Monday, January 31, 2011

Is Respect Finally Coming To J Dilla?

If a major newspaper is calling you "the Mozart of hip-hop," you know you're doing something right. It's just too damned bad that Dilla isn't here to feel that respect coming his way.

Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, the classical musician interviewed in this Guardian article, takes a very well-educated and trained point of view on J Dilla's music. He's not wooden, however. Many left-leaning music fans might shy away from the term of "genius," but Atwood-Ferguson qualifies his own definition quite well:

"Everyone has genius within them, but not everyone, for whatever reason, manifests it. But Dilla did. He stood for taking a great risk on different levels, for continuous hard work and for courage. He is a modern genius because he captured and represented the spirit of a particular time. What he did was so deep that he has influenced a huge amount of modern music. In an age when many of his peers are still more interested in vanity, Dilla was more interested in exploration through music. And that is why he is a modern genius."

In other words, it's not a matter of being born with some unique gift while the rest of the mortals toil below, but being able to immerse yourself in the curiosity of that toil and reinterpret it that makes you a genius. And let's face it: Dilla had that.

Of course, the five years since his death have confirmed the massive respect he's carried in the hip-hop community--Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes, Erykah Badu. Atwood-Ferguson also points out--again through very analytical, intellectual terms--that J Dilla's work holds something in common with brilliance outside of his own genre. Mathematically so.

While most hip-hop utilizes four-bar structures, "Dilla loves five-bar loops. He loves sevens and elevens as well, but within the phrases of five, he will have different parts of the beat looped in threes, fives and sevens a lot as well. Two of my other favorite musicians, Billie Holliday and Elvin Jones, very naturally phrase in three, five, and seven as well, without even seemingly being consciously of it." Dilla is also compared by Atwood-Ferguson to Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc!

Terms like genius and brilliance and originality can often be thought of as intensely subjective. Unmeasurable almost. But it's worth remembering that music is mathematically based; to an extent, originality can be measured.

That may be good news for Dilla's family. Because there's something else Dilla has in common with Mozart: he died in poverty. The lupus and blood disease that claimed his life required expensive dialysis and frequent hospital visits. He had insurance, but that didn't stop the bills from piling up. He also had unpaid taxes and unpaid royalties.

With the fifth year anniversary of his death approaching, the debt is still hovering over his family's head. A flurry of tribute and benefit albums have hit the market over the past few years, including the one stumped in the article.

Any one of these albums might be worth getting--not just for the fact that Dilla really was a master of the beats, but because his family deserves some support. To take it a step further, it might be worth wondering what kind of society it is that impoverishes its greatest artistic innovators.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Taghyeer (Change)

The example of Tunisia has inspired ordinary people all over North Africa. Demonstrations, protests and riots have swept the region; most notable have been those in Egypt. Like the Ben Ali regime, the rule of Hosni Mubarak has been profoundly undemocratic and violently repressive. It has also, like its former Tunisian counterpart, been supported by the US.

It will no doubt take a much bigger fight to topple Mubarak. The country is of much more strategic importance to the US, and the revolution that threw out Ben Ali has no doubt provoked Mubarak to dig in his heels. Nonetheless, the protests in Egypt have momentum, and it's with the intent of solidarity that this video--by Egyptian rapper Halim--is posted. As with the vid from the General a couple weeks back, I have been unable to find a translation of what is being said here. Anyone who has more luck than I is more than welcome to post them in a comment.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ugly Micky

As the Haitian elections finally look to be crawling toward their conclusion, the Haitian people themselves are rightfully cynical. Aristide's Lavalas movement--which continues to be the country's most popular party--is still illegal. Entire areas are still consumed with rubble and disease, foreign troops still troll the streets. With the ruling party finally withdrawing its candidate, the choice is now between a former first lady and a musician.

It's not Wyclef Jean, but compared to Michel Martelly, Clef almost looks like Toussaint L'Ouverture. "Sweet Micky," as he's known, has a twenty-plus-year reputation. A key figure in the reinvigoration of the island's "Compa" sound, his outlandish performances and musical innovation have arguably made him Haiti's most recognized musician.

His politics, however, are scary. Straight up. He counts himself not just as a "friend" of current President Rene Preval, but deposed and recently returned dictator "Baby Doc" Duvalier. Prior to the popular uprisings that deposed Duvalier, Martelly ran a nightclub that was known as a favorite hangout of military brass and the ruling elite.

After Aristide was originally overthrown in 1991, Martelly played concerts where he made statements publicly celebrating the coup and denouncing any efforts to reinstall the president. He has even been rumored to join up with the violent pro-coup death squads that carried out stealth assassinations during the three-year interval between Aristide's fall and return to power. Martelly was, of course, also a fierce cheerleader of the second coup against Aristide in 2004.

Now, Martelly is--by the estimations of many in the media establishment--the favored candidate in Haiti. He originally came in third, and now with the ruling party's candidate out of the way, he's in the running to become the next prez. Given that less than a quarter of all voters even bothered during the November election, any legitimacy will have to come from outside sources.

So it's no surprise that he's cozied up to Washington; he's publicly stated that he has no intention of kicking out the UN-US occupation. He has said in interviews that he is in favor of "anything that will help the private sector." Duvalier may have been arrested when he returned to Haiti, but a Martelly regime wouldn't bring anything much different than what the former strongman might have to offer.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Pop-Stardom, Charity and Broken Promises

The mainstream notion of the "socially active musician" has taken a lot of hits in the past couple years. Bono, for example, isn't taken as seriously as he was prior to the Great Recession. In fact, it seems the more time goes on, the more his own lavish wealth makes his charity work seem like condescending crumbs.

Add to that list Madonna. The pop goddess has a direct connection with the country of Malawi; she's adopted two kids from there. Possibly in return for the preferential treatment she got from the government, she pledged to build an all-girl school in the village of Chinkhota, one of the most deprived in a desperately poor country. The projected cost for the school was $15 million, and was touted as a state-of-the-art facility intended to create "future women leaders."

Now, the school has been scrapped. Madonna claims she is as committed as ever to helping Malawi's strapped educational system, but that seems little consolation to the residents of the village forced to relinquish ancestral land for the school to be built.

It's essentially the same dynamic of charter schools in this country--devastation and further disenfranchisement masquerading as charitable salvation from the rich. Permanently overhauling Malawi's educational system means overturning a corrupt government that has willingly overlooked its own shoddy record on women's empowerment and child labor.

It means not just handing out millions to that same government, but questioning why it is that the richest continent on earth also hosts one of the world's poorest populations.

The fact that the current president, Bingu ma Mutharika, has said publicly he has no idea what will become of the school or the land merely highlights that same corruption and inequity. Rather than challenge it, Madonna seems to have gotten more by buddying up to it. It's great PR don't you know.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Who Stole the Soul? Pt. 2

There's been a real shift in hip-hop over the past couple of years. That's certainly not news to anyone, but it's disorienting nonetheless. We all remember that two years ago the rap community rallied around Obama and used his left-leaning rhetoric as a platform for all manner of concerns for the hip-hop generation. Poverty, police brutality, housing, war, the list goes on.

Now the complete utter failure of Obama's administration to deliver on anything has really left something of a void; the same thing happened with Clinton in the '90s and was briefly filled by a rising movement against globalization and corporate domination that peaked right before 9/11. And like then, this present admin has definitely seen some of the best progressive voices dragged into making some frustrating concessions to the establishment.

Common is now hosting Christmas tree lighting ceremonies at the White House. The Roots have jumped on the "education reform" bandwagon by donating songs to anti-union hit-pieces like Waiting For Superman. That the privately run charter schools touted by the film do nothing to actually improve the state of education in low-income neighborhoods doesn't appear to have been presented to Black Thought and ?uestlove.

Here in Chicago, we even have Rhymefest trading in his jeans and bling for a suit in order to run for 20th ward alderman. The centerpieces of his campaign are "jobs and crime," but the way he intends to go about it is to put more cops on the street and give financial breaks to businesses!

It would be tempting to look at all of this and say that hip-hop has sold out, lost its edge, and that it's not even worth commenting anymore. The images trotted out by MTV and BET make it pretty easy to reinforce that notion. But then, it's a line that is trotted out periodically anyway.

As always, it completely ignores the amount of artists out there who haven't completely gone along, who have questioned the turn of the events over the past couple years as Obama folded on issue after issue, the economy continued to stagger, and the US has continued its crimes abroad. I have, of course, written an article recently about exactly such artists, but it's worth nothing that I'm not just talking about dead prez and the like.

There's Mr. Lif, who was open to supporting Obama back in the day but hasn't turned his face away from the reality. Blitz the Ambassador doesn't appear to have caved, and neither does Nas despite his "Black President" becoming one of the best-known rap anthems of Obama's candidacy.

Then there are the myriad artists and acts who have emerged since Obama took office. Freddie Gibbs, Currensy, Willie Evans Jr. and all the others whose outlook is uniquely that of the new decade. They're independent and critical-minded even while still maintaining the high amount of street cred that's needed as communities continue to decline and spiral.

So no, Obama hasn't sucked out the soul from hip-hop (from Common maybe), it's just that, as always, these aren't artists that major radio or TV want to cover the way they did during the campaign. For progressive ideas to seize this narrow lens again, and for these artists to take those steps toward rallying these ideas, it's going to take another kind of shift--away from the voting booths and into the streets. Sounds a lot like the conclusion of my post about international hip-hop last week, doesn't it? The pattern is intentional.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Patti Smith On Success

Nobody knows how to stick to their guns better than Patti Smith. The Saturday interview at The Guardian backs that up. Here the writer speaks of the encouragement she received from Robert Mapplethorpe back in the early days:

"[Mapplethorpe] was, it must be said, working with willing material, in that she had outsize bravado, and despite their extreme poverty (when she first arrived in New York, she slept on benches in Central Park), an instinctive integrity: when she was still stacking books a couple of people 'saw potential in me and offered me quite a bit of money to do records as early as 1971, '72, but not in my own way. They would have a vision of me – a pop vision, or how they could transform me, and the money didn't tempt me.' Was there ever a moment when that was quite a hard choice? 'No.' The answer is sharp, immediate. 'If somebody said I'll give you a million dollars, but you have to go against your own grain, you just have to do what I say--it would take me one second. I've never been tortured by something like that. Tormented more about what line to use in a poem, or the right word to use in a sentence. All I've ever wanted, since I was a child, was to do something wonderful.'"

The rest, as they say, is history. The flourishing of the Lower East Side arts scene, the arrival of punk, a National Book Award, and status as a living icon. All without a single Billboard hit. Let's see if anyone reveres Avril Lavigne like this in thirty years.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Piracy Funds Truth

One of the many overlooked revelations from the ongoing WikiLeaks fiasco would be familiar to music fans. In the midst of all the diplomatic subversion, the backroom deals, the imperial meddling, the US embassy in Madrid still had time to threaten the Spanish government with a “blacklist” if it didn’t pass a new copyright law more in line with the rest of the West. If approved, the law would in essence turn file-sharers into criminals just like in the States. Doesn’t exactly cast the the US embassy in the best light. No wonder the establishment is howling for Julian Assange’s blood.

If any artist understands the implications of this, it’s M.I.A. She very well may be the musical equivalent of WikiLeaks: tech savvy, uncompromising, brutally honest. She also spend the bulk of 2010 being hounded to no end. So it’s appropriate that she wrapped up a rough year with an online mixtape puckishly titled Vicki Leekx.

The album is both a return to form and something new for the pop-culture-jammer. One of the few valid critiques of Maya was that its cold, stripped-down computerized beats tended to overtake the sincerity of its lyrics (then again, that was possibly the point). On Vicki Leekx, that same feel is there, but pulled back even further, throwing the balance back in favor of her signature bombast. Still, there’s nothing nearly radio-friendly as “Sunshowers” or “Paper Planes” here, or even “Born Free” for that matter. It’s a firm rebuke that confounds the listener almost as much as it probably does the critics and record execs.

In that respect, the free, pro-pirate availability of Vicki Leekx is just as much a part its content as its form. Overall, the whole thing has the feel of a hack-tivist communique. Nineteen tracks long, it runs as one continuous string, and no song is longer than a couple minutes. Now and again we hear a tinny, robotic voice delivering info-age slogans with cool, calculated menace. Every possible Nintendo-fied sound you can think of is packed in there; it might also be the most effective use of auto-tune this writer has heard yet. And then there are the moments when the cacophony clears for M.I.A.’s own voice:

“They say I pick big battles with the government
Immigration department
For the people that live in the tenements
Our voices carry our sentiments.”

It’s more a brief warning than a manifesto--much like the fractured, raw, uncensored and often enraging material that Assange and company have made public. In short, this is M.I.A. in her element. She’s always been keen on blurring the line between the personal and political. And it’s these moments that are the most rewarding on Vicki Leekx.

“Marsha/Britney” lambastes the ever-present model culture with searing vitriol directed against women who “wanna be a model for American Apparel.” “Your shoes could feed a village,” she rails, “you should think about that.” It’s a moment that manages to be worldly and specific, delicious and poignant at the same time. (Now just wait for the song to pop up on the playlist at your local American Apparel location; that’ll really be a head-fuck!)

For all the great moments here, though, the feel of Vicki Leekx takes some getting used to. Much like Maya, a first listen is disorienting, perhaps even more so thanks to the brevity of each song. Listeners aren’t presented with quick and easy hooks that they can pick and choose on their iPods. Instead, we’re forced to be patient through the entire 36 minutes to get the full effect, and we’re left with the distinct feeling that there’s something very much verboten about these sounds and ideas.

Several times throughout the album we’re told by a sampled-and-processed M.I.A. that music should be free, and by the end we’re paying such close attention that we can’t help but ask why it isn’t. Why do culture and information pose such a threat? It’s a question we’re being asked repeatedly nowadays. Perhaps when the truth is outlawed, only outlaws will tell the truth.

First appeared at

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Macy Gray, Boycott Israel!

This went up on Macy Gray's Facebook page on Monday:

"I'm booked for 2 shows in Tel Aviv. I'm getting a lot of letters from activists urging/begging me to boycott by NOT performing in protest of Apartheid against the Palestinians. What the Israeli government is doing to the Palestinians is disgusting, but I wanna go. I gotta lotta fans there I don't want to cancel on and I don't know how my NOT going changes anything. What do you think? Stay or go?"

There are very straightforward answers to Macy's questions:

-Historical precedent. This is what worked for South African Apartheid. Artists boycotted, refusing to play in South Africa, and were part of something much bigger worldwide that brought down that structure.

-It worked because it took legitimacy away from that country's system. By performing in Israel, on land stolen from the Palestinians, is to bring an air of cultural credibility to that nation. Israel needs to be made into a pariah state until equality for the Palestinians is delivered.

Folks should send these reasons (and others) to Macy. Apparently, since Monday she has announced on Twitter that she will indeed be playing Tel Aviv, but that doesn't mean further pressure can't work. An Israeli anti-Apartheid activist has also started up a "20 Days to Macy Gray Project" page on Facebook to the same end.

The shows are scheduled for the 11th and 12th of February. If fans and other music lovers can manage to get her to boycott, it would put her in league with Elvis Costello, Gill Scott-Heron, the Pixies and many others. And, of course, it would be a victory for the Palestinians.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Hip-Hop vs. the US

Jared Ball brings up a worthwhile point in his recent piece at Black Agenda Report. The question isn't whether he is correct--it is what the implications are for people who rightfully see hip-hop as a voice of the oppressed.

As Ball points out, the United States political establishment has gone out of its way to force hip-hop into a box of some kind. "Make it more friendly, more marketable," say the record labels. "Make it less threatening" say the politicians and police. The two are in essence a common goal, and certainly have both played a hindrance on hip-hop's development as real rebel music. Meanwhile, says Ball:

"Hip-hop flourishes overseas while becoming grotesque and underdeveloped at home. In foreign lands, hip-hop is seen as part of the American brand, along with Barack Obama. But domestically, as the product of a 'subnation' within the U.S., real hip hop is suppressed, just as are the political institutions of its creators. Black America must develop and reclaim its own brands on the cultural and political levels."

The international facet is an important one. Rappers from outside the United States have long taken the sounds emanating from the States and made it their own as a vehicle for radical cultural expression. DAM in Palestine. Afrikan Boy from Nigeria by way of the UK. Countless acts from the ghettos of Paris, Seoul and Caracas.

There is definitely a gap between the hip-hop from these corners of the globe and what the "birthplace" of the genre has put out. The danger, though, lies in concluding that all of this makes American hip-hop irredeemable, or that the hegemony of the industry and mainstream is monolithic--that it can't be toppled or subjected to the pressure of artists and fans.

Other countries have their own industry--albeit less powerful as that in the US. Which may explain why the hip-hop we do manage to hear from foreign shores tends toward more vibrancy or political charge. There is a missing component in this scenario, however.

That component is probably best illustrated by the revolution in Tunisia. A few weeks ago, nobody knew who the General was. But after the upsurge of the "Tunisian Intifada" and its vicious repression, his video became near-viral.

The question isn't if this kind of insurgency will push our music forward here in the US. The question is when.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go watch the "American Idol" premiere.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

No Workers, No Guitars, No Music

There will be an article forthcoming on this topic, but in the meantime it is worth hammering home that the workers at Cort in Korea deserve our solidarity. Cort manufactures guitar parts for many of the best-known companies--Fender, Gibson, Ibanez. Without their labor, the music we love and play simply would not be possible, and right now they are being thrown away by Cort and everyone who does business with them.

Last week the locked out workers demonstrated in front of the NAMM conference in LA, and has received support from Rage Against the Machine, the Coup, Bootsy Collins and others. Make no mistake: Fender is scared silly about the possibilities of this campaign. This letter, which was written mere days ago, has provoked a virulent little response from one Larry Thomas... Fender's new CEO. More on that later.

The petition can be signed here.


Mr. Thomas,

The mass layoffs at the Korean Cort and Cor-tek factories is utterly condemnable. For companies of this size to make billions of dollars off their workers for years on end, and then thank them with such unceremonious treatment merely highlights what the workers themselves have known for quite some time: that they work for soulless, ungrateful boardroom-dwellers with little care or concern for the quality of their product.

As you well know, the workers who build your guitars have taken their show on the road. Their message has already reached high-profile artists and musicians who have urged support for the employees' campaign. Many of these artists have been very public endorsers of Fender, Ibanez, Gibson and other guitar brands manufactured at Cort and Cor-tek. Now, those endorsements, and the reputation that they have brought to these companies are at risk. And rightfully so.

It's a process I intend to further. As a music journalist, I plan to do what I can to urge my readers and anyone else I can reach to boycott products built at Cort and Cor-tek--as well as all companies affiliated with the factories--until the workers are re-hired and their demands met. I plan to give as big a platform as possible to the workers, their spokespeople, and artists who are supporting them with the intent of widening that platform even further.

True, I'm only one writer, but I would imagine there are countless musicians, artists and plain old music-lovers out there who will be sickened by the treatment of your workers. These are not times when rich fat-cats of your ilk are well-liked, and any excuse to stick it to you will likely be welcomed by a large swath of erstwhile customers and clients. If it grows big enough, then, well, to be crass, you're screwed.

Alexander Billet

Friday, January 14, 2011

A King For Our Times

As folks know, Martin Luther King Day is coming up on Monday. This means two things. One: RF won't be posting that day. And two: we are bound to go through the same sanitized run-around witnessed around this time every year, the one where the good doctor is re-hashed as a moderate, establishment-friendly preacher who somehow managed to win progress without struggle.

It's for this reason that this video seemed appropriate: Nina Simone's "Why? (The King of Love is Dead)". Given the atrocious and shocking events in Arizona last week, it stands to reason that the version of MLK Lite is going to be twice as prevalent. Well meaning though this archetype might be, it's wrong. What's more, it opens the door for the Pentagon to say King would "understand" today's wars, not to mention for troglodytes like Glenn Beck to seize on his memory.

This song, however, pays tribute to a very different Martin Luther King--one that was peaceful, yes, but uncompromising, tenacious, and toward the end of his life, radical.

Despite Simone's original performance of this song, it was written not by her but by her bassist Gene Taylor. Taylor wrote it in the days following King's assassination, and was performing with Simone during when it was recorded live mere days later.

These were the years when calls of Civil Rights were morphing into those for Black Power, when the limitations of working "within the system" were exposed. Simone herself was affected by this process of evolution; so was King. By the end of his life he was ostracized by liberals for taking on the Vietnam War and initiating the Poor People's Campaign. His assassination pushed this trend forward for the movement he would leave behind.

That's what makes this song work--its refusal to mistake admiration for lionization, and the admission that the work isn't over.

"You see, my friends, you begin to ask the questions. 'Who owns the oil?' You begin to ask the question, 'Who owns the iron ore?' You begin to ask the question, 'Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?'"

"As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask--and rightly so--what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today--my own government."

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Music For Us, By Bastards

For the past few months, Chicago Sun-Times music scribe Jim DeRogatis has been watching the imminent privatization of the Windy City's main music festivals like a hawk. When last reported on this site, only one company had responded to the offer from the city--a firm by the name of Celebrate Chicago LLC. Problem was that nobody knew who this company was. Speculations swirled.

Now, the info is out: Celebrate Chicago LLC is the joint venture of the Illinois Restaurant Association and Jam Productions. The current head of the Association is a former chief of staff for Mayor Daley. Jam Productions is the second largest concert promoter in the country, right behind Ticketmaster-Live Nation.

Jam's other gigs have included Coachella and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fesitval, but its plan for the previously free fests in Chicago's Grant Park is basically what was expected:

"Celebrate Chicago wants to boost sagging attendance and upgrade talent by charging the $20 admission fee, with $10 of that money rebated to patrons in the form of food and beverage tickets.

"The admission fee would apply during weekends, holidays and after 4 p.m. on weekdays. Children under 10 would continue to get in free.

"Celebrate Chicago also proposes to follow the lead of Milwaukee’s popular Summerfest by selling concert tickets for its biggest-name entertainment stage.

"Concert tickets would range from $25 to $65, but the $20 Taste admission fee would be waived for concert goers.

"Taste attendees already pay an “amenities charge” of $2 for every strip of a dozen food tickets sold for $8. Celebrate Chicago would eliminate that 'hidden fee.'

"General admission tickets would also be pre-sold in May and June for a bargain fee of $8.

"Celebrate Chicago’s bid also includes a $10 admission fee for Blues and Jazz Fest. Admission to Viva Chicago, Celtic, Gospel and Country Fest would remain free."

If some festivals are going to remain free, then it's certainly better than some feared. But the main jewels--Blues and Jazz and Taste of Chicago--are now charging. What's worse, they're establishing what amounts to a tiered system for Taste: basic admission and a higher price for the "big-name acts." No matter how they try to spin it, this situation is not by any means better.

Celebrate Chicago claims to be charging so it has the ability to bring such big names into the fests in the first place. But the city has that kind of money; it always has. If Daley weren't so steadfast on giving the city's rich every break he could think of, it would be guaranteed. And so would our right to culture.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Dying Bohemia

Right after the New Year, socialist author Sherry Wolf posted a piece on her blog that definitely resonates with me, and should with anyone else who cares about the ability of real art to thrive in these times. Wolf lives in New York City, and though she points out that she's never been a particularly big fan of Patti Smith or Robert Mapplethorpe, her proximity to the dying bohemias of NYC spurred her to read Smith's recent memoir Just Kids:

"Reading Just Kids a few days after finishing Richard Price’s modern-day hipster drama, Lush Life, it was impossible not to conclude that the ultimate consumer society consumes even its own counterculture. The Village and Chelsea Hotel drew generations of the offbeat toward places where they could meet fellow travelers who wanted to push the edges of politics and culture and live somewhat more freely than what they saw elsewhere. Today, these places have been hollowed out by the market, their history sold back to us as retro fashion. Synthetic, pricey and covered in white tablecloths all the way to Avenue D...

"Whatever one might make of the chaotic rhythms and visuals of the Chelsea crowd, they expressed the hopes and struggles of their time. They were fortunate to live in an era when a Mapplethorpe, a white boy from a strict Catholic middle-class home, and a Hendrix, a Black child of an alcoholic mom who died when he was just 15, could interact with each other daily and learn and debate among a vast circle of cultural strivers."

It's got to be said that Wolf is right on the money here. In fact, it's nothing we haven't heard before; the placement of these exciting neighborhoods in the cross-hairs of the market has been around long enough for it to come to the attention of radical economists and urban planning analysts along with cultural writers. People may remember my article a couple years ago about the monstrosity that currently sits in what was once CBGB.

Where Wolf strays from the normal narrative, however, is priceless in its hope:

"And of course, artists will always find ways of meeting and mixing with each other in any city, no matter how hard the market tries to homogenize, synchronize and sterilize us all. There’s always Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and dare I say, even Staten Island."

Sure, a bit snarky, but it also hits on the basic and inevitable dynamic of art. It's worth remembering that what landed the rebel musicians, artistic misfits and Zen lunatics into the Alphabet Cities of the world is that they didn't have anywhere else to go that would accept them. With those enclaves being sucked up into the cogs of the machine, the process starts up again. None of this is to forgive the shameless way in which developers mow down these beautifully gritty areas. It's just to say that there's nothing inevitable about the stamping out of real art.

With the crisis stubbornly sticking around (and moreover morphing into one of city budget cuts and austerity), there's no real telling where the next dynamic borough of rebellious creativity will be. There's no real way to tell what it will look like either. But it will happen. Maybe it won't be Brooklyn, but it will be somewhere.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tunisian Rapper Arrested in Wake of Protests

For almost a month, Tunisia has been in upheaval. On December 17th a 26-year-old unemployed college graduate named Mohammed Bouazizi burned himself alive in his hometown of Sidi Bouzid; he would die in hospital three weeks later. In the meantime, his action has set off a wave of protest that has gripped every major city in Tunisia. Unemployment in Tunisia is officially 14%, though most experts estimate it to be much higher. The response of the notoriously corrupt ruling party, headed by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has been indifference and more corruption.

Bouazizi's death clearly ignited a powder-keg of discontent. Since the protests took off in the days following, an estimated 50 people have been killed by police and troops.

It's notable, given how much sensational ink the US media spilled over the uprisings in Iran eighteen months ago, that the American papers are giving little attention to this new movement. That the Tunisian government is on nominally good terms with the US government no doubt plays a role. The similarities between the two popular movements are notable, though. Unemployment, poverty and undemocratic regimes have played a role in both. Like Iran, protesters have made use of Facebook and Twitter in coordinating their actions.

And it's for this reason that, like Iran, Tunisian authorities have done their best to quash these cultural tools. In the past days, several bloggers and other "internet activists" have been arrested. Some have been released.

Among those arrested was one Hamada Ben-Amor, a 22-year-old living in the Mediterranean city of Sfax. Ben-Amor is rapper and musician who goes by the moniker "the General." As the protests and riots gained steam, Ben-Amor took to the studio to record a song entitled "President, Your People Are Dying," which evidently takes up the myriad problems facing Tunisian youth and questions the legitimacy of Ben Ali's 23-year rule. It was soon posted on YouTube.

Last Friday, according to Ben-Amor's brother Hamdi, "Some 30 plainclothes policemen came to our house to arrest Hamada and took him away without ever telling us where to. When we asked why they were arresting him, they said 'he knows why.'"

No word yet on whether Hamada Ben-Amor has been released.

I have no idea what the General is saying in this song, but it's posted here out of solidarity more than anything else. Hip-hop's role as a music of global resistance has been cemented over the past decade, providing a generation of youth a vehicle with which to break the bonds of invisibility. It's this exact reason that the Tunisian government fears it.

Monday, January 10, 2011

This Year Goes to Eleven

By now, 2010 is old news. Even as I write this, most other scribes are busy delving into right-wing assassination attempts in Arizona and uprisings in the north of Africa. Already the specters of yesteryear seem far, far away.

And yet, as we know from Orwell, it's impossible to know much about today without a balance sheet of the past. So it goes with music as much as anything else. In fact, it might be said that music was where the gap between have and have-not was most blatantly displayed.

The powers that be saw it fit to end 2010 by giving away one of the last bastions of cultural democracy to the money-grubbers. Net neutrality has been a buzzword for quite some time, the kind of thing one would expect to be done away with by the likes of a Reagan or Bush. It was Obama's FCC, however, that finally approved a neutrality rule so sweethearted it might have been written by Google and Comcast executives.

As Huffington Post's Timothy Karr wrote: "The rule is so riddled with loopholes that it's become clear that this FCC chairman crafted it with the sole purpose of winning the endorsement of AT&T and cable lobbyists, and not defending the interests of the tens of millions of Internet users." Some of these loopholes are big enough to drive a dump-truck of money through, but then, that's the point. Soon cable and phone companies will be able to charge for top search engine placement, in essence exiling those who can't afford under obscurity.

Anyone wondering whether this will have an influence on the music we listen to would do well to ask M.I.A. The most famous electro-rapper of the indie world has certainly seen her fair share of controversy during her career, but 2010 she practically had a target painted on her back. When her shocking video for "Born Free" hit the net, it was buried so deep as to be almost invisible for days.

That wasn't the end of it. Maya, the exciting, darkly subversive album featuring "Born Free" was just short of ridiculed by the press this year--most infamously in the New York Times Magazine hit-piece by Lynn Hirschberg.

No wonder why those in charge don't want this kind of brutal honesty coming out. The WikiLeaks fiasco in the final months of 2010 and the ensuing crackdown revealed just how deep the rabbit hole goes around the world. Keeping track of every single revelation to emerge via the cables borders on the impossible, but one of the many to get lost in the shuffle may say the most about what's in store for music in the coming months: the discovery of US meddling in Spain's own Internet laws.

Previously the Spanish government's attitude to peer-to-peer file sharing was relaxed, a live-and-let-live contrast to most of the western world's scorched-earth campaigns against "piracy." The new copyright law, however, is more in line with the US' own, and that's no accident. Turns out officials from the American Embassy in Madrid more or less wrote the thing themselves.

Says Spanish journalist Esperanza Hernandez, her own government "behaved in a way that was subservient in defending the interests of the United States to the detriment of the rights of Spanish citizens to access culture and knowledge through the Internet."

Welcome to the world of culture in the 21st century, one where arts and information are seen as mere commodities to be bought and sold rather than essential rights. But then, the Great Recession has shown that damn little of anything we hold dear is sacred when the question of profit arises.

As much as we would love an even-handed establishment in these troubled times, the fact is that these kinds of shameless handouts were the rule rather than exception this past year. Ticketmaster and Live Nation, two of the most notorious names in concert promotion, were allowed to effectively monopolize their market this year. What scraps still exist of accessible culture--like Chicago's free music summer music festivals--are now being handed over to the same ne'er-do-wells that got us into this mess in the first place.


But with the crack of austerity’s whip also comes the backlash of resistance--no matter how small. True, nothing to happen this side of the Atlantic reached the level of the evenements in France, and the student protests that radiated from the west coast was a fraction of what Paul Mason called the "dubstep rebellion" in Britain. But the cracks that formed in 2010 may very well prove to be a shadow of things to come.

As jobs continued to hemorrhage from America's urban centers, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, one of the world's most respected, hit the picket line against management's demand that the players give up a third of their pay.

Within days, the DSO had gained solidarity from Teamsters, factory workers and ordinary community members. At stake isn't just the DSO's well-being, but the basic right to quality music. Says cellist and spokesperson Haden McKay: "If they can make a major orchestra take this kind of pay cut--if they can open that door in Detroit--then you can be sure that when they go to the negotiating table in Baltimore or Dallas or Philadelphia or Denver, they're going to hear the same demands."

The players have been on strike since October, performing free concerts to drum up support--and the willingness of ordinary folks to provide them with that may be what makes or breaks their strike in 2011.

This past year was also one when just about anyone from outside the US had a target painted on their back--in particular those of Latin and Arab origin. Arizona turned its immigrant population into criminals in the spring, not long before Tea Partiers and other sundry bigots raised their hue-and-cry about the "Ground Zero mosque."

So it was with great relief that an organization like the Sound Strike took root in April. Spearheaded by Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha, it's gone on to gain the allegiance of a wide swath of artists refusing to play in Arizona until the draconian SB 1070 is struck down. Kanye West, Gogol Bordello, Tenacious D, Pitbull, Sonic Youth, Massive Attack, Los Tigres del Norte, Conor Oberst and several others have lent support, and the collective's strength shows no sign of dissipating.

Less publicized but as striking has been the refusal of artists to play in Israel in protest of the savage blockade of Gaza. Artists like Elvis Costello and Gil Scott Heron were some of the first to cancel gigs in the wake of Operation Cast Lead. But with Israel's brutal attack on ships bringing aid to Gaza, the revulsion only spread. The Klaxons got on board, so did the Pixies and Gorillaz, along with many others already supporting the Sound Strike and countless lesser known acts.

"It worked in South Africa" said Eoin Dillon of the band Kila, one of 150 Irish artists who in August pledged to not play in Israel. It's a telling parallel; taken together, the artistic boycotts of Arizona and Israel is the biggest musical protest against racism and oppression since Artists United Against Apartheid declared "I ain't gonna play Sun City" in the 1980s.

The indulgent concept of art for art's sake is an insidious one, and it shows no sign of extinction anytime soon. But the game has changed; illusions in the priorities of those in charge have eroded, and along with them the notion that artists have no role other to dance and sing. If 2010 is of any significance, then the sounds of rebellion may very well be the theme of 2011.

First appeared at