Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Come Back, Woody Guthrie..."

This weekend, thousands will rally in DC to (finally!) rebuke the overblown, arrogant and bigoted right-wing that's been seizing the media's attention for the past year. The One Nation Working Together rally may well represent the NAACP and AFL-CIO being stirred to action, most likely it will simply be urging the attendees to vote for the same Democrats that have allowed working people's livelihoods to be slashed left and right.

That's not to say it isn't an opening. It most certainly is. Case in point: several groups and individuals have come together for an open socialist feeder march, aiming to put forth a radical alternative. Folks are angry right now, no doubt about it. They want to fight for their jobs and homes, against the bigotry of the right. That fight isn't in the voting booth; it's in the streets.

This song is in that spirit. Its tone is most certainly mournful--even defeated a bit. But Steve Earle hits it right on the head when he sings so eloquently about the tradition we need to rebuild if we're going to win. And win for good.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Beats, Rhymes and Progress: Hip-Hop's Division Dilemma and the Forces That Can Break Boundaries

Two years ago, pundits in this country spoke of electing the first “hip-hop president.” There were a lot of problems with the term, but perhaps the biggest one was that it made the election of Obama out to be the pinnacle of hip-hop’s struggle. And in the midst of the hopey-changiness, it almost seemed like it could be true. The months leading up to election ‘08 were a time when emcees, DJs and producers of all stripes saw the Obama phenomenon as an opportunity to speak out on health care, the war on terror, and the persistent inequality that has run through American society.

Now, that hope seems to have curdled like so much oil in the Gulf. With a Democratic majority in tow, Obama has delivered just shy of nothing to workers, people of color, or any of the base that voted him into office. New battle lines have been drawn, and while so much of the energy that pervaded through hip-hop seems to have faded, a closer look will reveal a crop of artists clearly grappling with the question “what next?”

Reading much of the hip-hop blogosphere, though, you couldn’t tell that was the case. In fact, many commentators, including those on the left, appear to be falling into the old confines of the sub-genre–confines that looked to be in the process of fading not too long ago. What’s more, the persistence of these old divisions has led to a kind of malaise among so many of those who would otherwise see hip-hop as the soundtrack of coming resistance.

On the one hand, there’s the irascible waxing over the existence of “conscious rap.” Ever since the label emerged it’s been a troublesome one–so much so that lately some commentators have been attempting to single-handedly put it to death! Back in January, Omar Burgess of Hip-Hop DX penned an article titled “When the Casket Dropped: An Obituary for Conscious Rap.” It’s become something of a minor sensation online in the months since.

As if to mirror Burgess’ lament, the week after Labor Day saw Eric Arnold, writing for the website of ColorLines magazine, pessimistically ponder the future of “gangsta rap.”

Says Arnold: “Some critics have hastily written gangsta rap’s obituary. But in 2010, the genre remains a commercial force; what has declined is its gravitas as protest music. Once outspoken on the subject of police violence, in recent years, hip-hop broadly has been all but silent on politics of any sort, at least from a mainstream perspective. Back in the days, gangsta rappers faced off against label executives in corporate boardrooms over freedom of speech; now they entertain marketing meetings over energy drink endorsements.”

There’s no doubt that both Arnold and Burgess are true believers through and through, and that their attempts to throw their hats into the ongoing debate shows how that kind of hope continues to resonate through the ranks of the hip-hop world. Still, neither of their relatively grim outlooks tell the whole story. A lot has happened since January (as it so often does; time is funny like that). In fact, sitting at the back-end of summer, hip-hop seems to have produced more than a few reasons to be hopeful right now.


This past spring ended with a shot across the bow. The passage of SB 1070 in Arizona provoked broad mobilizations well beyond the state’s borders. Echoes of the 2006 movement to strike down the infamous anti-immigrant bill of Wisconsin Senator James Sensenbrenner–which some called the “awakening of a sleeping giant”–haven’t been lost. Naturally, Public Enemy’s “By The Time I Get To Arizona” took on a whole new relevance, including an eight-minute remake featuring somewhere around a dozen Arizona-based emcees protesting the new law.

Five months before 1070’s passage–around the time Burgess was hammering the last rhetorical nail in the conscious coffin–Jeff Chang sat at the front of the auditorium of the National Geographic headquarters in DC alongside Nas and Damian Marley. “[T]here’s a global context now,” said Chang. “In order for all art forms to move forward, you have to have someone like Nas or Damian Marley to step up and push the edge.”

That’s exactly what they did. No shortage of emcees have paid homage to rap’s reggae roots, but given the lay of the land, the release of Distant Relatives took on a whole new layer of meaning. Dropping six weeks after Gov. Jan Brewer signed 1070 into law with all due vitriol, the collabo had already become the year’s most anticipated. The mixture of Nas’ ghetto manifestos and Marley’s Rastafari testimonial could have been an unwieldy balance–especially with the added lens of Africa’s long struggle for freedom. Songs like “Tribal War” got it just right, though:

"Man what happened to us?
Geographically they moved us
From Africa
We was once happiness pursuers
Now we back stabbing
Combative and abusive
The African and Arab go at it
They most Muslim
We should be moving in unison!"

With uber-conservative pundits calling for politicians to batten down the hatches at the border, with the accusations of “terrorists” “stealing jobs” reaching a fever pitch, Nas’ lyrics stated a simple truth that put it all in perspective: that the west was built on the resources and humanity stolen from the global south. Any violence visited on the US can’t be viewed separate from its own long legacy of state-sponsored terror–from the African Horn to Sonora to South Central.

To be sure, Distant Relatives’ world-wide themes didn’t just drop from the sky. Just as the effects of globalization has had unseen consequences for immigration and labor, so has hip-hop’s now global reach come back around in recent years. Somalia’s K’Naan, Ghana’s Blitz the Ambassador, not to mention the revival of Fela Kuti’s works from Mos Def to Broadway have all shed light on rap’s cross-continent dominance. Marley and Nas just put a point on the trend.

This from the same emcee who ten years ago was most recognized for his beef with Jay-Z. This from the same artist who five years ago declared his “first love” of hip-hop dead.


Ten days after Distant Relatives dropped, another summertime collaboration revealed the opposite side of the coin. If Nas has spent the past several years fighting the definition of what it means to be “mainstream,” then Talib Kweli has been long public about his discontent at being saddled with the “conscious” label. The irony, of course, is that, between Black Star, Reflection Eternal and his own solo work, Kweli can easily be considered one of the key accidental architects of the whole conscious sub-genre.

And so when the first Reflection Eternal album in ten years hit the stores, the risk of sounding a dated product of the niche market ran high. Like Distant Relatives, Revolutions per Minute provoked fervent anticipation. Like Distant Relatives, it pleasantly met and exceeded expectations by going outside the box. And like its counterpart, Revolutions per Minute has exhibited a timeliness both eerie and appropriate.

Kweli and Hi-Tek took to the airwaves a few days after RpM’s release to perform with the Roots on Jimmy Fallon’s Late Show. It was an appropriate pairing, given that the Roots have likewise struggled with the “conscious” pigeonhole–so much so that when they announced their intent to stint as The Late Show’s house band, the hue-and-cry over “sellout” seemed particularly potent.

Such concerns weren’t entirely misplaced. This is network television after all, and the Roots wouldn’t have been the first to trade in their rebel message for a secure gig. Those expectations have been thankfully and repeatedly defied, however, and that was confirmed when Reflection Eternal led the collabo in a live rendition of “Ballad of the Black Gold.”

Thus-far “Black Gold” has yet to be released as a single off of RpM. It is one of the album’s most outstanding tracks, weaving the woes of global war, colonial oppression, economic meltdown and ecological devastation around the dark maypole of Texas tea:

"How they banking while the auto industry is tanking?
Leadership is sinking, oil pollution in the water stanking
Loyalty to petroleum, royally spoiled the economy
We won’t get it poppin’ till we’re oil-free

If you’re oil-rich then we invade it
They call it occupation but we’re losing jobs across the nation
Drill, baby, drill while they make our soldiers kill
Baby, still the desert where the blood and oil spill"

Kweli isn’t clairvoyant; there’s no way he could have known how relevant these words would end up when he wrote them months before the oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico (and while the song makes specific reference to Exxon and Shell, BP isn’t included). The decision to perform this particular song live, after untold millions of gallons of crude had spread through the Gulf, was hardly a coincidence. It was proof-positive of what kind of message an engaged artist can deliver when he has an opportunity–however slim–to defy categorization and get the kind of platform that so many others squander.


“I think if two people love each other, then what the hell? I think that everyone should have the chance to be equally miserable, if they want.”

It was an endorsement of same-sex marriage that came from the unlikeliest of places in mid-June: Eminem. That Em–after a five year absence and mediocre comeback record in ‘09–could skyrocket back to the top with this summer’s Recovery was a big enough surprise. Now he was slapping down his past of homophobic rhetoric by saying he supported the rights of LGBT folks to get married (albeit in a typically sarcastic way).

Outlets that reported Em’s reversal acted as if the whole thing took place in a vacuum. “My overall look on things is a lot more mature than it used to be,” was the front-loaded quote. What nobody acknowledged was that this change of heart came against the post-Prop 8 backdrop, after a massive LGBT liberation movement had taken over the streets of DC, and about a month before Prop 8 was struck down.

Nobody could deny that Recovery displayed a different Em on many levels. Critics have noted it to be much less graphic and violent than previous records. Not that the material on the record is child’s play. Case in point would be the second single “Love the Way You Lie,” which seems to have ignited a debate around the message of the song and video. Do they, as some media have claimed, glamorize domestic abuse? Do they, as some others insist, condemn acts of violence against women? What is the meaning of Rihanna’s presence?

In perspective, it’s a message much more complicated than the infamously horrifying barrage of, say, “Kim.” A worthy question might be what affect the movement for LGBT rights might be having on Eminem’s general ideas about gender. When he faded into the background five-and-a-half years ago, he was the establishment’s poster-boy for everything wrong with rap–a convenient scapegoat who could be singled out for his misogyny and gay-bashing by politicians who otherwise couldn’t give a damn about such issues.

Now, with his comeback, Em has shown himself to be the one thing censors hate: an artist whose ideas can change in the midst of bottom-up struggle. For sure, it’s not the first time it’s happened to him; during the ‘04 election season he released what was arguably the best anti-Bush song of the year in “Mosh.” Just like the strong anti-war sentiment that pervaded those heady days, he’s obviously been affected by a groundswell that seeks to go beyond the narrow confines of “men do this, women to that.” One wonders what he might be capable of if that movement can manage to gain back its steam in the coming months.


If there’s any rap group who had embodied the conflict of “conscious” and “gangsta,” it’s been dead prez. M1 and have, unsurprisingly, never really accepted the conscious label, instead embracing and propagating an aesthetic of “Revolutionary But Gangsta” (RBG). Still, their proud and vocal identification as revolutionaries, lauding of African identity and healthy living have lead more than a few to saddle them with the label. In fact, dp are mentioned explicitly by Burgess as an example of how “emasculating” so-called conscious hip-hop can be when he quotes their admittedly ham-handed “Mind Sex.”

And certainly, “Mind Sex” hasn’t been the only misstep to come from M and stic. But since bubbling up from the underground a decade ago, despite being more-or-less blackballed by the liked of MTV and mainstream radio (“turn off that bullshit!”), they’ve managed to maintain themselves as one of the most respected acts in hip-hop.

That was merely confirmed on June 22nd, when dead prez dropped their Turn Off the Radio Vol. 4: Revolutionary But Gangsta Grillz mixtape for free on their website. Released a little less than a year after their previous volume, Pulse of the People, with the explosive beats of DJ Green Lantern, volume four takes a different approach.

What’s immediately apparent is that Gangsta Grillz was dropped as a celebration of the ten-year anniversary of dp’s landmark album Let’s Get Free. Lead track “Far From Over” makes this clear by directly referencing the lyrics of their breakout “Hip-Hop”:

"One thing ‘bout music, when it hits you feel no pain
Ten years later, ain’t shit changed, but the players in the game…

"It doesn’t matter how many records they sellin’
‘Cuz all this bullshit that they’re yellin’ gon’ start a hip-hop rebellion
In the real world don’t have no boundaries and fears
This word-sound power that we puttin’ in their ears
Can change the real world!"

The next thing that’s apparent is that the beats are taken directly from Drake’s “Over.” In fact, most of the mix’s beats are based 2010’s most recognizable mainstream tracks, but reversed with dead prez’s specific brand of militant Afrocentric uplift–Young Jeezy’s “I Luv It” is flipped into “Gotta Luv It,” Lloyd Banks’ “Beamer, Benz or Bentley” is turned inside-out into “Malcolm, Garvey, Huey,” and even B.o.B.’s “Nothing On You” is morphed into a celebration of black female empowerment on “The Beauty Within.”

For sure, nothing new; hip-hop is built on artists appropriating and reappropriating beats. But while many of these can end up feeling redundant, as if nothing has been added to it, the end result of Gangsta Grillz is how well dp’s radical rhymes mesh with this summer’s most well-known tracks. It’s a reminder that, perhaps, the realms of street and revolutionary aren’t separated by such a wide chasm.


That’s always been true too. It’s worth repeating that the division between “conscious,” “gansta” and most other sub-labels has, from the beginning, been a creation of the industry–rising in tandem with an effort in the wake of radio’s deregulation in ‘96 to sanitize and segregate rap from its own complex insurgent roots and into the realm of easy marketability. Says Chang in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop:

“Just as brands developed their niches, each niche, in turn, came with its own set of brands. ‘Political rap’ was defanged as ‘conscious rap,’ and retooled as an alternative hip-hop lifestyle. Instead of drinking Alize, you drank Sprite. Instead of Versace, you wore Ecko. Instead of Jay-Z, you dug the Roots. Teen rap, party rap, gangsta rap, political rap–at the dawn of hip-hop journalism these tags were just a music critics’s game. Now they had literally become serious business.”

That “serious business” is just what the industry does. It divides in order to conquer. It might seem all-powerful when you step back, but looking at it more closely you can see how many exceptions there are to the rule. The four examples from this past summer–from Nas to dead prez, Em to Kweli–are really just a few of the palpable examples that play at transcending this imaginary division. There’s plenty more to talk about: the return of Lauryn Hill to the scene, the return of the mix tape via mp3, the amount of emcees–mainstream and underground–who have gotten on board with the Sound Strike. It all goes to show that what unites hip-hop is a lot greater than what separates it, and that the powers-that-be ultimately don’t have as much control as they think.

But as always, it’s going to be the next generation that shapes hip-hop’s future. Some have been quick to slap the label of “hipster rap” on rising acts like the Cool Kids or Kidz in the Hall, most likely with an intended effect similar to the “conscious” label. Both have dismissed the term and proclaimed the influence that all rap has had on them.

Richard “Epic” Wallace, one of the three emcees that make up the swiftly-rising Chicago group BBU, notes “[the division between sub-genres is] all built up from the top-down. We understand where that trickle-down effect comes from. You got these figureheads standing at the door, and they tell you ‘this is where you’re gonna fall.’” Since forming three years ago, BBU have been recognized for both their radical politics and their strong, party-oriented beats.

In the end, it all starts at the grassroots–for music and struggle. Even now, with so many dark clouds on the horizon, hip-hop can’t help but be affected by what happens on the ground. It can’t help but be swayed by the anger against BP, the fights for immigrant rights and LGBT liberation, and the unquenchable longing for a better world. Rather than obsessing over the outdated, capital-planted divisions, it’s worth remembering that no matter how raw it is, there’s no way to make rebellion safe.

First appeared at Dissident Voice.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What Would Lennon Do?

In about ten days--October 8th--we're bound to be hearing endlessly about what would have been John Lennon's 70th birthday. Nobody in their right mind would deny that Lennon's legacy deserves every bit of praise it can get; what we'll be getting though will be a dose of shallow, disjointed "tribute" that skates over any direct mention of what the man stood for.

This Sunday's Observer carried an interesting op-ed by Richard Williams wondering--as we all do about the long-passed great ones--what Lennon would have thought of how culture has evolved since he was tragically gunned down. He starts at a familiar place nowadays: one of dismay at how oversaturated his work and image have become into the fabric of the marketplace.

"Poor John. He's got old Macca on one side, fruitlessly trying to reverse the hallowed songwriting credits to make it clear, in case there were any doubt, that he wrote "Eleanor Rigby" and forever claiming (with some justification) that, of the two creative pillars of the Fab Four, he was the one who was really interested in the avant garde. On the other, there's old Yoko, flogging off his image to motor manufacturers and fountain pen makers and adding ludicrous credits to his albums (on my CD of Rock 'n' Roll, the oldies album John recorded in 1973, with and without Phil Spector, it actually says: 'Production personally supervised by Yoko Ono')."

Yup. That's how it is. And not just with Lennon. It happens every time "This Land is Your Land" is referenced by a right-wing hack. Every time we see a Marley poster hanging on the wall of a bigoted frat-boy. Every time Strummer's music is used to sell mobile phones. Sickening.

Williams' article is insightful for sure. It might be fun to wonder what Lennon would have thought about the cultural trends that have arisen in the thirty years since his death, but it's ultimately an exercise in mental masturbation. What becomes really frustrating is how few commentators seek to actually delve deep into what actual artistic and cultural legacy is today. That means viewing his art and ideas for what they were, and how they were affected by the shifting winds of his own time.

An article will be forthcoming from myself that tackles this exact idea later this winter. In the meantime, few pieces really take up this question like this interview from the '70s between Lennon, Ono, Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn. True, it gets passed around a lot on the left, but unlike the use of John's image for fountain pen commercials, this reason is everywhere for a good reason.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Un-Blockade the Aid

As people know, the criminal blockade of Gaza continues despite the decisive turn against Israel's apartheid policies in the wake of the attack on the Freedom Flotilla in May. Organizers around the world are raising funds to send their own blockade busting boats to Gaza.

This is one such event to be held here in Chicago. On top of speakers including Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada and Colonel Ann Wright (who was part of the Freedom Flotilla), there will also be performances by Louder Than a Bomb youth poetry festival founder Kevin Coval, the jazz of the Michael Levin Group, and folk artist Linda Boyle.

A benefit for the U.S. Boat to Gaza

Wednesday, October 6
Grace United Methodist Church of Logan Square
(between Kimball Ave & Spaulding Ave)
3325 W Wrightwood Ave, Chicago

Doors Open at 6 PM
Program starts at 7:00 PM and ends at 9:00 PM
$10.00 admission, nobody turned away for lack of funds

In the aftermath of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla massacre and world-wide scrutiny of Israel’s attack on and continued siege of Gaza, Israel has mounted a public relations campaign to whitewash the facts. Yet Gaza is still under siege, an open-air prison for 1.5 million Palestinians, backed by the U.S. government.

This fall, joining a flotilla of ships from around the world, Americans are launching a U.S. boat to Gaza "The Audacity of Hope" to join Gaza Freedom Flotilla II

Friday, September 24, 2010

Save the 100 Club!

Yet another landmark in the development of punk rock may soon be falling victim to the forces of gentrification. John Robb, music journalist (and singer for the punk band Goldblade) has an article on today, bringing attention to the impending peril of the 100 Club.

The 100 Club is the oldest still-operating music venue in London. It's also where some of the pivotal acts in UK punk had some of their first shows. Though it originally existed as a jazz venue that opened in the '40s, its real notoriety came during the mid-'70s. The Sex Pistols played there. So did the Clash, so did Siouxie and the Banshees, the Damned and countless others. Even today, it hosts some of young generation of punk bands emerging from Britain like Gallows.

Anyone still smarting from the shut-down of CBGB here in the US will find these reasons familiar. The 100 faces skyrocketing rents (the area where it sits in London has been "rehabilitated" recently), not to mention higher utilities bills. The owners face a simple challenge: raise ticket prices and scare away the ordinary music fans you rely on, or close your doors. That second option may become reality as early as Christmas.

Robb is right when he points out that the underlying drive forcing the 100 to close is cutthroat profit. London's Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson (an upper-class twit of the first variety who seems to have been born with his foot in his mouth) has of course done everything in his power to pave the way for this.

In the eyes of Johnson, working people only have the right to art when it's under the thumb of the market, the right to history when it's been sanitized and made safe for consumption. The 100 Club isn't the only landmark of bottom-up culture in danger right now. A public library named after Marxist intellectual and anti-racist activist CLR James in the borough of Hackney is scheduled to be renamed. Hackney is to this day a neighborhood of heavily Afro-Carribbean composition. It's a slap in the face.

A "Save the 100 Club" Facebook page has been launched. Though talk about a campaign is still in its infancy, it seems worth joining the page to keep up as it develops.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Is "Idol" Dead?

So much fanfare, so much ink spilled over the announcement that Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez will be the new judges on the coming season of "American Idol." Big entertainment outlets have acted as if the show has been in a state of limbo for the past several months--ever since Simon Cowell stepped down, Kara DioGuardi was fired and Ellen DeGeneres announced she wouldn't be returning.

Now, Tyler and Lopez will be joining Randy Jackson--the show's last remaining original judge. The show's producers are hoping that adding some fresh blood in the form of these two chart-topping vets can save "Idol" from its years-long slide in the ratings.

It won't. In the end, this whole fiasco has revealed the real fatal flaw of "Idol"--that it's been built around personality more than music. Not surprising given the superstructure of celebrity that exists around the entertainment industry.

At the great unveiling on Wednesday, Lopez said that her goal is to find "the next Michael Jackson." It's not must respect for MJ that makes this task patently impossible. The kind of longevity that he achieved has been determined completely undesirable to the music industry over the past decade. Far more preferable is the model of disposable, flash-in-the-pan type stars who fade quickly and can generate the biggest bang for the buck without having to invest in them long-term. "American Idol" has played the role of leading edge in this shift.

Tyler and Lopez won't do anything to revive the show. The personnel change is more akin to a game of musical chairs on the Titanic.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Even More Relevant...

John Legend and ?uestlove grace the cover of the new issue of Billboard, which focuses on the new collaboration between Legend and the Roots: Wake Up!, an album composed entirely on the artists' take on protest-oriented soul and R&B from the '60s and '70s.

The album is an interesting listen. Legend's voice is solid as always, and as ?uesto points out, the Roots haven't sounded this organically free-form since Things Fall Apart. In the Billboard interview, both admit they conceived the album during the height of the Obama campaign. Most songs certainly would mesh well with that climate, but with the right on the ascendancy again, it might be easy to think of Wake Up! as kind of outdated.

Legend has a response to that:

"It is a different climate, but I think it makes the album even more relevant now. You would think now that we have a black president, everything's all good, but there has been more racial tension than ever before. A lot of people feel like they're losing grip of what America used to be. They long for a bygone era when America was whiter, when it was more Christian, when it was more this, more that--they long for a more traditional America. You see that conversation, that battle, being had in America right now, so it feels like these songs are super relevant, even more so than in 2008."

?uesto agrees:

"Absolutely. There's a song that deals with patriotism, which connects to what's going on in New York with the mosque near ground zero. 'Hang on in There' deals specifically with the definition of an American: 'Do you consider me an African American like you consider yourself an American?' Every day, new subjects and ideas are being raised that make this album relevant."

Wake Up! is streaming on, and was released yesterday.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"Stay Humble, Stay Free"

Last night I saw the Gaslight Anthem at the Vic Theater here in Chicago. It was a hell of a show. One might think--given the relentless Springsteen comparisons that persist when talking about Gaslight--that there would be a kind of rock 'n' roll tent revival spirit to the whole thing. I wouldn't go that far. Nonetheless, there seemed to be a lot about the performance that should make folks damn glad that real, testimonial rock is on the comeback.

Looking around the auditorium, there were the usual suspects. The Vic isn't too far from DePaul University, so there was unfortunately a smattering of pop-collared frat-boys around. It was, however, a notably more mature crowd (and this was an all-ages show) and most of the audience had obviously just gotten off work. It's always been something of a myth that American music caters to middle class sensibilities (dovetailing with the myth of America being a predominantly middle class nation), but here it was pretty irrefutable that you were among a set of working people.

The Gaslight Anthem didn't say much from the stage. They didn't have to. All the greats were played: "The '59 Sound," "Old White Lincoln," "Great Expectations," "I'da Called You Woody, Joe," as well as most of the best tracks from their recent American Slang. In fact, looking back, it seems rather impressive that they've racked up so many excellent songs in such a short career.

Here, it's worth remembering the lyrical content of Gaslight's songs. The kind of escape, the reckless abandon that runs through their music was hitting very much home among the crowd. Back in my days in the DC hardcore scene, it was the kind of energy I'd experience on a weekly basis at shows. Nowadays, however, and quite possibly due to the change in location recently, it's a real rarity.

But this show, where Gaslight's music brought the kind of anthemic heights that has until recently been all-too-sparse in rock music, reveals that things might be turning. It would be unbelievably ham-handed to read a rising class frustration into the reaction of the audience at a show. That's not necessary, though--the frustration is already there. The mass of young working folks singing along with Brian Fallon and raising their fists in the air merely proves what we already know: that the kids aren't all right. They're looking for any way out, and any force that genuinely taps into that urge will have their full attention.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Chronicler of People's Songs

No two ways about it: if you listen to American music, then your life has been affected by Irwin Silber. He wasn’t a musician or artist. There are few, if any, recordings of “his” songs to be heard. Silber’s place was as a journalist and publisher. But no fewer than two generations of folk musicians knew his name. Silber’s life’s work--which came to a definitive end on August 8th after he succumbed to Alzheimer’s--forged a link between those two eras and well beyond.

Writer Ethan Young, in an obituary for the Portside website, points out that Silber’s greatest contributions were a key part of “the critical cultural expression that broke barriers throughout the country and the world.” As the doldrums of the ‘50s gave way to the upheavals of the ‘60s, Silber’s passionate and unrelenting journalism provided that generation’s most provocative folk artists--from Dylan to Ochs--with something of a road-map.

Born in 1925 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Silber was by all accounts a red from an early age. By the time he reached grade school, the Great Depression was in full swing. Entire neighborhoods were joining the Communist Party (CP), and Silber was among them.

As a teenager he was a regular counselor at the Worker’s Children’s Camp (or “Wo-Chi-Ca”) and encountering the likes of Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger and other established musicians of the radical left. This was a time of profound shifts in the American mainstream. At the start of the 1930s, the notion of “popular music” was along the lines of Perry Como, Bing Crosby and other watered-down versions of jazz or swing that were a pale comparison to their origins. By the end of the decade, as American workers put their interests on the map like never before, as solidarity and union became household words, so did the musical atmosphere move decidedly in a more genuinely popular direction.

It was this atmosphere in which Silber came of age. When he graduated from Brooklyn College at the age of 19, he was part of the American Folksay Group, a group of square dancers and folk-singers specializing in left-wing square dance calls (hard to picture, yes, but worth it if you can imagine the fear such calls might instill in Toby Keith or any of today’s other conservative country hardliners).

Silber’s place wasn’t onstage, however. At the end of World War II, he found himself working for People’s Songs, a collective of songwriters run out of Seeger’s New York home for the purpose of providing an explicitly left-wing cultural space. “Silber was so devoted,” says author Joe Klein, “that, within a year, he was handed the job of executive secretary and was running the place.”

People’s Songs at first seemed destined for greatness. The year after the war’s end had seen the biggest strike wave in American history. In 1948, the group threw itself, along with most of the Communist-affiliated left, behind the Progressive Party presidential campaign of Henry Wallace. Wallace came in fourth (behind the Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond), and the coming years would see the left isolated and hounded. People’s Songs, under the increasing pressures of McCarthyism and financial troubles, folded in 1950.

That same year, Silber, along with Seeger and folklorist Alan Lomax, founded the “little magazine” Sing Out! The first issue hit the stands in May, and printed across its front cover was, in essence, the magazine’s mission encapsulated in Seeger’s now-legendary “Hammer Song”:

“If I had a hammer
I'd hammer in the morning I'd hammer in the evening
All over this land I'd hammer out danger
I'd hammer out a warning
I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land”

Silber’s often-strident sense of authenticity was plainly reflected in the pages of Sing Out! and in his column “Fan the Flames.” Commercialization was strictly seen as the enemy, and reviews were sometimes considered overly-harsh--even by readers sympathetic to the rag’s goals. But this outlook is also what enabled Sing Out! to become such a well-respected publication; its acumen for authenticity and politics made it the first music magazine to publish the lyrics to Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” along with many other modern classics.

In the next decade, groups like the Kingston Trio and the New Christy Minstrels would find popularity delivering what author Mike Marqusee describes as “easy-listening arrangements of old folk tunes.” Though these kinds of groups were by many accounts inferior, they nonetheless opened the door for the songs that brought depth and meaning to the turbulent ‘60s. As Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and others began to emerge from the heady milieu of civil rights and anti-war protests, Sing Out! provided them with an outlet that championed their work.

For his part, Silber never missed an opportunity to turn music into a focal point of agitation. In 1963, ABC announced the launch of a folk-oriented variety show called “Hootenanny,” he demanded that the network lift its blacklisting of Seeger. After all, Silber reasoned, if the show hoped to even have the chance at authenticity, then they would need the support of folk’s most influential artist. When ABC refused, Silber urged other artists to boycott the show.

In a 2002 interview, he noted that "[A]fter the '50's, politics was really resurging in a big way. And the left--the new left... was developing a whole new sense of politics." And though age and past might tie him closely to the “old left," Silber recognized the shift that was taking place both politically and culturally. He had left the CP in 1955 (which hadn’t stopped him from getting called in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee three years later), and quickly embraced the movements for Black liberation and against the Vietnam War. Clearly, Silber was an exception to the rule of “don’t trust anyone over 30.”

This forward-thinking ethos could easily stir controversy. In 1965, Silber was one of the most prominent critics to lambaste Dylan’s infamous “electric” performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival:

“You seem to be in a different kind of bag now, Bob--and I’m worried about it. I saw at Newport how you had somehow lost contact with people. It seemed to me that some of the paraphernalia of fame were getting in your way.”

Word is that Dylan didn’t dig was Silber had to say. An ongoing theory is that the writer was the target of “Positively Fourth Street.”

Years later, some would interpret this letter as a kind of abject folk puritanism, as if Silber’s radicalism was a kind of digging one’s heels in against the innovations that electricity was bringing to music. That wasn’t the case. Silber's objections came not from Dylan’s embrace of the electric guitar, but rather what he took as the singer turning his back on the growing and increasingly radical movements:

“[E]lectricity was not really the defining point. At least it wasn't to most of us at Sing Out! ... I mean, here was a guy who'd come along after I'd spent close to twenty years doing this stuff. And he was the most exciting person I'd heard since Woody Guthrie. And he combined a great artistic feel with a political sense that was poetic, that moved people. And now, to find him turning his back on it... well, I really felt bad about that. But that was my view of it.”

In fact, those who are able to scour the pages of Sing Out! in those days can clearly see that what set the publication apart wasn’t its narrow, wooden conception of folk but the breadth of music that it covered. This included the phenomenon of “folk-rock” as personified not just by Dylan, but the Byrds, the Fugs, Crosby Stills and Nash and countless other acts that sought to blend the soul of folk with the energy of rock.

“I never thought about music that way in terms of a category... But it's one of the problems with categories in music. Sometimes they're helpful if you treat them in a very limited way. But once you use them as a definition that is used to say whether a particular piece should be considered in that category or not, it's a total contradiction.”

It’s easily forgotten today, with a music industry more closely resembling an impenetrable fortress, that the formative decades of American popular music were profoundly ecumenical and fluid. Not so much separated jazz from blues from folk from rock and so on. Silber’s understanding of this is only highlighted by his ongoing collaboration with wife Barbara Dane--not only a fellow revolutionary, but an accomplished singer in her own right who easily moved between the genres of blues, folk and jazz.

Silber’s output wasn’t just limited to the pages of magazines. The 1960s saw a flurry of painstakingly researched books hit the shelves. Taken together, they’re nothing less than a chronicle of people’s songs: Songs of the Civil War (1960), The Great Atlantic and Pacific Songbook (1965), Songs of the Great American West (1967), Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People (1967), We Shall Overcome (1963), The Vietnam Songbook (1969).

In 1967, Silber parted ways with Sing Out! and became the cultural editor for the Guardian, a radical weekly edited our of NYC. In 1970, an editorial shakeup at the paper led it to align with China and place Silber in the position of executive editor. Like much of the new left of that era, Silber took up Maoism and sought to reach out to support the liberation movements gestating in the Third World. The same year he became the Guardian’s editor, he and Barbara Dane founded the Paredon label, which focused on recording and capturing songs from liberation movements around the world.

Silber never lost his faith in fundamental and radical social change. After the Soviet Bloc fell in the revolutions of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, he penned the book Socialism: What Went Wrong? The book attempted to make sense of the collapse of “really existing socialism.” And while he rightfully questioned many of the Stalino-Maoist perversions of Marxism, he remained resolute that another world free from the horrors of capitalism was both necessary and possible.

Moreover, Silber seemed convinced that glimpses of that world resided around every corner. His final book, published in 2003, was Press Box Red, a biography of Daily Worker sports editor Lester Rodney.

Irwin Silber’s legacy lies in the notion that underneath all of the distortions of profit-driven entertainment, there was a culture organically connected to people’s daily struggles for freedom and dignity. And though it might remain hidden at the darkest moments, covered up by repression or censorship, it never really dies. No matter the country, continent or era, that remains true. If Silber’s words found resonance among people across these gaps, then it speaks to how inextinguishable this spark remains.

First appeared at the Society of Cinema and Arts website.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Clarion Call for the Movement

Martin Smith is one of Britain's leading anti-fascist campaigners, and is a national officer of Unite Against Fascism. He is also the author of John Coltrane: Jazz, Racism and Resistance and the national coordinator for Love Music Hate Racism, a music-oriented campaign against racism and the far-right.

On September 7--two days after this interview--Martin appeared before a London court to face charges of assaulting a police officer at a protest against the far-right British National Party in October of 2009. Despite no evidence and few witnesses, he was found guilty, sentenced to 80 hours of community service and ordered to pay a total of $700 in fees.

Here, Martin speaks with Alexander Billet about his case, the struggle against fascism in Britain and the role that music plays in fighting for a better world.


What is Love Music Hate Racism?

Love Music Hate Racism (LMHR) started about 10 years ago because what we're seeing across England and Europe is a rise of racist and fascist parties. And they've certainly made an attempt to appeal to bored young people--people who've got no sense of identity.

We thought it was important to try and reach young people in a way that political movements can't always do. There's a kind of lager in Britain called Carlsberg, and they say it "reaches the parts other beers can't reach." We feel that LMHR is a kind of version of that; it reaches people who other anti-racist movements can't reach. What we try to do really is use culture--music, poetry, all kinds of art--to reach young people culturally with a strong anti-racist and anti-fascist message.

I suppose the other part of it is we try to mix genres. We kind of call ourselves the grandchildren of Rock Against Racism in the '70s, which mixed punk and reggae. What we do is mix everything; we don't do gigs that just have rock or indie or punk or hip-hop. If you go to one of our gigs, it'll have all different kinds of music all at the same time.

Lots of promoters find it nerve-wracking, but we found it's really possible to mix different genres, and people really like it. We're partly responsible--I won't say completely--for the crossing between grime and indie music. So we're seeing young Black kids hanging around with young indie kids, and it's shaped British independent music a lot.

What specifically are some of the attempts by the far right to reach out to young people?

The British National Party--a fascist party in Britain--produced a CD of various folk, Oi! and ska music. Lots of the bands are not identified, and they were giving them out to school kids at the school gates.

We're seeing overall an attempt to reach out to kids who are looking for a bit more raw in their music, so they used music to do that. Plus, in Britain we have a long tradition of music being used for right-wing politics--you know, some the Oi! bands in the late '70s and early '80s started to really reach into this.

Also, you've got people like Morrissey, who's made several quite outrageous comments and seems to be flirting with this kind of stuff. And for the first time ever, we seem to have house and dance music DJs making outrageous comments against Muslims in particular.

So you've got new genres developing with some racism involved in it--I won't exaggerate it, but there are the beginnings of it. And obviously with Morrissey, that could go in different directions.

So they're real problems we have to deal with just in terms of the cultural front.

Morrissey has also had a relationship with LMHR in the past. Back in 2008, he gave several thousand pounds to the group to help out with one of your carnivals. With his recent comments, though--calling the Chinese a "subspecies"--do you think there will be any kind of relationship in the future?

No, I think it's gone now.

I'm a lot older than many of your readers will be. I was around the punk scene in the late '70s in Britain and was part of Rock Against Racism. At that time in Britain, we had a much more serious problem with very big bands--punk bands--flirting with fascism. The Sex Pistols wore swastika armbands--well, certainly Sid Vicious did and so did Siouxsie Sioux from Siouxsie and the Banshees.

We have a famous case of Elvis Costello saying about Ray Charles, "Can you get that nigger offstage?" when he was performing. You had David Bowie coming back to England after a tour of Germany wearing a Nazi uniform and going through Victoria Station like Hitler. You had British Movement skinheads hanging around bands like Sham 69 or Madness--gigs were being disrupted.

Some of the bands had quite a dubious record on this: Bowie certainly was flirting with fascism, Madness defended their road crew who were fascists, Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 had lots of hardcore fascist fans following him around.

We had a policy, though, which was try to engage with these artists, win them away from racism and certainly get them to distance themselves from the people associated with fascism. We were accused at the time of being soft, but we never thought that. We thought you had to win the hearts and minds of the artists.

You shouldn't just say, "If you make a racist comment, you are forever doomed." I think it was really successful because of the people I've mentioned, all have subsequently completely and utterly dissociated themselves from fascism and racism. In fact, many of them have become quite left-wing artists in their own right. David Bowie has both given money to the Anti-Nazi League and completely condemned his views from the '70s. Madness are very friendly to Love Music Hate Racism. Elvis Costello, too.

We were very nervous about Morrissey from the beginning when we launched LMHR because of some of the songs he's sung, like "Bengali in Platforms," hanging around the Madness gig wearing a Union Jack flag and all that. Now, when he made the comments about immigration [in the NME in 2008], he made quite a strong case that he didn't say them, and he wanted to make a statement against racism and come out in support of an anti-racist cause.

I would have been more suspicious, but before that, he was starting to hang around LMHR concerts. He came to one of our very first gigs with the Libertines. He was there, he signed T-shirts, and he really wanted to support us. He was already beginning to hang around with anti-racist bands, and we thought, "Come on, let's give the man a chance." He sponsored the carnival, gave us $44,000, and he also wanted us to put stalls up at his gigs to make a strong anti-racist statement. We thought that was worth doing.

But this know, everyone's entitled to be wrong or change their mind once. I think the problem we've got with Morrissey is that he's done it several times.

I don't believe it's a mistake. I think it's conscious, and I think he's gone too far. In our organization, some of the bands have already met and talked about it, and we don't want to be associated with him. We feel it's not helpful to anybody.

Of course, he could come out and make a clear denunciation, saying he didn't say it--he hasn't done that so far. And he hasn't contacted us to say he wants to distance himself from his statements. I think really he has to grow up at minimum.

These are much more serious statements than he's made before. "Subhuman" is crude racism, to put it mildly. If someone like Adolf Hitler said that, you'd talk about biological racism, which everyone knows is genocidal. So I feel he's really crossed the Rubicon on it really.

The diversity of genres and bands that have been associated with LMHR is really stunning. Just looking on the Web site, you see a riot grrrl gig followed a couple of nights later by an anti-racist symphony. Do you see that wide spectrum as an advantage in putting forward the concept of a multicultural society in opposition to the fascists?

I do. I think there's a lot to be said for mixing genres. You know, what punk and reggae did when they first started to fuse together--we called it "punky reggae nights"--is it brought Black and white kids together in a way that nothing else did before.

If you were Black or of West Indian origin in Britain, you would go to Black-only clubs. If you were white, you generally hung around white punk rock bands. What fusing it together did was it brought me in touch with bands I would have never known about otherwise--bands like Steel Pulse, Misty In Roots. Not so much Bob Marley, because he was popular by then, but [Peter] Tosh, Abyssinians, the whole Trojan sound system. Suddenly, it opened up this completely different cultural world.

I feel it's really important that we try and do the same thing now. You know, I often find that musical genres are really defined not by people but by companies who want to market their products. Actually, what you really find is lots of things that connect these musics together. And therefore, the more we break the walls down, the more people can just experiment and enjoy all forms of music. I think it actually opens people's minds.

I think it did help break barriers down. I won't say it changed the world, but it certainly broke down barriers, and it made the discussion about racism much more open and fluid.

In Britain today, there's a lot to be said for breaking down genres and mixing it up together. We have a lot of subgenres in British music now that are fusions of different kinds. Grime is definitely a fusion of hip-hop and drum 'n' bass. A lot of indie stuff mixes house music with their own sound.

We really are seeing people using music as a melting pot, and just chucking it all in. And that means you get much more multiracial audiences, which again makes it easier to deal with anti-racist questions.

The Roma question is very big in Europe right now--anti-Roma racism. But when you have Gogol Bordello or you see lots of klezmer bands that are very popular in the festivals right now, it does help make the basic argument about Roma people being part of our lives. It breaks down stereotypes.

The way they try to portray Roma in the press is that they're all thieves or they just live in squat camps and take your jobs. What the Roma music scene proves is that these are people who have their own culture and music. And I do think it helps break down the most basic racial stereotypes that some people are trying to push right now across Europe.

Who are some of the artists that are backing LMHR right now?

Well if you look at our past two concerts--the big ones--we had Pete Doherty from the Libertines, who's massive in Britain. We had Kelly Rowland from Destiny's Child on the same bill. We had Lowkey, one of the great rappers in Britain. We had Reverend and the Makers, we had a young British black soul singer, and one of the great jazz musicians in Britain, Courtney Pine.

So you literally have everything from pop, indie, hip-hop, jazz and soul. You look at the Barnsley carnival that we had recently, and you have Chipmunk, one of the new grime artists, alongside Reverend and the Makers, alongside Get Cape Wear Cape Fly, alongside local Barnsley artists. We had 32 stages around the city playing everything from trad-jazz to death metal to country and everything in between. So we had something for everybody, and thousands and thousands of people came out; the whole town was taken over.

So yeah, we really mix it right up and have had some great bands play for us. The Kaiser Chiefs have played LMHR gigs. So has Damon Albarn from Blur. Jerry Dammers from the Specials and other old-school artists like Mick Jones from the Clash, right through to the youngest hip-hop artists like Kano, Roll Deep and everything in between.

With the current climate being what it is--with the ongoing economic crisis--do you think there's a potential for kids today to be influenced and radicalized by the project of Love Music Hate Racism?

Yeah, I do. Personally, I think there's a polarization taking place in Europe right now. You've got both movements to the left and to the right. It's very similar to the '70s; in fact, I think it's much deeper than the '70s. And to be honest with you, among the young, there is generally a very wide acceptance of anti-racism.

However, there are a couple of problems. One is Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism, which is much deeper than, say, if it was about Black kids. There's much more racism just accepted about Muslim kids in Britain--you know, "terrorists," "they don't want to mix," that kind of stuff. And so we have a real problem with migration in Britain and Islamophobia. So those two things aside, other elements of racism you see much, much less.

LMHR doesn't just do gigs. We do lots of school projects. We take over a school for a week or a day and we do anti-racism all the way through. So we go through everything from history to geography to gigs in the music department--everything. And what you find is that the thirst for Love Music Hate Racism among young people is ginormous.

When you go to our gigs, the Barnsley carnival was sold out, 8,000 for the main stage, and I would think that the main age was 16 to 18. When we did our concert in Victoria Park two years ago, we had 110,000 people there, and again, the vast majority were young people. So there's a real thirst among young people for anti-racism.

I'm going to speak at the Bestival festival in the Isle of Wight, which is a huge festival. A hundred thousand people will be there--it's like another Glastonbury! Now, I'll be on the main stage introducing The xx, and I'll bet you any amount of money that when I shout "love music," the first thing the crowd will should back will be "hate racism."

So we get massive support, even from bands who are not necessarily playing for us. They'll let us put up stalls at their gigs, or let us come and speak before they go on at festivals.

How do you think the far right is going to be defeated, and how does music dovetail with that?

I'll start with the first question. In terms of how we're going to defeat the far right in Britain, I really do believe, ultimately, there has to be an ideological, political and physical defeat of them. I don't separate the things out--I don't believe it's one or another. I don't believe one on its own can actually do it.

It seems to me that we have to have an ideological struggle against the far right--winning people to the idea of being anti-racist. Not just for multiculturalism; I'm for multiculturalism, but I believe that alone is not enough. There's a difference between being for multiculturalism--which is just tolerance of people's culture--and being active, firm advocates of anti-racism.

I think politically that we have to offer an alternative to the hatred of the right. You can't just be "anti" something; you have to be for something. And it seems to me that the right is growing both out the racism that is being promoted by many rulers of the world and also conditions--mass unemployment, poverty--that mean people are looking for scapegoats.

So I think that they're growing from this--both the growing racism and the economic crisis. We have to offer a political alternative to that. That's why I'm a socialist. I make no apology for that. I believe we have to have a different way of running the world.

And the third thing I think we need is to physically oppose them. Because if you leave these people to run around the streets, go to schools, attack communities, they will get stronger, and our side will get weaker. I stand in a long tradition in Britain of physically opposing these people when they take to the streets.

In 1936, we had a group called the British Union of Fascists, led by [Oswald] Mosley, organize a huge demonstration through East London--which at that time was a very Jewish area. They wanted to intimidate the community. A hundred thousand people went in the streets and broke the back of Mosley's organization.

In the 1970s, the National Front, another fascist organization, tried to march through South London in a place called Lewisham--which is a very big Afro-Caribbean community. All the local community came out. We put 60,000 on the streets, and the NF didn't pass. They were driven off the streets.

Again, in the early '90s, when the British National Party won their first-ever elections in Britain, we broke them at a place called Brick Lane in East London, which is where the main Bengali community in Britain is. White anti-racists and the Bengali community in the thousands turned up there and drove them out.

I think we need to do the same again. So I think we need a physical, political and economic solution to the far right.

Culturally, I don't believe that music changes the world. There's a famous quote from Sam Cooke: he wrote this wonderful civil rights song called "A Change Is Gonna Come," and he was asked, "Did that song inspire the civil rights movement?" I can't remember the exact words, but he said, "No, without the Birmingham civil rights protests, my song would mean nothing. But I do believe I can be a clarion call for the movement."

I have no illusions that music can change the world--I don't believe it can. But I think it can articulate and bring people together like very little else. I think that's the power of music and culture--it can articulate anti-racism or hatred of racism or the desire for a more equal world better than any speeches can. In Love Music Hate Racism, we can be an added tool in the fight against racism and fascism.

What would you say to artists or music fans here in the U.S. who are longing for music to play a bigger role in activism and struggle?

I'd say do it yourself. The whole punk ethic was called "DIY," or "do it yourself." And what was great about punk was that it was a grassroots movement that developed without any support from the music labels, or any support from the mainstream. We created our own fanzines, our own bands, our own clothes, our own culture, our own clubs, and we took spaces and we made them our own.

Part of making it our own was also the struggle against fascism. So what we would say to anyone is, don't just hope that your great rock bands will do it, start it yourselves.

Rock Against Racism started with a local group called the Carol Grimes Band playing, and Misty In Roots. They were tiny bands, but it snowballed in support. And what I would say to everyone is put a gig on in your local area--at your local youth club, your union hall, your college or school--and have a message that says it will be a gig against racism.

I think we can create a grassroots movement with the support of these young bands. And what you'll find is that as these bands become more popular, then we can draw bigger crowds in. We can't rely on the record labels to do anything, because I don't believe they do. They don't like LMHR. They let their bands play, but they get no profits out of it. All our bands play for nothing--it's a great ethos because they're not doing it for wealth, they're doing it for the message.

And I really believe in that. None of us get paid for what we do; we do it completely because we believe in it.

So I would say to any American kid or adult: don't just sit back and get angry. Get organized. I was very pleased to see what Rage Against the Machine are doing around [the passage of Arizona's anti-immigrant SB 1070] with the Sound Strike. It's fantastic! But I think we could do that in every city!

We don't have to wait for the Rage Against the Machines. Every band, every poet, every rapper, every dancehall kid can do this. And it would make a massive difference if we had this in hundreds of cities across America. That's what we're trying to do here in Britain. We just don't wait for the next Libertines to come along; we want to start with our bands when they're still very young.

Last words. I want to give you a chance to talk about the legal charges and possible jail time you're facing.

The key thing to understanding Britain is that for the first time, one and a half years ago, we elected to the European Parliament two fascist MEPs. That's the first time in British history that two fascists have been elected that way. We've had councillors, but never with that size of a vote. They got 1 million votes in that election, which is a huge number remembering Britain is only a fifth of the size of America--I suppose it would be like a fascist becoming a senator.

We've never had fascists appear on TV in Britain before. After that victory, they invited Nick Griffin, who's the leader of the fascists in Britain, to appear on the most prestigious TV program called "Question Time."

There was a huge outpouring of anger against that, and Unite Against Fascism and Love Music Hate Racism made a decision to call a protest outside of the studio where that debate was being filmed. Three or four thousand people showed up, surrounded the BBC. And we held a really very big picket, some young students broke through the gates and occupied the studio for 10 minutes before the police got them out; it was a very militant protest supported by lots of different unions and musicians.

I was one of the organizers of that demonstration, and I basically just did a series of TV interviews the whole time. The police arrested me in front of everybody, and dragged me through the crowd--I believe to provoke a riot. They didn't get that, but they charged me with assault of a police officer.

So I will be going to court on Tuesday, charged with assault of a PC, which is six months in prison. The officer is bringing no other witnesses with him, no other police officers corroborate his evidence. There's 10,000 hours of CCTV footage and none of it shows me doing anything at all to him. Most people in this country believe it's a setup.

We believe that anti-racists and anti-fascists are being criminalized, and it's not the first time. If you think about your own country's history: how many people went to prison in Birmingham in 1963? Four thousand? Five thousand?

All I'm guilty of is being an anti-fascist. So we've called a protest outside the court on Tuesday, and support of it has been fantastic. Four national unions in Britain are backing my case. Jerry Dammers from the Specials will be coming to speak there--I'm very proud of that; the Specials go right the way back to my punk days! Drew McConnell from Babyshambles will be coming and singing a song. The King Blues will be there, and also Lowkey.

And I suppose my line is that if I'm going to go down, I'm going to go down singing! That's the way I'm going to be on Tuesday.

First appeared at

Included below is footage of Martin's speech and Drew McConnell's acoustic performance in front of the courthouse:

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Gaga's Beef... and Bacon

Lady Gaga appears to be such a sensationalized figure nowadays that even her controversies create controversies. The latest since her acceptance of a VMA moonman wearing a dress made of raw cuts of beef has now provoked the ire of PETA, who have denounced her in blog statement that calls the dress offensive: "What's next: the family cat made into a hat?"

Before going any further, let me issue a disclaimer of sorts: I am not a proponent of animal cruelty--in fact, I'm a vegetarian (though admittedly mostly for health reasons). But as someone who believes in human liberation above all else, I find PETA's denunciation at best a silly attempt at shilling their message and at worst a deliberate misinterpretation of what Gaga was going for.

On Monday, Gaga showed up on "Ellen" to defend her costume as a statement of sorts about oppression: "if we don't stand up for what we believe in, if we don't fight for our rights, pretty soon we're gonna have as much rights as the meat on our bones." It might seem odd at first glance, but when put in the context of an overarching aim for her outfits--which I've commented on recently--it makes sense.

That context is incredibly important. Gaga's "dress" is strongly reminiscent of Painting 1946, by British painter Francis Bacon, which in the aftermath of World War II, sought to convey the carnage and madness by relating the millions who died to slaughtered sides of beef. Bacon was an artistic and political radical, and a major figure in both the gay and avant-garde art communities in Britain. It's likely that Gaga knows of Bacon's work. In light of her statement on "Ellen" and her feminist/anti-homophobic advocacy it also seems that she's appropriated his art into her aesthetic statement.

Is PETA's failure to understand the rather obscure reference offensive? No. Their insistence on using sexism to peddle their message, however, is. So it's really no wonder that they didn't get it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Hip-Hop Response to Islamophobia

The recent and steep rise in Islamophobia in this country is scary. Far-righters protesting the construction of something as simple as a mosque--not just in NYC, but in California, Tennessee and other places. Christian fundamentalists threatening to turn 9/11 into "International Burn A Koran" day. Meanwhile the US continues two occupations of predominantly Muslim nations and to support apartheid Israel.

This anti-Muslim racism hasn't gone unchallenged, though. Observe the pro-mosque demonstration this past weekend in New York that outnumbered the bigots. Observe also the following video--a collaboration between Iraqi-Canadian rapper the Narcicyst and Shadia Mansour, rapper and singer from Palestine.

They released the following statement along with the video, as it appears at Davey D's Hip-Hop Corner:

The images of the past decades have cast a veil on our identity as a people. We, as international brothers and sisters, are now witness to injustice in real time. Our Wars are watched in HD. Injustice is now delivered in real time.

This video is a global collaborative effort by 10 photographers- from London to Lebanon, Cairo To Canada, Abu Dhabi to America- to create a portrait of the New Global Citizens. They are DJs, MCs, poets, architects, teachers, doctors, parents and children. Most of all they are people.

With the rise in Islamaphobia, we seek to show the world who we truly are as a people. Our faces and experiences speak for themselves. Our image is ours to shape. It has come time for us to grow. As a planet, as a people, as a family.

Peace Be Unto You,
Yassin, Ridwan & Shadia.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

From Crescent City to Chi-Town

This event is going to be, most likely, crucial. Any activists, artists or community members in Chicago should do their damnedest to be there. And anyone outside the Chi-town area should check in with the tour's webpage.

Anyone familiar with Flaherty's work--or who's read his book Floodlines--will know he's one of the best cultural writers on the left today. Being based in New Orleans, he's seen first-hand the way that the city's music scene from jazz to hip-hop has provided a lodestone for the city's resistance. That's especially true in the wake of Katrina. Most cities, even without the hurricane, are experiencing the same cuts, racism and scapegoating as the economic crisis continues. We need the same kind of resistance too.

From the Crescent City to Chi-town

September 22, 8:00pm - 9:30pm
Chicago Urban Art Society (CUAS)
2229 S. Halsted
Chicago, IL

Haymarket Books and New School Poetics invite you to celebrate the spirit of resistance, while we hear the voices from the front lines of our struggles today and chop it up with activists from New Orleans, featuring award-winning journalist Jordan Flaherty, author of the newly released Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six. New Orleans, the city of Shock Doctrine-style post-Katrina privatization, Gulf Coast drilling disasters, and a racist justice system, is also home to resilient, dynamic grassroots that engendered the first mass civil rights march in many years for the Jena Six, a group of African-American high school students who faced life in prison for their alleged part in a school fight.

And, as Flaherty writes in his book, in New Orleans, culture and community resistance go hand in hand. We'll be adding to the mix poets from Louder Than a Bomb: The Chicago Youth Poetry Festival and co-founder Kevin Coval, audio pieces from writers inside Cook County Juvenile Detention Center via the Free Write Jail Arts program, and more, for an evening of Community, Culture, Resistance.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Gaga's World

There's an understandable amount of hesitancy in putting any real faith in what the Video Music Awards have to say about life in general. If anything, the past few years have only confirmed the chasm that exists between MTV and the vast majority of music that actually seems to mean something to the wide swath of young people. As independent music ironically takes the helm as a defining ethos among fans of rock, hip-hop and everything in between, MTV is stuck in a divorced, alternate reality that only seems to exist in the most sanitized suburban hell.

That being said, there might be a few moments from last night's show that reveal this ongoing contradiction. Most of all would be that Lady Gaga won a more-than-impressive eight tropies! While commentators tried to re-hash the tired tsk-tsk of Kanye's stage antics and read into the grating banality of Taylor Swift's performance, Gaga positively dominated!

Once again, it would be wrong to put too much stock in the whole thing, but this is an artist whose entire outlandish aesthetic paws at the emptiness of modern sexuality. When asked to explain her costumes on "Larry King Live" a few months back she responded that they are essentially a send-up of the way women are objectified in the modern music industry and openly identified herself as a feminist. And she has, of course, taken that outlook to a political conclusion by famously becoming the most vocal celebrity supporter of the National Equality March back in October of '08.

Lots has changed since then, of course. A little less than two years ago she was a relative newcomer in the mainstream. She was mocked for the bizarre, surreal outfits (and still is) and is still accused of just "trying to draw attention to herself." That's not surprising given how skittish the music industry is with anything that has a modicum of substance behind it, but in some ways, the months in between have been a vindication of sorts.

For one, we've seen Prop 8, the decision that sparked the entire modern LGBT movement in the first place, struck down. The right-wing of the American establishment has, of course, long been obsessed with keeping anyone who doesn't abide by the strictest of gender roles out of the country's mainstream to the point of denying them basic rights. But this isn't the 1950s, and even with the Tea Party on the rampage, the legal system has been ultimately unable to ignore the upsurge that Prop 8 provoked among countless young people who took the streets in protest. In the meantime, America's just going to have to deal with it.

It's certainly impossible to ignore Gaga; not only because of the costumes, but because she's everywhere right now! Here is an openly bisexual artist, also an open feminist, whose songs, lyrics and performances seek to explode the myth of traditional sexuality and turn the spectacle of celebrity inside out. Whether she's successful or not isn't so much the point as the fact that because of the nature of her art, the industry didn't want to deal with her as recently as a few years ago. Now she's sweeping the most mainstream award show in modern music. How's that for having to deal with it?

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Kanye Controversy One Year On

Imagine, if you will, what it would be like to conduct a survey of musical tastes among members of the Tea Party. Granted, the Tea Party is far from a monolithic organization with registered membership--even with the millions of corporate bucks that keep the “movement” afloat. Still, given what we know of this crowd it would be a safe bet that certain trends would be clear.

Bottom dollar that Taylor Swift would find more fans than Kanye West among the uber-conservative cabal.

This seems an appropriate backdrop to the renewed hubbub over Kanye’s ill-timed stunt during Swift’s acceptance speech at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards. The past week has seen the whole fiasco return to the public spotlight, communique’d to the world in that most thoroughly modern of avenues: Twitter.

Kanye--like many celebs nowadays--loves to tweet. And over the Labor Day weekend he used it as a platform to deliver a series of rather cryptic 140-character bursts ending in the unmistakable “I’m sorry Taylor.” He even reported wrote his new song “Power” with Swift in mind.

Now, we’re all treated once again to journalists and spin-meisters reminding us of that notorious moment when Ye rushed the stage, swiped the mic from an obviously stunned Swift, and relayed the infamous message “Taylor, I'm really happy for you and I'mma let you finish, but BeyoncĂ© had one of the best videos of all time ... of all time!"

With the 2010 VMAs taking place this weekend, it seems to be all we hear about. Some are openly wondering whether West will be able to “behave” himself this year. And if not, what kind of “outburst” will he treat us to? We might yuk it up, but that the whole case can be revived in such a palpable fashion is just more proof about how utterly one-sided the entertainment industry remains.

The media fanfare that’s been stirred to such a frenzy seems to forget that Ye already apologized for his little stunt--publicly, multiple times, explicitly to Swift. And yet, even in the wake of those apologies a year ago, hack scribes couldn’t get enough of taking jabs at the rapper.

Some might say it’s just another example of a sensationalistic media doing what it does best. But when the country music darling Swift was caught just a couple months before the VMAs at a party at Katy Perry’s house posing with a man wearing a giant swastika on his t-shirt, that same media let it slide. “She didn’t know,” her camp said, and commentators took it at face value. After all, they said, “she’s just a girl.”

Note the difference: a blond, waifish white woman adored and fawned over by the music industry is let off the hook for posing with a symbol of hate, not even asked to explain it. But when the hip-hop artist who called out Bush’s racism on live TV has a few too many and pulls a foolish move like Ye did, that patrician pity gives way to vitriolic mockery. Never mind that these kinds of cheap stunts have come to be expected at the VMAs, the post-modern citadel of staged controversy.

As the months progressed and the haters just refused to stop hating, West receded into the background to regroup. Word is that Swift is "furious that Kanye keeps discussing the VMAs incident," which is rather ironic considering that it wasn't Kanye that spun the whole thing way out of proportion in the first place. He’s dropping a new album soon--one can hope it’s a return to form for him. And he’ll be at the VMAs this weekend. Here’s to hoping he can bounce back and rediscover some of the vitality that helped him capture hip-hop’s imagination seven or eight years ago.

As for the apology, one would hope that Ye’s finally paid his due. One would also hope we’ll eventually get the same apology from Swift for subjecting us to her music in the first place.

First appeared at the Society of Cinema and Arts website.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

McGuinness and the Business

It's a page straight out of the Palin-Beck playbook: no matter how hair-brained something is, no matter how many times it's been proven incorrect, if you say it loudly and repeatedly, then it'll be true.

At least that seems to be the train of thought from U2 manager Paul McGuinness, who recently told GQ that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) aren't doing enough to curb "piracy."

"Some things have got to come with the force of legislation, President Sarkozy understood that point when he became the first head of state to champion laws to require ISPs to reduce piracy in France.

"In Britain, the major political parties have understood it, too. Following the passing of new anti-piracy laws in April's Digital Economy Act, Britain and France now have some of the world's best legal environments for rebuilding our battered music business."

The problem is that to most people, artists included, "rebuilding" the music business to what it once was seems not only impossible, but completely undesirable. The shift in blame to ISPs is only a more recent cover for the industry's complete utter failure to cut down on peer-to-peer file sharing, and just as sure as technology evolves, kids will find a way around the barriers to get the music they want how they want it.

But most glaring is McGuinness' continued insistence that piracy has any correlation to the decline in "legal" music sales, despite continued repeated evidence to the contrary. Of course, this comes from the same man who declared at the World Economic Forum that Radiohead's "pay what you can" scheme for In Rainbows "backfired." (it didn't--slightly half of all downloaders paid an average of $10, and Radiohead made millions)

The much deeper issue in the music industry's decline has been the labels' inability to support the most innovative acts, produce consistently dynamic music, and to respect the integrity of the relationship between artists and fans. That's a contradiction that they can't rectify. In essence, it's the realization that the whole business is run by hucksters that has put folks like McGuinness in the hot-seat for the past decade.

More so since the onset of the current economic climate. Revelations that U2's business ventures don't pay a penny in taxes have lead to quite palpable resentment in their native Ireland, as ordinary citizens deal with cuts in services and layoffs. So, who are the real pirates in this case?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

We Need More of This!!!

A short but excellent blurb on yesterday's by Portland-based activist Andrea Hektor on an event in support of the strike fund for ILWU Local 5 that took place on August 27th:

"While a union fundraiser may not at first glance appear to be a newsworthy event, this one was distinctive in several ways, especially considering the state of the labor movement and union organizing today.

"It was a large, well-organized event, put on by the rank and file of the union, and consisted largely of a younger crowd. The event featured the creative endeavors of many of the local's own members, including readings from a special issue of "Working Class Stories" in
The Ne'er-Do-Well literary magazine, and music by local bands such as DJ Anjali and the Incredible Kid, Bop Out to Walk Out Jazz Quartet, Michael Ford, Nate Ashley, General Strike and Middle Ages."

It's a version of the Communist jazz parties in the 1930s updated for the hip-hop/indie generation. And yes, that's a good thing!

In the article, Andrea mentions that to the casual onlooker little would separate this show from any other in Portland (a town known for its unique music scene). And in a way, that itself is significant. The glib label of "apathetic" has never been an accurate one when applied to youth subcultures, but the current economic climate has already lead to a notable shift in young folks' attitudes. Though some may have embraced this or that style as a way of saying "fuck the world," lately that's not much of an option.

Reclaiming these types of spaces and events as both a form of cultural rebellion and economic resistance isn't just a good fit; it's downright necessary if we're going to have any kind of say in either realm. Now's the time for young working people to take an example from the folks in Portland: reach deep down into the DIY ethic and put on a show that means something.

And in the meantime, readers should consider buying the Rock Out to Walk Out CD in support of Local 5's strike fund.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Big (Racist) Mouth Strikes Again

Right now, most fans of Morrissey are probably thinking the same thing: “we’ve been here before, and it’s starting to get old.”

In an interview with British poet Simon Armitage published September 3rd in the Guardian, the former Smiths singer called the Chinese subhuman. It’s not an exaggeration, and it’s not a misquote; plainly stated, it was a jab at a nationality that comprise a full sixth of the planet and essentially relegates them to less-than-human status:

“Did you see the thing on the news about their treatment of animals and animal welfare? Absolutely horrific. You can’t help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies.”

There’s a lot that’s simply stupid about this quote. First of all, Morrissey is well aware that China isn’t alone in its wretched record on animal cruelty. The outspoken vegetarian and animal rights activist should well aware of the horrible conditions that prevail in any western slaughterhouse. One would think too that he would be just as aware of how little control most ordinary Chinese have over their proto-police state government’s policies. Ultimately, his argument smacks way too much of vile Kipling-ism donning the facade of compassion.

What’s really frustrating, however, is the overwhelming sense of deja vu. Like most Morrissey fans, I don’t relish the idea of ragging on the man. In today’s troubled era, much of Moz’s old catalogue withstands the test of time brilliantly. Songs like “Margaret on the Guillotine” and “The Queen is Dead” are reminders of how even at the coldest depths of Thatcherism there remained a core of artists giving voice to a bit of sanity. His comments lambasting conservatism have always carried with them a certain, shall we say, frankness. But then, that was part of the charm.

At least that’s how it seems until the opposite side of the coin started to glint out. 1987’s “Bengali in Platforms” didn’t view its subject matter with any real sensitivity; in fact it’s conclusion was that the South Asian immigrant didn’t “belong.” Then came ‘91’s “Asian Rut,” followed closely by the infamous track “The National Front Disco.” By the time he started to pop up at Madness shows draped in the Union Jack, it wasn’t surprising that rumors of racism were swirling.

For whatever reason, though, Moz has always been able to beat the rap. His song lyrics could somehow be explained away as artistic license, the Union Jack incident as tongue-in-cheek provocation. Artists love to push the envelope, and somewhere down the line, Mozzer just decided contradiction was his bag. What’s more, his early support for Love Music Hate Racism seemed to put an end to all the speculation.

Which makes his recent behavior all the more quizzical. In early 2008, I wrote an article for Dissident Voice examining his seemingly disparaging remarks on immigration to the New Musical Express. Many of the comments and emails I received afterwards were, to say the least, discouraging. Some seemed convinced that there was nothing racist in saying that British culture was being “thrown away.” Others, including those who identified as part of the left, simply accused me of “journalistic laziness” and “intellectual cowardice,” though they failed to say exactly what made my article lazy or cowardly.

As it all played out, Morrissey quickly released a statement denouncing the NME, providing a rather compelling argument that he didn’t actually say what the rag claimed he did. Though the “my words were taken out of context” argument is something of a stock cliche in the world of celebrity, nobody could deny that the NME’s standards have declined in recent years. A few days later, when the publication withdrew support for the upcoming Love Music Hate Racism carnival in London, Moz stepped up and donated the sizable sum of 28,000 pounds to cover the difference. When push came to shove, it seemed the singer knew which side he stood on.

And now, this. One has to wonder how many times an artist of Morrissey’s status can make comments of this nature and be let off the hook. Tom Clark, writing in the Guardian, sums it up:

“He’s caused enough upset on race in the past to know perfectly well that he ought to take care with his public remarks. But he hasn’t. So if the charge is causing racial offence, the only feasible judgment is guilty.”

Other former allies have thrown in the towel with him. Martin Smith of Love Music Hate Racism tells me that several of the organization’s participating artists have decided they want to have nothing further to do with Moz.

“You know, you can make comments once, and everyone’s entitled to be wrong or change their mind once,” says Smith. “I think the problem we’ve got with Morrissey is that he’s done it several times! I don’t believe it’s a mistake, I think it’s conscious, and I think he’s gone too far… These are much more serious statements than he’s made before. I mean ‘subhuman’ is crude racism to put it mildly. If someone like Adolf Hitler said that you’d talk about biological racism, which everyone knows is genocidal!”

So is this in fact the last straw? Is Morrissey now finally fated to be forever branded a racist? Most likely, he would deny it up and down (though it’s worth remembering that some of the modern world’s most virulent bigots would never identify as such).

In the end, though, his personal views seem less relevant than the atmosphere in which he’s let these vile comments fly. Ideas like these, long relegated to the fringes of society, are becoming common currency again thanks to the rise of an emboldened far-right. The British National Party and other like-minded groups are winning parliamentary seats in Europe. Roving bands of open fascists are stalking mosques and neighborhoods of color, targeting anyone with brown skin.

All of this makes Morrissey’s comments dangerous. Straight up. The volatile atmosphere of hate is one in which young folks’ ideas become a literal battleground. Right now there could very well be some alienated kid in urban Britannia flirting with far-right ideas. Hearing a well-respected musician get away with calling another race a “subspecies” might be just enough to push their confidence over the edge into beating down an immigrant. Still others on the opposite end of the polarization are just sick of Moz acting like he doesn’t care when the rest of us clearly do.

Plainly stated, Morrissey needs to learn what Bowie, Costello, Clapton and countless others learned before him: that pop artists don’t stand above the fray. They can say what they want and sit back with a smug smile if they wish, but they shouldn’t be surprised when reality comes back to bite them in the ass.

First appeared in Dissident Voice.