Friday, March 30, 2012

Putin vs. Pussy Riot: Art, Repression and Punk Rock Rebellion


On March 4th, a post-Stalinist, “free and democratic Russia” went to the polls. Four days later was International Women’s Day, a holiday of special significance in Russia, where on that day almost a century ago, striking women textile workers ignited the February Revolution that toppled the Czar.

How did Vladimir Putin celebrate this symbolic mash-up of democracy and women’s liberation? By rigging an election and locking up a group of punk rock feminists who dared to oppose him. The former is nothing new for Putin. But the latter have, in their own words, made him piss himself. They’re a gang of anonymous trouble-makers known as Pussy Riot.

Yes, you read that right: Pussy Riot. Anyone inspired by punk rock’s most subversive, deliciously irreverent moments will love Pussy Riot.

A collective of some two dozen anonymous activists from various Russian social movements, Pussy Riot stormed into international consciousness in January. Clad in absurd dresses, spandex and neon balaclavas, their guerrilla performance of their signature song in front of the Kremlin put them on the map:

“Rebellion in Russia – the charisma of protest Rebellion in Russia – Putin’s pissed himself Rebellion in Russia – we exist Rebellion in Russia – riot riot”

It was unpermitted, unannounced, and illegal. In other times, Russia’s admittedly cutthroat authorities might have simply ignored it as a stunt, maybe answering it with a stern warning and a fine. Batons and handcuffs have normally been reserved for gay rights marches and union members.

The problem for Putin now, however, is that “rebellion in Russia” is a reality. The widespread speculations of fraud in the December’s Duma elections, and Putin’s arrogant announcement that he would run for president in March, were enough to turn the long-brewing anger in Russia into massive protests in the major cities.

Says left-wing activist Ilya Boudraïtskis:

“For the first time since the beginning of the 1990s, millions of people were engaged in live political action, which took place in the streets. In this political activity we can already observe a battle of ideas and alternatives being played out... This battle of ideas has as its backdrop a task that everyone has made theirs: the bringing down of the Putin system and the re-establishment of elementary political liberties.”

And with that, one can list Moscow, St. Petersburg and others with Tunis, Cairo, Athens, London and beyond in 2011’s roll call of revolt. In Pussy Riot’s own words, "Egyptian air is good for the lungs / Do Tahrir on Red Square!"

Like other rebellions across the planet, the new Russian protest movement, even as it ebbs and flows, has already inspired a whole host of subversive music and art. While the group have clung fast to their anonymity, interviews have revealed that most of their members are are participants in various social movements of the past several years--women’s rights, LGBT liberation, labor, environmentalism and more. Most claim to hold various left political beliefs, and many also reveal a background steeped in Russia’s rich history of avant-garde art.

That’s a history that continues to thrive today. In statements to reporters, Pussy Riot’s members have declared art and politics to be “one and the same.” Their whole aesthetic--the outlandish costumes, their abrasive version of hardcore punk--is intended by its members as a way to further radicalize the burgeoning democracy movement.

One member, who gave her name only as “Tyurya,” explained that "Putin and his team are behaving so rudely, and the people aren't ready to react in the same way--they want all these protests to be sanctioned... They're [the government] basically occupiers, they don't have the right to be here--why should things be agreed with them?"

The American riot grrl movement of the 1990s is also an obvious influence. Another member going by the name “Garazhda” put the question of protest and resistance in specifically feminist terms: "We understood that to achieve change, including in the sphere of women's rights, it's not enough to go to Putin and ask for it.” She added, “The revolution should be done by women... There’s a deep tradition in Russia of gender and revolution--we’ve had amazing women revolutionaries.”

Added Garazhda, “[f]or now, they don't beat us or jail us as much.”

There is now an almost eerie, undeniably painful irony in this statement. Two weeks before the election, on February 21st, five Pussy Riot members (characteristically clad in their anonymous costumes), rushed the altar in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral to perform their “punk prayer” song “Holy Shit.” The symbolism was intentional. Kirill I, patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, has been among Putin’s most vehement supporters--even claiming that Putin was “sent by God.”

“Our Patriarch is not ashamed of wearing watches worth $40,000,” the band said in a subsequent interview, “which is intolerable when so many families in Russia are on the edge of poverty.”

The performance at the Cathedral was, once again, shocking, profane, and unavoidable in the media. Their song implored the Virgin Mary to “drive Putin out,” and repeated the phrase “Jesus fucking Christ” several times.

Needless to say, the firestorm in the Russian media was difficult to quell. Pro-government pundits and priests alike called the performance offensive and hateful. Communiques from Pussy Riot claimed that some of their own members are observant Orthodox Christians, and found it much more blasphemous that many in the church have such close ties to Putin. None of this mattered to the growing chorus of denunciation, which was now demanding that Pussy Riot (all of whom escaped the Cathedral without being identified) face jail time.

They got their wish. On the evening of March 3rd, police arrested six alleged members of Pussy Riot for suspected involvement in the Cathedral action. Four were released, but two, Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, remain in jail. Moscow Police have yet to release any definitive proof connecting either with of them Pussy Riot or the events at the Cathedral. Both have been denied bail, and will be detained until at least April 24th, when their trial starts.

Consequences of being found guilty are potentially severe. Alekhina and Tolokonnikova face up to seven years in jail on charges of “hooliganism.” The women are both mothers to young children, and have been subjected to abhorrent prison conditions. Both have reportedly gone on hunger strike in protest.

Tolokonnikova and Alekhina aren’t the only ones who have been protesting their arrest and treatment. On International Women’s Day, a picket was held outside Moscow’s police headquarters. The next day, at a 15,000 strong anti-Putin protest in the city’s center, countless homemade signs demanded the release of the two women.

Never one to miss an opportunity for repression, Moscow’s police struck back. On March 16th, they arrested Ekaterina Samutsevich, also in connection with the February 21st action. Like Alekhina and Tolokonnikova, she will remain in prison until at least April 24th.

Everything about these events--the arrests, the provision of shoddy evidence at best, the refusal of Moscow’s authorities to show even the slightest leniency--amounts to nothing less than a witch-hunt. All of it sends a clear message to the democracy movement: that Putin’s regime, with its corruption, its injustice and repression, is here to stay. Anyone who questions that will face the inside of a jail cell.

Putin of course denies any direct connection with the arrest of Pussy Riot members. Those who were released after the initial wave, however, claim interrogators informed them that the crackdown is coming “from the highest levels.”

This would not be a surprise. Putin and his United Russia party have been accused time and again of strong-arm tactics going well beyond vote rigging. LGBT marches have been routinely harassed and attacked by police. Pro-Putin youth groups, well organized and well-funded, have been implicated in often gruesome violence against well-known opposition figures.

Nor are Pussy Riot the first punks to face the wrath of the modern Russian state. Artists who dare to criticize the government have found themselves not only blackballed by Russian radio, but have had their shows watched by the Federal Security Service (FSB).

Alexei Nikonov, lead singer of St. Petersburg hardcore group PTVP, said in a 2009 interview there is such heavy surveillance of the punk scene that he and others like him have simply gotten used to it. "We accept the fact that they come to 'watch' us.,” says Nikonov. “Just like I've come to accept that my internet activity may be watched. They used to follow me in cars.” Nikonov also claims that the FSB have, more than once, rushed the stage to prevent PTVP playing any anti-government material, and Nikonov himself has been arrested several times.

All of this provides poignant cultural backdrop for the political and of modern Russia: That two decades after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Russian people are still denied the most basic democratic freedoms. And while they are hardly the only mobilized people in this position (protesters in Egypt, Syria and even the United States arguably face comparable repression), they are no less deserving of solidarity.

For these reasons, Pussy Riot have almost become de facto mascots for the Russian arm of global revolt. Samutsevich, Alekhina and Tolokonnikova are all recognized as political prisoners by one of the country’s largest prison reform groups. Amnesty International has announced they will review the trio’s case.

Benefit shows and support actions have been scheduled as far away as Armenia and England. A “Free Pussy Riot!” website has been set up, and a day of global solidarity has been called for April 21st. And of course, within Russia itself, the movement for real democracy continues to evolve and grow.

Putin’s minions have obviously set out to make an example out of these bold, brash punks. They may yet succeed, but it won't be anything like what they imagined.

First published at ZNet

Special thanks to Jeff Skinner for his assistance with Russian translation in this article

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Coming Changes to Rebel Frequencies

Some of them are recent decisions. Others have been in the making for a long time. First and foremost, of course, is a new layout, and a new site entirely. The move from "rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com" to just "rebelfrequencies.com" has been a long time coming. Given the different functionality of the new site (detailed below), this blog will be maintained as an archive.

For those following RF via Google or Blogger, this will of course mean a different site to follow, so stay tuned. Those following via the RF Facebook page won't have to do anything given that those changes can be made on the site's end.

The "new and improved" Rebel Frequencies won't be a blog. It will primarily be a clearinghouse for articles as they are published. Less formal blog posts won't be a part of it, though relevant articles and commentary will be sent out via Twitter, so if you haven't joined as a follower there then please do. There will also be sections on the new site for announcing upcoming speaking and cultural events, as well as an audio-visual section for recordings of speeches and teach-ins. Obviously, it was a hard decision to pack in the blog posts.

But where readers will be losing blog posts, they'll be gaining a book. An e-book to be precise. This spring will also see the release of Sounds of Liberation: Music in the Age of Crisis and Resistance. The book will be a compilation of articles from the past year documenting how the return of revolution and class struggle to the world stage has already changed the face of popular music. It will include an introduction and epilogue, and make the case for a bottom-up culture of resistance to be renewed and fomented here in the US and beyond. From impromptu folk concerts in front of the Wisconsin State Capitol to hip-hop in Tahrir Square, it's all changed quite a bit, and this book will seek to explain why.

And yes, it will be available in e-book format for a nominal fee. Very nominal! We're talking two or three bucks here! Proceeds will go to having a hard copy published (as well as other basic expenses). By the time summer rolls around, Rebel Frequencies will indeed be in a very different spot. I sincerely hope that you'll be there with it!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

You Can't Pull the Plug On Revolution

Well, that didn't take long! We all know that the police hate Occupy, and that they'll take any opportunity to shut it down. That's even true in the case of a seemingly harmless concert.

As I wrote last week, Tom Morello's "Occupy SXSW" showcase might have been an opportunity to finally cut against some of the elitism that's congregated around the iconic event. That, however, was not to be. Morello started inside Austin's Swan Dive playing a few of his favorites, and even brought Wayne Kramer onstage with him. Outside, however, was a screen set up for Occupy Austin attendees to see what was happening inside the venue.

Here's where the problem started:

"As last call came around, Morello instructed the audience as to what would happen next: 'I'm the pied piper of folk rock,' he said. 'I'm going to walk outside... follow my guitar.' Sure enough, a large crowd was already gathered outside, many members of which were Occupy Austin protestors who had been watching the show on a screen above the venue's marquee, along with others who had been shut out of the Swan Dive because they didn't have SXSW credentials. 'Now we're all one!' Morello proclaimed. He then honored what would've been Woody Guthrie's 100th birthday by performing a cover of 'This Land is Your Land' with Kramer and random delegates from the general assembly. He implored the crowd to sing along, as loudly as they could."

Obviously, the Austin PD didn't like this. When they pulled plug, Morello simply addressed the crowd via the "people's mic" system. He taught the crowd the chorus to "World Wide Rebel Songs" and did it like that. In some sense, Morello gets what the cops don't: that music is a right, and that ultimately you can't take that away from people.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Jasiri X on Trayvon Martin


Disgusting. Horrifying and outrageous. These are the only words that can aptly describe Trayvon Martin's murder at the hands of an overzealous neighborhood watch captain. By now it's well-known that George Zimmerman, the man who pulled the trigger on a seventeen year old kid with no history of violence, has yet to see the inside of a jail cell for killing Martin.

There have already been comparisons to the fifty-plus-year-old case of Emmett Till. And it has to be said that the similarities are indeed stunning: a young African American man with a potentially bright future ahead of him, vigilantes obsessed with what Black people are "supposed" to be doing, even a visit to a local store to pick up candy.

Jasiri X, the same independent rapper who has become well-known for releasing videos online in the wake of Jena, Oscar Grant and other cases of blatant racism, has now plied his trade to this flagrant racist violence. As before, Jasiri's take is spot-on:

Monday, March 19, 2012

We're the Wrecking Ball


Bruce Springsteen is back. And according to fan and detractor alike, he's angry as hell. Given the times in which we find ourselves, this should be unsurprising.

What is surprising, however, is the musical method he's chosen to express this anger: a sound and structure that is at once vintage Springsteen and new territory for the Boss. It's what makes Wrecking Ball not only comfortably familiar, but an album uniquely relevant in a way that few other artists of his level can muster.

Reviews were predictable enough when Wrecking Ball's lead single "We Take Care Of Our Own" was released several weeks back. All the markers of an E Street Band song were instantly recognizable. Screaming guitars. Punching drums. An irresistibly anthemic chorus. And lyrics that walk a tense tightrope between longing for the American Dream and exaltation of those for whom the dream has become a nightmare.

What has changed, however, is the context, the world at large. This is, as many commentators have pointed out, "Springsteen in the age of Occupy." Once again, little surprise that the man who famously told Ronald Reagan to shove it, who has lent the content of countless songs and albums to stories of the dispossessed, should support the first open-ended movement against American inequality in decades.

Says Salon writer Marc Dolan of a recent press conference in Paris:

"Springsteen gave a mixed to favorable review of President Obama's first term, commending the president's hard work on health care and his reduction of the war in Afghanistan, but expressing frustration that neither effort went further. At the same press conference, Springsteen was more unalloyed in his praise of Occupy Wall Street, for their introduction of the very idea of income disparity to the national dialogue.

"Significantly, he told reporters that he probably wouldn't take part in the presidential campaign this year, suggesting that it had been more essential to get up off the bench in 2004 and 2008."


That's not to say this is some kind of political retreat for the Boss. On the contrary, one of the common criticisms of 2009's Working On a Dream was that Bruce's trademark hunger was conspicuously absent. It left some (including this writer) to wonder whether he too was falling victim to a bit of post-Obama complacency.

For as predictable as the vitriol in "Our Own" can seem, there's no mistake that he--like many others who supported Obama in 2008--is once again mad as hell. This, in essence, is what makes Wrecking Ball a familiar Springsteen album. The hunger is back, and the lyrics are dripping with indignation against the 1 percent. What makes the album un-familiar, however, starts after the opening track's final notes.

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From the sweaty sing-along of "We Take Care of Our Own," Bruce takes a left-turn into a completely different side. "Easy Money" dwells on the old world of fiddles, acoustic six strings and gospel stomp-claps for almost a minute until anything electric is heard. Choosing one, "Easy Money" is much more representative of Wrecking Ball's musical thrust.

To be sure, we've heard both of these from the Boss many times before. His testimonial style of rock and roll is his most iconic trait. The past 20-some-odd years have also seen his "folk side" become much more prominent (The Ghost of Tom Joad, Devils and Dust, The Seeger Sessions). What we haven't heard before is these two sides incorporated and balanced so seamlessly on the same album.

The distinction is an important one, because the dynamic interplay between folk and rock makes Wrecking Ball an album both steeped in history's abject cruelty and a revived sense of rebellion. The mournful frustration of "This Depression" and "Jack of All Trades" is surely known by countless outcast working people.

Just as palpable, however, is an undeterred hope that something better is ahead. In both songs, the rootsy, windswept instrumentation is complimented by the searing electric guitar work of none other than Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello. As for Bruce, he is clearly channeling the ghost of Woody Guthrie in the song's lyrics:

"The hurricane blows, brings the hard rain
When the blue sky breaks, it feels the world's gonna change
And we'll start caring for each other, like Jesus said that we might
I'm a jack of all trades, we'll be all right"


Contrast this with "Death to My Hometown," which takes this glimmer of hope and morphs it into a rage-filled, penny whistle and bagpipe-tinged battle cry:

"Sing it hard and sing it well
Send the robber barons straight to hell
The greedy thieves who came around
And ate the flesh of everything they found
Whose crimes have gone unpunished now
And walk the streets as free men now"


Did I mention that the song is angry? It almost seems designed for the "unwashed masses" of Occupy. Most likely, it was.

This anger, and the lyrics' sometimes violent imagery has some commentators nit-picking on whether Occupy has "found its soundtrack" in Wrecking Ball. It's an oblique concept from the outset, as if any one artist has ever been able to perfectly encapsulate a movement outside the safe pages of a history book.

Tris McCall, music writer for the Star-Ledger, willfully sidesteps the album's most hopeful moments in order to contrast Wrecking Ball with the optimism of Occupy's grassroots. He also makes a fetish of the movement's more moderate wing. "For every protester who felt swindled by financial legerdemain [sleight of hand]," says McCall "there were many others who simply believed they'd been cheated out of an opportunity to prosper."

At the heart of the issue, though, is the ongoing debate on what kind of movement Occupy will end up being--specifically whether it's a movement that can fundamentally change things or just tinker with the setup. McCall isn't only cynical about how quickly today's young people are radicalizing, he seems blind to how much Springsteen's own ideas are shifting.

None of this is to say that the Boss is just on the cusp of declaring himself a card-carrying red (though that wouldn't be a bad development in this writer's eyes). He is, however, coming to a simple yet long-obscured conclusion: that when people's backs are this close to the wall, when all other options have been exhausted, there's little left to do except fight back and take the bastards down:

"When your best hopes and desires
Are scattered to the wind
And hard times come and hard times go...
But they just don't come again
Bring on your wrecking ball!"


First published at SocialistWorker.org

Friday, March 16, 2012

Mistah FAB's "Kony Freestyle"


It hasn't taken long for a backlash to develop against the poorly thought out "Kony 2012" campaign. Director Jason Russell is now backtracking, saying that he meant to oversimplify his film. Conveniently leaving out, for example, that Joseph Kony isn't even in Uganda anymore, and that the US-allied Ugandan government is itself guilty of using child soldiers. This video is, basically, a cover for US intervention on the African continent.

So, count this among the backlash. Mistah FAB has already proven he has a conscience after his song dedicated to Oscar Grant went viral. He speaks truth on this track too:

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What's Behind the Crackdown on Subcultures?


The Boston Police Department has recently announced that they will be cracking down on mosh-pits. That's right; after reports of "aggressive dancing" at a Flogging Molly show at Boston's House of Blues, the Boston PD have claimed that the pit "violated safety rules." House of Blues was cited for public safety violations, and has been ordered to install illuminated signs informing the crowd that moshing is banned.

This move by the Boston PD seems to come rather out of nowhere. Boston has a thriving punk and hardcore scene well rooted in the city. Ken Casey of the Dropkick Murphys, when asked about the moshing crackdown, seemed understandably perplexed: "I don't see it as a concern for us. Maybe in 1998 it would have been."

Nor is this the first seemingly random finger pointed at a subculture by the authorities. This past October, the FBI quizzically added the "Juggalos," face-painted fans of the Insane Clown Posse, to the list of rising gangs in the US.

I am loath to defend the Insane Clown Posse or their followers. The notion that a group like this is still around fifteen years later merely reveals that the music industry is one of the few places that Stugeon's Law is strictly enforced. But it is also worth putting the villification of Juggalos in the context of the FBI's long history of surveillance on hip-hop culture. ICP might be a complete non sequitur to the basic thrust of hip-hop (in fact, I think that they make a mockery of hip-hop itself), but then, the feds have never been exactly known for their cultural savvy.

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On a personal note, I've moshed more times than I can remember ever since I turned thirteen. I was a scrawny-ass kid too (five-foot-six and barely a buck ten until my late teens when, thankfully, I hit a spurt). Frequently, I was launched into pits with people who had an easy foot and extra hundred pounds on me. I was never injured. In fact, if I fell, I was always picked up, and normally by the very same massive dudes who you would think would want to do significant damage to a little guy like me.

Yes, I saw my fair share of bloody lips and black eyes, but in the hundreds of concerts I attended, they were infrequent. And when it became apparent that someone was possibly seriously hurt, the pit normally ceased, and room was quickly cleared to get the injured comrade out of the crowd. Normally it was total strangers carrying them out. But again, it wasn't very frequent I saw someone injured at all.

Likewise, nobody at the Flogging Molly show was injured either.

I bring all this up to highlight the kind of camaraderie that exists in tight-knit youth subcultures. It's that instinctual solidarity that police departments are interested in doing away with, not any possible threat to public safety.

It's well worth pointing out that while punk rock certainly has had to deal with its share of police harassment in the US, nowadays it's far more common in hip-hop (real hip-hop) and other subcultures more commonly associated with people of color. The difference is that it doesn't get reported as much. That being said, the crackdown on mosh pits and the listing of Juggalos as a gang both reveal that if any youth culture is under the gun, then all of them are.

Across the country, cities are gutting social services, shutting down clinics, slashing funding for community centers, laying off public employees--except, that is, for cops. Police departments are on the whole having their funding beefed up in major metropolitan areas. And as always, harsher laws and ordinances are following. The most obvious example is here in Chicago, where Rahm Emanuel has placed severe restrictions on protesting and brought in out-of-state police forces to help with crowd control during the NATO summit in May.

Mix this in with the fact that scapegoating of all kinds increases during eras of economic hardship, and you start to get a picture of what role these types of crackdowns play.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Occupy SXSW


You knew it was going to happen, didn't you? And though you might not have predicted that it would be Tom Morello behind it, that's not exactly surprising either. Says a post at Prefix Mag:

"Tom Morello aka The Nightwatchman is a tireless activist on top of being a killer musician and a thoughtful songwriting. He will combine these assets at SXSW, where he'll have his first-ever showcase, in a couple days. The event is set to kick off Friday, March 16, and will move into the next day when Morello plays a set starting at 12:30 in the morning...

"In a similar time frame, Occupy Austin will begin a flash mob march at an undisclosed downtown location at 9 PM. The dancing protestors will continue until they reach the Swan Dive, the venue that Morello will be rocking. About this somewhat mysterious party-with-a-cause, the guitarist had the following to say."


SXSW has long had a bit of a problem with some of its perceived elitism. Despite the fact that the festival and conference basically takes over Austin for several days, it's always been rather hard for ordinary Austinites to get into the most "important" events. Kind of like Sundance, except that the nearest homeless people aren't all the way on the other side of a mountain range. (Though it does bear pointing out that, per Morello, "there will certainly be a healthy Occupy presence in the venue") This isn't to blame artists like Morello or, for that matter, other performers who play the game at SXSW. The industry's reality is one artists simply have to abide by if they want to keep up their ability to make a living. Changing the structure, of course, requires a movement, and now that's the kind of thing that Morello and others like him are finally able to plug into. Here's to hoping that flash mobs like this can spread into the rest of the season's festivals.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Announcing the Occupy Festival


Indeed the rumors are true. Chicago will host an "Occupy Festival" in the run-up to the NATO summit this coming May. NBC and Huffington Post have already broken the news, and the buzz in the social media world has just started to percolate:

"The inaugural, Occupy Chicago-endorsed festival, scheduled for May 12-13 in the city's Union Park, aims to 'highlight the struggle of social and economic inequality through artistic performance' according to an event announcement."

No acts have been officially announced yet, but there's word the fest will incorporate electro, rock, hip-hop and more. I also know for a fact that some high-profile names are being spoken with. In the meantime, keep your eye on the fest's website and Facebook page for updates. The bastards who think they can exploit and trammel over this planet might believe that they control the culture too, but the events of this May will surely prove them wrong.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Culture of Resistance Lives!


"Better Days Ahead": a cultural tribute to the memory of Troy Davis and Martina Correia

Friday, March 23rd
Wicker Park Arts Center, 2215 W North Ave
7pm, 8 bucks at the door

On Friday, March 23rd, at the Wicker Park Arts Center (2215 W North Ave), the Occupy Chicago Rebel Arts Collective will host a night of art, music and culture remembering the life and struggles of Troy Davis and Martina Correia.

Six months ago, the state of Georgia executed Davis for murder of a police officer--despite virtually no evidence and a worldwide campaign to save his life. Months later, his sister Martina Correia, a tireless advocate on his behalf, succumbed to cancer.

Both Troy and Martina were dedicated fighters against the death penalty and the racism of the criminal injustice system. As we move into Chicago Spring and a revival of activism for social and economic justice, OCRAC wishes to pay tribute to them. This event--featuring music, poetry, performance and art--will celebrate their lives, and the continuing struggle against racism and repression in Chicago, Georgia, the United States and around the world.

Included will be local painters and artists involved anti-racist movements in Chicago, as well as local rock, hip-hop and blues, poets and performance artists. Come join what is guaranteed to be an inspiring night. Though Troy and Martina are no longer with us, the culture of resistance they were a part of lives and thrives!

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Local hip-hop phenom FM Supreme has jumped on board this event, but we're still in need of artists and musicians. If you're in the area and want to contribute, then get in touch with OCRAC. And RSVP on Facebook!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Time Has Come For a Union


Considering that Lester Chambers wrote one of the best-known songs of 1968, his recent public photograph might come as a surprise. Using an Internet trope that’s become quite familiar in the age of Occupy, the lead singer of the Chambers Brothers informed the world:

"I am the former lead singer of a ‘60s band. I performed before thousands at Atlanta Pop 2, Miami Pop, Newport Pop, Atlantic Pop. I did not squander my money on drugs or a fancy home. I went from 1967 – 1994 before I saw my first royalty check. The music giants I recorded with only paid me for 7 of my albums. I have never seen a penny in royalties from my other 10 albums I recorded. Our hit song was licensed to over 100 films, TV and commercials without our permission. One major TV network used our song for a national commercial and my payment was 625 dollars. I am now 72, trying to live on $1200 a month. Sweet Relief, a music charity, is taking donations for me. Only the 1% of artists can afford to sue. I am the 99%."

Chambers is no lightweight. “Time Has Come Today” was one of those songs that everyone knew in its day. Eleven minutes long, pulling inspiration from soul, rock and psychedelia, social struggle and youthful rebellion, its simple sentiment was one that captured the anxiety-tinged excitement of 1968 (even if it was recorded two years prior and released in November of 1967).

The song spent five weeks at number eleven on the Billboard charts in the fall of ‘68. The single sold over half a million copies, and the Recording Industry Association of America presented the band with a Gold Certification... which Chambers holds in front of his face in his 99% photo. Lester Chambers is just barely scraping by like the rest of us.

Chambers’ photograph contradicts everything we’re taught about those who make music for a living. To believe what the media tells us, anyone lucky enough to be a professional recording artist is only a few inevitable steps away from the charmed life of a Hollywood millionaire.

The harsh reality, however, is very different. Chambers’ story is only one of countless others like it. And if an artist like him is reaching out to a long-awaited movement against income inequality, then perhaps the time has finally come for us to talk about something else that has long been missing from the recording industry: a union for its artists.

Consider the following facts:

– Signed artists shoulder most of the financial risk of their careers themselves. Though the standard record contract provides artists with an advance, they are expected to use that advance for recording and touring costs.

– The traditional record contract pays artists no more than 15 percent of all album sales (the average is actually around 12 percent). Much of the time, artists do not begin to see any royalties until the record label has recouped their initial advance. For every $1000 of music sold, the average musician makes $23.

– The “360 Deal,” a recent development in the record business and presented as an alternative to the traditional record deal, offers to pay for touring and other expenses. In return, however, labels demand up to 30 percent of performance or ticket sale income and up to 50 percent of merchandise income.

– Virtually no record contract provides artists with benefits. No pension, no severance pay for termination of the deal, no paid vacation or holidays. The amount of working musicians with adequate health insurance? Four percent. No, that’s not a typo. Ninety-six percent of recording artists are either under-insured or uninsured altogether.

Many would argue an apparently straightforward solution to the recording artists’ plight: sell a lot of albums. After all, if you sell half a million units at around $10 or so, then even after you’ve paid back the advance, you’re still left with $45,000 (which is still a far cry from what we’re told a Gold artist rakes in).

The problem is that few contracted artists ever get close to that. In 2010, 75,000 new albums were released in the United States, of which roughly 15,000 sold more than 100 units. Forget going Gold or Platinum. For that matter, forget selling 100,000 or even enough to place close to the charts. The vast majority of signed artists don’t even sell enough to pay back their label.

All of this adds up to a recipe for debt. And as any recent college graduate can attest, debt can be a great way to force you into situations that you’d rather not be in.

Oddly enough, recording artists have not one but two unions in the industry. Singing artists are normally represented by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). Non-singing artists have their contracts negotiated by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM).

Both of these unions are well worth defending, but, in essence, this set-up makes it easier to divide musicians rather than unite them. A band’s vocalist is represented by a different organization than, say, a guitarist, drummer or pianist. Neither AFM nor AFTRA have a comprehensive stance on paying artists royalties, as their primary bases of power are, respectively, in orchestras and session musicians or TV and radio.

Whether a recording artists’ organization can emerge from one of these two unions or from a new one entirely isn’t clear (it bears mentioning, however, that the AFM is fighting for its life as company after company puts its orchestra on the chopping block). But it is absolutely crucial that it happen.

Who Owns Music?

At the center of the issue is that most fundamental antagonism in a system based on profit: those who work vs. those who own. Even though recording artists put in virtually all of the hard work–from writing the songs to overseeing the album artwork–ultimate ownership of the music remains with the label itself. It’s a crime that’s little different from the daily exploitation of an auto worker or Starbucks barista. Music may be a labor of love, but it’s still labor.

And as Lester Chambers and countless others can attest, most of the time it’s the labels that determine the conditions of this labor. Contemporary music history is littered with stories of record companies sitting on excellent albums, refusing to release them as artists’ income dwindles to nothing.

Saigon, one of the most consistently acclaimed rappers of the past decade, had his debut album delayed for four years because Atlantic Records refused to release it. Though he was eventually released from his contract, and the album was put out on an independent label, The Greatest Story Never Told was almost, well, never told.

In 1981, hardcore legends Black Flag were forced to break into a pressing plant in order to release their iconic album Damaged themselves. The reason? Al Bergamo, head of MCA subsidiary Unicorn Records, had deemed the album “immoral” and “anti-parent.” The members of Black Flag spent the next two years buried under lawsuits and court injunctions, which only stopped after Unicorn Records went out of business.

In both cases, artists themselves had put untold amounts of sweat into writing and recording genuinely unique and original music. In both cases, the asinine whims of their bosses nearly prevented the fruit of that sweat from being realized. The music, the beats, the production and lyrics were all the result of the artists’ creativity and sacrifice. None of that mattered to the label, whose ownership over the music legally trumped the artists’ labor.

The irony, of course, is that we hear a lot of noise about ownership of music in the age of peer-to-peer file-sharing and “piracy.” Whenever the RIAA bankrupts a single parent or attempts to sue a twelve-year-old girl for downloading “Happy Birthday,” the typical justification is that they haven’t paid for these songs, and therefore have no right to “own” them. Conveniently ignored is that the very people the industry is claiming to protect–artists–frequently don’t own their music either, at least in the legal sense.

Never mind that, fifteen years in, there has yet to be any definitive evidence that file-sharing harms album sales. What really scares the record labels is they are now potentially irrelevant. Artists from Radiohead to Saul Williams to Wilco have explored the possibilities for reaching their audience directly through the World Wide Web–free from the meddling of corporate middle-men.

Often, the results have been impressive. Radiohead’s In Rainbows went platinum within a few days of its online release and made the band members more money than they ever had with EMI. They, of course, are an exception. One still-overlooked aspect of the peer-to-peer debate is how artists who are just starting out might manage to make a living off a web-released album.

Nonetheless, if the Big Four are shaking in their boots, then it’s because the age of file-sharing has drastically shifted the balance of power in favor of the artists. That’s an unprecedented state of affairs, and leaves the door wide open to ask fundamental questions about the nature of the recording industry:

Why should those who do nothing get to own music that artists create? Why, despite potentially making a large chunk of change for a record label, should artists be denied any measure of financial or creative control? Why, if artists can reach fans with the music they want to make via Bandcamp or MySpace, should they go through the labels in the first place?

And finally, why can’t this state of affairs be used as leverage to win some real gains from major record labels in the here and now?

To be sure, this wouldn’t be the first time artists asked these questions in a collective setting. Recording artists in the United Kingdom currently have the option of joining a collective organization if they so choose. The Featured Artists Coalition, founded in April of 2008 and supported by the UK Trade Union Congress, has garnered the membership of Radiohead, Gang of Four, Kate Nash, the Kaiser Chiefs, Futureheads and hundreds of others. Its primary goal is to make sure artists’ voices are heard in licensing deals between record companies and outside entities (TV shows, movies, commercials, etc).

Nor would this be the first time the issue has been raised in the US. Over the past decade, artists and producers as varied as REM, Irv Gotti, Courtney Love, Q-Tip, the Dixie Chicks and Prince have publicly voiced the need for a recording artists’ union.

Perhaps our own era of protest and resistance has provided the chance to make these discussions a reality. Corporate America hasn’t been so hated in two generations. The RIAA’s cutthroat behavior certainly hasn’t set them apart from the Goldman Sachs or AIG’s of the world. And Lester Chambers, modest though his effort might have been, provoked a stunning amount of solidarity. The day after his picture went viral, Sweet Relief reported over $10,000 in donations. Maybe, at last, Chambers and the rest of music’s 99% can get what they’ve long deserved.

First published at Dissident Voice

Don't forget to support Rebel Frequencies' fund drive! This site only maintains itself thanks to your support, so please give generously!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Woman's Place In Music: In the Front!


Happy International Women's Day! Anyone who knows this day's real meaning and history will also know that it's a day not just for celebrating the many gains of the worldwide struggle for gender equality, but to bring attention to the present struggles.

And so, this video is a little of both. The artists in Russian punk collective Pussy Riot are facing a crackdown from Putin's newly "elected" government--along with the country's broader democracy movement. Their public stunts incorporating a bit music and a bit of performance art are pretty damned cool--even for those who don't appreciate noisy, abrasive feminist-powered hardcore. This, the performance that first brought them to international attention, is about the best example.

The most recent word is that Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, two of the activists detained on election day in connection with Pussy Riot's Cathedral performance in February, are on hunger strike. Both face serious jail time for their supposed involvement, which they deny. Today, Russian activists picketed the headquarters of the Moscow police, demanding their release. There is talk of an international defense campaign, which will surely be supported here at RF.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Peter Gabriel to Rush Limbaugh: "Back Off"


Rush Limbaugh has lost support among a lot of people otherwise willing to turn a blind eye to his troglodytic bigotry. Word is that thirty sponsors have dropped him ever since he called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a "slut" for testifying in front of Congress on behalf of women's contraception. Among those thirty sponsors are JC Penney and Capital One.

The rightful shit-storm that Limbaugh has heaped upon himself has also drawn out quite a few who may not have been directly in the talk show's sights, but are nonetheless telling him to straight up back off. Among this last category is Peter Gabriel, who discovered recently that Limbaugh played Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" in the background as he launched into his sexist invective. Gabriel has supported a good many progressive causes over the years; a statement released on his website reads:

"Peter was appalled to learn that his music was linked to Rush Limbaugh's extraordinary attack on Sandra Fluke... It is obvious from anyone that knows Peter's work that he would never approve such a use. He has asked his representatives to make sure his music is withdrawn and especially from these unfair aggressive and ignorant comments."

This isn't the first time that Limbaugh in particular has been caught using music from artists whose politics couldn't be further from his own. A few years back, it was discovered that the theme song he had been using for his "Gay Update" segment was none other than Klaus Nomi's cover of "You Don't Own Me." That was of course used in a satirical manner, but like Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" it was done so without permission. One would think that, given Limbaugh's maniacal defense against "socialism" on the grounds of the right to property, he would check with the songs' owners before using them. But then again, Limbaugh evidently doesn't even think women have the right to own their bodies.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Musicians Are the 99%


From Lester Chambers of the legendary Chambers Brothers. And yes, that is a Gold Record he's holding up at the top. Just about says it all doesn't it?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Free the Artists of Pussy Riot!


Vladimir Putin will continue to insist that his victory in yesterday's Russian Federation elections was free and fair. In his mind, they very well may have been. Allegations of carousel voting, violent intimidation at polling stations and ballot-stuffing are gnats to be swatted away when power is simply something you deserve.

That's also the case for anyone who questions his rule. Arrest of opposition protesters is rife and well-known in Russia. Even in the face of a mass movement against poverty and corruption that sprung up in December, Russia's state apparatus is willing to limit the most basic freedom of speech. Even if Putin can't crush this movement, he can certainly send a message that he is "in control" of the situation.

It's likely that this is the reasoning behind the arrests of members of Pussy Riot. The radical feminist punk group has gained a great amount of notoriety over the past few months as something of a soundtrack for the new Russian rebellion against Putin's regime. Reportedly a collective of over thirty people, most of whom are women, they openly take a great deal of inspiration from Russia's rich avant-garde art history. Dressed in neon dresses and balaclavas, they've managed to stage public guerrilla performances all over Moscow--railing against the state in songs like "Putin's Scared" and religious oppression in the amusingly named "Holy Shit."

It's this last one that has reportedly gotten the group in hot water. Russian police have so far arrested six alleged members of Pussy Riot for performing the song at Christ the Savior Cathedral last month. I say "alleged" because all of those involved in the performance managed to flee before police arrived, and nobody removed their balaclava.

It's not clear how police surmised the identities of the six now in custody (though it wouldn't be the first time that Putin's security apparatus has spied on Russian citizens). But it's also not clear how much that matters. What matters is the timing. In this writer's opinion, the fact that these arrests took place over the same weekend as the Russian elections is no coincidence. If there's one thing that national security states are good at, it's knowing when to "pick off the low-hanging fruit," so to speak, in order to send a message.

Running alongside the widespread allegations of voter fraud, these arrests send that message in a not-so-thinly-veiled way. Democracy? Only for those who don't rock the boat. Free speech? Sure, as long as you stay in line.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Fair Trade Indeed


Johnny Marr, formerly of the Smiths, has said at the NME Awards (most likely sarcastically) that he'll reform the Smiths when the current British government steps down:

"We won't be reforming this week. Maybe if the government stepped down. If this government stepped down, I'll reform the band. How's that? That's a fair trade, isn't it? I think the country would be better off, don't you? I'll do it if the coalition steps down."

Indeed it would be. The current Conservative-Liberal Democrat government has infamously raised education fees, declared war on public services and unions, and is now essentially attempting to force the unemployed to work for free. Doing away with all this and getting back one of the most iconic indie groups of all time? Yes please.

Now if only Marr could strike a deal with Morrissey for him to cut out his incessant racist rants.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Announcing the RF March Fund Drive!


Dear reader,

Alex B here. I'm not a celebrity, not an award-winning writer backed by some big publishing house, but most likely if you're here at Rebel Frequencies then you know who I am. For those who don't, I'm a freelance music journalist, longtime radical activist, and administrator for this website. Over the past five years Rebel Frequencies has evolved from a simple and irregularly updated blog to an important part of the ever-shifting discussion of the role of music in politics.

Currently, the site has thousands of hits a month (most of which are regular visitors), and its content has appeared in some of the left's flagship publications--Z Magazine, TheNation.com, Green Left Weekly, SocialistWorker.org and others. Suffice to say that I couldn't be prouder of how this has all developed, and couldn't be more humbled by the fact that so many have been willing to share in the experience. It's certainly given me the desire to grow this site into something ever-bigger an ever-better. That's why I'm writing today. Long story short, if this site is going to grow, then it needs your financial support. Big time.

RF has always been run on a basis that is entirely volunteer. No advertising dollars have ever come near this site, and that's been deliberate. There's been the occasional paying gig, but it's never been a lot. A phrase used more than once on this site is "music may be a labor of love, but it's still labor." It's a saying that can just as easily apply to all art, and, in this particular case, writing. Therefore, I'm announcing the launch of a fund drive to keep Rebel Frequencies afloat and growing over the month of March. The goal: $1,000 by the end of the month!

Of course, it goes without saying that times are beyond tough. All the talk about "recovery" from the mainstream media doesn't change the fact that unemployment remains high, jobs scarce, pay low. And there's no doubt that the vast majority of those affected are ordinary working music fans. We all remember a few years ago, looking at the average ten dollar cost for downloading an album through iTunes, comparing it to the fifteen to eighteen you'll pay at a record store, and saying "wow, what a deal!" Now it seems just as exorbitant, especially at a time when so many of us have to choose between rent an groceries.

The irony is that all of these are exactly why independent media is needed in the first place, and that's true in all realms, from economics to politics to culture. Rebel Frequencies is one of the few places out there that has been uncompromising in its view that art is a human right, not a privilege for the 1%. Take some time to scroll and click through RF's contents. You'll see articles and posts that insist music fans not be criminalized for file-sharing, that support independent rebel artists from BBU to Ani DiFranco to Prayers for Atheists, that call attention to artists' attempts at organizing, that defend hip-hop against racist scapegoating and bring attention to the role of music in the Arab Spring. And the list goes on. Few music sites out there can claim such thorough, principled output.

Above, you'll see on the toolbar a page marked "Support." Click on it, and you'll be shown a Donation button from PayPal. Portions of your 100% secure, private donation will go toward the basics: Internet bills and computer upkeep, album purchases where free copies aren't an option in the case of reviews, so on and so forth. But the lion's share will go toward making Rebel Frequencies bigger and better--a more streamlined layout, purchasing of the domain name "rebelfrequencies.com" (about time, right?), more public speaking engagements, more long-term projects and generally bigger, better opportunities. And did someone say independently published book? Yes, yes indeed I did.

Anything that you can spare in these times is beyond appreciated; no amount is too small (though no amount is too big either). It has always been my belief that the times in which we live provide ample space for a fundamentally different vision of music than what is peddled to us by the big-time industry. That may be more urgent and true now than it has ever been. Meeting that challenge, however, and getting these ideas to the wide audience that deserves them, requires the support of you, the dear reader. For that reason, I sincerely hope that you'll dig deep in helping Rebel Frequencies move forward through these harsh-yet-exciting times.

In solidarity,
Alexander Billet
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Starting now, there will be weekly updates here at RF on the fund drive's progress. In the meantime, please think seriously about what you can give and don't be shy to cut, paste, and email this to friends!