Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Sound Strike Rising and the New "Juan Crow"

With so much else happening with the Occupy movement, it's easy to miss that there is another struggle (related, as they all are) taking place in Alabama. If you know what SB 1070 has been attempting to do to immigrants and Latinos in Arizona, then you know what Alabama's HB 56. This is a bill, voted into law earlier in the year, that cuts off urgently needed social services from anyone suspected of being undocumented, legally prevents them from working or owning a home, and, of course, opens the door for racial profiling.

Also like Arizona, though, the immigrant worker community hasn't taken this draconian and racist law lying down. October 12th saw immigrant activists launch a "Day Without an Immigrant" protests modeled on the 2006 mega-demos. Various civil disobedience actions--in particular one on November 13th--has seen both documented and undocumented stand shoulder to shoulder against this law from Mobile to Montgomery and across the state.

So it's no surprise perhaps that the Sound Strike is also growing. Yes, still. It hasn't gone away, nor has it faded by any means. Most recently, it's added dead prez, Jasiri X, Invincible and others to its roster. I have to admit I was a little more than a bit surprised when I heard this a couple weeks back--not because I wouldn't think these artists, among hip-hop's most visible and radical, would sign on. Rather, because I would have thought they did it a year ago!

Of course, their presence absolutely makes a difference. Any artist willing to join the picket line and say no to playing for Arizona's apartheid makes that picket line stronger. It also, as I've mentioned in passing before, opens the possibility to extend that same picket line.

After all, with Occupy being what it is, with new labor struggles beginning to pop off around the country, the avenues of solidarity are potentially wider than they've ever been. Might Alabama's own concert industry begin to bear the brunt of its state's racism? Only time can tell, but here's to hoping.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

BDS Update: No Punk for Apartheid... and No Beats Either

My interview on CKUT Montreal's "Roots Rock Rebel" radio show is now available for download. Aaron Lakoff (a.k.a. "Aaron Maiden"), host and fellow signatory of Punks Against Apartheid, asks me some excellent questions about the newly launched network. The interview starts around 35 minutes in, but it's also worth listening to the whole show; Aaron's taste in ska, punk and reggae is excellent! It was a blast doing the interview and plenty of thanks directed his way are in order.

As has been said before, Punks Against Apartheid enters an exciting fray culturally and politically. The global resistance is picking up, and so are the calls for artists to not play for an apartheid state. Thus, the campaign that was recently launched trying to convince MF Doom to cancel his gig in Tel Aviv. Unfortunately, Doom went forward with that show. He shouldn't have. As the letter addressed to Doom from PACBI reads:

"Many of your fans have expressed their outrage over your coming performance in Tel Aviv. In fact, a local Palestinian contemporary of yours, Boikutt Kutt, has written on your Facebook page: 'You’re performing 30 minutes from where I live but I can’t come to your show simply because I’m Palestinian. I live in a prison called the West Bank and I’m a big supporter of your music. Don’t play for the oppressor, don’t play for colonialism, don’t play Apartheid "Israel" … Stand on the right side of history and respect the Palestinian call for boycott.' We join your fans in urging you to stand up for what is right."

Natch. We're talking about hip-hop here, a music and style that developed as a cry against invisibility. Israel isn't just forcing invisibility upon the Palestinians, if they continue on their present path, they'll be forcing oblivion on them too. Such a regime can't be given artists to run cover for it.


I'll be writing an article in the coming weeks assessing the formation and future for Punks Against Apartheid for the Electronic Intifada. So, as always, well... you know.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Movement, the Music, and Miley's Mediocrity

The music presses have been reporting--many of them with straight-faces--that Miley Cyrus has become the latest musician to release a song in support of Occupy Wall Street. As much as it may pain many of us to say it, this is just one more example of how Occupy is really transforming our music. With that being said, I'll also repeat something I've said many times before: protest music still has to be good music.

It's not cynicism to say that Miley Cyrus has long represented the absolute lowest aspects of music under a profit-driven system. Her songs are meant to be easily consumed and then mindlessly forgotten after all the money has rolled into Disney's vaults. This doesn't necessarily mean that Cyrus likes playing that role--any human being at a certain point questions whether they want to be a walking billboard or not--but it's the role she's been deemed nonetheless. Ever since she came onto the scene, she's been held on a very tight leash.

Does this mean she's somehow snapping back at the hands holding her? Probably not. It's worth keeping in mind, however, that the industry Cyrus is so deeply embedded in has already become legendary for censoring artists looking to speak out politically. For her to (perhaps) identify with the protesters, and for her record label to allow one of their highest-profile money-makers to put it in a song, really do speak to just how high this movement, with all its contradictions, is pushing.

Then again, it's entirely possible that she's simply cashing in. That's not unheard of; I'm still quite suspicious of many of music's more well-off mainstream denizens showing up to support Occupy Wall Street or the other protests. But that's the point--even Katy Perry has actually shown up, which means that for Cyrus to release a song like this without bothering to show up, without endeavoring to support the movement financially, may make the song's inherent meaning about as light as its actual content. This movement may be against the evil that money has created in the world, but that doesn't mean you still don't have to put it where your mouth is.


It's this argument that has been trotted out a lot lately. More specifically, it's an argument that's been trotted out to cynically paint all artists standing up for the Occupy movement. It was brought up during my recent speaking engagement in Corpus Christi, and most currently, it has been the subject of a thread on my PopMatters article that appeared last Wednesday (if anyone wants to do me a solid by showing up and chiming it, it would be appreciated).

Such an argument isn't just cynical, it clumsily writes off the importance of this movement. Furthermore, it forgets that there is something separating the Perrys and Cyruses of the world from the Talib Kwelis and Ani DiFrancos. And, for that matter, separating them from the thousands of artists who have signed on to, most of whom aren't "names," but are solid, working artists trying to make ends meet like the rest of us.

Take, for example, Lupe Fiasco's mixtape; the one he released on Friday. Its content plumbs much deeper levels, reappropriating and twisting old and new beats into sound-bites of the UC Davis protesters and Howard Zinn's speeches and his own intricate rhymes, which tie it all together beautifully.

Folks need to just download the album. And that's the point--it's free. There's something to be said for that in this day and time. Even as it's become easier for artists of all genres and levels in the industry to put out their material online, it's still very much frowned upon by the suits. Lupe, of course, has already made clear how little he cares for what record executives have to say. After all, these are the same people who denied him the right to release his album for two years, and then twisted the material of Lasers around to a point that was tremendously unsatisfying to him as an artist. For him to release an album for free was definitely a conscious middle-finger to the one percent.

In other words, this isn't just protest music, it's rebel music. Music that willfully attempts to explore new territory and push boundaries, coming from an artist who has always sought to move and thus has always noticed his own chains. It's entirely possible that Miley Cyrus is only just starting to move, only just starting to notice, and that's to be welcomed. It should not, however, pull our attention away from the much better, much more daring forms of music that are gestating out of this incredible moment in history.


Rebel Frequencies will publish a review of Lupe's new mixtape, as well as that coming from local Chicago punk/rap/reggae group Agents of Change, which has been similarly inspired by Occupy. So, as always, keep checking in!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Revolution Will Be Amplified: Is the Occupy Movement Liberating Music?

The October 22nd edition of The Economist carried the headline “Rage Against the Machine”. Pictured on the cover was a young man with a $20 bill taped over his mouth. Written across the bill was the hashtag “#Occupy.” The Economist is hardly a radical magazine; the article read, unsurprisingly, more as a primer for the economic elite on how to deal with the protests now sweeping the globe. It seems notable, however, and oddly fitting in some ways, that in an attempt at journalistic snark its editors ended up name-dropping a phrase most associated with that most well-known of anti-capitalist bands.

This is hardly the only place where music and politics have collided in the short weeks since a few hundred protesters set up camp on Wall Street. The month of October saw Occupy go from a media curiosity to an unavoidable cultural and political force, a worldwide movement gripping urban centers from Los Angeles to Johannesburg to Hong Kong. For music in particular, it’s become a rallying point.

Keeping count of the artists who have visited or performed at these occupations or sent messages of solidarity is simply impossible. This writer, attempting to keep count for a few hours, stopped after reaching around 400. Old and young, underground and mainstream, rap, rock, punk, electro, soul, the amount of artists inspired to lend their support is mind-boggling. In some cases, the simple addition of music has transformed these encampments of protest into full-on festivals of the oppressed.

Veteran activist and author Mike Davis, writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books, asserts that the “genius” of the Occupy Movement “is that it has temporarily liberated some of the most expensive real estate in the world,” and turned countless areas heretofore under control of the world’s rulers “into a magnetic public space and catalyst for protest.” It begs the question: if our public spaces are possibly on the verge of being “liberated,” placed back into our own hands, then might our music be, too?

Free Culture?

But who says that music is in chains in the first place? Not our most visible outlets. Not MTV or VH1, not terrestrial radio (or satellite for that matter), not the pages of Rolling Stone. And certainly not the “Big Four” record labels who account for over 70 percent of the world’s music sales. After all, these are the same institutions that blacklisted 160 “questionable” songs after 9/11, have deemed avant-garde music “unmarketable” and broadcast videos from M.I.A. and System of a Down only during the most off-peak hours. And, of course, nobody needs to be reminded what the RIAA have attempted to do to those ordinary citizens whose love for music has outstripped their purse-strings.

It seems then that there are common speaking points between those who claim our culture to be “free” and those who proclaim a publicly funded park can only be inhabited during certain hours (as Mayors Quan, Emanuel and Nutter all appear to believe). Free culture? Public domain? Only for those who can afford it.

This reaches back to the center-point of the Occupy Movement: that our right to a fulfilling life shouldn’t be reserved for the better off. Jobs, education, housing, health care; these are just the beginnings. Several occupations (including in my own sweet home Chicago) are discussing demands to keep libraries open, more community centers, parks and expanded funding for school arts programs. If “another world is possible” has become one of this movement’s slogans, then the young activists pushing it forward clearly mean the whole world.

It makes sense, then, that Occupy has garnered the support of those legendary artists who already radically shaped our culture. Pete Seeger, possibly the last remaining link to the communist-led folk movement of the ‘30s, proudly marched with Occupy Wall Street and performed a free concert in Washington Square Park on 23 October.

Likewise, it’s unsurprising that Peter Yarrow, instrumental in the folk revival of the ‘60s has come down to perform at OWS. His contemporary Joan Baez has lent public support. So have Carlos Santana and the MC5’s Wayne Kramer, and it’s not hard to imagine dearly departed legends like Gil Scott-Heron or John Lennon doing the same (alas, we’ll have to be content with Lennon’s son Sean).

These are only some of the luminaries who, during that turbulent decade, made music what it is today. To be fair, they had help. This was a context aptly described by British New Left veteran Tariq Ali as one where “the entire culture had become radicalized.” He would know better than many others; he cultivated a friendship with Lennon during the artist’s most radical years. Legend has it that it was Ali who inspired Mick Jagger to write the lyrics to “Street Fighting Man”.

This broad radicalization of the culture included a lot more than the day’s most famous artists penning themes of revolution into their music. The Civil Rights and anti-war movements, with their radical notions of equality and a fundamentally different world, cracked the stultifying edifice of McCarthyism and brought with them the force of new ideas about music and culture; what had previously been fringe was pushed center-stage.

The grip of Broadway and Hollywood was decisively broken and replaced by the insurgent sounds rock, soul and folk music. Even jazz, written off as stodgy for some time, reclaimed a place in the avant-garde with artists like Charlie Haden, Archie Shepp, Abbey Lincoln, Carla Bley. Kids sick of the conformist establishment switched their radio dials from corporate-conservative AM to local, more experimental FM stations.

Mat Callahan, another veteran of the ‘60s and accomplished musician in his own right, sums up that connection between musical innovation and revolutionary fervor:

“Not only did Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles have to be ‘taken seriously’, nobody cared much about what ‘serious’ art critics had to say. The irrelevance of bourgeois art and its claims to superiority in aesthetic and social terms had become an established fact.”

So it looks today. It took the mainstream (bourgeois) press two weeks to start reporting the Occupy Movement with any kind of regularity. By that time the rumors that Radiohead were about to play a free gig at Wall Street had come and gone. Other artists known outside the avenues of big-time fame for their experimental sounds had been attracted, however. Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel had already made an appearance to perform a couple of songs. So had another indie experimenter, Kyp Malone of TV On the Radio. Though he didn’t perform any songs, Malone did have a chance to speak with the Village Voice about his take on why so many demands have been raised by the Occupy Movement: “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.”

TV On the Radio is hardly considered a “political” band; their radicalism is normally confined to the abject juxtaposition accomplished in their sound. And yet there was Kyp Malone, articulating an analysis that could have come from that most veterate of anti-capitalists! To be sure, Malone also grew up in San Francisco and ran in an activist milieu during his youth; his own political beliefs however have, at least in most interviews despite the notable profile and consistent critical acclaim for his music, never come up.

In some sense, however, Malone’s own radicalism (or at least progressivism) fits his music. TV On the Radio have always skated that razor-thin line between a sizable profile and acclaim from even mainstream outlets on one hand while aggressively testing the limits of musical aesthetics on the other. Even something as simple as deciding which bin their CDs are placed in the record stores has proven something of a challenge—not quite soul, not quite electronic, not quite post-punk, something altogether different.

Looking at them within the broadest context, it’s not hard to find a parallel between what TVOTR have aspired to and other ‘60s era artists like Henry Cow and Captain Beefheart, artists whose conscious attempts to integrate their radicalism into the actual sound of their music led to deliberately sticky relations with the record labels. Are Malone and the rest of TV On the Radio’s members closet militants whose own political confidence is only beginning to match that in the studio? Are there perhaps more daring, iconoclastic artists like them waiting in the wings of Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Chicago or Occupy L.A.?

The answer, at least to the latter of the two, is an emphatic yes. Committees dedicated to building connections between artists and the Occupy Movement have been popping up in city after city. Facebook groups named “Occupy Art NYC” and “Occupy Daytona Beach Musicians Alliance” have sprung up and gained significant numbers of followers. Mini festivals like “OccuStock” in Providence have been slapped together from nothing but passion and donated labor. Many of the people spearheading these groups are young art students or community artists, individuals who have imbibed the subversive aesthetics of Dada and constructivism, No Wave and Jean-Michel Basquiat, psychedelia and graffiti art; they’ve dreamed of meaningful ways to push the boundaries of art itself and are now finally presented with an opportunity to do so in a collective atmosphere.

One such young person is Brian, a Chicago socialist and experimental noise artist who, since Occupy took off, has had a lot of his, shall we say, more unorthodox ideas on music confirmed. “I am impressed with the creativity of occupiers but not any more than I see in the creativity of any human being engaged in attempting to recreate its social forms. Of course cool, inventive slogans, posters, art always springs from the combination of people engaged in work together that is productive and not exploitative.”

Brian was one of the 175 some odd occupiers arrested by Chicago police in the early morning hours of 23 October for attempting to “illegally” camp in Grant Park. His own experience—that of finding something to create with, even in the stultifying atmosphere of Chicago’s unsanitary, overcrowded jails—isn’t just telling, not even just merely entertaining, but downright admirable:

“So when I was moved to a solitary cell at about four something in the morning… the thing that first made me want to start a percussion number was the fact that upon entering the cell I thought, ‘fuck, there is nothing at all in this cell; it is a cement box.’ Knowing that I was going to be there a long time I began tapping the rhythm of ‘Show me what democracy looks like’ on the walls so that the people around me could hear it...

“Then I found that the steel sink had amazing resonances and tones, deep basses and high pinging notes resembling a doumbek [an Arab goblet drum]. So I started hammering away just fucking crazy rhythms and decided it was appropriate not just for passing the time and entertaining my other comrades who were sitting in their own cells, but because drums at Occupy Chicago have played such a central role, perpetually knocking out the heartbeat of the struggle. It was fitting now that we were ‘occupying’ a jail that our struggle there be marked by a similar cadence.”

This is a commonly forgotten trope when we are taught about the music of the ‘60s and protest music in general: that, rather than artists leading the people, it is a widespread, deeply rooted social movement that buoys erstwhile “fringe” artists out of isolation and into a position of greater confidence and collaboration. When that kind of confidence and momentum gains enough steam, sometimes even the calcified structures of the music industry have to take notice.

I Believe in the People

Maybe then we shouldn’t be surprised that even the most embedded, mainstream music figures are visiting the Occupy protests. Cynics might sneer at the notion of Russell Simmons, Kanye West or Katy Perry show up to rub elbows with the tent-dwellers in Zuccotti Park, or turn their nose up to how “cool” it’s become to protest.

But that, actually, is the point. These are arguably the artists and personalities most beholden to the powers that be of the music industry (an industry that, once again, is controlled by the one percent). Perry and Simmons may have nothing to lose by strolling for a few photo ops among the masses, but there’s an air of it that also smacks of biting the hand that feeds you. If these artists are gaining the confidence to be out there in the first place, it means that the tectonic plates of our cultural are opening wide enough for real musical rebels to show their true colors.

It’s times like these where the ever-shifting lines between “mainstream” and “underground” become even more blurred. For the past several years that line has probably been the boldest in the world of hip-hop, where enough new labels are spun off every few years to give the true head an ulcer. The division between “conscious”, “bling”, “gangsta”, “backpacker” and all the rest have always said more about the needs of business than the needs of music anyway, but the unity displayed by rappers around the Occupy movement may signal that these distinctions are finally headed for the dustbin.

Two particular heavy-hitters in the underground (“conscious” is too tame a label; “militant” might be better), have already been moved to release mix-tapes primarily inspired by Occupy. #OccupyTheAirwaves, released in mid-October by Bronx duo Rebel Diaz, is what one familiar with their work would expect: thick, eclectic beats overlaid with deftly overlaid with lyrics channeled through their own Chilean revolutionary upbringing into supporting the burgeoning movement. Meanwhile, Immortal Technique, who has been a regular fixture at Occupy Wall Street since its inception, has released The Martyr, a mix-tape dripping with his signature sneering rage directed against “The Rich Man’s World (1%).”

Both mix-tapes have received almost overnight popularity—not just from the wide circuit of hip-hop sites, but from outlets who before turned a blind eye to these artists’ impressive work. On October 17th, David Mongomery of The Washington Post (whose music coverage can hardly be called “cutting edge”) featured Rebel Diaz in his piece on songs inspired by Occupy and quoted lyrics from their track “We the 99%.” The very next day, as if to highlight just how out of touch and confused the mainstream media have become, The New York Times published an article where author James C. McKinley chortled on about how Occupy Wall Street “[has] yet to find an anthem.”

For his own part, the buzz drummed up by The Martyr on the hip-hop and indie music blogs landed Immortal Technique an all-too-rare interview with MTV News where he shared a take on today’s hip-hop—and indeed the world in general—that may have made a few of the network’s execs squirm:

“As a revolutionary, there are certain aspects of the ego that have to die. We have to lose this sense of ‘self, self, self’ all the time, which is very hard because hip-hop in itself as a genre is really centered around one’s self. Like ‘I’m the best person in the world, I’m the best rapper, I’ve got more money than you.’ You know? It’s interesting to see the public’s reaction to that; they’re singing along with the lyrics like they’re the richest person, like they have money too, and then they go home to, like, a hovel!”

If Occupy has provided a platform that’s lifted hip-hop’s underground soldiers into the limelight, then so has it given mainstream artists dissatisfied with their own chains a forum with which to speak out. The best glimpse of this came not from Perry, Simmons or Kanye, but still, more than a month later, from the example of Lupe Fiasco.

A year ago, Lupe didn’t have much of a voice at all. Sure, he had Grammys under his belt and The Cool had gone gold. But he had also been battling with Atlantic Records to even get a release date for his next album. Label executives had always been clumsy at handling Lu; a straight-edge Muslim whose rhymes have always reflected his parents’ anti-establishment Black Panther politics doesn’t exactly fit with their conception of what sells, and they had repeatedly rejected the material he put in front of them. It was only after fans threatened to protest outside Atlantic’s headquarters that a March release was announced. Even then, Lupe was open about how unhappy he was with some of the material on what became Lasers.

What was seen on 11 October at the BET Hip-Hop Awards, however, was a fundamentally different Lupe Fiasco. Like The Economist, like MTV and The New York Times, BET is obviously no bastion of radicalism. In fact, there are those who argue that if any force in popular culture as come close to completely sterilizing hip-hop’s rebel spirit, it’s been Robert L. Johnson’s multimillion dollar TV empire.

And yet, somehow, in the midst of this enemy territory, Lupe managed to perform “Words I Never Said” (a song that already stirred some controversy for its unblinking criticism of Obama’s silence during the ‘09 bombardment of Gaza). Not only was he wearing a t-shirt with “#Occupy” emblazoned across the front, but with a Palestinian flag-scarf hanging from his mic stand. In the background hung a jumbo-tron bluntly flashing words like “War on terror… Bull****,” “Ghetto” and “Take Your Home Away.” And just for good measure, instead of Skylar Grey, the song’s hook was sung by Erykah Badu wearing that most villified and misunderstood symbols of post-9/11 America: a burqa.

No doubt that pulling off a performance like this takes some guts. It’s entirely possible that Lupe was planning on performing “Words I Never Said” anyway, but closer look at the song’s lyrics, however, reveal timeliness:

“I really think the war on terror is a bunch of bullshit
Just a poor excuse for you to use up all your bullets
How much money does it take to really make a full clip
9/11 building 7 did they really pull it
Uhh, And a bunch of other cover ups
Your child’s future was the first to go with budget cuts
If you think that hurts then, wait here comes the uppercut
The school was garbage in the first place, that’s on the up and up
Keep you at the bottom but tease you with the upper-crust
You get it then they move it so you never keeping up enough”

More than just a few quibbles here and there, this song attempts a worldview that blames the whole system from top to bottom (even seemingly drifting toward conspiracy theory with the “building 7” line, which Lupe has clarified he included to provide a context of mistrust, not because he actually buys what the 9/11 Truthers have to say).

Here, in the midst of so much corporate banality and spectacle, were the artistic and political margins being thrust back into the center. What a mere year ago might have been a place where artists like Lupe Fiasco sought to tone it down became a place to say “screw it” and let his flag fly... literally. After donating fifty tents to Occupy Wall Street, visiting several other occupations and defending them repeatedly in the media, there’s no doubt that the movement has his back, and the inspiration swings both ways.

Speaking with’s Chuck “Jigsaw” Creekmur, Lupe said: “[w]e always have these kinds of eras or these philosophies or these events that we kind of hold dear to and always go back to as we start to try and plan our future, what we use as kind of a precedent to make our decisions upon. I think the Occupy movement is going to be that… This is a new flag, representing the new kind of era or a new generation. The youth of the generation to come is going to use this as a precedent to deal with the way they live their lives.”

Self-aware as he is, Lupe certainly knows that this current generation stands on the broad shoulders of yesterday’s cultural revolutionaries. Forty years ago, while serving a sentence for possession in Jackson Prison, John Sinclair, manager of the MC5, UP!, Rationals and other radical rock bands of the ‘60s, wrote about the groundbreaking potential of soul and rock music: “I mean the music says it all, it’s a precise metaphor for the situation and just to hear Richard Penniman scream ‘Womp-bob-a-loo-momp-a-wompan-bam-boom!’ into the face of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles and the New York Yankees is enough to get the whole rest of the picture.”

Even in Sinclair’s far-out, hippie-fied language, it’s not hard to get exactly what he means. Art, after all, can’t make a revolution by itself, but it’s also impossible to have a revolution without art. Only time will tell where exactly the Occupy movement is headed, but even at this early hour it’s already become an indisputable part of our culture. No matter what one thinks about Occupy Wall Street or its nationwide counterparts, there can be little doubt that its very existence represents a “before” and “after” kind of moment.

There’s a reason we remember these moments in such a holistic way, why it’s impossible to think of Civil Rights without Odetta or Vietnam without Santana. It’s because during these great upheavals, when people cross that line from being spectators to actors, culture in general takes on a more vital, immediate and dynamic existence. It’s because in moments like these, everything means so much more than it once did, and the people who might have once shrugged their shoulders now believe they have an ability to re-shape the world in their own interests. In the broadest sense, that’s what Occupy is.

Forty years from now, people will be writing books on the art and music, literature and culture that came out of this moment in time. They’ll be able to do so because a movement of ordinary people made it possible.

First appeared at


Today also marked the official launch of Punks Against Apartheid. Its been majorly delayed but is finally here, and folks should by all means join us in our upcoming campaigns. And don't forget to tune in to CKUT's Roots Rock Rebel tonight to hear me interviewed by fellow PAA signatory Aaron Lakoff about the network's aim and future.

Due to the holiday, the next post on Rebel Frequencies will be on Monday, November 28th. Those subscribed to the RF e-bulletin can expect it to arrive that day. In the meantime, check out my review of Lowkey's new album from Electronic Intifada, re-published today at

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Beats and Bombs?

According to Hillary Clinton, “hip-hop is America.” This might be surprising to anyone who remembers her playing the race card during her 2008 bid for the Democratic nomination. Those of us old enough to remember her husband Bill’s attacks on Sista Souljah during his own run for the White House back in ‘92 are surely scratching our heads even harder at this quizzical embrace.

As always, though, Secretary of State Clinton has her agenda. When asked by CBS News what she meant by that, she said that hip-hop can help “rebuild the image” of United States’ foreign policy. "You know it may be a little bit hopeful, because I can't point to a change in Syrian policy because Chen Lo and the Liberation Family showed up. But I think we have to use every tool at our disposal."

For those who don’t know, Chen Lo and the Liberation Family are a Brooklyn based jazz-rap group who are now the crown jewel in Clinton and company’s attempt to “rebuild” America’s sullied image. The program she’s referring to is called “The Rhythm Road,” an initiative launched by the US State Department in collaboration with Lincoln Center in 2005 to “share America’s unique contribution to the world of music and to promote cross-cultural understanding and exchange among nations worldwide.” Though primarily a jazz-based project, it didn’t take long for it to spread its vulturous wings into the world of hip-hop. Since ‘05, the tour has made its way into West and North Africa, the Middle East and reached well into Asia, specifically targeting heavily Muslim nations.

The irony here might seem obvious: a musical style and genre that (much like jazz in its hey-day) gestated as a response to America’s vicious history of racism, poverty and outright brutality, now being used to paint a pretty picture of this nation as a dynamic, equal-opportunity nation even as its own inequalities stubbornly persist. And yet, not long after the CBS piece broke, there were elements in hip-hop’s grassroots stumbling over themselves to praise the development.

Biz Jones, writer for, titled his own piece “US Drops Hip-Hop Envoys, Not Bombs, to Kill Overseas Tension.” And though Jones’ article touched on the criticisms of the Rhythm Road project, even the title is more than a bit disingenuous.

Just to review, even as the media has remained fixated on the “victory” in Iraq, Barack Obama’s administration has sent more troops to Afghanistan (even presiding over the country’s deadliest month since the beginning of the occupation). He has overseen covert drone-bombing missions into Pakistan, Yemen and who knows where else. And, he sat on his hands while deals were made for the Saudi crushing of the Bahraini revolution in exchange for a NATO bombardment of Libya. A more accurate title for Jones’ article would be “US Drops Hip-Hop Envoys and Bombs...”

That has soft-pedaled this contradiction isn’t necessarily a surprise. During the ‘08 campaign its writers were among the chorus proclaiming Obama “the first hip-hop president,” fixated on his youth and apparent affinity for the culture. The term itself became the subject of endless debate, especially after the inauguration. After all, if rap and hip-hop provided the soundtrack for struggle in Black America, and if a country built on slavery could finally elect an African American to the highest office of political power, then maybe the struggle of hip-hop had finally succeeded. Maybe the fact that Jay-Z was being name-dropped from the corridors of power and Common invited to the White House signified a final end to the poverty, the brutality, the colonization and abject bigotry long leveled against people of color in the US.

As we all know, liberal utopias aside, this hasn’t been the case. The Great Recession (you know, that one we’re being told is supposedly over?) has taken its greatest toll on African Americans. And just as Obama has provided a continuity for America’s imperial ambitions abroad, so has he done nothing as the axe of austerity has fallen on social services, public sector unions and our most deprived schools, all of which have had a disproportionate fallout for communities of color.

At best, all of this makes state-sponsored programs such as the Rhythm Road into a smokescreen--and a rather shoddy one to boot. At worst, it’s simply a confirmation of the very thing the program is suppose to be covering up-America’s continued denial of basic rights and dignity at home and abroad. Hip-hop acts may want to seriously ask themselves whether they’re doing this rich, bottom-up resistance culture any favors by being associated with the Rhythm Road.

This isn’t the US government’s first arrogant attempt at harnessing rebel music for its own aims. During the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, the State Department organized tours of jazz luminaries like Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington to Asia, Africa and the Middle East on similar diplomatic tours. The overarching aim of these tours was to promote, in the words of jazz biographer Penny Von Eschen, "a sense of shared suffering, as well as the conviction that equality could be gained under the American political system.”

Whether these artists were aware of the propaganda role they were playing is debatable (especially in the case of Ellington and Gillespie, both of whom played fundraisers for the Communist Party in the ‘30s and remained sympathetic to socialist ideas for their entire lives). Much more obvious was the hypocrisy at play. As the US trotted integrated jazz groups to audiences around the world, back home that same American political system was turning dogs and fire-hoses on Southern Blacks attempting to gain that same integration.

What seems most pompous--then and now--is the notion that America has some kind of ownership over this music, and that it’s vitality can be brought from above rather than gestate from below. Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim were learning trumpet and piano under the conditions of apartheid South Africa well before Goodman and Armstrong showed up on their shores. The jazz influenced highlife genre had been thriving for decades in Ghana and Liberia without the aid of the US State Department.

Today, the most vibrant songs in hip-hop aren’t being taught by Americans to Arabs, but Arabs to Americans. The past year has seen songs like “Raid Lebled” by Tunisian rapper El General, “Not Your Prisoner” and “Rebel” by Cairo’s Arabian Knightz, rocket round the world on a wave of revolution. Often these songs have been enough to earn their composers stints in jail or death threats for the crime of criticizing their countries’ regimes--regimes that, more often than not, are backed to the hilt by the US.

Sphinx, a member of Arabian Knightz who for years has endured police harassment and censorship, recently told me in an interview:

“Whether the US is using hip hop as a tool for ‘diplomacy’ or not doesn’t change the fact that hip-hop was already growing in the region. They might have just realized that and tried to infiltrate it for their own gains as they always do, but hip-hop in Arabia is still pure and for the people by the people.”

Viewed from the bottom up, these artists reveal that while the American music industry has been doing its best to file down all of rap’s rough and rebellious roots, young people in the world’s most oppressed corners have brought it back with a vengeance. And with it, they’re reminding the rest of the planet that the people of these nations have the right to determine their own culture, their own destinies.

And that, in essence, is what the US is attempting to halt, not promote, with the Rhythm Road. It’s why, even as Chen Lo and the Liberation Family grace stages in Syria and other nations, the United States remains mum on Morocco’s imprisonment of Casablanca-based rapper Haked. Likewise for Israel’s censorship of Palestinian rappers.

Legendary jazz drummer Art Blakey, when asked in the ‘50s why his music’s anti-racism was so often couched in hidden messages, responded “those that don’t know and those that don’t need to know, don’t need to know.”

In other words, if you don’t get it, you don’t get it. Hillary Clinton, who views hip-hop as little more than a chess piece (her own words) doesn’t get it. Neither, really, does Barack Obama. Hip-hop isn’t a culture of manipulation, smoke and mirrors spoken in the language of the pith-helmeted emissaries of “Western civilization.” It’s a voice of the voiceless, a cry against invisibility coming from those who have tasted repression’s boot the most. And while it might be a kind of America, it’s certainly not the oppressor’s America (or Egypt or Morocco

Lately, it’s rebel spirit is manifesting in a lot more than just our music. Sooner or later, Obama, Clinton, and the rest of the empire’s benefactors are going to find themselves mic checked.

First appeared at SOCIARTS.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Occupy Reggie's!

Anyone and everyone who can be at this show absolutely should. Good music, decent beer, and a great cause. Yes, that is the Chicago Afrobeat Project attached. And yes, that is absolutely Novemeber 25th on the flyer--Black Friday--but can you think of a better way to spend the day where we have consumerism crammed down our throats?

So ditch the malls, shopping centers, long lines and crap parking. Come listen to some exhilarating music, kick back a few drinks and talk about the next steps for Occupy Chicago and the movement in general over the winter.


Occupy Chicago Presents:

Rally at Reggies with Chicago Afrobeat Project &
James Brown tribute Get Up With The Get Downs

Bus Pick-Ups: Begin at 7:45 p.m.
Showtime: 9 p.m.

Occupy Chicago will be hosting the Rally at Reggies with Chicago Afrobeat Project and James Brown tribute Get Up With The Get Downs on Friday, November 25 beginning at 8 p.m. Tickets to the event include transportation to/from four locations in Chicago as well as free beer provided by Half Acre Brewery while on the bus.

Ages: 17+
Address: 2105 S. State St.
Cost: $10 advance, $12 day of show
Advance Ticket Sales from Reggie’s Website:
8:00 p.m. Doors open
9:00 – 10:30 p.m. Get Up With The Get Downs
10:45 – 11 p.m. Occupy Chicago Guest Speaker
11 p.m. – 1 a.m. Chicago Afrobeat Project with live artist Chadwick; dancers likely

Friday, November 18, 2011

BDS Update: We Have Real Strength

Next week will see the official launch (after much delay) of the Punks Against Apartheid network and website. November 23rd to be exact. I'll be appearing on CKUT Montreal's Roots Rock Rebel radio show that night to discuss with host Aaron Lakoff (also a PAA supporter) why PAA is important. It will air 10pm to midnight. But you'll also be able to listen online, and I'll be sure to post it here at RF after the archive goes up.

There's been a lot that's happened since PAA won our "no room for Jello" campaign back in June. Not just Jello's trip to Israel and Palestine either. There's been the spread of protests into Tel Aviv, and the contradiction presented by its neglect and simultaneous need to take up apartheid and the occupations. There's been the debacle over Palestinian statehood and the apparent toothlessness of both the UN and the Palestinian Authority. There's been the release of Palestinian political prisoners, the dawn of the Palestinian Freedom Rides, and the woefully under-reported repression of the most recent flotilla into Gaza.

All of these point to a sharpening of the struggle for Palestinian self-determination. Viewed in the atomized way that the mainstream media presents them, these events simply seem a collection of separate incidents with little bearing on each other. Viewed holistically, however, we start to see the self-movement of Palestinians being reinvigorated by the Arab revolutions. We start to see the fighting spirit of those revolutions making its way (however narrowly) into Israeli young people and the potential to begin questioning the tenets of rabid, right-wing Zionism. And, of course, all of this takes place as the Occupy movement storms onto the world stage and begins to come to grips with what it means to actually transform the planet, from economics to culture and even music.

Is there still a need for a group like Punks Against Apartheid in the midst of all this? More than ever. And Zdob si Zdub should take note.


On top of my appearance on CKUT, I'll be penning an article on "Why Apartheid Isn't Punk" in the very near future that will attempt to be a post-mortem on the Jello campaign and assessing the future of PAA. So, as always, stay tuned, subscribe, keep reading and keep fighting!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Soundtrack to the Human Struggle

“I identify myself as human.” These are the first words that Lowkey says to me. And really, that’s the best way to describe his new album Soundtrack to the Struggle. It’s been two years since the Iraqi-British rapper released his debut album — lots has happened, both to him personally and to the world at large.

The Arab revolutions have reframed any and all genuine rebel music. Lowkey saw his radical rhymes gain unprecedented attention when “Long Live Palestine” unexpectedly became the most popular hip-hop download on Amazon UK in January last year. On the other side of the pond, right-wing media figure Glenn Beck went out of his way to mock Lowkey, which arguably has had the effect of making him even more well-known stateside.

Lowkey (whose real name is Kareem Dennis) retains a refreshing amount of humility throughout all of this, as is evidenced by the 26 tracks of this boldly original new album. Yes, you read that right: 26 tracks. That kind of length normally makes for an unwieldy listening experience — especially in the world of “political” artists, where you can’t throw a rock without hitting a hackneyed slogan.

Because Lowkey keeps it close to the heart, however, the album’s ninety-plus minutes remain an engaging listen. One can plausibly argue that the “struggle” this album provides a soundtrack for is just as much his own personal struggle as that of the world at large. The opening title track features the profound and memorable line “I am the product of the system I was born to destroy.” It’s a lyric that may as well apply to any of us. And there’s the rub.

From here, Lowkey takes us through his most general beefs with that system — the excess (“Too Much”), the violence and brutality (the humorously disjointed “Keep Your Hand On Your Gun”), the scapegoating (“Terrorist,” target of Glenn Beck’s derision). It would be easy — and enjoyable — enough to keep it on this straightforward material level, and the next track, “Something Wonderful,” is on the surface a solid anti-sexist track.

But as we’ve been led in this direction, Lowkey has snuck us into his own fears, pains and deep sense of empathy. “Something Wonderful” isn’t just a blase denunciation, it’s a profoundly vulnerable glimpse, along with the next track “Dreamers,” into the hurt of watching others suffer:

“I’ve seen my brother die and seen my mother cry
Seen the winds change with the flutter of a butterfly
Seen people get sectioned for life, I think and wonder
A small twist of fate that could’ve been my brother
Twenty-five years of life can say thus far
I always have wondered who the sane ones are
Though I live by the words ‘fear not,’ [but] I’m afraid
When I wrote this so many tears dropped on the page.”

Labels are insufficient

In a music industry eager to slap the titles “conscious,” “gangsta,” or “underground” on anything hip-hop, songs like these are what makes this album different. Lowkey’s not afraid to be more complex than any of this, while also being fearless in standing up for himself and his beliefs. Lots of artists would love for their work to deserve the simple designation of “human.”

When I ask why such a broad label is the one that applies best to his music, Lowkey answers that “labels are rather insufficient, I would go as far as to say they are limitations, especially within the genre of hip-hop. It is almost a way of ghettoizing a person’s work and keeping them on a leash. My music is about being human, that is the essence of what I attempt to appeal to in my music, the experience of being a flawed human being.”

This context, and the journey from political to personal and back to the political again made with so little lyrical effort, gives Soundtrack its poignancy. Go ahead; throw a rock. You won’t hit anything hackneyed.

For Lowkey, these aren’t just political beliefs; they are expressions of deeply-felt outrage rooted in the real, human experience of injustice, and the essence of solidarity.

“Ultimately, I want my music to be about empowerment of the listener rather than self-glorification,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “I believe all good music is soul music, music which moves the soul and interacts with that part of us which cannot be physically defined. I feel hip-hop allows you a large amount of scope for expression, there is a lot you can say with one song.”

It’s a good thing that Lowkey has so firmly rooted this album in his own humanity, and that he’s dared to plumb the depths of his own soul, because the lion’s share of the album’s last two thirds is relentless in his attack on what he terms “capitalism on steroids.”

Yes, that’s Tariq Ali sampled on “Skit 2,” delivering an eloquent critique of Barack Obama (“if you wear Caesar’s clothes, you have to behave like Caesar”) before Lowkey launches into “Obamanation.” And he’s just as devastating in his assault on the American empire’s destruction of Iraq in “Cradle of Civilization”:

“Is there enough words that can say
How deeply Baghdad is burning today?
And it’s not about pity, hands out or sympathy
It’s about pride, respect, honor and dignity
Babies being born with deformities from uranium
Those babies aren’t just Iraqi, they’re Mesopotamian
What I view on the news is making me shiver
Cause I look at the victims and see the same face in the mirror
This system of division makes it harder for you and me
Peace is a question, the only answer is unity!”

Even here, though, Lowkey couches it in terms of his own sense of disjointed identity — not quite Arab, not quite English — and his mother’s pain at being forced to flee Iraq in the 1970s. He never quite loses sight of what it is that makes these ideas matter in the first place.

A healthy perspective on “the biz”

Likewise for “Long Live Palestine.” It might be trite to say that an album’s most famous single is also its best song, but that (hopefully) won’t stop readers from believing that we’re only talking about degrees of brilliance here. Still, the balance between the personal and political are quite possibly in the most perfect balance here, even within two individual lines (“How many more resolutions have to be violated? / How many more children have to be annihilated?”), and the incorporation of heart-tugging strings and Shadia Mansour’s beautiful voice on the hook merely drives it all home. That a version of this, of all songs, was briefly a number one download on Amazon UK is truly a thing to behold.

This doesn’t mean that Lowkey now has his sights set on becoming the “next big thing” and racking up the Grammys. On the contrary, he exudes a large amount of distrust for the industry on tracks like “My Soul.” In our interview he revealed a great amount of healthy perspective on “the biz.”

“I think a song like mine which denounces Zionism as an anti-Semitic ideology being placed next to [US pop star] Rihanna in the charts, for example, sends a very powerful message to those in positions of power and influence,” Lowkey told The Electronic Intifada.

“It ultimately says, people agree with this sentiment, it exists, we exist and you can’t suppress it … I do, however, feel that getting too close to that world can be like playing with fire, and also can very negatively affect the art you are trying to create,” he added.

And so, Lowkey remains thankfully and joyously independent in his ability to speak truth to power through his rhymes. Soundtrack includes not just one but two songs titled “Obamanation,” as if to make doubly clear how little faith he has in the man who during his campaign was dubbed the “first hip-hop president.”

“I believe people should be held accountable for their actions,” Lowkey explained, “so really the question is how could I not make two ‘Obamanation’ songs? Should I leave fashionable war and murder to go unchallenged because the Commander-in-Chief has apologists that include rappers I grew up listening to?”

The quick answer is no, and Lowkey is more than happy to elaborate on the track along with M1 from dead prez, Black the Ripper and a sample of Lupe Fiasco’s declaration: “Gaza Strip was getting bombed, Obama didn’t say shit!” Of course, these lines have only recently experienced a rebirth in relevance; Lupe himself performed them to a live, nationwide audience at the BET Hip-Hop Awards wearing an “#Occupy” t-shirt and with a Palestine scarf draped over his mic.

This performance, however, along the increase in hip-hop acts allying themselves with the Occupy Wall Street movement, begs yet another question. Is there an increasing amount of room for hip-hop artists in the mainstream willing to spit the truth?

The answer: only if the kinds of fiercely independent, principled artists like Lowkey keep doing what they do and get the support they need. If this songs like these are indeed the Soundtrack to the Struggle, and if the struggle is growing, then maybe a fundamentally different world is on the table after all. Maybe, just maybe, we might be on the verge of a society, a culture and music that is more, well, human.

First published at the Electronic Intifada.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

If You Can't Crush it, Commodify it

Looks like the rumors that Jay-Z and Rocawear were pulling their "Occupy All Streets" t-shirts are untrue. Turns out they were just sold out. What a coincidence; so did Jay-Z. The difference is he did it so long ago he's probably forgotten how it feels.

The best summation of Jay-Z's position in all of this was said by a Wall Street occupier a few days ago: "Jay-Z, as talented as he is, has the political sensibility of a hood rat... To attempt to profit off the first important social moment of 50 years with an overpriced piece of cotton is an insult to the fight for economic civil rights known as #occupywallstreet."

Russell Simmons has said that the insistence that none of the shirts' proceeds would go to OWS was "media spin," but there hasn't been much evidence to back up that defense. It's telling of the times we're in that the cache of Occupy has gotten so big that these shirts sell out, but it's even more telling that Jay-Z knows this and is unwilling to give any of it back to the grassroots.

It's somewhat appropriate that all this has taken place in the midst of a possibly coordinated assault on Occupy around the country. Not just the raid on Zuccotti Park in New York City, but in Denver, Portland, Philly and other places. Across the board, though these evictions may have been successful, their attempts at crushing Occupy itself have been failures.

Then there's Jay-Z's approach: market the revolution. Rebellion is always cool, and the response of the upper one percent is to find a way to profit off of it and attempt to sterilize it. He most definitely knows that this is his role.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Occupy With Aloha

Attention rebel music fans! You have a new hero! During Obama's Pacific Rim summit this past week, 400 anti-globalization protesters were kept far away by the harsh security. Even then, Obama wasn't able to get away from Occupy.

According to Agence France-Presse, the Hawaiian folk-singer Makana, who was booked as entertainment for the summit, revealed a t-shirt upon taking the stage that read "Occupy With Aloha." He then played this song below.

Not only did he play it, he played it for forty minutes, varying the tempo and arrangement so as not to trigger suspicion. We are truly everywhere!

Monday, November 14, 2011

"We Do it For the Cause..."

On Saturday, we went forward with the concert scheduled in Grant Park for Occupy Chicago. The weather was unseasonably warm, so the factors that canceled it last time weren't even close to being on our minds. The Chicago Police Department, however, had different plans.

No big surprise here. The CPD, under orders from Rahm Emanuel and Police Chief McCarthy, have had it in for Occupy Chicago since day one. As soon as the small squad of bike cops camped out at the head of the park saw the sound-system, they told us that we didn't have a permit (which is kind of specious given that this was a public park) and that any attempt to go forward with the concert would result in arrests.

We went forward anyway, albeit without amplified sound. That somewhere near 200 kids popped up to hear some of these radical rhymes, and stuck around even after finding out that it would be a capella, speaks toward the hunger for this kind of music to take real root. Of course all the acts were excellent; Kevin Coval was, as always, a consummate MC for the evening, and the Louder Than A Bomb All-Stars definitely lived up to their name. FM Supreme and Kris De La Rash likewise did Chicago hip-hop proud. And as for BBU, well, see for yourself:

Friday, November 11, 2011

Jay-Z: The One Percent

If your movement is ever big enough that the owners of labels and sports teams are looking to cash in on your "brand," you know the folks in power are paying attention. It also means, unfortunately, that you have to deal with this crap.

Jay-Z is definitely trying to cash in too. Unlike his fellow Throne man Kanye, he hasn't bothered showing up at Occupy Wall Street. He has, however, hatched a plan for Rocawear to sell t-shirts reading "Occupy All Streets." And, according to The Hollywood Reporter, he's not planning to give any of the proceeds, at all, to the movement.

Surely there are those out there who see hypocrisy in this disdain. After all, I've made no bones that I have quite a bit of loathing for copyright laws and traditional notions of ownership. This is different, if for no other reason than Hova can afford it. He is, as Rosa Clemente has called him, a "hip-hop capitalist." He's not just a rich rapper, he's a rapper who owns the means of production (and in more way than one).

That he is looking to make money off the success of a grassroots movement reliant entirely on donations while refusing to give back merely reflects that he is ultimately not on the side of the protesters. He was, of course, among the many profile rappers to endorse Obama. In this day and age, when folks are really hurting and Obama has done little to alleviate the pain, it's criminal to stand on the sidelines. Jay-Z's done one worse--he's enriching himself on our backs. There's no better proof of whose side he stands on.


The role of capitalism in music is going to be one of many topics discussed this Monday at Texas A&M, Corpus Christi, where I'll be speaking on "New Noise: Rebel Music In the Age of Crisis and Revolt." If you're in the area, don't hesitate to swing by!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Death of Hipsterism, pt. 2 (or "How Pitchfork Got Even Snottier")

It’s not hard to see this happening. Their festival has become such a big to-do that it’s expanded to international horizons. Following on the discontent expressed at their booking of Odd Future at their Chicago fest, they went ahead and booked that other controversy-magnet of the indie world for their Paris dates: Iceage. And like the Odd Future fiasco, the planners and managers of Pitchfork Paris seemed indifferent to the Danish post-core group’s ambivalent use of fascist imagery.

Though Iceage pulled out due to injury, it does highlight the site and organizers’ increasing lack of concern with all but their straight, white, male readers. All of this sounds disappointingly familiar to those of us who, five years ago, were excited about the advent of P-Fork for its refreshing independence from the “we’re paid enough to not give a shit” attitude of the big-time music biz.

Easy though it might be in the midst of all this to simply turn Pitchfork into a whipping boy, their own state is merely representative of the broader schism taking place in indie culture nowadays. Those we’ve derisively labeled hipsters for the past several years, those snotty scions of the upper-middle class who have fetishized the usual trappings (the skinny jeans and porn-staches, the PBR and parody of working class stereotype) have differentiated themselves from the kids who’ve long come around because they want an alternative. For the most part, the former have become that much more obvious simply because they’ve been able to afford the irony (looking like you don’t care costs money!) while the rest of us have in Great Recession America been forced to resort to more creative, grassroots ways to forge a cultural identity.

I dipped into this development in an article I wrote back in the springtime. What makes it even more obvious now is that the world is increasingly defined by the slogan “we are the 99 percent.” It would be straight-up untrue to say that the folks at Pitchfork or other icons of hipsterdom are somehow part of the 1 percent, but neither are they exactly on the bottom fifty. They’re part of that class contingent who, in times of desperation end up going with revolution or reaction.

To be fair, as bad as things are, they haven’t gotten that desperate yet. Nonetheless, the gap that exists between the enthusiasm and creativity exhibited at Occupy and Pitchfork’s shrug of the shoulders is rather telling. Over the past six weeks, through hundreds of posts in their news section, Pitchfork have reported on artist support for Occupy a grand total of six times, and had zero analytical articles on how the phenomenon is shaping music. No mention of the new artists that have started to gain a profile from connecting with the movement, not even any mention of the new mix-tapes from Immortal Technique or Rebel Diaz despite sizable profiles in the underground hip-hop scene. Rather head-scratching isn’t it?

Looking at economically explains much of this. As the chasm between middle class hipsters and the working class and poor kids who make up the majority of the indie scene has widened, so have true colors of the former become more apparent in their political and social makeup. Kreayshawn, the latest hipster flavor of the month, has been open about the deprived background she came from. Her casual bandying about of the word “nigger,” however, and her indifference to the effect it has on people coming from a white rapper, smacks much more of the kind of elitism, nose-upturned attitude that has given kids who live in the un-sheltered world such a burning resentment of hipsters in the first place.

Pitchfork are clearly heading down a road parallel to that of the once upstart MTV. That’s not to say they’re going to start doing music videos. It’s merely to say that they’re becoming big business. Big business by its very nature is out of touch. As its own ivory tower grows taller, its own concept of what folks relate to grows fuzzier and fuzzier. What was once a cool withdrawal begins to take on the trappings of simple disdain for the groundlings, and suddenly it makes sense for a festival once known for its "social responsibility" to book groups that use racist and sexist imagery. Those who take offense be damned.

So is it with the rest of hipsterism. In their strife to maintain relevance, they have no choice but to go back to their own outdated notions (notions that were at best contradictory and at worst insulting) and fall behind the curve. Those who feed on the notion of self-relevance eventually become like the oroboros, eating themselves until there’s nothing left but an empty shell.


Once again, there will be an article appearing very soon here at RF (published through on how Occupy has already started transforming our music. Don't forget to keep checking in. And if you're in the Corpus Christi area on Monday, feel free to stop by Texas A&M, where I'll be speaking on today's "New Noise."

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

BDS Update: First a Delay, Then a Cancellation

Searching "Zdob si Zdub" and "Israel" will yield, before anything else, a page that reads "Zdub si Zdub: Don't Play Apartheid Israel" on the website for the US Campaign for the Cultural Boycott of Israel. Zdub si Zdub are Moldova's best-known punk group and arguably one of the most world-renowned groups to come out of the small Eastern European state. Their mixture of prog rock Eastern European folk with a more familiar blend of ska and punk rock is vaguely reminiscent of Gogol Bordello, but original enough to be plenty memorable. When they participated in this year's Eurovision song contest and placed 12th.

They were also scheduled to play a show on November 5th at Tel Aviv's Barby Club (same venue that was to host Jello Biafra until he canceled this past summer). Going on their website now, however, reveals that the show has been postponed until March.

It's not quite clear whether the campaign to get Zdob si Zdub to cancel was the reason for this delay; that was clearly the case in getting the Yardbirds to delay their own show in Israel. Though, as the USACBI campaign page notes, there are still plenty of artists around the world unaware of the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions:

"The chances are high that when they contracted to play in Israel, they were not informed of the boycott. Usually, the only way bands can often be contacted are through their booking agents or management. Punk bands are noted for making stands against government oppression. Punk bands are not known for breeching boycotts or crossing picket lines that exist for causes like human rights and justice. It can only be assumed that these punkers from Moldavia [sic] are not aware of the boycott because they have not been contacted. The BDS movement has not taken hold in Modavia [sic] or Russia, and apparently it needs much wider exposure in the Netherlands and the USA."

Knowledge of Israel's crimes against the Palestinians, however, doesn't have to be dug deep to find. The realities of Cast Lead and the Flotilla are known world over, and for the most part sympathy rightfully lies with Palestine. It's not a stretch to imagine, upon hearing that such a thing as the global movement for BDS exists, bands are delaying shows to bide their time and figure out what their next move is.

It's certainly true that the Yardbirds have much less excuse, being from the UK where the campaign is among the most successful in Europe. Either way, however, BDS activists need to see delays like this as a chance to really win the debate. Never was there a better time to get involved with Punks Against Apartheid--who are planning a relaunch of their site in a mere two weeks. Campaigns like this can work. Need proof? Read Jello Biafra's lone, thoughtful (if still frustratingly flawed in some ways) statement about is recent trip to Israel and Palestine.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Louder Than A Bomb at Occupy Chicago

This event was originally scheduled for October 25th but was delayed because of rain. Hopefully the weather will smile on us on this Saturday, the 12th, because not only is this going to be the first large-scale music event being pulled off by the Arts & Recreation committee of Occupy Chicago, but it's going to be at the infamous "Horse," the park that we have twice attempted to take and gotten ourselves thrown in jail for. Just to be clear, this concert is totally legal and during curfew hours, so you don't really have an excuse to not show up do you?


"Louder Than A Bomb at Occupy Chicago"
Featuring BBU and many more!

Saturday, November 12
4:00pm - 7:00pm
In the park @ S. Michigan Ave and Congress

Louder Than A Bomb: The Chicago Youth Poetry Festival
in solidarity with Occupy Chicago will host a 99%-er open mic
featuring the hip-hop trio:


Also appearing:

Chance the rapper
LTAB All-stars
FM Supreme
Kris De La Rash
Shannon Matesky
Jamila Woods
Malcolm London
and many more

Hosted by Kevin Coval

Slide thru... soundtrack the movement!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Simmering Sounds: Oakland's Insurgent Culture and the Roots of Rebellion

Nobody who knows what they’re talking about can seriously say they were surprised that Oakland was host to the first American general strike on over sixty years. This is a city that helped birth the Panthers and has remained a stronghold for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (arguably the one union whose militancy has remained unbroken over the past thirty year). It also, not so coincidentally, is where the last general strike in American history took place in 1946.

James Curtis, an executive board member of the ILWU, proclaimed from the front of Oakland’s docks on November 2nd that “this event is long overdue... now they have awoken a sleeping tiger.” That it took sixty-five years and Scott Olsen taking a teargas canister to the forehead speaks to just how deep the tiger’s slumber has been.

Not that it hasn’t been a longtime coming. Oakland has always been much more than San Francisco’s angry cousin; it’s a town whose working class culture has shined through even when the American nightmare sought to bury it. It’s a town whose rowdiness has always been matched by a very real confidence that emanates from its residents. A short piece in Mother Jones published the day before the November 2nd action quoted this scene from the ‘46 strike:

“‘Pistol Packin’ Mama, Lay That Pistol Down’, the number one hit [by country musician Al Dexter], echoed off all the buildings. That first 24-hour period of the 54-hour strike had a carnival spirit. A mass of couples danced in the streets. The participants were making history, knew it, and were having fun.”

Obviously, lots has changed since those days. There was no Taft-Harley Act preventing certain unions from coming out in sympathy (which there was this time around). One would be similarly hard-pressed to hear anyone suggest a country song be blasted over the speakers at a general strike in 2011. Neither of these cold hard facts, however, cover up the fact a culture of down-and-out rebellion has long permeated this city. In fact, it’s difficult to find a single aspect of American culture--in particular music--that hasn’t been transformed for the better by Oakland and the Bay Area.

Isadora Duncan, the radical activist and dance innovator, cut her teeth as a pianist and music teacher in Oakland’s nascent bohemianism in the late 1800s. In 1936, Carla Bley, a major figure in the ‘60s free jazz movement and collaborator in Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, was born in Oakland.

Both left at a relatively young age; Duncan for Paris, Bley for New York. Both, however, have spoken fondly of the city. A far deeper influence of Oakland’s rough and independent culture can be felt in what are arguably the most significant styles of rebel music of the past thirty years: punk and hip-hop.

Growing up, like most young punks, I idolized the punk collective at 924 Gilman Street, officially located in West Berkeley but nonetheless organically connected with the Oakland scene. Here is the venue which had hosted the last show of Operation Ivy, the first shows from Green Day and countless other gigs from grassroots punk mainstays like Bikini Kill, Chumbawamba, MDC and Propagandhi.

Collectively run since 1986, this is a venue that wasn’t only a safe-haven for misfit kids but flat-out refused to book racist, sexist or homophobic bands. I first heard the words “Food Not Bombs” connected to Gilman Street, and also learned that it hosted some of the initial Rock Against Racism shows in the Bay Area (featuring, of course, Op Ivy). Even growing up in DC, the home of Fugazi and Bad Brains, it was impossible to ignore the lessons that this scene had to teach me.

The seamless interplay between punk and the Bay’s radical culture isn’t hard to find. Rancid, arguably the best-known band other than Green Day to emerge from the Gilman scene, have repeatedly written songs chronicling the struggles of working people, in particular to unionize. Let’s Go, the band’s 1994 album notably included the track “Harry Bridges,” an homage to the Australian immigrant leader of the San Francisco dockworkers, who in 1934 spearheaded a general strike that signalled the beginning of the Depression-era strike wave.

Likewise, one doesn’t have to go far to see how the culture of the Bay Area and Oakland has driven hip-hop forward. It was in Oakland that Tupac Shakur first attended the poetry classes of Leila Steinberg in 1988. Steinberg would end up Tupac’s first manager, and assembled the show that got him signed the very next year. One might easily call Shakur’s good fortune in Oakland a kind of kizmet; his own mother Afeni had made it a point to raise him with the revolutionary values of the Black Panthers--founded, of course, in Oakland.

During the early ‘90s, when hip-hop ceased being an “East Coast thing,” Oakland and the Bay Area became second only to Los Angeles in its output, albeit with a great deal less fanfare. One of the many rappers Tupac had occasion to work with while in Oakland was Boots Riley, he too the son of ‘60s radicals, an out-and-out communist and founder of the Coup (in fact, both ‘Pac and Boots appear in E-40’s 1993 video for “Practice Lookin’ Hard”). The city, in particular its East side has produced MCs as diverse at Too Short, Yukmouth and yes, even MC Hammer.

This potent combination of Oakland’s uniquely radical past with modern day rebel culture continues today. After Oscar Grant was killed, local MCs like Mistah FAB were some of the first to pen verses protesting the flagrant police brutality. In the wake of the cops’ near-murder of Scott Olsen, 924 Gilman Street was one of the first venues to assemble a fundraiser to help out with the former Marine’s medical bills.

From Pharoah Sanders to Zion I, from Raphael Saadiq to Filth and Crimpshrine, the East Bay and Oakland have helped produce an artistic voice that’s impossible to ignore. Of course, these pockets have their counterparts elsewhere--in Chicago, New York, Austin and Portland. Calling the rebel culture that’s gestated in the area a predictor of November 2nd’s general strike would be flat-out silly. To say they have nothing to do with one another, or that the unstoppable momentum of the nation’s Occupy hasn’t opened up the greatest opportunity in decades to forge new and exciting forms of insurgent art, would be equally silly.

That our heads are once again turned toward Oakland in that pursuit is simply fitting. It also bears pondering: if this kind of eclectic, diverse and vibrant culture can sink such deep roots without bursting forth until now, how many more explosions of this type do we have in front of us?

First appeared at SOCIARTS.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Occupy the Mainstream?

AlterNet has published a piece doing yet another rundown of artists relating to their nearest Occupy movement. It's written by Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, who is always sharp, so that this particular article is too isn't really surprising. What's especially prescient is the way she frames the argument. In particular she points out that since 9/11 there have been countless pieces bemoaning the state of "political music."

Shepherd's response to this is right on point:

"[T]he idea that there is no political music today is, if I may say so, propagandist BS. There are political musicians, and there is political music—it’s just that the best kind doesn’t necessarily mimic the modes of 50 years ago (goodbye, folk) and the people spewing forth such nonsense aren’t necessarily looking in the right places (hello, hip-hop). Granted, they aren’t exactly populating the top 10 (although here’s a good attempt at chronicling some of the more mainstream), but if you’re not wearing blinders, you can find it—and it totally doesn’t have to suck! Indeed, the Occupy movement is pulling musicians out of the woodwork, with many artists big and small dropping by to show support and perform."

Indeed. If Katy "I-kissed-a-girl-and-brought-softcore-porn-into-pop-music" Perry is turning up at Occupy Wall Street along with husband Russell Brand and Russell Simmons, then that tells you a major shift is taking place. Cynics might say that it's "easy" for Perry to show up, that protest has become cool and we shouldn't get too excited. But that's precisely why we need to get excited. If protest has in fact become cool then it means more young people will be doing it, thinking about the world in different ways, and looking to make change.

Doesn't mean we have to like Katy Perry. Just means we have to acknowledge that the door is opening for new, exciting, socially relevant forms of music and art. Lenin once said "There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen." We are right in the middle of these kinds of weeks, and that goes for our culture too.


Don't forget, there is a piece incoming taking on this issue on a deeper matter, as well as an article on Oakland's radical cultural legacy. So keep checking in!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Occu-Stock: Resistance Rock

Over Halloween weekend, Occupy Providence, even while fighting to maintain their position in Burnside Park, pulled off a mini-festival of sorts. "Occu-Stock" was put together quickly, relying on donated spaces, donated performances, and often donated food and liquor. It still happened, and with some significant local names too, confirming how deep and wide support fr the Occupy Movement is across the US and the world right now.

The Brown Daily Herald called the crowds that turned out "small." Whether the organ of one of the most elitist universities in the country can be trusted is up for debate, but it does seem that, as the alternative weekly Phoenix put it, the fest was also an opportunity for occupiers to "seek direction." Like most other occupations, Providence has come up against its initial obstacles and gained some hard-earned lessons, in particular with the cops.

So Occu-Stock evidently wasn't just a chance to retreat into the solace of art. Even in between rock, hip-hop and folk acts, there were speakers and discussions in the city's participating venues. What's come of these discussions hasn't exactly been made public yet, but it speaks volumes about the kind of new and vibrant culture we're entering if such "mirth" (as they call it) can be accompanied by such serious takes on the movement's next steps. Is there any more potent indicator of genuine rebel music?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Different Kind of Sound Strike

As the sun sets on November 2nd, the first general strike in sixty-five years is winding down in the exact place the last one happened: Oakland. The violence experienced by Occupy Oakland protesters in general and Scott Olsen in particular has shaken even those who might otherwise sympathize from the sidelines into jumping in with both feet. Davey D, of the Hip-Hop Corner, postulates "Hopefully it’s a day that we’ll look back on years from now and see as a watershed moment in history. Hopefully it’ll be a day that we look back upon and see as a crucial turning point in our quest for social and economic justice."

Indeed. Davey is also coming at this from a point of view of having been a central figure in Oakland's relatively militant hip-hop scene. The Coup, Paris, Unity Lewis (a.k.a. Young Precise), Mistah FAB. On top of these artists, all of whom vocally supported the shutting down of the docks today, we have a whole slew of Oakland rappers normally not considered "political" supporting what's happening today. As if to prove this point, even Oakland native MC Hammer is speaking in support of it.

Says D:

"It’s not even about the space that Occupy Oakland reclaimed. Its symbolic, like putting flag in the sand. It’s a space where we can start to discuss what needs to be done and how. It’s a place where we might debate but at the end of the day we can’t forget that this is about the nation’s most powerful banks, financial institutions and corporations and their greed, viciousness and dehumanizing behavior.

"There’d be no tents on Wall Street or in the plaza had it not been for banks getting bailed out after tanking the economy and causing undue hardship for millions of people all over the world...

"Many of us through no fault of our own saw our work hours shrink, 401ks disappear, our jobs shipped overseas and our pay checks cut-some by as much as 20%. At the same time we saw prices rise dramatically from food to rent to bridge tolls.. and while all this was going down and people struggled, we were assaulted by arrogant media pundits and politicos in the pockets of big banks, telling us we ‘should blame ourselves’ for whatever economic hardships we were experiencing. It was this type of callousness that eventually enraged people enough to finally take it to the streets to demand change."

Truth. Some have ruminated on the "coincidence" that Oakland has now hosted both of America's most recent general strikes, albeit more than six decades apart. I say, however, that if you look at the city's culture, if you listen closely to what the artists have been saying, you can hear a little bit of why this all went down the way it did. If you ask me, we could all learn a little something from our friends of the East Bay.


There will be an article, published at SOCIARTS next week, examining Oakland's long history of rebel music. Like everything else at RF, it's not to be missed. So if you haven't subscribed, don't hesitate to do so!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Occupy Music, the Sound of Sunshine

This week's posts will be dedicated to music that's been influenced by the now worldwide Occupy movement or musicians that have been supportive of it. True, there have been posts on this topic already here at RF, and there's also inbound a fuller article on how the movement is potentially transforming our music, but really there's so much of this music now--so widespread has this movement become--that doing it justice is near-impossible. Not that this will stop me from trying. Also, in the interests of full disclosure, having these posts go up this week will allow me time to work on several other projects.

And so, today's video comes from halfway around the world. Michael Franti, perhaps unsurprisingly, has quite a following in Amsterdam, and played for demonstrators there. His ideas have always been more hippie-fied than "new new left." That doesn't change having his presence at an event like this is an excellent development.