightwatchman song "Union Song." So, it's meant to celebrate the release of the Songbook, it's on May Day eve, and it's maybe just one small part of what it takes to stir the masses.

You mentioned the vibrant history of music that runs through the IWW. Do you see a need to keep that tradition alive in this day and age?

Definitely. I don't think that it necessarily needs to be contained within folk music. There are many links in the chain of radical and political music. It certainly got a great send-off with artists like Joe Hill, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.

But from the Clash and Public Enemy to Rage Against the Machine and System of a Down, there have always been bands that in an unapologetic way stood up for social justice and continue to carry that torch, to build a bridge between a mass audience and important ideas about economic democracy and societal freedom and liberation.

One of the reasons I started writing Nightwatchman songs was that I would often find myself at rallies where the musical component was often songs from the '60s or earlier. It felt like there was a real disconnect between these antiwar rallies or union rallies and these kind of old "Kumbaya" jams. We need songs for right now!

"Union Song" was actually written after an anti-Free Trade Area of the America protest in Miami in 2003. Myself and Steve Earle and Billy Bragg and some other musicians had just gotten doused in tear gas, and we were then playing this rally for steelworkers, and I suddenly thought, "I don't have a song to play today! I don't have one of my own songs to play today, so I need to write one while the tear gas is still setting in my shirt!"

So you pretty much wrote that song with the billy club coming right down on your head then?

Yeah, it was in the aftermath of that, and as I've played countless union rallies and picket lines, I've seen it's a great arrow to have in the quiver.

You've been playing as an open radical musician for almost 20 years now, during which there have been plenty of political shifts. Have you noticed anything new about the past few years?

Well, I've always tried to stay above the fray of electoral politics. The issues that I'm interested in have always had more to do with the levers of power rather than who sits in the seat holding them.

So, throughout the ramp-up to Obama's election--which in some ways was pretty miraculous--I was kind of the "Downer Danny." You know, like "Hey hold on here, I'm surprised as you are that we have an African American president, but let's not all just start painting rainbows and unicorns like some kind of magic fairy dust is going to come down and transform society."

That still has to be done by us. It was a kind of sober admonition that I would give at all of my shows during that period of time, and I believe it's as true now as it was then.

Do you think there's a lot of disappointment that folks have a year into the Obama administration?

If your expectations were high, then yes. But this is very much a Democratic administration. Democratic administrations commit war crimes, they kow-tow to corporate interests, and those things are happening. It could come as a surprise because of the powerful rhetoric during the campaign, but if not, well...

Have you noticed that disappointment leading to any kind of radicalization among ordinary people nowadays?

I think that's a good question. As the air has been let out of the balloon a little bit, where does it go? On the one hand there's been this right-wing kind of "I told you so" swell, which I think is just so ignorant. But there are still all these countless millions who got on this bandwagon who are thinking, well, maybe this first year didn't go exactly like we hoped it would.

The thing is, you can't count on any administration to have the spine to stand up to "Power-with-a-capital P." That always has to come from below. So merely casting your ballots into the electoral void once every four years is not enough. And if you really want change you can believe in, you have to make it, you have to demand it.

And you have to hold those in power accountable. The politics of the streets are just as important as the politics of the ballot box.

Every time a political musician raises their voice it seems to stir controversy, as if politics and music have nothing to do with one another. I'd imagine you think differently.

That's always been a charge that's been leveled against me throughout my career, and anyone in the field of entertainment. It's almost like once you're an entertainer doing an interview in a magazine or on television you forfeit your First Amendment right to speak your mind.

First of all, the charge is only leveled by people who disagree with what you're saying. The second that it's Ted Nugent or Arnold Schwarzenegger, or the "actor" Ronald Reagan, then it's like they can't believe what a great populist this artist is!

I think that it's a responsibility--not of artists to speak their mind or to make moral decisions about what they see in the world, it's everybody's responsibility! Some people may have access to a recording studio or a microphone or a magazine, but I'd much rather hear what school teachers and longshoremen have to say about the war in Afghanistan than Wolf Blitzer. I know what he thinks; I've heard it too many times.

Another voice in that debate--whether it's from music or somewhere else--pushes the goal-posts out. Countless times I've heard from fans that they saw me on Tavis Smiley or heard a lyric in a Nightwatchman song, and it did a special thing that music and musicians can do, which is build a sense of community. Like "I am not alone in thinking that the president is a war criminal," or "I am not alone in thinking that despite all outward appearances, something isn't right here."

So I think it's very important for people who have ideas to not shut up.

This article first appeared at

Monday, April 26, 2010

The revolution won't make it to Tel Aviv

The announcement came on Saturday that Gil Scott Heron will not be playing a show in Israel. That such a thing might be possible was a travesty in the first place, but now he's agreed, it's much more in line with the brilliant legacy he's built for himself.

Given Heron's longtime stance against racial apartheid in the United States and in South Africa, not to mention his well-founded reputation as a radical, the notion of a show in an actually existing apartheid state was disappointing. But the role played by his own fans in reversing his decision was crucial. Heron made the announcement that the Tel Aviv stop on his current world tour would be cancelled not through a cold press release, but from the stage of the tour's first show in London.

Audience members were hesitant and reluctant to protest, but did so nonetheless both outside and inside the actual show. The campaign to get Heron to drop the show gained international support, and even from those close to him. Emory Douglas, a former Black Panther who has known the artist for decades said in a public statement directed at Heron “My choice to join the voices opposed to your going [to Tel Aviv] wasn't personal, but the right thing to do. I will be one of the first in line at your next concert in my town. May you continue to inform and inspire.”

A fraction of the way through his London set, Heron finally announced that he would cancel the Tel Aviv stop. Though an official statement still hasn't come out, it's obvious that he felt susceptible to the pressure of reason. After all, it hasn't been so long since he was part of the folks in the crowd. Ultimately, he still is.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

People come up!

Today, thousands are demonstrating at the Arizona state capitol against the draconian and racist bill SB 1070. This is a bill that turns workers into suspected criminal, breaks up families and makes anyone with brown skin subject to racial profiling.

Unsurprisingly, the immigrant rights movement has kicked itself into high gear--not just in Arizona, but across the country--to beat back this proposed law. It's possibly the biggest challenge this movement has faced since the Sensenbrenner bill that lead to the mega-marches of 2006. It's perfectly reasonable to expect this year's May Day demonstrations to be the biggest in quite some time.

Below is an announcement from Zack de La Rocha urging people to oppose the bill and join the fight:

Sign the petition here.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Music For Forgetting

A funny thing happened on a recent trip to my local record store. Surrounded by a smattering of my fellow music aficionados, I was leafing through the vinyl jazz collection when an all-too-familiar tune began wafting over the speakers. It was the Black Eyed Peas' "Imma Be."

Never in my years listening to or writing about music have I seen such a virulent rebellion erupt in a record store. "Turn this off" yelled one woman at the other end of the shop. Another chimed in "this isn't a Target." The glares coming from most of the other patrons communicated similar sentiments, and within 30 seconds, the two chuckling clerks had hit the stop button behind the desk. "Just kidding" one of them said. The whole thing had been a prank.

The incident made me realize something: despite the Black Eyed Peas' seeming ever-presence, I don't know a single person who actually likes them. And yet, to Rolling Stone, the Black Eyed Peas represent music's saving grace.

In an article called "The Science of Global Pop Domination," the iconic rag declares them the number one reason folks have to be excited about rock out of a list of 40. To be sure, the Peas are everywhere nowadays--winning Grammys, selling boatloads of albums (27 million worldwide on the last count), and have been credited with everything from integrating hip-hop with pop to vaunting the first black president into power.

And behind it all--or so it seems--is The RS piece reads more like a profile of Will than anything else. It also, at times, reads more like an article from Forbes than a piece of music journalism. And that makes their musical dominance a bit discouraging.

"['s] view is so macro he's virtually unlike any musician that preceded him. To, songs aren't discrete works of art but multi-use applications--hit singles, ads jingles, film trailers--all serving a purpose larger than music consumption."

Note the dismissive way that art is described in this passage: "discrete," as in narrow or quaint. To writer Chris Norris, and to evidently, art is served best when it sells not just itself but soda and flip-phones. Watching a commercial break is impossible without hearing the Peas' songs. Apple, Verizon, Pepsi, Target. The Black Eyed Peas music may be "larger than music consumption," but from the sound of it, consumption is still a big part of the formula.

Norris continues: "Creatively, he makes no distinction between writing rhymes and business plans, rocking arenas and PowerPoint, producing albums and media platforms, all of these falling under a cleareyed mission to unite the broadest possible audience over the broadest range imaginable."

One has to admit that it's a pretty broad range too. In less than a year, their most recent album The E.N.D. has been certified Double Platinum in the United States, with similar sales figures from Japan to Mexico. Its singles have topped the Billboard for a combined 28 weeks, and won this year's Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album.

It's a far cry from where the group was fifteen years ago. These were the days when the Peas were still a three-piece, rising from the ashes of the much-underrated Atban Klann and pushing the boundaries of the still relatively-new concept of "alternative hip-hop." For the most part, their beats were an understated affair (though still capable of blowing the roof off), leaving room for introspective and often incisive lyrics.

For sure, these were albums that even early on displayed Will's productions talents. Songs like "Head Bobs" or "Joints & Jam" off of 1998's Behind the Front, or "Request + Line" from 2000's Bridging the Gap, reveal a subtle eclecticism and balance. His rhymes, as well as those of fellow members and Taboo, are similarly solid.

If you haven't heard of these two albums, then there's probably a reason for this: they were released before Fergie was part of the band. Bringing in a former Disney Channel child-actor plucked from the failed girl-group Wild Orchid might seem an odd move for a rap group whose material was compared to Dilated Peoples and Jurassic 5; that's because it wasn't a decision made by the group.

In fact, it was Interscope Records head Jimmy Iovine who brought Fergie into the fold to replace original backup singer Kim Hill and take the group in a new direction after her departure in 2002. Said Hill years later, "The label was like, 'Look, you’ve done two critically acclaimed tastemaker records, but you’re never going to be as hard as Chuck D or as lyrically savvy as Mos Def. You're always going to be this kind of feel good hip-hop. You can do another J5 record if you’d like, I just don’t know that we’re going to support number four.'"

That sealed the deal. The next year, Elephunk was released. The gears of the marketing machine went into an oversaturating overdrive, and the Black Eyed Peas became one of the most recognized hip-hop groups in the world. In a weird twist, it was Fergie that assumed the role of the group's "face," but as the RS article reveals, it's who has always been the brains.

It's rather absurd, though, to see what eight years as a music industry cash-cow has done to that brain. The same article sees Will wax a frequently baffling mix of tech-speak and postmodern business lingo. Perhaps the most nonsensical of all his statements comes when he attempts to ruminate on the "shape" music should be sold in.

"When records came out, you had 45s, then 33s, then 12-inches," says Will, "all multiples of three, all circles. As soon as tape decks came out and there were 8-tracks--square. Didn't work. A cassette is a rectangle--didn't work. CD came out--through the roof. The iPods and laptops put music on rectangles--doesn't work, can't monetize it. You have to figure out how to make art work in squares."

Confused and new-agey though it might be, it also reveals an obsession with format. It's here that the art-as-commodity notion is personified. Any notion of music's timelessness is absent here, subsumed by concepts of the marketable and disposable.

This explains the rift that exists between the Peas' early work and their most recent. The E.N.D. sounds like a collection of ad jingles because that's how it was intended. Much like the products the songs hawk, the album's futuristic flash isn't meant to provoke so much as it is to distract. As Fergie describes it in the article, "it's meant as escapism. We specifically wanted people to forget about their money problems, losing their jobs, their homes."

Maybe this explains Will's insistence on "One Tribe" that we all "get amnesia." And yes, you have heard this song because it appears in a Pepsi commercial.

It may seem like a kind of blasphemy to point all this out. After all, it was who came up with one of the most iconic presidential moments in recent history. The "Yes We Can" video certainly wasn't the reason that Obama got elected, but it did mark the first time hip-hop was taken seriously and courted as a cultural movement by a presidential campaign. In some ways, it was a soundtrack to a notable shift in American popular opinion: young, hopeful, diverse.

A year and a half later, though, and the lay of the land is a lot more complex. A large dose of frustration and anger has been thrown into the mix. It's the kind of reality that makes the Black Eyed Peas exhortations sound insulting more than earth-shattering. And just as Obama has been revealed as increasingly tied to many of the interests he railed against on the campaign trail, so has it become impossible to ignore how thoroughly inseparable the Black Eyed Peas' music is from those same interests.

These interests are, in short, that of big business. Though the smarter of the record execs had their finger to the wind when they put the Peas forward as music's great multiculti hope, underneath lies the same crass agenda they've always had. In the end, the Black Eyed Peas' success is rooted in the fact that they're marketable before they're good. That it happened to a group whose early career was solidly outside these notions is indeed tragic, but it's a tragedy that's happened many times before. It's a basic process that involves obscuring the difference between art and commerce. And if this line can be so thoroughly blurred, guess which one of the two ultimately wins out.

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

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

R.I.P. Guru

Guru's death comes as a shock to most. Partly because he and those close to him were relatively private about his cancer diagnosis a year ago. But it's also because he was such an innovator, such a relentless and timeless artist--both with Gang Starr and in his solo career--that his death often seemed impossible.

"Innovator" isn't too strong a word, either. His fascination and propensity for jazz-fueled beats gave his rhymes a chilled-yet-confident flow. Jazz-influenced beats in hip-hop are most often associated with a more subdued delivery--anything otherwise might have a tendency to seem disjointed. Not so with Guru's rhymes, delivered with a confidence and streetwise honesty that could never be called anything but strong. When Gang Starr stormed onto the scene in the late '80s, they embodied the creativity, versatility and seriousness that still leads many to call those years a "Golden Age."

He influenced countless emcees, and it's little wonder why. He was the kind of artist whose respect and love for rap as an art-form couldn't be denied. Hip-hop wouldn't be what it is today without him, and it's just a little harder to imagine it's future now that he's gone.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Hello Amherst!

From Michelle Williams at the UMass Amherst's Daily Collegian. The folks out there have built the living hell out of this meeting and, if all goes according to plan, it should be a success. The video from it will also be available here at Rebel Frequencies soon following the event. If you have a campus or community group looking to bring me out to speak, then by all means, shoot me a line!


'Rebel Music' Plans to Make Itself Heard Thursday

From classical to reggae, music has been a form of social protest for centuries. The University of Massachusetts campus, no stranger to social protest itself, will host journalist Alexander Billet tonight as he explores the connection between rebellion and music in the event “We Want Rebel Music: The Sounds of Crisis and Resistance.”

Named after a song and album by Bob Marley, “Rebel Music” is more than a catchy title, according to Marah DeFlavia, an organizer of the event.

“Rebel music is music made by the people on a grassroots level,” said DeFlavia. “It is used to express our anger and frustration. It allows ordinary people to start a revolution.”

DeFlavia said the event, being organized by the International Socialist Organization, will show the links between music and politics, and what this means for the youth of today. It will begin with Billet giving an hour-long presentation, followed by a question-and- answer session. The event will be held in Campus Center room 904 from 7:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. this evening.

Billet is a writer for Z Magazine and The Socialist Worker. According to DeFlavia, Billet was asked to speak because of his experience and expertise writing about the connection between two groups which each exert social and political influence in their own ways – musicians and politicians.

“Alex has been writing about the links between music and politics for almost a decade,” said DeFlavia. “He was willing to pay his own travel expenses to come speak, and we’re really excited to have him.”
While growing up, Billet said his political views were influenced by musicians.

“I remember the effect that groups like The Clash, Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy and countless others had in shaping my world-view,” said Billet.

Unimpressed by many writers in the entertainment industry, Billet said that “after a while, I got sick of how drab and uninspiring most music journalism was, and how few writers actually questioned what was going on in the entertainment industry … So I started writing music articles that have now been in a variety of publications.”

Billet has written hundreds of articles on the topic since graduating from Syracuse University in 2006, and hopes to publish a book in the future.
Billet views music as a way of making politics more accessible to everyday people.

“The problem is that most folks are told that their only role in politics is to go into a voting booth every few years,” he said, “when actually our role in them is every day in the streets, the workplace and on our campuses.”
“Music – good or bad – always tells us something about our time and place,” said Billet.

Organizers from the International Socialist Organization said they hope the stories of musicians standing up against racism and oppression will inspire others to take action.

“I hope that people come out of the event understanding that music, art, and human creativity itself has a role to play in making the world a better place – but that it doesn’t just end there,” said Billet.

Michelle Williams can be reached at

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Why music thrives

It might seem like people are a lot less willing to shell out a week's pay for music in these hard times, but according to an article in the LA Times, you might be surprised. The article, which profiles the yearly Coahella Festival, actually reveals that the three-day fest sold out in record time this year. And apparently, other festivals like Lollapalooza, Pitchfork and Austin City Limits are also reporting strong sales.

The oddity is even more pronounced given that almost every other sector of the music industry has taken a major hit since the beginning of the recession:

"Recorded music continued its downward spiral, with U.S. album sales falling 8% in the first three months of the year, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Even digital music, which had enjoyed a drumbeat of increasing sales, fell 1% in the first quarter, its first such drop since 2003, when Nielsen began tracking digital downloads."

What might be the reason for this? Ultimately, it has to do with the fact that while most folks long for a real and organic connection with music. Live performances, at their best, provide that connection--an opportunity to revel with countless others like you in the midst of the music. It's an experience that the music industry itself can't really hope to aspire to, at least in its current form. Rather, it's the artists themselves that provide that connection.

As most people tighten their belts during this recession, it's telling that while they may be unwilling to dole out high prices for slick albums designed to line the pockets of execs, they are more than willing to store up to have the kind of exalting communal experience that music has always had in its potential.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Nevermind the Genius

It has been said that one should never speak ill of the dead. And with the death of Malcolm McLaren on April 8th of mesothelioma, most of the artists who once worked with him seem to be abiding by that old adage.

John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten of McLaren's flagship Sex Pistols, declared the day after the late svengali's passing that he was "always entertaining and I hope you remember that... Above all else he was an entertainer and I will miss him, and so should you." Similar statements have been released from other artists managed by McLaren, from the New York Dolls' David Johansen to Bow Wow Wow's Annabella Lwin.

At first glance, the praise does seem fair. McLaren, controversial though he may have been, was indeed always entertaining. Moreover, the entertainment he created definitely puts him in the rare company of those who changed the face of popular music forever.

But it would be a mistake to think that these earth-shattering moments were simply the creation of a benign genius reaching down from his god-given pedestal. On the contrary, the story running under McLaren's contributions were more akin to those of a Mexican maquiladora: rife with two-faced manipulations, an often vicious brand of exploitation and blatant disregard for basic humanity.

Lydon himself sang a very different tune about McLaren in the Pistols doc The Filth and the Fury: "There was never a relationship with the manager for me other than he would always try to steal my ideas and claim them to be his own."

McLaren never did have a problem boiling the concept of originality down to sheer personal gain. When he first met Lydon it was when the young burgeoning punk frequented SEX, the clothing shop that McLaren ran with Vivienne Westwood on London's King's Road. Compared to the flares and open shirts that were popular in the early '70s, the spiked leather and rubber that hung on the racks at SEX were a real shock.

This was, of course, the point. Born in North London in 1946, the future impresario had been profoundly influenced by the Situationist ideas that emanated from the Paris uprisings of 1968. When he brought Lydon on board and completed the original Sex Pistols lineup, it was a way of extending those chaotic and radical ideas to music and culture. And though that combination of shock, anger and rebellion would always be front-and-center in punk's aesthetics, McLaren's personal brand of them seemed to fly in the face of the notion of freedom that punk crudely grasped for.

The idea of using the system to undermine it was a prominent feature of Situationism, but looking at McLaren's ideas on what he considered fair game for his art, one gets the impression that he took it way too far:

"I didn't think if I could be a sculptor I necessarily needed clay. I suddenly thought you can use people. And it's people that I used like an artist and manipulated."

From day one, this was the defining point of Malcolm McLaren's managerial and artistic style--the profoundly elitist view that people were fundamentally pawns and that nobody's personal integrity would get in the way of his outrageous artistic statements. This basic outlook would be applied the way he managed the Sex Pistols--who he once referred to as "my little artful dodgers"--with cutthroat effectiveness.

He had no bones playing members of the group against each other. Original bassist Glen Matlock was pushed out largely because McLaren had been aggravating the conflict between him and Lydon through outright lies about the other. This kind of "divide and conquer," as Matlock called it, was what allowed the infamous Sid Vicious to step in on bass.

In many ways, the example of Vicious illustrates McLaren's glaring contradictions. True, Vicious looked great onstage. His anarchic behavior contributed full well to the uncontrolled nihilism the band had become known for. He was a close personal friend of Lydon's. The one thing Sid Vicious couldn't do, it seems, was actually play bass! In other words, McLaren's idea of artistic shock-and-awe ran so deep that even the music itself was expendable.

Though these kinds of moves might have sold newspapers, the often unseen human consequences were enough to cancel out any good they might have done. McLaren had a clear talent for public stunts that provoked ire from the mainstream establishment--like the notorious invasion of Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee in 1977. There was no doubt that seeing a barge float up to the royal ceremonies blasting "God Save the Queen" was a kind of cathartic moment that countless disaffected kids took heart from. But the manager seemed indifferent to the violence that the song and event brought down on the band's members.

Rumor has it that when Lydon was landed in the hospital after getting a bottle smashed in his face--an attack that almost took his eye out--McLaren's reaction was "you can't buy publicity like that."

And, of course, it is widely accepted today that McLaren's divide-and-rule tactics were what ultimately did the Pistols in. During their only tour of America, McLaren flew from stop to stop with guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook while Lydon and Vicious rode in a run-down bus. Jones and Cook stayed in nice hotels while the others stayed in run-down motels or slept on the bus.

When they met up before their final show at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom in January, 1978, McLaren managed to pull Sid away from Lydon. When he returned, Lydon saw that McLaren had taken Vicious to score smack, which the 20-year-old had been battling for quite some time and would take his life a year later.

The Pistols disintegrated after the Winterland show. Cook and Jones would soldier on with McLaren for a few months afterward, but even they would come around to realize that, as Jones said, "everyone on the planet knows Malcolm's full of shit."

As for Lydon, McLaren wouldn't even buy him a plane ticket back to the UK--which definitely puts Lydon's final words to the audience in a different light: "ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"


McLaren's subsequent projects would simultaneously take him to new creative heights and Machiavellian lows. Determined to have the last word on the Pistols' debacle, he employed director Julien Temple to tell the manager's version of events in The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle--even as Cook, Jones and Lydon took him to court over unpaid earnings.

"Swindle was McLaren's self-aggrandizing rewrite of recent history," writes music journalist Simon Reynolds. "The Pistols figured only as puppets with McLaren tugging the strings. Punk was portrayed not as a movement of working-class kids discovering their own power, but as a tour de force of cultural terrorism perpetrated by the arch-strategist McLaren according to a step-by-step master plan."

When he encountered Adam and the Antz in 1979, McLaren found his next batch of marionettes. After giving Adam Ant the boot, he transformed the group into the '80s pop mainstay Bow Wow Wow, featuring the new lead-singer: fourteen-year-old Annabella Lwin. Lwin, as well as the rest of Bow Wow Wow's members, were undoubtedly talented musicians and performers. Their songs took well to the difficult African polyrhythms McLaren urged them to emulate.

More important than the music for the manager, however, was that the new group follow his orders and acquiesce to their role as pawns in his game. Interviews would commonly feature McLaren doing all of the talking about the grand plans he had for the group and what their image supposedly represented in the midst of Thatcherism's rise to power.

To him, the solution to poverty and joblessness wasn't to fight back like so many punks had done in previous year, but rather to embrace unemployment: "So what if you don't have a job? I came back to England and everybody looks like bank clerks to me. They look like they're very, very worried, about their future, about money... Be a pirate. Wear gold and look like you don't need a job."

And just as the Pistols were taboo-breaking battering rams more than people, Lwin was a wedge with which to question sexual mores and exploitation--by having her participate in that same (often creepy) exploitation. McLaren's master scheme was to have Bow Wow Wow hit the big-time alongside the release of his magazine Chicken, which would prominently feature underage kids in compromising sexual positions.

At one of the photoshoots for Chicken, he prodded Lwin--then fifteen--to strip. When she refused, he found a thirteen-year-old who agreed--but only after he had reduced her to tears.

Fred Vermorel, at the time collaborating with McLaren on Chicken, claimed that the impresario's intention was "to create a child porn scandal implicating as many people as he could." When Vermorel became increasingly concerned about the direction of the project, McLaren shot back "you should be telling all this to the judge! When the shit hits the fan, I'll be in South America."

In his effort to shock bourgeois pretension, he ended up becoming the very thing he was supposedly opposing--an exploiter.

Did McLaren love the music he promoted? Most certainly. He was a man dedicated to concepts, to the "what if?" that so often gets ignored in the segregated world of pop music. His 1983 album Duck Rock is rightfully credited as a landmark in hip-hop's first efforts to punctuate the UK. Its incorporation of musical styles from Latin America and the Caribbean pre-dated the "world music" phenomenon by several years. But many of hip-hop's Bronx-bound pioneers found the creation insulting to what they did, and many of the artists included on its songs went uncredited for years.

The litany of manipulations, offenses, and often outright crimes that McLaren committed against those he managed and collaborated with are, in reality, standard in the modern music industry. What makes his own transgressions stand out, however, is that he was supposedly part of a musical movement that somehow sought to get past all the business as usual. McLaren was definitely swept up in the heady artistic times that pushed the boundaries of society, and in fact it would be wrong to say he didn't help usher those times in. Ultimately, however, the way in which he did so illustrates what is so fundamentally wrong with our society in the first place.

Writes Reynolds: "McLaren firmly believed in the 'great man' theory of history, the idea that through sheer will the visionary genius can transform everything. This conception of change as a top-down process, was profoundly antidemocratic and opposed to some of punk's core impulses."

Rumor has it that McLaren's last words on his deathbed were "Free Leonard Peltier." Perhaps it was his old days as a '60s radical that provoked him to say it. Or maybe he just couldn't shuffle off this mortal coil without causing one more controversy, no matter how many good people or causes were sullied in the process.

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

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Defend Net Neutrality

The recent decision by the DC Court of Appeals--which declared that the FCC was "out of line" when it cited Comcast for slowing internet speeds to prevent peer-to-peer file sharing--is a big blow to the battle to maintain net neutrality. To say it sets a dangerous precedent may in fact be something of an understatement.

The decision basically codifies the right of internet service providers to decide what they will and won't allow from their subscribers. In other words, any content you may be trying to download or view that the ISPs don't like or they feel is "inappropriate" is a fair excuse for them to slow or even deny you service. Just a few examples of what this may open up in the near future:

Folks may remember that a few years ago the focus for record companies' attempt to crack down on peer-to-peer shifted slightly when they announced that they would be working with ISPs to ensure that people didn't download "illegally." ISPs were somewhat made out to be unfair targets at the time, but the logical conclusion of this supposed shift ultimately meant the same thing in terms of punishing individual downloaders. The deal they came up with was that ISPs would sent "warnings" that if ignored would mean suspension of service. The court decision in favor of Comcast now makes the process of doing this so much easier.

Aside from the crackdown on peer-to-peer being streamlined, there is also a matter of pure and simple censorship to consider. Pearl Jam's August, 2007 performance where Eddie Vedder declared "George Bush leave this world alone" was censored by AT&T's live feed. AT&T of course blamed it on "technical difficulties," but the intent was clear. If Comcast or any other company like them can deny service per their discretion, then it's worth wondering what free speech limitations this may put on artists and the people who listen to them.

To be perfectly blunt, there is little for people to celebrate in this decision. It's yet another example of the music and communications industries seeking to tighten their grip around what we can and can't do. It's a limitation of people's basic right to music and culture, and to choose which ideas they want to hear. Does anyone really still believe that we need these parasites?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Can't we all just get along?

It's been a while since we've seen real beef coming from between musicians--the last time in my memory was the Jay-Z/NaS tiffs about ten years ago--but it's entirely possible that a fresh batch of mudslinging may be brewing between M.I.A. and Lady Gaga.

In an interview for the NME, the always outspoken M.I.A. stated how sick she is of being compared to the iconic pop star:

"[T]here's Lady Gaga--people say we're similar, that we both mix all these things in the pot and spit them out differently, but she spits it out exactly the same! None of her music's reflective of how weird she wants to be or thinks she is. She models herself on Grace Jones and Madonna, but the music sounds like 20-year-old Ibiza music, you know? She's not progressive, but she's a good mimic. She sounds more like me than I fucking do!"

Without a doubt, M.I.A. is entitled to be frustrated with the lazy music journalism that might lump her and Gaga into the same category. The music press is so used to steadfast mediocrity that any kind of unique or out there eccentricity tends to get thrown into the same bag. She does, however, go a bit too far by calling her a "mimic." For one thing, it bears noting that Gaga is a singer while M.I.A. is for the most part an emcee.

Gaga hasn't responded to the comparison. The unfortunate upshot of all this, however, is that now a line in the sand seems to have been drawn between Gaga and M.I.A.'s fans. Here's a sampling of some of the comments that have popped up on message boards:

"M.I.A. is not even on the same level as Gaga. She only got her 15 seconds of fame because 'Pineapple Express' put her song into the trailer. Did anyone give a damn about her before? Nope."

"[Gaga] is just being honest people and she's not jealous. Gaga is a mimic nothing more nothing less, she sings about riding disco sticks and gets called a genius for it."

"I do agree Lady Gaga is talented but she is overrated... People out here considering her already [one of[ greatest artists of all time that's such a joke."

"There's an air of jealousy in these comments by M.I.A."

The overarching stupidity here isn't coming from M.I.A. It's coming from the notion that somehow we all need to "pick a side." Of course, the whole controversy has been widely overblown by the music rags, and it's noteworthy how quickly the sensationalism can obscure the real differences between the artists--but also their similarities.

Each artists came out of profoundly different scenes--Gaga from the New York avant-garde and M.I.A. from London's South Asian immigrant community. M.I.A.'s music is chopped and screwed to the point just before beyond recognition, pulling from punk, hip-hop, world music, and much else. Gaga's art is an updated throwback to the days of Klaus Nomi and Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie, influenced by the Lower East Side electro-dance clubs that thrived in the '70s and early '80s. So really, any comparison between the two is rather moot--M.I.A.'s own frustrations aside.

Their similarities are what really illustrate the minor tragedy of these two artists being pitted against each other: namely that they are both representative of marginalized sectors of society that have been actively pushing their way into the mainstream. M.I.A.'s music and lyrics are profoundly influenced by her father's involvement in left-nationalist movements in their native Sri Lanka, and her continued efforts to speak out against that country's genocide against the Tamils. Her statements drip with the anger and disaffection that oppressed people of the Third World experience both in their home countries and as refugees and immigrants while never losing her avowedly feminist point of view.

Gaga, on the other hand, has long been a symbol of the LGBTQ community. She is openly bisexual and has repeatedly spoken in favor of liberation and equality for non-straights--most famously at the National Equality March this past October. Her sound represents the ability to find fabulousness in the decay, which is an aesthetic many other gender-bending, gay-friendly artists have played at before her. And, of course, her costumes are an outrageous send-up of the way in which female artists are exploited in today's industry.

It should be clarified that the overblown feud between Gaga and M.I.A. is hardly reflective of some false divide between the immigrant and LGBTQ communities, but the dynamic this has taken on does have an eerie parallel in the stereotypes we hear of both--namely that immigrants are somehow more homophobic than the rest of us and that gays are somehow too white and middle-class to give a damn about undocumented workers. Both notions are untrue of course. And unfortunately, the division of these two artists onto somehow different sides belies the fact that ultimately, the communities they have given a voice ultimately have the same struggle to wage.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

This one's for the miners...

This Monday's mine explosion in West Virginia is the worst in a quarter-century. Twenty-five miners lost their lives, and four are still missing at this time. The owner of the mine in Montcoal, Massey Energy, has routinely flouted safety regulations, and it comes as no surprise that the pit in question was non-union.

Coal mining is quite possibly the most dangerous job in the country. It also used to be one of the most unionized. Anyone from West Virginia can tell you that. The hard and often violent battles of the '20s and '30s to organize the mines are the stuff of labor lore at this point. But the past thirty years have brought an onslaught against the United Mine Workers. And as unions fade, so do basic things like safety and the right to a decent living. Companies like Massey clearly care little for their workers; until the unions make a comeback these kinds of "accidents" will continue to happen.

True, this song is done by the Dropkick Murphys, but it was originally written by Florence Reece, the wife of a union organizer in Harlan County, Kentucky in the early '30s. In 1931, during a bitter strike for union recognition, thugs hired out by the company illegally entered and ransacked her home. Outraged, she grabbed a calendar off the wall and scrawled these lyrics on the back. Over the past eighty years, "Which Side Are You On?" has been performed by everyone from Pete Seeger to Natalie Merchant.

So why choose the Murphys' version? Simple. It's angry as hell, as is anyone who's been paying attention to this story over the past few days. These men didn't have to die. But the events in West Virginia show that the fate of others like them doesn't have to be a foregone conclusion. Special note should be taken of those last lines: "us poor folks haven't got a chance unless we organize."

Our father was a union man
Some day i'll be one too.
The bosses fired daddy
What's our family gonna do?

Come all you good workers,
Good news to you I'll tell
Of how the good old union
Has come in here to dwell.

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

My daddy was a miner,
And I'm a miner's son,
And I'll stick with the union
'Til every battle's won.

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there.
You'll either be a union man
Or a thug for J. H. Blair.

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

Oh workers can you stand it?
Oh tell me how you can?
Will you be a lousy scab
Or will you be a man?

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

Don't scab for the bosses,
Don't listen to their lies.
Us poor folks haven't got a chance
Unless we organize!

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

Monday, April 5, 2010

An Affront to Lilith's Legacy

The return of Lilith Fair to the summer festival circuit after a ten year absence is definitely good news. In the '90s the tour was a focal point of women in music--one of the few places where female artists eschewed the industry's role of "seen and not heard." With acts as diverse as Fiona Apple and Missy Elliott rocking the stage, it was hard to argue that the women couldn't hold their own every bit as well as their male counterparts.

Unfortunately, little has changed for women in the past decade--in popular music or the world at large. In fact, it seems safe to say that things have actually gotten worse. If anything, the recent controversy surrounding Lilith's ticket-sales illustrate how sorely needed the festival is in our day and age.

True to form, the festival's organizers announced that it will donate money from ticket-sales to women's charities (the initial three-year run raised over $10 million for such groups). The pulldown menu on the official Lilith Fair Facebook page allows fans to pick which charities will receive the proceeds in each of the tour's 36 cities. Most are along the worthy lines of women's shelters or health clinics.

But in late March, some voters began to notice a few discrepancies. In Minneapolis, for example, Becky Smith noticed an organization called "Metro Women's Center," an organization whose stated intention is "To actively promote the sanctity of human life through educating women and the community at large about pregnancy alternatives so that informed decisions concerning the outcome of pregnancy may be made."

If this sounds fishy, that's probably because it is. Metro Women's Center is one of countless infamous "crisis pregnancy centers" operating in the United States today. These organizations, far from offering options to pregnant women, are designed to strip them of their basic right to control their bodies.

Another such group selected on the Lilith Facebook page, Atlanta-based A Beacon of Hope, is much more blunt in its anti-choice agenda. Their website declares "we do not offer or refer for abortion services." Beacon of Hope does, however, offer a service typical of many CPCs: ultrasounds for women to view their "unborn."

The nefarious nature of these kinds of organizations cannot be understated. In an article for, Jen Roesch cites the experience of a pregnant woman in one of these such centers:

"I asked her about abortion, and she told me that if I murdered my baby, I would go to hell. She said I would probably get breast cancer or commit suicide, or be infertile. It didn't seem right. I started to leave. The woman told me that if I left without signing up with this adoption agency, she'd call my parents and tell them I was going to murder their grandbaby.

"I started to get sick. She threatened to call me at home, to come to my house, and to tell all my friends I was pregnant if I didn't sign up. I finally ran for it. Unfortunately, they had my phone number and address. They called my dorm roommate and somehow got her to give them my parent's phone number."

Far from offering support or counseling, the mission of these centers is to lie, harass and intimidate women into not having an abortion.


The thought that a music festival based around women's empowerment would give money such groups is enough to turn the stomach--especially considering Lilith's history of pro-choice advocacy. In 1997, Joan Osbourne and festival founder Sarah MacLachlan threatened a future boycott of Texas's Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion unless officials at the concert grounds allowed Planned Parenthood to set up a booth.

Many of those seeking to buy tickets were naturally outraged. After discovering the CPCs on Lilith's Facebook page, Smith and her friend Katie Blair set up another page titled "Lilith Fair: No money for crisis pregnancy centers." Within two days, it had 500 fans, and at the time of writing almost 1,400.

The news spread quickly. Feminist magazines like Bust, Bitch and Ms. posted articles on their website urging Lilith to drop the CPCs and other anti-choice organizations. Reproductive health site RH Reality Check also picked up on the story.

Initially, the response from festival organizers was disappointing. Terry McBride, Lilith co-founder and CEO of Nettwerk Music Group, claimed that organizers didn't intentionally select anti-choice groups to be among the voting options.

"The seeding at the start was done with a basic digital search in each market of woman's charities," McBride told the Chicago Reader's Jessica Hopper. "It's not perfect. Nor could it be, as we simply don't have the local expertise even within our own city of Vancouver." Though insisting that Lilith hadn't strayed from its principles, and stressing that the final beneficiaries would be selected by the organizers themselves, he refused to remove the CPCs from the options.

This was, needless to say, inadequate. "We are requesting that the CPCs be removed completely from the ballot and selection process," said Smith. "While we believe in democratic systems, we are concerned that, even through a democratic process such as voting, Lilith is condoning such actions as misinforming, lying [to] and deceiving women, all of which stand in direct opposition to a 'Celebration of Women.'"

The pressure continued, and after a week, Nettwerk removed the CPCs from the options on the Facebook page and admitted that some "criteria" needed to be applied to the initial options. Several other anti-choice organizations remained, however. On top of this, NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina was also inexplicably removed from the options available in Charlotte.

Though the lukewarm and somewhat confusing actions of the organizers is frustrating, their eventual removal of the CPCs shows that they are susceptible to pressure. And rightfully so. How can a festival feature such strong woman artists as Erykah Badu, the Gossip and Tegan and Sarah while donating money to organizations whose expressed mission is to deny women their basic rights? The hypocrisy is glaring, and massive enough to drive a movement through.

And in the end, that's what's needed. While Lilith's excellent track record may speak for itself, its inclusion of virulently anti-woman organizations is troubling. And even if it was an honest oversight, it nonetheless speaks to how much ground the anti-choice movement has gained.

Too often, a woman's right to choose ends up a bargaining chip, an expendable luxury rather than something fundamental to women's control over their own bodies. It's precisely why crisis pregnancy centers and other anti-choice organizations don't deserve one shred of legitimacy. It's also why Lilith Fair's message needs to be taken seriously--especially by its own organizers.

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

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Badu on why we can't trust the man

It would be easy to look at Erykah Badu's new album Return of the Ankh and think she's somehow lost her political edge. But this would be too swift a judgment. For one thing, Ankh is the second part in her "New AmErykah" series that, according to her, emphasize different aspects of her personality. And while '08's Fourth World War, the first part of the series, put a premium on her political consciousness, this new release is merely meant to profile her more personal, intimate side.

This by no means indicates a step back for her from the world of activism--which is a good thing given that World War represented an impressive return after five years under a rock. On the contrary, it appears that Badu, who has always been noted for her uncompromising acumen, sees rather clearly how things have developed since '08. Though her return can credibly be linked to the flurry of activism and excitement that accompanied the rise of the Obama phenomenon, nowadays she has little illusion in the man.

A recent email sent out over the RRC list snips a rather telling quote out of the forthcoming issue of Rolling Stone:

Her friend Kyle Goen drops by and makes a joke about avoiding driving on Dallas' President George Bush Turnpike. Badu mutters, "I don't know why we even get mad at George Bush. For what?" Goen starts to answer, and she interrupts, "Yeah, but why? They're doing a job that was written for them to do. They're following a script... It's not just the individual. The next leader is going to do the same thing, in a truth disguise."

The conversation turns to Obama, although no one mentions the president by name. "I expected the war in Iraq to end," Goen says, trying to reason with her. "I expected Guantanamo Bay to close."

"That's delusional," Badu says.

"The man said he was against these things," he responds.

Badu gets frustrated. "He's a politician," she says.

Sure, this could easily be mistaken for cynicism and demoralization. But there is something deeper at play. Even at the height of the pitched excitement of his campaign, there always existed two wings: those artists to whom Obama was an end in himself, and those who believed that election day was only the beginning of something bigger, that he was a politician whose feet needed to be held to the fire even as his victory was cheered on.

The two categories weren't always clear-cut, but Badu was clearly among the second. Some artists have apologized for the administration's relative lack of movement on most things--from healthcare to the wars to the economy--but others are coming to grips with the idea that something bigger than en election is needed. And yet others have always understood this, and their presence is a glimpse of the leading edge of a real and vibrant music that is relevant to the struggles that are developing right now.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Is this new layout hot or what?

The answer to that question would be "yeah, it is!" Much thanks to Kyla Klein, the best web designer I've ever worked with, for her hard work and know-how with getting this new blog re-designed, tooled around and launched.

As folks will notice, not only is the masthead now correctly placed, but new toolbar has been launched with the blog, including links to all of my published articles, one for information on how to subscribe to the RF mailing list, and info on supporting and donating to the blog.

So, spread the word, and enjoy the new layout. I know I am!