Friday, April 29, 2011

The Chains Weren't Always Bling

It's insane that something has to be said about this. Sure, the comments made by Soulja Boy Tell 'Em at the BET Hip-Hop Awards back in '08 might have been sarcasm (in fact there's a good chance they were). Or they could have been simple youthful playfulness. But they're not funny, and they actually reveal a lot about what the industry has done to hip-hop.

"The shock statement came when BET correspondent and former Rolling Stone contributor, Touré, asked various stars which historical figure they most hated. After Soulja Boy failed to give a response, Touré tried to prompt him, saying 'Others have said Hitler, bin Laden, the slave masters...' at which point Soulja Boy said: 'Oh wait! Hold up! Shout out to the slave masters! Without them we'd still be in Africa. We wouldn't be here to get this ice and tattoos.'"

Once again, sure, he may have been speaking sarcastically. The question was stupid to begin with--the kind of thing that journalists like to ask when they can't think of anything more worthwhile.

There is something particularly distasteful, however, about Soulja's words that is worth commenting on right now, on the heels of not one but two anniversaries: the 150th anniversary of the Civil War's start, and the twentieth anniversary of the police beating of Rodney King. One ended slavery. The other proved that racism, the legacy of the slave-masters, hasn't gone anywhere--not to mention shaped the identity of hip-hop. That Soulja said them right on the cusp of Obama's election certainly makes for bizarre context, but events since them have made their implications so much sharper.

Here we are, in the "post-racial" society run by a Black president--who, incidentally, has done little to ameliorate the condition of African Americans. Tea Partiers and anti-abortion fanatics are able to get away with blatant bigotry. Similar unsavory elements can hem and haw about how the Civil War wasn't about slavery, and that there's nothing racist about "Confederate pride." That so few have been willing to challenge this idiocy is shocking.

Enter hip-hop, a style that was once targeted by everyone from the Christian fundies to the FBI. It's never been as simple as what's played on the radio or shown on MTV, but the past several years have seen the samplings of real, gritty, truth-to-power hip-hop growing narrower and narrower. Plenty of excellent MCs continue to abound out there who possess both the skills and the willingness to speak some real truth. But most seem to think that the lion's share of them are underground.

Even Chuck D has been moved to comment on how much of the rest of the world has "surpassed" America's MCs both in skills and in community engagement:

"Skill-wise rappers spitting three languages, have created super rappers to move the crowd with intensity and passion. The 'arrogant' American comes in blackface, but if there was a HIP-HOP or Rap Olympics, I really don't think the United States would get Gold, Silver or Brass or even ass..."

Chuck is generalizing here; he would be the first to admit that America still hosts some incredible MCs beyond the radar of the mainstream. It's also true that there's something subversive about the "get-mine" trope in rap, but it's incredibly limited. What's more, it's easy for the music industry to seize onto this theme, amplify it and twist it round. Before you know it, you have the rhymes of, say, Soulja Boy, which hold a fraction of the punch packed by Biggie's tales of getting by and his "fuck you, pay me" attitude. With the industry being bigger and more centralized than ever, it's easy to see how this has happened.

The frustrating result is that, while there's possibly more urgency than ever for art that really pushes against the evils of unemployment, poverty, police brutality, the space in the mainstream for that kind of art is tiny. Instead of artists comparing the overseer to the officer, we have a sarcastic thank-you to the slave-owners that, at best, was unproductive and awkward.

At worst, it stands to insult the countless African rappers whose rhymes can easily embarrass Soulja Boy both in terms of skill and content. British-Nigerian rapper Afrikan Boy, Les Nubians from Cameroon, K'Naan from Somalia, Blitz the Ambassador from Ghana by way of Brooklyn. These are just a few of the African artists who are actually known in the West, and already there's a greater complexity on display on so many levels! None of this is to say that American hip-hop is somehow screwed. But it's worth remembering that the best kinds of change come from the outside and bottom-up.

Thanks to Jon K for bringing this to my attention.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

God Save the Wedding

So, did you know there's a wedding tomorrow? How could you miss it? The most unavoidable story both in and out of the UK is the wedding of "Wills and Kate." Makes them both sound just like you, doesn't it? Except for the fact that Prince William, like everyone else in his royal family, has never worked a day in his life, and yet enjoys all the benefits of a $577 million fortune.

Tory Prime Minister David Cameron continually waffles on about the need for British subjects to retrench. The Kingdom, he says, in a time of economic crisis can't "sustain the lifestyle" of those dependent on the government for their housing, their food, their education or basic income. Seems if he wanted to actually save the country some scratch, he'd start by campaigning for the abolition of this bloody, wretched monarchy. Instead, business continues as usual, and the British people foot the bill for a lavish ritual that will have war criminals from across the globe in attendance.

Across the UK and especially in London, Scotland Yard has been rounding up everyone from anarchist squatters to Muslims suspected of having radical connections. It's all a pre-emptive strike against potential protests at the wedding, a fear not entirely misplaced. One of the most highly-publicized moments of last year's massive student rebellion was when Prince Charles's car was mobbed by protesters. Apparently we're all supposed to feel sympathy for the royals here, despite some truly unsavory characters in their ranks. There's Prince Phillip, a well-known bigot who has called Asians "slitty-eyed." Then there's Harry (brother of the groom), who has shown up to parties dressed as a Nazi. Charles himself, of course, is a known womanizer and misogynist. And somehow tears should be shed because a few commoners scuffed up their ride.

The video below is in "tribute" to all of this fanfare. Why should I, a music journalist, and a "Yank" to boot, care about the royal family or their frivolous ceremonies? Because it's unavoidable, even in the music world. Observe: Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Elton John, Sir Mick Jagger. We are now treated to Sharon Osbourne, wife of one of the greatest metal artists of all time and a serious musical force in her own right, speculating to American audiences about the food that will be served inside Buckingham Palace.

There is even a rather painful irony to displaying this particular video. Johnny Rotten and the rest of the Sex Pistols gained infamy by floating this irreverent song up to the Queen's Silver Jubilee back in '77. "God Save the Queen" was banned from radio, the number one single on the British charts was left blank rather than put it in, and Johnny himself was attacked several times after it was released. But 25 years later, the pressure of fame and fortune got to him, and he was celebrating the Golden Jubilee along with everyone else.

It's a reminder not only of the fact that the music industry is itself an industry, placing immense pressure on artists and musicians, but of the fact that class does indeed exist. The Windsors are trotted out as a symbol of national unity in Britain, a trend which spills over on this side of the pond with the culture of celebrity (as Sherry Wolf said, "In Britain, they get William and Kate. Here, we get Snookie"). But in a time when the proles are having their very livelihoods attacked, there's absolutely no reason for any ordinary person in any country to be celebrating the nuptials of parasites.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Geldof and Apartheid

Some might be shocked at Bob Geldof's plans to accept an award in Israel--given his reputation as a sincere do-gooder in the music world. Others, who have observed the less-than-savory aspects of Band Aid and other mega-concerts like it, might be less surprised that he's aligning himself with colonialism in such a cavalier fashion.

Either way, however, his presence within Israel's borders can only serve--like Bieber, like Gene Simmons and Elton John--to legitimize some very real atrocities. That's why the campaign urging him to turn down the award is important.

Geldof plans to travel there in May to receive an honorary degree from Ben Gurion University. Recently, an individual from the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine reached out to me asking if I would run their letter to Geldof on this site. My response was obvious: of course.


22 March 2011

Dear Sir Bob,

I understand from a report in the Jewish Chronicle (21 March 2011) that you are
accepting an honorary degree from Ben Gurion University in Israel in May.

Your name is associated with campaigns to make the world--particularly the non-Western world--a better place.

But Israel--adopting nineteenth century European colonial attitudes of civilizational superiority over "Asian barbarism"--was founded on the dispossession of the Palestinians. Since 1948, Israel has been justifiably censured in more UN resolutions
than any other state.

Ben Gurion University, where you will accept your not-so-honorable degree, is not a
progressive force in an Israel that has otherwise lost its way. Instead, this academic
institution is heavily implicated in ongoing violations of international law and human
rights, and the world’s longest-running military occupation.

During the widely-condemned Operation Cast Lead (Dec 2008-Jan 2009), the Israeli
army (the IDF) massacred with state-of-the-art weapons more than a thousand largely
defenceless Palestinians, most of them civilians already living under a cruel siege in
the the world’s largest open air prison (Gaza). The impeccable Judge Goldstone
found, under the auspices of the UN, that Israel should be investigated for war crimes.
But Ben Gurion University actually outdid other Israeli universities in its support for
the soldiers who helped carry out these atrocities. Ben Gurion gave a special grant of
NIS 180 (around 35 Euros) per day, to students who did reserve duty during the

This should be no surprise, given that although Ben Gurion was not given the tender,
it claimed to have originated the idea in 2008 of a school for military medicine,
designed specifically to train medical staff for the Israeli armed forces. Indeed, Ben
Gurion complained when the tender was awarded to the Hebrew University . It has
also been the case for some time that Ben Gurion, like other Israeli universities,
routinely offers special privileges to the Israeli military. For example, as part of their training, military pilots receive a BA from Ben Gurion University in the course of a single year (instead of the normal three years).

And whereas it is hard to imagine the work of Sir Bob Geldof without thinking of the
importance of the freedom to engage in political activism, Ben Gurion University has
played its part in stifling dissent on campus at crucial moments. While the world
demonstrated in horror at the massacre in Gaza, Ben Gurion’s security guards were busy photographing and monitoring political activists, and put in place unreasonable
obstacles to activism, even preventing students from mounting legal political
demonstrations and activities.

I write in the hope that facts such as these will appeal to your conscience and you will change your mind about accepting this degree from an institution that is materially and ideologically complicit in occupation, siege, and massacre. Your acceptance will be treated as a propaganda victory by those shrill voices who seek neither justice nor peace in Israel and Palestine.

Thank you very much for your attention.

Dr John T. Chalcraft

Writing on behalf of BRICUP (The British Committee for the Universities of

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

RIP Poly Styrene

The second icon of woman-powered rebel music to die in the past five days, Poly Styrene died in London yesterday at the age of 53. Singer for X-Ray Spex, one can only wonder what the state of women in punk would be without her. Once again, in a scene dominated mostly by white males, she carved out a place for women of color. Her songs bulged with the kind of sharp-spiky brashness that has since been imitated but never duplicated, lambasting sexism, boredom and consumerism with a lyrical style that could be blunt as well as witty. X-Ray Spex played shows for Rock Against Racism back in the day, including the famed Carnival Against the Nazis in 1978. Though they only recorded one album, its music represented that crucial, all-too-brief time when punk was breaking down all kinds of boundaries and cementing itself as true-blue rebel music. A more thorough obituary is forthcoming, but in the meantime, it's worth acknowledging Poly's substantial contribution to music as we know it.

Monday, April 25, 2011

RIP Hazel Dickens

Rebel music lost one of its best on Thursday. Hazel Dickens was a link between so many different points in American musical history. She was notably younger than the original folk revival generation, but her youth meant she was able to straddle the generation gap between the '30s and the wave of the '60s.

She was a West Virginian, and nobody could question her connection to the coal-miner community. Still, even as she tirelessly campaigned for the unions in the pits, she effortlessly proved that there was no contradiction between that tradition and the rising environmental movement. And, coming from a time when women were still often pushed to the back of the bus, she dared to be an open feminist, and many of her songs reflected this.

So deep was her connection to the mining communities that she appeared in two of the best-known films about the subject: Matewan and Harlan County USA.

There's plenty of reason for us to remember Hazel Dickens today. Over the past five years there have been two disastrous mine collapses here in the US. Both were non-union. Mining companies, continually trying to pitch themselves as the "safe" energy alternative, are pushing the destructive practice of strip-mining and mountaintop removal. Some shout "jobs" in the face of those like Dickens, but she knew better. She was from that same mining generation that went on wildcat strikes for black lung treatment and marched environmental protections. In short, she thought that working men and women deserved better than a choice between the greater and lesser evil. Ultimately, her songs lead us to believe that they deserve the world.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Bieber's Empty Pop Can't Drown Out Palestine's Cry

The same evening that Justin Bieber played a concert in Tel Aviv, Palestinian solidarity activist Vittorio Arrigoni was kidnapped. Next morning, Arrigoni’s body was found in an abandoned house in Gaza, and the biggest story in the Israeli media was Bieber’s tweet of thanks to the nation’s people.

Arrigoni’s death could have been an opportunity for Israel’s media to discuss the affects of the blockade on Gaza, and to once again place that debate on an international stage. Bieber ran interception on this possibility. Yet another stark, tragic argument for the artistic and cultural boycott of Israel.

No music mogul would ever admit to Bieber being “political” in any sense. This didn’t stop the Biebs from saying he is against abortion--even in the case of rape (“everything happens for a reason")--or comparing it to “killing a baby." Likewise, his aversion to politics somehow still allowed him to provide legitimacy and media cover for the world’s worst apartheid state.

Bieber dominated the newspapers while he was in Israel. Reporters seemed fixated on up-to-the-minute coverage as throngs of teenage girls mobbed his hotel. His Twitter feed became fodder for gossip as he publicly pleaded with paparazzi to leave him alone.

Though a proposed meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ended up being scuttled, it was still the subject of endless and meaningless chatter. Netanyahu was hoping to trot out Bieber for a photo op with him and several children whose school bus had been hit with a rocket fired from Gaza. Bieber refused, but even that refusal overshadowed Netanyahu’s same-day threats against the next Gaza flotilla.

Gadi Yaron, the Israeli concert promoter who brought Bieber to Israel, told Israeli Army Radio the reasoning behind the artist’s rejection of Netanyahu’s invite: "There is heavy pressure on artists not to come to Israel … We are working very hard so they will visit Israel, get to know it, and won’t view it as a political place."

This significance wasn’t lost on Bieber’s audience, either. Orly Menit, a 15-year-old from Tel Aviv who dragged her parents to the 14 April concert, told the Jewish Daily Forward that "All the grown ups like to knock Justin, but where are their pop stars? Where is that Elvis Costello?"

Costello, of course, is one of the more high-profile figures to come out in support of the cultural boycott. Last year, he canceled two performances in Israel, publicly stating that merely performing there would be "interpreted as a political act."

There are plenty of ways in which Costello differs from Bieber (longevity, maturity, artistic merit). The most pronounced, however, is that while the teen pop icon tweets his "disgust" at attempts to be pulled into politics, Costello knew he’d be pulled in from the minute he stepped off the plane. The resources dedicated to covering his shows would be diverted from the coverage of Israel’s crimes, and the country would once again be able to paint itself as a land of tolerance and culture in the midst of a "savage" Middle East.

Which is exactly what happened here. Bieber, who stirs a near-apocalyptic amount of media attention, was a diversion from the reality of Israeli apartheid. Perhaps it’s no surprise--there’s little about Bieber that couldn’t be described as "diversion"--but it also illustrates perfectly why we need artists willing to say "no."

Five years ago, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters was also scheduled to play a show in Tel Aviv. He was urged to cancel by boycott advocates. Still unsure, Waters visited the occupied West Bank and saw the infamous segregation wall. In a recent Guardian editorial, he wrote: "Realizing at that point that my presence on a Tel Aviv stage would inadvertently legitimize the oppression I had seen, I cancelled my gig at the stadium in Tel Aviv..."

Bieber never planned to visit the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Even if he were to make it out of the hotel, his sight-seeing schedule would have been a carefully orchestrated affair, designed to show the devoutly Christian Bieber the country’s many religious landmarks. Gadi Yaron and the rest of his handlers were sure to steer the singer away from any inkling of conflict, occupation or injustice.

Marred though it might have been by the paparazzi and diplomatic fiasco, Yaron and Netanyahu probably couldn’t be happier with how Bieber’s visit went. All the artists turning their back on Israel have had endless amounts of insult heaped on them; they’re called "fools," "terrorists," or simply accused of being "too political." For as much as Bieber tried to steer clear of politics, the sound and fury he provoked merely served to cover up a vicious, horrifying reality.

First appeared at Electronic Intifada.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

"...And Roses Too," or the Case for Public Arts Funding

If one good thing came of the recent threat to shut down the Federal government, it’s that the conservative mask has definitively slipped. John Boehner, Jon Kyl and the rest of the Republican hit-squad showed themselves willing to stoop to any level to do away with what little social safety net remains in the United States.

With the door opened by the union-busting Governor Scott Walker, and with a growing global rebellion against austerity ringing in their ears, Boehner and company threw down the gauntlet. Emboldened by timid Democrats, he made clear that there was no quarter of government funding that wasn’t at risk: be it public sector workers, Planned Parenthood, even publicly-funded arts.

To be sure, there hasn’t been a time in recent memory when the issue of public arts funding has been so, well, public! Observe, for example, comments made by Sarah Palin to Sean Hannity on March 15th:

“NPR, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, all those kind of frivolous things that government shouldn't be in the business of funding with tax dollars—those should all be on the chopping block as we talk about the $14-trillion debt that we're going to hand to our kids and our grandkids.”

Total government funding for all three of these organizations is less than $350 million, barely putting a dent in the deficit. NPR in particular gets less than 2% of its funding from any government program. For Palin, scapegoating public culture isn’t merely a matter of racing to the bottom. It has to do with stripping people of their basic right to arts and information.

Hip-hop journalist Jeff Chang, in a May, 2009 article for The Nation, put his finger on the political importance of culture:

“Culture is not just something that conservatives wage war on. The arts are not just something that liberals dress up for on weekends. Creativity can be a powerful form of organizing communities from the bottom up. The economic crisis gives us a chance to rethink the role of creativity in making a vibrant economy and civil society. Both artists and community organizers cultivate new forms of knowledge and consciousness.”

The vibrancy and diversity that so inspires Chang couldn’t be more stark from the near-monoculture of the entertainment industry. On the same day that Palin was busy squawking against public arts, David Bakula let his own mask slip. At Toronto’s Canadian Music Week, the executive for Nielsen SoundScan revealed that a mere one percent of all albums released in 2010 made up almost 82 percent of worldwide sales. Even Bakula himself called the figure “ridiculous.”

He’s right; it is ridiculous. Especially when one considers that arts, and in particular music, have long been portrayed as somehow above the realities of privilege and class. To take MTV, VH1 and BET at their word, music is one of the many equalizers of “America the classless society.” If you have talent, you will be recognized, simple as that.

The only problem with this myth is that it’s always been just that—a myth. And though it may be contrary to whatever agenda they have, the words of Palin and Bakula have shown precisely why we need public arts funding, and why they should be fought for alongside a robust social safety net. While music may only be a single part of this, it nonetheless proves the case amply.

Deregulation Plays Out

The numbers coming from SoundScan are nothing new. In 2009, music’s “upper one percent” ate up over 83 percent of album sales, with similar figures for 2008, 2007, 2006 and so on.

Many of this one percent are the acts you would expect: Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Usher. Artists whose lowest-common-denominator approach to song-writing make them easily marketable for the “Big Four” record labels. Others, like Lady Gaga or Eminem, have proven trickier. Whatever their differences, whatever their relative merits and faults, they all represent an incredibly thin slice of the music being made in the world right now.

Author and musician Mat Callahan, whose previous act the Looters were one of the first to be labeled “world music,” points out the detriment this has in his book The Trouble With Music:

“With the intense concentration of resources in the hands of a few major corporations that generate enormous profits from the sale of millions of units of a tiny number of musical artists, there is an inevitable warping of the entire culture within which music is created and received.”

It’s not simply a matter of “taste.” No entertainment exec would admit to there being a political agenda behind their decision to release or not release certain material. But even a cursory glance over the past fifteen years shows exactly what private enterprise has brought to music.

There’s been the deregulation of radio under Clinton’s Telecommunications Act of 1996. Clear Channel’s infamous “9/11 memorandum,” which effectively banned 166 songs from airplay—including Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train,” John Lennon’s “Imagine” and every song ever released by Rage Against the Machine.

Eighteen months later, Clear Channel lead the witch-hunt against the Dixie Chicks after their anti-war, anti-Bush statements to a London crowd. In 2007, AT&T (another beneficiary of the Telecom Act) cut out similar statements made by Pearl Jam during a Webcast of their set at Lollapalooza.

Those who were hoping Barack Obama would rein in this kind of unchecked corporate power in the midst of economic crisis were similarly disappointed. In January of 2010, Obama’s Justice Department approved the merger of Ticketmaster and Live Nation. The concert promoters, who have both been repeatedly caught price-gouging, now constitute an effective monopoly over the live music market.

Indeed, the Black Eyed Peas, who were trotted out during Obama’s campaign as the musical embodiment of the candidate’s “Yes We Can” slogan, have shown themselves to be the perfect compliment to this kind of agenda. Six months before the Ticketmaster-Live Nation merger, the Peas released The E.N.D. Fergie, in essence the public face of the group, told Rolling Stone that the album was “meant as escapism. We specifically wanted people to forget about their money problems, losing their jobs, their homes.”

Of course, the disconnect from reality is palpable here (how exactly does one “forget” that they’re homeless?) but this is coming from a group whose 2008 endorsement of Obama was held up as the gold standard of arts-activism!

Those raised on the sounds of the Baby Boomer generation—steeped as they were in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements—are certainly right when they point out that today’s music doesn’t have much to say. Looking back at such rebellious, innovative artists like Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone and Bob Dylan, it’s easy to ask “what happened?”

Back in 2002, Andy Taylor, whose Sanctuary Artist Management represents such acts as ZZ Top, Fleetwood Mac and Velvet Revolver, provided an answer to Britain’s Independent newspaper:

“If you go back to the Sixties, we had bubble gum pop acts then. But we were developing long-term acts too. We had labels like Island and Chrysalis and hundreds of independent record labels driven by entrepreneurs who wanted to break new acts. Then consolidation came and the major record labels bought up the independents. But they squashed the entrepreneurialism by putting it in the structure of a conglomerate. They were still required to show growth, though, so the easiest thing to do was produce short-term products that would drive short-term growth. That’s why acts started being broken by in-your-face-marketing. It’s become like the Christmas toy market.”

In other words, it’s the market. Left to its own devices, it can’t help but consolidate into fewer and fewer hands. Much as the free-marketeers love to prattle on about freedom of expression and opportunity, the fact is that—in music at least—it’s lead to neither.

The Alternative: Culture is a Right!

Championing the free-market isn’t just about politicians knowing where their bread is buttered. It’s true that the executives of Clear Channel give big money to the Republicans, while recording moguls like David Geffen and Jimmy Iovine prefer the Dems. But like the debates around universal healthcare, there is an much bigger idea at play—one that industry fears with all its being. After all, if there is viable “public option,” and if culture is considered a right rather than a privilege, then why exactly do we need the business in the first place?

At the start of the Great Depression, many musicians were asking themselves the same question. The crash had bankrupted most record labels. Not only was the capital gone, but in the age of bread-lines and unemployment, the parlor songs and novelty jingles that had been their bread and butter no longer seemed relevant.

Mat Callahan calls this the time when distinctly “popular” culture came into its own. The blues, jazz and folk records—which had previously been segregated into cynical categories of “race records” and “hillbilly music”—found a hearing. Songs that profiled the everyday struggles of workers, the poor, people of color and even women resonated like never before.

Then came the founding of “Federal Project Number One,” Roosevelt’s New Deal program geared specifically for the arts. Federal One wasn’t merely handed down. Far from it; the later, more robust version of the New Deal had been an attempt by FDR to stave off social revolution. At its most vibrant, Federal One and its departments would provide a cultural space for artists to develop and find a platform, shielded from the slings and arrows of the market.

Originally, the Federal Music Project only focused on publicly-funded symphonies, with little regard for more “low-brow” music. After Charles Seeger (father of the legendary Pete) became assistant director, it branched out, studying and recording cowboy songs, blues standards, Creole and gospel. Without the FMP, it’s questionable whether such giants as Woody Guthrie, Dizzy Gillespie, Leadbelly or Billie Holiday would have reached such a large audience.

The 1940s and saw the FMP and the rest of Federal One all but disbanded under cries of “communist infiltration” by Congressional right-wingers. It was only with Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs that the National Endowment for the Arts was formed.

Compared to its predecessor, the NEA was weak tea. It proved to be well behind the curve on recognizing rock & roll and soul music, and to this day one would be hard pressed to find any mention of punk or hip-hop. That’s not to say that it hasn’t been a valuable cultural space. Countless community arts programs might not have otherwise survived if not the NEA’s grants.

When Ronald Reagan used the “public obscenity” excuse to try and abolish the NEA in the 1980s, he wasn’t just motivated by prudish social mores or deficit hawkishness.
Doing away with public funding for the arts, along with any other accessible cultural space, was part-and-parcel of rolling back the ability of working people to thrive and resist.

David McNally, in his book Global Slump insists that:

“[C]ultures of resistance were sustained in and through organized infrastructures of dissent… But in the great wave of industrial restructuring, geographic relocation and union-busting that consolidated the neoliberal era, much of this was eroded. As plants closed, union halls disappeared, oppositional spaces died out, and people moved on, workers were literally dispossessed of their cultural resources.”

Rebel Movements, Rebel Music: The Fight for Public Arts

Now, a growing number of ordinary folks seem eager to take those resources back. Not long after the economic crisis took hold, a group of writers—including Jeff Chang, Barbara Ehrenreich and former NEA head Bill Ivey—launched a petition calling for a “Creativity Stimulus” loosely modeled on the Federal One program.

Of course, Federal One didn’t come without a fight, and it won’t this time either. Already there have been stirrings of resistance among artists and musicians. It’s taken on various forms—sometimes against their own subjugation, sometimes against exploitation as a whole. What all share in common is the enthusiastic response they’ve received from fans and listeners.

Despite all attempts to label it as “piracy,” peer-to-peer file sharing persists. The one reason above all else is that it has provided listeners with an avenue to find new music without needing to shell out for an overpriced CD. It’s also provided artists with a way to reach their fans directly, free from the constraints of a record contract.

When Radiohead released their 2007 album In Rainbows in an independent, online “pay-what-you-can” scheme, it was called “idiotic” and “dangerous” by some industry stalwarts. In three days, however, it went platinum.

Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco, who like Radiohead has become known for his contrary and progressive political views, recently was forced to mount his own struggle against his record label. His latest album, Lasers, was delayed for over two years. Atlantic Records had send Lupe back to the drawing board time and time again over the course of two years, claiming his material wasn’t “marketable.” After fans set up a website calling a protest outside of Atlantic headquarters in Manhattan (a demonstration dubbed “Fiasco Friday”), the label relented and announced a release date.

The World Wide Web, threatened as it is by end of Net Neutrality, continues to be a potential hotbed for subversive spaces. Commentators spilled endless amounts of ink praising the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt as ushered in by Facebook and Twitter—often ignoring the actual people power that drove the revolts. Arab rebel songs inspired by the rebellions, in particular rap and hip-hop, have found their way to American ears via the Web, free from Western spin.

In short, real, interesting music, whose goal is uplift and empowerment rather than vapid consumerism, can take its rightful place at center-stage when masses of ordinary people start to hit back. In the midst of these struggles, even the seemingly unshakable “mainstream” can be punctured.

One of the many artists who flew last-minute to Wisconsin and played for the tens of thousands marching on and occupying the State Capitol in Madison was Tim McIlrath, lead-singer of the hardcore punk band Rise Against. The group’s new album, Endgame, hardly seems the normal fare of the Billboard charts: hard, often dissonant guitar-work, lyrics that tackle anti-gay bullying and the BP oil spill while invoking the “sleeping giant” of America’s poor to rise up.

Upon its release, coming only days after McIlrath performed in Madison, Endgame debuted at number 2. Though the band’s own sweat and tears no doubt played a role (they’ve spent a decade building up a serious fan-base), it’s hard to imagine their recent success as separate from general and widespread opposition to austerity and union-busting.

For the past thirty years, moments like these have been all-too-rare in music. Though they may yet prove to be little more than fleeting glimpses, they nonetheless reveal that art and music aren’t mere commodities to be shoved down our throats. The “do-it-yourself” ethics of punk, hip-hop and indie, along with the presence of the Internet, have made it possible to speak of art without a market.

The brewing struggle against austerity also makes it possible to talk about where we want our money going. Rather than bailing out the upper one percent, it should be going to where we need it the most: jobs, healthcare, culture. As the saying goes, “we want bread, but roses too.” At its most basic, our art is more inspiring than anything coming from a boardroom; it deserves to be protected, nurtured and fought for.

First appeared at SOCIARTS.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Financial Appeal From Rebel Frequencies...

Rebel Frequencies isn't Rolling Stone. Providing news and analysis of music and struggle doesn't rely on advertising or corporate sponsorship. It most certainly doesn't rely on the billions in tax breaks doled out to the likes of David Geffen and Jimmy Iovine. It relies on you.

A donation feature is now available on the RF website. All contributions are guaranteed to be safe and secure; your info won't be sprayed across the web. All donations, no matter how large or how small, will be used solely to keep the site running and the articles coming.

Upcoming articles and works are going to include the case for public arts funding, an examination of Bob Marley's legacy on the thirtieth anniversary of his death, a review of the new album from Chicago rebel rapper Phillip Morris, an interview with Madison noise-rockers United Sons of Toil and many more.

All of this is without question a labor of love, but that doesn't change the fact that it's still labor. Please support the site!!!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Motorhead Doing What We All Wish We Could Do

Nobody could ever accuse Lemmy Kilmister of being overly-optimistic. But then, his anger has always found an audience--probably because most folks are just as pissed. As if we needed any more proof, Motorhead dropped this video "Get Back In Line" a few months back. The timing, as always, is not to be ignored here, as the single was released right on the heels of last year's massive student rebellion.

There's not much symbolism to decipher here; the message of the video is rather straightforward--not to mention cathartic! As for the song itself, it appears that each verse is sung as the vast majority--poor workers and such--while the much more swaggerish chorus is sung from the point of view of the lucky rich few. Lemmy's songwriting never has been one-note or straightforward.

Of course, the whole video is very easily considered male-centric, what with the helpless females who stand by horrified before being escorted off by the band. This is, after all, metal (not to mention coming from an artist who still makes the unsavory claim that he's "bedded" over 2000 women). Nonetheless, it's a definite sign of the times.

We live on borrowed time, hope turned to dust,
Nothing is forgiven we fight for every crust.
The way we are is not the way we used to be my friend,
All things come to he who waits, the waiting never ends.

We are the chosen few; we are the frozen crew,
We don’t know what to do, just wasting time.
We don’t know when to quit, we don’t have room to spit,
But we’ll get over it, get back in line.

Stuck here ten thousand years, don’t know how to act,
Everything forgotten, specially the facts.
The way we live is running scared; I don’t like it much,
All things come to he who waits but these days most things suck.

We are the chosen ones, we don’t know right from wrong,
We don’t know what’s going on, don’t know enough to care.
We are the dogs of war; don’t even know what for,
But we obey the law, get back in line.

We are trapped in luxury, starving on parole,
No one told us who to love, we have sold our souls.
Why do we vote for faceless dogs? We always take the bait.
All things come to he who waits, but all things come too late.

We are the sacrifice, and we don’t like advice,
We always pay the price, pearls before swine.
Now we are only slaves, already in our graves,
And if you think that Jesus saves, get back in line.
If you think that Jesus saves, get back in line.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Still the Only Band That Matters...

As always, there was plenty to buzz about at this year's Coachella festival. The contradictory words of Lil' B have reignited the debate over hip-hop and the LGBT community. Kanye's performance, as well as that of Arcade Fire, Cee Lo and Animal Collective, is being called a highlight.

The LA Times, though, is rightfully bringing some notes to another performance: that of Big Audio Dynamite, featuring Mick Jones. When he mentioned Joe Strummer, the crowd apparently went wild. It's been eight and a half years since Strummer passed away, and he still provokes an amazing amount of respect and admiration.

But the Times article also brings some much-needed respect to Jones. He was, after all, just as much of a driving force behind the Clash. It's often said that Joe was "the political one," but this overlooks how left Mick really was--and continues to be; even today, he continues to play benefits for progressive causes. Unions, anti-racist causes, even playing a gig for the European Social Forum during the height of the anti-war movement back in 2004.

It also can't be overstated how important Mick's contribution was to the Clash's sound. B.A.D. continues to display what an innovator:

"The band was perhaps a bit overlooked in it days, but the world seems to have caught up to the cut-and-paste jumble of rock and dance cultures that was the Big Audio Dynamite mission. One could argue that the Big Audio Dynamite sound is a microcosm of all that happens at Coachella, from the chilled beats and synths of 'Beyond the Pale' to the rap of theme song 'BAD.' Introducing "The Battle of All Saints Road," Jones said, 'This is a country trip-hop rock 'n' roll ballad.' And that's a genre that's yet to score its own Coachella tent."

If not for Mick, the Clash might never have incorporated hip-hop into their sound. Same with disco and many of the other styles that began to emerge on Sandinista! and Combat Rock. After he was booted from the group, their sound became stagnant.

Seems that the Clash remain relevant for a reason. In fact, there's plenty that's happened over the past couple years in particular that hearkens back to the late '70s: a stubborn global recession, the racist anti-immigrant scapegoating that comes with it, even revolutionary upheavals seem on the agenda again. The Clash, as one of the most effective groups to fuse all of this into their musical DNA, are rightfully being looked to by a new generation of kids.

Important in all of this, however, is being able to separate the myth from reality. Perhaps, with almost a decade to grieve for Joe, there's now breathing room to acknowledge what the other members brought to the table--including Mick. If we're going to call them "the only band that mattered," then that has to mean a whole group.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Kweli to Colt: Get Lost

Talib Kweli, currently on tour to support his latest Gutter Rainbows album, isn't exactly known as a teetotaller. About eight years ago he did radio ads for Smirnoff Ice, and as other bloggers have pointed out, his own wedding was sponsored by Hennessy. Sponsorship and endorsements are part of the game for most artists looking to make a decent living; even Steve Earle allowed his songs to be used in Chevy commercials.

But when it comes to artist control, Kweli has always placed a premium on it. The key point is that Kwe decides which companies he does business with. So when it came to his attention that his upcoming show in Lawrence, Kansas was going to be sponsored by Colt 45, he was quick to show them the door.

In a set of tweets to his fans on Tuesday, he said "To my fans in Lawrence Kansas the Granada Theater has partnered with Colt 45 without my knowledge to promote the show. We shut that down... I will be at the Granada in Lawrence Kansas, but Colt45 is no longer involved in the show promo. Thank yall (fans) for alerting me."

Other artists, most notably Snoop Dogg, have been happy to cozy up to the brand. Snoop in particular has received flak from ministers and religious figures who have accused him of "pushing poison on the Black community."

Though it smacks of religious sanctimony, there is a point in singling Colt 45 out on this level. Certainly, plenty of liquor brands go out of their way to don a "hip-hop image," but Colt in particular has a rather obvious past of marketing almost exclusively to African American youth.

Minister Paul Scott, one of the figures who has called out Snoop, makes a rather solid case. The new Colt 45 drink, "Blast," contains a potent 12% alcohol content and basically tasted like fruity candy. Scott also asks how it is that after the whole fiasco around Four Loko a brand can so easily get away with so blatantly peddling itself to underagers.

"By the owners of Pabst own admission, Colt 45 has been known, primarily, a ‘hood drink and as long as they keep it ghetto, they do not have to worry about those underage drinking crusader organizations throwing a monkey wrench in their program. Most of these organizations only seem to get MADD (pardon the pun) when alcohol abuse starts affecting middle class white kids at college frat parties."

In essence, Scott is asking a question that even thirty years in still gets no play: how is it that there's no money for schools, decent jobs and community empowerment programs, but there's plenty of money for vice? One might answer that where there's vice, there's cops.

Thanks to the way urban development has gone over the past three decades, many inner-city areas don't even have grocery stores! So while social investment has fled, private enterprise had swooped to the scene like a vulture.

Most outlets, including the hip-hop sites, notably overlook this key bit of history, but it stands to reason that many-a-head remember it. In light of all this, it certainly makes sense that Kwe would give Colt the boot.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

BDS: Now More Than Ever!

More news from the artistic front of the Israeli boycott. Washington University in St. Louis, under pressure from the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee, recently disinvited an Israeli hip-hop performer from appearing at its Universal Beatz event. The artist, Marvin Casey, is part of a group sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel, an organization that promotes Jewish migration to Israel while openly denying the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

There's a great amount of hypocrisy, however, in also disinviting the pro-Palestine side for a hip-hop event, and the claim of the organizers that music can ever be above politics.

After all, this is hip-hop! It's a music that originates in the most oppressed communities in the world! No wonder it's found such popularity in Palestine and the Middle East in general. There's a profound difference in allowing rap to be appropriated and used by the side of the oppressor, and when it's wielded by those under the boot themselves. The difference is in authenticity.

Nonetheless, it's a victory. Allowing any kind of music--specifically hip-hop--to be trotted out by an apartheid state only allows that state to keep looking legitimate. It's not. Apartheid never is. As Excentrik, one of the artists involved in the campaign points out:

"The whole point of the ‘Brand Israel’ campaign is to further normalize the general public’s view of Israel, to soften it in the eyes of the next generation. They utilize artists like Casey to display a fantastical dream world of tolerance, peace, democracy and diversity that is simply an illusion. The reality of apartheid, systematic displacement, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, house demolitions and illegal occupation are simply washed over if we, as artists and public activists, do not honor the BDS movement."

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Biebs vs. 'Pac

Excellent commentary on today on Bieber's views on abortion. The author really does a good job putting the root of his backward statements (which still have received no criticism in the mainstream media) squarely in the ground that the pro-choice movement has ceded to the bigots.

As a key example of how different it is from even fifteen years ago, the article goes on to quote 2Pac. Plenty cynical critics love laying the blame for sexism at the feet of hip-hop itself. But when it comes to views on reproductive rights, I'll take Pac any day.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Grammys Are Racist

There I said it. Don't believe me? Observe the categories that National Academy of Arts and Sciences recently announced they are axing from their annual awards:

"Best Latin Jazz Album, Best Contemporary Jazz Album, Best Cajun & Zydeco Album, Best Native American Album and Best Hawaiian Music Album. Seven Latin categories were cut to four, citing duplicate categories in the Latin Grammy Awards ceremony and the English-language awards.

"The three R&B vocal performance awards for males, females and groups have been merged into a single R&B performance award."

It's worth noting the list of performers who wouldn't have been recognized without these categories. Arturo Sandoval, Charlie Haden, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Herbie Hancock, Chaka Khan, Alicia Keyes, Aretha Franklin (who won Best Female R&B Vocal eight years in a row, no doubt helping to solidify her her legendary status), Prince, D'Angelo, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind & Fire, the Temptations. The list goes on.

This is on top of several niche categories being eliminated, which affect artists of all races and ethnicities. Meanwhile, a category has been added for Best Video Game Music.

NARAS President Neil Portnow would no doubt love to act like this is all a play at reining in what has become an unwieldy and boring telecast. But most of these categories weren't part of the televised show anyway.

In the end, this is about the music industry acting like an industry. It's no secret that the first folks who get the axe in any business are the people of color. This backward logic has always been a key component of keeping profits safe and high. The round of chops at the Grammys can't be ignored aside from this.

What makes this especially frustrating is this most recent show was probably the least boring in years, displaying a diversity of talent clearly grappling with what it means to be an artist in a time of crisis and struggle. This latest move is going to put a damper on any possibility of a trend.

But it's also worth remembering that many of these categories were added in the first place during the late '60s and early '70s, when the cries for Black and Brown (and even Red) Power were their loudest. In short, NARAS is always going to act how they do. That includes feeling pressure from below. Music is a lot more diverse than any industry will ever understand; this is just another reason to do away with it.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Never Ending Censorship Tour

It's rather amazing that even now, forty years after he proclaimed to the world that he was quitting "Maggie's Farm," fans still expect some beacon of truth to come tumbling out of Bob Dylan's mouth. Dylan played his first-ever shows in China and Vietnam over the weekend. Now, apparently the big question is why he didn't make a bigger deal over the perceived censorship he faced in each country.

"Back in the day, if he had been in Ai's shoes, he [Dylan] would have expected someone to speak up for him," said a spokesperson for Human Rights Watch. The spokesperson is referring to Ai Weiwei, a Chinese dissident and artist who was arrested by authorities as he tried to flee the country the other week. Dylan didn't make a peep about Ai's imprisonment.

Nor was he allowed to play some of his best-known songs in either country. China's authorities required his set-list be pre-approved, and nixed both "Desolation Row" and "Blowin' In the Wind." They apparently didn't have a problem with songs like "Masters of War" or "The Times They Are a-Changin'" but he didn't end up playing these songs anyway. The official Vietnamese account is that none of his songs were forbidden. The only numbers that could be called even remotely close to his "finger-pointin' songs" were "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" and "All Along the Watchtower," both of which are much more allegorical.

The stir caused in the media over this certainly confirms that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Dylan is now playing gigs in a country he once demanded that the US get out of, only to run into the same kind of censorship he experienced from the American authorities way back when. Of course, Vietnam and China were never the kind of workers' states that many on the radical left claimed them to be during Dylan's height (let alone now, when both have enthusiastically adopted a neoliberal agenda). But by that point, he was already being called a "Judas" by such groups.

And that's the rub: Charles Shaar Murray, in his Guardian article on just this topic, points out that Dylan's "political" period only lasted a couple years until he shunned the confines of the American folk tradition at Newport.

Since that era he's gone through many other labels: drug addict, born-again Christian, rabid Zionist, has-been and rock & roll elder statesman. Yet some still seem to cling to the ghost of Dylan the freedom-fighting sooth-sayer.

Not only does all of this noise potentially hem in Dylan himself, it gives him entirely too much credit! There's a common misconception that artists are the ones who inspire struggle. And while nobody can deny that plenty of folks were turned on to the idea of a better world by Dylan's songs, the fact is that in the end it's exactly the other way round.

The struggles for civil rights and against the Vietnam war came before Dylan. Some tend to forget this. Like countless other young people, his words and actions were moved and inspired by outside events. Expecting him to be some fearless leader today is to forget that such fearless leaders don't really exist in the first place.

In his book Wicked Messenger, Mike Marqusee makes a strong case that even well after Newport, even after some of his jilted admirers were screaming obscenities at him from the balcony, Dylan's art continued to reflect what was going on in the world, albeit in more coded, less oblique ways.

And then there's the fact that--contrary to what some of his more musically dogmatic cohorts might say--his forays into electric guitar and rock actually did push music forward as a whole. It's questionable whether acts like Buffalo Springfield or Creedence would have sounded like they did without the blending of folk and rock that Dylan helped usher in. Without such fiercely independent artists, music stays stagnant.

That's the bottom line with Dylan. He does what he wants. Period. At this point he can certainly afford it. Do we wish more artists would speak out? Absolutely. Do artists in China and Vietnam deserve more freedom? Without a doubt; as they do here and across the world. But that doesn't mean calling on Bob Dylan to be Moses. Not only did that version of him never really exist, it sells short what's actually necessary to win.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Justice for Smiley Culture

Smiley Culture was never really well-known on this side of the pond. In the UK, however, he was an integral figure in the development of the nation's reggae scene, and proved a critical link for British hip-hop. His 1984 singles "Cockney Translation" and "Police Officer" brought a humorously poignant view of what it meant to be Black in London during the '80s. Several writers have credited these singles as being one of jumping off points for many London rappers.

On March 15th, Smiley, whose real name was David Emmanuel, died of a stab wound during a police raid on his house in Surrey. Police officers are insisting that the stab wound was self-inflicted, but have dragged their feet with offering any answers or even starting an independent investigation.

His family, most notably his nephew Merlin, are understandably angry. An organization has been set up in Smiley's name, and has called a march to Scotland Yard in London on April 16th.

Merlin did an interview with Socialist Worker UK recently. In it, he connected his uncle's death to others like it. “In the last decade almost 400 people have died in police custody—that’s nearly one a week. But not one police officer has been brought to account or been charged with anything... You can understand why my confidence in the IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Commission) and structures like that is minimal.”

Police in Britain are more than 26 times more likely to stop and search Blacks than their white counterparts. The initial organizing meeting for the Campaign 4 Justice 4 Smiley Culture brought 1,000 participants. His death, the suspicious circumstances surrounding it, and the refusal of the cops to answer any questions, have clearly touched a long-raw nerve.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Atom

Despite repeated attempts by Japanese politicians and nuclear honchos to unfurl the "Mission Accomplished" banner, the crisis unleashed by the earthquake and tsunami has worsened day by day. Radioactive matter is now leaking into the ocean; fears of meltdown persists.

I remember saying recently that we are in desperate need of some new anti-nuke songs and a movement to go along with them. While those types of songs remain pretty scant, I nonetheless overlooked this brilliant and recent example: Ani DiFranco's "The Atom," off of her 2008 Red Letter Year. Poignant, moving, simple, urgent. Everything a song should be as we're carried inch by inch closer to the brink.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Damaged Gang

Gang of Four haven’t ever really gotten their due. Even as success has come to countless groups walking in their footsteps--from Bloc Party to Red Hot Chili Peppers--the pioneers of post-punk have somehow managed to stay just below the surface of pop culture. It certainly didn’t help that no new material had come from them in over 15 years.

That changed on January 25th, when the Gang released Content. Their first since 1995, it finally promised to show how relevant their scathing, jagged critiques of alienation and post-modern capitalism could be.

Something else happened on January 25th, though. On that day, ordinary Egyptians took to the streets in a “Day of Rage” against an entrenched tyrant, following closely on the heels of their Tunisian counterparts. Two weeks later, as the strongman fell, the long-sleeping giant of American workers awoke. Everything changed--and in fact, still is changing. Listening to Content is undoubtedly a treat, but after all this, one has to painfully wonder whether Gang of Four still have a place.

Not to say that there isn’t plenty of familiar thrill and subversion here; guitarist Andy Gill's distinctive rusty-razor guitars are rewarding as ever. The lyrics of “You’ll Never Pay For the Farm,” released as Content’s lead single, certainly have relevance in the age of foreclosures and never-ending war.

Likewise for the stutter-step opener “She Said You Made a Thing Of Me,” which stands in rare contrast to countless male chauvinist artists who don’t think twice about the logic of sexism:

“She is an accident
Her shape’s coincidence
He said she’s beautiful
An invention that is usable…”

Gang of Four have always loved reading between the lines, illustrating the horror of normality, the panic of convention and the inescapable exploitation that lay under the surface of prosperity. While shallow pranksters like Malcolm McLaren loved to call themselves Situationists, GoF actually understood what that meant.

This was the late ‘70s, when Thatcher and Reagan did their best to eliminate any notion of “social responsibility” and replace it with a near-omniscient sense of Cold War consumerism. While conservative rule used survival of the fittest as its starting point, Gang of Four’s sound and lyrics revealed that there was nothing natural about how things are run. GoF maintained that to the system we were little more than damaged goods, and that if the rulers had their way, even our love lives would become as toxic as anthrax.

Insofar as there remained a left during their height, the Gang were unmistakably a part of it, playing gigs for Rock Against Racism and speaking on their American tours in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment. And while there were so many complex ideas running through each song, their cerebral subject matter didn’t prevent them from rocking hard!

Now they’re picking up where they left off: Content comes not in a traditional CD case but in a shiny metal box. It’s a tongue-in-cheek nod to their own commodification (throwing back to Public Image Ltd’s Metal Box).

Maybe they did too good of a job on that front. Songs like the hard-banging “Who Am I?” and the melancholy “A Fruitfly In a Beehive” both have excellent hooks and provocative lyrics that delve into the heart of that same alienation:

“Where did it all begin?
Where's the proof of life?
Who is on our side?
Is there a blind man guide?
Can I hitch a ride
When the life boat slides?
Don't know if what I know is true
What is the golden rule?
Where am I going to?
All the workers do what they do
They are floating too
And the sky is blue…”

Any office drone will identify with this deft portrayal of their own atomization. The problem is that in the past couple months this only seems to tell half the story. Singer Jon King of course had no way of knowing even a year ago that the same “blind,” seemingly intransigent workers would now be toppling dictators.

It doesn't just stop at the crystal ball, though. The activism that once complimented their music is missing. No mention of Love Music Hate Racism (inheritor of RAR) is to be found on their website. Nor do they have much of anything to say about the student rebellions that recently rocked their native Britain, which for the first time in a while presented an alternative to the alienation that the group has always railed against. Taking all this into account, the once sharp of acumen of their previous songs seems somewhat blunted.

Perhaps it’s a reflection of the fact that we’re actually listening to only one half of GoF. Drummer Hugo Burnham and bassist Dave Allen formerly played a crucial role in shaping the group’s sound and message. It’s possible that the balance they once brought to the table left with them. Or maybe it’s simply that Andy Gill and Jon King have been too profoundly shaped by the apparent stasis of the past 30 years—and all of the defeats and pessimism that came with it.

The tragedy is that a more engaged Gang of Four is more needed than ever—and would be practically guaranteed to find a new audience. Of the endless artists who were influenced by their sound, only a scant few also inherited their intelligent-yet-instinctive radicalism.

Back in the late ‘70s, when young workers were staring into the abyss, shaking folks awake was indeed a radical act. Now that we’re figuring out a way to crawl back out, it’s simply insufficient. Here’s to hoping these brilliant artists catch up.

First appeared at SOCIARTS.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Race, Reform and the Hip-Hop Rebellion

By now, many have certainly heard of the untimely passing of Manning Marable. Author of some of the best books on race and class that have been released in the past thirty years--Race, Reform and Rebellion, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, the list goes on.

His years-long labor of love on Malcolm X, ironically released a mere three days after his passing, is bound to cement the crucial role he played as a living link between the radicalism of the Black liberation movement and the ability for today's youth to reclaim the mantle. As official Black politics drifted into the realm of liberalism, apology and revision, his writings and activism always firmly believed that there was a lot more work to be done by the young folks at the grass-roots.

Others have written on him better than I could--those who knew him personally and fought alongside him when I was barely a toddler. But it's worth noting how far his belief ran. He was merely "armchair activist." A member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, he was also the elected chair of the Movement for a Democratic Society (non-profit wing of the modern SDS).

At a time when many of his age group were blaming hip-hop for the scourges of Black America, he joined the board of directors of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. HSAN, in recent years, has become less an "action network" in the true sense than a vehicle for Russell Simmons' books. Nonetheless, his inclusion reflected both his own sense of hope and the unquestioned respect he commanded among younger generations.

In 2006, Marable did an interview with The Black Collegian Online in which he put the challenges of the hip-hop generation firmly within the context of the "new deadly triangle" for young people of color: mass unemployment, mass incarceration and mass disenfranchisement.

"Now, for many young people, unfortunately, there is a sense of disempowerment, that you can't change the way things are," he said. "So you get a reactionary current within part, not all, but part of the hip-hop community, that says, 'I just want to get paid.' Or, 'It's all about bling bling.' That's it. Rather than trying to advance or empower our community. The challenge to the hip-hop generation to see that it, too, has the capacity to make history, if they have confidence and challenge themselves."

Marable's belief was one that was always critical while never throwing the baby out with the bathwater. He knew that movements didn't come by laying out a pre-determined plan to which the rest of the world had to conform, but by engaging that world. His books, and his activism, were a testament to this.

Monday, April 4, 2011

"We Don't Need No Occupation..."

It would seem, rightfully so, that the issue of Palestine and in particular Gaza is returning to the mainstream. To be sure, there are millions of people around the world for whom the question has never faded. But the events in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain and countless other states have without a doubt raised the stakes for Israel's occupation. Netanyahu is pleading with the UN to stop the next Freedom Flotilla, even as there are rumblings of the Israeli military launching "Cast Lead, part two."

So it makes sense that the issue is returning to music too (this is the third post having to . Below is an op-ed that Pink Floyd's Roger Waters wrote for Britain's Guardian newspaper. Waters, of course, is one of those folks who Gene Simmons calls a "fool." The arrogance is palpable; Pink Floyd always represented a continuity in the evolution of rock, Kiss represented its bastardization. Case in point: Rogers' words are much more thought out than Simmons' near-meaningless stringing together of phrases. Simmons hopes that his audience doesn't bother digging too deep; it's an insult to that same audience. Unlike him, Waters knows that his honesty and connection with struggles past is part of what makes him so credible.


In 1980, a song I wrote, "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2," was banned by the government of South Africa because it was being used by black South African children to advocate their right to equal education. That apartheid government imposed a cultural blockade, so to speak, on certain songs, including mine.

Twenty-five years later, in 2005, Palestinian children participating in a West Bank festival used the song to protest against Israel's wall around the West Bank. They sang: "We don't need no occupation! We don't need no racist wall!" At the time, I hadn't seen firsthand what they were singing about.

A year later I was contracted to perform in Tel Aviv. Palestinians from a movement advocating an academic and cultural boycott of Israel urged me to reconsider. I had already spoken out against the wall, but I was unsure whether a cultural boycott was the right way to go.

The Palestinian advocates of a boycott asked that I visit the occupied Palestinian territory to see the wall for myself before I made up my mind. I agreed.

Under the protection of the United Nations I visited Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw that day. The wall is an appalling edifice to behold. It is policed by young Israeli soldiers who treated me, a casual observer from another world, with disdainful aggression.

If it could be like that for me, a foreigner, a visitor, imagine what it must be like for the Palestinians, for the underclass, for the passbook carriers. I knew then that my conscience would not allow me to walk away from that wall, from the fate of the Palestinians I met: people whose lives are crushed daily by Israel's occupation. In solidarity, and somewhat impotently, I wrote on their wall that day: "We don't need no thought control."

Realising at that point that my presence on a Tel Aviv stage would inadvertently legitimise the oppression I had seen, I cancelled my gig at the stadium in Tel Aviv and moved it to Neve Shalom, an agricultural community devoted to growing chick peas and also, admirably, to co-operation between different faiths, where Muslim, Christian and Jew work side by side in harmony.

Against all expectations it was to become the biggest music event in the short history of Israel. Some 60,000 fans battled traffic jams to attend. It was extraordinarily moving for us, and at the end of the gig I was moved to exhort the young people gathered there to demand of their government that they attempt to make peace with their neighbours and respect the civil rights of Palestinians living in Israel.

Sadly, in the intervening years the Israeli government has made no attempt to implement legislation that would grant rights to Israeli Arabs equal to those enjoyed by Israeli Jews, and the wall has grown, inexorably, illegally annexing more and more of the West Bank.

For the people of Gaza, locked in a virtual prison behind the wall of Israel's illegal blockade, it means another set of injustices. It means that children go to sleep hungry, many chronically malnourished. It means that fathers and mothers, unable to work in a decimated economy, have no means to support their families. It means that university students with scholarships to study abroad must watch the opportunity of a lifetime slip away because they are not allowed to travel.

In my view, the abhorrent and draconian control that Israel wields over the besieged Palestinians in Gaza and the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem), coupled with its denial of the rights of refugees to return to their homes in Israel, demands that fair-minded people around the world support the Palestinians in their civil, nonviolent resistance.

Where governments refuse to act people must, with whatever peaceful means are at their disposal. For me this means declaring an intention to stand in solidarity, not only with the people of Palestine but also with the many thousands of Israelis who disagree with their government's policies, by joining the campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel.

My conviction is born in the idea that all people deserve basic human rights. This is not an attack on the people of Israel. This is, however, a plea to my colleagues in the music industry, and also to artists in other disciplines, to join this cultural boycott.

Artists were right to refuse to play in South Africa's Sun City resort until apartheid fell and white people and black people enjoyed equal rights. And we are right to refuse to play in Israel until the day comes – and it surely will come – when the wall of occupation falls and Palestinians live alongside Israelis in the peace, freedom, justice and dignity that they all deserve.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Worst Music Industry Ever

Yesterday was Thursday, today is Friday, tomorrow is Saturday, after that Sunday. I don't want the weekend to end...

You see what I did there? Couldn't resist!

Three weeks and sixty-six million views later, Rebecca Black's "Friday" has become the front-runner for the worst song in a long time. Like with most other songs of this ilk, it speaks volumes about the state of our culture--a song can become "popular" by being so undeniably bad! The 13-year-old Black is laughing all the way to the bank; Ark Music Factory, the production company that wrote the song and made the video also made enough deals for ads on YouTube that it's now made over $20,000!

Randy Lewis of the LA Times points out that Patrice Wilson of Ark charged Black's family $2,000 up front for the song and vid. It reveals a lot about the exploitative nature of the industry.

But Lewis also spends most of his article focusing on the theory that the song is so uneasily dislodged from our brains: the chord-progression for "Friday" is exactly the same as countless other songs in pop history. Lewis may not be aware of it, but he's hit on yet another bit of proof of the music business' shallow redundancy.

Sure enough, some of these songs are legendary. But the fact that professional songwriters feel the need to rely on predictable chord-patterns and familiar structures speaks to the priorities that overwhelm the music biz: the ability to sell it. Different or challenging songs are commonly shunted aside; execs and A&Rs consider marketing strategies before whether it adds anything to the broader artistic conversation.

If you're talking about cars, you want consistency in a product (it's one of the reasons why Toyota and Firestone should ideally be held to more stringent safety standards). Music isn't product, however. At least in the conventional sense. Commodifying it relies on eventually insulting your target audience's intelligence. Wilson and Black may not have set out to do that, but the virulent response reveals how profoundly the have done just that.

The model of production doesn't just exist in hanger-on companies like Ark; it goes all the way into the highest boardrooms of the industry. Black has said she would like to open for Justin Bieber. I rest my case.