Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Resistance Culture at Socialism 2011

It's hard to find anything--and I mean anything--that hasn't been thrown into question over the past year. Does a society based on profit have anything to offer working people? Is revolution possible? And if so, what kind of revolution is needed? What would a different world look like? Politically, economically, socially, and yes, culturally?

These are the kinds of questions that are going to be asked and explored this upcoming July 4th weekend at Chicago's Socialism 2011 conference. It's billed as a weekend of "Revolutionary Politics, Debate and Entertainment," and rightfully so. Featuring activists hailing from Palestine to Wisconsin, from the labor movement to the struggle against sexism, this will be a weekend when the topic of a fundamentally different world will be on the table.

As in years past, the culture on offering will also be fundamentally, well different. This year will feature a workshop where SocialistWorker.org writer Nicole Colson will examine the work and legacy of the Clash (a session I'll be chairing). This year's entertainment will also feature a radical drag show, comedy sketches and film showings. And, of course, musicians and artists will be lending their talent to the weekend; Chicago rapper Phillip Morris will be performing, as will two members of Philly folk act High Hearts, and Prayers for Atheists, currently launching their tour supporting their brand new album. Several other acts are also in the works, and will be announced right here at Rebel Frequencies.

In all, this is a weekend that nobody who wants to build a better world and better culture should miss. Of all the events plugged here at RF, this is one that readers seriously need to pull out all the stops to attend.

Monday, May 30, 2011

RIP Gil Scott-Heron

By now most readers have certainly heard the news. Though Gil Scott Heron's health problems and struggles with addiction had become well-known in recent years, his death on Friday can't be called anything less than a shock. Here was a man who was moved by a culture that surrounded him: not just the racism, oppression and inequality, but the soul, jazz and poetry that grasped at possible freedom. In doing so, he pushed art itself forward, and it's no coincidence that his own creativity was so inextricably linked with struggle itself.

A piece on his life, art and activism will be forthcoming on PopMatters.com, but in the meantime, here's some respect:

Friday, May 27, 2011

The New and Global Face of Hip-Hop

Stanford University is just finishing up a month-long speaking series on hip-hop. These types of events are becoming commonplace for colleges in the US and, to a degree, around the world. Of course, hip-hop's more natural habitat is always going to be on the streets of our communities rather than the ivory towers of academia, but most of these conference have played host to some great insights and lively debates.

Moreover (and this is somewhat ironic given the historic role of academics in de-fanging struggles) they appear to be among the places where our conception of hip-hop's role in changing the world is pushed forward. This is needed perhaps now more than ever; as regular readers of this blog will have seen repeatedly, the election of the "hip-hop president" has lead to a situation where the struggle of this style is supposedly finished.

As Jeff Chang--author of the essential Can't Stop Won't Stop--makes clear, such a view ignores the incredible role that the music is playing in the revolutions around the world:

OLMNews :: Global Hip-Hop Education @ Stanford University from OpenLineMedia on Vimeo.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Death of Hipsterism

I walked into an Urban Outfitters last week. Don't ask me "why." I can hear your accusatory tone from here. I was on a walk, the temperature suddenly dropped, and figured maybe I could find something to pass the time in there. I was wrong. If Urban Outfitters is in some kind of financial trouble, then I'm unaware of it, but the large location was unusually sparse.

Moreover, while I used to be able to find at least a handful of interesting items in there, those that were on display were consummately boring. While the prices there have always been too much, I definitely wouldn't pay retail for any of the trite, uninspired threads I saw on this day. Even hearing Best Coast blasted over the store's speakers didn't put me in good enough a mood to want to buy anything.

As I walked out, I pondered why Urban Outfitters had changed--not because I ultimately cared but because its fate had to represent something larger culturally. Was it in my head? Was it simply that the chain was sucking fumes in the "cool department?" Had other stores just surpassed it? What exactly had changed?

It may be a combination of all of these factors, but in the end, there's a rather brief answer: the recession, followed by the jobless recovery and the "new normal" we are experiencing, has effectively killed the phenomenon of the hipster.

Really, commentators have been speculating on this for the past year, so the death of hipsterism may hardly come as a shock to many readers. But the demise of this trend--and the subsequent inexplicable need to poke the corpse with a stick--actually does represent some deeper questions about class in 21st century America. In turn, it opens the possibility for a culture more vitally and consciously linked to working people.

Just to be clear, I've never been comfortable with the glib hipster-bashing that plenty of folks from other sub-cultures have all-too-gleefully engaged in over the past several years. To me it seemed to smack of the kind of elitism that hipsters themselves were supposedly guilty of. Moreover, it seemed to let the actual villains off the hook. Ben Davis, co-editor of ARTINFO, makes an excellent point in his recent column on this topic:

"At any rate, if you are actually concerned with gentrification and social class, you might start by advocating for public housing, jobs programs, or anti-racist initiatives--not ridiculing girls with bangs or guys wearing tight pants. That is counterproductive, particularly if... your whole point is that an obsession with signs of cultural distinction insulates hipsters from real-world concerns. The fact that so much fire is wasted attacking a style says more about the closed intellectual hot house that the anti-hipster critics operate in than about any actual group of people being attacked."

For as frustrating as all the finger-pointing could be, it was hard to ignore how equally frustrating the culture's dominance was in indie circles. The end finally seemed nigh somewhere between the backlash against Vampire Weekend's second album (where they were rightfully derided as tourists) and when a friend looked at me and called the new MGMT album "hipster vomit." It was only then that I felt perhaps I could breathe a sigh of relief.

The mention of these two groups--MGMT and Vampire Weekend--isn't coincidental. Both reflect the most obvious internal contradictions of the culture. Namely, that even as it sought to reject the inequities of "the norm," it ended up merely replicating those same inequities.

For the past forty years, Americans have undergone an ideological campaign against the notion of class. Everything from the shameless proliferation of advertising to the constant harping by politicians on "the middle-class nation" have gone a long way to blunt what was at times a militant consciousness among workers. We live in a land of limitless opportunity for all people according to the fable. If you're poor, in debt or not ahead in some way then it merely falls on your own personal failings, not the divisions of social class. Of course, this perfectly complimented the onslaught against wages, unions, and really anything safeguarding the living standards of working people.

The hipsters were a generation raised on this contradiction. For the most part, they came from what music journalist Simon Reynolds termed the "liminal class" (shorthand for the most financially secure elements of the working class and lower echelons of the middle/managerial class). These are kids whose parents most heartily imbibed the "American dream," who raised their children believing that a good college education is enough to be successful.

There's only one problem with this viewpoint: it's fundamentally incorrect. The "baby-boomers" had a relatively prosperous economy and decent jobs waiting for them after they graduated. Decades of globablization and drops in the standard of living all but obliterated this. By the end of the 20th century, a college degree no longer guaranteed you a decent job. Add on top of this the crushing debt that most young people have had to accrue in order to get that education in the first place, and you start to understand where the alienation of "millennials" comes from. Young people are no longer likely to do better than their parents. In fact, we're the first generation in over seventy years are who are most likely to do worse.

Davis, quoting economist Paul Craig Roberts in a 2006 article, rightfully states that "the turn towards the service economy meant that the U.S. was becoming 'a nation of waitresses and bartenders,' not some cultural-economy utopia." This friction between a fantasy classlessness and the reality of instability is the starting point for any 21st century sub-culture.


Hipsterism, at least in its earliest days (the days before it was labeled "hipsterism") was in essence an ironic jab against the myth of the American Dream, albeit wrapped a kind of post-modern cynicism. The whole aesthetic was based off a host of stereotypes of different social groups--particularly the white working class. It's here that Davis' "signs of cultural distinction" come into play. The trucker hats and sunglasses, the v-necks and porn-staches. While there was an implicit rejection of classlessness here, there was still an air dripping from most hipsters that they were "above it all." At best it was a fantasy, at worst it was an insult. Basically, it was a simultaneous rejection and reflection of latter-day neoliberalism.

Musically, however, hipster culture was one part of a wider progression and partial shaking off of the segregation that entertainment industry had imposed on art. "Indie" (a culture much broader than hipsterism has ever been, despite frequent confusion of the two) is distinct because it doesn't describe a sound or genre so much as an outlook that rightfully distrusts the music industry and puts a premium on artistic integrity. The label has been applied not just to the rock of the White Stripes, but the electro-pop of Ladytron and the folk of Fleet Foxes. Lady Gaga, despite being a mainstream phenom, continues to carry cred in indie circles for her unique and independent aesthetics. Hip-hop too, from Jay-Z to dead prez, has also been embraced by the indie scene (however condescending the view taken by taste-making sites like Pitchfork).

In the years leading up to the economic collapse of '08, the irrefutable credibility of the indie outlook lead to the emergence of some truly incredible acts. The experimental analog-electronica of Black Moth Super Rainbow, Hot Chip and Animal Collective gained accolades all around. The intricate, earthy beats of J Dilla finally gained the credit they were due (tragically after their composer's untimely death). Arcade Fire's baroque pop-folk-rock made them a veritable powerhouse of the music world and put them on the path to winning a Grammy.

In the best cases, these acts have also made the long-absent jump toward actually standing for something. Arcade Fire have opposed the war on Iraq, Gaga's become an icon of LGBT liberation, various indie artists have joined the boycotts of Arizona and Israel. Then, of course, there's M.I.A., an artist who in the matter of five years rocketed from underground favorite to one of Time "100 most influential people," even as she's controversially stumped for refugee rights, skewered corporate pillaging of the developing nations and protested against Sri Lanka's massacre of Tamils. It's notable that in her now-infamous hit-piece last year, journalist Lynn Hirschberg clumsily attempted to lump M.I.A. in with the "hipster" crowd. Among the many things Hirschberg failed to recognize was the fact that not everyone criticizing consumer culture is a snide art student.

It was after the Panic of '08, however, that the unsustainability of the culture became apparent, and the most obvious and obnoxious elements of hipsterism turned truly sour. Vampire Weekend (back to them now) are perhaps the textbook example. The group are all Ivy League graduates, having met at Columbia University. Singer-guitarist Ezra Koenig, however, is the son of a teacher who was only able to attend college via a scholarship from his father's union. Incidentally, I also have it on good authority that keyboardist and songwriter Rostam Batmanglij was briefly around the anti-war activism on that campus; he is also openly gay and an advocate of LGBT rights.

This diversity has also been on display in Vampire Weekend's music. Their mix of African pop, Latin American rhythms and other sounds from around the world made their self-titled debut, released in January of 2008, one of the year's most praised albums. Two years later, by the time they released their second album, the world economy had been brought to near-meltdown, official unemployment was over ten percent, and Vampire Weekend were cruising for a backlash.

While most other "hipster" groups have embraced backward stereotypes of white workers, Vampire Weekend have gone the opposite route, dressing in nice slacks, patent leather shoes and polo shirts. This, along with their Ivy League origins, has given them the air of, as one critic called it, "the well-traveled sons of well-heeled gentlemen." In other words, they came off as snide, privileged rich boys. Now, their incorporation of globe music seems more like an appropriation, a condescending salve about the "nobility" of the underclasses from kids who have never had to do without. Accusations of "tourism" have been justified. Indeed, back in February of 2010 I wrote an article that made that exact argument. Koenig's haughty response to this criticism was that writers are too eager to be "activists," as if that were a bad thing!

What the backlash against VW represented, though, was how the massive shakeup in the global economy has affected people's cultural perceptions. Though the classlessness lambasted by the hipster aesthetic has never had any real veracity, neither now does the notion of being "above it all." Evictions, unemployment and poverty are an inescapable reality, and condescension toward poor people just doesn't fly like it used to.

The cultural bubble has been popped, and the downward mobility of today's young people can't be ignored, least of all by themselves. The "liminal class," insofar as it ever really existed, is basically on its way to extinction. As it disappears, it takes with it whatever content there was to hipster culture. Those hipsters lucky enough to be financially prosperous are seeing the silliness of the whole thing and trading in their skinny jeans for business suits. The rest are stuck working as baristas and living in tiny apartments with the creeping knowledge that they actually are the people they once parodied.

The corporate-commerce infrastructure that sprung up to take advantage of hipster culture--like, for example, Urban Outfitters--has been left an empty shell. What is also left, however, is the indie outlook, a viewpoint that--once again--has always been much bigger among young folks than the smugness of hipsterism. In fact, that outlook may broadly be called the dominant one among today's young folks. It's an outlook that has already been long distrustful of the corporate world. It's a multicultural view that flatly sees discrimination and bigotry as stupid. Even as all kinds of apolitical contradictions continue to abound, it remains true that young folks were the driving force in electing a Black president in a country built on slavery.

The indie/hipster/millennial generation is also one that, according to several polls from last summer, is most likely to go to a protest or demonstration if asked by a friend. In contrast to what nay-sayers like Ezra Koenig might have to say, today's youth are more likely to wear the label of "activist" as a badge of pride. The events from Cairo to Madison to now Madrid, all of which have seen young workers play a key role, have borne this out on a global scale. What it means to be young and working class is being consciously redefined. Already, this has had a cultural and musical expression, from the participation of rock and punk acts in the Madison protests to the hip-hop that emerged from Cairo during the "Days of Rage." If the hipster is finally dying, then what seems poised to rise from its ashes is a culture with a much more worthwhile purpose.

First appeared at SOCIARTS.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Sweat Beneath Our Culture

Last Friday, an explosion went up in a factory in Chengdu, China, killing two workers and injuring at least ten. The plant is owned by electronics giant Foxconn, responsible for manufacturing products for Dell, Nokia and Apple--including the iPhone, iPad, and iPod.

Foxconn has come under scrutiny over the past year. Conditions at the company's plants are atrocious. Workers are housed in tiny apartments occupied by several, pay is low, shifts are long, and employees often don't see their families for months at a time. Last year, several workers at Foxconn's Shenzhen plant committed suicide; the practice apparently became so widespread that management installed nets at the bottom of the dormitories.

It's been about five years since I first wrote about the sweatshop labor that goes into manufacturing our iPods, and the indifference of the mainstream music industry to those conditions. Nothing has changed. At least on the surface that appears to be the case. Apple and other major players in the technology biz are always ready to shed crocodile tears when tragedy strikes, but they're never willing to actually improve working conditions.

Beneath that surface, though, a lot has changed. Chinese workers have gone on the offensive several times over the past couple of years, wrenching some major concessions from the establishment. While the kinds of militant strikes we've seen in the auto-parts industry haven't spread to the Foxconn plants in any big way, sparks like these are always unpredictable. Elsewhere on the continent, laid off employees at Cort and Cor-Tek plants--which make guitars for Fender, Gibson and other companies--have waged a campaign demanding justice and better conditions.

Executives at Apple and other companies that help put out our music are very wary of all this. The smarter ones recognize that it doesn't bode well at all, and that a growing number of their customers may not be too crazy about their culture being so tainted. Even smarter are those suits who recognize that there's a name for this: solidarity.

There's a tendency at play here, namely that people will only be abused and exploited for so long until they fight back. Unfortunately for them, the execs who realize this likely number in the ones and twos.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Malcolm Music

Last Thursday would have been Malcolm X's 86th birthday. There's been an especial amount of attention on it this year due to the release of Manning Marable's new biography of the revolutionary legend. Aptly, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention seems to have provoked, well, a reinventing of how we view the man. Or at least a reassessment; the post-Obama era and the complete and utter failure of his administration to address any of the longstanding injustices of the Black community have rightfully lead some to revisit the notion of a new anti-racist movement for the 21st century.

This reassessment has understandably taken up Malcolm's relationship to all aspects of the culture around him. Writing for the San Francisco Bay View, Norman Richmond takes an angle seldom examined that, for obvious reasons, piqued the interest of this writer:

"Musicians have done their part to keep Malcolm’s legacy alive. Long before Spike Lee’s 1992 bio-pic, 'X,' hip hop, house, reggae and R’n’B artists created music for Malcolm, high-life and great Black music (so-called jazz) artists first wrote and sang about Malcolm."

Richmond here touches on something at first glance novel: why exactly would musical forms that gestated well after his death include Malcolm so prominently in their iconography? Why do dead prez reference him at least a handful of times on each album? Why would Bilal's most recent release Airtight's Revenge feature cover art referencing the famous "AK photo?"

The answer most likely lies in the fact that Malcolm in his lifelong journey sought a way to relate to the entire world. His evolution as an activist and his life's experiences brought him what could be justifiably called a holistic approach to the planet he was fighting for. It's an evolution that today has enabled him to be "all things to all people," to be placed on postage stamps and embalmed in time rather than studied and learned from. But it's also meant that those who do aspire to learn from him will see a nuanced and subtle understanding of oppressed culture.

He understood, for example, even well before his transformation from Detroit Red, the importance of music in the African American community. His autobiography features, once again as an example, vivid descriptions of dance contests and lindy hops at Boston's Roseland Ballroom during his time as a shoe-shiner in Boston.

Richmond also looks briefly in his article at the contribution of jazz great Archie Sheep after Malcolm's assassination. Shepp, of course, was approaching the height of his interest in Pan-Africanism and Black nationalism, and wrote poem-tunes like "Malcolm, Malcolm Semper Malcolm" for his 1965 album Fire Music. The author also points to Malcolm's observations of high-life music in Ghana and his discussions on music with Canadian novelist Austin Clarke.

Perhaps it's that Malcolm, being who and what he was, understood that true political resistance meant so much more than punching a hole in a ballot every couple years or resorting to the droll existence of the policy wonk. The true revolutionary questions and seeks to reinvent all aspects of the world around him, including the art.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Sketches of Spain

It would now seem that the spirit of Tahrir Square has crossed the Mediterranean. Spanish youth in no fewer than 60 cities are occupying the town squares. The qualms among the thousands of protesters are familiar: widespread unemployment, slashing of the social safety net, and a general feeling that the programs of the major parties are creating, in essence, a lost generation.

Nobody would likely be surprised by the role that music has already been playing in all of this. Songs from the Spanish revolutionary tradition have been heard sung in Madrid's Puerta del Sol. These were the kinds of songs long illegal under the Franco dictatorship, including those that became famous in the Civil War.

Then there's the role that modern musicians are playing. Spain's music scene encompasses everything from its native flamenco and Basque folk traditions to a vibrant electronica and hip-hop scene. Concerts are already being assembled to rally the protesters in the squares, such as this one in Seville's Plaza de Encarnacion. These two videos, quite simply, attempt to capture that kind of diverse, radical spirit.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Personal Revolution: An Interview With United Sons of Toil

The aural assault delivered by United Sons of Toil is noise in the true sense–not just a series of dissonant sounds, but sounds that so willfully defy categorization that it’s hard to not peg them as subversive. Any notion of conventional rock structure is promptly thrown into the wood-chipper by this trio; imagine Fugazi at their absolute heaviest blended with a pre-breakup Swans, and you’ve got United Sons of Toil. It’s the kind of music that shakes us alienated drones out of our inertia and sends the beautiful privileged few into conniptions.

It’s no surprise then that all three members of the Madison, Wisconsin group are themselves radicals. Their third album, When The Revolution Comes Everything Will Be Beautiful (Phratry Records) was released right on the heels of the massive labor rebellion that shook their hometown–almost as if history itself is trying to tell us something.

Now, with that uprising faded back into the recesses and everything returned to “normal,” the question of “what next” is on everyone’s mind. Questions about just about everything else—what it takes to fight, what it takes to win, and even ultimately what kind of world we want—are as urgent as ever. The members of USoT don’t claim to have all the answers to these questions (and are rightfully suspicious of anyone who does). The conversation I had with them was nonetheless illuminating; drifting between their music and beliefs, their hopes and fears, the emotional and political, an engaging glimpse into what it means to create something original in a world riven with injustice and conformity.


Alexander Billet: The quote that starts out the liner notes on your new album is one I wanted to ask you about: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Could you explain that a bit?

Russell Emerson Hall (guitar, vocals): That’s a quote from Jiddu Krishnamurthi, and the other thing in the liner notes is that it talks about how there’s no societal change without personal revolution. Because if evil people change stuff then it’s going to result in more evil! A lot of those kinds of ideas went into the record. That quote is just an encapsulation with that. Even if you can “get along” with where we are now, that’s nothing to brag about.

AB: How do you guys think that connects to your music?

Bill Borowski (bass, vocals): Well, it connects to us and we retranslate it out through the music. I mean that’s precisely how I feel about most things and how I interact with the world, the culture, the paradigm we find ourselves in. The emotion that brings out in me is probably what I bring into the music. I’m not thinking about that particular quote when I’m playing, it’s just how I feel all the time.

Jason Jensen (drums): I would say that for me, as far as it pertains to the music, I’ve learned so much from just knowing these guys; especially Russell. They’ll give me all the lyrics so I can read through them and see where they’re coming from and all that. And there are definitely parts of certain songs where that feeling is going through my head, even while we’re playing. I don’t think I consciously try to interpret it into what we play, like “here’s an angst drum-beat.” But as far as it comes across in the music it’s there.

REH: Well, I mean all the music is written as music beforehand. The vocals are normally an afterthought...

BB: Not entirely though. When we’re writing Russell’s normally screaming something. And that turns into the way the words are ultimately presented. It’s that then they have a lyrical context.

REH: Yeah, as we’re playing I’m thinking, “okay, I could probably sing here,” so I’ll just open my mouth and say something. Eventually it starts coalescing into a few phrases and words. And then I start thinking about what that could mean; what I could craft around that seed.

BB: There’s an emotive aspect to the way Russell delivers that lends itself to the chorus and the verses. It kind of feeds us.

AB: So the process is more along the lines of seeing where the music takes you? Like it’s a bit more organic?

BB: It’s very organic...

REH: Well, I guess I don’t necessarily try to match up the emotion of each song to each lyric. There’s kind of just one note emotionally--I’m fucking pissed off! But that’s the thing: I’m not “well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Right? So I’m pissed off about a lot of shit in society and I’m sick that I can’t do anything about it.

AB: There’s a stereotype out there of “political” artists: that it’s pretty much just rants over three-chords with a manifesto over it...

REH: It’s always about the music first.

BB: Yeah we’re a rock band first.

REH: To me it’s just value added, right? We’re about music but we’re trying to put this other stuff around it. For one thing it just makes the music more relevant. And two: hopefully people will hear it and think about something differently. I’m not na├»ve enough to think we’re going to change everyone’s mind but it’s important to have as many voices out there as possible.

JJ: One of the things we had talked about before we did this record was putting a manifesto in the liner notes for that reason. You know, so many times you listen to music and you’re asking “what are they saying?” So we put something in there that will represent the message. Hopefully people will read it and think “oh, I never realized that!” Whether it be the notes or list of genocides on the t-shirt we sell... we even experimented with a contest before the record came out: whoever can figure out what the lyrics are gets a free copy of the record. That wasn’t as successful as we had hoped! But that kind of idea—how do we get people to pay attention to what’s going on—was always there in the making of this record. Because like Russell said, we’re a rock band first, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t extremely passionate about these issues.

REH: There’s so many great bands that miss this opportunity. I know that so many artists are so passionate about these things, but there are so many vacuous bands that squander great music with stupid lyrics! Not that the lyrics are necessarily all that critical, but why waste it with something that doesn’t mean anything?

BB: You know Russell writes all the lyrics and he’s a very, very passionate individual so we don’t expect anything less…

REH: But everyone has their say. You know, when I wrote up the liner notes I made sure to give them to these guys and said “here read this. If there’s anything you’re uncomfortable with or disagree with or don’t want your name behind it then let’s talk about it.” I don’t want it to be just me screaming from my platform. I may be sort of the “prime mover,” but I’m not going to do it unless we’re all there. Same thing with the music; if anyone has a problem with a part of a song, we either change it or we move on. I’ve played in bands where I had to play stuff that I couldn’t get behind a hundred percent, and that sucks. I’m never going to ask anybody to do that.

JJ: Going back to the ideas, though, I think I see it differently than these two guys do. I am not an original member of United Sons of Toil. I am now and have been for years, but I met these guys as just a fan. I liked this music, and I was in the same boat as most of our country right now, where I have an opinion on something one way or the other. We maybe don’t have all the info, but we know we feel a certain way. For me, though, it was an eye-opener; hearing these songs it was almost like now I knew why I had these opinions. I learned these things. So for me, getting the message out there is really cool because it changed a lot of how I view things. And if it can do that for other people, then I want that to happen.

AB: The music you guys play is by no means “mainstream,” It’s challenging, it’s incredibly aggressive, it’s the kind of stuff that the music industry has no idea what to do with. Do you think that there’s a natural kind of connection between radical politics and radical sounds?

JJ: A lot of people like really generic music that’s shoved in their faces on a day-to-day basis because that’s all they know...

REH: It’s just like we said earlier. Just like people are told what their political beliefs should be because they’re sold the lie by the elite, they’re also sold a lie about what is valid music.

BB: They use every tool they’ve got; there’s all kinds of media. The seed was planted a long time ago, they’ve watered it constantly and the whole cultural paradigm has grown up in such a way that the only way we can get out of it is just to chop down the damn tree.

REH: You know the system is designed to perpetuate itself...

AB: Right, and that effects all aspects of the culture.

REH: Yeah, it’s set up so that the rich will stay rich. That plays out in music. Record companies want to sell music, so you don’t sell stuff that’s willfully obscure for one. But yeah, I think our music and our politics are equally in your face for that reason.

BB: Yeah, they’re absolutely analogous. As music listeners and music makers, we tend to not like things that you can predict. You know? And politically we like to rub against the grain. We just don’t agree that it works—I mean I just can’t find a system that does work, so maybe that struggle is always going to be there...

REH: Actually, that’s what our whole record is about—the struggle against all of that, and it fails. Is that ever going to not be the case? Maybe. But we’ve seen time and time again, the corruption wins out. And that’s the whole thing: without that personal revolution, the system crumbles, whatever the good ideas are...

JJ: You start getting compromised. I was talking to this guy on the phone, and he said “you know if we could just fire the whole Congress and replace them with blue collar workers all-around. Then maybe it could start to work.” And I was thinking, well, that was the idea when this country started...

REH: Well, no. That was the idea that was sold to us. The country was founded by rich, white, male landowners to keep themselves in power. We were told that we had equality and democracy and representation but that’s not really the case. I’m re-reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and you open it up and the first thing you see is a quote from Columbus’s log book saying “these people are going to be easy to exploit.” That’s the beginning of our country!

BB: Yeah but I think, back to what Jason said, if you do that—just replace everyone—all you’re doing is putting new cogs in an already weak and unstable infrastructure. You can’t build a house on crappy foundations. You’ve got to tear it down and build it again.

AB: That gets to what I wanted to talk about with the album in particular. All of your albums have at least a loose theme tying them together. Why did you guys decide to do an album about the corruptibility of power at this moment in time?

REH: We didn’t actually! Basically, Jason joined the band, we started writing songs, and when we got nine songs we said now we have enough to do a record. But they were done over a certain period of time, and I was thinking about the world in certain ways. And so as we were talking about how to sequence the songs on the record, Jason said “why don’t we sequence them to tell a story?” I was kind of doubtful about it, but I tried it and I thought about what the core concepts of those songs were and tried to arrange them that way. And it worked really well! And I was like “dude, we have a concept album!”

AB: Keeping with that arc, there are a lot of songs with a historical context—“Alcoholism in the Former Soviet Union,” “ILO Convention 169”—but then there’s others that pull on more current events. Like “Contrition of the Addict,” which mentions the overthrow of the Honduran president a couple years ago, or “Operation Cast Lead.” What is it that ties that content together?

JJ: The thing that pops up in my head is that, historically, there are always these kinds of things going on. You can look at 200 years ago or 50 years ago, and it’s the same story! You can piece in whichever part of the puzzle you want because they all fit! We didn’t make nine songs about one specific era, like the 1940s during World War II. We took situations from every walk of life--politics, culture, the economy--and what you see is that it’s the same situation over and over and over again.

BB: Yeah, whether you have the new boss or the old boss the exploiters are still there.

JJ: Exactly, and whether you have a boss you love or a boss you hate, the objective is the same!

BB: Not all of the protagonists in our stories are malevolent though. They can be as good as they want but they still end up corrupted.

REH: Right, like “The Shining Path,” which talks about the Maoist group in Peru. They essentially wanted to create a more “pure” communism. They had these really lofty ideals but they went about it by selling drugs, by destroying peasants’ farmers markets, and basically killing the people who should be supporting them. It failed, of course. But I guess to answer your question, it’s actually in the liner notes right there. I have that little blurb on how the story unfolds throughout the song, then as I said before, it’s back to the Jiddu Kristhnamurthi. In order for radical social change to succeed you have to have personal radical change first.

AB: What you were saying about “The Shining Path” also reminds me about that line in “The Urban Guerrilla,” “strong ideas aren’t strong enough.” In times like these I think there’s very much a question about how do you change society. Does it have to be violent or can it be peaceful? Is it through protests on the street or guerrillas up in the hills? What do you guys think is necessary for that change and what kind of planet do you want to see?

BB: Well that’s going to be different for each of us. But my personal ideal is a society composed of lots of little societies all cooperating and working within for the greater good. You know, everybody has a job and everybody has a function. You find people’s strengths and you let them realize them. Don’t force anybody into it. Maybe those little communities can cooperate with each others, but for right now we’re just too large, too centralized, too concentrated. I think that’s what causes a lot of our issues, but that’s also how the machine makes money. There has to be a complete cultural and social breakdown. Not necessarily violent, but it has to happen. Centralized governments and nation-states are the downfall of all of us.

JJ: I tend to fall between the general idea of socialism and the general idea of anarchy. I can’t quite decide because one side of me wants to see a more socially-driven economy rather than money-driven. The other side of me doesn’t want to worry about government control. The demon in my head is that I fail to see right now any form of government that can succeed at all. So until some crazy thinker comes up with a fresh idea that we haven’t heard of, I think we might just be fucked!

REH: I also have a lot of despair; I don’t see a way out politically. Like I said, I feel people are not willing to have that radical personal change. And I fear that that means we’re sort of doomed. There are a lot of things we can do to make our society by working within the system. I think we should do those–they’re obviously not enough and they should be an endgame, but I’m conflicted overall.

AB: Do you think there’s a certain process happening now--Egypt, Madison, etc--that might push people in that direction toward a radical personal change?

BB: It might push them in that direction--to do some personal reflection. I don’t know if it’s strong enough to change society the way I want to see it.

REH: This has been brought up in Madison over and over again: all these things that we enjoy--safety in the workplace and your weekends and pensions and no child labor--these are all things that organized labor put in place by saying “we’re pissed off and we’re not going to take it anymore.” So can things change? Yes, certainly they can, but is it going to be enough to change the system? With Egypt, okay now the president’s gone, but the military is in charge…

BB: Which is now starting to show it’s face...

REH: Right, and that’s exactly what we’re saying on the record. I mean in our own country we have President Obama saying “change,” and now it just seems like “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” It’s just another party, a party of the rich by which the system perpetuates itself.

JJ: You even look at the notion of “change and hope.” It was an idea that was advertised and sold to us, and we’ve seen how that’s ended up.

AB: Let’s get back to the music. In “Alcoholism in the Former Soviet Republics” there’s this hypnotic, looping, feeling. The feeling we’ve been here before; it’s also about the massive rise in social decay after the fall of the USSR. Is that the reason you ultimately ended up opening with that track?

REH: Yeah, it’s the beginning, that crossover point, that change from one system to another and it ends up being just as bad. Like all of the songs, there’s a very personal element. Like I said in the manifesto, just shouting about politics isn’t good enough. It’s got to be related back to a human story.

JJ: The thing that’s important about what Russell writes is it gives people that kind of story. It allows them to pull back and look at it and judge it.

REH: And there’s a whole additional layer of personal meaning in all of those songs for me. For example, I’m dealing with alcoholism in my own family, and the refrain of that song is a saying from Alcoholics Anonymous. In “The Shining Path” there’s a section about how, as we get older and start taking on more responsibilities, the banality of modern life, there’s a sense of guilt. I can’t be the activist I once was. And it suddenly occurred to me that raising children is the most intensely political act. Because that will have the most impact of anything in the future. So there’s a lot of stuff in there that’s not in the liner notes that is very personal for me; I’m not just going to shout about how much the world sucks.

AB: Well, I think there’s always a way in which the personal and the political are intertwined, despite what we’re told about our lives...

BB: Right, there’s always a relationship at all times!

REH: Exactly! And I think especially with so many political bands, like you said, it’s just about getting up on a soap box. I remember back in the ‘80s there were all these hardcore bands that were just like “fuck Reagan!” And that just left me flat, you know? There’s no connection to everything. Sure, we’re all pissed off. So what? It’s not that you actually have to present a solution, but try to give it some context other than just pure rage.

BB: At least for yourself. Because like we’ve said, we don’t do this for anybody but ourselves. When we’re writing we’re not writing for anybody but ourselves.

JJ: Yeah I’ve never heard us once say “what do you think people would like better?”

REH: And that goes back to your question: do the politics and the music go together in that they’re both, I don’t know, willfully obscure? Well, I don’t think we try to alienate people, but at the same time—this is another thing in the liner notes—being a career musician means you suddenly have to worry about selling records. We all have day jobs, which means we’re all relatively free to do whatever we want. We don’t have to let the slightest hint of compromise in.

AB: My last question is just about the relationship between music and social change. Even Googling the reviews of When the Revolution Comes, you can see a lot of commentary about how it was released just as things were starting to explode in Madison. Do you think given everything that’s happening right now, is there a door being opened for music to play a role in social change?

BB: Well I think media in general! It’s not just music; every form of art has an impact to a certain amount of people. Folks respond to it, so I totally believe that music has role to play in social change.

REH: As dismissive as I’ve been about our music changing people’s minds, I think back to when I was younger--in college, when I got into punk rock--and I remember listening to Gang of Four and the Clash. I remember reading the lyrics and going “holy shit!” One time early on someone told me “Gang of Four are communists!” And I remember thinking “really, why would they be communists?” And then I read the lyrics to Entertainment! and just thought it was incredible. To me, that’s where that crossover between the personal and the political comes from.

JJ: I think once again I have a slightly different take. The thing with the way we write our music is that we don’t necessarily have the imagery in mind when we write it. I mean people listen to music because they like the groove, they like the beat, the like the guitar part. People who are in it just for the lyrics may not get too far with us. Gang of Four was out there and they were accessible to a lot more people. Are as many going to be influenced by us? Probably not...

REH: Well no, of course now; they have a much bigger platform.

JJ: Yeah sure, but how many of our fans are in it for the politics and how many are in it just because they like to jam? You know, I think about the big rallies in front of the Capitol. There were a lot of actors and musicians who came out and supported, and for a lot of people that added something to it. Maybe some people who wouldn’t have supported it otherwise saw that and decided they would. I’m not discrediting Russell’s answer—I agree with a lot of what he said—but it’s an important question: do people get into the politics because they listen to the people playing it, or is it the other way around?

REH: It works both ways. We’re definitely trying to create something bigger than just the music. The politics, the artwork, the aesthetic, everything! That can help pull people into the music. You know, people may get into it because they like the music, but they’ll discover this other stuff.

BB: The music itself is its own entity too. People are going to biologically respond to it whether or not there’s a message. If you can write a message to go along with it, people will get it. It’s a propaganda tool like any other.

First published at Dissident Voice.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Record Industry: Doing Away With the Fourth Amendment

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) let its cat out of the bag a long time ago. Nobody of any real understanding of ethics can possibly assert that the organization has any left at this point. Suing dead grandmothers and eleven-year-old girls doesn't exactly endear you to the public.

That doesn't mean that the RIAA can't sink any lower. A piece of state legislation reported on in the Los Angeles Times (also sent around via the RRC mailing list) reveals that they still have a long way to go. The bill, introduced in the California State Senate by Democrat Alex Padilla, in essence scraps any notion of the right to legal protections against search and seizure--at least for those of suspected of producing pirated material.

RIAA rep Marcus Cohen insists that California is "the replication capital of the country." Last year, of the over 800,000 pirated, unauthorized CDs and DVDs seized in the United States, 90 percent were manufactured in California. The reason for this is the high amount of legal discs that are also made in the state. Typically, manufacturers who have contracts with labels to duplicate and distribute releases are also covertly making illegal copies. This bill would give police unprecedented allowance to raid and search these facilities without a warrant or notice.

Obviously I'm shedding no tears over these large manufacturers possibly being subjected to a lot more pressure. But it's notable that the gray area between "legal" and "illegal" is just as prevalent at the top of the industry as it is down at the bottom of the chain. Perhaps it's more so.

The hypocrisy is stunning. As always, the RIAA's claim of the harm done by piracy includes the familiar trope of artists losing money. Coming from an industry that still routinely rips off and censors its artists, that claim continues to ring hollow. Label heads are quick to point out that the US has made exceptions to search and seizure for other industries (mines, gun and liquor stores, etc). Would they consent to their own offices being subjected to random searches? It only seems fair.

Then, there's the fact that this sets a dangerous precedent. Or, more specifically, it further chips away at a precedent that has been already greatly eroded in the post-Patriot Act era. Exceptions like these always lead to more exceptions and still more on top of those. In the context of Internet service providers being pressured to give up the information of file-sharers, a move like this on the part of California can't be good. It's also telling that the measure is being pushed hardest by the state's leading "liberals."

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Let's Try to Strike This Chord Again...

Last week, there were evidently some problems with Blogger that led to being unable to post for a while, and erased some previous content. In my case, that meant erasing the post on the new album from Prayers For Atheists. The men behind the curtain insist that they're trying to restore all content, but I'm not holding my breath.

So here's another plug: the new album from Prayers For Atheists is called New Hymns For an Old War. I'll be reviewing it here at RF in the coming weeks, but if the lead single from it is to be believed, then the rest is excellent. Pissed off punk rock from the growing and restless American underclass. Readers should definitely order it or download it.

PFA will also be playing at Socialism 2011. Do yourself a favor: plan to attend and register today!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Santana vs. Scapegoating

Dave Zirin published this piece yesterday at TheNation.com, bringing attention to the lambasting of Carlos Santana at Major League Baseball's Civil Rights Game in Atlanta over the weekend. Apparently, a sizable portion of fans were upset that Santana had the gall to publicly criticize the recently passed HR 87 (think Arizona's SB 1070 in a Southern accent) at the game.

Zirin points out that there's plenty of irony to go around in this spectacle: that the Civil Rights Game was held in a state that has institutionalized racist scapegoating, that the MLB can even speak about civil rights as it's refused to even entertain the notion of holding the All Star Game somewhere other than Arizona. Then again, Bud Selig has never exactly been the kind of commissioner that you could call "savvy," or "sensitive," or even "reasonably human."

But the dumbest move here was that Selig and company thought it would be a good idea to honor someone like Santana, a musician who quite publicly joined the Sound Strike and had continued to refuse gigs in Arizona until SB 1070 is taken off the books. When Santana got the mic, he let the audience, and Governor Nathan Deal--who was in attendance--have what-for.

Zirin quotes from the incident:

"'The people of Arizona, and the people of Atlanta, Georgia, you should be ashamed of yourselves.' In a perfect display of Gov. Nathan Deal’s Georgia, the cheers quickly turned to boos. Yes, Carlos Santana was booed on Civil Rights Day in Atlanta for talking about Civil Rights.

"Then in the press box, Santana held an impromptu press conference where he let loose with an improvised speech to rival one of his virtuoso guitar solos. He said, 'This law is not correct. It's a cruel law, actually, This is about fear. Stop shucking and jiving. People are afraid we're going to steal your job. No we aren't. You're not going to change sheets and clean toilets. I would invite all Latin people to do nothing for about two weeks so you can see who really, really is running the economy. Who cleans the sheets? Who cleans the toilets? Who babysits? I am here to give voice to the invisible.'

"He went on to say, 'Most people at this point they are either afraid to really say what needs to be said, this is the United States the land of the free. If people want the immigration law to keep passing in every state then everybody should get out and just leave the American Indians here. This is about Civil Rights.'"

Monday, May 16, 2011

Common Sense?

When folks postulate about who killed "conscious" rap, Common's name is one of the first to come up. No sooner was he emerging in the hip-hop world with his "alternative" sensibility than he was trying to ingratiate it to the establishment. To be sure, plenty have resisted this misleading moniker in the first place (Talib Kweli), and there are countless other acts that could be blamed for doing what Common has done (like when the Roots started stumping for charter schools). But if there were a top-five list of artists who stripped the rebellion out of their style, Common would definitely be on it.

This, of course, hasn't stopped the mouth-breathers of the far-right from using him as a straw man. Sarah Palin and her minions at Fox News have seized on Common's appearance at the White House as "proof" of some kind of latent thuggery of the Obama administration. The "smoking gun" for them is the fact that, years ago, he dared to perform a piece on HBO's Def Poetry Jam that criticized the Bush administration for launching the war in Iraq.

If the whole thing sounds idiotic, that's probably because it is. Jamal Simmons, former adviser to several Democratic presidential candidates, was correct when he pointed out on NPR:

"The truth is that this conflict is not about Common as much as it is an attempt to drag the president back into the "past associations" controversies of the 2008 presidential campaign. Sarah Palin said it herself on Fox: 'Who are you palling around with now?'"

Certainly, the Tea Party have become well-known for publicly making anything and everything Obama does automatically suspect, and by now the racism that's always tinged these attacks isn't hard to miss. Whether this kind of vitriol will help the Republicans reclaim the White House next year is debatable.

Debatable, but not completely out of the question. That we can even be talking about this is cause for concern. Let's not forget (how could we?) that Obama sailed into power being heralded as the "hip-hop president." The label was problematic at best, conveying the idea that hip-hop's struggle was somehow over--a pill that Common and others like him appear to have swallowed to a great degree. But at the same time, the notion of "hip-hop president" represented a moment when the hip-hop generation came into its own and started to get a taste of its own power. It might have been just a taste, but the significance of the moment can't be underestimated.

Obviously, the neanderthals of the conservative right heard an alarm-bell going off in all of this. It's been outrageous, for sure, but Obama's refusal to even tacitly take it head-on and really stump for the interests that put him in power have both added to a real feeling of frustration. To see folks like Common rubbing elbows with Barack while the Black unemployment rate hovers somewhere around 16% (twice what it is for whites) seems to fly in the face of what the Chuck D's and KRS-Ones of the world sought to build.

In fact, the state of complacency exhibited by this administration has only given more ammo to those who would throw hip-hop back into the ghetto. Not that Obama seems to mind; his biggest campaign slogan next year is most likely to be "I killed Bin Laden." It's a far cry from his supposed anti-war speechifying of the campaign trail. What's more, the assassination of Bin Laden has opened up a new wave of racist attacks on Muslims.

Just goes to show that there's no satisfying the most bigoted elements in society. Seems to me that rather than stabbing at "respectability" or letting "our president" do the work, we're better of fighting tooth and nail.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Unity: Bob Marley's Legacy and the Global Uprising

Thirty years after his death, Bob Marley’s shadow looms larger than ever. There can be no doubt that he long ago entered the pop legend pantheon next to such names as Lennon, Joplin, Morrison, Strummer, and Cobain. To many, Marley’s music is synonymous with reggae itself. Legend, his posthumous “best-of” collection, has to date sold over 25 million copies, making it the best-selling reggae album in history. He’s been the subject of close to two dozen books (the most recent of which was released only a few months ago). His image and sounds are used to sell everything from incense burners to Jamaican vacation packages.

And yet, as is so often the case with dead rock stars, there is something of a disconnect. One wonders what the militant anti-racist would think of the privileged white frat-boys who smear themselves with blackface as an “homage” to Marley at campus Halloween parties. Similarly, it’s hard to look at lavish Jamaican resorts existing next to such grinding poverty and wonder if the musician’s calls of “one love” now ring hollow.

Luckily, Marley’s roots run a lot deeper. A website dedicated to his memory rightfully states that “in the Third World his impact goes much further. Not just among Jamaicans, but also the Hopi Indians of New Mexico and the Maoris of New Zealand, in Indonesia and India, and especially in those parts of West Africa from which slaves were plucked and taken to the New World, Bob is seen as a redeemer figure…”

These are not exactly the suburban kids that the marketers of the Western music industry attempt to target. At the time of his death, Bob Marley was one of the first international superstars to emerge from the developing world. Such credibility cannot be so easily sanitized. With revolt now shaking North Africa and the Middle East, it seems that the “suffering masses” who Marley tried to reach were indeed listening. Ultimately, it makes his legacy that much more potent and inspiring.

Heavy Manners World-Wide

Much as some condescending historians would like to paint Jamaica as a land of the exotic-yet-savage “other”, the fact is that it’s impossible to read descriptions of Kingston in the middle 20th century without being reminded of countless places around the world. (Indeed, as the economy remains sluggish, more than a few places in the US seem to fit the bill too). The scenes that Marley would so deftly relate in songs like “No Woman, No Cry” and “Concrete Jungle” were a simple and inescapable fact of life: massive and under-funded government housing blocks, shantytown slums, poverty and degradation.

This was Jamaica under the British Empire. It bears repeating that Jamaica was (and is) an island profoundly rich in resources. But centuries of colonialism meant that scant few of those riches were ever seen by most Jamaicans. It was impossible to separate the grinding poverty of the nation’s Black majority without recognizing it as a result of white Western dominance.

Marley, of course, made this recognition—a fact that no doubt weighed on him with the knowledge that his father was a white British naval officer. In an interview some years later he had this to say about that legacy:

“You learn in school about Christopher Columbus, Marco Polo. What about the traditions of African people? We want to learn that in school! We don’t want to learn about Christopher Columbus and all of that… all it lead you to do is be a criminal. When you study how these people went to Jamaica, see the Arawak Indians, kill them off. And then they say that the discovered the land! That is just pure rape and murder and piracy.”

When Bob Marley recorded his very first single in 1961, Jamaica was still under British rule; the following year would bring independence, but the West’s economic dominance would continue. Given this, it’s not hard to understand why the early Rastafari movement and others like them would gravitate toward Black nationalists and Afrocentrists like Marcus Garvey (himself originally from Jamaica).

Marley wouldn’t convert to Rastafari until 1969, but his concern for unity was clear even in his early tracks. “Simmer Down”, probably the best known of these, calling on the ghetto Rude Boy gangs to bring an end to the violence. Recorded in 1963, it was Marley’s first hit, and by February of ‘64 was Jamaica’s number one song.

“Simmer Down” is clearly not the kind of song that springs to mind when one thinks of Bob Marley; it’s much more of a traditional ska song, a la Desmond Dekker. But listening to it, reggae’s roots are clear. The influence it takes from soul and R&B are apparent, but the song drips with the essence of “heavy manners.” Its joyous, youthful swagger is tempered by a sense of inevitable hard days approaching.

Even before ska, rocksteady or reggae began to take shape, their roots ran deep. Over the previous two decades Jamaica had developed a rich, fiercely competitive music scene. Radios could pick up stations from nearby Miami or New Orleans, exposing listeners to everything from jazz and boogie-woogie to Motown and doo-wop. As working-class Jamaican men were often forced to look abroad for work, the nation’s burgeoning sound-system scene took advantage of it.

Lloyd Bradley describes the process in his landmark book Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King:

“Only the very biggest operators could afford to travel to the USA to shop for records, so the majority of sound-system music arrived courtesy of merchant seaman and returning migrant workers looking to supplement their income… A proportion of that informal import trade would be pre-arranged, with the secondary level of sound men having made deals with seamen whose judgment they respected, asking them to shop for certain types of record by certain artists or producers, occasionally allowing the voyager to surprise them. But the majority of business was with the little sound men and strictly freelance, resulting in spirited bartering or ‘higgling’, being carried out on the quayside between entrepreneurial rivals and their prospective clients.”

Marley was one of these countless Jamaicans who traveled to the US to find work. In 1966 he joined his mother in Delaware, where he worked in a Chrysler plant. When he returned to Jamaica a year later, he brought something more than just records with him. In the United States, the civil rights movement had found its way from the South into the ghettos of the North, where it was quickly transforming into the demand for Black Power. Demonstrations against the Vietnam War were becoming commonplace. Both were to have a profound impact on the young Bob.

By the end of the decade, other liberation movements in the developing world had turned the tide against their former colonizers. For the first time, the people of the “Third World” seemed to speak with one voice against their Euro-American exploiters. It wasn’t just Vietnam; it was Angola, it was Cuba, it was South Africa and Jamaica and Brazil. What’s more, ordinary workers and students in the West—be they Black, white or Latino—seemed ready to listen.

It was in this context that Marley became the “first international Third World superstar”. Others—Fela Kuti, Victor Jara—would gain world-wide acclaim, but often not outside their regions of origin until their deaths. As such, Marley’s songs took on a feel of profound, bottom-up internationalism even as his sound became almost synonymous with Jamaica itself. “Get Up, Stand Up”, “Burnin’ and Lootin’”, “Uprising”, “Revolution”, all were starkly related to his own experiences in Jamaica, and yet could fit any number of places around the world.

When asked to play the One Love Peace Concert in 1978, Jamaica was skating on the edge of a civil war. The nominally socialist government of Michael Manley had over the past six years instituted a minimum wage and free higher education. He had also sought ties with Cuba, which sent the CIA into panic mode. By the time of the concert, the US had covertly handed over unknown amounts of money and guns to Manley’s rival, conservative Edward Seaga. Armed gangs on both sides had turned the country to a powder-keg.

Marley famously performed a headlining set at this concert only two days after he, his wife Rita, and his manager were shot by unknown assailants. Just as well-known is the fact that he later brought both Seaga and Manley onstage to shake hands. But Marley, it would appear, wasn’t merely stumping unity for its own sake. The One Love Peace Concert was also where he debuted the song “War”. Taken from a speech delivered by Ethiopian King Haile Selassie in front of the United Nations, its sentiment certainly transcends whatever contradictions Selassie, or the Rastas who literally worshiped him, might have had:

"Until the philosophy which hold one race
Superior and another inferior
Is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned
Everywhere is war, me say war

"That until there are no longer first class
And second class citizens of any nation
Until the color of a man’s skin
Is of no more significance than the color of his eyes
Me say war...

"And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes
That hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique,
South Africa, in sub-human bondage
Have been toppled, utterly destroyed
Well, everywhere is war, me say war"

This strident internationalism, the invocations of a world-wide struggle, are two of Marley’s contributions that continue to resonate through music. It wasn’t too long until reggae—itself the result of intercontinental mix-mash—was transported back into America’s ghettos and morphed yet again into an entirely new style.

In 1967, Clive Campbell, a 12-year-old Jamaican immigrant arrived with his mother to settle in the Bronx. Campbell’s father, Keith, wasn’t just an avid record collector (including reggae), but was known to have the loudest sound-system on the block. By 1973, young Clive was rigging that sound-system to play what would become legendary house and block parties. It wasn’t long until Clive was better known as Kool Herc, and the beats he spun would prove to be crucial in the formation of hip-hop.

None But Ourselves...

Today there is no shortage of figures and “fans” who would love to paper over this legacy. Militant anti-racism and anti-imperialism aren’t exactly palatable to commercialization and respectability. A few years ago, for example, Jenna Bush—Dubya’s daughter—told Oprah Winfrey that “my mom’s a secret Rastafarian. She plays Bob Marley around the house!” Interesting assertion coming from the daughter of a man who refused to shake the hands of Haitian earthquake victims!

According to legendary music critic Robert Christgau, this watering-down of Marley’s work is intentional. It’s also shunned by a great many of his fans world-wide:

“Most of the 14 million Americans who’ve bought the calculatedly anodyne Legend are in it for the herb. But Marley is very different for people of color such as the Tanzanian street vendors of Dar es Salam’s [sic] Maskani district, one of many third-world subcultures to integrate his songs and image into a counterculture of resistance.”

This counterculture can be felt across the African continent and beyond. Last year, the legendary Nas teamed up with Marley’s son Stephen (known to the world as “Jr. Gong”) to record Distant Relatives, a stunning piece of rap-reggae whose lyrical themes of anti-colonial empowerment could have come from the senior Marley himself.

The year before, Somali rapper K’Naan dropped The Messengers, a three-part online mixtape paying tribute to Bob Dylan, Fela Kuti, and, of course, Marley.

“Bob Marley had so much that he knew he had to give to the world,” says K’Naan on the intro track. “He said ‘when it rains, it don’t rain on one man’s house.’ This is the words [sic] of someone who understands the impact that unity and division have on the world. He understood that; I think he was propelled by it. So he made music for us. ‘Little children learn your culture or you won’t get no supper.’ These are the words that, I felt like, coming up, growing up… he was talking to me. And because of that, I’m looking at my culture.”

The themes tying Nas, K’Naan and Jr. Gong together—unity, cultural pride, resistance to oppression—all seem to cull a deep and burning sense among the developing world. Plainly put, it’s a longing for freedom. In Marley’s time it seemed to be burgeoning reality, but since his death appears to have receded back into mere dreams. That is, until recently.

The themes tying Nas, K’Naan and Jr. Gong together—unity, cultural pride, resistance to oppression—all seem to cull a deep and burning sense among the developing world. Plainly put, it’s a longing for freedom. In Marley’s time it seemed to be burgeoning reality, but since his death appears to have receded back into mere dreams. That is, until recently.

It started in Tunisia. Then it spread to Algeria and Morocco, then across North Africa: ordinary people rising up against dictators and repressive regimes. Corrupt, enriched on the backs of their people, it seems of little surprise that many of these governments have long been propped up by the West.

Egypt’s case has by far been the most stunning. A country that only weeks before had played host to deadly attacks on the Coptic population now saw Muslim and Christian march arm-in-arm against the long-time “friend” of the US, Hosni Mubarak. In eighteen days he was gone, and the West got a whole new image of the Muslim world—politically, culturally, and yes, even musically.

One of the many tracks to emerge from these uprisings and shoot round the ‘Net was “Rebel”, written and recorded by one of Egypt’s first hip-hop groups, Arabian Knightz. Released the night before Cairo’s first “Day of Rage”, it revolves heavily around a sample of Lauryn Hill—who, perhaps not coincidentally, has been long married to Bob Marley’s son Rohan.

Though the protests have most notably spread across the Arab world into the Middle East, they are also finding their way down the African continent: rebellions against high food prices in Burkina Faso, Nigerian riots in the wake of an election many see as rigged, marches for better employment in Uganda, and public sector strikes that have brought Botswana to near-standstill. Though each of these are inspired most directly by their own domestic outrage, there can be little doubt that they’ve had the door opened for them by their neighbors to the north.

One Sub-Saharan artist who understands the meaning of all this is Thomas Mapfumo. Known as “the Lion of Zimbabwe”, Mapfumo is a pioneer of the music known as chimurenga—which literally translates to “the struggle”. When Zimbabwe was still known as Rhodesia, Mapfumo was a major figure in the fight against white British minority rule. Like Bob Marley, his songs have blended the sound of Western pop with the traditional music of his own country. In fact the two even toured together in the late ‘70s, and Marley paid specific tribute to the Zimbabwean struggle on his 1979 album Survival.

Rhodesian apartheid fell in 1980. Later in the decade, however, Mapfumo’s songs began to turn their attention toward the poverty, corruption and brutality of President Robert Mugabe’s regime. Mapfumo’s songs were banned from radio, and in the early ‘90s he fled into exile in Portland, Oregon. Still recording music, he maintains that “the struggle is not over”. In a recent interview with WBUR Boston’s Tom Ashbrook, he put forth a belief that should be familiar to any Marley fan:

“If you look at the whole situation, it’s like, well, people have to unite again and actually do away with this evil system… African people should be united to work for the prosperity of Africa. They actually should come together and work as a nation. We are all Africans. Why don’t we come together and come with a united Africa?”

Mugabe clearly feels threatened by the revolts to the north. In early March, the president’s police force arrested 49 socialists and trade-union activists for the “crime” of watching videos of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. Though all were later released, six still face charges of treason; if found guilty, they face the death penalty.

Though Zimbabwe has yet to see the kind of rebellions that have rocked the Maghreb, the nation of Swaziland has come close. One of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies, poverty, disease and an almost complete lack of civil liberties has recently sprung the country’s labor movement into action.

In mid-April, city streets were swamped by thousands of protestors. Though arrests and repression have caused union leaders to call off future rallies for now, groups like the Swaziland Solidarity Network continue to organize. Denied basic resources that American or European organizers take for granted—resources like websites—the SSN’s online presence is largely limited to Facebook and Google Groups.

In this small nation, where average life-expectancy doesn’t exceed 32 years and any kind of dissent is viciously crushed, there are nonetheless vibrant hip-hop and reggae scenes. Reggae is particularly popular here; Swaziland once hosted one of the African continent’s only reggae festivals. In the days leading up to the April protests, a member of the SSN posted lyrics from Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” on the group’s forum.

It seems an odd choice: certainly one of Marley’s best-known songs, but also by far his most intimate, written not long after being diagnosed with cancer. Themes of freedom and oppression are there throughout, but all seem to be tied back into the apparently personal notion of redemption. Modern interpretations of the song cast the singer as more spiritual than political, the “redeemer figure” brought up on his website. Why would this, out of all Marley’s songs, be the one that inspires Swazi men and women to take up the mantle of insurrection?

Activist and journalist Nicole Colson provides insight into this:

“This song moves from an isolated first-person in bondage, ‘old pirates, yes they rob I,’ to the movement of a collective. ‘We forward in this generation,’ and not just forward, but forward triumphantly… When I think of the word redemption, I tend to think of the definition to make something whole or win it back. I think he’s literally talking about music that can make you a whole person, to help you step out of what you think are your limits—both in a personal and a political sense. But he also means, literally ‘liberation’.”

Indeed, there is something tragic in the wide relevance of Marley’s music thirty years later. Namely, if so many around the world can identify with it, then the pain and oppression he spoke on hasn’t gone anywhere.

But Marley was never one to buy into cynicism. Primarily, it seems to be the hope that people cling to in his songs. If so many in the most exploited, balkanized peoples of the world can look to his words as a call to action, then it shows that hope to be more than a pipe dream. It’s during moments like these that music becomes more than mere sounds, and the true legacy of Bob Marley comes to life.

First appeared at PopMatters.com

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Proof That the Boycott Can Work

Summer festival season is about to kick off. Promoters all over the world see this time of year as a boon for them; an opportunity to collect, in some cases, millions. When bands pull out, that's sometimes literally how much the promoters stand to lose.

So says Shuki Weiss, a major concert promoter in Israel. Weiss' pocket took a big hit last summer when major acts canceled performances last minute. In particular was the Pic.Nic festival, scheduled to take place mere days after Israel's attack on the Freedom Flotilla bound for Gaza. After those nine activists were killed and the mask of occupation definitively slipped, the main draws on that fest pulled the plug: Gorillaz, Klaxons and the Pixies.

According to a recent article in The Hollywood Reporter, Weiss is optimistic. Bookings are up apparently, which is significant in a relatively small national live music scene. The recent Justin Bieber concert apparently brought a real boost.

At the same time, Weiss surely understands that the storm has far from passed. On the contrary, the Arab revolutions are being nervously watched by Israel for fear of a new Intifada in Palestine, the possibility of which may be bolstered by the recent end to hostilities between Hamas and Fatah and Egypt's announcement that it will be opening the Gaza border.

Then, there's the new flotilla, twice as big as last year's and scheduled to set sail at the end of this month. Prime Minister Netanyahu has fiercely refused to rule out the kind of vicious response we saw last year.

Weiss doesn't mention the flotilla, but it seems a fair cop that he's biting his nails about it too. The article in THR sees him go through exactly how the economy is harmed by the last-minute cancellations:

"For the promoters, a last-minute cancellation equals 'a total loss' that could run in the millions of dollars, often with no option to insure for a non-appearance. 'In some cases, we had [spent on] the stage, the lights, the fencing, every dollar of advertising, marketing, and everything on the ground with the exception of 30 or 40 ushers that are hired the day of the show,' adds Weiss' chief international booker Oren Arnon. On the Pixies cancellation alone, the company was out between $400,000 to $500,000."

So bad has been the loss in some cases that Israel's live music promoters are publicly mulling the option of going to the state to ask for insurance. In essence, what Weiss admits here is that the boycotts do indeed work. They chip away at the cultural credibility of the state and force the economy to flush its money down the tubes (which is, once again, significant for a state buoyed by billions in US funds). If the Israeli state does in fact end up backing the music industry with insurance dollars, it may open the door for the boycott to make an even bigger impact.

Bookings may be up for now, but that's by no means certain to continue. The knowledge of the occupations of Palestinian lands is more well-known and more outrageous than it's ever been. Depending on which way the sands continue to shift, Weiss and other defenders of apartheid may find themselves in a real pickle.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Return of the Radical Nerd

“My pockets get annoyed
I’m broke and two cents are useless when perceived like this
Honest disappointment, these people’s lives are basic,
I’m advanced nutrients about to final-phase it
You’ve been advised to get in line
I’m live and direct, plus I don’t stare at the fuckin’ floor when I’m spitting rhymes”

This is how the Chicago rapper known as Phillip Morris begins his latest album—the provocatively titled Lady Liberty Is Wasted. Indeed, the whole album is like this, providing a twisted worldview that is at once surreal and all-too-true. Gives you a sense of why he’s become one of the most unique underground hip-hop artists, doesn’t it?

At a time when most radical heads seem to be turning away from both the “mainstream” and “conscious” tropes, Phillip Mo’s songs defy any category beyond the most basic. Labels ultimately don’t interest him as much as the complexity of what he has to say. The beats on Lady Liberty are most certainly complex too, veering between re-processed funk and computerized post-hop in a matter of seconds.

His witty rhymes are delivered with a kind of maniacal humor and deadly seriousness all at once—the kind of performance that makes you think you’re listening to the freak love-child of Mr. Lif and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. As he constantly confirms, echoing his opening lines, “I am a nerd.” Conventional wisdom has it that nerds are smarter than the rest of us. Phillip would never stoop to such condescension toward his audience, but his talent for looking at how things are has made Lady Liberty an excellent listen, channeling two constant themes that none of us can deny: it’s all absurd, and it better change fast.

Of course there’s the politics. Today’s line is that a post-Obama hip-hop is really just one big house party. Whether anyone in the Chicago scene really buys this (other than, maybe, Common), Phillip certainly doesn’t—and if that cover art doesn’t tell you everything you need to know, a good hard listen will.

Almost as soon as the opening “Get My Nerd On” waves farewell we’re launched into the rousing “Please Deliver Us,” tying together his own story with those of homeless families and overthrown governments. “Requiem For a Long Winded City” is the kind of track that certainly makes Chicagoans cluck their tongues in agreement, but really will be familiar to anyone screwed over by urban corruption:

“The mayor’s lost his mind
Another year of Daley goes to show you that Chicago’s really stuck in time
The Harold Washingtons, Fred Hamptons and Rudy Lozanos
Proving Chicago’s a red canvas
I’m down for smashing the madness
Down for smashing the level of tension between Blacks and Hispanics”

(And before anyone asks, no, it won’t get better when Rahm gets in)

But focusing on this would only do half the justice to Lady Liberty. The other half is filled with scenes even more familiar—clubbing, socializing, fending off boredom, figuring out how to stop the electric from getting shut off. In an interview I did with Phil back in the fall (following the release of his The Truth Campaign mix tape), he mentioned he had been unemployed for a year. Those of us who have been there and done that will no doubt feel the hobbled swagger of “Bad News” and the frustration of “Slap You Day.”

It’s between these stories of the mundane and the epic that we get it. It’s not just a few qualms with this or that, it’s not the faces of Daley or his counterparts in other cities that we can somehow forget with a few MGDs. The alienation, the funk of daily living drips from the top into just about everything else. Perhaps it’s impossible to envision Phillip Morris without at least a bit of smirk on this album because, as said before, he sees how unbelievably absurd the whole thing is.

At the same time, Phil has never really believed that chuckles will bring down walls. The closing title-track, possibly the only on the whole album related with complete dead-faced seriousness, brings the allegory full-circle. In it, not only is the titular Lady Liberty drunk and powerless, but the real terrorists have pretty much taken over. Not only has the American dream died, it’s revived at its most nightmarish.

I sat on this album for over a month. Lady Liberty Is Wasted was released in late March. But for as much as I listened to it, for as much as I loved what the ever-observant Phillip Morris had to say, as much as I wanted to bring some attention to my city's diverse underground hip-hop scene, it remained a hard album to peg. Where in this zeitgeist of “posts” (“post-racial,” “post-feminist,” etc) did this radical, intelligent and surreal album fit?

Then came the death of Bin Laden, and the Bush-like pronouncements of a president who once swore to bring back America’s image of prestige abroad. Outside, privileged college kids who will most likely never know the horrors of war themselves thumped their chests and chanted a blood-lusty "USA! USA!" On that day, the tragicomic absurdity of Phillip Morris’s Lady Liberty Is Wasted really made sense.

First appeared at SOCIARTS.