Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Familial Decay

Clearly Thom Yorke does not have a monopoly on voicing the quiet desperation that runs beneath society's happy-shiny surface. Phil Selway releases his solo debut Familial today on Nonesuch records; after twenty years behind Radiohead's drumkit, some might be surprised that he has such well-formed material here. Everyone knows that drummers just don't get the love they should. Hearing the handful of tracks available on the album's website, though, it's evident that Selway has a unique sensitivity and delicate worldview all his own.

The album's cover relays a poignant theme: a portrait of the quintessential modern family, middle-class, nominally happy, hardly out of the ordinary--save for the grotesque garbage and rot that appears to grow out of their heads. Disturbing imagery to say the least, and not completely without its root. In interviews, Selway has confessed the role his mother's death in 2006 played in spurring him to complete this album.

Drifting through the sparse, ethereal melancholia of "By Some Miracle" or the cavernous dissonance of "Don't Look Down" (both of which are available for listening on Nonesuch's site) is at once introspective and worldly. There is a kind of hope against all hope wafting through these tracks, something innately human that persists even while facing down cruel inevitability. It's a mixture that can't conceivably be called uplifting, but just as deftly dodging any real cynicism.

The difficulty that will naturally come in parsing this album from Selway's work with Radiohead may obscure the timeliness of this record. But Selway is only the latest to tap into the kind of absurd alienation that perists and grown in the post-millennial, post-neoliberal era. The artist will, of course, insist that it was the personal--not the political--that motivated him, and there's no reason to not take his word for it. Ultimately, what may drive listeners to identify with Selway's music the most is the recognition that even as we try to cling to the most seemingly sacred things--be they family or security--their fleeting nature makes them as empty and illusory as anything else. In a world of swift downward mobility, that's a statement of profound resonance.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Peter, Paul & Mary vs. NOM

Just when you thought that some bigots couldn't get any more offensive...

Peter Yarrow and Noel Paul Stookey, the two surviving thirds of Peter, Paul & Mary, sent a letter to Brian Brown late last month. Brown is the head of the National Organization for Marriage's national director. Anyone who has been engaged in the fight against the recently defeated Prop 8 will know who the National Organization for Marriage is--and likely gets a burning feeling in the pit of their stomach when they think of them. In California, NOM have been at the forefront of the fight to "protect" marriage against LGBTQ equality.

What could Yarrow and Stookey possibly have to say to this neanderthal?

"We would like to respectfully request that you refrain from playing the Peter, Paul & Mary recorded version of Woody Guthrie's 'This Land is Your Land' at your rallies."

If it weren't so stomach churning it would almost be funny. Almost. Of course, there is the fact that--as Yarrow and Stookey make clear--they fully support same-sex marriage rights. But this is only the latest misappropriation of a song well-known in American history but rarely listened to.

Nobody knows for sure what Woody Guthrie would have thought about LGBTQ rights; he died a couple of years before the outbreak of the modern gay liberation movement at Stonewall. We do know he was a communist. We know he was an unapologetic supporter of anti-racism and understood on a gut level how bigotry keeps working people divided. We know that he wrote "This Land..." in opposition to the craven patriotism that he heard in songs like Irving Berlin's "God Bless America."

We know that the song is all-too-often performed without its famed "lost verse," a stanza that leaves Guthrie's organic radicalism unmistakable:

"There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me
Sign was painted, it said 'private property
But on the back side it didn't say nothing
This land was made for you and me"

Stookey and Yarrow had the issue brought to their attention late last month by Kathleen Perrin, a supporter of Prop8TrialTracker.com. Brown has not responded, and word is that they have continued to use Peter, Paul & Mary's version.

Irony is clearly lost on Brown and the NOM--as it often is with this crowd. To them, marriage is a kind of private property: the purview of only the straight, white, opposite-sex family who don't use birth control and make sure that the wife has shoes only on select days of the week.

But as the ongoing movement for LGBTQ equality has recently proven with its victory in California, equality belongs to no one section. It is, plainly stated, a right.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Five Years After...

Five years after, there isn't a single person who doesn't know what it means to say "when the levees broke." Hurricane Katrina may have been a natural disaster of the most awesome order, but what happened to the residents of New Orleans was shamefully unnatural: an act of criminal neglect on the part of George Bush, FEMA, and the entire US government. Hip-hop journalist Davey D referred to August 29th, 2005 as the day when "Black America got her own 9-11." That's no exaggeration.

NOLA's contribution to American culture has been immeasurable. It's the city where jazz gestated and shook up hip-hop--from Buddy Bolden to Lil Wayne. Even now, years after the devastation, the city's "bounce" scene is a hotbed of innovation.

But of course, it is always the people that make the culture, and that's where the storm took its greatest toll. The unknown numbers who, unable to get out, were left to drown. Thousands more who languished on rooftops or in the Superdome. The desperate citizens who tried to escape only to be confronted by gangs of roving racists and trigger-happy police officers--who were ostensibly there to help.

It's no wonder why the hurricane and its aftermath became a lightning rod for hip-hop. When Kanye said on national television that "George Bush doesn't care about Black people," he had a whole nation nodding their heads with him (50 Cent notwithstanding).

Now, even with an African American in the White House, the weekend that should be reserved for commemoration is being used by the right to pervert the legacy of Dr. King. With that in mind, here's what Mr. Chuck has to say. It's well worth mulling around:

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Wyclef Out

Wyclef Jean was told last week that he doesn't meet the requirements for candidacy in the upcoming Haitian presidential elections. Rumor has it that Clef will be appealing, even though the electoral council has made clear it has no intention of reversing the decision.

The ruling may come as a surprise to some. Certainly Wyclef, who smugly spoke of his candidacy to the press as if he already was president and the election was a mere formality. In fact, it seems that compared to the fanfare that surrounded his initial announcement, the coverage of his being blocked from the race has been relatively subdued.

Why exactly was Clef turned down as a candidate? As has been pointed out before, he's perfectly suited for the needs of the current occupation. He would have provided no resistance to Bill Clinton's opening of the gates for American business to flood in. The right-wing ruling elites, including those with connections to the Duvalier dictatorship, love him.

In the end, it came down to Wyclef's own inability to meet even the most lax of electoral laws. Though he owns property in Haiti, there's no evidence that he has consistently lived there in recent years. One supposes that even puppet governments need to maintain at least the appearance of indigenous legitimacy.

But then, it's unlikely that any candidate will be able to carry any real and true favor among the Haitian people. With the most popular political party banned from taking part, with Aristide still in exile, and with over a million still living in tent cities with no fixed address, it's certain that November will be little more than a show election.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ticketmonster Goes Webby

"We get it--you don’t like service fees." These were the words written by Ticketmaster CEO Nathan Hubbard on a blog launched earlier this week called Ticketology. Hardly a ringing declaration of faith in his industry.

Hubbard knows how most people like him come off as of late. His company Ticketmaster is actually only one arm of the recently consolidated Live Nation Entertainment. The new LNE (a result of a controversial merger with concert promoters Live Nation) is for all intents and purposes a modern monopoly, controlling the concert biz from front to back in a wide swath of areas and venues. After all, banks and insurance companies have gotten their bailout, so why not them?

Enter the blog: a move that can only be explained as a rather transparent attempt to come off as not-so-different from the sweaty hordes.

"Ticketology brings you regular posts about our business from the people who lead, live, and love it. It's your window into the live entertainment industry with regular blurbs on what we're up to (including new fan-first policies and product features), insights on company happenings, plus fun fan and artist spotlights."

The first of these "fan-first policies" can already be seen in Hubbard's same post. It's no secret that the types of fees leveled by Ticketmaster is only the most obvious and shameless example of their racket. It's these fees that can cause a $25 ticket to suddenly be over $40.

Here is the proposed solution:

"All of the research we’ve done, and all of our conversations with fans like you tell us that the way we present these fees in the check out process is a huge frustration for you and hurts ticket sales. You just want to know UP FRONT in the buying process how much of your hard earned money you are being asked to pay for a given seat. If we are as transparent as possible with you sooner in the purchase process, you can make the decision about how much you want to pay to go to an event."

In other words, the problem isn't that music lovers are being ripped off, it's that they're not being told about it until the very end. While such underhandedness has never helped their cause, this smacks of an attempt to heal a stab-wound by pulling knife out by an inch or two.

Hubbard, Azoff and the rest of the cabal running LNE are counting on fans to have a remarkably short memory. They are banking on nobody bringing up the fact that the base price of tickets has doubled in the past fifteen years. And they are certainly hoping that no one floats the idea of pulling a Pearl Jam-style boycott in the near future. But with most people's wallets slowly and surely getting thinner, that's not such a safe bet.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Martin Smith on Abbey Lincoln

Below is an obituary for Abbey Lincoln by Martin Smith, author of John Coltrane: Jazz, Racism and Resistance. Smith lays out in depth how significant Lincoln's contributions to jazz were in the way of further fusing it to the history of the Civil Rights movement, and makes an important point: that quite often those responsible for pushing art forward are also those aware of its relationship to the world around them.

On a related note, Smith is facing possible jail-time. As a leading member of Love Music Hate Racism and Unite Against Fascism, he has been on the front-lines of the fight against the far right, and he faces charges for assaulting a police officer. The accusations are patently false. Anti-fascists in London are planning to mobilize; he deserves our support here in the States too.


Standing Proud for Freedom

Jazz singer Abbey Lincoln once said, "I have a lot to say, and I don't like the world that I found myself in, that I was created to be in. I was brought here, but I don't like this 'here.' It's the pits! If I wasn't able to access myself through the work, I would have dropped dead a long time ago. I couldn't have stood it here."

In many ways, the brief statement encapsulates her life. Born Anna Marie Wooldridge in Chicago in 1930, Abbey was raised on a farm in Michigan and began singing by the age of 14 in local bands. By the early 1950s, she had turned professional and became a major star on the supper-club circuit. She was packaged as a sex object--a Black Marilyn Monroe. Her repertoire included sexually suggestive popular songs. She even appeared as a bikini-clad "centerfold" in Jet magazine in 1954.

In an interview, she explained why she had decided to stop being portrayed as a sex object in 1956:

"It was the early days of the civil rights movement, and we were all asking the same questions. But they were questions that glamour girls weren't supposed to ask. As I toured the country, I noticed Black people everywhere were living in slums, abject poverty. I wanted to know why."

She changed her name to Abbey Lincoln (a homage to Abraham Lincoln) and switched from singing cabaret songs, dedicating her musical life to jazz singing. For Abbey, jazz promised her a measure of artistic freedom and an opportunity to express her emotions and political ideals.

Building on the singing style of Billie Holiday, Abbey began to develop her own unique voice. She recorded three albums for Riverside Records--That's Him (1957), It's Magic (1958) and Abbey Is Blue (1959).

It was the third album that reflected her new seriousness and her turn from a "sepia sex symbol" to assertive performer. Contained on that album are three race-conscious tracks written by Oscar Brown Jr. ("Afro Blue," "Brother, Where Are You?" and "Long As You Are Living"). "Lonely House" was written by communist Kurt Weill and the Black poet Langston Hughes, and another by Weill, "Lost in the Stars," is a condemnation of apartheid South Africa. One of the most tender and majestic songs on the album is "Come Sunday," written by Duke Ellington for his proto-civil rights suite Black, Brown and Beige.

Another major influence on her life was the drummer Max Roach. It was Max who convinced her to wear hair in a natural and get rid of the cocktail dresses. In the liner notes to her 1961 album Straight Ahead, she wrote that Roach helped her discover "how wonderful it is to be a Black woman."

In early 1960, Oscar Brown started collaborating with Max Roach on a long choral work, to be performed four years later on the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. But the project was overtaken by an upsurge in the civil rights movement.

On February 1, 1960, four young men organized the first sit-in against segregation at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. Within a week, students were holding sit-ins in 54 cities up and down the South.

Inspired by this wave of sit-ins, Roach and Brown rushed out the album We Insist! Freedom Now Suite (1960). The album cover is a photograph from the Greensboro sit-in.

The overt political message of the album demanded among other things, a new vocal style. Abbey delivered the goods. On the track "Driva Man," she is almost spitting out the words--Brown described Abbey's singing as a "howl of anger against racism and injustice."

Her real contribution to the jazz canon is on the track "Triptych (Prayer/Protest/Peace)." No words are sung, yet she pushes her voice to the sort of instrumental limits previously developed by saxophonists like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.

We Insist! Freedom Now Suite is a pioneering album both musically and politically. Abbey followed that up with her own solo album Straight Ahead (1961), and she also sung on Roach's albums Percussion Bittersweet (1961) and the much-underrated It's Time (1962). By now, she was using her voice like an instrument.

More and more, Abbey and Max used their music to support political causes. They performed benefit concerts for Malcolm X, CORE and the NAACP. Abbey also formed an organization called the Cultural Association for Women of African Heritage. She shocked the music press when she described herself as a Black nationalist.

For much of the rest of the 1960s, Abbey found it difficult to record--some record companies refused to hire her, claiming she was "too political." She attempted to make a new career in film. She starred in Nothing But a Man (1964) and, alongside Sidney Poitier, in For Love of Ivy (1968).

In 1973, Abbey signed to the legendary Verve record label. Verve packaged her as the last of the great female jazz singers. Abbey recorded very little throughout the 1970s and '80s. But she returned to form with the recordings Abbey Sings Billie: Volume 1 and 2 (1987) and A Turtle's Dream (1994).

Over the last 20 years, she became an iconic figure in jazz. Her intonation changed with her passing years, and she developed a deeper, richer vocal style. She had a profound influence on a new generation of female singers like Cassandra Wilson. Abbey Lincoln died on August 14, 2010.

Every writer has rightly praised her contribution to jazz. But that wasn't always the case. Throughout the 1960s, the critics were divided over Abbey. Some attacked her for bringing politics into her music. Time magazine accused her of reverse racism, claiming that her emergence signaled a "regrettable kind of reverse racism known as Crow Jim." The jazz critic Ira Gitler accused Lincoln of using her identity to "exploit a career."

"We all paid a price, but it was important to say something," Abbey told the Wall Street Journal in 2007. "It still is."

The fact is that Abbey paid the price more than many--but to the end championed the struggle against racism and oppression.

Monday, August 23, 2010

A Decent Party

With a combined four decades in the biz and a prolific output on both ends, Tom Morello and Boots Riley must be two of the most seasoned revolutionaries in music today. So it speaks volumes that while their second release as Street Sweeper Social Club isn't their best (as a group or individuals) it's still an engaging piece of work.

None of the songs on The Ghetto Blaster EP quite reach the anthemic heights of their self-titled debut. In fact, only three of the seven tracks are true-blue, never-before-heard originals, and even for an EP it frequently feels patchwork and phoned-in. That being said, there are enough solid moments delivered here to confirm the semi-supergroup's ability with "revolutionary party jams."

From the get-go, it’s clear that Morello is relying a bit more on his guitar’s fundamentals than the mind-bending versatility we’ve heard with Rage or Audioslave. This isn’t unwelcome, and in fact turns out being a perfect compliment to Riley’s emceeing. For his part, Boots’ rhymes seem in fine form. In his work with the Coup, Pam the Funkstress’ disjointed, buzzing beats highlight Riley’s humor and storytelling more than anything. But on the opening track “Ghetto Blaster,” Boots seems to have hit a stride in his collab with Morello; his rhymes have taken a more fluid form to compliment the guitarist’s wrecking-ball punk-funk.

The potency of this mix is only confirmed on the second track: a version of the Coup’s “Everythang.” As in the original, Boots relates his laundry-list of ghetto reality as crimes against humanity (“Every roach is a resident / Every truth ain’t evident / Every slave story present tense / Every uprise a consequence”). What differs in his lyrics this time, however, is how much more vitriol drips from them, especially on the deftly highlighted “Every banker is a fuckin’ thief.”

That same listening experience isn’t to be found on the group’s redo of “Promenade.” Originally from their 2009 full-length debut, nothing is really added here, and certainly not enough to merit the label of “Guitar Fury Remix.” Ultimately, the track comes across as unnecessary filler, more worthy of hidden track material than a send-off.

Yet another curious layer is heard when the EP tackles its two covers. Their version of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” found its origin on SSSC’s stint opening for Nine Inch Nails, where it was apparently a big hit. Whether it had a bit more vim and vigor live isn’t exactly clear; here it sounds like another also-ran. Though Boots is clever enough with his tweaks on Maya’s lyrics, Morello’s attempts at refashioning the signature gunshot-and-cash-register chorus fall well short. Though the song is certainly fun, they seem to have lost sight of the fact that a song like this takes not just fun but at least a bit of gravitas to pull it off.

In essence, that’s the album’s biggest flaw. When they play fun for fun’s sake--as they do on their muscular version of LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out”--they nail it. When they manage to strike the balance between weightiness and whimsy--like on “Everythang,” “Ghetto Blaster” or the highlight track “The New Fuck You”--it’s a rewarding experience. The problem is that those moments are too few and fleeting and the EP too short.

Today’s times--swiftly changing as they are--definitely call for a group like Street Sweeper Social Club. A group that understands class struggle not as the dusty wheelhouse of grizzled left academics, but as a living breathing part of everyday life, full of heartache, anger, and yes, fun. It’s the kind of mix that makes for not just memorable music, but vibrant and brilliant moments in bottom-up history. Boots and Morello are well aware of this, and also well aware that those kinds of moments may be just around the corner--all the more reason to breathe some life into them. Maybe the future will prove The Ghetto Blaster EP as a transition for SSSC, a time when their creativity and relevance was only starting to take root. In the meantime--like so much else in working people’s lives--we’re left wanting.

First appeared at the Society of Cinema and Arts website.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Vids courtesy of the Sound Strike

Music allied with struggle. This is what it looks like.

Rage Against the Machine in LA on July 23rd.

The Concert for Equality in Omaha on July 31st.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Haiti's Hip-Hop President?

"If I was president…
…instead of spending billions on the war
We can use some of that money in the ghetto."

- Wyclef Jean’s “President”

Profound words. And with their author now in the race to become Haiti’s next president, it might be easy to think they’re on the verge of becoming reality. On August 7th, the Grammy-winning artist announced he wants to lead his homeland–still reeling from the disastrous effects of the January earthquake.

“It’s a moment in time and history,” Wyclef declared to the press during his announcement. “America had Barack Obama and Haiti has Wyclef Jean.” True enough, plenty were ready to dub Obama the “hip-hop candidate” during the height of his campaign. Clef is clearly hoping for a Creole-style repeat.

And like Obama during the campaign, Wyclef seems more than willing to adopt the role of the “blank slate.” His rhetoric, his platform, his promises–all are vague enough for folks to interpret, project and read into them whatever they hope. At this early stage, though, the question has yet to be answered: what kind of substance will step up to fill in the blanks?

On the surface, the answer is simple. Going off his music it seems that Clef is poised to launch the spirit of Third World struggle onto the international political stage. Since storming onto the scene fifteen years ago with the Fugees he’s been painted as the hip-hop generation’s Bob Marley. Well before being crowned the ambassador-at-large for the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, he was calling on Marley’s spirit, pulling from his own nation’s rich musical traditions and translating both into a rebel aesthetic that testified to hip-hop’s global reach. It’s this Wyclef–Wyclef the artist–that we’ve heard on “Gone ‘Til November” and “Diallo,” who spoke so eloquently against the NYPD’s horrifying abuse of fellow Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. One has to admit that if this is the Wyclef seeking Haiti’s highest official post, then it is a great day for the Haitian people.

Sift a little deeper though, and Clef the candidate looks very different. Per Time magazine, Wyclef sees his trajectory following that of another artist-turned-statesman: Ronald Reagan. It’s a chilling statement to make; most Haitians remember how vociferous a supporter Reagan was of the corrupt and murderous regime led by dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier.

The jarring contradiction–between style and substance, celebrity and principle–is one Clef hopes to ride all the way to Haiti’s National Palace. It also explains why some have been less than enthusiastic about his bid.

First among these was Sean Penn, who on the same day stated to CNN that he is “suspicious” of the artist’s motivations. Penn, who has been doing consistent relief work in Haiti over the past six months, admits he knows little about him, but that “[o]ne of the reasons I don’t know very much about Wyclef Jean is that I haven’t seen or heard anything of him in these last six months that I’ve been in Haiti.”

Then came the discord from Clef’s own peeps. Fellow Fugee Pras, also Haitian, told the Associated Press that he didn’t plan to support his former bandmate. “You’ve got 1.2 million people living in tent city right now. What are the plans to get these people out?”

Ultimately though, the problem with Wyclef isn’t his lack of a plan; it’s whether that plan will actually be in the interests of the Haitian people. In an article for the San Francisco Bay View, Charlie Hinton urges readers (in his caps): “PLEASE SPREAD THE NEWS: WYCLEF JEAN IS NOT A FRIEND OF THE PEOPLE’S DEMOCRATIC MOVEMENT OF HAITI.”

Hinton is a member of the Haiti Action Committee. The movement he is referring to is one as old as Haiti itself–pulling on the legacy of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s and the revolution that overthrew colonialism, running through the rebellions that deposed US-backed dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier in 1986. Six years after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was deposed in a US-backed coup, it is a movement that continues.

Despite his claims to the contrary, it is a movement that Wyclef has never represented. In order to figure out why, it’s necessary to go back a little bit.


After the strongman Duvalier was brought down in ‘86, Haiti went through a quick succession of presidents. Between Duvalier’s departure and Aristide’s rise, power changed hands no less than six times. Unelected and often incompetent, these leaders faced a popular movement that had only recently brought down a fifty-year dictatorial dynasty. General strikes, demonstrations and protests were a frequent occurrence, often under the threat of harsh treatment at the hands of police and military alike.

It was against this backdrop that Aristide’s profile began to grow. Originally a Salesian Catholic priest, Aristide came under increasing sway of liberation theology and involved in the movements against poverty and for participatory democracy in Haiti. In January 1988, he told the National Catholic Reporter that “the solution is revolution, first in the spirit of the Gospel; Jesus could not accept people going hungry. It is a conflict between classes, rich and poor. My role is to preach and organize…”

When Aristide was elected in 1990, it was with 67% of the vote–a clear majority. His promises–to sweep out corruption, double the minimum wage and put an end to the pillaging of the country’s economy by foreign powers–were understandably popular. Few voices could possibly disagree, but some did. Chief among them was Haiti-Observateur, a right-wing Creole-language newspaper founded in New York in 1971.

When Aristide was elected in 1990, Haiti-Observateur decried him. When he was deposed in a coup in 1991, Haiti-Observateur applauded. When the FRAPH–a paramilitary organization bankrolled by the CIA–was formed in 1993, the rag cheered as it roamed the country murdering Aristide supporters. After Aristide returned to Haiti in 1994 and was reelected in 2000, the newspaper opposed him every step of the way.

In February 2004, when bands of gunmen–many with connections to the FRAPH and the CIA–were overrunning the north of the country, Haiti-Observateur once again found reason to fan the flames.

On February 25th, three days before Aristide was flown out of the country, Wyclef Jean told MTV that he fully backed the coup-makers. “I don’t consider those people rebels,” he said. “It’s people standing up for their rights. It’s not like these people just appeared out of nowhere and said, ‘Let’s cause some trouble.’ I think it’s just built up frustration, anger, hunger, depression.”

In the midst of the fractured and unrepresentative reporting to which the mainstream media seems so adept, and with virtually no Haitian voices reaching the American public as the coup gained steam, Wyclef served a crucial role: the de factor everyday Haitian, a man whose words may as well have been plucked straight from the streets of Port-au-Prince.

What MTV didn’t report was that Wyclef is the nephew of Raymond Joseph: publisher of Haiti-Observateur. If Joseph’s name rings a bell, that’s probably because he was granted the post of ambassador to the US in the aftermath of the coup.

Thus began the spinning of Wyclef’s image: the reality of his privileged familial connections was papered over with a kind of Third World ghetto superstar populism. For that past six years, if Wyclef has said it, it’s been largely assumed that the populace of Haiti are nodding their heads right along.

The dangers of this kind of “innocence by association” goes well beyond his uncle. In fact, some of the other company Wyclef has kept in his time makes Uncle Ray look warm and fuzzy by comparison. In 2006, Clef produced the documentary Ghosts of Cite Soleil, which in his article Hinton calls a “hit piece” against Aristide.

Key among the film’s interviewees was one Andre Apaid, a well-known industrialist and key backer of the anti-Aristide insurgency. Apaid isn’t even a Haitian citizen; he was born in the US but maintains permanent residency in Haiti. Outside of the Ghosts doc, one will be hard-pressed to find anything positive about this man. His Alpha Industries, one of the largest assembly factories in the country, has been described time and again as a sweatshop–so one can easily fathom what he thought of Aristide’s attempts to double the minimum wage. His father, Andre Senior, is a self-identified “friend” of the Duvaliers.

According to the Center for the Study of Human Rights, Apaid also has on his payroll Thomas “Labayne” Robinson, a violent gang-leader in the slum of Cite Soleil. The Center’s report provides rather incontrovertible proof that Apaid has hired Robinson to kill supporters of Aristide.

Ghosts also positively profiles Louis-Jodel Chamblain, a key leader in the coup. Chamblain’s military and paramilitary experience goes back decades–from a sergeant in the military junta that prevented democratic elections from taking place in 1987 to main leader of the FRAPH in ‘93, to architect of the Raboteau Massacre that killed as many as fifty pro-democracy activists in April of ‘94. The only reason Chamblain walks free through Haiti today is that the murders he carried out were done so in the name of the ruling regime. Hardly the spitting image of rag-tag freedom fighters “standing up for their rights,” as Wyclef has called them.


In Hinton’s view, no election held in Haiti’s current condition will be fair. Aristide remains in exile in South Africa, and his party, Fanmi Lavalas, the most popular in all of Haiti, is legally prohibited for running candidates. And this proscription is most heavily enforced by foreign guns.

“A United Nations army, led by Brazil, still occupies Haiti six years after the coup,” says Hinton. “Their unstated mission, under the name of ‘peacekeeping,’ is to suppress the popular movement and prevent the return to power of Aristide’s Lavalas Party. One must understand a Wyclef Jean candidacy, first of all, in this context.”

Six months after the earthquake, conditions remain horrifying. In an email, Hinton tells me that the million homeless Haitians are, “sleeping in tent and tarp encampments without sanitation in rain and hurricane season. Something like only 2400 temporary houses have been built… [There is] much corruption, with donated food and tents being sold on the street.”

Wyclef has of course paid lip service to this. In fact, despite positioning himself as “a man of the Haitian people,” Clef most likely knows (and cares) very little of their daily existence. And though insisting so on national television is sure to provoke cries of heresy, Wyclef may actually stand quite a bit to gain from the degrading state in which so many Haitians live.

The characters he has ingratiated himself with, though, may be in a much better position to leverage him into the National Palace. Wyclef’s well-publicized support for the American invasion in the aftermath of the earthquake has certainly provided an excellent cover for the US establishment, and they most likely won’t forget it.

“This is a demonstration election,” says Hinton, “being staged to give the aura, but not the reality of a popularly elected democratic government during a military occupation, and Wyclef Jean’s name might get enough people to vote that the occupying powers can claim the elections reflect the popular will.” As Hinton points out, less than ten percent of all Haitians voted in the 2009 Senate elections.

What Clef stands to gain if he wins is worth a lot more than popular support, though. The debacle surrounding his Yele Haiti foundation–in which he diverted donated funds back into payments for himself–starts to shed light on what might await “President Wyclef.”

With so little aid actually getting to the people who need it–roughly one million are without regular access to clean food and water–and with a corrupt, illegitimate government running the country, it’s anyone’s guess where the millions of aid dollars are actually going. It’s here that Clef’s almost certain misappropriation of Yele’s funds starts to take on a bigger meaning.

Charlie Hinton: “Although he’s left Yele Haiti, how he funneled that ‘non-profit’ money to his own business interests is a good indication of where he’s coming from. As a woman told me last week who got ripped off by him in a business deal, ‘there’s no money in music anymore. Yele Haiti is his new cash cow.’ And now he’s trying to tap into all the relief money that is hopefully waiting to rebuild Haiti, that makes the measly $9 million collected by Yele Haiti look like pocket change.”

In exchange, his relationship to the US already cemented, a President Jean would be able to keep ensuring the one thing that Aristide wouldn’t: a constant flow of capital. “As far as investment and business, this is the best time to invest in business in Haiti” he said in an interview to Esquire.com. Knowing his connections to sweatshop owners is enough to make such a statement take on an entirely new, wholly cringe-worthy meaning.

And what of the people? What of the ghettos and slums that Wyclef, in his most Marley-esque moments, insists are in such need of uplift and empowerment? A rarely told tale from the history of Wyclef’s model–Ronald Reagan–might provide some insight.

During his 1980 campaign for president, Reagan’s trail brought him to a South Bronx neighborhood still decimated by the riots that had turned it to a shell three years before. Standing in front of a burnt-out, graffiti-covered wall, he declared what his opponent, President Carter said almost word-for-word in the exact same location in 1977: “I’m impressed with the spirit of hope and determination by the people to save what they have.” This from the man whose presidency accelerated the neglect of poor neighborhoods of color.

For Reagan, such people are nothing more than set pieces in a photo-op. There is perhaps no better indicator what what President Wyclef Jean holds in store for the people of Haiti. It’s with them, however, that hope really exists.

First appeared at Dissident Voice.

Monday, August 16, 2010

RIP Abbey Lincoln

She was one of the best jazz singers of all time, and passed away this past weekend. There was plenty that defined Abbey Lincoln--her Billie Holiday-influenced voice, her talent for composing her own songs at a time when most female singers didn't.

Among the many notable features, though, there is her unmistakable contribution to jazz as a music of pride and protest. Case in point: her collaboration with then-husband Max Roach... We Insist! Freedom Now Suite. Listen below, and it's plain to see that Lincoln's death--though coming after a long and prolific career--is a loss.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Been Caught Stealing... Our Money and Our Rights

The signs are unmistakable as you walk through downtown. In fact, the closer you get to the lake, the more they slap you in the face. The cold, gray chain-link fences, the almost Orwellian jumbo-trons, an absurd police presence--even for Chicago--all underpinned by the giant blue and orange sign reading “Lollapalooza.”

Since permanently returning to the scene five years ago, Lollapalooza has retaken its place the festival of festivals. If every summer brings a veritable panoply of outdoor mega-concerts--Bumbershoot, Pitchfork, Rock the Bells, Bonnaroo--then Lolla is the keystone of the whole crowd. Swarms of music lovers from all over the country (and even the world in some cases) will be descending on Grant Park this weekend for three days of the fest’s lineup.

And who can blame them? This year’s lineup really does seem to provide something for everyone. Between three days and eight stages, audience members will take in indie faves like Spoon and Arcade Fire, hip-hop newcomers BBU and Nneka, mega-stars Green Day, a reunited Devo, the inimitable Lady Gaga and about 150 other acts!

And yet, for many of us who cherished the label “Alternative Nation,” those of us raised sometime after hip-hop’s “Golden Age” and before “alternative” became anything but, Lolla gets harder and harder to swallow every year. The prices, the restrictions, the craven cash-chasing. Each year you wonder how much more they can get away with. And every year you get an answer.

There’s a beautiful passage in musician Mat Callahan’s excellent book The Trouble With Music where he puts forth an idea that is at the same time simple and elusive--that festivals are the place where music comes alive among the masses:

“It is... in the festival where all participate in singing and dancing that music and dance first manifest their rejuvenating potency. In considering all the dimensions of the question of music and society, one is constantly drawn back to this ground, this earth, upon which all else is constructed. What music proclaims and calls forth is the potential for another, better world. Its effect is to transport from this place to another place without physically leaving this place, and it achieves this first and foremost by uniting and inspiring the dancing multitude, transforming it into a collective body.”

Most music lovers may not articulate this, but on a gut level, they get it. Even as album sales decline amid a stagnant economy and persistent unemployment, tickets to music festivals are up. This, despite a ever-increasingly exorbitant price for tickets. A one-day pass is $90. Three-day passes run well over $200. When the fest first kicked off in the early ‘90s, they were about $30.

No doubt the scale of the festival is exponentially larger than it was in those formative years. Ignored, however, is the overall increase in average ticket prices, which have more than doubled over the past decade and a half. It’s a trend that goes hand-in-hand with the consolidation of behemoth ticket-sellers. With Ticketmaster and Live Nation now merged into a veritable monopoly, with unprecedented control over the entire process of promotion and ticket-selling, it’s a trend that will most likely continue unabated. It’s no secret that to big-time promoters, and to Lollapalooza’s partners--Budweiser, Sony, Toyota and Citibank among them--a festival of this scale is commerce before entertainment.

According to the Chicago RedEye (one of Lolla’s media partners), outside food and drink are of course prohibited from being brought in. Little wonder why; there stands a killing to be made through the notoriously overpriced food, booze, and even water.

Also verboten from Lollapalooza is any kind of professional recording equipment and, notably, cameras with detachable lenses. Recently, an article in the Chicago Reader examined the issue, and related stories of fans caught “sneaking” such cameras into Pitchfork and escorted off by security. Once again, it’s par for the course, yet another sacrifice audience members are frequently asked to make if they want the privilege of seeing their favorite artists live.

But as the Reader article points out, the parks that Lolla and Pitchfork hold their fests in are public property, maintained by tax dollars--areas where photography and recording are supposedly protected by the First Amendment. Organizers for the concerts maintain that they have the right to dictate the terms of what their audience can and can’t bring in. Why? Because they paid.

What’s at stake then, isn’t just the right of people to take pictures on public property. It’s the wholesale siphoning off of public resources to private hands. Residents of Chicago are all too familiar with the pattern. We’ve seen it with schools, parking meters, and now, with our parks.

Perhaps most sick about all of this--the overpriced tickets and food, the limitation on what you can and can’t bring--is that it’s come to be expected. According to some assumed logic, the trade-off of money and rights for live music is a fair one. In reality, it's a development that only comes when corporate power goes unchecked for so long. And while the experience people crave at music festivals may be as fundamental to our emotional wellbeing as food and water our to our physical survival, there is no reason we should entrust any of these to forces that put profit before people. The $12 burgers are a testament to that.

Folks may be willing to tolerate a certain amount of bullshit for the love of the music. But that same love (or rather the exploitation of it) is precisely what sets off the kinds of violent explosions that marred Woodstock ‘99. Farrell and company would do well to remember this, especially as most people are finding fewer and fewer dimes to scrape together.

First appeared at the website of theSociety of Cinema and Arts.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

"Don't Take No For an Answer"

Hell yes. Proposition 8 struck down in California! It's not only a victory in its own right, but a confirmation that the LGBT movement that's risen since the virulent referendum's passage can win.

I know that I've posted this video before, but there really seems very few other songs that capture the feeling of this moment.

Monday, August 2, 2010

A state of emergency...

Seems that, predictably, the media has been sent into a tizzy over Lady Gaga's Vanity Fair spread. Gossip mills love it when pop stars say provocative things, and when someone like Gaga--no stranger to controversy herself--speaks about past drug problems and current celebacy, the gears are naturally going to turn.

It speaks pretty clearly to the bent of modern news, however, that nowhere near as much ink is being spilled over her comments at her Phoenix concert over the weekend.

True, the campaign to get Gaga to pull out of her Arizona show failed. "I got a phone call from a couple really big rock and rollers, big pop stars, big rap artists, and they said, 'We'd like you to boycott Arizona... because of SB 1070'... I said, 'Do you really think that us dumb fucking pop stars are going to collapse the economy of Arizona?"

It's certainly a cynical outlook on the role that artists can have in social protest. Moreover, it ignores that the original call to boycott came not from "dumb fucking pop stars," but from activists in Arizona--including many who will suffer the biggest brunt of the immigration bill.

Still, Gaga--who performed with "Stop SB 1070" written across her arm--clearly did feel a good amount of pressure, and took time during her show to slam the bill and urge her fans to join in the growing movement against the draconian bill: "We have to be active. We have to protest... I will yell and I will scream louder. I will hold you, and we will hold each other, and we will peaceably protest this state."

"I met a boy today who is suffering... He told me his house was raided because of a parking ticket or something. They took his brother, and now he is in Mexico... It's really (unfair), and it's really disgusting. I think it's important that people understand that it's a state of emergency for this place and this state."

So while it would have certainly been preferable that Gaga throw her lot in with the Sound Strike and other like-minded artists, Elton John she ain't.

The injunction against the most profane parts of 1070 has been in effect for a little less than a week, and activists have taken advantage of the opening this provides. Meanwhile, Conor Oberst performed with Bright Eyes in his native Nebraska over the weekend in support of the ACLU's lawsuit against the law. And then, of course, there was Rage Against the Machine's show in LA the previous week. That so many artists have felt the need to speak up speaks to the potential momentum there is for striking this law down.