Monday, October 31, 2011

BDS Update: Dear Yardbirds... (pt. 2, FTW)

Another victory, at least for the time-being, for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. The Yardbirds, who provoked a letter-writing campaign back in September from in particular the British Committee for Universities in Palestine, have announced on their website that their concert in Israel has been "postponed until next year."

Maybe they'll play it, maybe they won't. The first thought that comes to mind is that the Yardbirds didn't play in South Africa either, but were never vocal or public in their support for the boycott back in the '60s. Just like then, however, there is a "wave" (as the signatories of the BRICUP letter put it) of sentiment opposing Israel's crimes against the Palestinians. This wave, this phenomenon, will no doubt convince plenty of folks to pull out from commitments to play in Israel without being vocal about their own reasons--that doesn't mean the pressure hasn't worked.

Of course it is always better when artists go public in being won to the global picket line of BDS. That doesn't mean that moves like that of the Yardbirds aren't still victories. Then again, there's also the possibility that the "old geezers" are simply biding their time, hoping for the wave to recede. If that's the case, then the movement for cultural boycott should see this as an opening.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Fight For the Future Of Our Civilizations

Immortal Technique has a new mixtape out. This is the single being pumped the most from it. Yes, that is Chuck D guesting on it, along with Killer Mike and Brother Ali. It's hard to imagine four rappers with more divergent styles collaborating on the same song--Tech's consciously near-psychotic snarl, Ali's sing-songy delivery, as if trying to achieve some kind of uplift but not quite getting there, and Chuck's stone-faced immovability in the midst of it all.

What draws them together is, of course, the message, connecting the dots between the still undone struggle against anti-Black racism and Islamophobia; Ali's verse, sketching out burned Korans and forbidden mosques, is especially powerful. The fact that there has been an uptick nationwide in police violence lately (even before Occupy Oakland) seals the timeliness of it all. Ultimately, however, this song is getting posted here because it is just... that... good!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Let Ramy Sing!

Ramy Essam has been featured here at Rebel Frequencies before. The young folk-singer may best be described at "the troubadour of the Egyptian revolution." He performed at the initial rallies demanding Mubarak step down, and was kidnapped and tortured as a result. And yet he still writes and performs. Furthermore, his own personal struggle to sing publicly demonstrates how much more work the revolution still has ahead of it.

On October 26th, last night in fact, Essam performed at an art exhibition at the Cairo University Medical School entitled "Transition stage, police and thieves." Even after his first song he had to deal with a small handful of pro-Mubarak hecklers, who were easily shouted down by the overwhelmingly young crowd. Then the dean entered, who took umbrage at Essam's criticism of Egypt's ruling military council. According to a release on the Freemuse site:

"The Dean explained to the organisers that they had no permission to make such an exhibition or a concert. The students replied that this wasn’t correct because they had obtained all of the necessary permissions, and actually a number of other singers had already been performing there as part of the event."

Essam was forced to pack up and leave. As said above, the whole incident proves that there is still a lot more work in front of the revolution. Struggling for a truly free culture is necessarily part of any such fight. It's obviously not that the bureaucrats at the college disliked Essam's music, it's that they represent the forces seeking to put the brakes on the revolution while they still can. Essam's music, on the other hand, seeks to push it forward.

Good thing that other doctors and students are dead-set on him performing. According to Essam's manager, Mariam Emad, "We have had a call from one of the organisers at the university — he wants us to come and perform there again tomorrow. And several students have been expressing their support, saying that, Ramy will sing whether you like it or not!"

It's often shocking how myopic the backers of reaction can be. They should know better than to think an artist who survived torture to sing another day will somehow be intimidated by a stern dressing down from the headmaster.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Anti-Hip-Hop Racism Comes to Chicago

While the media's eyes have been glued to Occupy Chicago (not complaining) it would appear that a community group in the West Side neighborhood of North Lawndale has tried to bring the infamous "baggy pants" ordinance to the Windy City. The group, laughably called Empowered Citizens of North Lawndale is hoping to get the city's council to amend the indecent exposure law to impose a fine on anyone wearing pants more than four inches under the hips. The fine isn't light: $200.

North Lawndale is one of the most heavily "of color" neighborhoods in Chicago; less than 4 percent of its population is white. Given that laws such as these have a history of inviting very real racial profiling, it is somewhat perplexing that a proposal of this nature would originate in a community like North Lawndale.

Says the group itself: "Parents must be held accountable for the way their children dress. In his address to the 'saggy pants' and uneducated boys on the corner Bill Cosby said, 'We, as black folks, have to do a better job,' he stated. 'We have to start holding each other to a higher standard.'"

It speaks volumes that ECNL quote Bill Cosby here. This kind of logic--that the Civil Rights movement is over, that the only thing left African Americans simply to suck it up--is a main talking point for the Herman Cains of the world, and even Barack Obamas. In this logic, it's "thug culture" holding back Blacks in North Lawndale.

None of these people seem to have read Jonathan Kozol. His 1991 book Savage Inequalities: Children In America's Schools dedicated a whole chapter to North Lawndale. It bears keeping in mind that little has changed in the past two decades; Kozol called the neighborhood "an industrial slum without an industry," a place with little opportunity and crumbling schools. According to the 2000 Census, nearly 60 percent of 20-24 year olds are unemployed and almost half of all families live under the poverty line (keeping in mind that the post-recession number is probably much higher).

Perhaps instead of asking young people to yank harder on their pants (and bootstraps), ECNL should be holding the city's shoddy economic development up to "higher standards." This hood needs jobs, schools and community centers. They certainly don't need the fashion police. In communities like these, any kind of police do a lot more harm than good.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

BDS Update: Boycotting Is Not a Crime!

In 2010, Samah Idriss, a BDS campaigner and publisher in Lebanon, launched a campaign urging boycott of British rock group Placebo during their show in Beirut. Placebo had just played a show in Israel, having blatantly defied the call for cultural boycott; in the midst of other groups like Gorillaz and the Pixies pulling out, Placebo dug in. Idriss and his campaign succeeded--the turnout was significantly lower than that of their 2004 Lebanon show.

Now, Jihad El-Murr, a conservative businessman whose company promoted the 2010 concert, is suing Idriss for the equivalent of $180,000 to cover the financial loss. According to a call from the Lebanese Campaign for the Boycott of Zionism, "The lawsuit may have been inspired by the recent anti-boycott law passed by Knesset--which can hold individuals/organizations that call for boycott to be financially responsible for any losses endured by a company/other even without that company proving that the statements have resulted in the loss."

Given the growing anger against Israel during the summer of 2010 in the wake of the Flotilla raid, it seems likely that pro-BDS sentiment did indeed have something to do with the lower turnout. El-Murr can't prove that, however--at least not legally. Unable to admit that there should be consequences to turning a blind eye to the brutal treatment of the Palestinians, he now insists that there should be consequences from calling it out. Like any arrogant executive, his grasp to delusion is only surpassed by his hubris.

The Lebanese Campaign for the Boycott of Zionism has released a statement they are urging supporters to sign, demanding the lawsuit be dropped by Lebanese courts. I've signed, and I suggest my readers do the same.

Monday, October 24, 2011

More Sounds of Revolt

I've recently joined the Arts & Recreation Committee of Occupy Chicago--much solidarity with the 150 who were arrested on Saturday. Word is that conditions inside were atrocious, up to and including the systematic denial of food, medicine and blankets for interned protesters.

The protest on Saturday night, however, also featured an acapella performance from Rebel Diaz (and yes, that's RodStarz from RD breaking down in front of the Chicago cossacks on Michigan Avenue). That's just the beginning; in fact, it can be guaranteed that we'll see a lot more great radical art coming to and out of OccChi. For starters this event, presented the Education Committee, but being supported by members of Arts & Rec. In any event, it bears saying yet again that the Occupy Movement is only just beginning to be felt in all walks of our culture. Stay tuned of course, and for those able to come see Kevin Coval and BBU tomorrow, make it a point!


"Louder Than A Bomb at OccupyChi w/BBU & Idris Goodwin & The LTAB All-Stars"

Tuesday, October 25, 4:30pm - 6:30pm
#OccupyChicago, Lasalle & Jackson
Chicago, IL

Louder Than a Bomb: The Chicago Youth Poetry Festival, the world's largest on the planet, & Occupy Chicago will host a reading and celebration featuring the hip-hop crew BBU, Idris Goodwin, Chance Instrumentality, Malcolm London, Lamar Jorden and many more... Come thru and help build the movement. This is what democracy sounds like!

Friday, October 21, 2011

"The World Will Be Bright Again"

Tough as nails, and yet, at the same time vulnerable. These are words that can rarely be applied to indie rock lately. For the Shondes, though, it’s just the start. Past vague genres like “rock” or oblique, somewhat condescending descriptions like “feisty,” it’s hard to figure out exactly where this group fits into the massive pantheon of real rebel music. Searchlights, their recently released third album, confirms that kind of delicious confusion.

I ask Elijah Oberman, the group’s violinist, how they would describe themselves. This is the response I get:

"Um... well we're a rock band, and we have very punk energy even though we don't really sound like a punk band, and there's a female lead singer, and violin, and lots of harmony, and we rock out really hard when we play live, and there's some Jewish music influence in there somewhere and we're also queer and political and... yeah"

I laugh. It’s not really the answer that’s problematic, but the way the whole question is formulated in the first place. The long-ongoing trend in music journalism is to find a way to “define” every artist, stuff them into an easy-to-identify box. The best art, however, doesn’t easily categorize itself. It’s like a Harold Pinter play: by all conventions it shouldn’t work, but it does.

“Close the Door,” the opening track of Searchlights, wastes absolutely no time slicing Fureigh's lo-fi guitars and Temim Fruchter's steadfast drums into the listener’s ears. It would be pleasant enough as an admittedly unremarkable indie song until one notices the lilting Klezmer violins and Louisa Rachel Solomon’s dramatic, almost Old World singing voice. It’s this mixture of extremes that makes the music work so uniquely well. All efforts to label--along with their apparent futility--fade into the background.

Ever since coming together, the Shondes have done their best to have their music speak for itself and dodge their seemingly novel makeup. As one might guess from the group’s Klezmer and Yiddish influences, all members are Jewish. All are also either queer or gender variant in one way or another. The group has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been consistently featured in the culture sections of countless Jewish and LGBT newspapers and sites.

The best of these profiles, however, admit how woefully insufficient and even insulting it would be to simply describe the Shondes as “Jewish rockers” or “a queer band.” Listening to the album myself--a straight, male, lapsed Catholic turned agnostic--I can’t help but be moved, even in moments like this from “Give Me What You’ve Got”:

“Go on, go on and talk
Say whatever you want
Call me a home-wrecker, call me a monster
Give me what you’ve got
I know that I’m the villain in your eyes
But the night is on my side, I’ve got nothing to hide”

Swirling fiddle and clipped guitar work make this easily the catchiest song on Searchlights, especially as it crescendos into textural harmonies with reckless abandon toward the song’s end. All this, combined with Solomon’s heart-on-sleeve delivery force you inexorably into the band’s point of view regardless of “identity.”

Something else doesn’t square with my own narrow expectations while hearing the songs; the Shondes are frequently referred to as a “political band,” and that’s admittedly how I’ve always viewed them. There’s plenty on Searchlights easily described as righteous and heart-strong, but no obvious indicator of the group’s left-wing, anti-establishment stances. Elijah mollifies me again, and his response is worth reading (and re-reading) in full:

“On the one hand I think it's important to regard the personal as political, like the songs on Searchlights, and on the other I think it's still important and inspiring to have music that speaks directly to things I'm passionate about politically, so they're both important.

“I don't think
Searchlights is an overtly political album. It's about friendship, growing up and feeling all the horrible and wonderful parts of life. I also think that how you process and experience your life, how you treat your loved ones, and how you get through hard times and joyful ones are political decisions, decisions about what kind of person you want to be in the world. And I think that we're a political band as a whole package even if we're not always writing ‘issue’ songs, which is what most people think of when they think of political music.

“The way we are in our personal lives, or the things we say from stage, or the kinds of shows we play are all part of the picture as much as the lyrics of our songs, so it doesn't feel like a contradiction to me; it feels like an integration of all parts of who we are as people and as musicians.”

Apparently I’m still not satisfied, so I ask about “The Fortress,” the seventh song on Searchlights. Is that a reference to Palestine I hear there when Louisa sings that “nothing will survive its walls”? Once again, Elijah gives me the answer I wasn’t expecting, yet is still somehow right-on:

“While we do proudly talk about being Jews who support Palestinian liberation, I'm sorry to say you might be reading into it. ‘The Fortress’ is about isolation and building walls around yourself because you feel like you can't trust people and have to protect yourself, and then being left with the feeling of being alone in the fortress you've built.”

I love this job--especially when I’m proven wrong in a manner such as this. That barrier--or wall if you will--between the personal and political is easily one of the most pernicious obstacles keeping folks on both sides of the aisle from enjoying good music and putting it in context. If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past four weeks of Occupy Wall Street, it’s that politics isn’t just something to be done every two to four years, but something that holds sway over just about every aspect of our lives. How many of us have allowed the weight of a profoundly unjust world to cut us off from our love? How many of us have found ourselves crying tears of relief when the subtlest or most obvious of events finally breaks down that alienation? How can one deny that feeling human in that most inhuman of times isn’t a political act?

And certainly, the Shondes’ ironclad concern with every individual’s right to feel human is undeniable. This past summer saw some in the band’s hometown of New York City attempt to bargain one people’s humanity in exchange for another’s after Queers Against Israeli Apartheid marched in the Pride Parade. Racist, insensitive cries about Arab homophobia choked the debate.

The Shondes didn’t cave. During our interview, Elijah is glad I mention this whole debacle. “It's upsetting to me that this Islamaphobia and anti-Arab racism comes out in queer communities in that way,” he says. “Of course there is homophobia in Muslim communities just like there is everywhere, but I think it's clear that's not an excuse for apartheid. You think Palestinian queer people support Israel just because they may experience homophobia in their communities? That's absurd. We can fight for justice in Palestine and also support Palestinian queers who are doing incredibly important work in their communities just like we continue to do it in ours.”

Haters will no doubt scoff at such a notion, but it seems apparent that this kind of integrity, this kind of unbending principle, makes Searchlights’ content pop so much more brightly. These ten tracks remind you that there’s always something at the other end of a struggle, and, as Louisa reminds us in the closing track, we all have the to believe that “the world will be bright again.” For what it’s worth, this writer believes there’ll be more artists like the Shondes in this brighter world.

First appeared at SOCIARTS.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

BDS Update: Sounds of Solidarity, From Wall Street to Gaza City

"Occupy Wall Street, Not Palestine." So read the sign of a female Palestinian protester last week. The picture has become well-known by now among left activists. She's not the only one with such sentiments. The BDS National Committee (BNC), the body of organizations in Palestine coordinating the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, released a statement on October 14th declaring themselves in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and the countless sister movements that have sprung up in city after city over the past month.

There's natural affinity between the two movements--and more than simply mere sympathy. Nobody is surprised to learn that on top of the commonly shared belief that Wall Street needs to be held more accountable, most folks at the various occupations also are for slashing military spending and returning those billions back to our communities. Among those billions is a sizable chunk doled out to Israel every year--most of it used to carry out daily repression on the people of Palestine.

It's also been said several times already that the Occupy movement has completely shifted the context in which American politics is viewed--that goes for all issues. With that jolt of confidence added into just about the entire left, it's no surprise that, just for starters, Lupe Fiasco hung a Palestinian flag from his mic at the BET Awards. Or that Rebel Diaz, whose recent #Occupy the Airwaves mixtape has already garnered wide attention, are also big proponents of Palestinian self-determination.

Plainly put, this is how solidarity works. It remains to be seen whether the occupations with translate into more artists publicly observing the call for cultural boycott of Israel, but in times of mass movements, rising tides lift all boats.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Jay Smooth On Occupy Wall Street

Jay is spot-on here. Which isn't a surprise. For those who somehow missed the boat, Jay Smooth runs the Ill Doctrine hip-hop video blog, and his analyses are consistently sharp. He only gets at one aspect of what makes OWS a game-changer, but it's a crucial and key aspect.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

We Need New Noise...

I've been booked to speak at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi on November 14th. Details are below, and there's also a Facebook event. And for sure, the issues I'm going to be talking about are relevant everywhere--in every city, on every campus, and yes, at every Occupation! All I need is a plane ticket and I'll fly out there to give this talk or a similar one in your town. So don't hesitate to get in touch with me at


"New Noise: Rebel Music In the Age of Crisis and Revolt"

Monday, November 14, 7pm
Texas A&M University - Corpus Christi
University Center Oso Room 221

Music is everywhere. So, it seems, is rebellion. What is it that had led so many musicians and artists--from Lupe Fiasco to TV On the Radio--to lend their support to Occupy Wall Street? How is it that hip-hop, a music and style that originated in the Bronx, could gain such popularity during the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia? What role does music have to play in society, and can the two influence each other in the fight for a better world? Come hear music journalist Alexander Billet discuss sound, struggle, and the future of rebel music.

Sponsored by the International Socialist Organization - Corpus Christi

Monday, October 17, 2011

We Are All L-Vis

It's as old as American popular culture itself: the white boy playing Black music. Even today, in the post-Obama, "post-racial" world, it still manages to raise hackles. It's a story that's included such legendary performers as Al Jolson, Dave Brubeck, Buddy Holly and the Beastie Boys.

Kevin Coval may well be the latest incarnation of this complicated tale. He knows it, too. In his excellent new collection L-Vis Lives! Racemusic Poems, the Chicago poet takes the whole concept a few steps further--beyond the inequities in album sales and the cries of "poseur," and into the head of one cultural transgressor. In it, he finds a wellspring of poignancy, humor, pathos and truth.

Coval's L-Vis is an amalgamation of Elvis (of course), Vanilla Ice and Eminem, along with tidbits from other similar artists. All three were or are white boys performing Black art. All three have publicly grappled with some very real demons. And in one way or another, those demons spring from the knowledge that, in Coval's own words, "something is terribly wrong."

In other words, it's those same basic burning questions whose answers seem stunningly simple and yet never, well, black and white:

"there was apartheid at the schools. apartheid in the lessons we sat thru. nelson mandela was in america. his name was chuck d. his name was krs-one. what is a Black Panther? there is apartheid on the bus home. there is apartheid in the lunchroom. the sides of the city we don't visit. were told not to. there is apartheid on the television. bill cosby aside."

But, as Coval reminds us, "there was no apartheid in the music." Through a hundred pages, we're reminded of some brilliant and subversive moments in "racemusic" history. We're reintroduced to those days when "Joe Strummer points to the Future," those fateful shows in New York when the Clash told their predominantly white American fans to "shut the fuck up and listen" to the words of Grandmaster Flash.

We're taken through Rick Rubin's evolution from a young white art kid in NYC to one of hip-hop's most bad-ass producers. We're reminded (believe it or not) that Chuck D at one point attempted to sign Vanilla Ice. And we're reminded that the fascinating output of these stabs-in-the-dark at cultural transcendence can quite often finally provoke discussion over the one enduring divide in America that still dares not speak its own name.

All of this, though, is factual backdrop to L-Vis' own (semi-) fictional story. That it's somewhat archetypal doesn't take away from some intensely specific storytelling. From hilarious attempts at getting a fade haircut to ruminations on what to answer when the urban heads ask "where you from," getting to the soul of L-Vis' story is one down the deep fault line of race and culture in America.

Of course, this is all instinctual; there is no real "ideology" backing up the young rebel. It's more the gut feeling that the segregated suburban whiteness covers something that is very wrong with America. It may be an instinct, but it's right; even if L-Vis doesn't exactly know what he's right about.


That's Coval's strength as a poet. There's no doubt that he's thought and read endlessly about the contours of race and racism in America. His head is no doubt filled with the ideas he's imbibed via everyone from James Baldwin to Tupac Shakur. What makes these pieces work and flow as poetry and as a narrative, however, is his ability to root their inherent intellect into a place of passion, sensitivity and righteous fury that is never anything less than completely organic.

If the reader didn't already know that Coval indeed shared L-Vis' overriding background--a white suburban kid whose basic alienation made him enamored of hip-hop--they'll certainly know it at the end. That all sounds a bit "meta," but in an age when Black presidents let innocent African Americans get legally lynched, maybe meta is the only way to do it.

Case in point: "holla for Troy Davis," a piece marking something of a halfway point in L-Vis Lives! Though the poem's subtitle is "after L-Vis reads the 3rd section of 'Howl'" (Allen Ginsberg's legendary work), this is clearly Coval speaking through L-Vis, giving voice to that moment when this whole "racemusic" issue becomes a lot bigger than baggy pants or being nice on the mic:

"we're waiting for you
to come home and kick it and teach it
and be about it, cuz we are trying to
be about it and rally around you
as symbol, but you are person and flesh
and locked twenty-three hours a day in isolation
and we are here via train or car and some rode a bicycle
and what kind of leisure does that sound like
from the inside
but we're with you in county
despite the distance and hours of sunlight"

As the world now knows, Troy Davis was executed on September 21. It was one week after L-Vis Lives! was officially launched. Clearly, the contradictions persist.

Coval also knows that both he and L-Vis have few answers to these contradictions. The book, urgent as it is, also is a humble attempt at "broadening the conversation." So even as it seemingly ends with that most stereotypical of images, L-Vis bloated on the toilet singing his "ode to painkillers," Coval takes a U-turn.

The book's final section is a suite for that most infamous of "race traitors" in post-9/11 America: John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban." As Coval points out, Lindh was born in the suburbs, loved hip-hop, read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He was, like so many others, a kid who saw intrinsic emptiness in the world of middle-class privilege and sought out a life somehow truer. His ultimate reaction was undoubtedly rash, but not, as some have insisted, inhuman:

"i am hip to your double speak. i have been lied to. i am aware of this now. i am well / red in Marx. i have allied myself with the proletariat who drive your cabs, press your clothes, slice your kebabs, who silence beneath the weigh missiles close on their throats. there are many like me."

In putting a human face this most villainized of Americans in the "war on terror," Coval slices to the heart, showing that the question of race and identity runs much deeper than the condescension of Norman Mailer's "White Negro." That the story arc running from the Middle Passage through 30 years of hip-hop rebellion has by no means had its final chapter written.

Modest though its author might consider his own contribution, Coval's L-Vis Lives! deserves a place in that saga. We need a few more race traitors like him: the kind who understand that their very existence--complex and twisted though it might seem--also symbolizes the potential for the divisions to be finally closed.

First appeared at

Friday, October 14, 2011

Rocking the Occupation

Early this morning, over a thousand workers, students and unemployed folks successfully fought off the NYPD from trying to evict the Occupy Wall Street movement from Zuccotti Park. In Denver, Seattle, Boston and Chicago, the cops have been severely stepping up their level of repression. But just like in New York, it hasn't worked.

We need to be clear: the Occupy movement had transformed our culture entirely. Though it's surely not going to continue indefinitely, the experiences had and lessons learned by those involved will certainly shake out in other struggles to come over the next several months and years. There will, as promised before, be an article soon on the musicians who have been pushed into supporting this upsurge, but in the meantime, soak in a few of the samples:

Thursday, October 13, 2011

BDS Update: Voices Screaming to Be Heard

This week, Electronic Intifada brought together three stories that paint a vivid picture of the need for a cultural boycott of Israel. This certainly is no surprise, given that EI is without a doubt the best source out there on the Palestinian struggle. Still, it seems worth connecting the dots.

First is Hillary Clinton's threat to withhold aid from global aid programs crucial to Palestine's infrastructure and culture. Michelle Gyeney's article brings some much-needed attention to the Secretary of State's promise to withdraw funding United Nations’ Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), for example, if the member bodies voted to recognize Palestine in the UN. That's no small amount; Gyeney quotes an article in Haaretz claiming that the US provides up to 22 percent of UNESCO's funding.

Embargoes and aid freezes are nothing new to Palestinians--in particular those in Gaza. The area continues to be under a near-constant state of deprivation and seige, even with Egypt's recent quasi-opening of the border. This is of course compounded by the bombardment of Operation Cast Lead back in '09. Many areas still stand knee-deep in rubble, and the restrictions on imports has affected even basic rights to food. The average daily caloric intake in Gaza is only about 60 percent of what's needed to sustain decent nutrition. The threats of the US, no doubt smiled upon by Netanyahu, will obviously only serve to exacerbate everything.

Naturally, this brutal reality plays out in all walks of life within Gaza. Rami Almeghari's article on the state of traditional musicians in Gaza portrays the way in which Palestine's rich musical legacy is being almost literally silenced from the rest of the world.

Akram Hassam, once such musician--an adherent of Palestinian "debkes" line dances--points out to Almeghari that "Prior to the Israeli siege of Gaza four years ago, I managed to participate in a series of music festivals in the Arab world including in Morocco and Cairo. But since 2006 I have been stuck in Gaza due to the Israeli closure." Just as everyday basics are restricted from reaching the people of Gaza, so are ordinary Gazans deprived of their basic everyday right to travel and share their culture with others.

This story is certainly small and simple, but that doesn't stop it from being purely outrageous. It also puts to lie one of the biggest excuses trotted out by those seeking to discredit the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, in particular its cultural wing. It's commonly complained that demanding Israeli culture be boycotted abroad somehow silences debate and prevents the free-flow of ideas. That's already a reality for those living under Israel's occupation and its racist apartheid policies. Allowing cultural events that tout the country's cultural "superiority" merely gives it more of a platform, increases its already unfair ideological advantage.

Enter DAM, without a doubt Palestine's best-known hip-hop group. Adri Nieuwhof, writing of course on EI's blog, reports about DAM's brand new song released only a couple days ago. "A Letter From a Prison Cell" is dedicated to the countless Palestinians unjustly kept in Israel's jails and prisons. Once again, given the daily reality that Israel has shaped for most Palestinians in Israel or the Occupied Territories, it's no surprise that unjust imprisonment is also part of the deal.

Says DAM: "We are adding our voices to their call for justice and demands for their legal rights. ‘A Letter From a Prison Cell’ tells the stories of three prisoners who refuse to be ignored and become another statistic. They have written letters to the outside world and the song voices those words."

This is precisely why BDS must continue--because the scaled need to be tipped back in the right direction. There can be little question that Israel, with its massive military and economic backing and behemoth public relations machine, still holds a great deal of the cards. Still, there continue to be artists seeking to give a real voice to the struggle for basic Palestinian self-determination. DAM is only one example; amplifying them depends on us.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"If You Dont' Become an Actor You'll Never Be a Factor!"

Anyone who believes that the Occupy Together movement hasn't shifted our culture yet needs to watch this. This is the BET Hip-Hop Awards, hardly a bastion of radical activism. But much like the way that the upsurge against the war on Iraq seeped into all aspects of pop culture eight years ago, the occupations have forced so much of the entertainment industry to at least give it lip service, and those in the mainstream savvy enough have understood what an opportunity that gives them.

Such is Lupe Fiasco, who has always been incredibly skilled at seeing the lay of the land for what it is without ever tamping down his ability to speak his mind. It's little surprise that he was one of the first high-profile artists to publicly support Occupy Wall Street. This performance is a continuation of that.

It's not merely the t-shirt reading "#Occupy Wall Street." "Words I Never Said" was the first song that pundits song from Lasers that pundits seized on for Lupe's harsh criticism of Obama:

"Limbaugh is a racist, Glenn Beck is a racist
Gaza strip was getting bombed, Obama didn’t say shit"

Of course the song takes on a lot more than just the political-media establishment. Ultimately it takes on the whole rotten system. Lupe very well may have performed this song anyway even if the nationwide occupations hadn't taken off. But it's doubtful he would have performed it with a Palestinian scarf tied around his mic and Erykah Badu wearing the much-maligned burqa.

I could go on with speculation and analysis, but it's probably best if readers simply soak in a glimpse of what culture--yes, even mainstream culture--can look like when there's actual and tangible class struggle gripping the country.

There will be an article coming up here at Rebel Frequencies assessing how the Occupy movement has affected the music world. So, stay tuned to RF!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Out Of Friends, Out Of Touch

I rarely am the kind of journalist who tells musicians they need to "shut up." Because of how little real speech is actually afforded to most artists, because of the "shut up and sing" mentality and the way that most musicians' voices are so often twisted around, I am normally loath to say any one artist should simply keep their mouth closed.

That, however, is exactly what Hank Williams Jr. would be advised to do. He may think that his new song, which takes ESPN to task before decrying an imminent "United Socialist States of America," is helping his cause. In the midst of what the rest of the world is dealing with, however, it merely reveals his true colors: self-important, insecure, and utterly reactionary. And despite the media flurry that has swirled around him for the past week, it also shows him to be fading in relevance.

There are few shows on TV that use the same song for twenty years. That Williams can be offended by his removal after such a long run definitely doesn't ingratiate him. In some ways, though, one can understand his reaction--his signature wail of "are you ready for some football?" was one of the few things keeping him in the public eye. As country had evolved over the past two decades, Williams had stayed more or less the same, and not in a good way. When ESPN broke ties with him, it was basically one of his last links to relevance waving bye-bye. That he also "calls out" Fox News in the song merely highlights his own desperation.

That's not the only change, however, that seems to be leaving Williams behind. His belief he'll be swaying much opinion with his rambling, pieced-together song outside of his most loyal fans and Tea Party hardcore is truly an illusion. As the "Occupy Together" movement spreads from city to city and even into some smaller towns, the derision of "socialist" certainly doesn't pack the punch it has in previous eras.

To be clear, the title hasn't had as much wallop as McCain, Palin and Beck have assumed it to have for a while--much like Williams' music itself. So, maybe this is all appropriate somehow. None of this is to say that these new insurgent, almost instinctually left-wing movements are simply up-up-and-away. I also have no illusions of Williams any time soon seeing the light and deciding to keep his mouth shut. Given the media platform that this whole debacle has afforded him however, it needs to pointed out that his ramblings are going to be getting a lot more opposition than what he got from ESPN.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Poet, Not Porn Star

So this is how the media remembers Tupac Shakur fifteen years after his death? A sex tape? Tupac has been getting more mentions than he has probably had in years due to this. It's sick and depraved. It also unfortunately fits in quite well with the way today's media operates.

The tape, apparently filmed in 1991--well before 'Pac had become a household name--is five minutes long and shows Tupac receiving oral sex from an unidentified woman. It's blurry and old (from what I've heard; the tape has thankfully not been released, and I have no plans of watching it anyway). Not exactly the sensation of Paris Hilton of Kim Kardashian, but it's clearly enough to send TMZ and others like it into a tizzy.

Thankfully, Tupac's estate, headed up by his mother Afeni, have pledged legal action against anyone attempting to release the tape. Whatever 'Pac decided to do behind closed doors--filmed or not--is clearly his business and his alone. It should stay that way.

When I wrote my article commemorating Tupac's death a few weeks ago, I mentioned the the conscious dumbing down of his legacy hasn't taken hold the way that it has for many other dead artists who held subversive ideas. His Panther roots are well-known, as are his hard stances against poverty, racism and police brutality. Perhaps then, this is one of the ways that such a sanitizing can take place--painting him as just another thuggish womanizer. It would certainly be in line with the way hip-hop is presented to us by MTV nowadays.

We need to be clear on this, however: such a notion would not only be exploitative of 'Pac's memory, but profoundly racist and sexist to boot. In society's present moment--one where the racist trope of Black people being somehow more sexist and homophobic than the population at large just refuses to die--having Tupac's legacy represented by a sex tape would only serve to dilute it. It would give those who would exploit hip-hop for their own gain even more ammo, another brush with which to better paint the narrative of rap as being mostly about "bitches and hos."

True, 'Pac's legacy was always contradictory. He had plenty of songs that rehashed that same tired theme, but they were always lined up next to songs that also pledged "never call you bitch again." It was an odd mix, but one a lot more complex than today's lazy music journalist establishment has ever been willing to cop to.

This is to say nothing of the unidentified young woman that Tupac was with. Though details on how this tape emerged or who brought it forth have been scant, it stands to reason that she would be mortified and risk losing a lot in her own life if this were released.

It's a good thing that 'Pac's legacy has been so closely guarded by his mother. It's also a good thing that his prolific recording career leaves us with a much fuller version of Tupac Shakur the man, poet and artist.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Not My Country

It’s official: ESPN and Hank Williams Jr. have parted ways. After twenty years of hearing the country music icon howl “are you ready for some football?” every Monday night between September and February, Williams and his “rowdy friends” have bowed out. The controversy he drummed up, however, may not die so easily.

By now most don’t need to be told what it was that got Williams in such hot water--trotting out the ever-offensive yet somehow tired trope of “Obama equals Hitler.” That such a comparison was made on Fox News merely puts it in its place. Also well-known has been the fallout--ESPN’s decision to pull Williams’ song from their October 3rd telecast. What seems debated now is whether Williams or the network ultimately walked away first.

On Thursday, October 6th, ESPN released a statement saying they had finally decided to not bring back Williams. But according to the singer, it was he who decided to pull the plug on the two-decade relationship. A post on his own website reads:

“After reading hundreds of e-mails, I have made MY decision. By pulling my opening Oct 3rd, You (ESPN) stepped on the Toes of The First Amendment Freedom of Speech, so therefore Me, My Song, and All My Rowdy Friends are OUT OF HERE. It’s been a great run.' -- Hank Williams Jr"

Williams is, to put it in his own parlance, full of crap. He wasn’t fired for exercising his First Amendment rights. He was fired because ESPN finally felt some very palpable consequences that might come from being associated with what Williams is: a bigot.

Sports writer and author Dave Zirin seems not so much surprised by ESPN’s decision as he is by the fact that the network allowed Williams to stick around for so long:

“The man brags that he'll never stop ‘speaking my mind.’ Unfortunately, his mind resides somewhere on a plantation rocking chair. It’s not just his past controversial statements, such as when he sang about Obama’s ‘terrorist friends’ at a McCain Palin fundraiser in 2008. The guy actually wrote a song in 1988 about the Civil War called ‘If the South Would Have Won.’”

The contents of this song are truly stomach-churning, a window into the mind of a man for whom the slave-holding Confederate States of America are something to be lauded as an accomplishment rather than looked at with disdain. The song remains one of Williams’ favorites, and is prominently displayed on his website right next to the picture of the stars and bars with his face in the middle. Comparing Obama to Hitler was clearly the tip of the iceberg here.

Predictably, Williams’ supporters have jumped to his defense. His manager has claimed that he “doesn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body.” His fans similarly take umbrage at the insistence that support for the Confederacy is racist, that Old Dixie was more about cotillions and hoop skirts than it was about chattel slavery and the cat ‘o nine tails, and that the Civil War wasn’t fought actually over slavery. None of these supporters evidently seem to be aware that the “right” to own slaves was written into the Confederate constitution.

For his own part, the Tea Party supporting Williams has attempted to excuse his comments by wrapping himself in the flag of the class warrior, claiming that the Obama-Hitler comment (which also apparently was supposed to single out John Boehner) came more from a place of outrage at the status quo. “Working-class people are hurting,” he said in a public statement, “and it doesn't seem like anybody cares. When both sides are high-fiving it on the ninth hole when everybody else is without a job--it makes a whole lot of us angry. Something has to change. The policies have to change.”

And there’s the rub. Williams’ image has long been one of the underdog, the blue-collar straight-shooter whose down home common sense is bound to trump that of any politician or talking head. His long-time inclusion in Monday Night Football has always been an attempt, in Zirin’s words, to “be all things to all people,” and in particular reach out to a white working class who in the mind of ESPN’s executives are mainly gun-toting, flag waving “hicks.”

None of it, however, in either camp, is accurate. Williams was born into the very beginnings of a musical dynasty. By the time of his legendary father’s untimely passing, his mother Audrey could lay claim to a growing fortune. When Hank Jr. was four years old, she was able to pay Senior’s second wife $30,000 for the exclusive rights to the title “Hank Williams’ Widow”--a sum that nowadays would be over a quarter million dollars. With that kind of business savvy, Williams Jr. had a comfortable upbringing.

Even the handle of “Hank Williams Jr.” is something of a stretch. His actual given first name is Randall. Like everything else in Williams’ repertoire, it’s always been an act.

That hasn’t bugged the entertainment executives, though. Far from it, what we now call the “country music establishment” has spent the past several decades manipulating the music of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson to get in line with “red state” values. That Williams, a man who has made his living off a parodied version of the working class, should find a home with a network whose own take on class is at best insulting is, to say the least, fitting.

Now that this twenty-year relationship is broken, maybe it’s a small sign of the change that’s in the air. With longshore workers, teachers and hotel staff striking lately, the working class to which Williams supposedly holds allegiance has shown itself to be anything but conservative. With the model of Occupy Wall Street spreading, the elites of all industries are no doubt feeling a bit of heat--including, perhaps, at ESPN. (As a side note, it seems worth pointing out that while Williams has donned the mask of the free speech crusader on his own behalf, he didn’t seem so concerned about the protesters in New York whose First Amendment rights were violated by the NYPD’s pepper-spray.)

Whatever Obama’s shortcomings, the notion that the majority of white working class people think he’s Hitler simply doesn’t hold water. Nor for that matter does Williams’ portrayal of country music as the bastion of reaction (in fact that’s been cracking ever since the Dixie Chicks). And now that we wave good-bye to his trite songs as a Monday night staple, we can be happy to know that our own “rowdy friends” are making a lot more noise than he ever did.

First appeared at SOCIARTS.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Why Steve Jobs Was Not a Saint

Throwback time. With the death of Steve Jobs last night the tech media is stumbling over itself to sing the Apple-man's praise. No mention of the sweatshop labor he employed to make his billions--labor so exploitative and degrading that the factories in China have had to install nets to prevent workers from committing suicide. Certainly no mention of the role he played in aiding the music industry in maintaining their same parasitic role.

Below is one of the first articles I had published back in 2006. It appeared at Dissident Voice. It was written to comment on Apple's sweatshop revelations, and though many of the specifics are out of date, its overall thrust remains true. It's said that you should never speak ill of the dead, but when a dead man's life is being used to gloss over some of the most nefarious characteristics of a sick society, then maybe speaking ill of the dead becomes necessary.


If you don't have one, then you most certainly know someone who does. In a matter of about five years, they've become the most popular way to listen to music on the go. Of course I am talking about iPods. They are convenient, easy to use, and very, very hip.

But try telling that to the sweatshop workers who make them. A recent article in Britain's Mail on Sunday newspaper reports that the iconic mp3 players are made in near slave-like conditions in factories near Shanghai, China. Employees, the vast majority of whom are women, work 15-hour shifts and make as little as $50 per month. At another factory near Shanghai, where the iPod shuffle is manufactured, workers are paid $100 a month, but are forced to spend half of it on housing and food within the factory complex. This housing is typically over-crowded, and outsiders, including family members, are barred from entering.

As expected, Apple's PR team kicked into high gear after the story broke. "Apple is committed," read a statement from spokesman Steve Dowling, "to ensuring that working conditions in our supply chain are safe, workers are treated with respect and dignity, and manufacturing processes are environmentally responsible."

But we've heard this before. We've heard it from Disney, from Kathy Lee, and now from Apple. In the end it's the same song, different arrangement.

Some may be shocked by the news. To most in the media, Apple CEO Steve Jobs is treated like the demi-god of technology; the loveable geek with the golden mouse-finger who was genius and farsighted enough to give us downloadable music at an affordable price. He is the quintessential poster-boy for the 21st century business world, and example number one of globalization with a human face.

But every CEO has a public image that is, to say the least, misleading. Jobs and his billion-dollar innovation were, in the end, the saving grace to the music execs who only six years ago were running scared from the specter of the mp3. Record companies were in a fever pitch over sound files "bankrupting artists." But this claim was shaky at best. Of the massive profits reaped by the record industry, only a fraction goes to the artists. To a whole swath of outspoken recording artists large and small, from Chuck D to Prince, mp3s were a way to get the exposure that the traditional industry wouldn't put up for. As Chuck D said on his website in 1998, "The bigger picture is the entire industry and the legal aspect of the game skewing toward executives and against the creative� but now we're in a situation where the industry can't pimp this technology like they've pimped every other form of technology."

But the industry soon found their perfect pimp. In return for his own cut, Jobs used the iPod and its website iTunes to make downloadable songs a new cash-cow for the huge conglomerates. It would make mp3s profitable and help them keep a lid on their artists. That Apple is guilty of maintaining sweatshops really isn't that surprising, as Jobs has already helped re-solidify the exploitation of musicians and music fans alike.

The latest news is that Apple is shocked at the allegations and currently "investigating" conditions in its factories, but it�s little more than a publicity stunt. Apple won't get much more than a slap on the wrist for these revelations. If there were any justice in the way the music industry is run, then musicians and factory workers alike would be receiving a hundred times what they currently get, the CEOs would actually be forced to work for a living, and our ability to listen to our favorite tunes wouldn't be dependent on our willingness to max out our credit card.

If there is one thing that this scandal makes clear, it is that everything is a commodity to the music industry, no exceptions. But along with severe exploitation, globalization has also brought an unprecedented potential for resistance, which goes well beyond a simple music file. I am not suggesting that every music fanatic go out and scrap his or her iPod. What I am suggesting is that from Shanghai to NYC, musicians, factory workers and music fans have much more in common with each other than they do with the likes of Steve Jobs. If we don't want to rely on them for our music, then we need to do away with the system that keeps us and our art in chains.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Musicians For (Real) Freedom

A few days ago, Googling the words "musicians occupy wall street" really didn't turn up much in terms of notable artists offering solidarity. The closest result was the flash-pan rumor that Radiohead would be entertaining the occupiers at Liberty Park--a rumor that was quickly put to rest.

It did, however, yield an entertaining little site known as Musicians For Freedom. "Cool!" I thought. Maybe this would be a group of folks dedicated to exploring the same nexus between music and struggle that I've dedicated myself to. My hopes were quickly dashed.

Along the side are ads for gun-nut organizations and articles defending Hank Williams' deplorable comments about Barack Obama. These writers clearly mean "freedom" in the case of "freedom of trade," "freedom to pay shit wages" and "freedom to starve." Best I can tell they're of the libertarian Tea Party variety who I simply won't dignify with a link. And their take on the Occupy Wall Street movement and the myriad other copycats that have sprung up over the past couple weeks is best summed up as such:

"Most of them are Socialists and Communists. They want MORE slavery. They are begging the slave masters to increase their rations. Most of them are protesting capitalism. Most of them are protesting the concept of private property, and they want to change the existing system only slightly, so that they get to keep larger amounts of the capital gains from their own enslavement."

Stop the presses young folks! You've been hoodwinked! Apparently we're nothing but pawns of the Obama-Stalin-Hitler Axis! It's a narrative that by now has become so predictable it can practically be mouthed along with the Becks and Palins of the world. Lord knows they parrot it enough.

Someone might want to let Peter Yarrow and Kyp Malone know. Over the past few days since I first searched for this, the former member of Peter, Paul and Mary has made his way downtown to serenade the swiftly growing group of occupiers with a handful of folk classics like "If I Had a Hammer" and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." Malone, of TV On the Radio fame, also made his way down to the encampment. Though he didn't perform, he did apparently take time to talk with several of the activists, and also told a reporter for The Village Voice that he's rather taken aback by how long it's taken the mainstream media to pick up on the occupation movement:

"People have such little opportunity to be heard in the first place... What journalists are being paid enough to be dismissive of this?" Malone also put forth--implicitly--that there are a lot of other struggles that need this kind of attention, and that maybe Occupy Wall Street might be our generation's springboard for taking our own struggles by the horns. Speaking about his upbringing in the Bay Area, Malone stated that "No matter what the march was for--the pot-legalization crew, the Free Mumia crew--you'd always see a lot of other people with other messages getting involved as well... It's not that the message is diffuse; it's that there isn't one of these aspects that doesn't have to do with the central problem: an unsustainable economic order that we're constantly told is the highest stage of our evolution."

Well said. I have no idea whether Malone labels himself a communist. The folks who run the ironically titled Musicians For Freedom most certainly would. But then, their take on the world has long been in the minority. One of the reasons that Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Chicago, Occupy Boston and the rest have caught on so quickly among artists, workers, students and all kinds of folks is because the basic anger against the financial elite in this country is merely the cutting edge of the outrage against the whole damned system.

If the momentum of these protests can be taken seriously, then it stands to reason that they represent the mere beginning of a long-awaited, much-needed shift in our politics and culture. When that happens then one can rightfully hope that the nasty little trolls who have long sought to bend music to their own right-wing agenda may finally be eclipsed.


An upcoming article will be using the upsurge around Wall Street and the artists who spoke in favor Troy Davis to ask if such a shift in music may be taking place just now. Also will be an interview with British musician-producer Dave Randall, which, predictably, will also ask this question. Lots coming up, so don't forget to subscribe to Rebel Frequencies.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Free Haked! Free Morocco!

In Tunisia there was El General, the rapper arrested by Ben Ali's thugs just as the revolution kicked off. In Egypt, it was Arabian Knightz, harassed for years before the massive movement against Mubarak took the streets and the group's songs became anthems of revolt. The past ten months have revealed not only how deep hip-hop's roots have sunk in the Middle East and North Africa, but how inextricably connected the style is with the region's history of repression and resistance.

Now, in Morocco, where the North African revolts have inspired a new movement for democracy and economic justice, it's the Casablanca rapper known as Haked. Haked, whose real name is Moad Belghouat, has become one of the nation's best-known rappers since the revolt, known widely as the "20th February Movement," began to take hold. He has become a fixture at demonstrations and recorded several highly radical songs over the past few months.

On September 9th, Haked was arrested for the "crime" of handing out flyers for a demonstration two days later. Earlier in the day, members of a right-wing youth group known as the "Royalist Youth Alliance" showed up at his house and threatened both him and members of his family. Because Haked wasn't home at the time, he was later informed about it by his relatives, after which he reported it to the police. He was held and interrogated for three hours. Later in the day, while flyering, the same group of Royalist youth accosted him on the street and assaulted him. The fight was broken up, but the right-wing aggressors were taken to the hospital while Haked was arrested.

Now, Haked faces two years in prison on assault charges. A demonstration was held in the Moroccan capital of Rabat on the 19th demanding Haked's release; his picture has been emblazoned on placards, his songs shared with even greater vigor than before. For sure, Haked hasn't been the only cultural worker arrested lately by Moroccan authorities--bloggers and independent journalists have also found themselves railroaded recently.

What seems clear from all of this, however, are two things. One, that the authorities are more than happy to cooperate with far-right royalist forces in Morocco. No big surprise there. The Moroccan monarchy is a decaying, corrupt system whose nepotistic way of rule can only be maintained through the most nefarious means. And two, that this regime is horrified that the events that have taken hold in their neighboring countries in North Africa will similarly take hold in their own back yard.

If the experience of El General and Arabian Knightz are any indicator, then the arrest of Haked, far from representing the end of the Moroccan movement, may in fact sound the death knell of the nation's regime.


Don't forget that, on the subject of revolutionary North African hip-hop, my interview with Sphinx from Arabian Knightz will be going up in the very near future. And most certainly there will be plenty more on this subject as the revolutions gain steam. So, subscribe.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Rebel Diaz On Troy Davis

One couldn't really expect anything different from Rebel Diaz. They are, of course, only one of the many acts who were moved into action by Davis' story--in their case perhaps even earlier considering RD's whole existence as an openly revolutionary group. What they are also correct about is how the outpouring of solidarity may in fact represent a turning point in the struggle against racism and the injustice system here in the US.

Of course, Rebel Diaz' new album Radical Dilemma drops in a couple weeks. Between the struggle to free Troy Davis and the occupations sweeping major American cities right now, it seems a safe bet that the album's songs will find an audience that's wide as ever.

FREE DOWNLOAD: Rebel Diaz - Troy Davis Lives Forever (prod Agent of Change) by agentofchange