Friday, July 29, 2011

Oslo, Hip-Hop, and the Fight to Defend Multiculturalism

By now the world is only just beginning to wrap its head round the enormity of the tragedy in Oslo, Norway. Almost a hundred people dead–-most of them children at a summer camp–-in not one but two different acts of terror on the same day.

This is an act of terrorism. It bears repeating because some news outlets–even supposedly reputable ones–don’t seem to think that acts like these are worthy of the label unless it’s carried out by Muslims. Of course, as we all now know, Muslims weren’t responsible for these events. In fact, they were quite clearly one of the targets.

Anders Behring Breivik hates Muslims, in particular what they have done to his “beloved Norway.” More broadly, he hates the notion of multiculturalism. We all have heard over the past several days about his virulent hatred for any kind of tolerance or inclusion, let alone the kind of anti-racism espoused by the “cultural Marxists” for whom he saves particular bile in his 1500 page manifesto. His links with far-right Islamophobes like Stop the Islamization of Europe and proto-fascist groups like the English Defence League are really the best indicator for what Breivik was trying to achieve.

Perhaps then it’s not such a surprise that among the myriad blights he profiles in this long screed is a music genre with its own history of criminalization: hip-hop.

To those unfamiliar, it may be strange to think of Norway, a country of under 5 million people and typically thought of as lily white, having any kind of hip-hop scene to speak of. More than 200,000 of these 4.8 million, however, are immigrants from Somalia, Iraq, Pakistan or Turkey, along with countless others of mixed heritage. Over the past two decades, Norway’s hip-hop scene had varied from duos like Madcon–whose members are both of African heritage–-to the all-white trio Warlocks–-because, as we all know, there are plenty of white kids attracted to hip-hop.

One of these kids, believe it or not, was Anders Breivik. In the mid-90s he was apparently a part of Oslo’s insurgent hip-hop community. His best friend was Pakistani, and, if his manifesto is to be believed, the two of them were among the most infamous graffiti artists in the city.

At some point, however, Breivik had a change (or loss) of heart, and now lays the blame for many of Norway’s social ills squarely at the front door of what he now calls the “ghetto/ethnic/multiculturalist lifestyle”:

"I personally know of more than 50 individuals who started with hashish and marijuana as a direct result of the hip-hop mentality. Many of these went from light drugs to heavier drugs such as amphetamine and even heroin. I personally know that more than 20 individuals, from my ‘hip-hop community’, have become severe drug addicts and some of them are probably dead today."

Breivik goes on to estimate that around 40% of drug addicts in Norway have been somehow duped into it by hip-hop. It’s a ludicrous claim, bordering on the delusional, but not quite as delusional as Breivik’s overblown, almost self-congratulatory guess at how much property damage he committed as a tagger:

"During my two most active years at the age of 15 and 16, I estimate that myself [and his crew] inflicted property damage (through bombing raids – 'tagging') of approximately 2 million Euro combined of which I inflicted aprox. 700 000."

It’s a familiar narrative: pop music produces drug addiction, property damage, and from there it’s only a short jump to all manner of social decay. To Breivik, the sounds of the microphone and turntable, embraced by kids of every race the world over, are little more than the soundtrack of the invading brown hordes.

Anyone, however, who takes a cursory look at Norway’s recent musical history will see a very different picture–one of much more atrocious acts than petty vandalism.

From 1992 to ‘95, probably right around the time Breivik was popping open his first Sharpie, no less than 28 Christian churches across Norway were burned in acts of arson or attempted arson. The culprits for several of these weren’t Islamic fundamentalists, but native born Norwegians Bard “Faust” Eithun and Varg Vikernes, members of the country’s rising black metal scene.

While in prison for killing a fellow musician, Vikernes became a leading figure in what is termed the “estoteric Nazism” movement, a strange mixture of Norse paganism and old-fashioned white power ideology. Eithun was convicted in 1992 of beating a gay man to death outside the Olympic Village in Lillehammer. Both have since been released.

In 2001, Benjamin Hermansen, a sixteen-year-old Ghanaian-Norwegian school student, was stabbed to death in the multiracial suburb of Holmlia; the Norwegian police called it “Norway’s first racially motivated murder.” He was killed by three members of a neo-Nazi gang known as “the Boot Boys,” who had been known to orient to the local street punk and Oi! scenes.

Neither black metal nor punk rock are to blame for these deaths or arson. In fact, the Nazi component makes up barely a fraction of either scene. And yet, according to the logic of Anders Behring Breivik, the punks and metalheads should be just as much to blame as hip-hop is for drug use and urban decay. The only reason they aren’t mentioned is that ultimately, Breivik has a lot more in common with Vikernes and the Boot Boys.

What may be most horrifying about Breivik’s notions on hip-hop is how he believes this particular “problem” can be solved:

“As for the fate of the hiphop industry; banning it altogether is not the optimal solution as it would cause overwhelming short term outcry and it would eliminate positive aspects as well. However, I believe [in] significant restrictions in the rights of media companies which will include censoring negative and destructive lifestyles. An alternative is to limit such marketing to future ‘liberal zones’. Certain positive aspects of the hiphop movement should be allowed to survive such as break dance and positive genres of the music as long as it positively influences the self confidence of European youths and only if it can be re-defined as a European tradition...”

There’s a term for this: apartheid. Perhaps that’s not so surprising considering that Breivik also calls for Israel to “finish the job” in Palestine and for the re-imposition of white rule in South Africa. Ask any Black blues musician what it was like to play in the Jim Crow south, and they’ll likely paint a picture similar to Breivik’s (final) solution.

And yet, here in the States, we’ve heard this basic line before–and not just from the fringe lunatics. We’ve heard Sarah Palin call Common a cop-killer and Don Imus claim that rap was responsible for his own hatred toward women. We’ve heard it from city councils outlawing baggy pants and police chiefs targeting backwards ballcaps.

Likewise, the kind of anti-Muslim hate spewed by Breivik has become a fixture of everyday life. The crusade against multiculturalism is one that runs the gamut from the vile protests against the Park51 community center in New York City to the speeches of David Cameron and Angela Merkel.

As ordinary Norwegians figure out a way to heal from the devastation, the stakes have never been higher. What the tragedy in Oslo and the racist rants of Anders Behring Breivik show us is that the fight for a world of true equality and justice is one that touches every aspect of our lives. If his kind have their way, then this cruel brand of white-bred repression will extend from the halls of power into our schools, our communities, and yes, even our record stores.

First appeared at Dissident Voice.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Nightingale of the Revolution

Last week's New York Times ran an article on the song that seems to have captured the minds of thousands marching for democracy in Syria. The song, bluntly titled "Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar" has become something of an informal anthem of the revolt in that country.

According to the Times, there is little definitive evidence for who the real author of the song is. Plenty of speculation has floated, including the guess that it might Ibrahim Qashoush, a man who was brutally murdered by Syrian authorities earlier this month, his body eventually fished out of the Orontes River near Hama--one of the most active sites of the protest movement. Qashoush's throat was cut so deeply that his head was almost severed; his vocal cords torn out. Such brutality, however, is all in a day's work for Bashar al-Assad's thugs.

Other than that, the Times article is milquetoast. It fails to accurately describe the song, which features a thumping, driving beat prominent in much Arab popular music. Nor does the article really mention how sharp the song is--even for how repetitive its lyrics can be.

For example: ever since the Syrian revolt first began in February, the US has done its best to present itself as the midwife of Arab democracy--which has certainly been reflected in the NATO invasion in Libya, but also in the opportunistic calls for President Assad to step down. The masquerade has certainly been helped by Assad's own accusations against the protesters; that they're "US agents."

As the video shows, though, great swathes of the Syrian population don't buy the hogwash the US is selling, nor are they cowed by Assad's accusations. The Times, while allowing this video on their own site, doesn't see fit to mention that anti-American sentiment is Also notable is how the crowd goes absolutely wild when the song calls Assad an "ass."

After all, would any of us want to be part of a revolution that didn't have a sense of humor?

I just confirmed that I'll be interviewing Sphinx, one of the members of seminal Egyptian hip-hop trio Arabian Knightz and composers of some of that country's vibrant revolutionary hip-hop anthems! The article will most likely run some time in the fall; to receive further updates, don't hesitate to subscribe!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Immigrants and Steelworkers, Music and Labor, Unite and Fight!

At over a year old, the Sound Strike could just as easily sink into the background of politics and activism. We all know similar rump activist organizations who have unfortunately grown stagnant in much less time due to their own isolation and confusion on how to reach out.

That hasn't been the case for the boycott of Arizona--and in particular the Sound Strike. The group of artists refusing to cross the picket line against SB 1070 (which includes Zack de la Rocha, Immortal Technique, Gogol Bordello and countless others) has only grown in recent months, and the coordinators have also reached out to labor in finding common cause.

Most recently, Sound Strike teamed up with the Unite Steelworkers to beat down a possible contract between Arizona-based engineering company Honeywell and the city of Los Angeles. LA, which ostensibly observes the boycott, is now negotiating with Honeywell since the company now claims to be based in New Jersey (they're lying). Meanwhile, in Metropolis, Illinois, members of the USW have been locked out by Honeywell for over a year. During last summer's contract negotiations, the union demanded nothing but to hav the contract extended (no pay increases, no healthcare support, nothing). Honeywell seem to be as honest when brokering a deal as they are with their location.

The pressure is on, and it seems to be having an effect in Los Angeles. Affiliated Traffic Systems, another Arizona-based company, will most likely not have their contract with the city renewed. Solidarity, it seems yet again, can work.

That's a real lesson for other companies that the Sound Strike are taking on--in particular Fender Guitars. Not only is Fender based in the town of Scottsdale, they have also grossly violated the rights of their workers in South Korea. The "Cort Workers" campaign, as it's being called, has also declared a public boycott.

As long as either group has grievance, there is no reason to buy from Fender. Many of the artists supporting the Sound Strike are also supporting the Cort workers--such as Boots Riley and Tom Morello. Whether there are any plans to team up in any other significant ways isn't known, but this writer for one thinks the results could be fantastic!


Later this summer, RF will publish an article on just this subject tentatively titled "Two Good Reasons to Boycott Fender Guitars." Also, my article on "Oslo, Hip-Hop, and the Fight to Defend Multiculturalism" will be published later this week or early next.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Losing Game

Another pop-music cliche came tragically true this past weekend: “Amy Winehouse, dead at 27.” The same age as Joplin, Hendrix, Morrison and Cobain. Like all of these amazing artists she was gone way too young. Like all of them, she had reams of talent, skill, and most importantly, soul. She was lucky enough in her short time to really and seriously change the way many of us view music. And like many of the names she’s now being compared to, we’ll never get a chance to know how much more she could have done if her talent had been nurtured and fostered rather than ruthlessly exploited.

It’s not hard to remember that before Amy Winehouse blew up in ‘07, the notion of being a young female pop-star entailed a lot less talent and a lot more skin. Winehouse wasn’t Britney or Christina or Beyonce. When you heard her sing, you knew that everything else came second.

Part of it was the music itself. Winehouse was obviously part of that long-standing and endlessly contradictory history of white artists performing Black music. Plenty of these artists have been little more than cultural colonists looking to make a buck off of the inequity. Winehouse, however, couldn’t be lumped in this category so easily. Studio footage of her recording “Love is a Losing Game” shows her being so clearly moved by the music that she is at one point forced to wipe the tears from her eyes.

In other words, she played music because she loved it. Friends tell stories of her walking into random record stores, and after asking little more than “where is the soul section?” burying herself deep into it before emerging with up to ten CDs at a time. She idolized Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin. Throughout her performances she performed unique versions of Marvin Gaye, Toots and the Maytals, the Specials and the Zutons.

Then there was the way she performed it: heart-on-sleeve, often graphically honest depictions of love, sex, despair and, of course, addiction. In contrast to the pin-up songstresses still shamelessly shilled by the industry, Amy Winehouse was no frail nightingale.

"What she is is mouthy, funny, sultry, and quite possibly crazy,” wrote Josh Tyrangiel for Time magazine. Tyrangiel, who ranked “Rehab” as the best song of 2007, also noted that “Amy Winehouse is so confident she's got the goods on ‘Rehab’ that she starts her vocal a half beat before the music comes in.”

Pulling this off--being a white female Brit, performing a traditionally African American music style in an industry dominated by rank sexism--is no mean feat. In 2007, four years after her critically acclaimed debut album, she was still a relative unknown. By the end of the year she was one of the most popular acts in the world, and making room for other British rock and soul singers. Almost all were white, some cheap and obvious knockoffs of Winehouse, but nonetheless, she had widened the gates, if only a little bit.

None of this is to say she was some trailblazer for equality. Far from it; in 2008 the now-defuct News of the World broke a home video (surreptitiously filmed by her then-husband) that featured Winehouse singing a version of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” with the lyrics “Blacks, Pakis, gooks and nips.” The fact that she was surrounded by drug paraphernalia and wasted out of her mind didn’t excuse it, but to the scandal factories of the tabloids, it merely added more to the “story.”

In general, though, that’s how the media treated her. It’s a tragic truth that the most tortured souls can create the best art, and Winehouse had demons to spare. She sufffered from bipolar disorder, an often difficult illness to treat. Like countless other young women living in a world rife with misogyny, she battled eating disorders. Her drift into drugs and alcohol was quite obviously an attempt to self-medicate. What should have been treated by the media as a serious condition was turned into a sideshow by paparazzi salivating over every lurid detail.

It didn’t take long until the fun poked by journalists and pundits overtook the art. Photos of a bleary-eyed and emaciated Winehouse were more often the subject of mockery than anything else. She began popping up in “worst dressed” lists in style magazines, who also frequently ranked her among the “most hated celebrities.” Naturally, it was only a matter of time until more vile, mean-spirited incarnations of this began to appear.

Even as this all of this took place, though, it seemed that Amy Winehouse maintained a core of fans who were pulling for her. In April 2008, Sky News, who had already aired countless gossipy hit-pieces on Winehouse, were forced to admit that their own viewers had nonetheless voted her one of Britain’s “ultimate heroines,” and among viewers under 25 had topped the list.

It seems that, despite everything, despite the ways in which she was demonized and criminalized, folks still saw something of the underdog--and perhaps something of themselves--in Winehouse. They saw someone with more than her fair share of problems who was still able to find a voice.

That voice by itself, however, was no match for a machine much bigger than her. Some more thoughtful commentators, such as Jeff Zycinski of BBC Radio Scotland, have publicly speculated whether the media obsession with Winehouse actually hindered the likelihood of a recovery--and may have played a role in her destruction. It’s worth remembering this now; Winehouse’s death takes place parallel to News of the World’s closure and the possible collapse of the Murdoch media empire.

For the most part, though, we won’t be hearing this kind of introspection in the wake of her death. The chorus has been one variation or another of “it was her fault.” In a society where addiction is still viewed as a crime more than a sickness, it’s a convenient way to be shut of the whole fiasco. And of course, that line of thought has its consequences by people who could very well be in the same boat as innumerable addicts who are kicked to the curb.

“Amy Winehouse was a fucking drug addict and rightfully died because of it,” was what one angry vlogger had to say on YouTube. Another comment (predictably left at the site of Fox News) read “Here's yet another prime example of reason NOT to do stupid things... This is a sad outcome, but certainly no surprise...” And these are the friendlier ones.

That’s where the real danger comes in. So many who held Amy Winehouse’s music dear--including those who struggle with addiction--will no doubt hear the finger similarly pointed at them. And while it’s true that she had resources most regular addicts will never have, there will also likely be no mention that her passing comes right as the UK’s drug treatment services are being placed on the chopping block. A world where austerity and oppression are the norm needs a way to place the blame back on the shoulders of ordinary folks.

We’re told “she brought it on herself” so that we don’t think of the institutions that utterly failed her. So that we don’t ask questions about better ways to treat mental illness or drug abuse. So that we don’t wonder how it is that this system can be so adept at punishment but so lacking in compassion.

We’re told “she brought it on herself” so that we don’t see something of ourselves in Amy’s story. But there was. And that’s precisely why so many did indeed identify with her music. So should we with her tragedy.

First appeared at SOCIARTS.

Monday, July 25, 2011

On Oslo and Winehouse

Two events took place over the weekend that obviously merit comment here at RF. One is, of course, the shocking and horrifying tragedy in Norway. Almost as shameful as the taking of nearly 100 lives in the name of a war on multiculturalism is the way in which the media around the world jumped to blame Islamic fundamentalism. If that's not an indicator of the massive amounts of systemic racism that course through the establishment's veins, then I don't know what is.

But Anders Behring Breivik didn't just hate Muslims--he hated hip-hop. Apparently, Breivik, during his teenage years, was briefly a part of the Oslo rap scene and had a short-lived career as a graffiti tagger. Since then, he claims to have seen "the error of his ways" and now blames hip-hop for countless forms of social decay; another element of multiculturalism that's sunk his beloved Norway to near oblivion.

His solution? In short, imposing a kind of apartheid and appropriation on the music and style:

"As for the fate of the hiphop industry; banning it altogether is not the optimal solution as it would cause overwhelming short term outcry and it would eliminate positive aspects as well. However, I believe significant restrictions in the rights of media companies which will include censoring negative and destructive lifestyles. An alternative is to limit such marketing to future “liberal zones”. Certain positive aspects of the hiphop movement should be allowed to survive such as break dance and positive genres of the music as long as it positively influences the self confidence of European youths and only if it can be re-defined as a European tradition and not portrayed as a ghetto/ethnic/multiculturalist lifestyle."

Breivik says nothing, to my knowledge, of the spate of church fires in the 1990s that were ultimately connected to elements in the Norwegian black metal scene, or the series of violent incidents that stemmed from the neo-Nazi skinhead milieu around that time. In both subcultures, fascist groups had serious orientations on recruiting from within. None of this is to blame either of these styles themselves for the violence, and as in most predominantly white music scenes the presence of actual organized fascism was minute. Nonetheless, both prove the double standard that Breivik applies--a double standard we've seen applied to hip-hop time and time again. A fuller article is forthcoming.


Also forthcoming is an assessment of the work and death of Amy Winehouse. Though nowhere near as big a tragedy as the events in Oslo, it is nonetheless a big loss to the pop music world. The last article I wrote on her was almost four years ago; since then, her career took a nosedive thanks of course to her battles with addiction. Though the details of the medical examiner's report has (at least at the time of this writing) yet to be released, it seems apparent that these same battles are what eventually brought an end to an incredibly promising career.

There's a lot to say about her. The old chestnut of cultural appropriation comes to mind, which many other writers have commented on. There is also the role she briefly played in prying the gates open for women in the industry to be more than mere sex symbols; thought this struggle is far from finished, it's hard to think that there might be room for the Joss Stones or Adeles of the world without Amy Winehouse.

Then, of course, there is the issue of addiction. It bears saying again that addiction is an illness, not a crime. And yet, throughout Winehouse's very public addictions, she was mocked and made an example of incredibly often. This itself had the tendency to morph into the worst kind of misogyny, but then, that's rather par for the course in much of the media.

At its most basic, this is a story of a young woman with incredible talent gone before her time. There are plenty of reasons for her death, but any that doesn't take into account the very real and systemic harassment she endured would be vastly remiss. Stay tuned to Rebel Frequencies for both stories.

Friday, July 22, 2011

BDS Update: We Will Not Be Silent!

Israel's Knesset officially outlawed any promotion of the international boycott movement last week. It's a brash move, but one that can't exactly be labeled a surprise. In a region where most other countries' populace is swinging swiftly to the left, the Israeli electorate have dug their heels in by electing governments more and more to the right in every election-cycle it seems. Quite frankly, the outlawing of BDS is mild for a government headed up by, among other people, Avigdor Lieberman--who can be easily described as the Israel's equivalent to David Duke (no, that's not an exaggeration).

In many ways, this is acknowledgement that the global BDS movement can be--and already has been--effective. Nowhere is this more true than in the realm of culture. Netanyahu and others among the country's leadership have gone out of their way to seriously court talent abroad and encourage them to keep their commitments in Tel Aviv and other cities. Observe, for example, how hard Bibi pushed for a meeting with Justin Bieber just a few months back. In fact, rumor has it that behind closed doors, Israeli officials admit to the cultural realm of BDS being the most effective realm of the broad movement so far; that realm which has cost the nation the most in terms of credibility.

The taste of the Klaxons, the Pixies, Gorillaz, Gil Scott-Heron and Elvis Costello lingers in the mouths of these officials. It's easy to forget that all of these were only a year ago for us, but the concert industry still feels the sting. Then there's the role that boycott proponents in Israel proper played in convincing Jello Biafra to cancel his gig (albeit begrudingly). Shuki Weiss and the rest are clapping their hands at this new law!

What they forget however is the role that Israel's actions play above all else in convincing artists to boycott. It was last year's flotilla attack that convinced many of last summer's acts to cancel. Groups like Boycott From Within may be technically illegal now, but that won't stop them from protesting--or communicating with the countless BDS and Palestine solidarity groups beyond Israel's borders. As much as Israeli politicians may think (with the help of their American counterparts) that they can call the shots, the fact is that they don't. Their support is waning, and all the laws in the world can't change that.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Protesting Racism In the Grammys

The Grammy awards have long been the kind of thing that one simply has to deal with if you're going to approach music under capitalism. Absolutely, it comes wrapped in all the elitism, commerce and segregation that necessarily has to accompany the music industry, but it's still something of a great salt lake for any artist--even those who are the most socially conscious--if they want to navigate the most treacherous waters of their craft.

And of course, like any money-making venture, it can be just as susceptible to public pressure as it is to the forces of the market. When they cut 31 categories--all in some way related to America's wide diversity of ethnic and national groups--it was responding to the forces of commerce. When it narrowly declined to reverse that decision recently, it was responding to pressure--particularly coming from the Latin jazz community.

It's for this exact purpose that the site Grammy Watch has been set up. Featured on the site are updates on actions planned by various music advocacy and musicians' rights groups, as well as ways informing readers how to get in touch with the folks at NARAS to vent their own displeasure.

The importance of this fight can't be overstated. America's own musical heritage is incredibly rich, and quite frankly, NARAS President Neil Portnow and the rest should know better. For example, taking a quote directly off of the Grammy Watch site:

"...despite its name, Latin Jazz--a direct evolution of Afro-Cuban Jazz also born in New York City--IS an American Music, established and recorded in the U.S. several years before R&B, Bluegrass, and Rock & Roll, all three in turn each sharing some common roots in Afro-Latin/Caribbean traditions, as does Jazz and even Hip Hop."

Denying these genres and styles a category is to completely short-change all of American music, and to defer necessarily to a Eurocentric view of musical evolution. It's racist. Straight up. Rebel Frequencies is proud to be on the list of signatories for the petition urging reinstatement. You can also rest assured that unless NARAS reverses their decision, this blog will happily join the forces calling for a boycott.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

We Never Bought the Sun...

Nobody who actually gets what Rupert Murdoch represents can deny that there's a lot of pleasure in watching him squirm. And I'm sure we can all think of substances we'd rather rub in his face than just shaving cream.

If anyone can be called a modern business emperor, it's him, and lately the emperor has been truly stripped naked. As the phone hacking scandal unfolds, more and more editors are forced to admit that they invaded people's privacy; word is that the New York Post, another subsidiary of Murdoch's News Corporation, may have hacked the phones of 9/11 victims. It's a lot bigger than News of the World.

Really, however, much of this only confirms what countless people have known for a long time: that Murdoch and company aren't in the business of reporting the news so much as they are inventing it for their own purposes. Case in point: using one of the worst tragedies in global sports history to scapegoat the working class of a whole city!

The 1989 Hillsborough disaster isn't very well-known here in the states, but any fan of soccer knows it (and you don't even have to be a die-hard fan of Liverpool FC as this writer is). Long story short, because of gross stadium mismanagement and police misconduct, a crowd-wide panic ensued. When the final count was done, 96 fans were dead, over 700 injured in the human crush. The Sun, owned by Murdoch, used the tragedy to bandy about a sensationalistic headline that in essence blamed the very fans who lost loved ones.

All of the supposed "revelations" were blatant lies told by a Conservative MP, but The Sun was more than happy to parrot them. To this day, more than twenty years later, one will be hard-pressed to find a "scouser" (local slang for Liverpudlian) who will buy the paper, and it's still ripped up by trade unionists and FC fans as a symbolic middle finger to the kind of shameless paparazzism displayed by Murdoch.

And so, here's one from Billy Bragg, that could just as easily be applied to the family Dowler family, or really anyone whose life has been negatively affected by Fox News or the rest at News Corporation. Here's to hoping that this scandal, for as much pain as it's caused, may bring Murdoch down. And here's to hoping that when it finally does happen, he hits the ground hard.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Leaving Behind the Lounge

Anyone who is as intimately familiar with Thievery Corporation’s music the way many of their most loyal fans are may think they know what to expect with their new album Culture of Fear. And in the most general sense, they’d be right: soul, funk, downtempo hip-hop, beats from Latin America, the Middle East and around the world swirled round into a dubbed-out pastiche.

The cross that’s always been borne by the DC duo, however, has been the propensity for people to completely miss what they’re all about. Namely why these global sounds are meshed so well, and the message that holds it all down. Much of it’s not their fault; something about the “lounge” aesthetic necessarily brings up images of plush sofas and cosmopolitans, far-removed from the grassroots. Indeed, it’s happened to many other of the best acts in the broad tent of electronica.

The irony of this is that few groups of any style actually integrate message and sound so well to begin with. And in the case of Thievery Corporation, for as stylish as they make it, their radicalism has only become more pronounced over time. One would think that naming your album The Richest Man In Babylon and slapping pictures of Subcomandante Marcos on your cover would get the point across, but then one should never underestimate how thick today’s most embedded music critics can be. In their minds, protest can’t be cool, the resistance can’t be organic, and the revolution will always be little more than a pipe dream.

Perhaps for this reason, Thievery Corporation have made their latest statement, Culture of Fear, rather unmistakable. It literally stares you down from the cover, a CCTV camera watching your every move. There is a lot to talk about on this album, not all of it good. One gets the sense that when all is said and done, this may be Thievery’s most timely album, albeit not their best, and for that reason may ultimately and tragically end up buried.

“Seems to me like they want us to be afraid. Maybe we just like being afraid, maybe we’re just so used to it at this point that it’s just a part of us, part of our culture.” These opening words from the title track are recited by Boston’s Mr. Lif, a voice notable in hip-hop (even underground hip-hop) for his refusal for buy into the hype of Obama-time. The song itself, much like the rest of the album, is harder than we might be used to from Thievery: relatively sparse, heavier on the bass than the horns or keyboards or anything else for that matter, with the exception of Lif’s rhymes:

“We fear the IRS, fear the INS, fear God
I’m more afraid of the credit cards and the terror squad
‘Cuz really y’all, they steppin’ with weapons overseas
MasterCard and Visa won’t allow me to breathe...”

As I said, blunt. Rob Garza and Eric Hilton have always had a great ability meshing their guest stars’ contributions with their own sounds, but there’s a difference between, say, hiring out Wayne Coyne to sing about “hate machines” and other metaphors and, well, this. In fact, one notable difference between Culture of Fear and 2008’s Radio Retaliation is the almost complete lack of big-name collabs.

To be sure, much of the album is very much stock Thievery. Rich, ethereal soundscapes like “Light Flares,” “Take My Soul” or any of the other tracks featuring longtime collaborators Lou Lou or Sleepy Wonder are all perfectly lovely-yet-intelligent chill-out tracks that never seem to drift into the cliches of Ibiza.

Per the norm, however, we are never allowed to get to comfortable. In fact, for all the hip coolness that drips from these tracks, there’s an equally unavoidable feeling of paranoia. Even within this safer side of the album, say on tracks like “Stargazer,” there is frequent mention of being watched.

This feeling gains real steam during “Tower Seven,” a purely instrumental joint that inspires unease based on its title alone. By the time we arrive at “Is It Over?”, a sprawling, echoing ball of dissonance, we’ve left the comforts of the lounge behind. Instead, we’re thrust into Ras Puma’s vague millennial warnings to “keep our vision clear” on “False Flag Dub.” Where Thievery Corporation’s last three albums (in order, The Richest Man In Babylon, The Cosmic Game and Radio Retaliation) relied largely on the guest vocalists to declare a message, here it’s left up to the music itself.

This straightforward simplicity, though arguably Culture of Fear’s biggest strength, is also its biggest stumbling block. One often gets the feeling from past albums that you’re listening to an illegal communique, a feeling heightened by the myriad guests that popped up throughout--Femi Kuti here, Seu Jorge there, even David Byrne making the odd appearance. Here, though, it feels much more a retrenchment, a subtle digging of the heels. It’s an unsettling experience for this listener.

Maybe it’s just the difference in time. Thievery Corporation broke out right around the time that their own neighborhood, Washington, DC’s 18th Street, had officially been taken off the “in transition” list and had been overrun by the very people the area’s artists had sought to escape.

It made for a lot of contradictions. Musicians and DJs who had long hovered beneath the surface suddenly gained the success they had always deserved, in part because of a fan-base where the nouveau riche were painfully present. All of a sudden, the same set who would spit on Garza and Hilton if their opinions were expressed in any other milieu could now call Thievery Corporation “the coolest band with the lamest politics” (I was actually told this once, and yes, he had a popped-collar and went to Georgetown).

Now, much of this illusion has been popped, along with much of the rest of the American Dream. The 18th Street corridor is still largely yuppified; the difference now is that, like the counterparts in other cities, it can no longer pretense of being anything but. Revolutions are a real thing, as is American class struggle. It’s hard to imagine a lot of Thievery’s more well-to-do fans sticking around; not now, when their art so closely mirrors the real world.

Moreover, the heavy-handed security state can no longer be simply called a Bush phenomenon. In the age of WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning, when extraordinary rendition and drone attacks have been proven to be thoroughly bipartisan, Thievery Corporation perhaps don’t have to try as hard as they once did.

They don’t have to go out of their way to play Operation Ceasefire to “prove themselves” as activists, or do promotions reminding people that hunger is a real issue. Those who can’t see either of these things can most likely afford to be blind in the first place.

In a time when the stakes have never been higher, when hope and paranoia are such an inescapable part of everyday life, not “getting” what Hilton and Garza are driving at most likely means you were never their target audience to begin with. Maybe what Culture of Fear reveals is that, after ten years of Bush-era stagnation holding them back, Thievery Corporation are finally going through growing pains.

First appeared at SOCIARTS.

Monday, July 18, 2011

His Mind Is Still Free!

Today we are told to give 67 minutes of our time to the cause of human rights, each minute symbolizing a year that Nelson Mandela has given to the same struggle. It's in honor of his 93rd birthday. There are those of us out there for whom 67 minutes a day positively constitutes a day off, but nonetheless, its speaks to the power that he continues to carry for ordinary people around the world.

There may be plenty of disagreements we have with the specifics of Mandela's politics since South African apartheid came down seventeen years ago. As president, he in essence transformed the ANC from a nominally socialist party into one that now leads the way in making South Africa into a neoliberal chemistry set. It's easy to forget how incredibly radical he and his struggle once were.

Back in the '70s and '80s, when the global anti-apartheid movement was gaining steam, standing for Mandela's freedom meant something! It was perhaps the broadest litmus test as to whether you were a genuine progressive or whether you were some mealy-mouthed apologist for segregation and "realpolitik." It put you at odds with Reagan, Thatcher and every other knuckle-dragger who had managed to weasel into public office. And while plenty of the artists who stood up for Mandela have since followed him into the highest echelons of the establishment (paging Peter Gabriel) others have maintained a more principled stance, and normally these were the ones producing the most interesting music:

Yesterday it was South Africa, today it's Palestine. It's pretty much guaranteed that anyone demanding Mandela go free was also observing the cultural boycott of South Africa; "Sun City" anyone? And just like then, the number of artists observing the Palestinian civil society call for a cultural boycott is growing.

There is no "Palestinian Mandela." At the same time, there are thousands--locked up in jail for years or decades without a fair trial for the "crime" of resisting occupation and apartheid at Israel's hands. Perhaps it's no surprise then that Mandela and many other allies (Ronnie Kasrils, Archbishop Tutu) also support an end to Israel's colonial domination and various forms of BDS.

Maybe, after listening to this song--easily the best ever written specifically about Mandela himself--readers can take that 67 minutes (or more!) and go work to oppose apartheid in Israel. Seem only fitting doesn't it? If apartheid and segregation don't jive anywhere, then they don't jive anywhere.


Folks no doubt noticed that RF's normal schedule of posts has been a bit interrupted lately; computer problems have prevented me from keeping up with it. Long story short, I've had to buy a new computer, which can obviously be a big purchase nowadays.

There's plenty more coming up her at Rebel Frequencies. As I've said before, it's a labor of love, but labor nonetheless. So if folks are willing to donate, now's the time!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Uncontrollable and Loving it!

Below is David Ensminger's new interview at with Sabina England, a woman of many identities--punk, Muslim, Deaf. I know her, however, as someone who produced perhaps the most memorable testimonials for Punks Against Apartheid.

Sabina is an excellent and provocative filmmaker, someone who takes great interest in breaking down all sorts of boundaries. Ultimately, it can be argued that punk is all about just that. And for that reason, it's definitely a pleasure to be organizing with her.


Sabina England has quickly become a Do-it-Yourself l’enfant terrible of the art world. As a Deaf Muslim punk rocker turned cultural critic and filmmaker, she has created work based on mime comedies, 8-bit experimental video, and Indian wedding night rituals. Her provocative writing has explored sex taboos and the Islamic culture center planned near Ground Zero, while her protest videos have even criticized punk legend Jello Biafra’s (Dead Kennedys) July concert in Israel. Combining the no-holds-barred attitude of writers like Kathy Acker with zealous cultural deconstruction in the digital era, she is fiery and polemical. I wanted to discuss her punk origins and reflect on Deaf culture in relation to her work and life.

You often mention old lady punk singers, but few newer ones, why?

Did not mean to disparage with old lady, just meant older! Well, that’s not entirely true. I like some of the recent ones such as Brody Dalle and Kathleen Hanna, but when I was a kid just getting into punk rock, I read about punk singers like Siouxsie Sioux, Poly Styrene, Becki Bondage, and I guess they just stuck through with me in my mind as I got older. Their defiant attitudes and their struggle in a male-dominated field always inspired me

Did you know that Poly came from a mixed ethnic background, or joined the Krishnas?

Yeah, I knew all that. She was half English, half black. When she claimed she saw something weird outside Johnny Rotten’s flat, that was when she quit her band and became a Hare Krishna. I thought it was very strange but interesting. I’ve known people who met her before she died, and they all said she’s was nice and down to earth

Did that make you aware of the multi-ethnic side of early punk?

At first, when I was a young teenager, I thought it was a very white counter-culture, but as I began meeting punks and reading about punks like Poly Styrene and Andy Blade (half English, half Egyptian who came from a Muslim family), I became aware that it wasn’t just for white kids, and I liked that. I didn’t feel I belonged anywhere and the last thing I wanted was to feel outcasted in a punk scene full of white punks. But in general, although most punks tend to be white, they’re so much friendlier and open-minded than white yuppies are.

I say that because you mentioned that punk is often a white culture made by/for white punks with white trash backgrounds.

It’s true. I don’t mean they’re trashy, but they are seen as “white trash” by yuppies because they all came from broken homes and had family problems.

People may find it ironic that you worked with SOS Records, which many people equate with rather white street punk style.

I never thought it was ironic at all. I’ve always been attracted to white street punks from a very young age.

Did you feel they represent that white trash side—belittled by yuppies?

I thought it was great how there was a scene for underprivileged teenagers who felt ugly and outcasted and spat on by society, who were seen as “white trash”, and I felt more like belonging around them that I did with Muslims or South Asians in my local community when I was growing up. I also liked the political and social aspect of their music, which talked about defying authority, anger, and hatred at the world, beer, friendship, sex, and anything else that seemed “edgy” to me at the time. I also liked the style, but for me, it was more about the social aspect of the punk scene. As I get older, I feel like a lot of punks are racist without even realizing it, and I hate that or maybe I’m just getting older and now I’m becoming more aware of it.

Punk tends to attract people by offering a sense of “difference.” What really matters is that you are different than the cultural norms you were raised with.

Exactly. I was a minority teenager within a minority culture. I was a very angry Deaf tomboyish girl growing up, and I believed in feminism and radical politics. Naturally, that didn’t go over too well with other Muslims or South Asians. Everyone thought I was weird. I don’t care if people accuse punks of being sheep within a counterculture, what matters is that there’s a place for people who don’t feel belonged in mainstream society

What has made you more fully aware of the racism, or as I call it, the ambivalence?

After the September 11 hijackings happened.

Did the scene become more hostile?

The punk scene didn’t become more hostile after 9-11. I became more aware of my Muslim identity. Muslims were now becoming lumped into one large racial group. Arabs, South Asians, Malays, Turks, Arab Christians, etc, it didn’t matter where you were from. If you were from a Muslim country, you were seen as the one and the same. I became very angry and alienated, and I started thinking more about my Indian Muslim background.

Soon, I was starting to exchange ideas with other liberal Muslims about progressive Islam, Islamic feminism, gay rights for Muslims, etc. That stuff doesn’t resonate with punks (who tend to be white and come from WASP backgrounds) and they don’t get it. Some punks have asked me why I’m so “obsessed” with Islam, but I’m not. Being Muslim is part of who I am. Muslims are a minority group, and I feel even more ostracized now because of being Muslim, but then I got into Taqwacores. I felt more comfortable around Taqx punks. In fact, a lot of punk bands in the scene were very anti-Bush and anti-Guantanamo, anti-Patriot Act, so it gave me a sense of comfort in one way knowing that I could speak out against the US government and not get attacked for it

Did the social aspects of punk appeal to you?

I loved dancing and just hanging out with people in the scene, just having a good time and laughing and not giving a shit in the world. I’d meet other feminists and radical riot grrrls and I always gravitated toward them. I also loved how everyone dressed. It’s so beautiful; it makes life so much more interesting. If everyone would relax and stop being so uptight and stop worrying what others think, I guarantee you that many people would love to get tattoos and piercings, dye their hair, and wear far out clothes. It’s fun and there’s no stress in it.

But I feel like that after 30 plus years after punk rock was “born,” it has lost some of its very antisocial, political steam. Mike Virus once said on a Myspace forum (for his band, The Virus) that there’s too many “frat punks” today who are only interested in drinking beer and listening to punk music about sex and girls. They don’t care about politics. Mike Virus said that punk rock was originally a reaction against apathetic, clueless people who didn’t have a damn clue about society and who didn’t care about anything. Punk rock was supposed to push your buttons and tell society to fuck off.

People say that punk bands concerned more with partying than politics always existed.

Yeah, of course, but there were also very political bands, that were hugely popular in the early days. They didn’t lose any fans when they sang about politics. They gained more fans. The spirit of riot grrrls will always live on in punk rock. No matter how many people try to turn punk rock into a corporate machine made over with glittery emo stickers and Hot Topic bimbos, there will always be real punks that will make real punk music and will always reach out to real, angry individuals out there. Punk rock was born. It’s here to stay, and it’s not gonna go away. As long as there’s oppression and injustice in the world, punk rock will always be here, for political and social reasons. Not just for people to sing about politics and bash the government, but also for people to connect and meet each other and not feel alone. I’ve been told there is a hidden punk scene in Iran, although I think it’s more of rock ‘n’ roll.

Do you feel that punk still offers a sense of liberated spaces?

I definitely feel much more liberated and free in the punk scene around punks. If I talk about the idea of how monogamy isn’t realistic for most relationships, people are shocked and give me looks of disgust and call me a “whore”. If I talk about that around punks, they’re more likely to be interested and listen and ask questions. Where I live, most punks either tend to be very radical in their politics and share similar beliefs like me, and we’ve exchanged stories and conversations about our very different backgrounds. And then there are punks who tend to be apathetic, don’t care about politics, and don’t want to listen. So, I’ve had my fair share of both groups. Needless to say, I prefer political punks to the apathetic ones.

At gigs, can you feel the vibrations of the music?

Sometimes, not always. Some places I’ve been to aren’t padded very well, so I couldn’t enjoy the vibrations. I’d just sit down and talk to some of my friends. At other shows, the vibrations were everywhere, and I would be dancing away and slamming with everyone. It’s such a great rush. One of my friends, who wasn’t a punk, always went to punk shows with me just to body slam with everyone because he had a lot of rage, and it was the only time he could physically unleash his aggression. Afterward, he’d be body bruised all over and sweaty. He’d be like, “That was fucking awesome, I feel so much better now. Let’s go home.”

Tell me about your links to Deaf culture.

Deaf culture has become very big now, thanks to the Internet, especially with blogging and sign language videos that reach out to Deaf people all over the world and unite them. When I was a child at various Deaf schools, some of the teachers were horrible, and other teachers were great. I had one teacher in Liverpool who got angry at one Deaf student for bringing Moby Dick to school—and she sneered at him and said that he wasn’t smart enough to read it, so she snatched it from him and told the whole class that we shouldn’t bother trying to read something so complicated

So she equated his reading level with his hearing ability, for the most part?

Yeah, teachers like her made us feel like we weren’t capable of doing something simple like reading a classic book. That fucked up a lot of kids. She said that because we’re Deaf, we couldn’t really grasp a good understanding of books such as Moby Dick. At the same time, at other schools I’ve had teachers who discouraged us from using sign language and always stressed that we should learn to read lips and speak orally. In one way, I am grateful for that, and in another way I feel resentful about that. I had teachers who really cared about us and wanted to see us succeed as normal human beings in society. So, they always stressed the importance of oral education, good writing and reading skills, and grammar skills.

Did they awaken you to the world of ASL composition—sign language poetry?

No, they didn’t. That’s the part I’m angry and resentful about.

You’ve been distanced from your Deaf peers, on some level?

I’m 28 years old and I’m just starting to meet all these successful, great, intelligent Deaf artists and writers, who are into ASL poetry and sign language theatre. I never learned about that as a teenager and I wish I had. I would love to be part of that. I am planning to take some ASL workshops later, to improve my ASL skills and hopefully I would love to do something with that, maybe incorporate ASL into my future projects one day.

Do you feel more strongly connected to Deaf people, punks, and feminists worldwide, and not exactly tied to local people?

I met so many punks, feminists and Deaf people online. They either found me through interviews and articles, or they’ve stumbled onto me through another friend. I’ve started talking to this blind Anarchist from Australia who speaks about Anarchism and Disabilities. She fiercely speaks out against society institutionalizing blind people and making them feel incapable. I’ve read her essays and felt there was something very similar with Deaf people.

I’ve also met a lot of great feminists online who have opened my mind and taught me even more radical ideas, and then I’ve met many punks online who come from different parts of the world, like Lebanon and Indonesia. I’ve just become a member of Deaf Women in Film, a newly formed group based out of Los Angeles. These Deaf female filmmakers are always encouraging me and I’m so grateful to them for their support

Do you think the ASL Deaf community may have a stronger sense of identity and empowerment than the Deaf community raised on oral education?

Oh yes, yes definitely. ASL is a language of its own. There are ASL theatre companies that cater to Deaf audiences, and then there are Deaf stand up comics who use ASL in their stand up routines, such as C.J Jones, who cater to Deaf people, as well. Deafness gives a sense of identity to these people, because there’s one thing that’s common for all Deaf people no matter what race or ethnicity or religion they are. None of us can ever know what’s going on at a party, play, comedy show, because we don’t know what they’re saying!! We feel lost and alienated.

What do you think propels your outreach and networking more—punk rock or Deaf culture?

In the past, it was more about punk rock, but as of late, it’s been more about Deafness because I’ve ignored the Deaf part of my identity in the past before and I’ve felt alone and unsure of my own abilities. Sometimes I felt like I couldn’t do something because of my Deafness. I was worried how I’d get a job or volunteer due to communication problems. So it became important to me to start seeking out successful Deaf people online. When I met Olin Fortney (Deaf punk and ASL instructor) and people from Deaf Women in Film, I felt so much more reassured and then I became more confident

Has punk rock shaped how you have recasted/realized your Deaf identity?

Yes, it was either punk rock or feminism that turned me to the other. Either way, punk rock and feminism inspired me to look into Riot Grrrls, and then I became interested in women’s rights and women’s issues, and then I discovered there was a disability rights movement within feminism!

Does society favor Deaf men over Deaf women?

Men are seen as the caregivers, the protectors. By society’s standards, men are supposed to take care of women. I’ve known Deaf guys who have felt insecure and angry when they feel like they cannot order food for their hearing girlfriends in a restaurant and I’ve known other Deaf guys who had great difficulty in finding jobs and felt like they couldn’t take care of their girlfriends/wives. Some of them thought they’d never have a chance with a hearing woman.

I once had a punk boyfriend before, who was really into feminism, labor unions, riot grrrls, and progressive politics. When we began dating, he bought a book written by a Deaf woman, about a romance relationship between a Deaf woman and hearing guy. I thought that was a nice gesture because he wanted to understand. But sometimes I became angry when he felt over-protective of me in public. He was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to communicate with people at parties, and I told him to quit treating me like a baby. Sometimes he felt frustrated with me. He said it was like talking to a brick wall, but he didn’t know ASL. He didn’t even realize it, but I’d point that he was being paternal and offensive toward me, and he’d apologize.

Do you examine punk lyrics very closely?

Yes, of course. I never understood what anyone was singing on CDs or vinyl or at punk shows! I’d read the lyrics either in CD booklets or online. If people had a strong response to a song, I’d wonder why and then read the lyrics, and then I’d understand why they were so affected by the song. I always envied hearing punks for being able to sing along and chant and shout with the vocalist at punk shows. Like they’d scream, “FUCK THE STATE! SMASH THE SYSTEM!” I always wanted to chant along with them, but I can’t.

There are two types of punks who go to the shows. Those who go for the social scene, to show off their hair and clothes and get laid for the night, and then the other type of punks, who go for the music, lyrics, and to participate in the unity and soul of punk rock. I’ve known many punks in the latter category who were like that. In fact, they encouraged me to read lyrics and they’d tell me what their favorite songs were because I didn’t always know which songs some bands sang

One of my Deaf students fired her interpreter because the signer was not capturing/relaying my full range of expressions.

I can understand why she fired her interpreter. I’ve been frustrated and angry when I got bland interpreters who didn’t convey emotions in their ASL. Deaf people have the right to know the mood, the tone, and the attitude. Some ASL interpreters have been very paternalistic (or maternalistic) to a point where it was really offensive and demeaning. One ASL interpreter refused to sign cuss words even when other people were cussing, and that’s not fair. I have the right to know what everyone is saying. They act like they know what’s proper—to hell with that—tell me the truth, in full conveyance!

Tell me about the video where you mimic masturbation.

I was making fun of the heterosexual white male fantasy bullshit because people always assume that women don’t fantasize like men do and that we don’t masturbate, but I fantasize about guys all the time. I am a sex radical feminist. I believe in sexual liberty and dignity for all human beings

So, it’s about the taboo of masturbation?

I’m very outspoken on this stuff. I guess I put that masturbation scene into the film without even realizing the meaning it would convey. Some Deaf people can be very judgmental, and I feel like they have been brainwashed with religious garbage, so they’re very uptight about morals and all that. Other Deaf people are very relaxed about it. Deaf teenagers have always been very sexually active and even more curious than hearing kids. That’s what I can tell you because teachers and adults were always so protective and tried to shelter Deaf kids and Deaf teenagers, like we had to be shielded away from sex and drugs and violence. That made Deaf kids and teenagers at my Deaf schools very curious about sex, kissing, getting drunk, and doing drugs. They wouldn’t be open with us about sex, so it was up to us to find out on our own

What about queer culture?

We’re a very heteronormative society that celebrates lesbianism and female bisexuality, but anything to do with gay males is seen as disgusting and offensive. I don’t think people accept Elton John as a gay man. As a celebrity and famous musician, yes, but not as a gay man.

Were the punks you know directly homophobic?

Not at all. It’s more like indirectly homophobic. Just saying random, hurtful things like how gay male sex is disgusting, and gay kissing is gross, and that no gay guys better hit on them.

Is Deaf culture homophobic?

No, I think Deaf people are more open-minded. In fact, there’s a lot of homosexuality in Deaf culture. I don’t know why, but it seems that way. A few Deaf students from my school came out of the closet. I hear more about Deaf gays than I do about gay hearing people. But at the same time, like I said before, there are some judgmental Deaf people who are very religious (and brainwashed) and are very homophobic, but thankfully it doesn’t seem that common. I think it’s just that being Deaf, we are more open.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Chin Music For HuffPo

I've never written for Huffington Post. Partly it's because their music coverage in general has always been lacking and driven by celebrity. Submitting to them would be to more or less let my article drown in a morass of bloggy-ness and be lost to the ether of the 'Net. But mostly it's because for all the traffic they pull in, for all the money they make their advertisers, they don't pay most of their writers a red cent.

HuffPo was bought by AOL for $315 million. If it's worth that much then AOL can afford to pay its writers. My union, the National Writers Union, is honoring the "virtual picket line" called by the Newspaper Guild. I really didn't have much of a motivation to write for HuffPo before, but now you couldn't pay me enough.

HuffPo has also become known for pulling in some big-name writers, including high-profile musicians and artists. These, of course, are the kinds of folks who are financially secure enough to not really need much of a payment, which isn't nefarious in and of itself. Rather, these are some of the writers that should be convinced to join the boycott and picket line--especially those who describe themselves as liberals or progressives.

This includes musicians. John Mellencamp has written columns in the past. So have other left-leaning artists. Many of them are already honoring the picket line--even if they aren't doing so publicly. Those that aren't need to be urged by their fans to do so.

In a stunning twist of irony, David Kusek of published an article recently profiling the ways in which the music industry rips off artists systematically. The article was published on April 8th, a few days after the strike against HuffPo was called. Of course, just like the music industry, AOL and the rest of the media (hard print and online) will do the exact same to writers if they have their way. This picket line needs to be supported--moreover it needs to be built.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Remi Kanazi's Poetry of Struggle

It’s early June, a few days after Gil Scott-Heron’s death. There’s something about the passing of an icon like him that makes the search for new, vibrant rebel art all the more urgent. In a strange twist of serendipity, I just happen to be sitting down to read Poetic Injustice by Remi Kanazi. The first lines hit me like a punch in the gut:

"I never saw death
until I saw the bombing
of a refugee camp
craters filled with
dismembered legs
and splattered torsos
but no sign of a face
the only impression
a fading scream"

I’m hooked. Without gilding the lily, it’s safe to say that there are a lot of parallels between the works of Scott-Heron and those of Remi Kanazi. Both of their bodies of work are a simultaneous expression of identity and a puncturing of borders--real and imagined. Both frequently blur the line between poetry and music. And both rely on a kind of plain-spoken articulation that dodges between pleasure and pain, drama and humor, vicious oppression and inspiring resistance.

It’s difficult to believe that poetry and spoken word were things that Remi more or less stumbled into. "I grew up in a small town in Western Massachusetts," he says to me over the phone, "and for me, growing up on lefty hip-hop, to have the voice of spoken word really filled a huge void. My brother and sister had just taken me to see Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, and that was the transformational trigger point. I started writing every day after that."

No doubt that this voice has been honed over time. By now, as Poetic Injustice indicates, Remi has achieved a deft power, vividly versatile and completely unafraid while never drifting into sentimentality. Throughout this short, 50-page book, the author travels through a variety of settings; pompous American mouthpieces are humorously rebuked ("The Dos and Don’ts of Palestine"), solidarity powerfully invoked ("From Rikers to Bagram"), the horrors of US-Israeli imperialism graphically depicted ("A Poem for Gaza"). These are only a sampling.

Reinventing art as identity

Tying it all together are the 48 three-line poems peppered throughout the book — 48 symbolizing the year of the Nakba (catastrophe) when approximately 750,000 Palestinians were kicked off their land by Zionist militias. Divided into four parts (each dedicated to one of his four grandparents, all among that original displaced generation), each short verse provides a snippet of emotional truth of existence and resistance under occupation:

"From my rooftop I can see an Israeli sunbathing
on the balcony my grandfather built..."

"A pregnant woman dies at a checkpoint
Sometimes a hand in the face is as powerful as a pistol..."

"Kids slingshot hip-hop, mix beats and break
in refugee camps. Reinvent art as identity
and tag the wall with the footsteps of their future..."

As rewarding as reading Remi’s words can be, it’s little substitute for seeing him perform. His energy seems boundless, the humor and vigor of his words coming to life in the performer’s animation. To that end, Poetic Injustice comes with an audio CD of Remi reading fifteen of his favorite selections. It’s a perfect complement, adding immeasurable weight to the book itself.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve had the pleasure (albeit via email) of working with Remi on the Punks Against Apartheid petition urging Jello Biafra to cancel his show in Tel Aviv--a push that we can thankfully now say was successful.

Given the circumstances, it’s near-impossible not to think of another parallel to Gil Scott-Heron, namely the 2010 efforts that successfully convinced him to do the same. There’s also something of an irony — namely that even though the most powerful tool an artist has is his or her voice, what the movement for the cultural boycott of Israel demands is the withholding of that very same voice.

Stand on the right side of history

Nonetheless, Remi believes that an artist’s power is enhanced by his or her refusal to play Israel. "The most effective thing we can do is use our voice in an ethical way," he tells me. "I think the most prominent and positive thing an artist can do is stand on the right side of history and stand with oppressed peoples. So rather than just staying silently on the sidelines or going and whitewashing apartheid in Tel Aviv and talking maybe one or two lines about peace, we have the opportunity to use our voices in a more general sense."

In fact, the push for a cultural boycott is taking place at a time when rebel poets like Remi have the potential to reach a wide audience. The revolutions across the Arab world have been accompanied by a flourishing of art, music and culture. Politically charged groups like DAM and Arabian Knights have never been more popular. And while right-wing pundits like Pam Geller still insist that Arab culture consists of little more than camels and scimitars artists on both sides of the pond may still go a long way to countering this racism.

"I think that what some of the artists are doing today is brilliant because they’re refusing to be tokenized. If you listen to the music of Omar Offendum or The Narcycist or, in Arabic, the music of DAM, they completely shatter this notion that they’re going to be this post [11 September 2001] image of what is Arab or Muslim or Palestinian." In other words, it’s this insistence on humanity despite all obstacles that makes these artists so potent.

The same goes for Remi’s book. And that’s precisely why it would be wrong to simply call this work "poems about Palestine." Much like Scott-Heron’s portrayals of an oppressed black America inspired people well beyond the borders of Watts and Harlem, so do Remi Kanazi’s words speak toward a struggle that is, for lack of a better term, universal.

"The reason I become a poet was to educate, inspire, to act," he says. "I’m not a nationalist, I’m not an ethnocentrist. This isn’t about me being a Palestinian or me being an Arab. It’s about a system of oppression and what’s being done to a people. So whether you’re talking about police brutality or the US-Mexico border or Afghanistan or the war in Iraq or the plight of Palestinians, what they’re going through and the injustice that’s being perpetrated against them is what matters. And that’s what we’re working against — systems of oppression, what’s being done to a people."

This subtle yet dynamic interplay between art and struggle is what makes Poetic Injustice such a crucial contribution. It’s the feeling that for all its specificity, we’re reading not just about the Palestinians but about ourselves. And indeed, every struggle has its own art, it’s own poetry. As Remi Kanazi well knows, it’s this ability for beauty that makes the fight worth it:

"I’ll exist in a world that
fights against racism
like Martin and Malcolm bleeds ghetto tales of Steve Biko
as a song that never dies
no matter what apartheid
makes of our bodies
feeds mouths in Belfast streets
and resurrects Bobby Sands’ message
so that we will never
be hungry again"

First appeared at Electronic Intifada.

Remi Kanazi's Poetic Injustice can be purchased on

Friday, July 8, 2011

BDS Update: Cancel, Moby, Cancel!

Today, Moby released this statement on his website, confirming that he will indeed be playing in Israel on July 12th--despite a campaign urging him not to, and in contravention of the call from Palestine for BDS. His words are unfortunately sanctimonious, but all the easier to poke holes in:

"If you go to america does that mean you support american foreign and domestic policy? Does a visit to america mean that you support guantanamo? If you visit italy does that mean you support berlusconi? If you visit the uk does that mean you're a happy supporter of david cameron?"

It's a very one-sided view that necessarily defers to the oppressor. But what of the oppressed? What if those in Iraq or Afghanistan were calling for a boycott of the US in protest of the occupations? What if Italy's Roma population were requesting the world's citizens impose some sort of sanction on the country in opposition to the racist discrimination against them? If the 750,000 workers who struck last week in the UK demanded the world take some action in solidarity, would Moby so quickly turn his head?

That's the rub: BDS and the cultural boycott of Israel isn't just about the awful policies of corrupt and draconian governments. It's about the victims of those policies rising up against them, and the ability of the global community to respond in support. Pitching the argument in this way has been a crucial part of BDS gaining traction. It's one of the reasons that the cultural wing of BDS is the wing that the Israeli government fears that most.

In that spirit, here's this vid from a Canadian group of activists represented on the flotilla stuck in the Greek harbor now:

Gaza Island from Albino Squirrel Channel on Vimeo.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

NYPD: Enemy of Hip-Hop, Enemy of Us All

The news of police brutality at Pete Rock's album release party in late June isn't just a reminder. Incidents like these certainly reveal how, in an age where hip-hop is somehow twisted into accomplishing everything it can in society, there's still a lot more to be done. Black president notwithstanding, cops still target Black men, and if they happen to be a rapper, then all the better in their eyes.

But, as I said, it's a lot more than just a reminder. If it weren't happening in a context--a context where cops are being acquitted for rape and being let out of jail after gunning down unarmed fathers--it would be something easily dismissed as these things often are as isolated. It's not.

For sure, the whole fiasco was very different than any of these others. Says Davey D on his site:

"Here police interrupted the show by flying helicopters and shining lights on the performers (the stage was in a courtyard inside the venue). They then ordered folks to leave the venue. Shocked concert goers were greeted by a gauntlet line of more than a hundred officers who provoked and intimidated folks as left the event... Their rationale for shutting down the event was the same one used by NYPD when they shut down the Pete Rock/Smif-N-Wessun party... 3000 miles away and 6 years later-there was supposedly a ‘fight outside’ the venue..."

Davey points out something worth remembering here. If this whole thing sounds like a military operation, then that's because the police themselves are basically militarized. Most police departments in large urban areas like NYC and LA are equipped with the kind of materiel that forty years ago would have been reserved for the armed forces. SWAT teams and drug squads have full capability to pulverize the neighborhoods they patrol, and quite often do just that.

Is it any wonder then that the five people brutalized by the cops that night were completely random? If the whole thing was run like a military operation the it has to be seen less as a targeted shut-down and more as an effort to scare. Indeed, one of the five brutalized by the cops that night was Pete Rock's own daughter!

None of this can simply be chalked up to chance. This police raid, along with the seemingly endless array of crimes the cops get away with shows something of the true nature of police forces: that they aren't there to serve and protect anyone's rights except the folks with the most cash. Despite all the myths about every rapper sporting bling, that crowd doesn't include Pete Rock. As a matter of fact, Pete has spent a great amount of his own career asking why that very crowd are in charge in the first place. After this, after Sean Bell, after Oscar Grant, after news of the women raped by on-duty officers in Chicago and NYC, after the Black man who was killed just days ago on the exact same transit system where Grant was killed, perhaps it's time that we ask those questions too.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Fiasco Factor

This should have been posted up a full two weeks ago, and readers have my apologies for not doing just that. Lupe Fiasco tells it how it is at a time when the presence of a Black president at the helm of empire seems to have confused many, including in hip-hop.

It's never easy sitting through a segment of O'Reilly's filthy little charade, but this is worth watching. And it's worth noting that Lupe takes a tactic on there that most guests don't. He's not so much engaging O'Reilly here as just making sure that what he has to say gets said. And he's right: Obama is the world's biggest terrorist. Quite frequently, the only difference between a president and a terrorist is that the president has an air force at his disposal. pointed out another irony here: that this is Bill O'Reilly defending Obama. Rather funny considering how much Fox News has gone out of their way to make him out as a Muslim, a socialist, an America-hater and everything else but a terrorist. Just goes to show that when the truth, in all its radical nakedness, is actually part of the discussion, there's little official distance between the two sides of the congressional aisle.

2116222229 by yardie4lifever2

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Welcome Back...

If any holiday can be likened to a blunt instrument of trauma, then July 4th is it. Nobody in their right mind is going to shirk off the chance to have a day without work, but for those sickened by the kind of nationalistic flag-waving that permeates all aspects of American culture, it can still be alienating.

Luckily, I didn't have to deal with that. True, a four day socialist conference during a time of revolution and class struggle can hardly be considered a "holiday," but it sure as hell beats having to listen to drunken versions of "God Bless America" being wailed on the streets outside.

There's no doubt that the conference showed the enthusiasm that exists out there for a better world--politically, economically and culturally. The S'11 conference featured columnist Nicole Colson speaking on the career and legacy of the Clash, performances by Prayers for Atheists, Phillip Morris, Kevin Coval, Bob Rok and many others, plus an absolutely fantastic drag show featuring members of NYC's Queers Against Israeli Apartheid.

Overall, 1,500 people attended this conference. The recent agreement of Jello Biafra and the foundation of Punks Against Apartheid were both greeted with thunderous applause in the sessions featuring Electronic Intifada's Ali Abunimah and Omar Barghouti(author of BDS: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights).

On that note, it's worth pointing out that Punks Against Apartheid won't be going anywhere. Neither for that matter will Rebel Frequencies. Upcoming articles include a review of the new Rebel Diaz album, a piece on Woody Guthrie, American Radical, an exhumation of Rock Against Racism in the US and many more. In the meantime, feast your eyes on today's statement from Punks Against Apartheid.


"It's Bigger Than Jello"

Punks Against Apartheid would like to take the time to sincerely thank Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine for canceling their show in Tel Aviv on July 2nd. Moral dilemmas such as these are never taken lightly, and Jello’s words over the past few weeks have shown just how seriously he’s taken this one. No decision here would have been easy; nonetheless we believe that he and the band have made the right one and have honored a call for solidarity by doing so. We also hope that what he sees on his travels to Israel and Palestine as an individual will confirm this.

With this in mind, it’s also important that we respond to the myriad accusations and assumptions that Jello has made as he came to his decision. As heartening as it was to read the first couple paragraphs of his recent announcement, our hearts sank to see–once again–a host of misrepresentations of the nature of our group, a profound lack of understanding of the basic tenets of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement more generally, and flat-out insults against the Palestinian people as a whole.

We would like to make it clear that our group did in fact find its inspiration, and its catalyst for launching, in the announcement of Jello’s Tel Aviv gig. Indeed, while there have been countless performances and cultural BDS campaigns launched against musicians performing in Israel in the past–which each of us have participated in to a greater or lesser extent–something about the audacity of this gig, coming from someone we all so revered for his radical politics, triggered a response in us. In the words of our e-mail to Jello, his then-planned gig in Tel Aviv “made us all realize how important it is to us that punk music always stand in solidarity with the oppressed and never with the oppressor.” And so PAA was born. None of this can be denied.

Yet, we find it strange that Jello, in his response, takes this to be a smoking gun: He writes that “Whoever started now admits it was aimed solely at one person – me.” Jello was never meant to be the only focus of Punks Against Apartheid. It is the first of many projects and campaigns we hope to be involved with. Canceling Jello’s gig was only our initial launching pad and rallying cry. We fully intend to develop PAA into a network of musicians, artists, communities, and voices coming together in the spirit of cultural exchange and solidarity against oppression.

To us, the longing for deeper solidarity between punk and Palestine is quite evident. At its core, punk has always been a rebel subculture. Even as it struggled with its own contradictions (lily white, predominantly straight male) it’s sought to break down boundaries. For every idiot that showed up seig-heiling at a Sham 69 show, for every bonehead out there trying to make punk a “whites only” movement, there have been people like Jello ready to say “Nazi punks fuck off!” There have been Joe Strummer, Poly Styrene and Rock Against Racism. There’s been MDC and Bad Brains hosting gigs against South African apartheid. There are countless throngs of punks who have marched against war and empire. And there’s today’s queercore, riot grrl, Taqwacore and Afro-punk movements. This is the tradition we stand in, and, we would assume that so does Jello.

But Jello’s entire approach to this exchange has shown some grave misconceptions about the BDS movement and Palestinians in general. Nowhere is this more true, though, than when he wrote the following statement: “[H]ow much are we really doing for Palestinian rights if people don’t seem interested in our kind of music at all?” This is flat-out wrong, and skates dangerously close to the kind of anti-Arab, Islamophobic stereotypes that we’re constantly fed by what Jello refers to as “McNews.” Anyone who does any basic research on Palestinian youth culture will see how vibrant and diverse it is. We find it rather shocking that Jello hasn’t bothered to examine these facts. He is, in essence, dismissing an entire region as culturally backward, primitive, unworthy of patronage. It’s not a new phenomenon; in fact, it’s part of a long and shameful history of Orientalism.

We hope that during Jello’s trip to see things for himself he really has the opportunity to see what things are like for Palestinians on a daily basis. We implore him to go refugee camps such as Jenin or Dheisheh and to villages such as Bi’lin where Palestinians lead a non-violent democratic popular struggle against the apartheid wall that separates farmers from their farmland. At its best, punk has always been about amplifying voices like these–marginalized, repressed and otherwise ignored by the mainstream. It’s extremely disappointing to see Jello ignore those exact same voices that have always been so crucial in renewing punk’s vitality.

We think of Aida M, vocalist in Lebanese punk band DETOX, when she said in her signature of our petition “We in Lebanon never had a punk band play here, and it makes us fight harder for our beliefs, and find our own meaning of what punk is…What you big punk bands don’t know is that your music means more to us in times of war and chaos, than it does in the West.” We received hundreds and hundreds of similar e-mails from groups from around the world during our campaign to get Jello to cancel. The incredible diversity of people who contacted us laid bare the myth that punk “is”, once and for all, a white, male phenomenon: no, it has a much farther reach than that; it’s a question of where and how you look. It’s a question: if you come with the intention of hearing other voices, or only your own.

Jello’s claim that he “didn’t recognise” many names on the petition should have been a sign that there is a world of punk beyond the one he is used to being a part of–one that is contradictory, complex, and multilayered–instead, he saw it as evidence that these people weren’t “real” fans and that they probably weren’t punks anyway.

So, as we see it, our role is not to “create” a network of alternative voices in punk. Rather, it is to link together the vibrant, already-existing subcultures of political punk to more effectively work together, to stand clearly and definitively stand against apartheid and ethnic cleansing, and to work towards multiracial justice, both in our own communities and for those we stand in solidarity with. It is to create an infrastructure based around certain core principles and points of unity so that it becomes less tenable for someone of Jello’s reknown to claim that he “didn’t know any better”. It is to recuperate a legacy of punk as a truly radical movement, on the cutting-edge of the complacency and everyday racism of the societies we live in.

We want as many voices as possible on our side, including Jello Biafra's. And by “our side” we mean a lot more than PAA. We’re only one small part of a worldwide movement for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions. We don’t want anyone towing our line or being a “poodle”; we want you to be convinced, which is why we made the appeal in the first place. We know that facts back up our arguments, which is why we make them in the first place; not because we want to pick on one lone musician.

As such, PAA will not be folding now that Jello has canceled. We fully intend to continue our mission in building links between Palestine solidarity and the global punk community. We hope that you will join us in that mission. And we just want to say that “there’s always room for Jello” in our movement if he wants to join and help build this into something beautiful, something that will clearly put punk rock on the side of human rights and equality for all people – right where it belongs.