Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"Phony" (Jay Smooth On Mitt Romney)


Looks like it's Mitt Romney again in Arizona and Michigan. Barring any political miracle between now and Super Tuesday, Santorum isn't really looking to pull ahead, and Gingrich is hanging by a thread. And then there's that other guy... you know, the one who's endorsed by Stormfront? Stranger things have happened in American political primaries, but this charisma-challenged blue-blood looks to be the main contender to take on Obama in November.

Some might have been looking forward to the jokes that would be bound to come out if the nomination were Santorum or Gingrich. But, as hip-hop vlogger Jay Smooth shows us in his remix of Jay-Z's "Glory," there is plenty in Romney worth mocking. This vid is about three weeks old, but something about Romney's most recent steps toward the nod makes this all the more relevant.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

An Album That Mattered...


Below is a contribution that I made to an ongoing series at the New Left Project on the topic of favorite rebel music albums. Of course, I've already written something more thorough on the topic of Sandinista! that can be read here. Nonetheless, in this writer's opinion, there's no such thing as too much discussion on the Clash.

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It's nothing out of the ordinary for a left-wing writer to declare the Clash their favorite band of all time. Almost a quarter-century after imploding, the group has undeniably entered into the pantheon of musical legend--no doubt a point of pride for many who were swayed by Strummer and company's rebel call.

Naming Sandinista! your favorite album is a different matter. Upon its release in the winter of 1980 it instantly divided fans and critics alike. Little wonder why. With 36 tracks running almost two and a half hours total, and with a musical palette that veers from rockabilly to backwards tape-loops at a moment’s notice, the album can sometimes test the patience of even the most open-minded.

It’s also an album revolutionary in all senses--politically, socially, artistically. No album did more to shake the very foundations of pop music since Sergeant Pepper. It was a work profoundly shaped by its time and continues to have resonance today. Few albums can claim such a feat.

Of course there’s the obvious: naming an album after a leftist guerrilla movement that had come to power right on the cusp of the Reagan-Thatcher years was a defiant statement of solidarity. However, that radical internationalism expanded well beyond the title.

The Clash were no strangers to injecting reggae, soul and jazz into their sound. It was on Sandinista!, though, that this penchant burst forth with calypso, dub, gospel. All anticipated the rise of “world music” by almost a decade. Likewise for the group’s fascination with hip-hop. Rap was barely known outside the confines of New York City, but Strummer, Jones, Headon and Simonon knew they were hearing something earth-shattering. “Magnificent Seven,” a song that squared its rap-influenced lyrics against everything from consumerism to big media, was front-loaded on the album.

Sandinista! is also, appropriately, where we hear the group’s rebel politics at their sharpest. The world-sweeping beats play a dense, intricate soundtrack to denunciations of American imperialism in “Washington Bullets.” A steady, creeping funk runs beneath a call to resist the military in “The Call Up.” And few groups could manage to turn an R&B surfing song into one about napalm in Vietnam like the Clash did in “Charlie Don’t Surf.”

And, it should be remembered, this was a triple album sold at single album price! It was a move that cost the group untold sums of money and put them at further odds with their record label. Well before Radiohead began giving away their music for free on the Internet, and even as they tried to negotiate the treacherous waters of fame, the Clash were experimenting with ways to make music a right, not a privilege.

Listening to Sandinista! today, it’s amazing how fresh it sounds. Some of this may be the simple gears of history turning--the upsurge in Latin America, the discredit of US imperialism. But beyond that, the sounds the Clash were inspired by have in turn inspired a whole new generation of musicians grappling with what it means to be artists in a world of burgeoning struggle. It’s what makes Sandinista! not just another album by “the only band that mattered,” but a work that stands on its own today.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Mp3 Players In the New Jim Crow


The US Bureau of Prisons is now announcing that they will be allowing inmates to possess mp3 players and download music. It's one of those rights that most people probably weren't even aware was denied of prisoners. The one exception might be the well-publicized incident a couple of years back when Lil Wayne was put in solitary confinement for a month during his prison stint. He was, yes, caught with an mp3 player.

There's no doubt that this is a civil liberties victory for one of the US' most exploited populations. Albeit a tiny one in comparison to the egregious ways that their basic rights are denied from them on a daily basis. In the face of sub-standard food and overcrowding, the right to jam to a good song is a limited one, though no doubt appreciated by many on the inside.

The extreme limitations on this victory are seen in the way it's being implemented. Though inmates will be allowed to download from a list of over a million songs, they will be prohibited from downloading any tracks deemed "objectionable" or "explicit." Call me crazy, but I hardly trust America's prison-industrial complex--a billion dollar industry that exploits unfair and racist laws to lock up almost 2.5 million people--to be fair arbiters of taste.

US Bureau of Prisons spokesperson Traci Billingsley said in a public statement that, in addition to using a ratings system established by the Recording Industry Association of America (because they're such a scrupulous bunch!) prisons will also be allowed to "prohibit a title that it determines may disrupt the good and orderly running of the institution."

That's a vague distinction, and opens the door for pretty much any song that might provide prisoners with a constructive outlet for their frustrations at the concrete, bars and degradation that is common experience for them. What's to prevent prison agencies from censoring "Folsom Prison Blues" or "San Quentin," two songs that are among Johnny Cash's most legendary and no doubt are a bit of catharsis for those in prisoners' shoes?

What's to stop them from preventing download of Rage Against the Machine's "Freedom" or "Voice Of the Voiceless"? This is a song that has absolutely no curse words and incites no violence whatsoever, yet still runs the risk of being found "objectionable" due to their critique of the injustice system and their open solidarity with political prisoners Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu Jamal. And I don't even want to think about what the prison system's approach to "Fight the Power," "Fuck tha Police" or, for that matter, any hip-hop that's worth its weight in salt. This is a style that has a long history of being spied upon by the FBI, the NYPD and other city and state law enforcement agencies.

Still, these contradictions haven't prevented the law-and-order types from playing the scare-mongering card. Chuck Grassley, Republican senator from Iowa, said in a statement that it was "difficult to see how all of the necessary safeguards can be put into place to stop prisoners from using Mp3 players as bargaining chips or other malicious devices... It appears to be a risky endeavor and raises a lot of questions that need to be answered." Grassley is an arch-conservative politician who has expressed little concern for the "safeguards" of prisoners throughout most of his career. He also seems willfully oblivious to the roles that regular dehumanization and corruption might play in making prisons unsafe in the first place. Mp3 players aren't the problem. The problem is the prisons themselves.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Revolution In Bloom: The Occupy Chicago Rebel Arts Collective Launches


The following is an article that went up just today at the website for the Occupied Chicago Tribune by OCRAC participant Dan Massoglia. I'm quoted in it, but more importantly, it plugs the OCRAC launch event tonight! Anyone in Chicago needs to be here!

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A revolution is never purely political. Massive alterations to laws, institutions, and officials are rarely spontaneous but rather are responsive, the confirmation of a seismic shift in attitudes about the status quo. A dogma is toppled only when long-gestating changes to a society’s social and political culture ready the people to assert their power. Artists play a pivotal--and multifaceted--role in this transformation.

The Occupy movement has seen an outpouring of creative support; its earliest, perhaps, a call from the Canadian anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters, masters in the art of critical satire if not that of considerate organizing. Physical support followed in cities worldwide, and in affinity groups like Occupy Writers, a web database of over 3,000 sympathetic authors that includes Occupy-related pieces from well-known names like Judith Butler, Ursula Le Guin, and Lemony Snicket.

Graham Nash and David Crosby, veterans of the ’60s anti-war movement, have reprised old classics for protesters in Liberty Square, and musicians expected, unexpected, and presumed-defunct--Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco, Miley Cyrus, and Third Eye Blind, for example--have penned tunes inspired by and in support of the movement. And while Third Eye Blind’s “If There Ever Was A Time” is unlikely to alter public sentiment in the way that, say, “Ohio” did after the Kent State Massacre, it nonetheless contributes to the shift that makes widespread change possible. By tagging the Occupy movement with relevant cultural markers, these figures, and their diverse works, are able to both translate and elevate revolutionary ideas. The act of creation forces society to evolve.

In making tangible and memorable the abstract ideas that undergird massive shifts in social consciousness, artists, from their unique position in society, instigate, inspire, and even immortalize the events of a revolution while in some sense remaining free of attachments. “They can serve it, be a voice of it, an impetus for it, but they must remain independent,” says Candide Jones, a member of Occupy Winston-Salem and Asst. Director of Wake Forest University Press, a major publisher of Irish poetry in North America. “Artists live on the edge at the same time as they are in the middle of everything. They are the canaries in the coal mine, the first ones to catch a whiff when things are starting to stink.”

In the years preceding the Irish Civil War, artists were the driving force, inflaming passions and, at times, leading on the battlefield “a revolver in one hand and a copy of Sophocles in the other.” Though the Easter Rising culminated with the executions of writers Padraic Pearse and Thomas MacDonough, the revolutionary Sinn Fein party it galvanized persists today.

Occupy Chicago has plans to create a habitat for resistance-minded artists here in the city. The fledgling Occupy Chicago Rebel Arts Collective, or OCRAC, seeks to provide an independent, alternative outlet for artists frustrated or stymied by the modern culture industry, according to Alex Billet, a member of the Occupy Chicago Arts & Recreation Committee. “Culture is a right, not a privilege,” says Billet, a sentiment he says unites the Collective’s founders.

Already operating online, OCRAC formally launches February 24 at the Wicker Park Arts Center, a multi-disciplinary artist-directed community center. This spring, OCRAC is planning events that include a celebration of International Women’s Day and a remembrance of Troy Davis, executed by the state of Georgia in September.

For Billet, art and social upheaval are inexorably linked: “The anti-racist and pro-union struggles of the 1930s ushered in the songs of Woody Guthrie or the Almanac singers [and] the art of Ben Shahn,” he notes, pointing as well to the relationship between the iconic music, theater, and film of the 1960s and the black power, anti-war, and civil rights movements of the period.

Longtime activist and facilitator Mike Kalas says the convergence of art and activism is essential and natural. “The activists need more art in their lives; the artists need more activism in their lives,” he says, “A happy medium.” Kalas recently exhibited the work of inmate-artists at a conference encouraging judicial instruction on jury nullification, a scarcely known power of juries that has been used since the era of the Fugitive Slave Act to acquit defendants despite the weight of the evidence in protest of unjust laws.

Members of the Chicago jazz group The Vincent Davis Quartet likewise emphasize the importance of the mutual bonds of common struggle, and highlight boycotting certain venues as an effective way of utilizing their social capital. It is the hope of Billet that OCRAC will give Chicago’s cultural workers another tool through which to raise their voice.

Teresa Veramendi, a founding member of OCRAC and star in December’s critically well-received play, “Occupy My Heart: A Revolutionary Christmas Carol,” has high hopes for the coming months. Veramendi views the stage as a place to humanize and make tangible the struggles of the 99%. “Occupy My Heart” opened outdoors at the end of an Occupy Chicago parade, an intersection of art and protest that Veremendi plans to incorporate into another project: large-scale street theater planned for #ChicagoSpring demonstrations on April 7.

“I want to democratize the truth about what happened to us,” she remarks, referring to her planned work in which pods of actors working in the street will reconstruct individual threads of the financial crisis before joining with the audience in a massive rising. “The point of performance is this connection,” she says. “It’s the electricity in the air.”

The same could be said for revolution.

BBU, What It Do?


It's time, once again, for a BBU plug. Today they release their new mixtape bell hooks. And if "The Hood" is any indication (which it probably is) then there's no doubt that there's some excellent material on this mixtape that balances between humor, realism and real, revolutionary hope.

As always, I'll let them speak for themselves. Below is the text from their Bandcamp site. But ultimately, because this mixtape is free, you have nothing to lose. And in fact, because we know it's BBU, you're most likely to gain something--damn good music with a good and healthy dose of enlightenment.

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Are you ready for a transmission straight from the streets of the Windy City? You better be, because today Мишка is happy to present bell hooks, the brand new album from Chicago's very own BBU. Picking up more steam with each passing day, this four piece is primed and ready to burst onto everyone's radar. After hearing their feature on The Hood Internet's debut album, we knew we had to do something bigger with BBU. Joining up with Mad Decent along the way, the momentum behind the bell hooks project got even stronger.

Epic, Illekt, Jasson Perez, and DJ Esquire are the creative force behind BBU (short for Bin Laden Blowin! Up or Black, Brown, and Ugly, depending on the day), and they're committed to making socially conscious rap that doesn't sacrifice an ounce of fun. Pulling sounds from all over, including the rap of their childhoods and also the rich juke culture of their home city, BBU have truly created a soundtrack to their artist-activist lifestyle. From the impetus behind the title (the nom de plume of feminist writer Gloria Jean Watkins, in case you ain't knowin') to the poem that opens the album, BBU aren't afraid to speak their very unique minds. But these nimble wordsmiths make sure to keep the energy sky high across all of bell hooks.

Featuring beats by Stefan Ponce, Montana Macks, The Hood Internet, and more, bell hooks is packed to the brim with politics and personality, whether it be on the juking fringe anthem "Outlaw Culture", 90s music paen "Kurt De La Rocha", or the double time dense rhymes of "Cormega." These 17 tracks have also got guest verses from Das Racist, GLC, and the whole thing is mixed by DJ Benzi. It's a thrillingly unique rap release that sets the bar high this early in the year. If you're in the midwest, be sure to go celebrate its release this Thursday at Schubas in Chicago. If you can pull yourself away from listening to bell hooks that is. Listen and download below, and check the full tracklist after the jump!


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Will.i.am: From Sell-Out To Scab


It's been almost two weeks since the Black Eyed Peas' Will.i.am's sanctimonious "TRANS4MATION EXPERIENCE" concert was held in Los Angeles with Ne-Yo, Stevie Wonder and other performers. But with the chorus of villainization against teachers reaching louder and louder heights, a few things need to be cleared up about what this concert represents. For that matter, so does the function of artists like Will.i.am.

The concert was a benefit for Will.i.am's i.am angel foundation. Right off, there's an immediate reason to hate him for making me type so many unnecessary periods and capitalization mistakes in one sentence. The foundation is apparently set up to benefit schools. What it actually benefits is charter schools in particular. And all the union-busting that comes with them.

Will.i.am told the Washington Post that he was inspired by the anti-teacher hit-piece Waiting For Superman:

“They might as well call that movie ‘Waiting for William.’ That’s the reason why I’m doing what I am doing because that movie hits straight to heart because my mom went to one of those schools."

How modest.

He also told the Post, predictably, that his support for President Obama hasn't faltered one bit, despite very real and obvious disappointments. Stepping back, there's little that separates this from typical Democratic Party triangulation during and election year.

In fact, Obama's Race To the Top program hasn't only failed to make schools better, it's made them worse. More and more it's being made clear that test-scores--flawed as they are as a measure of a student's aptitude--don't come out any better at most charter schools. In city after city, school officials who have spearheaded the privatization of education (which is what charters are) have been embroiled in one scandal after another.

One wonders what Will.i.am would have to say to one of the Chicago parents who occupied their kids' school this past weekend in protest of it being "turned around." But then, Will.i.am hasn't had much to do with the grassroots for quite some time. Most will remember him being among the most vocal of the cabal of hip-hop and pop artists who supported Obama's campaign in 2008. (He produced the "Yes We Can" video for crying out loud!)

It was indeed a significant moment, as it played the soundtrack for the first time a mainstream presidential candidate had openly embraced a hitherto controversial hip-hop culture. In some ways, though, it also represented a process of co-optation. Now Obama's full-on assault on teachers unions has cover in hip-hop. If there is one thing that hip-hop should never be, it's anti-union. The communities that gave root to America's most vibrant form of modern rebel music stand nothing to gain from backing destruction of their teachers' lives.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Never Mind Johnny Rotten, Real Punks Boycott Israel


“If Elvis-fucking-Costello wants to pull out of a gig in Israel because he’s suddenly got this compassion for Palestinians then good on him. But I have absolutely one rule, right? Until I see an Arab country, a Muslim country, with a democracy, I won’t understand how anyone can have a problem with how they’re treated.”

These words weren’t spoken by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. They didn’t crawl from the bile of AIPAC, Newt Gingrich or some hardened, right-wing ideologue from the heart of the Israel’s illegal settlements. They came from the mouth of John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols.

Most devotees of punk rock stopped taking Lydon seriously well before he started shilling for Country Life butter. To be sure, any and all credibility he once had from his work with the Pistols, or, for that matter, later on with Public Image Ltd (PiL), flew out the window years ago.

It’s also true that the Pistols idiotically paraded around in swastikas during their early years. Still, even taken with that grain of salt, Lydon’s words are profoundly troubling. Like it or not, the former Rotten is considered a granddaddy of punk rock. It’s not far fetched to imagine someone reading his words and thinking his flagrant racism, his willful defense of an apartheid state, are somehow the punk norm. It’s for this reason that Punks Against Apartheid exists.

In the summer of 2011, Punks Against Apartheid came together as an ad hoc formation of BDS activists and punk fans (a formation that, in the interest of full-disclosure, includes this writer). The goal was initially modest: draft a letter and petition urging Jello Biafra, formerly of The Dead Kennedys, to cancel his gig in Tel Aviv with his band the Guantanamo School of Medicine.

The response was overwhelming: within four days, Punks Against Apartheid’s petition had more than 500 signatures. As pressure built and Biafra publicly reaffirmed his commitment to the show, he specifically called out Punks Against Apartheid. However, a few days after that, with the petition bearing more than a thousand signatories, Biafra canceled the gig.

Furthermore, many of those who had supported us were urging Punks Against Apartheid to continue as a formal network.

Now, Punks Against Apartheid has finally launched its official website: www.punksagainstapartheid.com. Of course, the group doesn’t exist in isolation. The global movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions is at a crucial international turning point. With the Arab revolutions and the anti-capitalist Occupy movement in close to 100 countries inspiring a new generation of rebel musicians, there may be no better time for Punks Against Apartheid to announce its formal presence.

“Racism Ain’t Punk”

Punks Against Apartheid follows a firm tradition of anti-racism within the punk movement. This encompasses punk rockers’ early embrace of reggae, the formation of Rock Against Racism and the Two Tone movement, the music of the Clash and Bad Brains, X-Ray Spex and MDC, Subhumans and the Specials.

There’s more than a little romance to the idea that all of this came out fully formed somehow. On the contrary, it had to be fought for both in the concert halls and on the streets. In both the US and the UK, open white supremacists vied for support within the punk movement during these early years. In a climate of economic crisis and harsh anti-immigrant scapegoating, the angry wail of punk was initially just as liable to trail into some dangerously dark territory. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?)

And just like today, there was an international dimension that was difficult to ignore. Punk groups like National Wake from Johannesburg, South Africa were shut down and prevented from playing just like Black Flag in Los Angeles--though in the former’s case it was usually due to it being an integrated band in an apartheid state. The pleas from Nazi boneheads like the UK’s National Front or the American National Socialist Party to “support white South Africa” obviously had the effect of dividing the global punk community rather than uniting it.

No surprise then that the anti-racist side also embraced the worldwide movement against South African apartheid. David Widgery, one of the founders of Rock Against Racism, recalled in his book Beating Time that South Africa was a key part of Rock Against Racism’s message. Its publication, Temporary Hoarding, featured pictures of the Soweto uprisings on its cover. The same issue made a case that, as Widgery put it “our little Hitlers had their big brothers in power in South Africa.” The Specials, with their infectious blend of ska and punk energy, were particularly moved to support the anti-apartheid movement--most famously and obviously in “Free Nelson Mandela.”

When Steven Van Zandt, a guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, formed Artists United Against Apartheid and declared “I ain’t gonna play Sun City,” Joey Ramone and The Dead Boys’ Stiv Bators were among those who recorded the single. Countless other punk acts heeded that same call and pointedly refused invitations to perform in South Africa--including The Dead Kennedys and Public Image Ltd.

The parallels between apartheid South Africa and modern-day Israel have been laid out again and again. Areas designated “off limits” to Arabs and Palestinians, systematic denial of basic rights. Forced removals, refugee camps and checkpoints. Random raids of homes and violent repression of anything smacking of resistance. Though it’s been almost twenty years since white rule was abolished in South Africa, its ancestor is alive and well in a similar colonial settler state.

Of course, punk rock hasn’t gone anywhere either. For every sugary corporate Green Day ripoff willing to cross the Palestinian people’s international picket line (I’m looking in your direction, Simple Plan), there are untold numbers of young folks forming their own bands, their own labels and own fanzines because they believe punk stands for something. It’s these people that Punks Against Apartheid seeks to reach.

And believe it or not, despite the stubbornly persistent notion that punk remains a white boy thing, many of these punks are those most under the gun of American racism, a racism that has become more pronounced since 11 September 2001.

“Being a punk and being a Muslim-American to me go hand in hand,” says activist and writer Tanzila Ahmed. “They are both about standing up to the man. They are about believing what you believe with your whole gut and soul … It’s about being marginalized and fighting to reclaim your voice.”

Ahmed, or “Taz,” as she is known, is one of many participants in the burgeoning Taqwacore scene: Muslim punks. It’s a sub-culture that is currently taking its rightful place next to riot grrl and Afro-punk in the ever expanding horizons of a diverse punk scene.

In an interview with The Electronic Intifada, Taz also insisted that her identity as a Muslim punk is a big reason she supports BDS: “The US government is largely why Israel feels empowered to bully the way it has... It’s all about political power, and at this point of history hate speech against Muslims is the tactic and Muslim-Americans are the pawns. I absolutely believe that the lack of support for Palestine is the sacrifice politicians are making to stay in power and to win votes.”

Bigger than Jello

Thirty years ago it was open fascists emboldened by a political establishment who turned the other cheek. Now it’s white nationalists milling around the ranks of the Tea Party and the “Stop Islamization” crowd. Back then they pointed at jobs and services “stolen” by black people and higher crime rates in the inner-city. Today they shriek about Arabs and Muslims conspiring to impose sharia law via downtown mosques.

Back then, both gutter racists and establishment politicians alike looked to South Africa as a bulwark against the invading brown hordes. Today, it’s Israel. Global empire doesn’t care about apartheid. On the contrary, without divide-and-conquer, it probably wouldn’t survive.

As always, the fight is international. Amplifying the shouts of those shoved to society’s margins doesn’t end at national borders. Perhaps that’s why the original Punks Against Apartheid petition included signatories from all over the world--London, Beirut, Chicago, Istanbul, Paris and beyond.

It’s also perhaps why a glimpse of those who have signed on to Punks Against Apartheid’s “points of unity” so far will reveal a diverse swathe: “Spirit of ‘77” originators the Angelic Upstarts, anarcho-punk architects Oi Polloi and the Oppressed, riot-folk singer Mark Gunnery, radical torch-bearers Propagandhi and more.

Of course, Punks Against Apartheid is tapping into something much bigger than any list or artists, bigger than Jello Biafra, John Lydon, or even “Elvis-fucking-Costello.” Punk rock’s legacy, twisted and contradictory though it may be, had to be fought for and can still mean something to a new generation. Ultimately, it’s about solidarity. If the world’s most marginalized are ever going to take back what’s theirs, then this is one value that has to remain at our very core. Time to show the world that punk is a lot more powerful than any divisions--real or imagined--ever could be.

First published at the Electronic Intifada

Monday, February 20, 2012

Teach-In on "Occupy Music" Postponed... For a Very Good Reason!


Any activist in Chicago was certainly aware of the big news this past weekend of parents occupying their kids' school in protest of its closure. It was for this reason that the Occupy Chicago Educational Committee and I decided to cancel the teach-in on "Occupy Music" that was originally scheduled for Saturday. This was one of those moments when solidarity necessitated that people not have another event pulling them away.

But to all those who were planning on coming anyway: fear not! The teach-in has been postponed for March 17th. As before, it's on a Saturday. Same time, same place. Check out the deets below, and on Facebook!


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"Occupy Music? Crisis, Resistance and the Sound of Revolt"
Saturday, March 17, 2012
4:30pm until 6:30pm

Last fall saw a huge outpouring of support for the Occupy movement among artists and musicians. But this isn’t the first social movement to have its own soundtrack. What does this sonic solidarity reveal about music’s role in the fight for a better world? What about the function of the modern music industry? Does art actually have the power to change the world? An upcoming teach-in at Occupy Chicago’s headquarters will take up these very questions. The speaker, Alexander Billet, is a music journalist and activist from Chicago whose work has appeared in Z Magazine, TheNation.com, New Politics, PopMatters.com and others.

Friday, February 17, 2012

BDS Update: Another Reason Cat Power Is Better Than GN'R


Seems an obvious statement. The former has a genuine hold on how to write an honest and intricate song without reaching for the bells and whistles or thoughts toward how marketable her sound is. The latter can't even be truthfully called Guns N' Roses anymore. A more accurate moniker might be "the Axl Rose show." But good old Axl refuses to release his delusions of grandeur (they're arguably the only thing keeping him alive at this point), and he knows that the only way for him to maintain a modicum of relevance to to cling to the same GN'R brand. "Sell-out" doesn't begin to describe what he has become.

It can't be so surprising then that they also differ on playing in Israel. Cat, in the weeks leading up to her scheduled gig in Tel Aviv on February 13th, received countless letters and messages urging her to observe the 2005 call for academic and cultural boycott. She listened.

It's not clear if Rose even knows about the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). If he does, he surely doesn't care. It's likely that those in the Israeli concert industry who booked GN'R are quite smug in their accomplishment. As I've argued prior in relation to Madonna's recently announced show in Israel, the push to confirm big-name acts has been redoubled over the past couple concert seasons. Losing big names like Roger Waters, Elvis Costello and Carlos Santana has obviously created something of a potential publicity crisis. Shuki Weiss and other concert moguls like him have been very conscious to make up for it.

According to Haaretz, the newspaper that broke the story, this is Guns N' Roses' first show in Israel since 1993. The paper also called that show "legendary," though it doesn't say why. It also points out that a lot has changed in the near 20 years since then--namely the whittling of original members down to Rose and keyboardist Dizzy Reed.

Which confirms much of the original point. It can't be denied that booking huge acts on the level of GN'R, Madonna, Bieber and such is an obvious propaganda victory for the Israeli concert industry and those bent on maintaining a veneer of cultural normalcy for an apartheid state. That victory needs to be kept in a broader context, though--which is the continual leaking of substance from the mainstream music industry at large. It speaks volumes that Weiss and company can score artists who have willingly joined swallowed the logic of "if it sells, it's good," while the thriving independent music scene increasingly turns its back on them.

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Just a reminder to those in the Chicago area: please don't forget to stop by the teach-in I'm conducting on music and politics at Occupy Chicago's HQ tomorrow!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Why Chris Brown Didn't Deserve To Be Forgiven


A few years ago he was persona non grata in the music industry. And rightfully so. Violence against women should never be tolerated in any setting.

Doublemint pulled his commercial. Plenty wondered if his missed performance at the Grammys might have been the beginning of his one way trip to dinner theater.

If only. He's now been let off with a slap on the wrist and has become the renewed darling of the music industry. His return to the Grammys this past weekend was hailed as a triumphant return. In essence, it sent the message that knocking around women is somehow okay.

That's not a stretch. The post-Grammy tweets provide horrifying evidence:

"Chris Brown can beat me up... In the bedroom..." 

"chris brown your sexy you can punch me in the face anyday #imkindanotkidding" 

"I know Rihanna didn't like it much, but Chris brown you can punch me in the face all you want. #sorrynotsorry #sexy" 

"Everyone shut up about Chris brown being a woman beater... Shiiiittt he can beat me up all night if he wants" 

"Like I've said multiple times before, Chris Brown can beat me all he wants.... I'd do anything to have him oh my" 

"Chris brown can beat me all he wants;)"

Separate tweets from separate women. And there are a lot more where those came from. Pretty gross isn't it?

I've never been one to throw in my lot with the morally "Hollywood is leading us down a moral sewer" crowd, and that's not what this is. Those who say that urban culture is some kind of ultimate cause of sexist violence have their own conservative, puritanical agenda to peddle and normally care little for women's empowerment anyway.

What's at issue here is a rotten system. This is a system in which a young woman in high school is raped and then forced by the school to apologize to her attacker. College frats prance around screaming "no means yes." Courts don't take sexual assault or domestic violence seriously. It's not just a matter of sexism, it's a matter of institutionalized sexism. And the honchos of the music industry have proven themselves complicit in it yet again.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Burden of Crossing Over


There is one major question that comes to mind with last week's tragic death of Whitney Houston: how the hell did this happen? How can someone with her perfect combination of talent and support fall so far?

She practically came from music royalty: daughter of Cissy Houston, cousin of Dionne Warwick, goddaughter of the great Aretha Franklin. Her first gigs in music were alongside amazing talents like Chaka Khan, Jermaine Jackson and Teddy Pendergrass.

And, of course, there was that voice. At three-and-a-half octaves, she could hit notes that would make the Sirens green with envy. More that that, she knew exactly where to add a flourish from her gospel training and when to simply let the note breathe and be. The high points of her career provided some staggering praise.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, she is the most awarded female artist of all time--30 Billboard Music Awards, 22 American Music Awards, six Grammys, and over 300 others! Over 170 million copies of her albums have been sold worldwide.

So once again, what the hell happened? How does an artist go from this to drug addiction, bankruptcy, a destroyed singing voice and death at 48? As always, there are a lot of potential answers in the time and place in which she made her music.

That place was the 1980s. Black Power and civil rights--movements that profoundly shaped the music of her family and colleagues--were past their prime. The music industry was regaining its footing. And just as Ronald Reagan was figuring out ways to get the African American movement in general under control, so were the record companies doing the same thing to soul and R&B.

It showed up in few artists' music more clearly than Houston's. There was never any question that her soul upbringing could be heard on her first two eponymous albums, and critics raved over her voice. Just as many, however, commented on how "poppy" many of her arrangements were. And indeed, nothing on these albums was released without the dictatorial approval of Arista Records head Clive Davis.

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This was essentially the contradiction of the "crossover." Yes, there were plenty of boundaries broken down, plenty of white kids inspired by Black music that might not have otherwise. She was the first Black female artist to receive consistent rotation on MTV, opening the door for Janet Jackson, Anita Baker and others.

But at what price? She was derided as a sell-out in no time at all. Writers complained that the effervescent soul present during performances was totally lacking on her albums (and comparing live footage to those albums, it's hard to argue with that assessment). At the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards, she was booed after being announced as a nominee.

And so, just as the awards and album sales kept rolling in, the opposite directions of contradiction kept pulling on Houston's art. Earlier on in her career as a model, she refused to work with companies that did business with apartheid South Africa. By the time she was booked to play at Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday celebration in 1988, she had worked with Coca-Cola, one of the many companies that were subject to the global boycott movement.

Three years later, she was performing the "Star-Spangled Banner" at the Super Bowl during the first Gulf War. It was released as a single, and hailed as a quintessentially patriotic moment while America traded blood for oil.

Of course, asking one artist to bridge the rifts of a nation is beyond unfair, but the late 1980s and early '90s were times when the gap between America and African America was undeniable. On one side, there was a post-civil rights generation whose jobs were being shipped off, their communities terrorized by cops and blighted by unemployment.

On the other were Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, willing to spend untold amounts of money on war and do business with South Africa while wagging their finger at Black "welfare queens." All the crossovers in the world couldn't bridge this gap, but there still seemed to be an expectation that Houston's music should somehow try.

It was around this time that Houston began what we know now to be an irreversible spiral: her tumultuous and abusive marriage to Bobby Brown, her financial troubles, her battles with addiction that eventually stole her voice away.

When she wasn't missing performances or showing up late to them, she was trying to hit notes that her ravaged vocal chords couldn't manage anymore. Though she made several attempts at a comeback, by the end of her life Whitney Houston was in essence a walking pop music cliché.

There is something more than a little eerie about Houston's death coming so close to that of Etta James and Don Cornelius. In a roundabout way, each represent three sequential phases in soul and R&B--their ascent in the wake of civil rights, their apex at the height of Black Power, and, with Houston, their re-appropriation by an industry whose concern for artists comes well after its monetary bottom line.

Speaking with Oprah Winfrey in 2002, Houston claimed, "The biggest devil is me. I'm either my best friend or my worst enemy." That may have been true, but it's worth wondering whether her own devils would have taken her down so soon if there hadn't been such oppressive expectations loaded onto her shoulders. An artist's concerns for being a media symbol or cash cow should come well after their concern for being human. Whitney Houston showed just how powerful and fragile such an existence can be.

First published at SocialistWorker.org

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Upcoming Teach-in On Music and Occupy


"Occupy Music? Crisis, Resistance and the Sound of Revolt"

Saturday, February 18, 2012
Occupy Chicago HQ, Room 700
500 W Cermak Road, Chicago, IL

It’s no news to anyone involved in Occupy that the support among musicians of all stripes for our movement is high. In the months since Occupy Wall Street took off, we’ve had countless songs and statements released by artists in solidarity with this movement. Some of these artists are no surprise (Tom Morello, Ani DiFranco, Lupe Fiasco, etc), some totally out of left field (Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, etc). All in all, this is the largest proportion of musicians who have openly allied with a social cause since the 1960s.

This session will seek to explain why. In doing so it will briefly examine what music’s social role has been historically and anthropologically. It will look at the reality of the modern music industry as a hindrance on free speech and artistic expression and ask what might be needed to overcome the strictures that said industry has imposed on music. Finally, it will look briefly at both modern and historical examples of what it looks like when movements provide the breathing room for new, rebellious forms of art to gain more traction.

This meeting will be hosted by Alex Billet, a Chicago-based music journalist and member of the Occupy Chicago Arts & Rec Committee. He has had articles published in Z Magazine, TheNation.com, New Politics, SocialistWorker.org, and others. Respond on Facebook.

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Tale Of Two Fingers


Welcome to the topsy-turvy universe of the modern entertainment industry. It’s where parents’ groups are given the bully pulpit as they descend into conniptions over a finger, while nary a word is said about an artist running cover for crimes against humanity.

When M.I.A. flipped off the camera during her guest appearance at Madonna’s at last Sunday’s half-time show, it was the only exciting part of what had to have been the most overblown and lack-luster performance in Super Bowl history. That’s a bold statement when one considers that half-time shows have, in essence, become little more than an exercise in corporate spectacle.

This took the cake though. The costumes, the pyrotechnics, the backup dancers were all there, along with the sanctimonious end note for “world peace.” Just about the only thing that wasn’t intact was Madonna’s enthusiasm. For the majority of the show, we were simply watching a pop star go through the choreographed motions. In this tightly controlled yawn-fest, M.I.A.’s bird was a rare glimpse of spontaneous honesty.

The culture warriors are, predictably, in an uproar. Obvious and instant comparisons to Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” eight years go have abounded. M.I.A., alongside NBC and the NFL, apologized almost instantly. She shouldn’t have.

New Yorker music writer Sasha Frere-Jones nailed it perfectly when she wrote:

"The outrage is tiresome and deeply hypocritical, in all the tiresome ways you’ve been tired out by before. M.I.A. was illustrating her line ['I don’t give a shit'], acting out the attitude of the words: performing. Fine, it may not be legal to flip the bird on television, but that’s simply a remnant of the fifties we haven’t shaken." 

Anyone familiar with M.I.A. will know that this isn’t the first time she’s been attacked for simply being herself. Frere-Jones mentions in her article the infamous New York Times Magazine hit-piece in 2010, where author Lynn Hirchberg traded any actual music criticism for comparisons to terrorists. Add to this the censorship of her videos on MTV and YouTube, not to mention the death threats she got after standing up against Sri Lanka’s Tamil genocide, and we start to see that this latest moment is probably the mildest backlash that M.I.A. had endured thus far.

Now, even Madonna herself has turned on M.I.A., telling Ryan Seacrest that “It’s such a teenager, irrelevant thing to do… There was such a feeling of love and unity there. What was the point? It was just out of place.”

Apparently, Madge’s sense of “love and unity” means you can throw your erstwhile collaborator under the bus. Likewise, her idea of “world peace,” doesn’t include the Palestinians. Moments later, news broke that she will be kicking off her upcoming MDNA world tour in Israel.

This was also a middle finger of sorts. Only this one was directed at an entire people who have spent six decades under the boot of systematic violence and apartheid. Over the past few years, as official Israeli politics have swung steadily to the right, the brutality of its occupation has become ever more naked and apparent. So, then, has the support for the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions gained more and more support--including in artistic realms. In fact, with high profile artists like Elvis Costello, the Pixies, Gorillaz and, most recently, Cat Power pulling out of shows, the cultural boycott has arguably been the most visible section of the international BDS campaign.

All of this matters little to Madonna--who is willingly crossing this global picket line and, even amid her own hollow pleas for “world peace,” no doubt knows the cultural cover that her show will provide for Israel’s regional sabre rattling. As if to prove this, a Facebook page was recently started asking that the government’s top brass hold off on striking against Iran until after Madonna’s performance!

And yet, Madge is expecting none of us to see through the hypocrisy. Common sense might dictate that it is her actions--not M.I.A.’s--that are the true insult, the true offense. But then, if one really thinks about it, such rationale is perfectly at home at the Super Bowl.

This is a yearly event during which we’re somehow meant to think nothing of half-naked women being used to sell domain names, car commercials that fervently bang the jingoist drum or militarism out our ears. A few hundred protesters outside Lucas Oil Field bringing attention to Indiana’s anti-labor “right to work” laws is out of line, though.

So, apparently, are we intended to bask in Madonna’s sanctimony while M.I.A.--one of the few remaining mainstream artists who allows herself both principles and honesty--is pilloried. Was there ever a better reason to do away with our culture’s one percent?

First appeared at Dissident Voice

Friday, February 10, 2012

Why I Won't Watch the Grammys This Year


It's normally a task that I attempt to bear with a modicum of grace. If for no other reason than, despite the endless hours of shiny fluff that predominate, there are guaranteed to be at least a few good performances and perhaps a rare instance of an artist finally getting the credit they deserve. Shoveling through the shit to find the pearl is never an exciting prospect, but I'd be lying if I said that it wasn't sometimes worth it.

Not this year, though. This year I won't be tuning in. And it's not because I'm somehow losing interest in music journalism. On the contrary, it's for basic respect for both my own craft and the craft of those whom I write about that I will simply not be watching the Grammys this year. More to the point, it's a matter of solidarity.

Last year, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) announced the elimination of 31 categories. It was done without the knowledge of NARAS' 21,000 members. Here's a taste of some of the categories: Gospel, R&B, Traditional and Contemporary Jazz, Latin Jazz, Traditional and Contemporary Blues, Cajun/Zydeco, Mexican Norteña, Native American, Hawaiian.

Read that short sampling again: blues, jazz, Native American, R&B, gospel. In other words, all genres of color, all genres that continue to have relevance to significant swathes of people the world over. Though apparently not to NARAS President Neil Portnow.

Certainly there are plenty of others sensing a pattern here. Carlos Santana, Jesse Jackson, Bonnie Raitt, Cornel West, Latino advocacy group Presente.org are among those who have been protesting NARAS' decision. Arturo Carmona, head of Presente.org nailed it in a recent statement: “Portnow and the Grammys have nothing to celebrate and deserve an lifetime achievement award for putting profit over people. We are honored and highly motivated to join the fight to re-institute the deleted categories on behalf of the millions who love Latin jazz, Gospel, R&B and other musical genres.”

There will of course be plenty of artists worth rooting for or watching at this year's awards show--Adele, Mumford & Sons, Lupe, Springsteen. But with the elimination of these categories, with NARAS engaging in such transparent discrimination, there's just too much shit to shovel.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

On February 24th, the Cultural Rebellion Kicks Off!

As mentioned last week, Occupy Chicago's Arts & Rec committee is launching its project--the Occupy Chicago Rebel Arts Collective (OCRAC)

And to celebrate, we're throwing a party! Check the deets below. More acts are to be confirmed and announced, but in the meantime, we've already got something for everyone--theater, poetry, art, and, of course, music from folk to rock. Part of the proceeds from eight bucks at the door are going to Occupy Chicago. So of course, your presence will be a part of supporting the first real, sustained movement against American inequality we've had in over thirty years. And it's guaranteed to be a good time to boot!

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The Occupy Chicago Rebel Arts Collective presents...

A Night of Art, Music & Theater for the People to celebrate OCRAC's Official Launch!

Friday, February 24th Wicker Park Arts Center, 2215 W North Ave
Doors at 6:30pm, $8 admission (funds go to Occupy Chicago)

Featuring homegrown people's music acts:

Captain, Captain
The Kuhls
Snake Oil Salesmen

Performances by:

20 Percent Theater Company
Theater of the Oppressed

Plus a rebel art gallery, live poetry and plenty more to give Rahm Emanuel nightmares! Be there!

Confirm your attendance on the Facebook event!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Curse of the Boss: Music, Elections and the Promise of the American Uprising


It happens every four years. Almost as surely as the dog-and-pony show of the GOP presidential primary gains steam, we’re sure to get news of artists upset that these knuckle-dragging candidates are using their music. And, as if to prove just how low conservative standards of music are, half of the time it’s not even good songs that are being fought over.

This time around it’s “Eye Of the Tiger,” which puts progressives in an odd position of having to side with manufactured one-hit-wonders Survivor against Newt Gingrich (note: given their penchant for irony, the hipsters among us will probably find this task easier than the rest of us). Band member Frankie Sullivan, who filed the cease-and-desist order against Gingrich’s campaign, is insisting that the decision has nothing to do with politics, but rather that “it is strictly an artist protecting their copyright.”

If Survivor are one of the few artists who actually do own the copyright to their music, then more power to them. It nonetheless remains hard to separate this latest episode from the long line of Republicans who have had their hands slapped back from would-be campaign anthems by the artists who penned them. What’s more, a closer look at any of these songs will likely leave those of us living in the real world wondering exactly what these candidates were thinking. Not that it’s the first time we would do so.

This past June, it was Michele Bachmann, who had the temerity to use Tom Petty’s “American Girl” on the campaign trail. Not only is Petty rather well-known to be a liberal, but the speculations surrounding the song’s content are hardly the kind that a politician wants to connect to themselves.

Years ago, Petty himself dismissed rumors that the song referred to a woman who committed suicide at Gainesville’s University of Florida (Petty is originally from Gainesville), but not before the legend took on a life of its own. In fact, he’s never exactly come clean about the motivations behind the lyrics of “American Girl.” Still, the imagery of a disillusioned girl “raised on promises” looking to escape her upbringing into the “great big world” doesn’t exactly line up with conservatives’ exaltations of “small town values” against the attacks of “big city liberals.” 

John McCain had one hell of a time back in ‘08 trying to find his groove--politically or musically. Not for lack of trying. The McCain-Palin campaign, during its months on the trail, was served rebukes from Jackson Browne and Jon Bon Jovi (both of whom had already endorsed Obama publicly). After Anne and Nancy Wilson got wind that Sarah Palin was using their song “Barracuda” at the Republican National Convention, they promptly delivered up their own cease-and-desist order; Nancy Wilson also told Entertainment Weekly that "Sarah Palin’s views and values in NO WAY represent us as American women."

Not even Abba would allow McCain to use their music on the campaign trail. But the coup de grace had to be when the senator’s camp attempted to use a song from the World War II video game Medal of Honor in one of their ads. Even in this case, the composer balked. Christopher Lennertz, who wrote much of Medal of Honor’s soundtrack, turned out to be an ardent supporter of the Obama campaign. And while he admitted that he didn’t own the rights to his own music, he also released a public statement expressing his own dismay.

Chalk it up to what could be easily be termed “the curse of the Boss.” Ever since the famed attempt by Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign to use Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In the USA,” American conservatives just can’t seem to find their soundtrack. More to the point, they seem to have little concern for the song’s content (why, in the name of all that is logical, would the war-mongering Reagan look to bandy about the story of a vet cast to the wolves by the country he served?), the singer’s politics, or even whether they have legal permission to use the song in the first place. 

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Perhaps, that is, until now. Word is that front-runner Mitt Romney is using Kid Rock’s “Born Free” on the trail. Kid Rock is, of course, one of music’s most well-known conservatives; he supported McCain in ‘08, was a staunch backer of Dubya and the war in Iraq. At the same time, Romney’s embrace of the artist puts to lie the idea that the former is some sort of closet moderate. Kid Rock unapologetically flies the Confederate Flag onstage.

Running alongside all of this is the not-so-shocking revelation that Mitt Romney, to be blunt, can’t sing worth a crap. His attempt at singing a few bars of “America the Beautiful” was a rather transparent attempt at one-upping Barack Obama’s surprising success at carrying a tune at the Apollo Theater a couple weeks prior. All it really did was prove to the world that the former Massachusetts Governor really does lack any kind of genuine charisma.

To be sure, Obama is going to need a great deal more than a few bars of Al Green to win November’s election. Four years ago, voters felt that he was a much better option than your run-of-the-mill lesser evil. Now, on the other side of the Arab revolutions, the Occupy movement, and his endless caving to business and empire, he’s in the position of having to prove what actually distinguishes him from the obvious evil of the Republicans.

Four years ago, the amount of musicians who were excited about an Obama nomination was through the roof: Modest Mouse, Nas, Sharon Jones, Michael Stipe, the Roots, and the list goes on. Now, the experience of an Obama presidency is what has turned voters to activists.

Four years ago, Pete Seeger tapped these high hopes when he sang “This Land Is Your Land” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during Obama’s inaugural week. Now, he’s singing it at Occupy Wall Street. So are many other young unemployed and super-exploited workers who have been driven to take their message to this country’s public parks.

The recent rhetorical shift of his State of the Union address notwithstanding, Obama’s hopey-changiness has become little more than a distant memory. His maneuvers since taking office can only be described as Clintonian: promise the people jobs, rights and restored liberties, then continue what the Republican predecessor started once their votes are firmly in the Democrats’ back pocket.

Three years of hindsight have proven the Clinton-Obama parallel to be more than a little eerie. Both even went out of their way to quietly placate the culture warriors on the campaign trail by pointing a finger at hip-hop culture. With Clinton it was lambasting Sister Souljah, with Obama it was parroting Don Imus.

All this may add up to the president’s own “curse of the Boss” to come November. The musician who joined Seeger to sing at the Lincoln Memorial? Bruce Springsteen. It was indeed a powerful moment, but as with many other progressives, Bruce’s present disillusionment is hard to miss. “We Take Care of Our Own,” the lead single from his upcoming album Wrecking Ball, has already stirred quite the controversy for its obvious tip of the hat to Occupy and focus on American inequality. Even some liberals have been flummoxed by the song, which can be understandably blamed on perennial election anxiety.

In 1968, as Chicago cops swung their billy clubs at anti-war protesters and broke up an MC5 performance, the Democrats dithered inside their convention. Many progressive musicians who had thrown their lot in with the Dems for fear of a Nixon presidency had their final break at this moment. Obama not only has the obstacle of a potential repeat in Charlotte this year, but the protests--illegal or not--against the mid-May G8-NATO summit, once again in his hometown of Chicago. With a heap of musicians already planning to be present for the demonstrations (and perhaps performing), both parties may be struggling to find their own soundtrack this election season.


First published at ZNet

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Don Cornelius and the Power of Soul


Don Cornelius' contribution to American culture was immeasurable. Like countless others, it appears that this fact is only being fully recognized upon news of his death. At the time of writing, no one knew the Soul Train creator's frame of mind when he reportedly shot himself on February 1. Reports are that the 75-year-old Cornelius was battling either dementia or Alzheimer's disease.

Now, Cornelius is bound to be lionized as so many before him, a legend constructed around him that somehow will make his own ascent seem to be one sleek, meteoric rocket to the top. And while Soul Train's popularity certainly gained momentum quickly, it's easy to forget that the show found such a mass audience because of the mass struggle that cleared the way for it. Cornelius' own contribution can't be separated from that struggle.

"As African slaves had traveled the Underground Railroad in preparation for liberation from bondage of the body and spirit," says author Marcus Reeves, "the children of post-Black Power were prepared psychologically for their socio-cultural movement, in part, aboard the vehicle of Soul Train." That just about sums it up.

Cornelius was born in 1936 in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood--home of civil rights icon Ida B. Wells. After high school, his initial trajectory was little different from many other men like him: a stint in the Marines (including service in Korea), jobs selling tires and insurance and even a short time as a Chicago police officer.

It wasn't until 1966 that he decided to risk it all by getting into broadcasting. Looking back, the serendipity is hard to ignore: 1966 was the year that Stokely Carmichael popularized the phrase "Black Power" and the year that Bobby Seale and Huey Newton founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

Many, including Chicago music journalist Greg Kot, insist that Cornelius' "role as a civil rights leader is perhaps his most significant contribution, even though he isn't often portrayed that way." This isn't to be dismissed, but the notion of Black Power--with its stridently Black-and-beautiful imagery--seems to put a finer point on Soul Train's significance.

When it premiered as a local show on Chicago's WCIU in 1970 (funded out of Cornelius' own pocket), the question was no longer buses and lunch counters, but basic and fundamental community empowerment. It's little wonder that it took barely a year for the show to be syndicated. Watching footage of the show, it's apparent what made it so revolutionary for its time and place.

Modeling his show as an urban alternative to American Bandstand, Cornelius' goal wasn't to somehow cozy up to Dick Clark and ask him to pay more attention to soul and R&B. Soul Train was a space unto itself, a space of empowerment and pride that proved Black America didn't need white folks' permission to forge their own culture.

Reeves, in his book Somebody Scream! Rap: Music's Rise to Prominence in the Aftershock of Black Power, recalls:

"One scene in particular exemplified the freedom that Soul Train represented to young black folks. As guest James Brown and his band performed 'Super Bad,' female Soul Train dancer Damita Jo Freeman, in an afro-puff, hot pants and leather go-go boots, jumped onstage. After dancing a hot routine in front of James, which included locking and the robot (as if showing J.B. that girls could bust a few moves, too), the sista threw up her fist to give the musical guest and audience a Black Power salute. (You think that would have been allowed on American Bandstand?)"

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There were a lot of different ideas flying around back then regarding the exact meaning of Black Power. Was it supporting Black businesses? Was it a total overthrow of the system as the Black Panthers were advocating? Was it enough to just elect Black politicians?

Soul Train obviously didn't answer any of these questions, but then, it didn't really have to. Radio and television programmers still did their best in ignoring what Black people were contributing to culture, but when Don Cornelius closed the show, promising in his smooth DJ's voice that "it's all gonna be a stone gas, honey!" there was a good chance that you had seen some of the most dynamic musicians of any racial background perform.

Over the years, Soul Train racked up a list of legendary performances: Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Michael Jackson (both during and after the Jackson 5), Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye. As soul morphed into funk, Cornelius had Sly Stone and George Clinton on the show. And while MTV didn't pay much mind at all to hip-hop until the mid-to-late 1980s, it got its first televised appearance when Soul Train featured Kurtis Blow in 1980.

"We thanked Don forever," Public Enemy's Chuck D wrote on Twitter. "We didn't get nationally known until we did 'Rebel Without a Pause' on Soul Train in 1987." Cornelius' distaste for hip-hop is rumored to be a factor in his stepping down as host in 1993, but it doesn't change the fact that he recognized the style's groundbreaking significance.

It was also no doubt a reason that he stayed on as executive producer through Soul Train's final broadcast in 2006. By the time the show was put on hiatus, it had outlived American Bandstand by 17 years, and remains to this day the longest continuously running first-run syndicated program in television history.

By the time of his death, Cornelius was a wealthy man, but he had also created the space for an untold number of African American artists to gain a hearing they may not have received otherwise. He will no doubt be getting a mention during the "In Memoriam" segment of this Sunday's Grammy Awards.

The irony is that this year's telecast is embroiled in a controversy surrounding the decision to eliminate 31 categories--all of which pertain primarily to genres forged by people of color. To say that everything Soul Train once aimed for has been achieved, that the music biz is no longer a white boy's thing, would do a real disservice to Don Cornelius' memory.

First published at SocialistWorker.org

Monday, February 6, 2012

BDS Update: Selling Out and Crossing Picket Lines


Madonna left the stage of her overblown yet uninspired Super Bowl halftime show with the words “world peace” glowing on the field. Too bad her actions don’t match up. On Sunday, news broke that the queen of pop will kick off her upcoming tour in Israel.

This is without a doubt the biggest coup for the Israeli live music industry since Justin Bieber’s concert last year. That business has been especially embattled since the Flotilla massacre in May of 2010, and many moguls have admitted as much. As a result, the wiser promoters have been putting more eggs in fewer baskets and simply aiming for mega-star acts.

It’s a sound strategy if one really thinks about it. The mega-stars are the most ingratiated into the industry, benefit the most from the blind drive for profit regardless of the consequence to human rights. Crossing a picket line is all in a day’s work for this set.

What seems a bit frustrating though is that, like many who allowed themselves to sell out long ago, there was a time then Madonna might have known better. She didn’t play South Africa before the fall of apartheid there, and there was a time (probably up until the early ‘90s or so) that she understood how ridiculous the hype surrounding her was. At a certain point, however, she simply bought into that hype. And much of the time, crossing that line goes hand-in-hand with crossing the picket line. This, after all, isn’t the first time that Madonna has played in Israel.

It’s worth hoping that Madonna’s sometime collaborator M.I.A. doesn’t follow the same path. She’s been known to speak in favor of Palestinian liberation and observes the Sound Strike boycott of Arizona. One can surmise that her personal understanding of ethnic repression would mean she has little tolerance for apartheid. Still, it might have been more satisfying last night if, instead of flipping off the camera, M.I.A. simply turned and did it at Madonna instead.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Decemberists Stand For Choice


Nancy Brinker has egg on her face. Today the head of the Susan G. Komen Foundation apologized for pulling funding from Planned Parenthood. The move has caused an uproar among women's rights advocates all week. As the viral cartoon says, pink accessories don't screen for breast cancer; doctors at Planned Parenthood do. The notion that these doctors should have their funding stripped by a foundation supposedly standing up for women's health for any reason is beyond hypocritical.

I'm not the only one who thinks so either. Earlier this week, the Decemberists pulled their own fundraising for the Komen Foundation in protest. In May, 2011, the band's keyboard player Jenny Conlee was diagnosed with breast cancer herself. It was caught early, and Conlee is now in remission. It's not known whether Conlee's cancer was caught at Planned Parenthood; that's her own business. But it's worth considering.

A statement on the band's website reads:

"The Decemberists are deeply troubled by Komen for the Cure's recent decision to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood, a vital resource in the battle against breast cancer. Providing cancer screenings to low income women is integral to the prevention and defeat of breast cancer and it is unconscionable that Komen should politicize this very important issue by bowing to the fear campaign being waged against PP by the right. We've decided to redirect the proceeds of the Team Jenny t-shirts and buttons away from Komen for the Cure. 100% of the net profits of these items will be instead donated to Planned Parenthood's Breast Health Emergency Fund.

"Please help to support this essential institution. And, if you've supported the Team Jenny effort in the past, please write to Komen for the Cure via their site or via twitter (@komenforthecure) and let them know that undermining women's health for political reasons is unacceptable."

For her part, Brinker has claimed that the Komen Foundation has "been distressed at the presumption that the changes made to our funding criteria were done for political reasons or to specifically penalize Planned Parenthood. They were not." Ideally, a woman's control over her own body shouldn't be considered a political issue. It should be considered an issue of health--including the choice to have an abortion if she so decides.

Unfortunately, we don't live in the ideal world. Politicians that are somehow considered legitimate are able to call for the public hanging of abortion providers. Despite a proven history of bombings and shootings, organizations like Operation Rescue are allowed to legally operate.

As always, all of this creates an atmosphere. It's an atmosphere that has made Komen's move all the more unacceptable. There's more to the story, though. This is also the age of the SlutWalk, the age where Occupiers take on anti-choicers head on. For the first time, there battle of ideas is no longer one-sided. And it's worth noting that the uproar of activists and artists who have stood up this time around might not be possible otherwise.
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Apologies for falling off the horse this week as far as the BDS Update goes. It will return next week. And yes, of course I'm planning to say something about Don Cornelius.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Whole World Is Listening...


Jasiri X is up there with Rebel Diaz, BBU, Immortal Technique and Invincible when it comes to underground hip-hop. Like his contemporaries, like Chuck and KRS before him, he takes the "CNN for Black people" task seriously, holding down the rebellion while never sacrificing nice flow or sick beats.

Rebel Frequencies is no stranger to Jasiri's work. The Pittburgh rapper's songs have been profiled here numerous times in the past year--particularly his Madison-era "American Workers vs. Multi-Billionaires," his lyrical lambasting of the Bushes, and his tribute to Troy Davis in the run-up to the latter's execution.

All of those songs and more are featured on Jasiri's new #TheWholeWorldIsWatching mixtape, available now for a "pay-what-you-can" scheme on Bandcamp (upwards from a buck). At the risk of turning a music journalism site into nothing more than a press release, I'm strongly urging every reader out there to buy this tape. And in case anyone wants to hold on to some of their cash in this hard, hard time having not heard the songs, well, that's the beauty of Bandcamp. Or, listen to it below. It will definitely be worth it.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Free Volcanis le Roi! Free Tunisia!

Tunisian rapper Volcanis le Roi's best-known song in recent months is entitled "Matbadal Sheia," which loosely translates to "Nothing Has Changed." Western media, if it bothers presenting post-revolutionary Tunisia to us at all, might lead you to believe that such a sentiment would be perplexing at best, quite out of touch with the Tunisian masses, for whom everything basically returned to normal after last year's elections.

Volcanis' arrest, however, proves just how right he actually is. On January 25th, four to six armed security agents stormed into his house, handcuffed and arrested Volcanis, whose real name is Anis Ben Mongi Mrabti. At the time of this writing, no charges have been formally filed, though the Ministry of Interior Affairs has claimed it to be drug related.

If this is true, then it begs the question why the agents confiscated his iPod and computer. Making the official line even more suspect are eyewitness reports claiming that the agents asked Mrabti if he was the artist behind "Matbadal Sheia."

The arrest immediately conjures up memories of Hamada Ben Amor, a.k.a. El General, the hip-hop artist whose song "Rais Lebled" landed him in jail as the revolution gained steam in December of 2010. Ben Amor was released after a few days; in the meantime his case had become something of a cause celebre in the international solidarity community and his song had gone viral on YouTube.

What sets Ben Amor's case apart from Mrabti's, however, is that this time around the authorities aren't so blatant in their censorship. Whereas the police who arrested Ben Amor were quite open and brazen that they were arresting him for his song, those who have arrested Mrabti have claimed it to be a legitimate legal concern (though anyone who is aware of the hypocrisy of the war on drugs here in the US must certainly suspect similar inequities in the Tunisian system).

Still, most news from Tunisia in the wake of the elections is that, much like in Egypt, there's been little more than a change in face. Substantive changes in policy have yet to really be seen. Wages remain stagnant, unions still face significant legal roadblocks, unemployment is as high as ever. Though Ben Ali might be gone, the causes that brought millions onto the nation's streets are for the most part still unresolved.