Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Wherever His Flag's Flown...

The real question is: are folks really that surprised? Bruce Springsteen has kept a flag flying for progressive working class values for over thirty years now, during a time when it has been incredibly hard to do so. We already know that he's far from the only one who's been looking for a sign of hope for far too long. Even if that hope has come in a very unexpected form--after all, could anyone really have predicted Occupy?--the fact that the Boss has has enthusiastically embraced it can't really be considered out of character.

Some folks, both liberal and conservative, do indeed seem to be a bit perplexed with "We Take Care of Our Own," the first single off of Bruce's upcoming album Wrecking Ball. This excellent blog post sent out via the Rock & Rap Confidential mailing list sums up the way in which some establishment newspapers have prematurely pigeonholed the album as Springsteen's "angriest." The piece is correct in pointing out that this is essentially a back-door attempt at discrediting the actual content of the album.

On the other end of the spectrum there's Salon.com's Stephen Deusner. Deusner provides an excellent, albeit brief, rundown of the Boss' strengths as a songwriter who is able to distill "political" messages into personal parables (i.e. "The River," "Born In the USA," the entire content of The Ghost of Tom Joad). He also sets up a hell of a tall order for Wrecking Ball: "If the first single... is any indication, this will be to Occupy Wall Street what The Rising was to 9/11: the moment when Springsteen takes up a cause and makes sense of an event that has stymied other musicians."

However, he goes on to claim that none of this is really evident in "We Take Care of Our Own." Deusner's exact words are that "Rather than view this historical moment through the eyes of a character, Springsteen writes like he’s using bumper stickers like magnetic poetry. There’s nothing in the song to personalize the outrage, to give it relevance or impact or specificity."

The Hollywood Reporter's take is quite apparently wrong (I'll get to that in a moment), but in some respects, so is the encapsulation at Salon. Interestingly enough, both are wrong for basically similar reasons.

First, the Reporter description of this album as his angriest, at least based off of what we hear in "We Take Care," is laughable. The content of past albums like Magic, Devils and Dust, and even The Rising is much angrier than what this particular song offers up to us. True enough, the tension is audibly there, but there is also a feeling that hope might actually, this time around, be much closer on the horizon this time around, despite the obvious betrayal of America's leaders, than it's ever been.

There's an obvious agenda for establishment press to discredit Springsteen at this point in time. As the critique of the anti-Springsteen hatchet job points out, the accusations of him being a "limousine liberal" and "fake farmer" aren't really that new. The oblique label of "anger" is simply the last feeble attempt at dodging the actual content of the album. Discredit the messenger, and there's no real reason to argue against the message.

At the same time, what has made Deusner's critique miss the mark (not completely but still noticeably) is his own refusal to put this song in context. Working On a Dream, Bruce's previous album, was the first time that I actually felt that his songs lacked real hunger. Just as a reminder, this was his first post-Obama record, when the euphoria of the '08 elections still rang in people's ears. Now, for all of the reasons one would expect, the hunger is back.

In a general sense, the reason that this hunger has returned is possibly the same reason that the Boss has shifted the narrative voice. It's because for the first time in over thirty years, there is a sustained, open-ended movement seeking to give a voice to working people that couldn't care less about what the establishment says about them. It's a movement that has given voice to what countless people have been thinking in absence of that mass voice. That narrative has now been shifted--however insufficiently--in the direction of people power. Maybe Bruce doesn't need to give a face to this movement because that face is its most prominent feature.

The final judgment will certainly have to be reserved on this album for when it is released. If this song is an indicator, though, then this isn't just a return to form for the Boss. It's a return to form in an atmosphere that he and many others have been waiting for: when our artists are providing a soundtrack to struggle rather than substitute for it.


Wrecking Ball will be released on March 6th. There will definitely be a review of it here at Rebel Frequencies. Last week's interview with Ani DiFranco was republished today at SociallistWorker.org, so those who haven't read it yet most definitely should.

Monday, January 30, 2012

We Want More Rebel Art!

Several months ago I announced that I had joined the Arts & Recreation committee of Occupy Chicago. After some time of hard work and meetings, the committee has made the decision to formally launch the Occupy Chicago Rebel Arts Collective.

OCRAC, as it's being called for short:

"[E]xists for the purpose of connecting with artists of all stripes–painting and sculpture, music and poetry, theater and dance–and mobilizing the power of art in the name of a more just and equal world.

"Culture is a right, not a privilege. Times like these are when the spirit of solidarity can break the segregation of the entertainment and arts industries and make our culture more vital, more relevant. When new images, new sounds and new ways of approaching art are forged. When we show that ordinary people have ability to run create culture without the meddling of the upper 1%."

A quick glance at the "Artists" page will see several artists from all over Chicago signing on to the call for solidarity, including Agents of Change, Phillip Morris, Graham Czach and others. We are, however, in great need of other artists (especially non-musicians!) to sign on to the call. If you want to help deepen the movement's roots in the cultural sphere, then by all means, let us know!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

To the Moon, Newt!

I'd be willing to guess that Newt Gingrich has never heard Gil Scott-Heron's "Whitey On the Moon." True, it's a well-known enough track--possibly Gil at his best. Less than a year after his death, his star is arguably bigger than ever. Such is the tragic dynamic of music's most iconic rebels.

Famous as the piece is, I'm still willing to bet that Gingrich hasn't heard it. Why? Probably because in his head, it's "food-stamp music." I also know he's never heard the song because if he had, he'd probably be a little wiser than to demand that we colonize the moon in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Depression. After all the money wasted on bailouts, with forces abroad still stretched thin in the Middle East and Central Asia, with unemployment still stuck at around nine percent, it either takes profound ignorance or profound hubris to talk about space exploration.

So, this one's for Newt. He probably won't be president, and I don't expect he'll learn anything this time either. But the rest of us deserve to keep in mind that it's because of dithering idiots like him that history is once again going in circles forty years later.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

New BBU Single: "The Hood"

As any of Rebel Frequencies' regular readers over the past few years will certainly know that I've done my best to always pump BBU's material whenever I get the chance. Their new single "The Hood" sees one of Chicago's best homegrown militant rap groups evolving stretching into new territory while remaining very true to what it is that has given them such a devoted following in the Midwest.

"The Hood" sees them slow it down just a tad, letting go some of their signature mania (but only a little bit) in favor a hard groove that really lets the lyrics--including by Chicago staple GLC--breathe and stretch out. Yes, you read that right: GLC. Because BBU are, well, blowin' up just that much!

And of course, the guys of BBU continue their knack for an almost eerie sense of timeliness with this release. Seems that nowadays, with Republicans putting food-stamps in their sights and labeling anything vaguely smacking of poverty or non-white skin as depraved, this song comes swaggering into our streams at just the right time.

I could say more, but as always, that's better left to the artists themselves...

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Rhyme of Revolution

The Egyptian revolution is easily one of the most significant uprisings in decades. Millions of workers, students and unemployed took to the streets demanding that the US-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak step down; it’s a struggle that continues even now, several months after Mubarak was overthrown.

Like any true revolution, the massive demonstrations and strikes sent a shock wave through the nation’s culture. Left-wing reporters and bloggers gained global attention, revolutionary poems were written and performed often on the fly in Tahrir Square, and countless songs dedicated to the uprising rocketed around the Internet.

Two of these songs, “Rebel,” and “Not Your Prisoner,” came courtesy of the trio Arabian Knightz, widely regarded as the first hip-hop group in Egypt. Both quickly became anthems of the revolution. After being vaulted to a national and international profile, Arabian Knightz are preparing their first international tour, and are releasing their new album
Uknighted States of Arabia on 25 January--the one-year anniversary of the protests that sparked the revolution.

One of their members, Hesham Alofoq (aka “Sphinx”) spoke to the Electronic Intifada about the history of hip-hop in Egypt and the Middle East, the future of the Egyptian uprising, and the role that music plays in the revolt.


Alexander Billet: There may be a good amount of our audience who don’t know of Arabian Knightz. Can you tell us how the group came together?

Hesham Alofoq: Well, I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but my family’s from Egypt. I went out to Cairo about six years ago for vacation, and when I was out there I met up with Karim and E-Money. I was always an MC, and they said “we do Arabic rap,” and I thought “yeah, right; there’s no such thing as Arabic rap.” So Karim spit a few bars for me and I liked it, and then E-Money came through, and he started rapping and I was like “that’s it, I’m sold! Let’s do something!” We put up a song on MySpace, and we got 30-40,000 views in the first week or something like that! So we thought maybe this can do something; without any promotion, with just word of mouth, our stuff was getting out there and we were getting really good responses. From there, we just said, let’s keep going and see what we can do with this. That was the summer of ‘05.

AB: Hip-hop in the Arab world--in particular Egypt--has a history that people in the West just don’t know about. Could you tell me what you know about the scene out there?

HA: Well, I’ve heard that people were rapping back in the early ’90s and late ’80s, a couple of tapes could get passed around, but there was no real “scene” at that point. Another group came out, maybe in the early 2000s, and they dropped a couple albums. And I don’t want to give names, but they weren’t really hip-hop. They were rapping in the songs, but it wasn’t really rap--it’s hard to explain, you’d have to hear it. People weren’t really feeling it.

So, when we came in, we wanted to take it to the next level. We did the first actual Arabic hip-hop show in Egypt. We rocked the house and people started feeling it, and people started actually believing that rap could happen in Egypt. I didn’t see the scene really start to spread until after we started playing shows and dropping our videos.

AB: Was there a conscious decision for you guys to write political lyrics or did that come more organically?

HA: Well, whenever I was writing in my art or in my poetry, there would always be some political element to it. And whenever I’m talking with somebody, politics always comes up. It’s something that’s always been really dear to us, because seeing everything that’s been going on in the Middle East for so long, you want to speak some truth on it. Maybe you want to debate about it a little bit and let people know what’s going on out there, but politics is always on all of our minds.

AB: Is that one of the things that initially attracted you to hip-hop?

HA: Aw, yeah man. I mean, I was in college when I started getting into Immortal Technique and some of the really dope underground hip-hop--you know, besides all of the old school stuff that paved the way for it like Public Enemy and whatnot. Before I went out to Cairo I was always thinking about American politics. Especially after 11 September 2001, I would do open mics and spoken word, whatever I could do to shed some light on the situation with Islam and Arabic culture.

AB: Do you notice a difference now in the way hip-hop is received in Egypt since the revolution?

HA: Oh yeah! Everybody’s rapping now! Literally! I mean people used to tell us, you’ll never be able to do anything with rap in Egypt, nobody understands hip-hop. Now, just about every university or high school kid, even elementary school kid, is spitting verses in Egypt! You can go on YouTube or on their Facebook accounts and see that they’re spitting their rap, they’re doing something. It’s amazing because I saw it happen from while I was there!

AB: I read an interview with Arabian Knightz from well before Mubarak fell in which you said that “we’re as political as possible without going to prison.” So how did Arabian Knightz survive before the revolution kicked off?

HA: Well you know that song “Not Your Prisoner” is a four-year-old song. We didn’t actually write it during the revolution. Before the revolution it was crazy because the government hated that song! After we recorded it, there would be cops outside our shows saying you can’t perform that song. They warned us, you have to give us your lyrics, you have to let us know everything you’re going to say from the stage, and if you say anything political you’re going to go to jail. So we’d have to give the cops our lyrics before every show we did, and I would take “Not Your Prisoner” and all of our songs and completely change the words. I would just make it as poppy and rainbow-bright as possible and tell the cops, yeah, that’s what we’re rapping about: money and rainbows and stars in the sky and all that bullshit.

Sometimes they’d just leave and sometimes they’d stay and listen, but I guess because we rap too fast or something like that they didn’t catch on most of the time. But still I’d get phone calls about our songs late at night. People would call and say things like, I know what you’re doing, or, if you don’t stop making these songs you’re going to be thrown behind the sun. We’d get email threats and all sorts of crazy shit too.

AB: So it’s pretty fair to say that Mubarak’s regime was pretty repressive toward the hip-hop scene.

HA: Not just hip-hop man, all art. He came out and said, "let the artists be artists. You talk about art. Leave the politics to the politicians and just go paint" So it was any kind of art. There are a lot of poets in Egypt that really dig against the government. There are some of them that are still in jail until recently because of their poetry. So it was all forms of art: artists who would paint pictures about Egyptian politics, cartoonists who would go to jail, bloggers that would go to jail, everything. Anyone that went into the realm of politics it was open season on.

AB: Is that why you think “Not Your Prisoner” took on a whole new life after the revolution?

HA: Yeah, because it was always banned! But after the revolution took off we just chose to put it on the Internet. It was released maybe the 1st or 2nd of February, so it was maybe a week before Mubarak stepped down. Everyone knew he was good as gone, though, so we just said, okay, now’s our chance, and just took it.

AB: There are also apparently a lot of folks in Egypt who would go after you for being too “westernized.” How do you respond to that?

HA: You know, we’ve always been about Arab unity and Arab culture or Islamic culture. And yet, because we’re wearing “hip-hop clothing” and because the music we perform is “western music” they say that kind of shit. But what they forget is that there were people in Saudi Arabia fourteen hundred years ago beating on drums and battling each other with poetry even before Islam. That’s hip-hop. Yes, it developed in America before it became hip-hop itself, but it’s international.

I think hip-hop is ultimately music for the oppressed, a place where the voiceless can have a voice. You know, when you watch TV you see Arabs you see a lot of them wearing Dolce and Gabbana or whatever Paris Hilton’s wearing. How is that any less western? All cultures have already started to merge together by now; there’s no single culture anymore in any one place. And I think that’s how it should be, you know? There should be a give-and-take and we should be using culture to learn from each other. That’s what Islam teaches us in the first place.

AB: Is that one of the reasons you guys rap in Arabic as well as English? To reach across cultures?

HA: Well yeah; you know, it’s a message, and we want everyone to understand it. We want the Arabs to understand that the west isn’t all that bad--the governments are fucked up, but the people in general are good. And vice versa when we talk to English-speaking people; we want to talk about Islam and Arabic culture and show people that terrorism is not synonymous with either of those to things.

AB: So tell me about the song “Rebel.” This is another one of the songs that Arabian Knightz have become really well-known for outside Egypt. Its lyrics pull heavily on the themes of protest, Arab unity, the corruption in Mubarak’s regime, and really everything that you said could get you arrested. The rumor is that it was written and recorded the night before Egypt’s first big “Day of Rage” just as the revolution was beginning to gain steam.

HA: Not really. I got the beat from a German producer named Iron Curtain eight months before the revolution. And the song was basically the same: I just wanted people to rebel, for there to actually be an Arab revolution with the oppressed Palestinians and Iraqis and Egyptians. And then, the day before they shut the Internet off in Egypt, I said, Rush [another member of Arabian Knightz], throw a verse on there! We’re gonna release it today! I had it ready and wasn’t sure if it would just be a throw-away, but I didn’t mix it or anything. Before that I didn’t even know if I was going to use that beat, but I just sent it to Rush and he put a verse on it and uploaded it to YouTube. Two minutes after it uploaded, the Internet was shut off in Egypt for a week!

AB: Did you have any idea how much attention the song was going to get?

HA: Nah! Like I said, we just wanted to get our voice out there. Maybe someone will hear it, maybe they won’t, but we just wanted it out there. We didn’t expect everyone to be screaming it in Tahrir Square. I mean they were singing the part from Lauryn Hill out there in the street while they were protesting. It was amazing to see and hear that.

AB: You left the country not long before Mubarak fell, though. What made you want to leave?

HA: The reason I had to leave Egypt was because I live in a neighborhood in Cairo that’s surrounded by all the jails. So when the interior minister released all the prisoners and told them to go crush the protests, they had to pass right by my house to get further into the center of Cairo. They’re passing right by my neighborhood and these motherfuckers were given AK-47s, tech nines, any kind of automatic weapon. They were on trucks and motorcycles just shooting at random.

All the ex-military people in our neighborhood still had their guns, though, so they just started shooting back. I was literally watching the Wild West off of my balcony--and I’m on the first floor. I have a little daughter, and so when I saw that they were doing evacuations I just decided we’d evacuate. So I’ve been out here in LA ever since, but I’ll be back there in Egypt soon.

AB: That’s another thing that the US media didn’t really talk about--how all the neighborhoods organized to defend themselves when the government fought back.

HA: Oh yeah. At that point we would just go downstairs with sticks or knives or whatever weapon we had--because not everybody had guns. There were people already out there and we couldn’t just leave them by themselves. You know, seven or eight people with guns going up against all these motherfuckers? So we just set up roadblocks and hid behind them and when they’d come by we’d do everything we could to stop them. It was nuts, though man, I can still see it so freshly right now. And I’m from LA.

AB: That leads me into my next topic. Mubarak’s gone, but the protests haven’t stopped. According to the western media it’s chaos, but in reality it’s just that the revolution is continuing.

HA: You’ve got to keep reminding the government that the people are still here. It’s completely obvious that the so-called Salafists that Mubarak warned us about are just out there because of him. Some people say that the fundamentalists or Salafists are going to take over and we’ll be just like Iran. But no, the people don’t want to live in Iran; they’re going to vote for who they want to vote for.

AB: What do you think needs to happen for the people’s side to win?

HA: Well, I already know that there’s no such thing as a perfect government--absolute power corrupts absolutely. But we’ve got to be organized. We’ve got to start somewhere. There are still people in Egypt who are going hungry and we need a way to get those people food. We need to fix everything that needs fixing in Egypt--period.

AB: Are you encouraged by the strikes that are continuing since Mubarak left power?

HA: Oh yeah. Because so many people are saying, well, Mubarak’s out so let’s just get back to normal life. No. Normal life has to start once the things we’ve requested have been implemented. You know, people died in this revolution, we can’t just forget about that.

AB: That brings me back to the music. I hear a lot of different themes that keep coming back in your music--Arab unity, radical and responsive democracy, redistribution of wealth, an end to US meddling in Egypt. Do you think these can ultimately be won? And what do you think the role of music is in fighting for these things?

HA: Well, everyone listens to music first of all. It’s a voice for us. It’s a way to reflect what’s happening in the streets back to the masses. You know, for us as Arabian Knightz, we have a lot to say and we want to put it out there. And luckily, a lot of people are agreeing with us nowadays. I think our music has helped encourage people to keep going — I mean, people were out in Tahrir Square singing our songs.

We used to get made fun of because our songs are so political. People used to say to us, you guys really think a revolution is going to happen in the Middle East? You guys are crazy. But we believed in it, we kept talking about it. And now, well, it’s funny how turned out.

AB: Tell me if you’ve heard of this: Al Jazeera recently reported on a program being initiated by the US State Department to recruit hip-hop acts as “cultural diplomats” to the Arab world. In the article, certain officials are quoted as saying this is a direct attempt to gain greater support for American policy.

HA: 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. So on the contrary, we’re using hip hop to re-educate the youth as a push to get them to question their surroundings, and a realization that they do have a voice.

AB: It’s interesting to me that Arab hip-hop has been around for so long but it’s taken a revolution for it to start getting more attention in the West.

HA: Well, if you look at even the most oppressed countries like Palestine--Palestinian hip-hop has been around since the early ’90s. You know, we work with the group DAM and they’ve been doing their thing for a while. And they’re out partners; they’re part of Arab League Records like we are, which also has artists from all around the Middle East as well as Arab rappers in the West holding it down.

So all this reflects that hip-hop in the Arab world has been around for a long time, it’s just now that the revolutions have taken place and people are fighting back, now it’s getting attention. It was already progressing and getting bigger and better regionally, but the fact that it’s getting the attention it is now--I’ll definitely blame that on the revolution.

First appeared at the Electronic Intifada

Arabian Knightz’ website is http://www.myspace.com/arabianknightz

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

As Many Roles As People Make It: An Interview With Ani DiFranco

She’s dealt with a lot of obstacles--dismissal of her music, sexist condescension, even attempts from Clear Channel to shut down her concerts. But over the past two decades, Ani DiFranco has remained thankfully relentless, and become a force to be reckoned with in the music world. Making it all the more impressive is that she’s done so almost entirely outside the circles of “the business,” maintaining her own independent label Righteous Babe Records while refusing to back down in her defense of feminism, anti-racism, and passionate anti-corporate politics.

Naturally, she’s seen her share of changes in music and the world at large. But then, she’s also seen all too many inequities stubbornly persist. It’s enough to make you glad she’s stuck around; even happier to know that there are countless radical artists of every stripe who have been influenced by her.

The title of DiFranco’s new album
¿Which Side Are You On? is, of course, a reference to one of the original American rebel songs. Calling it a “tribute” wouldn’t be quite sufficient, however. She spoke with Alexander Billet about the album, the evolution of her own work, and her belief in music as a force for social change.


Alexander Billet: I’m going to start with an obvious question. This new album and its title track are, of course, taken from one of the most famous labor songs of all time. It’s been covered a bunch of times already, but why did you want to do it now in this time and place?

Ani DiFranco: Well, my relationship with that song started two or three years ago at Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday celebration. I got invited to it, and everyone who played at it was tasked with playing one of the many songs that Pete had played and carried around the world over the years. So my assignment was to play “Which Side Are You On?” with Bruce Cockburn and “Hole In the Bucket” with Kris Kristofferson.

So, I set about learning that song for Pete’s party, and you know, I just immediately started tinkering with it. In one sense it’s a timeless song; the sentiment of the chorus is a very invigorating call to action. But the original verses are quite simple and a little antiquated. I started updating it, and I couldn’t stop. It just ended in a massive rewrite! And I’ve been playing it ever since that night in my live shows for a few years now and just decided somewhere along the way to include it in the record. And then the record, as it was beginning to take shape as a “big-P-political” record, it seemed like in the endgame the best title track.

AB: You mentioned the rewrites, and the lyrics you’ve put to the track go well beyond the original theme of worker’s rights. There are a lot of different things you pull on, but in particular there appears to be a connection between worker’s rights and feminism.

AD: It’s interesting you bring up that connection specifically because my feminism plays a central role on this new record in general. I guess I’ve been feeling lately more compelled than ever to speak to it. In this day and age with all these modern, 21st century political issues that we’re faced with--implosion of the environment, these ongoing escalating wars, an economic crisis--I keep coming back to what I believe to be the root cause of all our social problems, which is patriarchy.

And I really feel strongly that we need to evolve our understanding of feminism as not just about women’s rights anymore. You know, as I say in that last verse in “¿Which Side,” “Feminism ain’t for women / That’s not who it is for / It’s about shifting consciousness / It’ll bring an end to war.” I feel like we need to understand feminism more as a tool to mediate, counteract, to ultimately defeat patriarchy and restore balance to our government, our culture and our ways of thinking and structuring the world. I think we’ve had a very “masculine” sensibility for a long time, and I think we need to go back to the roots of social imbalance. I think we have to try to right that first, and from there and all these more pressing issues will follow.

AB: Much of your more recent work, in particular Red Letter Year, has had more of a contemplative, personal angle. You’ve always made it a point to bring together the personal and political, but ¿Which Side appears to be a bit more outward and have a lightness. Is there anything in the world at large that has influenced this?

AD: Well, I’m a happier person now than I was three years ago, and happier still than I was five or ten years ago. So you can probably hear that in the sounds that come out of me; I’ve had recent developments in my life that have brought me more peace than I’ve ever felt.

It sounds like you’re suggesting, though, that there were perhaps some political developments in that too. And maybe so! Certainly the election of Obama after eight years of George W was an incredibly uplifting event and a victory for many people. I was just over in England performing and talking to a lot of people about various things. One of the things that came up was the event of Hurricane Katrina, and I heard myself saying--and this was a big reminder--that Katrina was sort of turning point. If you remember back, there was so very precious little criticism in the media at all of the Bush administration. It was surreal; 9/11 happened and all of a sudden he was King Yahoo-Shit! Everyone was lining up to praise him and the network news was reading the White House press releases like drones. There was just this veil of silence falling over an incredibly destructive administration wasn’t even elected!

It wasn’t until after Katrina that you really started to see legitimate criticism in the media. I think that’s when the social tide turned in a certain sense. It’s what got people’s eyes opened and got people motivated in a new way. The election of Obama was one of the results of that shift. But of course, like a lot of people, I had this naive hope that Obama would fix everything quickly. You know, the culture of celebrity in this country leads us away from democratic ways of thinking and into this hero worship. And so of course, one man cannot swoop in and fix everything on his own. It’s much more complicated and difficult than that, and progressives in this country since then have had to come to terms with the fact that we need to do more than actually get out of our house and vote. It’s an ongoing process to turn the tide.

I think that’s what we’re seeing now, and thank goodness! People are really starting to rise to that occasion.

AB: It’s incredible to think how much has changed even in the past year too, from the Arab uprisings to Occupy, on and on.

AD: Yeah, when I was in England I visited Occupy London and I was talking to people there. Like you say, it’s happening in the Middle East, there’s a people’s uprising in Nigeria. And all over Europe there are mirroring encampments and activists building energy and education and organizing along with every city in the United States. It’s an incredibly hopeful atmosphere; one that we haven’t seen in a very long time. I think that, as I was making this album over the past few years, that spirit of hope was not yet in the air, but I think it was brewing in the same way it was brewing in the rest of the ninety-nine monkeys!

AB: Well said! [Laughs] I want to get back to Katrina and New Orleans in a bit, but I also have a follow-up question. There’s this running theme on ¿Which Side about growing older and evolving as a human being and artist. You’ve been making music for somewhere around twenty years, and throughout you’ve remained completely independent. Is there a lot you’ve seen change in those twenty years?

AD: Oh big changes! Big, big changes! You know when I was a teenager in the ‘80s, I was the only girl in the guitar shop. Now if you walk into a music store, it’s mostly teenage girls. It’s great! It’s an expansion of possibilities for young women, finding a way to tools even if they aren’t directly handed those tools by adults.

Of course, when I was eighteen I decided I was going to have my own label; I wasn’t going to be a whore for a big corporation. There wasn’t a lot of precedence for it and there wasn’t a lot of respect for it! One of the huge things I experienced in the early years wasn’t just exclusion but condescension. Now, it seems that to be independent of a major label and just plug away on your own--there’s more of a respect for it. In fact, there is more of a necessity for it as the major record industry implodes. So certainly lots has changed since I started doing this.

AB: At the same time, though, there’s a lot that still has to change. The song that comes to mind off of ¿Which Side is “Amendment.” Could you tell me about that?

AD: Well, that song in particular addresses the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. You know, I was talking to a young fellow in a recent interview and he was like “oh, wait! That didn’t pass?” Folks sort of assume it’s law, but it hasn’t even passed! It really indicates this sweeping under the rug of not just women’s issues but the work of feminism. A lot of people just think it’s old news. Like I say in the song: “Chicks got it good now / They can almost be president!” We’re all emancipated in this system right? But of course, globally, women are still the underclass, and even in this society there are very poignant disparities that still exist.

For instance: abortion. This still isn’t considered a civil right in the modern world for women to be totally free. It’s still daily contested and fought, and it’s still a state-by-state, moment-by-moment right that could be taken away any minute. It’s also, as the song puts forward, a very powerful device that the conservative right uses to divide people. They have encouraged us over the years to hate each other over differences of opinion about abortion. And therefore, they divide workers and get them to fight each other and vote against their own interests.

So this was a song that I labored over a lot! It was an arduous song for me to write, it’s an arduous song to play; it’s long, it’s got so many words and concepts in it. And I have to stand so firmly in my boots to try and deliver it to people successfully and in the right spirit. But I thought if I don’t write this song, who’s going to? [Laughs] This is apparently my job in life and so I’ve got to rise to it!

I think I’ve always been the kind of person to push the envelope in music, politics, art. So I challenged myself to push it even more, like “how about the world ‘abortion?’ Do I even sing the word ‘abortion’?” When I first wrote that song I was really scared to play it onstage. Even though you might think everyone who shows up at an Ani DiFranco show is a progressive, people come with their own contradictions and come to my work from a different place. I’m not always just preaching to the choir. So I really worked hard to write a song that could really put out concepts of women’s civil rights, feminism, the evolution of our relationship with abortion without alienating people. I wanted to make it a song that even somebody of a different opinion could hear and might plant a seed for a future change of mind.

AB: Getting back to Katrina, you live in New Orleans now, and the song “J” really puts out there some of the incredible burdens that the city and the Gulf continue to bear. Could you tell us a bit more about that song?

AD: Well, there are so many things to talk about, aren’t there? One of the other elephants in the room for me other than patriarchy is slavery. I think when a society has such a profoundly dark and awful evil such as slavery in its history, then it leaves scars that are very, very deep. And unless we collectively address them and really put our effort to healing them, they’ll perpetuate. The United States of America are still suffering from the echoes of slavery. I think we’re still reeling from all the pain that is a result of it, and that’s a reality.

The song “J” I wrote last year as the BP oil spill was happening. You know, they were burning the oil on the surface of the Gulf every day for weeks and weeks and the smell just blanketed New Orleans, and we were all breathing it in! It was this daily reminder that we are all plummeting in the wrong direction, squeezing the Earth of the last few drops of blood, not only toward environmental peril but into international wars over this dwindling resource.

One thing that Obama promised, one thing that we all know we must do is evolve our industry and our technology to being green and sustainable. We need to move away from fossil fuels and nuclear power, both of which I think spell doom for human society. I was trying to make a lot of connections in that song “J,” including a lot of connections that I was aching to see made around me. People were hit very hard economically and environmentally down here, and immediately you’d see people putting up posters that said “Boycott BP!” It seemed very narrow in focus to me and didn’t make the connections in addressing the root of the problem.

AB: Final question: What role do you think music has in changing the world and are you hopeful about its prospects in doing so?

AD: Oh yeah! Music has as many roles as people make it. I traveled to Burma once years ago to witness the people’s struggle for democracy, meet some people and learn some stuff. And I had this incredible experience over and over again in the Burmese jungle or refugee camps or health clinics with very oppressed, very devastated people. I show up, and I’m white and I’m American and I’m privileged and I have an experience that these people can’t fathom and vice versa. There was this huge chasm when I met people for all good reasons. And then, in these meetings, what would invariably happen was that a group of children would get up and sing an invocation, which opened people’s hearts up a bit. Then the guitar would come out, and I would sing along with the people I was traveling with.

As soon as that happened, everyone there was family. And it was a daily reminder of what music is and what it can do. It can connect people from opposite realms of experience or the planet or the universe, and it can bring them together. It was an amazing trip that really reminded me why I do what I do. So yes, I do believe that music has an intense power to connect us together, to inspire us to become ourselves. I think that’s why I gravitated toward music when I was younger. I was attracted to a lot of different art-forms--dancing, painting. But there’s something about music that people hold so close. It’s such a powerful art-form, and that’s why I live for it.

First published at ZNet and CounterPunch

Link to DiFranco via her Facebook or Twitter

My interview with Arabian Knightz' Sphinx also went up at Electronic Intifada today. It will be posted here at RF tomorrow, but for those who can't wait, click here!

Monday, January 23, 2012

BDS Update: A Letter To Zdob si Zdub

This went up just today at the Punks Against Apartheid website. As is noted in the letter--and in previous posts here at Rebel Frequencies--Zdob si Zdub originally delayed their gig in Israel back in November, a tactic that some have speculated is actually an attempt to buy time as the band discusses their options. If that's the case, then it's not only a sign that the BDS campaign is having an effect, but that it has room to really win this one!


Dear Zdob si Zdub,

We are an international group of punks from the Punks Against Apartheid network who support the human rights-based Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and we are writing you because we strongly believe in music’s potential to transform peoples’ lives. The concert you have scheduled in Israel, however, will not be able to transform the lives of Palestinians living under Occupation and apartheid. In fact, it will play right into the hands of a deliberate strategy by the state of Israel to play up international acts like yours to portray an image of “business as usual” in the apartheid state. Therefore, we urge you to cancel your show and join the global movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law and universal principles of human rights.

The “business as usual” attitude that Israel wants you to support means lending your voice to a military occupation and siege of an entire people, racial apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and mass banishment of refugees. An Israeli called Boycott from Within, which supports cultural boycott, writes:

"Many artists and public figures who have come to this realization are now publicly supporting the cultural boycott of Israel, which is backed by almost the entire community of Palestinian cultural workers. Among those supporters are Roger Waters, David R Randall and Maxi Jazz of Faithless, Robert Del Naja of Massive Attack, filmmakers Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, 500 Montreal artists, over 200 Irish artists, prominent Archbishop Desmond Tutu, South-African Artists Against Apartheid, The Creative Workers Union of South Africa, and the international alliance Artists Against Apartheid. Other artists cancelled their performances in Israel in response to growing appeals, including Elvis Costello, the Pixies, actors Meg Ryan and Dustin Hoffman, UK band Tindersticks, American poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron, and Mexican American rock guitarist Carlos Santana."

Furthermore, as musicians who played the final concert for Queerfest 2011’s “Stop Homophobia!” concert, you should know that Israel has also exploited struggles for LGBTQ liberation and has hidden its oppression of Palestinian queers by portraying Israel as a “safe haven” for Arab queers. Palestinian LGBTQ activists have called this “pinkwashing”. Palestinian Queers for BDS (PQBDS) writes, “The Israeli foreign affairs ministry, Israeli academic institutions, international Zionist and pro Israel groups, and some Israeli LGBTQ organizations/groups [have] worked to capitalize on the modest successes of the Israeli LGBTQ community and pander to anti-Arab, Islamophobic biases by painting Palestinian society as maliciously homophobic.” Not only is this racist in and of itself, but more importantly, Israel simply cannot be a safe haven for any Arab, Palestinian, queer, or otherwise, when a system of racial exclusivity and military separation and occupation is in place. In the words of Haneen Maikey, “When you go through a checkpoint it does not matter what the sexuality of the soldiers."

It is our intention that no group in the international punk community should be able to feign innocence or ignorance about Palestinian resistance to Israeli domination. You see, as punks, we were raised in a counter-culture that taught us that racism, militarism, sexism, and all forms of oppression were not welcome in our spaces.

In an interview with SUNETE magazine, one of your own members, Roman Iagupov, spoke about how “it’s... hard to cross the borders. To take part in events abroad you have to struggle to get a visa, which is not much fun for an artist”. We ask you to imagine what it is like for a Palestinian artist or fan who would have a very difficult time even getting into Tel Aviv to come to your show, much less any other part of Israel. Palestinians’ lives are governed by the constant presence of borders big and small in the form of Israeli military check points, meaning that most Palestinians don’t even have the luxury of visiting family members only a few towns away without being harassed by Israeli soldiers, whether they have the right “visa” or not. In the case of the Gaza Strip, Palestinians are literally enclosed and under siege and are bombed with impunity by Israeli aircraft when it is politically expedient. Under these conditions, border crossing is not only “not fun”, but nightmarish and inhumane.

Out of respect for and solidarity with Palestinians who must resist these realities on a daily basis, we implore you to cancel your show and refuse to cross the international picket line that has been formed against the state of Israel until it fulfills the three basic tenets of the BDS call: ending the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, dismantling racial apartheid inside of Israel, and to respect the right of return for refugees.

We took notice that you rescheduled your concert date–after some pressure from activists–to March 2012, but that the show still hasn’t made its way onto your March schedule. So now is your chance to come out and say it, to make a commitment to supporting Palestinian liberation! And we want to give you the benefit of the doubt, here: if this was indeed to give yourselves time to learn about the situation and make the ethical choice, then we respect your decision to hold off with the show and offer an open invitation to speak with you and share with you the experience of Palestinians resisting Israel occupation so that you can get a better sense of what we are asking you to do. We are always open to dialogue, so please feel free to reach out to us if you have any questions, concerns, or doubts, and we will do our best to respond with respect and care.

On the other hand, if the delay was meant to quietly put the "issue" down and avoid undue attention, then we are sorry to say that you are sorely mistaken–we are here to bring it back up again and make sure you don’t forget!

No support for criminal occupation, ethnic cleansing, and racial apartheid!
Vive le Palestina! Vive le punk!

Up the punx,
Punks Against Apartheid

Friday, January 20, 2012

Blues and Badness: What Etta James Gave to Music

Etta James was truly larger than life. Categorizing her, attempting to put your finger on just what it was her transcendent voice did to you, even trying to find one musical style she did best, was bound to be met with frustration. The greats are like that. And when she died of Leukemia this January 20th, that’s what we lost: one of the greats.

And true to form, she never limited herself to just one genre, never stopped trying to blend elements in her own songs. The blues might have been, as she said, “her business,” and there’s no doubt she sang the blues second to none. But she also could more than pull off jazz, soul, rock, even funk. Those who think that her contribution to music began and ended with “At Last” are simply missing out.

She was a living reminder of those years when music was evolving by leaps and bounds, when a few of the best were able to shatter molds and give us some of contemporary pop’s most iconic songs. Just as other “blues” artists like Didley and Berry unexpectedly gave us what we now know to be rock and roll, Etta James went from being in another dime-a-dozen girl group to giving us our modern idea of soul and R&B.

It’s all the more remarkable when one considers the time from which James emerged was one in which artists were categorized and segregated in the most obvious ways. Even jukeboxes were separated into white and black when the young Jamesetta Hawkins began performing in the 1950s.

Born in Los Angeles in 1938, she never knew her father (who was rumored to be white). Her mother Dorothy was only 14 when she gave birth to Jamesetta, and was only sporadically around during these early years. One of her caregivers, a man she referred to in later years as “Sarge,” would often drunkenly awake her late at night to sing on demand for his poker buddies. These were traumatic experiences for the young Jamesetta.

All of this considered, it might have been easy for the young singer to completely lose her interest in singing, let alone keep exploring her voice. Other obstacles abounded. Though rock and roll was beginning to burgeon, the term itself offended the conservative sensibilities of 1950s America. When she recorded her first single “Roll With Me, Henry” with the influential Johnny Otis in 1954, its very title was considered sexually suggestive.

"At that time, you weren't allowed to say 'roll' because it was considered vulgar,” she recalled in an interview years later. “So when Georgia Gibbs did her version, she renamed it 'Dance With Me, Henry' and it went to No. 1 on the pop charts.” Gibbs, by the way, was white; it wasn’t rare in those days for white singers to gain much greater acclaim for Black artists’ work.

This raunchiness might fly in the face of those who have only hear the gentility of “At Last,” but then, the newly renamed Etta James was in many ways the archetypal early ‘50s rebel. At the age of sixteen she even forged her mother’s signature on a note declaring her to be of legal age in order to tour.

In her 1995 autobiography Rage to Survive, she wrote: "The bad girls ... had the look that I liked," she wrote in her 1995 autobiography, Rage to Survive. ''I wanted to be rare, I wanted to be noticed, I wanted to be exotic as a Cotton Club chorus girl, and I wanted to be obvious as the most flamboyant hooker on the street. I just wanted to be."

At a time when Blacks hanging our with whites (like, for example, Johnny Otis) provoked derision in many communities, and when a woman asserting her sexuality was enough to bring scandal down on anyone who dared, “just being” was itself a dangerous affair. But then, hearing the versatility of James’ singing voice, ranging from the gravelly gut-wrenching lows to the bright highs, was to hear honesty itself sung out. Regardless of any obstacle, social or personal, when she dared to sing, the words took on an irresistible power.

In the midst of the mythos that surrounded James’ later years, it became easy to forget just how real those obstacles were. She became addicted to heroin in the early ‘60s, and it was an addiction she struggled with clear into the 1980s.

Then there’s specifically the amount that’s forgotten about “At Last.” Any listener comparing the song to James’ earlier work will no doubt notice how strongly the string-laden poppiness of “At Last” contrasts with the ribald R&B of before. Leonard Chess, of the famed Chess records, was experimenting with turning James into a “crossover” star. What’s now regarded as her signature song charted appeared only briefly on the charts.

Separating the greatness of James’ work from her own personal struggles became even easier after the release of 2008’s Cadillac Records. Though the movie was openly fictionalized, James’ character was portrayed by Beyoncé Knowles as lovers with Leonard Chess, which was never true.

Like plenty others of her generation, James never really got the credit she deserved--even after her resurgence in popularity in the late ‘80s. It was Knowles, not James, who sang “At Last” at Barack Obama’s inaugural ball in early 2009. James rightly felt slighted, and it was hard to argue with her comments to an audience a few days later:

"Your President, the one with the big ears... he had that woman singing my song. She gone get her ass whipped... The great Beyoncé... I can't stand Beyoncé!”

Even as the greatness of Etta James the artist became inorganically severed from Etta James the human being, nobody could deny that her music was the real deal. This was true no matter if she was singing “Roll With Me, Henry,” “Tell Mama” or “At Last,” whether she was covering John Fogerty’s “Born On the Bayou” or Billie Holiday’s “Body and Soul,” she always made it her own.

Radical activist and professor Mark Naison at Fordham University put it this way:

“No artist ever performed with more passion, more grit, more raw energy, and more brilliance than she did. Or more integrity. Whenever I teach my ‘Rock and Roll To Hip Hop’ class, I play her music to show what could not cross over, could not be co-opted, could not be appropriated, could not be tamed, could not be imitated, could not be packaged.”

In other words, Etta James made music that mattered like few other artists could muster. It was music that told a story and made you feel it as she retold it every time. She also showed that if you’re going to come even close to doing that, you have to be a little bad and break a few boundaries.

First published at SOCIARTS.com

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Meaning of SOPA

Yesterday, Chicago's city council passed laws that severely restrict the right to free speech within the city limits. Thank the "liberal" Rahm Emanuel and his countless "progressive" lackeys for that. As mentioned in yesterday's post, there is a national context for all this: the fact that Obama (the man who only a couple years ago claimed he was bound to shut down Guantanamo) signed the NDAA into law has basically given the nation's ruling parties, both Democrat and Republican, the green light to be as brazen as possible in restricting protests against their austerity agenda.

Enter SOPA and PIPA. Once again, it was mentioned in yesterday's post that these laws are essentially the Internet equivalent of what Obama has done on a national level (and now, Rahm and other mayors on a city-wide, municipal level). Seems certain elements within Obama's Justice Department are chomping at the bit for these bills to be passed and take effect.

Evidence? The shutdown of MegaUpload today. We should be under no illusions that this file-sharing site is some kind of fringe element ripping off artists. In fact, it wasn't long ago that several well-known artists such as Kanye West, Alicia Keys and (somewhat quizzically) Will.I.Am publicly endorsed the site. That supposed "darlings" of the RIAA could buck the apparent trend by saying they were okay with their work being shared on this site revealed the hypocrisy behind the "protecting artists" rhetoric.

Granted, that line of argument hasn't carried much water for some time. But corporate America knows very well that if you can't win the propaganda war, then you just resort to outright war. In fact, on the nation's streets, that's what rulers are increasingly having to resort to. So it was for the Justice Department when they tried to make an example of MegaUpload.

Today, federal prosecutors in Virginia demanded MegaUpload shut down, claiming that they have "cost copyright holders at least $500 million in lost revenue." It's worth pointing out that the copyright holders of the world aren't the Kanyes or Alicias of the world, but the labels, who have profited untold sums off of stealing the fruits of artists' labor for entirely too long. And personally, I have no problem with anyone willing to stick it to these parasites, the real pirates in this grand scheme.

Of course, the Justice Department wasn't just acting on its own whims--and anyone who thinks they were is straight-up naive. The RIAA, MPAA and others were no doubt overjoyed at the prospect of MegaUpload being shut down. Whether or not the hack-tivists at Anonymous are ultimately effective by shutting down these industry groups' websites is somewhat besides the point here. The point, if you will, is that a lot more people blacked out their sites in protest at SOPA and PIPA than they ever will for the RIAA, MPAA or any of their ilk.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Who's the Real Pirate?

The Stop Online Piracy Act in the US House and its Senate counterpart the Protect IP Act are both some scary pieces of the legislation. Unfortunately, they're also not out of place in a country willing to pass laws criminalizing protest (paging Mayor Emanuel).

You've probably heard of these acts by now; they've caused a stir among some high-profile tech-heads and various writers on the left. Even Wikipedia has blacked out its site today to raise awareness of SOPA and PIPA.

For good reason too. In a commentary on SocialistWorker.org today, Alan Maass and Ben Silverman bluntly and correctly assert that SOPA "could break the Internet." Freedom of expression on what is arguably the world's most important source of information could become a thing of the past. For music in particular, the implications are dreadful.

The main thrust of SOPA and PIPA would mandate websites to censor any material that might be copyrighted. Furthermore, any company who feels they have been infringed upon can bring their case to the Department of Justice and demand that they shut the site down. It sets a dangerous precedent. Chief behind these bills? You guessed it: the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America. SOPA is only their most recent attempt at keeping a lid on people's access to information and culture.

Under these laws, a high school rock band could have their MySpace taken down for posting a picture from Rolling Stone. An independent DJ could have his site shut down for sampling beats that might be copyrighted. And lest we think that the Justice Department wouldn't bother with such "small fishes," it should be remembered that courts have had no problem bringing suits against single moms and twelve-year-old girls at the RIAA's behest.

Obama has hinted that he has no intention of signing either bill into law. But, as others have pointed out, he said the same thing about the NDAA. The comparison between this batch of laws and the NDAA is rather telling. Censorship and repression always serves a corporate agenda in one way or another. The indefinite detention of anyone accused of "terrorism" might be couched in the language of national security, but SOPA is one of those moments when the business-friendliness of this government is particularly naked.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A PSA On Elections From Mr. Boots Riley

With the ongoing circus of the Republican primaries now unavoidably plastered across our news feeds and TV screens, this seems a good time to re-publish this statement from the Coup's Boots Riley. It was posted on his Facebook page earlier this month before the Iowa caucuses.

Obviously, no serious reader of Rebel Frequencies is considering voting for any of those clowns, but given the pressure that is already massing upon progressives to shut up and vote for Obama even in the face of his massive disappointments and failures, all of this is worth bearing in mind over the next several months. The elections won't be going away anytime soon, but neither will the new movements. It's the first time in a very long time that we've been able to say that.


No matter what party is voted in--Democrat, Republican, Green, or whatever--politicians are controlled by whoever controls industry.

Under Capitalism, that is the ruling class.

It's not about personality or even intention. If I, as a communist, were elected as president- I would be powerless to enact any of my ideas as long as the economic system is capitalist. In order to even think I might get anything passed, I'd have to "play the game". "The game" is oppression and exploitation.

NONE of the major progressive changes that have come about in the last 100 years have come due to electing the right person into office.

Labor laws, the weekend, and the 8 hour day came as a result of strikes and physical battles between workers and the police.

The New Deal (which brought MediCare, Welfare, and Social Security) happened at a time when the Communist Party, USA, had a million card-carrying members and millions of other sympathizers. People were shutting down factories and having strikes all over the country. Places like Montana, Utah, Michigan, and Alabama were called "hotbeds of Communist Activity" by Hoover. FDR was actually afraid there would be a revolution. That's how those gains happened.

The Civil Rights Act happened because people were in the streets and in places of business, stopping commerce. Kennedy had made statements previously that were against a bill of that sort. But it was a necessary concession to stop a movement from growing that might demand even more.

Affirmative Action was passed under NIXON! Not because he cared about people- he was a right-wing racist, but because he, too, was scared of revolution. There was a mass, mostly radical movement at the time and there were revolutions happening all over the world. That legislation was passed as a concession to the movement.

The only way we're going to make substantive change is by making those that control industry lose profit, forcing them to choose between meeting our demands- which would mean they make less profit- and making no profit at all.

Strikes, shutdowns, and militant labor struggles. They used to be the language of an effective left.

Again, politicians are controlled by whoever controls industry. If we want to control the politicians, the people must make a movement in which we control industry through strikes, shut downs, and militant unions.

Once you have this, politicians in office will make legislation that attempts to at least seem like it benefits the people. Until then, it won't matter who you elect- they'll be forced to make decisions that hurt the people.

50's McCarthyism, the New Left of the 60's focus on students, and the proliferation of foundation-controlled non-profits have moved our tactics away from those effective tools.

There was a huge Anti-War movement in the US, but it got turned into a pro-Kerry movement for the 2004 elections, and that KILLED the Anti-War movement. It was almost non-existent after the elections. The Anti-War movement got built up again and was growing immensely, then it got turned into the pro-Obama campaign of 2008. The Anti-War movement was pretty much gone after that election. Electoral campaigns take massive amounts of time and energy from thousands of people, and there is an "end-game", a "finish line" that allows people to go home after an election- this is why electoral campaigns kill grassroots movements.

There is no historical evidence to support the idea that we can change the system through elections, yet many on the left keep pushing this.


Because we don't think we have the ability to create a large enough movement. But we do have that ability.

It's called the Occupy Wall Street movement. Join the one in your area. It may not look or work exactly the way you want it to right now, but give it some of your time and energy- help shape it, it's only a few months old.

And please don't try to turn the OWS movement into an electoral campaign. That is a quick way to kill the movement. Whoever you get into office will then not be effective anyway because there will be no movement that forces politicians to act like they're on the side of the people.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

BDS Update: Boycott the Red Sea Jazz Festival

There is now a push to get acts considering performing at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat, Israel to cancel. One might wonder exactly what pulling out of a jazz fest, scheduled from the 19th to 22nd of January, might accomplish in terms of isolating Israeli apartheid. After all, it's a relatively small to-do, not even held in Tel Aviv.

As always, however, the case is much deeper. On top of the international picket line that basically hovers around the '48 borders, the Red Sea Jazz Festival is heavily sponsored by Israeli government departments--the ministries of tourism, of culture and sport most particularly. In other words, the RSJF is seen as an important component of Israel's attempts to appear a cultural hub in the midst of a savage Middle East.

It bears pointing out the obvious at this point--mainly jazz's origins in a daily reality of racist Jim Crow in the US. On top of the usual cultural propaganda points, there is quite a naked attempt to paint Israel as a land of unique tolerance.

Of course, anyone who is aware of the law passed just this past Tuesday will certainly see a contradiction here. This law, passed by the Knesset, essentially further codifies racial profiling, making it legal to detain asylum seekers without trial indefinitely. This is one of the lesser examined aspects of Israel's apartheid policies--specifically how the occupation of Palestine and systematic denial of basic rights to Palestinian living in Israel proper feeds into an all-around racism against non-whites and immigrants.

The campaign to get acts at RSJF to cancel isn't exactly walking an uncharted path. This past summer saw New Orleans' Tuba Skinny pull out of their gig mere days before the festival was slated to start. At the time it was the low-level assault launched into Palestine from Eilat--the fest's home--that pushed them into finally canceling. Whether this new law provokes a similar upsurge of discontent remains to be seen.


An article taking up the return of Punks Against Apartheid will be published here later next week. In observation of Martin Luther King Day, Rebel Frequencies won't run publish on Monday; we'll return Tuesday, January 17th.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Hearts Starve As Well As Bodies

January 11th was the 100th anniversary of the famed "Bread and Roses" strike, a struggle whose influence resonates through radical labor history to this very day. And out of that strike came a song whose influence is possibly even greater. It's above.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

We Know Which Side

Ani DiFranco's new album hits the shelves on January 17th. As a preview she has released this, the title track. Of course, many will recognize the tune. It's been updated time and again over the past seventy some-odd years.

This year, however, obviously sees its relevance increased tenfold. The reasons are apparent: Wisconsin, Occupy, Egypt, SlutWalk, Tunisia, the Indignados. And that's just from last year.

Ani has been doing this for some time. Around two decades in fact. If this track is any indication, then the album's feel stands in stark contrast to the more contemplative, introverted (yet brilliant) Red Letter Year. Little wonder why--lots has changed since '08. Whether or not our "side" can win by voting is its own debate (readers will surely know how incredibly critical I am of that). What seems obvious, however, is that for the first time in decades, our side--including Ani--is more ready to fight than it's been in a while.

¿Which Side Are You On? by Ani Difranco

There will be an interview with DiFranco here at RF not long after the album's release. So as always, stay tuned, subscribe, and, if you can spare the coin, donate.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

There's Still a Bone To Pick With Capitalism... and a Few To Break!

There may still persist doubt out there that 2012 was going to be a flagship year for rebel music. True, we're not even two weeks in, but last night's news provides hopeful signs indeed!

A lot has happened in the fourteen years since Swedish small-C-communist hardcore innovators Refused decided to part ways. Many, including the group themselves, felt that they never had a chance to put their full weight behind The Shape of Punk To Come like they wanted to. Since then, Shape has become a landmark in punk, proving that the form can be continually revolutionized. It could be experimented with, manipulated, pushed forward in a way that still shunned "selling out" and integrated sound and slogan seamlessly.

While there's never been any lack of adherents disappointed that Refused were no more (or, rather, that they were "fuckin' dead"), nobody could ever say that Dennis Lyxzen didn't keep the flag flying. The front-man continued to be a force in the punk, hardcore and indie scenes with the (International) Noise Conspiracy, Lost Patrol, Invasionen and plenty of others. Still, there's never been much doubt that Refused continued to be held in a special place in most folks' hearts.

Then came this statement last night:

"Finally, after a decade and a half hiatus, Kristofer picked up the guitar again. Which made David want to play the drums again. Which in turn led to all four of us suddenly making new music in assorted constellations. As all this was brewing, Coachella got in touch. There were a couple of phone-calls, lots of skepticism, some hesitant enthusiasm before one of us basically said: '– This is ridiculous. There are friends of ours who would murder close relatives just to go see bands there. Let's just do it, one last time'... We never did 'The shape of punk to come' justice back when it came out, too tangled up in petty internal bickering to really focus on the job. And suddenly there's this possibility to do it like it was intended. We wanna do it over, do it right. For the people who've kept the music alive through the years, but also for our own sakes."

And let's face it, there has never been a more urgent time for a band like Refused to return to the world stage. An economic crisis that the world's rulers have absolutely no clue how to get out of. Revolutions, mass labor rebellion in Europe and Africa. Global youth revolt. We've already seen, as the band put it, "re-awoke the spirit of '68." And with that, it's fair to say that the space has been opened up for a new generation of radicals to be introduced to their material and what it means to revolutionize music.

Speculation has been flying around that Refused are only reuniting for Coachella. But since their original announcement they've also announced their intent to play the Way Out Festival in Gotheburg, Sweden. And their mention of new material similarly keeps hope alive that they may be headed for the studio and a full-fledged tour. Here's to hoping. In any event, there's little argument that the world is in dire need for acts like this to revive!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Fallen Idols

If there is one single moment in music that best defined the utterly idiotic circus of American politics at the end of 2011, then it came from Kelly Clarkson.

Surely, the American Idol’s now-infamous Tweet supporting Ron Paul was only one turd in a vast, stinking mass of media fertilizer that is only bound to pile up around this time in election season. Celebrity endorsements of politicians arguably mean less now than they ever have. What few of the talking heads and spin doctors seem to get, however, is just what Clarkson’s support and the subsequent backlash against her represent.

Initial reports had Clarkson’s own album sales spiking in the days directly following her endorsement of the fellow-Texan and arch libertarian congressman (“I love Ron Paul... If we wins the nomination for the Republican party in 2012 he’s got my vote”). Paul even publicly quipped a few days later that his own supporters were responsible for this bump.

We now know that these reports were false, or at best, wishful thinking. In fact, if anything her music became less popular than it was prior to her endorsement. The week ending on January 1st saw sales of her new album Stronger drop some forty percent. Though Stronger did indeed find a higher place in the charts, it was only a result in a more dramatic drop in sales among the other top albums. At best, the “Ron Paul effect” has been negligible for Clarkson’s bank account.

It’s also clear that plenty of the singer’s fans were more than a little unhappy with Clarkson’s endorsement. The Twittersphere was positively lit up by followers incensed at the endorsement. The uproar was apparently so unavoidable that country star Blake Shelton felt the need to weigh in on her side: “I love you!!! I’ll listen to your view points anytime. And I really wouldn’t mind throat punching someone for you either!!”

More surprising than the stream of online protest against Clarkson has been how, well, surprised anyone can be at this series of events. Or, for that matter, that any writer or pundit thought it might be kosher to immediately declare an uptick in the singer’s own popularity.

Just in case anyone needs reminding, Clarkson’s endorsement came right at the end of an embarrassing few weeks for Ron Paul, when scrutiny over his racist and homophobic newsletters was finally unavoidable. Obviously, Paul was hoping for all this to blow over quickly. It didn’t. In fact, it gained steam as pictures of the congressman next to the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan current Stormfront.org founder Don Black began to surface. That Black publicly announced his own support for Paul hasn’t helped matters much either.

It is worth pointing out that the attacks against Clarkson weren’t for Paul’s supposed anti-war positions (as some of his erstwhile left-wing supporters might claim), but for the virulent bigotry that has always set him aside. It’s also these specific charges that Clarkson saw fit to defend herself against:

"I am really sorry if I have offended anyone. Obviously that was not my intent. I do not support racism. I support gay rights, straight rights, women's rights, men's rights, white/black/purple/orange rights. I like Ron Paul because he believes in less government and letting the people (all of us) make the decisions and mold our country. That is all. Out of all of the Republican nominees, he's my favorite."

In her own mind, Clarkson obviously sees no contradictions. She also is, at least publicly, oblivious to the much uglier side of candidate Paul. She has, for example, yet to say anything about his high approval rating from the white supremacist John Birch Society, his plans to build a wall on the US-Mexico border and to repeal the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Nor has she mentioned Paul’s intentions to do away with Social Security, public education, the minimum wage and anything else designed to help working people basically survive.

This election season will see candidates point fingers at each other over a stubbornly sluggish economy and lack of jobs. None, on either side of the aisle seems able to speak truthfully about the consequences for ordinary people--in particular people of color, who have bore a double brunt of this unrelenting economic crisis. Still, even in the Republican camp, a particularly nutty end of the cesspool, Ron Paul’s views stand out as extreme.

Is it really any wonder that nowadays, when revolutions and occupations have finally forced issues of inequality and poverty into the mainstream, so many of Clarkson’s fans revolted? Likewise, can we really be surprised that, just as a growing number of ordinary people have come to demand a more humane political and economic system, they have also come to expect the same from their culture?

This, to be blunt, is what Kelly Clarkson is truly oblivious to when she plays the victim for being lambasted. In a music industry so committed to painting its biggest stars as “better than the rest of us,” Clarkson ranks among the highest of singing, dancing cash-cows. Talented? Undeniably so. Artistically groundbreaking? Hardly. Marketed and focus-grouped to death so as to maximize profits every step of the way? Most definitely. In fact, her “big break” came on the first season of a show deliberately designed to create, mold and shape such stars.

It’s also what makes artists like her so ultimately disposable. That she was taken to task so vociferously by so many reveals how frustrated us “little people” have finally gotten with this kind of elitist impunity. For her own part, Clarkson has done her best to show some grace in defeat:

“I will listen to what you say and any articles or viewpoints you have when you say it with respect. I was raised to respect people and their decisions and beliefs and I hope you will grant me the same decency. If you don’t agree with me simply unfollow me.”

It would appear that plenty of Clarkson’s followers took her advice, dropping her from their Twitter. Stands to reason that many others have unceremoniously removed her from their CD collections, mp3 players, and their lives in general. We’ll all be a lot better off when we figure out how to do the same to this sick, sick system that gives so much to so few while leaving the rest of us to rot.

First appeared at SOCIARTS

Friday, January 6, 2012

Punk Rock Benefit for Occupy Chi at the Empty Bottle!

You know a movement is serious when the high school punk bands start getting involved. Anyone in Chicago who can make it out to this by all means should!


Come help When Flying Feels Like Falling support the Occupy Chicago movement by attending this benefit show at The Empty Bottle!

Doors: 11am
Show: 12pm
Buy tickets at the door: $8
All Ages, but The Empty Bottle is a 21+ club so ALL MINORS MUST BE ACCOMPANIED BY AN ADULT (1 adult can be the chaperone for a group)


Ephemeral Sunrise- 12:00pm-12:25pm
Give Back- 12:35pm-1pm
The Bajas- 1:10pm-1:35pm
Going Backwards- 1:45pm-2:10pm
Waste- 2:20pm-2:45pm
THE CATHY SANTONIES- 2:55pm-3:25pm

A Big thanks to the School Of Rock for providing the back-line!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Back For More In '12

And I couldn't be more glad to announce it (despite the rather ham-handed re-entry with yesterday's article). As has been said before, 2011 was an incredible year for rebellion in general and rebel music in particular. If it's any indication then we have plenty of unpredictable radical energy in store for us in 2012.

That, of course, means much more coming up at Rebel Frequencies too, including an examination of punk rock's anti-apartheid history, an interview with British musician and revolutionary Dave Randall, and, later this summer, a piece on the legacy of Woody Guthrie on the 100th anniversary of his birth.

For those who missed some of the last articles of 2011 too, two of them have been republished. Over the break, the Punks Against Apartheid website re-ran my article on the Indonesian punk raids, and SocialistWorker.org republished my review of Lupe Fiasco's Friend of the People mixtape (which now comes endorsed by Lupe himself).

All of this means that there has never been a better time to subscribe to RF in one way or another. There will also be a new year's fund drive to support the site being launched in the coming weeks, but you can feel free to donate too in the meantime!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Red Raiders vs. Scott Walker: "Union Maid" Invades the Rose Bowl

Co-authored with Dave Zirin

Editor's Note: Pulaski Schools Superintendent Mel Lightner has denied that the song played by the Pulaski High Schools "Red Raiders" was Woody Guthrie's "Union Maid." He says it was a regular piece of the band's repertoire called the "Red Wing Polka," which has the same tune as "Union Maid." "Red Wing Polka," according to Superintendent Lightnter, was a favorite of the band leader's grandmother. We apologize for jumping the gun.

The Rose Bowl has always been the oldest and most storied game of the entire college football bowl season. Its roots extend back to 1902, earning the nickname "the Granddaddy of Them All.” Even today, floating in the septic tank that is the Bowl Championship Series, plastered with corporate branding and officially renamed the Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio, it has retained much of its' stature and glory. This year, the Oregon Ducks beat the Wisconsin Badgers in the highest scoring Rose Bowl in history, winning 45-38.

Despite the loss, the state of Wisconsin still made their mark in grand fashion. Per Rose Bowl (apologies: Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio) tradition high school marching bands from Wisconsin and Oregon performed as part of the festivities. One of the bands from Wisconsin, the Pulaski High School “Red Raiders,” abruptly interrupted their own performance of “On Wisconsin” and on live TV, and played a far different tune. It was the classic Woody Guthrie anthem for labor and women’s rights, "Union Maid."

After a year when Wisconsin became ground zero in a reemergence of mass struggle in the United States, and during a time when the people of the state of Wisconsin are attempting to recall their anti-union governor Scott Walker, the choice of "Union Maid" spoke volumes.

This is a song dripping with working class radicalism. Pete Seeger, Guthrie’s fellow Almanac Singer, recalls in his autobiography that he “was present when 'Union Maid' was written in June, 1940, in the plain little office of the Oklahoma City Communist Party. Bob Wood, local organizer, had asked Woody Guthrie and me to sing there the night before for a small group of striking oil workers.”

Guthrie had apparently been asked to write a union tune specifically taking up the women’s struggle. The song’s chorus leaves little room for ambiguity:

“Oh you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union!
I’m sticking to the union, ‘till the day I die!”

At the time of this writing, it’s not known whether Walker saw the telecast, let alone recognized the song. But for a small high school from a town of barely 3,000 people to break the mold at an event normally so tightly orchestrated as the Rose Bowl presented by Vizio, it was a remarkable moment.

Already there is a push by a right wing blog that calls itself Media Trackers stating that the band was actually playing “Red Wing,” an obscure polka from which the melody of “Union Maid” was taken. Their blog includes a quote not from the band leader or any of the students, but the district superintendent, insisting that there was no political message meant whatsoever, just a marching band straying from their prepared tune to play an obscure polka while the band members grinned with mischievous joy.

If thinking that this song was just a good ol’ fashioned polka helps Scott Walker's internet army sleep at night so be it. But they would be closing their eyes to just how deep the outrage continues to run in Wisconsin since Walker attempted to destroy collective bargaining rights last February. The surprise of the recall Walker campaign thus far is the support it's getting in small towns like Pulaski. If the marching band is any indication, Scott Walker is in some serious trouble. Walker attempted to scare the people of Wisconsin last February. Before there was even one protest against his anti-union legislation, Governor Walker put the National Guard on alert by saying that they were "prepared" for "whatever the governor, their commander-in-chief, might call for.”

Considering that the state of Wisconsin has not called in the National Guard since 1886, the response—thousands occupying and marching on the State Capitol for weeks—was all the more impressive. Walker’s threats didn’t make people scared. They just strengthened their resolve. It’s no wonder the band at Pulaski would be attracted to “Union Maid.” The song begins,

“There once was a union maid, she never was afraid
Of goons and ginks and company finks
and the deputy sheriffs who made the raid.
She went to the union hall when a meeting it was called,
And when the Legion boys come 'round
She always stood her ground.”

As for the Ayn Rand loving, union-busting, Paul Ryan fan-boy Scott Walker, he still doesn’t understand that his assault on workers' rights has had an effect quite opposite to what he intended, re-awakening what the late folksinger Utah Phillips once called the most dangerous idea in America: “the long memory.” Thanks to the Pulaski band for showing that Long Memory in action.

First appeared at TheNation.com

Update: “Red Wing, “Union Maid,” and the Awakening Long Memory

Time for us to admit what no one writer (let alone two) ever wants to ‘fess up to: we were wrong. Almost as soon as our our article celebrating the Pulaski marching band’s performance of “Union Maid” at the Rose Bowl parade went up at TheNation.com, the proof became incontrovertible that it was indeed, as the editors' note indicates above intended as “Red Wing Polka.”

Of course, the right-wing blogosphere, a la Media Trackers, are gleefully gloating at the fact that they were correct, and that the out-of-touch lefties simply lack the facts. And yet it should be asked why, even when the song was indeed its old Polka counterpart, so many readers were, in the words of Daily Kos contributor AnnieJo, “brought to tears” by the notion of “Union Maid” being played right in Scott Walker’s smug face? Might it reveal that the tradition of radical labor songs runs a lot deeper through American history than the right is willing to admit?

And why, amidst the factual tug-of-war, have the progressive sites (namely Daily Kos) been the only ones requesting that their readers donate to the Pulaski marching band booster fund? It comes down to what side you stand on. Walker and his minions remain willfully oblivious to the damage their cuts have done to our schools in general--and our arts programs in particular. The $150,000 the marching band took a year to raise could have been covered in the snap of the fingers if state officials weren’t so eager slash budgets in order to justify tax breaks for the rich.

While the Tea-baggers see school arts programs as nothing but a political bargaining chip, we see them as something urgently needed and worth supporting. That, in a nutshell, is why support for unions in Wisconsin remains high, and why the struggle that filled the State Capitol with thousands of indignants isn’t going anywhere. It’s why this year, which will mark what would have been Woody Guthrie’s hundredth birthday, is one he would have smiled upon. “Union Maid” or “Red Wing Polka,” Utah Phillips’ Long Memory, battered and bruised though it might be from decades of defeat, remains intact.