Monday, February 28, 2011

No Tunes for Oil

I came across an ad for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival recently. It looks to be a great lineup this year: Arcade Fire, Lupe Fiasco, Wilco, Trombone Shorty, Lauryn Hill, Mumford & Sons, Sonny Rollins, the list goes on. Then I spied the main sponsor: Shell Oil.

I thought it was a joke at first. True, it wasn't this particular oil giant who recently spilled millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf, devastating the ecosystem and taking an untold toll on the local economy. Still, this seems in poor taste.

But then, there is space in New Orleans for corporate takeovers like there is in few other cities. The Katrina aftermath essentially did away with what little public infrastructure there was left. Most schools in the Big Easy are charters--tax funded, but run by public money. An activist friend I have down there has told me that it's almost impossible to find a decent meeting space because most of the public libraries still have yet to reopen.

Little wonder then that an essential part of New Orleans' cultural face has been overtaken by as brazen a company as Shell. Meanwhile, here in Chicago, our own fests are being sold off bit-by-bit. And it didn't even take a hurricane; it took Daley.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Sound of Revolt In Madison

As I write this, 100,000 people have descended upon Madison to protest Governor Walker's attempts at stripping the state's unions of any power. Tom Morello has returned, and Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary is rumored to be performing too. It is the largest protest in state history, and the irony now appears to be that in trying to take out the power of organized labor, he has unleashed it the way we haven't seen in quite some time.

Pittsburgh rapper Jasiri X--the same who as made a name for himself writing joints protesting the Sean Bell shootings and in solidarity with Egypt--dropped this video just as things were starting to pick up. It was filmed on the initial days of the organizing:

Dropkick Murphys have also released a new song entitled "Take 'Em Down" in solidarity with the state's workers. The accompanying statement reads that "Dropkick Murphys would like to take a moment to acknowledge the struggles of the working people of Wisconsin and to pledge our support and solidarity by releasing the song 'Take Em Down' from our upcoming album. We think it’s appropriate at the moment and hope you like it." They have also released a limited edition t-shirt, the sales of which will go to benefit the Workers' Rights Emergency Response Fund.

It's only a glimpse of the outpouring of solidarity that's been sent Madison's way. And, as it looks, between Madison and Cairo, this may just be the beginning of something. If it is, then this is also only the beginning of a new and relevant flowering in music and art. All the more reason for any and all artists to throw their name on the "Bread and Roses" statement.

Friday, February 25, 2011

"...And Roses Too"

So far, this statement has gotten the support of myself and a handful of other writers, MCs and musicians. But it needs more folks signed on. Tomorrow there is a massive march planned in Madison, and the central labor council has called a general strike in the event that Governor Walker's awful bill passes--the first time the words "general strike" have been floated with any seriousness in this country for a while. This is an "all hands on deck moment." Any cultural workers out there at all should definitely support this statement!


We, the undersigned musicians, artists and cultural workers state our wholehearted support for Wisconsin’s public sector workers in their battle against Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s draconian anti-union bill. Futhermore, we demand the Governor immediately withdraw the legislation.

If this bill passes, it will in effect do away with any collective bargaining power for Wisconsin’s public sector unions. Tens of thousands of teachers, office workers, nurses, public parks employees and others will be hung out to dry, the security of their families’ futures thrown into deep question. If successful, it’s only a matter of time until all workers in every sector and every state face the same attacks.

The toll of this will go well beyond simple bread and butter. As artists, we understand that a robust culture is dependent on everyone having access to the means to create and express themselves. A further decline in working people's living standards, in essence, means that the arts and all the finer things in life will become the providence of the privileged.

Gov. Walker and others in support of his bill have waxed sanctimonious about “shared sacrifice” in the name of balancing the state’s budget, but we know better. We know from history that troubled economic times always bring with them politicians seeking to pay for a crisis on workers’ backs. That Walker attempted to sneak this legislation through while saying nothing of taxes on the state’s richest citizens reveals that he plans to walk in this same ignoble tradition.

We also know that in times like these, workers learn to fight back. History is filled with such heroic men and women who stood up for their rights to dignity and recognition in this country and beyond. From Cairo to Madison, today’s workers appear ready to do the same.

When ordinary folks recognize their own power, it can change everything. Such moments have produced some of the best music, art and writing of all time. “This Land Is Your Land.” “Guernica.” The Grapes of Wrath. The question for every artist, worker and community member today is the same today as it was then: “Which Side Are You On?”


Son of Nun, hip-hop artist and MC, Baltimore
Socially Conscious Arts | SOCIARTS, Los Angeles
Phillip Morris, rapper, Chicago
Reebee Garofalo, musician, HONK! Organizing Committee
Alexander Billet, music journalist, Chicago

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Global Reach of Hip-Hop

The following is a letter I wrote to in response to an overall excellent article written by British socialist writer Mike Marqusee. It appeared yesterday. One caveat may be noticed by discerning readers: I have indeed myself used this term "world music" in my own labels here at Rebel Frequencies. This was more a move made out of expediency than any actual stock placed in the term itself. I thought utility might outweigh the condescending nature of the term. Marqusee's article has definitely pushed me in a different direction, and it is hereby struck from my repertoire.


Big applause to Mike Marqusee's article "The 'world music' fallacy." That condescending term has begged to be called out for quite some time. That every non-Western style can be lumped into the same weirdly oblique category merely speaks toward the grip that economic and political imperialism holds over our global culture.

The endlessly rich and varied musical traditions of the planet deserve better. Quite frankly, we wouldn't expect an observation any less sharp from the man who's written some excellent stuff on the collision of music and struggle.

There is a bone to be picked, however, with his assertion that "The only music with anything like a global reach today is the one that's never found in the 'world music' racks--mainstream Western pop, whose ubiquity stems from the global distribution of power and wealth."

I think that while the basic thrust of this statement is true, it overlooks the role that hip-hop has come to play in the favelas and Bantustans of the world.

Of course, there's a methodological gray area here, namely whether "pop" is still a catch-all for every "popular" music or whether it's come to describe a sound all its own. Though there's been plenty of crossover in recent years, it would still be hard to lump artists like Jay-Z and Eminem in with Katy Perry and the like.

In any event, I believe that the rise of rap and hip-hop across the planet can be attributed to something much deeper than the billions of bucks behind it. In April 2009, I had the good fortune to ask Mahmoud Jreri of Palestinian hip-hop group DAM "why hip-hop?" Mahmoud made it clear that he heard the story of his own people in the words of 2Pac and Public Enemy:

"I think we share the same social and political struggle [as African Americans or Latin Americans] or any minority living in a different place on this earth. If I can bring them my message through music, they can bring me their message through music.

"I knew about Latin and African American music through hip-hop, and how they live. I hope that I can bring my life to them, tell them how I live. It's a worldwide struggle for equality and for ending the regimes so people can be equal."

In short, hip-hop's global popularity isn't just the music industry's doing, it's the content that matters.

This is music that originated in the hardest ghettos of the Bronx, and though the biz can certainly try, that essential element can't be removed. It's this that explains why young MCs can be found on any street corner in Uganda, Venezuela, India, Tunisia, South Korea and the world over.

In fact, hip-hop has become so embraced by the people of the world that it's even led legends like the inimitable Chuck D to insist that the rest of the world now surpasses the U.S. in terms of great lyricists.

There's been a real button put on this by the recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, which have both produced stellar tracks from artists of those countries that have quickly gone viral. It's hard to listen to El General's "Head of State" or Arabian Knightz "Not Your Prisoner" without admitting these artists could rival any rebel rapper here in the States.

Hip-hop's role as soundtrack of these revolutions speaks toward what it is that makes this music so popular all over the planet. If it were mere dollars behind it, then it would have been tossed aside in the course of the uprising like so much other Western flotsam. It's an interesting dynamic: an originally Western sound is embraced by the rest of the planet, then relayed back with even more dynamism and soul than before.

Maybe Egypt and Tunisia aren't just teaching the rest of the world how to make a revolution, but also how essential the global rhyme is to global revolt.

Alexander Billet, Chicago

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Rhyme and Reason

With everything else going on--revolutions in the Middle East, massive labor protests in Wisconsin and possibly spreading to other states--it's easy to forget that the third largest city in the country is having mayoral elections tomorrow. Rahm Emanuel, Gery Chico, Carol Moseley Braun, Miguel Del Valle, all of them have the same Chicago Democrat plan: privatize, cut taxes for the rich, and keep unions as tame as possible under the guise of a progressive agenda.

It trickles down to the municipal races too--the ones for aldermen in particular. And this race in particular seems to have absorbed one of the hip-hop's most promising voices: Rhymefest. The erstwhile Che Smith is hoping to land the seat for the 20th ward.

Don't misunderstand, this isn't to rag on musicians or MCs who choose to run for office. That's neither here nor there. It's to actually call out the way in which Fest's strong, progressive politics have now been sanitized with such speed.

Reading this interview from May of last year, right before El Che dropped, he sounds downright radical, referencing the legacies of Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Fidel, Che, DuBois.

He seems aware of the power that hip-hop has in changing minds and connecting folks' experiences to some rather dangerous ideas. He might come off as contradictory quite often, but steers clear of the myriad pitfalls of so many "conscious" rappers. This is the Fest that has spoken so solidly against police brutality, Black unemployment, war.

Compare that to his campaign rhetoric. The 20th ward is one of the poorest in Chicago. Fest rightfully talks about increasing employment--by attracting businesses to the area, pol-speak for providing tax breaks. No talk about fighting for better wages in the city. He points to the high crime rate and the need for "better policing." It's hard to tell exactly what's meant by this--whether it's more cops on the street or genuine monitoring of police violence. Most likely he's straddling between the two. And while every mayoral candidate has pledged support for charter schools in Chicago (which goes hand-in-hand with busting the teachers union), Rhymefest has said little in opposition.

Should Fest win? I'm neutral on that. I have no doubt in his genuine belief in fundamental social change--he's named Che for crying out loud! What I question is his method. Plenty of folks go into the arena of electoral politics looking to face down the machine. Problem is, Chicago's machine is large, ugly, and very powerful. More often than not, it ends up changing you before you change it. Judging from the timbre of the campaign, it seems Rhymefest may be only the latest example of this. His voice was at its most honest on the mic; and probably would be better-suited for a megaphone.

Monday, February 21, 2011

There is Power In Wisconsin!

Tonight there will be a free concert in Madison, Wisconsin featuring Tom Morello, Wayne Kramer and Street Dogs. As folks following the news might have guessed, it is a show in support of the state workers taking on Republican Governor Scott Walker's vicious anti-union legislation. Make no mistake, this is a fight for us all; if Walker succeeds then it's only a matter of time until it hits workers in other states. This is, as many signs in Madison declare, our Cairo.

This vid is, of course, from Street Dogs, and really does seem to capture what's at stake here. If the workers in Wisconsin go down to defeat it'll be that much harder for the rest of us, but if they win they could point to an example for working people everywhere.

As an aside, the mustached fellow trying to avoid getting maced at 1:14 is Ahmed Shawki, who recently came back from Cairo and will be speaking about the revolutions in the Middle East on Monday, February 28th here in Chicago.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Putting the Popular Back In Pop

Is pop music finally catching up with reality? It’s a loaded question. Especially when talking about the Grammys, an award show crafted by an industry for an industry. To take the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences at its word, music exists neither as expression nor labor, but as some mystical entity bestowed upon us by the exceptionally beautiful and gifted. In the end, the Grammys are intended as little more than a self-congratulatory cover for the very real exploitation that takes place when the cameras aren’t rolling.

This year’s show however, displayed some very real cracks in the facade. True, we were still subjected to the insufferable softcore pop of Katy Perry and Justin Bieber. The sanctimonious ramblings of NARAS President Neil Portnow as he declared his commitment to artists’ free speech (unless you’re Eminem or Cee Lo Green) were equally unavoidable.

And yet, it was also hard to watch the televised ceremony this year without thinking something has changed. Indeed, much to the industry’s chagrin, it has. Already suffering album sales have been further weakened by the Great Recession, meaning folks are rethinking their relationship with music--in particular the way they procure and consume it. That same global slump has also, in the past twelve months, produced uprisings across the planet, many of which--especially in Egypt and the UK--have already been reflected back musically.

Some of the performances made this new reality absolutely impossible to ignore. Nobody could watch the set by Best Rock Album winners Muse--projections of crumbling banks, defiant protesters taking on cops--without conjuring up images of last year’s student rebellion in their native Britain.

Something similar could be said, albeit in a very different way, for Lady Gaga. As always, there are endless jabs taken at her outlandish aesthetics. But her whole performance--the egg womb, the spikes on her face and shoulders, her proclamation that she was “Born This Way”--was rather profound coming from a woman who has vocally stumped for both LGBT and immigrant liberation. Not only did Gaga win the statue for Best Pop Vocal Album, but the previous weekend saw “Born This Way” become the fastest-selling single in the history of iTunes! It’s a shift further proven by the return of a mature, equal-minded Eminem to success, who seems to have lost none of his skills on the mic.

Not that the proceedings were all caught in the here-and-now. NARAS kicked off the night with a tribute to Aretha Franklin, but the spirit of the Queen of Soul’s legacy was probably best felt when Janelle Monae, Bruno Mars and B.o.B took the stage. Here were three young artists of color refusing to be hemmed in by the limits of their “genre” while still showing some love for what’s come before. Ms. Monae in particular completely defies categorization. Soul? R&B? Pop? Afro-punk? Who knows? It’s an ethos so rarely seen in the post ‘60s mainstream, let alone at the Grammys.

Then there was the apparent return of folk-rock to the scene. The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons are both groups that have kicked around the indie world before more recently stumbling into success. Their own particular brand of rootsiness has more or less flown under the radar since Wilco blew up. For these groups to perform “Maggie’s Farm” with Bob Dylan himself at this point in time almost gave the song a different meaning--even if Dylan’s voice has started to sound like a gravel driveway.

The biggest coup of the night, though, came at the end when Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs took Album of the Year. Even Arcade Fire themselves didn’t see that coming, but when it did, it signified in some ways the final arrival of indie music. According to singer Win Butler, the album "is neither a love letter to, nor an indictment of, the suburbs--it's a letter from the suburbs." The honesty of that letter, however, leaves one with a feeling that its subject matter--once the pride and joy of the American Dream--is now little more but an empty shell. All the more impressive that it earned the most coveted award of the night.

Of course, the marked shift these different moments represented made the remaining contradictions that much more glaring. Allowing a raving sexist pig like John Mayer to perform Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” as a tribute to the country legend seemed to only accomplish the opposite.

Even more of a dismay was the lionizing of a band with the name Lady Antebellum. The country came closest to a cleanup on Grammy night, taking home three awards for their song “Need You Now.” While allowing that the song itself is a truly rare accomplishment (a stripped-down country tune that doesn’t cash in on love-song cliche) it can’t be said enough how racially insensitive the name is. Says one contributor at the Racialicious website:

“[T]he band chafes me. It’s not the music. It’s the name. Lady Antebellum seems to me an example of the way we still, nearly 150 years after the Civil War, nearly 50 years after the Civil Rights Act, and in a supposedly post-racial country led by a biracial president, glorify a culture that was based on the violent oppression of people of color.”

It’s hardly a non-issue. Googling “lady antebellum racist” will immediately pull up a virulent defense of the name on the neo-Nazi Stormfront website. That alone is enough reason to challenge it.

And as always, there is the unavoidable funk of marginalization wafted from this year’s Grammys. Sade, the Black Keys, Stanley Clarke; all artists who won awards this year for some solid work, but weren’t deemed worthy of being televised. The worst omission of the night came during the “In Memoriam” sequence. We truly lost some greats this past year: Solomon Burke, Lena Horne, Bobby Charles. So where was Ari Up, singer of the Slits and trailblazer for women in the UK punk scene? Where was jazz singer Abbey Lincoln, whose Freedom Now Suite with then-husband Max Roach was one of the first albums to put the Civil Rights movement into sound. Apparently, NARAS thinks these were minimal contributions.

All of which is to say that there are a lot of fights left to be had both in and out of the music world. Obviously, none of these positive examples come close to watching an internationally televised, multi-platinum artist performing under a banner of revolution. That’s not where it’s at yet. NARAS isn’t going to let that happen without a lot of kicking and screaming.

But that’s the point: this year’s Grammys showed that NARAS does feel pressure, that they can be forced. Putting the music that matters to us onstage means understanding that the quality and urgency of our music is the result of good old people-power. If we can start to embrace that, then maybe we can say we finally put the popular back in pop.

First appeared at

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Changing Times, Changing Tunes

The influences of Chicago-area rebel group Agents of Change come from myriad artists and styles throughout the history of real, socially conscious music. While speaking to them, one gets the distinct feeling that this is precisely what motivates their eclectic style. After all, the same forces that exploit and segregate people all over the world do the same to our music. Bringing sounds together can often be a subversive act.

And really, that seems to be a major reason for them to never say “no” to themselves creatively. That’s something that connects the stories they recount of Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, Rage Against the Machine, even themselves. These are all artists that haven’t been limited by preconceived notions of what a musician is, whether that notion comes from other artists, record labels, or the leaders of repressive regimes. If music is to play the urgent role it is meant to in a changing world, and in driving that change forward, then it needs to be able to say “yes” to itself free of these fetters.


Alexander Billet: When did the group come together?

Brian “Mr. Lantern,” vocals: Well, Agents of Change really started about January 2005, and it started more or less as a traditional hip-hop group–MC, turntables, all that. And that was with me, a DJ named DJ kZa, and then a rapper named Hoop Star. Then over the next couple years it evolved; I met Mike through Evil Empire, which Johnny plays bass in and Mike plays percussion. I was singing for them for some time. And then I met Adam through working at Whole Foods. So the band just started to gel over time and metamorphosize from a more traditional hip-hop project into a live band.

MC “Mike” Murda, drums: We were all going to College of DuPage. So we would go use their recording studio at night and then we just started sharing it with the public and people dug it. Then we started doing live shows.

AB: So was it a conscious decision to mix punk and hip-hop and all the other sounds you guys play with?

Brian: It was very conscious. I think we all come from a lot of different musical backgrounds, so just because it started with that kind of political hip-hop center-of-gravity, I think that’s how it originated. But at the same time we’ve always loved so many different kinds of music, including punk, funk, jazz, acoustic-styles, Latin, Afrobeat. All of it! You name it, you got it!

AB: So who where some of the biggest influences on all you guys?

Mike: The Roots. Definitely the Roots, man.

Brian: Rage Against the Machine…

Johnny “BMJ” Thunders, bass: Operation Ivy…

Adam “Jigga Jones,” guitar and keys: Fela Kuti.

Brian: You know, stuff with a message that’s still danceable and high-energy.

Johnny: Yeah, I played some of our new shit for someone and they just said “it sounds like Operation Ivy in 2010.”

Adam: That’s awesome!

Brian: Yeah except now we have to break up after our first album [laughter all around].

AB: You mentioned that you want it to be something with a message but danceable at the same time. There’s an image of political groups out there that it’s politics first and art second, so the music falls behind. Is that why you think it’s important for the music to actually be good?

Brian: Yeah, no one gives a shit if it’s not good music!

Adam: I feel like the message is also bigger than just what we’re saying and what notes we’re playing too. It’s how we’re going about it; what kind of shows we play and how we choose to spend our money on producing CDs. You know, we do our own screen-printing for our t-shirts and things like that. I mean, obviously if you have a song like “Life’s Short,” that’s a message. But at the same time, the overall message of the band is bigger than one song.

AB: Now you’ve also mentioned that your sound is still expanding too…

Johnny: Yeah, we’ve got a guy playing trumpet with us now, and some turntables and different types of percussion we’re reaching out to.

Brian: We’ve worked with saxophone players before. And like I said, we used to have a turntablist back in the day. So it’s an evolution but it’s also coming full circle in a way.

AB: That’s cool to hear you say that, because a lot of artists pick a “sound” and then don’t let themselves evolve.

Brian: Yeah, we’re kind of “post-genre.” And by that I mean we’re kind of this hip-hop-punk fusion thing, but really when you start breaking it down we’re a punk, hip-hop, dance, jazz, jungle, disco, acoustic, reggae… So I think we’d all get bored if we said we’re just going to play this one style of music; we’d probably hate ourselves!

Adam: I think adding to the instrumentation–like adding trumpet into the mix–we’re able to do a lot more down-tempo things that we might not otherwise be able to do.

Johnny: Yeah, another lead instrument is nice–to have something else up top sharing the words and the guitar and the keyboard. You have more to listen to.

AB: Do you think the audience would get bored to if you just played the same thing?

Brian: It depends because you want to give the people what they want but at the same time you’re up there for yourself. But any artist who says they’re only in it for themselves and that they don’t want recognition is a damn liar! Political or apolitical. It’s kind of a give-and-take. You want people to participate and to be inspired. But also part of that punk rock attitude is that sometimes you want to piss them off. You want to push their buttons and challenge them–whether it’s to challenge them with political vitriol or to challenge them to not just stand there looking like a bunch of apathetic zombies and dance. I think those are kind of part of the same thing.

Adam: I think as much as it challenges them, it challenges us too to always be evolving. Because if someone came to our show four years ago they might hear a couple of the same songs but now we have a newer twist to it. We’re trying to always be doing something new.

Johnny: Yeah, plus this guy doesn’t play the same thing on drums twice. It doesn’t fucking matter… [laughter]

AB: Is that true?

Mike: Yeah… I think Agents of Change is, well, always changing! We’re from Chicago; it’s so diverse. You can do to one corner and get some Salsa going on and then at the next you’ve got some metal and then some Indian music. There are so many things going on that we’re always picking up on something different and bringing it to the table. I think that’s what our musical message is. We’re always changing, just like the band name. It’s just bringing that diversity of the styles and the roots of those styles and fusing them together. And it goes along with the lyrics too; Brian’s got some powerful words, but he’s also running around the room, jumping on this table then that table. So we’re just trying to add that instrumentation to add the kinds of emotions that he’s expressing.

AB: On that same tip, do you think the DIY outlook adds to the artistic freedom?

Brian: If someone were to give us a big chunk of money to do the same thing that would be beautiful, but there’s a consequence of challenging the status quo with the music itself and the message. Would we love to get a $20,000 advance to make record? And feed ourselves and put a roof over our heads? Of course, but nobody’s beating down our door right now…

Johnny: Oh yeah, I’d love to get paid to do this shit. Love it!

Brian: It’s easier said than done, though!

Mike: Nowadays you have to prove to the industry that you can do it by yourself before they even give a shit. That’s what we’re doing I think. We’re stating that we are serious enough; we’re doing it by ourselves. So whenever they’re ready, we’re game!

Adam: It’s kind of backwards, though. Because once you’ve already established that fan-base by yourself you don’t need the industry. But then it’s like “oh, you have money coming your way! Okay…”

Brian: “We want some of that!”

Adam: Exactly! It used to be the other way around with radio. You heard bands that you couldn’t hear anywhere else. Now, DJs get a playlist and they’re only allowed to play these twenty songs. So…

Brian: It’s a troubling state of affairs, to be sure. I mean there’s good examples of people making it to successful points and then subverting the process. Like Chumbawamba licensing some of their music out to car companies and then pouring the money directly into anti-car campaigns! It’s a give and take. It’s easy to get corrupted and we see examples of that all over the place, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

AB: Let’s shift to talking about the new record Sucka Free. Did you guys have a set vision when you went into it?

Mike: I walked into it saying I’m going to make the best album I’ve ever made; that’s what I say every time I record…

Johnny: Well, you gotta fill in the story of when you just called me one morning and said you were gonna come over and record some shit. You and your girlfriend had just broke up, you had drank like six cups of coffee or something like that, and then you played drums to him [Brian] screaming in your ear. And those are the three best tracks on the album!

AB: So it was just these two? Before guitar or bass were added in?

Brian: Yeah, “The Only Constant,” “Discoteca Antifa” and “Beneath the Roots” were all recorded like that. I think the whole album is really a document of a time period for us. Because musically, as we’ve noted, it’s totally divergent. There’s kind of this hip-hop live band point we gravitate around. But besides that we go into metal, punk, disco, noise. Acoustic-sounding, poppier stuff to more heavy stuff, sarcastic, serious.

Adam: And we also started recording in 2007 but didn’t release it until 2010! So to say we had the end in mind when we started, I’d say no. I had a totally different expectation going into in then when I came out.

Mike: We were about to go on tour, and we had no recordings of the live band. So it’s like “okay, when I leave this state I want to leave them something so they can remember us.” At first it was just this quick, rough mix, but we really wanted something more substantial. This new album we’ve got going on though… oh my god, it’s like buttah! We’re recording it at Studio Chicago, and these tracks are the best tracks we’ve ever done. Hands down! It’s almost done, we just gotta tweak it.

AB: Is there a release date then?

Mike: This summer hopefully.

AB: Does your live experience guide you guys where to go with your songs or your recordings?

Brian: Oh yeah, definitely! When we get onstage, it’s not just like “alright, robot band! Go! You’re playing these songs the exact same way every time!” You know, there’s a huge improvisational element. The songs are the songs, but…

Adam: I feel like every show we play at least one song we haven’t played before, even if it’s just a little free jam. At least the past couple shows, we’ve been introducing new songs…

Brian: “Silent Spring,” yeah, that song about environmental justice…

Adam: Yeah and “Smile For a Change.” I feel like every show we do something we haven’t done before.

AB: Last time I saw you guys you were playing at the Socialism conference downtown, and you’ve got the Winter Peace Fest coming up on the 12th. Obviously, not every show you play is for a cause, but is there a conscious attempt to do as many of those types of shows as you can?

Brian: A lot our shows are benefits or different types of protests, or sponsored by some kind of social justice or community organization. Not all of them; we do play bar shows. I think supporting independent music culture can be a political endeavor to an extent, but it’s not like playing at the 2007 anti-war demo on the anniversary of the Afghanistan invasion.

AB: How does playing at a protest or rally differ from other kinds of shows?

Mike: Well you can get more drunk at a regular show! When we’re hanging at a bar we can just kick it, be ourselves and just make music. But yeah, when it’s for a cause we try and focus ourselves towards that and give it respect. The Peace Fest is a bit different, though…

Brian: Yeah, because at most protests you won’t be given a set. You’ll be given maybe two songs in between this big list of speakers and maybe a few other performers. Peace Fest you get a full set, even though the whole event is broadly themed toward social justice and anti-war causes.

AB: I want to talk a bit about the world in general. The economy still sucks, shit’s blowing up right now…

Brian: Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco…

AB: Exactly! So do you think there’s space opening a bit wider for music with a message?

Adam: I think it’s possible. I think as we gain more information people are going to want even more, so it’s just becoming this exponential thing where people are just going to have to dive right in face first.

Brian: I think if we were in any part of the world other than America, we would probably give an affirmative response, but it’s not like we’ve gone from five people at our shows five years ago to five thousand. People are still very much in tune with mass culture. I don’t mean to say that people don’t give a shit, but we’re in the heart of the beast and the propaganda is very thick. And so whereas we might host an event that’s free, people might still go shell out for some other expensive show. People will pay 20 dollars to be degraded and objectified for a couple of hours over coming to see us. Now part of that is our fault for not making it, like, sexy enough or whatever. It’s a struggle, and maybe it will take things getting worse for people to start looking for that kind of cultural outlet to express their discontent. It seems like that’s the trajectory, but I don’t think change is necessarily inevitable. It’s a product of struggle and actually working towards it rather than just crossing our fingers or even just hoping or voting?

AB: So on the flipside of that, do you think that music can play a role in making that happen?

Brian: Once again, I think there are examples, but not in America. First one that comes to mind: Fela Kuti. Perfect example! A genre-changing musician who revolutionized the world with Afrobeat, but also was very active. In Nigeria, where he was from, his mom was assassinated, he was arrested numerous times. His house was burned down, Nigerian soldiers sexually assaulted his wives. But he organized and created a space, and helped facilitate the development of a movement of people who were really pissed at foreign oil companies and a corrupt Nigerian state. That’s one example of how music can be a real tangible force for change rather than just paying lip-service to it.

Mike: I think music’s always going to be one of the first things to the word out there. I mean, Bob Marley was a rebel fighter, and there’s a ton of other groups, even in America. Rage Against the Machine have done so much stuff where they’ve stood up for people’s rights. I think music’s always going to create that feeling and help people relate to their situation, whatever it is. It plays a strong part, especially because nobody even listens to the news anymore. I mean what do most young people listen to? They’re going online, they’re checking the blogs and they’re downloading songs! Technology in general too; I didn’t even know about the situation in Egypt until someone tweeted it to me. And then I started hearing more about it and thought “holy shit, this is huge!” So people are getting their information through other means.

AB: So why is it that all of you have stuck with music for as long as you have?

Johnny: It’s like medicine! Are you kidding me?

Adam: Yeah. Why had music stuck with us? I’m not sure…

Johnny: It’s an outlet for everything.

Mike: It’s about sharing. I think that’s why we keep making music; because we have more to share with everybody. We’re just not satisfied yet. We haven’t gotten it out there far enough so we just wake up every day wanting to push it more and more.

Brian: You know, music is a weapon, it’s a drug, it’s a therapy. It’s all of these things; it just enables you to keep meeting new people.

Adam: You’re able to express something that you can’t necessarily put into words. You can share this soundscape that makes you feel a certain way but you can’t quite explain.

For Agents of Change music, info and tour dates, go to their website or MySpace page.

First appeared at Dissident Voice.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Music and Multiculturalism

David Cameron isn't the only politician with his foot in his mouth nowadays. His comments about "failing multiculturalism" have their counterparts here in the US. Especially in the run-up to the most recent elections, Palin, the Tea Party and Republicans whipped out their old tactic of divide and conquer. Look at SB 1070, or the fiasco over the Park51 Muslim community center in NYC, and you'll see it.

This takes a toll on our culture in general. In the UK that effect is more obvious; the hip-hop and grime scenes in particular often feature immigrants from North Africa or the Caribbean. But the same principle applies here. That's why, for example, the Sound Strike exists.

The following is a statement from Love Music Hate Racism's Martin Smith. LMHR were busy confronting the racist English Defence League when Cameron made his bone-headed comments. Smith does a good job laying out the stakes. His announcement for serious anti-racist politics to be taken into our schools is a good one. One that, of course, we need here too.

I first heard David Cameron’s speech while I was travelling to Luton to demonstrate against the racist EDL.

It is a fundamental change in Tory policy and a stepping up of attacks on the Muslim community.

The EDL welcomed it. Four homes in Luton’s Bury Park area have had their windows smashed and “EDL” painted on their doors since the protest.

Muslim families live in three of the four houses attacked.

We felt something had to be done so we launched the statement. The response has been magnificent. But this has to be just the beginning.

Unite Against Fascism and LMHR are prepared to help launch the campaign, but it needs to involve broader forces.

We believe that we need to start with a series of rallies around the country in defence of multiculturalism and condemning Cameron’s comments.

We want to raise funds to produce packs for teachers to use in schools and campaign materials.

It means that all of us—the majority who believe in a multicultural Britain where there is no place for racism—will have to redouble our efforts to stop Islamophobia gaining an even stronger foothold.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Rappers Against Gaddafi

Egypt and Tunisia have changed everything. Our conception of what's possible in terms of resistance, not to mention our confidence that it can win. It's shown that US imperialism isn't invincible. Mubarak was no lightweight; that he was toppled by a mass movement is a blow to the white man's burden.

How all of these will shake out culturally is hard to tell, but it's already starting in some ways. In particular, Arab hip-hop has gotten a big boost in visibility. In fact, it's really being called by some the soundtrack of the revolutions. This might be a bit simplistic (one wonders whether our position in the West hampers us from acknowledging other types of music more indigenous to the region) but that doesn't mean it's hyperbole.

Linked here is an interview on NPR's "On the Media" with Abdulla Darrat of the website Khalas, a Libyan site who has focused mostly on Libyan hip-hop, but looks at the region too:

"In each artist you really start to see the specificities of the place that he’s from. For example, in - in Libya and Tunisia and Algeria, countries that are overwhelmingly Muslim, there’s a lot of reference to Islam. In the Egyptian songs, the artists refer to Islam but, at the same time, for example, Ahmed Rock, in one of the songs on the mixtape, he says that this country is for Christians and Muslims alike.

"And that, I think, is what we saw in these youth movements, particularly in Egypt, maybe one of the most beautiful and poetic displays of civil disobedience, Christians defending Muslims as they stopped to pray or neighborhoods organizing in order to defend themselves."

Khalas has released a mixtape of Libyan hip-hop tunes inspired by the revolt sweeping the Middle East, but mostly directed against their own repressive regime. It can be listened to at

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Untouchable Holiday

Happy Corporate Love Day! This vid's not just for the single folks out there but for anyone who's a little fed up with the cheap paper, soon-to-be-dead flowers and allergenic stuffed bears we have forced down our throat this time of year.

It's also meant as, well, a "fuck you" to the fact that this song didn't win a Grammy last night, and to those who have tried to rewrite it as "Forget You" for the benefit of radio. An article will be forthcoming, of course, but in the meantime, well...

And of course the one that was never meant for the radio, but has just as realistic (if not more) take on modern love:

No, I'm not bitter. Why do you ask?

Friday, February 11, 2011

We're Not Your Prisoners

Mubarak has fallen, and that's just about enough said. This by no means is an end to the protests or strikes we've seen in Egypt; in fact they may only be deepening. There still remains a whole host of demands that have yet to be met: the release of all political prisoners, lifting the emergency laws that have been in place for 30 years, opening the border with Gaza, and the list goes on. But the power of ordinary people has already been unleashed, and it's going to be a long time until it's stuffed back in.

The fall of the dictator in Egypt has already inspired increased protests all of the Middle East, not to mention radicals and artists from all over the world. This is merely the beginning, and a damn good one at that. It's cause for celebration, so for now, feast your eyes and ears on this one from Arabian Knights and Shadia Mansour:

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Voices From the Gutter

Word on the street is that Talib Kweli has already chosen a name for his next album: Prisoner of Conscious. It’s definitely a significant choice for Kweli. He’s always hated the label “conscious rap” even as he’s been lauded as a pillar of this mythical genre. It seems time has unfortunately proven his misgivings right. The Roots are openly allying with billionaire-funded projects to “reform” public schools. Common is lighting the White House Christmas tree. One has to wonder if “conscious” has just become a code word for “establishment.”

In the face of all this, Kweli remains as independent as ever. Some writers have attempted to take him to task for doing some very “un-conscious” things. When TheLoop21 blogger Mychal Smith accused him of selling out for recording a song with Gucci Mane, Kweli put Smith in his place, charging him with being among an all-too-prevalent cabal of writers who “would rather judge the masses as a foolish body, greatly in need of their intellectual musings…”

In short, Kweli’s going to do what Kweli’s going to do, labels and criticism be damned. That’s evidenced clearly in his choice to take a big detour from Prisoner to record and release Gutter Rainbows.

It’s a confusing move, especially since the latter is composed greatly of songs originally intended for Prisoner of Conscious. Kweli has remained more or less mum on the reasons, but still insists that Prisoner is dropping very shortly. With all this it’s certainly easy to dismiss Gutter Rainbows as a rushed afterthought bound to get lost in the shuffle.

That’s thankfully not the case. Though Rainbows does occasionally falter in its coherence it has all the earmarks of vintage Talib Kweli. Lead single “I’m On One” provides the requisite club track, with buzz-fuzz funk front-loaded over synthy boom-bap while Kwe lyrically throws back his shoulders with savvy bravado. Tracks like “Mr. International” and “Palookas” see his rhymes skate that ambiguous line between humor and poignancy that he’s gotten so good at walking over the years.

So what is it that allows the album to rise above being completely superfluous? Probably the time-worn truism that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The shout-outs on the album’s title track (“voice of the voiceless, hope of the hopeless”) might sound similar to the ones we get on the opener of 2002’s Quality, but there isn’t really the sense that it’s for lack of material.

Back in ‘04 Kweli made the kind of astute post-9/11 observations that would put him in Glenn Beck’s crosshairs: “Get searched on the plane / Arabic first name.” “Cold Rain,” with its soulful piano-driven aura, shows not just how little has changed, but actually how the atmosphere of Tea Party Mosque-baiting Koran-burning has made it all a lot worse:

"Yeah I’m a product of Reaganomics
From the blocks where he rocking Feds like Jay Electronica
Drop and make this a lock
If he promises where the heart is
Whether Jesus or Mohammad
Regardless of where the Mosque is
They hope for the Apocalypse like a self-fulfilling prophecy
Tell me when do we stop it?"

It’s hard to find a more apt cross-section of modern life in the beast’s belly. This is Kweli’s strongest lyrical suit–his ability to sketch vivid pictures of real and unflinching life and ask, rightfully, why. He does the same in throughout the album, whether it’s with deadly seriousness while telling the story of a forgotten vet in “Tater Tot” or bouncing off of Jean Grae’s maniacal hilarity in “Uh Oh.”

Throughout, even at the album’s weakest points, it’s obvious we’re listening to someone who hasn’t caved under the weight of some very disorienting times. Expectations for “conscious” artists to do everything they can to back Obama have been great indeed, and with so little promise on the horizon during recent months, it’s no wonder that some of Kweli’s contemporaries have made this or that compromise. In the process, though, some very important voices stand to be lost in the shuffle.

Luckily, Talib Kweli has never allowed that pigeonhole to be applied to him. Sticking to your guns might mean sometimes getting passed over by the spotlight. When albums like Gutter Rainbows come along though, they remind us that doing just that is exactly what keeps rap’s spine intact.

First appeared at Dissident Voice

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Egypt: The Sound of Revolution

If revolutions can be described as festivals of the oppressed, then the ongoing uprising in Egypt may be a festival par excellence. Dictator Hosni Mubarak and his backers in the West would have us believe that the people of this country would be descended into chaos without his iron fist, but the facts on the ground don’t match up.

Reports from Cairo’s Tahrir Square and beyond seem to emulate other moments in history when masses of working people step forward onto history’s stage. Not only does every street corner host a debate over the future of the democratic movement, but ordinary folks take up the tasks of food distribution, medical care, self-defense. And in general, day-to-day culture takes on a whole new vitality.

Certainly, Egypt’s culture has plenty to work with. Media portrayals of Arabs-as-savages notwithstanding, this is the cradle of civilization. It’s given us musical instruments that would evolve into the piano and guitar. The influence of Egyptian poetry is one that any worthwhile scholar will acknowledge as crucial in the development of the art of the written word. It’s a legacy that continues to evolve today, and whose full potential may only be unfolding right now.

Muhsin Jassim al-Musawi, a professor of Arabic literature at Columbia University, claims that “outside the West poetry is still very powerful... It might not be very conspicuous, but it is there, an undercurrent, and whenever there is a need for it you will be surprised that people have something to say.” The tradition of Arab poetry isn’t only deep and rich, but has thrived under sometimes the most adverse conditions, its vividness far surpassing the pages of textbooks. And in fact, even in the middle of the protests, there are reported to have been countless instances of demonstrators spontaneously breaking into recitations of time-honored verse, allowing it to take on a whole new life and meaning.

Anyone who’s been to any large protest can recall seeing folk-singers and poets alike breaking into street-corner performances. Key among those in Egypt have been the songs of Ahmed Fouad Negm. If you want a better idea of who Ahmed Fouad Negm is, think of the Egyptian equivalent of Bob Dylan or Victor Jara. His lyrics, set to music of frequent collaborator Sheikh Imam, were the kind sung by workers and revolutionaries in the 1960s and landed their author in prison several times.

Now in his 80s, Negm remains virulently hostile toward Mubarak’s regime. In an interview with the New York Times in 2006, he said that “Egypt is ruled by a gang, led by Hosni Mubarak, and he is only there because America and Israel support him. He does not have the support of the street." No wonder his words resonate so now, in the midst of revolution.

Revolutions don’t just provide the space for folks to reclaim their own culture, but to create and shape it anew. So it comes as little surprise that Egypt’s hip-hop scene has become something of a global face of the uprising for the international music community. In a country where more than half are under the age of thirty, rap has grown some deep roots along the shores of the Nile over the past two decades.

Though certainly taking a cue from the giants that emerged from the ghettos of NYC and LA during those formative years, Egypt’s hip-hop has gestated all its own. Much like its counterpart from Palestine, Syria and all over the Middle East, it’s incorporated the region’s more traditional styles into its beat, creating a sound that is at once culturally proud and youthfully defiant.

Arabian Knightz are one of the groups that put it on the map. They’re the most famous in Egypt, and in a country where artists are not infrequently locked up, they’ve often been, in their own words “as political as we can get without going to jail.”

In the days after the Egyptian uprising bounced back from the vicious attacks of Mubarak’s thugs, a song by the Knightz shot its way round the web. Written and recorded during the first days of rage, “Rebel” is probably best described as a lyrical manifesto for the revolution. Though that justifiable pride in being Egyptian is unmistakable, it’s also obviously designed as a plea for solidarity. Not only are its lyrics in both Arabic and English, its chorus features an American voice long absent from the hip-hop world: Lauryn Hill.

Days later, another joint dropped, this one entitled “Not Your Prisoner (Egyptian Revolution Music).” Featuring Palestinian singer-rapper Shadia Mansour and produced by the Bay Area’s Fred Wreck, its lyrics are even more straightforward:

“I want my nation
Free from all oppression
I want my nation
Free from all evil
I want my nation
Free from all injustice
I want my land as the land of the Arabs!”

On Tuesday, February 8th, “Prisoner” was performed for the first time by the Knightz at Tahrir Square. The timing of its message is significant, as it was the day after another wave of crackdowns, and when Mubarak’s mouthpieces predicted things would “start to get back to normal.” Not only were tens of thousands in Tahrir on that day, but the protests spread into strike waves that have started to take key industries.

And like the struggle itself, its message has gained a momentum well beyond most boundaries. Already there have been a flurry of statements and songs released from artists all over the world expressing strong solidarity with the Egyptian movement. A lot could be written about why it is that so many different kinds of music and art--both traditional and contemporary--have been unleashed by the possibility of revolution in our lifetime. Ultimately, the reason the two go hand-in-hand is straightforward: the need to create and the desire for freedom are what makes us profoundly human. Neither are possible without the other.

First appeared at

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

New Year, New Site, Same Struggle, Same Fight

The Sound Strike launched a new site not long after the new year. It's not only better looking, but easier to navigate and find sources on the struggle for immigrant rights. True, the Sound Strike hasn't been as full-front over the past few months as it's been previously, and the issue of immigrant rights has faded from the headlines. This doesn't mean it's any less relevant.

On the contrary, several states may be on the verge of passing laws similar to Arizona's SB 1070. Mississippi's state senate recently passed one, and though it has yet to go through the house or be signed, the uber-bigot Governor Haley Barbour has signaled he's pulling for it. As more and more states go into bankruptcy and take it out on their working population, the time-tested tactic of divide and conquer will of course be in their tool-belt.

Whether the boycott of artists, rappers and musicians extends to these states has yet to be seen. But it has to be remembered that a movement's absence from the front-page doesn't mean it's completely disappeared. That the Sound Strike is still doing what they do--and trying to figure out a better way to do it--is proof positive of that.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Herc Needs Health Care, So Do We All

“This is just a disgrace that Kool Herc has to negotiate over the details of his health care... People who are not performers think that the musicians they love have a big house, lots of cars and more money than they’ll ever know. The reality is that the majority of people who choose a life in the arts make a tough economic choice. They’re almost choosing voluntary poverty.”

So says Bill Adler, a former exec at Def Jam who has a close relationship with Herc. Here is an architect of hip-hop, a man whose musical contributions changed the face of popular culture, and he's being forced through excruciating pain for lack of medical insurance.

Herc has kidney stones. Not exactly life-threatening, but complicated to correct even with the best health coverage. He's been given the run-around by hospitals and the stones have only worsened. The pressure in his kidneys has built up and he's required to put down a large deposit for the final surgery.

The inequity here is quite obvious, so it won't be repeated here. Universal healthcare isn't a question of entitlement, but human rights.

Herc's friends and family are trying to raise the money for this final surgery. Donations towards Herc's medical bills can be sent via Paypal to Fans can send checks to Kool Herc Productions by mailing to PO Box 20472 Huntington Station, NY 11746.

Friday, February 4, 2011

"The Path To The Liberation of Jerusalem Runs Through Cairo"

This is a vid of British-Iraqi rapper Lowkey speaking at a meeting of the Stop the War Coalition on Wednesday. Lowkey has of course been one of the UK's most politically active MCs of recent years; taking on both the US invasion of Iraq and supporting the people of Palestine. That he's gained such acclaim for it over the past couple years shows how much things are shifting.

The events in Egypt and Tunisia have opened up the kind of space for artists like him. His speech here shows that his skills on the mic translate to the podium too. As he says, these are exciting times indeed.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Yes We Are!

The King Blues' upcoming third album has been mentioned here at RF quite recently, but here's another reason to pay attention: the new single. Obviously, the UK student uprising played a role in this song; the events in Tunisia and Egypt definitely put an even bigger point on it. Punk & Poetry is slated for release in April.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Obama's Fiasco

Things are no doubt changing rapidly nowadays. Case in point: no sooner am I attempting to bring attention to the dearth of credible high-profile artists willing to take Obama and the Democrats to task then one breaks the mold by doing just that.

Lupe Fiasco's new single "Words I Never Said" appears to be pointing all the right directions:

"Limbaugh is a racist, Glenn Beck is a racist / Gaza Strip was getting burned, Obama didn't say shit / That's why I ain't vote for him, next one either."

Lupe has said in interviews that he's aware of how controversial the song is guaranteed to be. Indeed it will be, but that doesn't mean its content isn't true. He isn't the first rapper to stand up for the Palestinians or call out media crackers like Beck and Limbaugh.

It's becoming more obvious, however, that standing up for occupied people and against oppression is going to mean taking on Obama's administration. Calling out the prez isn't foreign to hip-hop's pedigree. Doing it this time around--when the folks in Egypt and Tunisia are revealing how high we can set our sights--may prove to be a meaningful step into uncharted territory.

Maybe Lupe's song and the attention it's getting are only a shot across the bow. Here's to possibilities.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Eighty-Five Bucks For Decent Music and a Stab in the Back

Jeff Tweedy used to be a lot more likable. On more than one level. Back during the Uncle Tupelo days, before Jay Farrar split off to form Son Volt, his songwriting had a real immediacy. It was an authenticity that told you everything you needed to know about Tweedy and Farrar's Belleville, Illinois hometown. Those songs were an honest and vulnerable struggle against invisibility when most American roots movement was being forced to turn its back.

The same thing can be made of Wilco. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was pretty close to brilliance. When news came that the group would be collaborating with Billy Bragg on recording the songs of Woody Guthrie, few could deny that a better team deserved that honor. Even as Tweedy evolved drastically, that soul-bearing spirit didn't seem to bend. That was well before he announced he was stumping for Rahm Emanuel.

Tweedy's progressive pedigree didn't used to be in such question. He's been among the bevy of artists who have spoken against the invasion of Iraq, and stated publicly his support for universal health care. These types of stances made sense given the kinds of lyrics he's written during his long career, and nobody was surprised when he endorsed Obama's presidential campaign.

Pressure for progressives to fall in line has been great, but Rahm holds nothing positive in store for that base. If he becomes mayor of Chicago (actually, given the coronation-like character of Chicago politics, his win is more-or-less a fait accompli) then he will go on the exact same path that Daley has blazed before him. Privatization, union-busting, budget-slashing, hand-outs for the rich. The time Tweedy has spent urging more funding for public schools is undermined by Rahm's push toward charter takeovers.

Same with anything having to do with working people's standard of living. Here's a man who when crafting a bailout for the auto industry was recorded saying "fuck the UAW." When confronted with an understandably frustrated progressive base, he called anyone with the temerity to demand more from Obama "fucking retards" who needed to be tested for drugs.

There was a time when Tweedy might have been among those who mulled over daring to do just that. Not now. Now he's playing fundraising shows where tickets sell for 85 bucks a pop.

I've commented before on how the past couple years have put an immense pressure on erstwhile progressive artists to fall in behind the Obama agenda. Tweedy seems to have now fallen into that category. Not that future events might pull him back home; in fact, one really hopes for it. One also helps that his next album brings back the kind of hunger that's been sorely lacking on the past two.