Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Through the Years: Rhythm and Riot


Billy Bragg's response to the riots in the UK is spot on. In an article that appeared in the NME and was also posted on his website, he asserts that the uprisings were a "'What the Fuck?' moment" much like the riot that erupted at the Notting Hill Carnival almost exactly thirty-five years before:

"At the time, the press reported it as the mindless violence of black youth intent on causing trouble; now we look back and recognise that it was the stirrings of what became our multicultural society--the moment when the first generation of black Britons declared that these streets belonged to them too."

Billy also reminds us that music changed indelibly after the Notting Hill Carnival riots, increasingly reflecting an insurgent musical spirit that brought together Black, white and Asian, rock, reggae and punk. He is particularly mindful of the Clash, whose members participated in the rebellion and were inspired to write "White Riot" in the aftermath. Music really was never the same since. (One of my earliest articles was also written on just this topic five years ago and appeared in CounterPunch.)

The overarching conclusion that Billy puts forth should resonate through any music fan's bones. Indeed, music has always had a way of keeping its fingers on the pulse of the tensions running through society's most invisible. Maybe it's one of the reasons that we've been able to look back through history and see not only a host of songs that were influenced by riots, but actually anticipated them.

That's a phenomenon that goes back to the days of rock and soul. Accounts have it that during the 1967 uprising in Detroit, individuals took to the roof to blast Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street." It quickly became associated with the Civil Rights movement, and H. Rap Brown even started playing it at demonstrations. Radio stations pulled it, and Martha Reeves was upset by the new association the song had gained. When British reporters asked if she was now some kind of "militant leader," she replied "My Lord, it was a party song." Still, its resonance in the Black community had taken on a life of its own much bigger than what she intended.

There was, of course, "The Guns of Brixton," which anticipated the uprisings in that area of London by several months. About half of the Clash's output could arguably be related to rioting, but really much of the early punk years' content played at the simmering anger that was bound to burst forth at a full boil--most notably the Ruts' "Babylon's Burning," which I mentioned in passing in my article for Dissident Voice on the recent riots.

Flash forward by about ten years, and we have the Los Angeles rebellion. "Fuck tha Police," released four years earlier, wasn't directly a song about rioting. Nonetheless, the intense outrage embodied by N.W.A in that song lead it to be embraced as something of a soundtrack. And its allusions to snipers on the roof was eerily prophetic of the developments during the uprising. To this day, the riots are the biggest in US history; it took the National Guard four days to quell them.

What does all this tell us? Not that artist are somehow psychic. Only that, like most art, popular music has the potential to be connected more with the feel of the grassroots than any official political party or new show is bound to be. If we take music seriously as a social act, then we would do well to listen hard and do our damnedest to organize against the poverty, oppression and inequality that runs rife. And yes, Billy Bragg is correct: now is the time for young musicians to step up.


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Sounds of Anger


It looks like those times are back. Those times when the raw outrage weaving through the world causes disturbing trends to pop up in our music. When a few misguided voices are picked apart, denounced and justified so much that it becomes difficult to figure out just what side they're on.

In the 1970s, it was around punk. A decade later, it was around hip-hop. Now, with the controversy surrounding acts like Iceage or Odd Future, it's reached into both--almost as if proving how high the stakes really are.

By now, most indie fans are probably sick of the furor surrounding Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (OFWGKTA, or simply Odd Future), the teenage horror-rap "super-group" whose talents with rhyme and production are undeniable. On the other hand, their graphic depictions of murder, rape, gay-bashing and all around misanthropy make the Geto Boys seem like choir boys (and no, I won't be quoting them here).

Over the past year, the Southern California lyricists have gone from virtual unknowns--even most underground hip-hop scenes had never heard of them--to the "next big thing" in indie music. Last summer, when the taste-making hipster site Pitchfork began to laud Odd Future's undeniable talents, the whole fiasco was set in motion.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, one of the first hip-hop journalists to write about OFWGKTA, described the ensuing debacle as a "binary":

"[A]fter approximately 900,000 think pieces were written on the topic of Odd Future's "vile" lyricism--a large chunk of them by rap dilettantes who have apparently never listened to much hip-hop beyond radio and club staples--what became more enraging to me than the detailed artistic output of a group of youths were the scores of critics, largely middle-aged white males, who not only tripped over themselves justifying the lyrics, but who also seemed to ridicule or mock those who might have a problem with them."

And so has begun the controversy that Shepherd deftly titles "How Teen Rap Group Odd Future Turned a Posse of Nerdy White Male Critics Into Rape Apologists."

For the most part, the young members of OFWGKTA have remained glibly dismissive. Hodgy Beats--at 20 the oldest member of the group along with Tyler the Creator--thinks "it's funny that people flip out over shit like that." Hodgy told the Chicago Sun-Times, "Nothing is really serious...It's just like all the things in our music. It's in the atmosphere, it's in the world, and it's in our lyrics."

Syd tha Kid, the group's one female member and also a lesbian, is normally pointed to as proof that Odd Future is neither sexist nor homophobic. That Syd's actual position in the group is a producer and doesn't actually say anything in any of their songs (essentially reducing her to tokenism) seems irrelevant to OFWGKTA, including Syd herself.

"People just choose to be offended by stuff," she told Billboard. "If they are, then that sucks and I'm sorry, but they don't have to keep listening. Words are words. They don't act out what they say, they just say it."

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It bears repeating here that casual and virulent misogyny is indeed, as Hodgy says, "in the atmosphere." Economic crisis persists, and it's put everything from clinics to women's shelters on the chopping block. In state after state, right-wing legislators are proposing laws that narrow the "definition" of rape and even provide protection for those who would kill abortion providers--an insanity only surpassed when these laws are actually voted through,

Meanwhile, police officers accused of sexual assault from New York to Chicago have had all but the red carpet rolled out for them. Seventh grade girls are raped and then forced by the school to write an apology to her attacker only to be raped again. "Raunch culture" is seemingly inescapable. It's fair to say that it amounts to persistent second-class citizenship for women. Lyrics like OFWGKTA's certainly don't help.

This is not to say popular music is automatically above all of this. On the contrary, in any age divided between haves and have-nots, popular music is bound to reflect all sorts of contradictory ideas--good, bad and everything in between. Placing the blame for sexual violence on the shoulders of any one artist or group of artists has always been more of a smoke-and-mirrors act than anything else.

Few of the public figures in or around the Parental Music Resource Center in the 1980s and '90s had ever lifted more than a finger against racism or sexism--and even fewer showed any real knowledge of hip-hop's significance. And raising hue and cry over social decay has never stopped any of these people from howling for social cuts.

In his column where he justified his own defense of Odd Future, Chicago Reader music journalist Miles Raymer insists:

"I have an easy explanation for why they're striking those chords: things are bad. I mean, things have been bad for a while...But now that the information economy is tanking too--and now that America has turned out to be an even uglier place under Obama than it was under Bush--nobody's immune anymore. Artists and fans alike are coming of age in an atmosphere of deep paranoia and impending doom."

Raymer is partially correct here, and it's precisely why any censorship mongers are bound to be wrong. Where he comes up short is his cynicism--specifically no mention about how these kinds of lyrics can be constructively challenged.

During the glory days of MTV, when the big labels could still clutch firmly to their dominance, it seemed a bit easier for progressives to find the culprit. As the "traditional" music industry has continued to implode and artists have been forced to rely more and more on the potential boon provided by live performance, taste-makers like Pitchfork have unexpectedly found themselves becoming the "new boss."

While the unsavory content of Odd Future can't be apologized for in the least, forgiving the disconnected justifications trotted out by increasingly powerful "indie" outlets seems an even graver mistake.

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Just as disturbing as Odd Future's violent misogyny are the flirtations of Iceage. Like Odd Future, the bleak nihilism of this young Danish group fits with the world as we know it now--likewise their stripped-down post-industrial punk. Their apparent timeliness has lead to some notable praise in the American music press. Vice, SF Gate and the A.V. Club even went so far as to compare Iceage to their fellow Scandinavian punk trailblazers Refused.

But while the aesthetic radicalism of Refused was always driven by an unavoidable revolutionary socialist vision, Iceage seem to embrace the polar opposite. Sure, it may be employed sheerly for shock, but it's nonetheless troubling--such as their use of Nordic runes in their artwork, runes that have been historically adopted by white power groups.

Then there's the menacing, chaotic and austere pen-and-ink drawings of singer Elias Bender Ronnenfelt--featuring people dressed in the unmistakable garb of the Ku Klux Klan. Others include white mobs carrying swords and a crucifix counterposed to AK-wielding Islamists standing in front of Arabic text. Giant knives are pointed at the Islamists.

One might say, "They're only drawings," but that can hardly be a valid excuse given the vicious Islamophobia that's sweeping Europe along with the growth of the far right. In the UK, mosques are routinely vandalized and Muslims intimidated by organized roving street gangs like the English Defense League (EDL). France's Front National, now helmed by the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, seems poised to post high gains in the coming French elections on an open platform of repatriation.

Currently, the ultra-conservative Danish People's Party, which campaigns most prominently against multiculturalism and the "Islamization" of Denmark, is the third largest in Iceage's homeland. And the recent terrorist attack just to the north in Oslo, Norway, show how dangerous this kind of scapegoating can get.

The members of Iceage have all denied being racist, and have pointed out that drummer Dan Kjaer Nielsen is Jewish. It's not exactly reassuring. Their video for title track "New Brigade" sees the band sporting hoods and carrying torches.

Their shows in Europe have reportedly featured audience members--who the band refer to as "victims"--throwing up the Nazi straight-armed salute and screaming, "Seig heil!" Guitarist Johan Surrballe's right arm sports a tattoo of the band Death in June (DIJ), a 30-year mainstay in the fringe neo-folk scene who similarly promote fascist imagery.

The parallel between the two groups is striking. Though DIJ's singer has pointed to his gay identity as proof to the contrary, he has also called Hitler "the most influential person of the 20th century" and repeatedly speaks in favor of the odd Russian fascist sect of National Bolshevism.

Iceage's exact political ideology is difficult to confirm, at least through their lyrics. Ronnenfelt's vocals are indecipherable through the dense metallic chaos. Muddying the waters even further is the fact that during their first-ever U.S. tour this summer, they played alongside such indie post-punkers as Cult of Youth and Fucked Up.

No reports have surfaced of Nazi salutes at Iceage's U.S. dates. Whether the young members ultimately identify as fascists in their heart of hearts doesn't take much away from the fact that their aesthetic choices provide fertile ground for the far right.

There is a long and sordid past of non-racist punk bands utilizing Nazi images as some sort of send-up, but most of them have ended up dropping it. Meanwhile, avowed hatecore bands have been pushed to the far margins, but this hasn't stopped them from constantly looking for an "in" to a bigger platform.

If Iceage do indeed represent punk's future, then that future is even bleaker than one might imagine. Guardian music critic Paul Lester, in his comparatively sober review of Iceage, points out:

"Some have called them 'teenage punks,' while others have gone with 'teenage bullies.' It's an important distinction: punk...was fuelled by righteous anger, its aim to stand up for the downtrodden. There was nothing bullying about it: it picked on the powerful. If these Danish kids...have their sights set on the weak and dispossessed, they've massively missed the point."

Angry times, angry music. There's no doubt that the kids in Iceage and Odd Future have plenty of anger--it's what happens when you strip people of any power over their own lives. The real danger starts, however, when the powerless begin to target each other.

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Walking through the booths at the Pitchfork Music and Arts Festival has always had an air of vague egalitarianism. Chalk it up to the indie spirit--small local businesses and community groups have long played a role, with deference given to those deemed socially conscious. And of course, the acts selected have always reflected a broad diversity of tastes within the now-dominant indie culture.

Which is why when the fest's coordinators announced that Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All would be one of 2011's headlining acts, it didn't sit well with more than a few loyal patrons. One could practically hear the gangs of music critics, activists and ordinary fans collectively ask, "What the hell?"

True, Pitchfork's attempts at parsing the high artistic merit from the deplorable content of their lyrics had always been clumsy. Lazy comparisons to NWA and even Public Enemy had sprung up in their defenses--never mind that Odd Future have yet to employ the kind of truth-to-power lyricism that defined both of those groups. At best, the defenses have resorted to the idea that the young rappers were parodying white hipster expectations of rap music--a shoddy excuse that not only lets Pitchfork off the hook, but bastardizes rap itself.

Still, the inclusion of OFWGKTA, to many onlookers, seemed to fly in the face of independent music's inclusive spirit. Jim DeRogatis, music commentator for the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ's "Sound Opinions," rightfully asked a whole host of questions that Odd Future necessarily raise:

"How does Odd Future playing the Pitchfork Music Festival reflect on this grassroots Chicago music community, and the broader community of music fans and Pitchfork readers? How will it affect festival goers and other artists playing on the same stages? And what does it mean to inject a heaping dose of hatred against women into the fun in the sun at Union Park?"

It was for this reason that in the weeks after Odd Future were announced, several domestic violence groups stepped forward to request booth space at the festival. One of the groups demanding space was Between Friends, an agency with 25 years of history in Chicago.

"We certainly believe in free speech, and with that in mind, Odd Future has the right to sing and use the lyrics they do," said executive director Kathy Doherty, "but the rest of us in Chicago have the right to balance that point of view with powerful messages of our own about violence against women."

Pitchfork at first denied Between Friends and other groups like Rape Victims Advocates space. Time and again, the buck was passed--from the website editors to the festival organizers to the booking agents. Spokespeople also claimed that Pitchfork was being "singled out," and that the group had also performed at Coachella in April. It was rather bewildering, but also a lesson in what a big business music fests--including Pitchfork--have become.

After some persistent pressure--including rumors of pickets and boycotts--Pitchfork relented. Between Friends and Rape Victims Advocates were both granted table space in the festival. Tyler the Creator, who weeks before had Tweeted that he wanted to "Throw Shit At Them," clumsily attempted to make peace by personally delivering cupcakes to the groups' tables.

Now, most folks are just glad it's over. Certainly, it could have gotten ugly, harking back to the bad old days when rappers and feminists seemed inexorably pitted against one another. Maybe it was these memories on all sides that prevented it them from going further down that path.

For as unsatisfactory Odd Future and Pitchfork's responses may have looked, the whole debacle also provides a glimpse into what it may look like when a more strong and confident activism is able to hold society accountable--when such a movement might be able to fight the roots of bigotry, engage with artists of all stripes, and point the anger in the right direction.

Plenty of artists already do this: Rebel Diaz, who can rap circles around any of the kids in Odd Future without once calling a woman a bitch, or Prayers for Atheists, whose righteous punk passion likely leaves Iceage stumped. It's no news that record companies, festivals and journalists looking to keep an air of cool withdrawal are likewise flummoxed by these kinds of acts. The question becomes, then, how we overcome it.

Perhaps it's time that fans and artists stopped thinking of independent music in all its forms--rap, rock, folk, techno, whatever--as merely a sub-culture and began applying it as a counterculture. A counterculture that pulls on the latent values of community and DIY and knows who the real enemy is. That knows that racism, sexism and gay-bashing aren't edgy, and certainly aren't rebellious. That calls out the hypocrites and tells artists like Iceage and Odd Future that the time has come to grow up and put up.

Such a development, a "musical movement," might seem impossible in the age of corporate, multimillion-dollar charity concerts. But it's happened before and can happen again. The examples of Rock Against Racism (RAR) in the '70s, as well as its offshoot campaign Rock Against Sexism (RAS), are both proof that such an upheaval can take place.

Here were cultural activist groups that used the power of music to challenge the vilest ideas running through society--sexism, homophobia and anti-immigrant racism. They made it a point that their gigs be diverse, bringing together rock, punk, reggae and ska.

One of their earliest supporters was Tom Robinson--a gay rock musician whose commitments to anti-racism and sexual liberation were only equaled by his ability to connect great hooks with a punk sensibility (Tom Robinson Band's "2-4-6-8 Motorway" was one of the first punk singles to reach the Top Ten on the British music charts).

Their lineups almost always included bands where women played a major role--such as X-Ray Spex and Carol Grimes--and their publication Temporary Hoarding made the case that any fight against oppression is incomplete without fighting all its guises.

As the folks in RAR and RAS knew, confronting all of this in a vacuum was a recipe for impotence. They weren't just allied with one other, but with any attempt to chase organized bigots off the streets and to present an alternative to layoffs, budget cuts and union-busting. It's this connection with the real grassroots of music--the streets, schools and workplaces--that made the campaigns a force to be reckoned with.

Artists noticed. Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 shunned the racists in his former crew, and fascists who tried to make inroads through music were pushed out. In the pages of Temporary Hoarding, Johnny Rotten (now post-Pistols Lydon) said that he "despised" groups like the National Front and that the inclusion of swastikas in his former band's regalia was "stupid."

Today, Love Music Hate Racism and Love Music Hate Homophobia have similarly proven a major presence in the UK's independent music scene, putting on massive festivals that have been a constant thorn in the side of the EDL and other like-minded creeps.

There's a lesson in all of these stories--one we would do well to learn from today. The fields for bringing together these kinds of groups today are arguably more fertile than they've ever been here in the U.S. Grassroots activism like SlutWalk have raised the possibility of challenging both casual misogyny (like that of Odd Future) and its sexist roots.

Islamophobic bigots are being faced down, mosques are being defended, and Iceage may want to take note. Minds can be changed, victories can be won, and we can still sound stylish while doing it.

As our very livelihoods are torn apart by the powers that be, it's hard to argue with anyone's anger, but that doesn't mean we merely throw up our hands and watch the world burn. The question is whether that anger is turned to action, whether an alternative can be build from the bottom up that reaches from the streets to our schools and festivals, workplaces and playlists. The time has come to revitalize the meaning of rebel music.

First appeared at SocialistWorker.org.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Rewarding Idiocy


With its thirtieth birthday now a month gone, MTV shows no sign of pulling its head out of its own... well, you know. The network's version of "controversy" used to actually reflect a dynamism in music that MTV was okay with. Given, the executives' and programmers' comfort with music and culture's leaps forward in the '80s and '90s was always uneasy. But there was once room enough for the Nirvanas of the world, for the Chuck D's and Lauryn Hills. These were acts that caused controversy to an end--normally discussions over the role of music in the world, leading into issues of race, youth, gender, sometimes class too.

That side of MTV died a long time ago, and it was strangled by a broader consolidation in the music industry--the inability to evolve with the Internet, the rise of Clear Channel, the buying up of independent labels by more powerful entities. Really, one can't call the shenanigans that drop every year at the Video Music Awards controversy anymore--staged immaturity is more like it. Kanye West's stunt two years ago, rushing Taylor Swift's acceptance speech was a good example. The anti-Kanye backlash notwithstanding, it was sound and fury signifying nothing.

But the big news from last night's VMAs was Tyler the Creator's big win for Best New Artist. Tyler, of course, is one of the main movers behind Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. Controversy certainly continues to swirl around the group's graphic lyrical depictions of rape, gay-bashing and other sundry varietals of violence. Now those lyrics have the rubber stamp of the highest heights of the mainstream.

Never mind that Odd Future have put zero sweat into the underground hip-hop community, unlike most other talented MCs who have to climb a real ladder and figure out what does and doesn't work before hitting the big-time. On the contrary, the group simply started releasing stuff online. Pitchfork seized on their material, and now MTV. Talented they most certainly are; that can't be disputed. Their credibility at the grassroots, however, is thinner than that of Vanilla Ice.

And really, the corollary is telling. One of the most common explanations for Odd Future's lyrical content is that they're simply parodying the white hipster disconnect with rap. It's a flimsy excuse, if for no other reason than it puts the white middle-class at the center of a style that has always been rooted in the struggle against invisibility for young working people of color.

Still, if this is the rationale for OFWGKTA's existence, then it's enough for MTV. The music business has always found it easier to reward music that fits within the confines of stereotype than that which breaks down boundaries. Tyler and the rest have spent the past year being sealed the bubble of the biz so that they haven't had to face the pressure from their peers they may otherwise have to. This is the icing on that cake.

As for Tyler himself, he has always compared Odd Future more to the shock of the Sex Pistols than any other rap act. That's informative. The more vile elements of the Pistols' shock aesthetic were challenged--specifically the swastikas. It's harder to challenge someone, however, when their whole existence as an artist is artificially reinforced by the industry's own predilections. Tyler also has said that he's wanted a VMA since he was nine. That in itself is a deal with the devil, and the devil is always glad to have an extra soul in its clutches.

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My article on fighting hate in music, which specifically takes up the meaning of Odd Future, will be published later this week on SocialistWorker.org.

Friday, August 26, 2011

BDS Update: Apartheid Don't Swing!


Another victory for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions was declared recently. Tuba Skinny, the incredible Dixieland-blues group known for putting on some incredible street performances in their native New Orleans, backed out of their appearance at the Red Sea Jazz Festival, which took place on August 21st through 24th in Eilat Harbor, Israel.

Below is the whole statement that appeared yesterday at Electronic Intifada's "BDS Beat" blog. The statement is worth reading in its entirety for several reasons. Guitarist-vocalist Kiowa Wells (who penned the statement) and the rest of the group obviously brought a great amount of careful thought and humility to their decision, which was made quite literally last minute--the day before in fact!

Therein is the lesson that all proponents of cultural boycott need to learn: That artists will take the notion of canceling their gigs seriously, and that there is every reason to keep patient pressure and engagement up until the very end. In this case, it was Israel's fresh, albeit small-scale, attack on Gaza that did sealed the deal. That being said, with the entire Middle East still embroiled in a massive upsurge for democracy, the entire BDS movement should be confident that their message has a wide audience.

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"The viewpoints of Tuba Skinny in regard to our recent cancellation at the Red Sea Jazz Festival have recently become a popular topic of debate among numerous websites and news forums. We did not want to comment on a situation that we as foreigners know so little about, but it seems that we now have no choice but to comment.

The reasons for our cancellation are numerous. First, when we agreed to play the festival we were not aware that it was largely state sponsored, or that people on the other side of the wall would be denied entry. This should suffice to demonstrate my meaning when I say that we do not have the comprehensive viewpoint necessary to make political commentary on such a
serious matter.

It is a fact that prior to our show, two days before we were scheduled to fly to Israel from Rome, we were approached by various people via E-mail who are affiliated with the BDS and AAA movements. After thoroughly researching what they told us in numerous emails, we were more enlightened on the current situation of the Wall, in addition to the extreme actions taken by the Israeli government against the Palestinian people. This was a shaking realization, especially because as a street band from New Orleans, we had not even heard the call to boycott, and never so much as considered the idea that playing music for people could be seen as a statement aligning us with any extremist group.

Our intentions were to play on the street in Israel and the surrounding areas for the people, not for any government. It is a real regret to not play for Palestinian and Israeli people alike, especially because many of these people have expressed openly that they do not support the Wall, or the killing of innocent people carried out by either side. Our intentions at no time included playing in support of government sponsored atrocities or independent ones.

The day before our flight, after hours of stressful deliberation, we decided that we should not back out of our slated appearance for these reasons: Many people who live in Israel and wish for equal rights and peace had bought tickets to see us, and it was mere days before the show; the organizers, whose political stance has never been known to us, had worked very hard on our behalf; We were in Italy with no way home; and we viewed it as an opportunity to speak out against segregation and senseless killing. We thought to donate the proceeds from the festival to relief and human rights organizations involved in this crisis.

After reaching this painful decision, we immediately learned of the killings outside of Eilat and the subsequent bombings in Gaza, both with the loss of innocent lives. This was the icing on the cake. We could not support any of these actions, let alone risk the obvious personal danger that was implied. It was for a mixture of these reasons that we decided to back out. Not only the Apartheid Wall, not only the attacks at Gaza, not only the attacks outside of Eilat, not only the endless violence for centuries, but all of it combined. Of course we do not support the merciless bulldozing of homes or the indiscriminate murder of Israeli and Palestinian people from both sides!

With this in mind, I in my ignorance would never be so presumptuous as to approach an Israeli or Palestinian *individual *and start spouting off about my political opinion. To a mother who has lost her child. An Israeli mother, a Palestinian mother, it makes no difference. I cannot imagine what that would be like, though there are many alive today who can.

We live in a country whose government is involved directly in this crisis, and many of the citizens here avoid talking about it because even here it often ends in heated debate or violence. Many of the citizens in the USA have never supported the government in this.

We have received pressure from many directions to make a statement. Here it is.”

Thursday, August 25, 2011

What's Making Festivals So Dangerous?


The past couple years have seen hundreds of people gatecrash Lollapalooza--this year is estimated the highest at around 1,000. Then there was the stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair right before Sugarland was scheduled to perform; seven people dead. Now, the European music scene is reeling from a similarly deadly collapse at the Pukkelpop Festival in Belgium. Five have been killed, with reports of injuries as high as 140 from the latest reports.

What the hell is going on here? How is it that an event that is supposed to be a highlight of someone's summer can potentially end up getting you killed? How have our shows, carnivals and festivals become so dangerous lately, even deadly?

True, for as long as the music business has seen a buck to be made at large music festivals, there has been danger, going as far back as the Altamont Free Concert in Northern Cali back in 1969. Though it was a free festival (the organizers were trying to recreate the experience of Woodstock), the costs and mismanagement of the logistics is precisely what lead to the hiring of Hell's Angels for security on the cheap. When you're hiring a motorcycle gang to run security and paying them in $500 worth of beer, you're asking for trouble. The deadly fiasco of that weekend is evidence of that.

Ever since, the typical script coming from the media has been that thuggish young people are somehow the culprits, egged on by a popular culture that celebrates depravity. In our own time we saw how the violence at Woodstock '99 was initially blamed only on the attendees themselves. The stories in the wake of the vandalism and violence at that fest tended to point the finger squarely at the audience and bands. Rage Against the Machine's flag-burning was somehow particularly singled out. Tom Morello's response to the press was probably the most prescient:

"Hey man, leave the kids alone. I've had enough of the frenzied demonization of young people surrounding Woodstock '99... Yes, Woodstock was filled with predators: the degenerate idiots who assaulted those women, the greedy promoters who wrung every cent out ofhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif thirsty concertgoers, and last but not least, the predator media that turned a blind eye to real violence and scapegoated the quarter of a million music fans at Woodstock '99, the vast majority of whom had the time of their lives."

And there's the rub. The insufficient toilets, $12 pizza slices and $4 12oz bottles of water were just as much to blame for turning Woodstock '99 into a powder-keg. The experience of that fest is what eventually started turning promoters' sights on themselves. After the horrific crushing-deaths of nine people during Pearl Jam's set at Denmark's Roskilde Festival in 2000, the reaction wasn't to simply blame the audience. On the contrary, the result throughout all of Europe's festival culture was to beef up safety provisions. England's Glastonbury Festival was canceled the next year so that the sufficient time could be taken to do just that.

The stage collapses at Pukkelpop and the Indiana State Fair, despite having occurred at polar opposite events, are eerily similar. Both have been funded by private and public money. Both have seen massive stage collapses that have proven deadly for some of those in attendance. Though investigations in Indiana are only just beginning and the Pukkelpop organizers are still reeling, there is obviously no way to shuffle the onus onto any concert-goers.

There may be fingers pointed at the workers who built or maintained the stage, but one wonders if there will be any revelations of attempts made to cut corners and costs by supervisors. It's already known that Indiana's union-busting governor Mitch Daniels slashed a chunk of the public money that was supposed to go to the State Fair; a majority of the Fair's funding now comes from private donations. State Fair officials have already denied that these cuts had anything to do with the stage collapse; we'll see I guess. What is certain is that our entertainment and safety are both worth a lot more than profits.

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My post on Monday celebrating the freedom of the West Memphis Three was published as a reader's letter in today's SocialistWorker.org. Much more is on the horizon--the review of Will Kaufman's Woody Guthrie, American Radical, the interview with Sphinx of Arabian Knightz, and the article on fighting hate within modern indie music. So, as always, well... you know.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"Bomb the Throne"

Seems that more than a few other rappers have had their hackles raised by Kanye and Jay-Z's sampling of Otis Redding. First it was Chuck D's take, now it's Jasiri X.

Just to broaden it a little bit, Watch the Thone, the much-hyped Ye/Jay collab, is earning mixed reviews at best. Chris Richards of The Washington Post is probably the most fair-minded on the contradiction presented by this album when he says "Over the course of 16 tracks, rebellion is consistently tempered with gluttony--the two dissonant spirits that make this country great." Others have been less meta; Kyle Anderson of Entertainment Weekly called it "cluttered and disjointed, as though Jay and 'Ye built their garish castle in the sky via FedEx and text messages." Those even less forgiving have basically called it a testament to just how overblown and disconnected mainstream hip-hop culture has become. Ugh.

But the track "Otis" in particular has really stirred some responses up. It's an admittedly hot beat, and its inclusion of one of the absolute greatest soul artists does indeed pull on the deep roots of Black American music. It's easy to see how some have interpreted the track as Kanye and Jay-Z's take on the African-American dream coming full circle.

Jasiri, like Chuck, sees that circle ending up in a very different place, however. His use of the beat puts two other "throne-dwellers" on the hot-seat. Even more than Chuck's take, Jasiri X's grilling of the Bush dynasty seeks to reframe rap's present context. While Jay and Ye almost appear to be retreating from it, Jasiri takes it head on. And to be perfectly honest, the lyrical content here is better suited for Redding's depth--at least in this writer's estimation.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Rebel Music Manifesto

Dave Randall is a British musician, producer and composer who's worked with Dido, Faithless, Max Roach and a host of others. He's also a longtime socialist activist, and has integrated radical themes into his work repeatedly over time.

I could comment more, but it's best if I simply let him speak for himself. This talk is from this summer's Marxism Festival in London.



I'll be interviewing Dave Randall in the coming months. So, as always, don't forget to subscribe!

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Three Are Free!


The freeing of the West Memphis Three can't be called anything but a massive victory. As Brit Schulte rightfully pointed out in her article:

"The victory in this case, though many years to late, shows the importance of organizing and grassroots struggle in exposing the hypocrisy of the criminal justice system and saving the wrongfully convicted. Building campaigns to support those who suffer at the hands of a grossly flawed and broken system can win."

Indeed, campaigns like this are no less important today than when the WM3 went behind bars. In some ways their case was all too familiar for those who have campaigned for the exoneration of Troy Davis, the freedom of Mumia Abu-Jamal, or to lock up the torturing top-cop of Chicago John Burge. All the elements were there: incompetent police, confessions that were coerced or never happened, the creation of hysteria by a sensationalist media.

It also amounted to an easy victory for the right-wing Christian censorship crowd. Anyone who read Brit's article or has followed the case for the past several years will know that when Jessie Misskelly, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin were convicted of the gruesome 1993 slayings, the evidence was hardly even circumstantial. The cops and prosecution all used the men's black clothing and taste for heavy metal to "prove" that they were Satanists, and that therefore nobody else could be capable of such brutal murders.

It was the logical extension of the political and cultural atmosphere of the time; the early '90s recession breathed some extra life into the Parental Music Resource Center and other like-minded groups eager to shift the blame for all forms of social decay onto popular music. The "Satanic panic" of those years went hand-in-hand with all of this--despite the fact that there has never been a single murder in the United States successfully linked with Satanism.

Much of the scapegoating of music willfully drifted into openly racist waters. This was a time when the "thuggery" of hip-hop was blamed for violence against women by politicians who normally wouldn't give a damn about women's rights. When misguided middle-class parents would point the finger at rappers for epidemic drug use rather than opportunities for young people that were quickly becoming non-existent. The conviction of the WM3 was simply low-hanging fruit in this context that enabled a broader witch-hunt to continue, to push through harsher law-order-type legislation, to give cops even more leeway in treating all young people with impunity.

Now we stand at the near-end of a successful and high-profile defense campaign that included everyone from Natalie Maines to Eddie Vedder to Johnny Depp to Margaret Cho to Ozzy Osbourne to two of the three victims' families. The struggle for complete exoneration is by no means over (what with the weird phenomenon of the "Alford plea"), and there still exist plenty of lynch-mob-esque message boards out there on the troll-fringes of the web. But with Baldwin, Misskelly and Echols finally walking free after being unjustly imprisoned for their entire adult lives, it has to be seen as a massive discredit to the whole system--the courts, the cops, and those who continue to blame popular culture for any social ill.

That's worth keeping in mind today; as a double-dip recession seems all but inevitable. All sorts of heated ideas, good and bad, are being reflected in our music--from militant solidarity to the worst kinds of nihilistic sexism (paging Odd Future).

There will no doubt be forces out there looking to point the blame at some of these easy targets. For these people there's no difference between a sexist song and a song that calls out brutality and injustice; in fact some can trace their lineage back to the very same knuckle-draggers who deemed Elvis and Chuck Berry "jungle music." Though they haven't crawled all the way out of the woodwork yet, they are most definitely waiting. For the time being, however, we can be confident they are biting their tongues--after all, nobody likes the taste of their own words.



Saturday, August 20, 2011

Riot, Rap and Racism in Cameron's Britain


The riots that emanated out from the British capital to sweep the rest of England earlier this month are easily the most intense that the western world has seen since the Los Angeles uprisings in 1992. Pundits and spin-doctors who have smugly turned their noses up every time a developing nation was gripped by similar violence had the grin wiped from their faces when the “minor rebellion” in North London took hold across the city. As the violence spread to Birmingham and Manchester, Bristol and Liverpool, those same sneers turned to contemptuous snarls.

Now, the aftermath. The snarls have gone nowhere, not least of all for Prime Minister David Cameron. On August 14th he shifted his attempt at damage control into war footing, declaring at a press conference in his own Oxfordshire constituency that the ultimate culprit of the uprisings was the “slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country.” Said the arch-Tory:

“Irresponsibility, selfishness, behaving as if your choices have no consequences. Children without fathers, schools without discipline, crime without punishment. Reward without effort, rights without responsibility, communities without control. Some of the worst aspects of human nature are tolerated and indulged, sometimes even incentive-ized, by a state and its agencies that in parts have become literally demoralized.”

It’s not hard to figure out which “parts of the country” Cameron is speaking about. In fact, Cameron knows these areas well; they’re the same neighborhoods and communities he’s spent every waking hour slashing and cutting from over the past eighteen months of his tenure. That the Prime Minister said these words in front of a graffiti mural at a local youth center just about says it all.

Meanwhile, other commentators have been even more pointed. British historian David Starkey provoked over 700 complaints when he appeared on the BBC’s “Newsnight” program to insist that the problem is that:

“The whites have become black. A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion... Black and white, boy and girl operate in this language together. This language, which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that has intruded in England.”

Even those nominally on the other side of the political aisle have joined in the chorus of cultural condemnation. Writing in the “liberal” Daily Mirror, Paul Routledge proclaimed:

“I blame the pernicious culture of hatred around rap music, which glorifies violence and loathing of authority (especially the police but including parents), exalts trashy materialism and raves about drugs... The important things in life are the latest smart phone, fashionable trainers and jeans and idiot computer games. No wonder stores selling them were priority looting targets.”

Back on this side of the Atlantic, we’ve heard all of this before. After the urban rebellions that rocked the Bronx in New York City, Jimmy Carter stood in front of a burnt-out, tag-covered wall to declare how “impressed” he was with the people there before turning his back on the community for the next three years.

Ronald Reagan did the same thing during his first presidential campaign--even choosing the exact same wall and the exact same words of his soon-to-be-predecessor--before declaring war on the community centers that had barely kept the area buoyant through decades of neglect. In the wake of LA, it was Bush the First’s turn, followed by Clinton.

Perhaps the players have been switched out, along with some minor script changes, but the story remains the same: moral depravity, tied up to one degree or another in hip-hop culture, seeking to invade a respectable, mannerly western civilization and rot it from the inside. It doesn’t take a political mind to see how racist this is.

Fortunately, this line of thought hasn’t gone unchallenged. Along with the refreshingly sober assessments from the principled sections of Britain’s anti-racist movement, some of the best responses have come from within the country’s vibrant hip-hop scene.

It seems fair to say that Lethal Bizzle is no fan of David Cameron. In a piece published in The Guardian on August 12th, the heavy-hitter of London’s grime scene was unflinching: "Your country's burning down, and you're in fucking Italy drinking tea, and eating croissants--for three days!” Bizzle continues, frankly telling author Dan Hancox that “the Conservatives have never cared about working-class people."

Bizzle, born Maxwell Ansah to Ghanaian immigrant parents, also references his own song “Babylon’s Burning the Ghetto.” It’s a song that could have dropped the day after the riots, but was in fact released four years ago in 2007! (Indeed, the feeling that we’ve been here before is only highlighted by the track’s sampling of British punk band the Ruts’ “Babylon’s Burning”--itself prophetic of the riots in South London neighborhood of Brixton four months after the song’s December, 1980 release!)

Grime has never made the waves in the American hip-hop scene that it’s made in its native country--and in this writer’s estimation that’s a damned shame. Its beats are often at whiplash speed, minimal and gritty--the sound of jagged, rusty metal jutting up from hunks of concrete. This firm rooting might explain why grime has retained so much of its credibility over the past several years, and why many of its biggest names seeking to leave the subject matter behind and cross-over (Dizzee Rascal, Tynchy Stryder) have also had to ditch certain elements of the sound.

Stateside, the best description of grime has come from The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones: "grime sounds as if it had been made for a boxing gym, one where the fighters have a lot of punching to do but not much room to move."

That’s a pretty accurate picture of how Britain’s underclass feels. As the riots gained steam and London Mayor Boris Johnson brought his mug out into the open at a “cleanup effort,” one young Black man had an opportunity to take him to task. “There’s a reason for everything, Boris,” he boldly told him. “Think of all the time you’ve spent cutting and cutting and cutting! And then you’re putting off youth fees [for college]. I’ve got so much friends [sic] who want to go to university but have stopped. You’re spending hundreds of millions of pounds a week in Libya when you could be over here! Sort yourselves out over here first!”

So much for Cameron’s “moral collapse.” It’s this basic, hard reality that has made the UK into such a powder-keg. For sure, the cuts didn’t start with Johnson and Cameron--that honor goes to Margaret Thatcher. Though they continued unabated under the Labour governments of Blair and Brown, the current government has been brazenly unforgiving in their notion of “shared sacrifice.”

Nor is this the first that’s being seen of Cameron’s blame-the-victim mentality. The Prime Minister did, after all, take time in his speech at this past February’s Munich Security Conference to state that “multiculturalism has failed,” an utterance that none but the most right-wing of politicians would have previously dared to make in public. And though the argument was primarily directed toward Europe’s Muslim community, there was little doubt that any non-white listening to the speech was also on notice.

Worth remembering is what initially touched off the riots in Tottenham--a protest against the police shooting death of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old unarmed Black man. The message is clear: billions can be spent on war, millions more on the Summer Olympics, but when it comes to the needs of the underprivileged, the best they can hope for is a jackboot on their neck. With both conservatives and liberals now turning their sights toward urban hip-hop instead of the real root of the riots, that view is merely confirmed. That much of Britain’s rap scene includes the children of immigrants--like, for example, Bizzle--merely puts a sharper point on the attacks they have in store.

It’s no surprise then that the grime scene has yet again taken more of an unapologetic platform in the riots’ aftermath than most other communities. Says Hancox in his article:

"In the era of frenetic 24-hour news, live-blogging and Twitter, the response has been quick, honest and instinctive. I was initially directed to Tottenham on Saturday evening after seeing a tweet from Wretch 32 that enigmatically read: ‘Wish I was there. If you know u know.’ It didn't take long to work out where, and what, he was referring to. His fellow MCs Skepta and Chipmunk, all from Tottenham, had already posted RIP messages in memory of Mark Duggan. Another leading Tottenham MC, Scorcher, tweeted that Saturday night: ‘25 years ago police killed my grandma in her house in Tottenham and the whole ends rioted, 25 years on and they're still keepin up fuckry’; it was the death of his grandmother Cynthia Jarrett, who died of a stroke following a police raid on her home, which sparked the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985 (Scorcher was born the following year)."

This isn’t to say that all of grime have simply been cheer-leading the riots. Hancox also quotes Wiley, largely recognized as one of grime’s greatest innovators as being despondent over what may come next--understandably so--and also quite cynical about Britain’s future. Tinie Tempah, who over the past couple years has moved from grime into a more mainstream UK hip-hop sound, sent out a message on his Twitter account that “The more riots the more repressive action will take place & the more we face the danger of a right-wing & eventually a fascist society,” a quote he attributed to Martin Luther King.

Perhaps Tempah’s reaction was a bit moralistic, but in a country where far-right groups like the English Defence League regularly take to the streets, it’s also understandable.

Nonetheless, the response from the country’s at-large grime community in the wake of the riots has been substantial, varied, and practically overnight. On top of the ubiquitous tweets and Facebook messages, there have been countless songs from underground artists all over the UK--recorded on computers or in small studios--going up on MySpace pages, many going viral. Countless other vids have popped up setting footage of the riots to the music’s grating, aggressive beats. Most don’t appear to be celebrating so much as warning.

Warning of what? Put quite simply, more of the same--which is what the British government can only expect if it delivers, well, more of the same. As it looks now, that’s precisely what the Tories, Liberal Democrats and Labour parties are prepared to dole out.

Given this, it seems obvious why hip-hop became one of the establishment’s first targets. When a system is bolstered by lies, telling the truth becomes a dangerous act. "There are many ways to prevent riots,” says Bizzle, “but the first thing is jobs--I mean fucking hell, where are the jobs? There are no jobs!"

For as horrified as Cameron and company are acting now, what they really fear is this kind of anger becoming turning into action. That may not be too far off. To watch the events of the past few weeks, to take these rebel artists at their word, it seems rather clear that today’s young folks are sick of the raw deal, and are ready to be heard by any means necessary.

First appeared at Dissident Voice.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Fierce Independence of Maimouna Youssef


Creative control is a sticky subject. Just ask Maimouna Youssef. Word is that Maimouna--or “Mumu Fresh” as folks know her--has come quite close to some major label deals. In a story that has by now become so commonplace it’s almost cliche, none would give her the kind of creative control she desired, and so she walked. Thank god she did too.

“I think when people are born with artistic minds they do have a responsibility to help their society dream bigger than the reality they’re seeing at the time... We’re supposed to bend the mold, not fit into anyone’s form, because once we do that, then our existence becomes dull and mundane, which I believe is where we find ourselves now.”

Since turning down the money and fame, Youssef has become the most accomplished artist you’ve never heard of. She’s shared the stage with Big Daddy Kane, Angelique Kidjo, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Wilco and Jill Scott. She’s collaborated with Common, dead prez and Zap Mama. She appeared on the Roots’ 2007 joint “Don’t Feel Right” and earned a Grammy nod for it. Despite all this, she has yet to cut her first solo full-length.

That’s going to change in the fall; along with the indie-released debut LP she’ll be hitting the road. Judging from Black Magic Woman, released this past spring, neither are to be missed. Calling Black Magic Woman an EP isn’t exactly fair--Maimouna calls it “an introduction to the movement and the music.” Almost half of its 30-minute run-time is taken up by live performances and conversations with Youssef herself. Still, the way in which the music and words mesh is seamless--be they spoken, rapped or sung. Plainly put, Mumu is in touch with her voice, and knows how to use it.

Mumu’s beats--loosely described as a collision of Golden Age production, old-school soul, singer-songwriter intimacy and gutbucket blues--are just as much an organic part of that voice. Growing up half Choctaw, half African-American in Baltimore, Youssef knows, in her own words, “a little something about the blues.” Or, as she spits in “You Ain’t Hard”:

“...of being born into a mighty broken race that’s ill
Then here comes the pill
Radio slips it in your drink to sweeten the deal
Before they go for the kill
Amphetamines to the brain
Just to numb the pain
Of being born into the ghetto, this crack and rap game!”


Recounting this kind of reality--indeed, one that’s been deftly portrayed ever since the blues first gestated--is a poignant move in “post-racial” America. It’s hard to hear these words without thinking instantly of the near-historic high in Black poverty nationally, or the current administration’s frustrating insistence that it can’t do anything particular to solve the crisis. Listening closely during the interview portion of the EP’s title track, you can clearly hear Youssef singing a rendition of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Winter in America” that she had previously recorded with her mother and grandmother. It’s subtle parallel that resonates all the more for how infrequently we hear it acknowledged.

That being said, Maimouna Youssef’s work can hardly be called a downer. Her songs have a feeling of unstoppable determination, that even through the myriad hardships there’s an inextinguishable light worth struggling toward. The EP’s high point easily goes to “Free as A Bird,” an irresistible piece of uplift that never slips into saccharine whitewash.

This feel runs one way or another through all her work, even the sparse, free-jazz spoken word of “Why You Ain’t Signed?” recorded last winter at DC’s Gr8 Space Studio Gallery. By the end we know the straightforward answer: honesty, originality, integrity.

It’s all this that makes Maimouna Youssef so worth watching out for; her sense of irreconcilable artistry, her unflinching willingness to tell us the truth in a way that is utterly undeniable. It’s an ability that knows where it’s been and where it’s headed, and by its nature refuses the permission of label heads or great leaders. The voice that Youssef knows how to use so well is one that simply states the adage as old as music itself: “I was, I am, I always will be.”

First appeared at SOCIARTS.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

BDS Update: Solidarity With Freedom Theatre


Punks Against Apartheid is in the process of relaunching our site including points of unity and a declaration of purpose. That doesn't mean we've holed up in the burrow of inactivity, however.

Below is a statement that PAA is proud to add its name to. It was assembled and published by Artists Against Apartheid condemning last month's raid on the Freedom Theatre in Jenin. As of this writing, the three people affiliated with the theatre who were arrested by the Israeli Occupation Forces have yet to be released, and the IOF has yet to explain why exactly a cultural space with no links to resistance groups was raided in the first place.

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Artists Against Apartheid and we the undersigned stand in solidarity with our colleagues at the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, who face both extreme repression by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF), and cultural friction to their avant-garde productions, in the process of presenting their art. Members of the Theatre have been recently abducted during IOF raids, and are being held in Jalame prison, located inside of Israel’s internationally recognized borders.

The Freedom Theatre – a theatre and cultural center in Jenin Refugee Camp – is developing the only professional venue for theatre and multimedia in the north of the West Bank in Occupied Palestine. Since it opened its doors in 2006, the organization has continued to grow, develop and expand, enabling the young generation in the area to develop new and important skills which will allow them to build a better future for themselves and for their society. Despite IOF raids and the recent assassination of one of its founders, Juliano Mer Khamis, the Freedom Theatre persists in staging works.

On July 27 2011, the Israeli Special Forces launched a raid on the Freedom Theatre. According to reports, an estimated fifty Israeli soldiers or more surrounded Jenin refugee camp in the middle of night. Soldiers came masked and heavily armed. Heavy blocks of stone were hurled at the entrance, causing damage. Witnesses at the scene were physically intimidated by soldiers; one night guard/technician student recounted being forcibly told to drop his pants, and his brother being handcuffed.

Two Palestinians involved with the theatre, Bilal Al-Saadi, Chairperson of the board for Freedom Theatre, along with the head technician, Adnan Naghnaghiye, were arrested by Israeli soldiers and taken away. No warrant or explanations were given for their arrests.

On August 6, 2011, a third Palestinian, Rami Awni Hwayel, a third year graduating acting student, was arrested by the IOF at Shave Shomeron checkpoint, immediately handcuffed, blindfolded and taken away in an army jeep. He was on his way to Jenin from Ramallah to rehearse for an upcoming production of Waiting for Godot, directed by an Israeli American theatre artist.

As of today, Bilal, Adnan, and Rami are reported to be held in Jalame prison, inside of Israel; there is still no explanation for their arrests. The IOF have refused to comment on the raid, even going so far as to deny the raid took place. A gag order has been placed on the reporting of Ramis’ arrest in the Israeli press.

While we condemn this violence against a Palestinian cultural institution, we will not sit idly awaiting justice. We call on others to join us in the Cultural Boycott of Israel, and as in the case of South African apartheid, to apply international pressure to bring about a situation of freedom and equality. We will boycott all events sponsored by the State of Israel, and reject partnership with any Israeli theatre companies which do not take a clear and proactive stance against the colonial oppression of the Palestinian people by Israel, and its system of apartheid.

We stand with members of the Freedom Theatre, supporting their universal human rights and freedom of expression to produce any works they see fit to present in Jenin.

We call upon Israel’s apartheid government to explain its actions of the raid on Freedom Theatre and to release Adnan Naghnaghiye, Bilal Al-Saadi and Rami Awni Hwayel from Israeli custody.

Sincerely,

Artists Against Apartheid
Theatre of the Oppressed Laboratory
SALAAM Theatre
George Eugeniou (of Theatro Technis, Camden Town)
Naomi Foyle, Poet, Librettist, and Co-ordinator of British Writers in Support of Palestine
Jimmy Murphy, Playwright (Ireland)
Punks Against Apartheid
Adalah-NY, The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel
US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Rap Response To the Riots

David Cameron points the finger at "slow motion moral-collapse... in parts of our country" for the urban uprisings that swept the UK last week. We can guess which parts he thinks are particularly to blame. That he gave his speech in front of a graffiti mural in his own Oxfordshire constituency speaks volumes. European conservatives have become much more skilled than their US counterparts at speaking in code, and it's ironically one of the reasons that they can be more brazen. It's opened the door for much more virulent forms of blame.

The British grime community, however, has their own explanation for the riots. Below is a song and vid thrown together and released by three of the country's best-known figures in the underground music scene: Lethal Bizzle, Wiley, and Professor Green. Still CNN for Black people? Most definitely.



There are broader conclusions to draw here on the causes of the riots and the racist response of politicians along with the hip-hop response; there will be a broader article forthcoming on this. So don't forget to subscribe!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Why Music Fans Should Support the Verizon Strike


The militancy displayed by the 45,000 Verizon workers on strike up and down the East Coast has been inspiring; picket lines in front of hubs have frequently numbered in the hundreds. The flying pickets following scabs and managers have often been so disruptive that those attempting to do work have had to pack it in and return to their centers. And the solidarity displayed has been staggering too.

That's where this piece comes in. Readers of RF obviously know that the worldview of this site is one where strikes and labor are steadfastly supported anyway, but there's particular reason for every artist and true music fan to go out to these pickets.

It comes down to Net Neutrality. Verizon opposes it, and was one of the main forces along with Google and Comcast to push against it in Congress. When the FCC put rules in place to prevent communications providers from favoring some sites over others in searches this past January, paltry as they were, Verizon filed a lawsuit claiming the rules were unfair.

Throughout, Verizon has maintained that they don't believe that the Internet should "discriminate" against sites who lack capital to get past potential "toll-roads" that Verizon and others would want to put in place. What they have yet to explain is how toll-roads level the playing field at all. How exactly would a system where only sites with enough money pop up in any general search be one that is fair?

Of course, it won't. Major telecom companies have already shown themselves able to bury or outright censor well-known musical acts--in particular those who have ventured into political waters. Pearl Jam and M.I.A. are probably just the tip of the iceberg. Both cases were claimed at flukes, but it's precisely this denial that had allowed them to make their case against Net Neutrality look somehow democratic. One shudders to think what happens to struggling independent acts with companies like Verizon in total control.

That is, quite assuredly, exactly what Verizon wants: total control. In the ever-spreading informational technology industries they've done what should be expected of any juggernaut; they've explored every way to ensure profitability and predictability from every possible avenue. As we all know, they've jacked up prices and cut corners on the overall quality on service wherever they've been able. The past decade has seen them chip away at their employees' benefits and union rights, though none of these attempts have been able to take away very much of these; the CWA at Verizon has always been historically strong.

Now, Verizon wants to change that. They have thrown down the gauntlet with their unionized employees and made very clear their intention to completely gut everything the union has ever provided them. It's not that Verizon is exactly hurting for cash; they haven't paid taxes for the past two years. They just want more, and if they're able to get it from their employees, then they'll attempt to squeeze it from the rest of us.

An emboldened company will no doubt redouble their efforts to gut Neutrality any way they can. A defeated Verizon, however, will think twice--especially if solidarity from their customers played a role in the union's victory. It's precisely why their PR campaign has so urgently sought to break off public support for the strike.

Times of austerity always go hand-in-hand with censorship, but now Verizon trying to figure out a way to make them one and the same. They cannot be allowed to win. As always, the meaning of "an injury to one is an injury to all" is starkly illustrated.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Splitting Hate From Rock


Late last week a German fascist rock fest was given a bit of a jolt. The 250 t-shirts given away for free at the festival in Gera initially read "hardcore rebels" and carried the images of a skull next to far-right flags. But once washed, the design changed. "What your T-shirt can do, so can you," they read, "we'll help you break with right-wing extremism."

The contact number provided below was for a group called Exit--which provides support for people seeking leave the far-right. Exit had apparently gotten in touch with the organizers of the Rock For Germany festival posing as another far-right group who were willing to donate the shirts. Rock For Germany is in its ninth year, and easily the largest gathering of German fascists, neo-Nazis and far-right organizations. The National Democratic Party (NPD), which has an estimated 6,500 followers despite its being outlawed, is a big proponent of the outdoor festival.

Rock For Germany's organizers began furiously texting to anyone they could about the true nature of the t-shirts as soon as they found out, but one can hope that it wasn't before some of the fest's attendees had at least mulled over the idea of getting in touch with Exit. Bernd Wagner, a German criminologist, expert on the far-right and member of Exit, explained that "With these T-shirts, we aimed to make ourselves known among right-wingers, especially among young ones who are not yet fully committed to the extreme right."

It's a bit perplexing, however, what Wagner thinks will actually bring down the far-right. In his column appearing in the Guardian last week, he seems to be rather dismissive of the "far-left anti-fascists" who have traditionally been the most dedicated section of the movement against the Nazis:

"[W]e can no longer just rely on the far-left and political rituals to curb far-right culture. We need new ideas and political determination to stand up to extremists and enemies of democracy."

My question is "why not both?" Though it's rather naive to think that any small number of anti-fascists have the capability by themselves to take down their target, Wagner appears to view the far-left as equally marginal, less intent on building up their numbers than one might think. It's even more naive to think that strategies like the "Trojan t-shirt" can be successful on their own.

Without a doubt, those young people who are merely flirting with the far-right or sitting on the fence, need to be carved off from the hard core. But this kind of creativity can't have its desired effect outside of an attempt to mobilize seriously militant anti-fascism on the streets. That's what's allowed groups like Love Music Hate Racism to be such a force in politics across the English Channel. That's not to say, however, that this isn't a bad-ass act of infiltration.

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Just a reminder that there will be a more in depth article on fighting hate in music either later this week or early next here at RF. Don't forget to stay tuned!

Friday, August 12, 2011

From Anger to Hate or Action?


Of all the local commentary on the meaning of controversial acts like Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, music journalist Miles Raymer comes the closest to hitting the nail on the head. Obviously, he doesn't see anything wrong with the anger itself; he sees it as part of the simple reality of the times in which we live.

His piece in this week's Chicago Reader makes the assertion "if you're offended, you're not getting the point." It's a point that's only partially true. Nonetheless, it's overlooked way too often when talking about "offensive" music.

Raymer starts at a pretty dismal place--the times we're living in:

"The past half century of American history has proved itself extremely cyclical. In many ways we're now approximately where we were in the mid-70s and early 90s: we've got a troubled economy and a resurgent political right that's ramping up the culture wars to dismantle any recent achievements by the political left, and the left is busy watching its optimism curdle into cynicism and generally feeling beaten down. That might be part of the reason why three of the acts I've recommended in the Reader over the past month--Odd Future, Iceage, and Cult of Youth--use such terrible imagery that they've compelled me to qualify my praise."

Best known of these are Odd Future's graphic depictions of rape, torture, gay-bashing and murder. The group could pretty credibly be called little more than a creation of Pitchfork; they were virtual unknowns until the hipster site discovered them and began fervently promoting their work. Talented though the members of the horror-rap supergroup are, they carry very little cred in the underground hip-hop scene. One wonders if Pitchfork glommed onto more because of their views of rap itself--which have always skated dangerously close to a thinly-veiled white middle-class double standard.

Well known by now is the controversy that emerged from Odd Future's inclusion as a headliner at the Pitchfork festival's stage. Domestic violence groups successfully pressured the fest's organizers to let them set up informational tables. The whole fiasco eventually provoked a response from the group during their performance--Tyler, the Creator claimed from the front that he had "much love" for the domestic violence groups.

Raymer is right to defend the group and others like it against censorship. He points out that during times of crisis, politicians and establishment "parent groups" normally connected in some way to the religious right get increasingly up in arms over music such as this. It's always little more than an attempt to shift the blame onto the most convenient scapegoat; divide and conquer. The recession of the early '90s brought the heat onto N.W.A's "Fuck the Police." In the mid '70s it was punk in the cross-hairs.

Likewise, he's right to point out that times like this produce music that's undeniably angry in the first place for the simply reason that things suck! It's for this reason that the censorship of the PMRC and their ilk has to be opposed every step of the way--even while criticizing and holding accountable groups like Odd Future.

A bit more troubling, however, is Raymer's qualifications for acts like Iceage. The teenaged Danish four-piece is openly influenced by Death In June--a post-industrial pagan/neo-folk group who for the past thirty years have openly embraced Nazi imagery and talked about how Adolf Hitler was "the most influential person" of the 20th century even as they claim that they're not fascists. Death In June do, however, speak favorably of National Bolshevism, a strange attempt at synthesizing fascism with a left-wing sheen. (They criticize Hitler for relying too much on big capital.)

If Death In June have remained a stubbornly influential presence on the fringes of the underground, then Iceage are their bastard progeny. Like their ancestors, they display a kind of dark nihilism in their highly monochrome sound--albeit more in the vein of crude, hardcore post-punk. Like so many other groups that run the gamut today, this bleakness has the potential to reach out to kids. They've been praised not just by Raymer, but by various other authoritative indie outlets.

Here's where it gets scary: Lead-singer Elias Bender Ronnenfelt has put out 'zines that feature his drawings of Klansmen beating up Muslims. Their video for "New Brigade" is almost as disturbing--the band's members wear hoods strongly reminiscent of the KKK while carrying torches. It's a bit close for comfort when one takes into account the fact that anti-Muslim racism is on the rise across Europe right now--including Scandinavia.

What seems confusing is that Raymer is well-aware of the dangers. He's fair-minded in his assessment of Iceage, making the case that the group could well find themselves responsible for an upsurge in racist violence to which they never intended to contribute. Ultimately, he's way too forgiving. In pointing out the Jewish ancestry of the group's drummer, he seems to forget that there have indeed been strains of fascism (including National Bolshevism) that have relied less on anti-Semitism.

This isn't to say that Iceage are themselves fascists, or to discount the real anger and need to shock to which they seem to grip in a near-primal way. It's just to say that they're playing with fire. Furthermore, they are clearly influenced by a world where the far-right is on the rise. If kids are showing up at the band's shows seig-heiling then it can only serve to create more space for this scum to grow.

That's precisely why there has to be a political and cultural alternative to counter the growth of the far-right. It's one thing to understand and even identify with the anger. It's another to recognize when the dynamic points straight down into the abyss and to draw the line somewhere. Art reflects the world around it whether we want it to or not. The growth in popularity of groups like Odd Future and (especially) Iceage have to serve as a warning--and as a sign that today's youth are crying out for that same alternative. Breaking the cyclical half-century Raymer pessimistically laments means fighting back.

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There will be a future article here at RF exploring just how widespread acts like Iceage have become--as well as the implications of Odd Future's popularity--and the need for a modern-day movement against the far-right. Stay tuned. Or better yet, subscribe.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Time For Some More Labor Songs!

To all the 45,000 strikers at Verizon--members of Communication Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Now... win!



Many readers will no doubt know that our friend Mr. Morello has a new album dropping this fall. There will, of course, be a review here at RF. In the meantime, go to the CWA's website to see what you can do to support a picket line near you!



Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Breaking Into Lolla


Some estimates have over a thousand people gatecrashing Lollapalooza this year. Organizers have asked why cops didn't do more to stop it; the cops have said they're not bouncers. Private security was simply overwhelmed. And if the estimates are correct, then it amounts to about $90,000 worth of tickets that Lolla didn't get to sell--those thousand folks got a chance to see the fest for free.

Welcome to the giant music festival in the age of austerity.

Obviously the promoters are quite miffed over this, but it certainly won't give them any pause. Next year, they'll once again come to the city of Chicago demanding that the publicly-funded Grant Park be given to them for a song. Next year they will once again charge an arm and a leg for admission. They will once again get every band they can to sign a contract prohibiting them from playing any other shows in the area in the months leading up to the festival.

With the economy teetering on the brink of a double-dip recession, this is a problem that will no doubt be returning. Of course, the response of C3 Presents (the company that organizes Lolla) has been to blame the it on the "criminality" of attendees:

"We have seen an increase in the number of flash mobs of gatecrashers, and are aware this is a national phenomenon on the up-rise for theft and robbery all over the country. After last year's flash mobs, we DID take extra precautions to prevent the crashing, as well as to better protect the safety of our staff, festival patrons, and the jumpers themselves."

Those measures included stronger and more thorough fencing, as well as hiring out several street cops as private security. Obviously they weren't enough. Which means, once again, that next year they will amp it all up even further. The Chicago Police Department may insist that they're not bouncers, but if enough of them are presented with enough cash, they'll be more than happy to take on the job.

What makes all of this so especially ironic--and perhaps a bit more volatile--is that Chicago is a town swimming with free music festivals during the summer. Some of these fests do indeed bring in some big names, and the fact that they are publicly funded and open to the public enhances the serious feeling of community that can often emerge at them.

At least that was true until Daley began selling some of the biggest fests off to private hands. If it continues, then it may only be a matter of time until every outdoor music festival in Chicago looks like Lolla--a walled-off enclave for those who can afford to be entertained.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

BDS Update: Tahrir Envy?


The massive protests over housing prices in Israel have raised a question for some Palestine solidarity activists. The main one being that if the Israeli people seem to be rising up against their own government, then is there some kind of room to bring up the issue of Palestinian liberation? And if so, does that somehow make the global boycott movement irrelevant?

In a nutshell, no to both. The protests have yet to even touch the issue of the Occupied Territories (despite the fact that the housing crisis can actually be plausibly connected to the occupation), let alone the right for Palestinians to return home within the original '48 territories. Tali Shapiro, a member of Anarchists Against the Wall in Israel, points out that none of this outrage was expressed as Israel outlawed the mere mention of BDS.

As she writes at the Pulse:

"One whiff of tear gas in the Palestinian villages in the occupied territories can make you forget a whole week in tent city. Apart from the typical result of a mainstream protest, where we can expect the middle class will be lulled right back to sleep, while the the marginalized are howling in the doghouse; In Israel one must think of what happens beyond the apartheid wall."

Perhaps a bit of room has been created to bring up these issues, but as Tali also points out, the Anarchists Against the Wall banner that she and her comrades brought to the protests were torn down outright. The far-right activists who showed up to argue that the housing crisis should be solved with further settlements were greeted warmly compared to this. The forces of privatization endured by Israelis over the past several years are nothing compared to those suffered by their Arab counterparts fighting on the street right now.

The protests have done nothing to address the raids on the Freedom Theatre, for example. Artists Against Apartheid are in the process of drafting a statement against said raid. Nor have the protests taken up the Palestinians' right to housing.

Governments around the world are still doing everything they can to prevent the flotilla boats from reaching Gaza. Meanwhile, the Israeli concert industry continues to court well-known acts from around to the world to present itself as a cultural oasis in the Middle East. The main mission of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement remains unchanged.





Monday, August 8, 2011

Riots, Graffiti, and Other "Urban Blights"


Tonight sees the third night of violence in London. What started out in the northern area of Tottenham over the weekend at a protest against police brutality now seems to have spread all over the city to Brixton, Clapton, Islington, Hackney and several other boroughs and neighborhoods.

Of course, as always, the mainstream press in the UK has labeled the uprising the act of "mobs," or called them "hooded yobs" (for those who don't speak cockney, this basically is a condescending term for young thug). Like most cases of "urban blight," however, there's a lot more to this uprisings than just "thuggish" behavior.

Establishment figures always love blaming the decline of cities on young folks who don't know how to behave themselves. It's a common trope that over the past couple decades has become more and more overlapped with hip-hop culture. Take, for example, the way in which city authorities approach graffiti.

This is art. Straight up. That it pops up more in underdeveloped neighborhoods speaks toward how most young folks long for some form of inspiration in their surroundings. The lack of jobs and schools are of little concern to politicians, let alone any kinds of public cultural programs. Naturally, cities like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago are reporting an increase in graffiti art--both more intricate and the cruder tags--since the economic collapse in '08. Similar phenomena have been reported in European cities, including London.

And there's the rub. Young people--especially young people of color--are the first to lose from this kind of economic climate. Across the board, the response of the establishment has been to shove more austerity down the throats of these same young people--whether it be cuts in education, slashing jobs or programs for youth unemployment--rather than tax the very people who have actually driven the world's economy down the crapper.

Instead, young working folks are met with even more repression. Police departments aren't exactly suffering in big urban areas. Back in the early '83, the NYPD killed twenty-five-year-old Michael Stewart over a tag on the Subway platform--a killing that lead to months of protests. In London, it was the death of a twenty-nine-year old father at the hands of the cops that touched off the now-growing rebellion. With young folks trapped between the bleakness of an invisible future and the sharpness of a jackboot, what do we expect?

Chris Williamson, left-wing Labour Member of Parliament, laid it out quite well over his Twitter account: "The Tories are back alright. Why is it the Tories never take responsibility for the consequences of their party’s disastrous policies?"

Personally, I prefer the succinct words of rapper Lowkey on Facebook yesterday morning: "Property is replaceable, human life isn't."

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Tomorrow will be the BDS Update, featuring the thoughts of a member of Punks Against Apartheid on the uprising in Israel. Upcoming soon will also be a profile of hip-hop/soul/R&B artist Maimouna Youssef and a review of hip-hop poet Kevin Coval's new book.