Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Newer Noise

Hearing someone scream “I’ve got a bone to pick with capitalism” at Coachella, one of the biggest and priciest American music festivals, might seem a bit silly at first. In this case, though, the skinny punks in question actually mean it. It’s also common knowledge that they’re not alone at this particular point in history. In fact, there is probably no better possible time for a band like Refused to reunite.

Fourteen years ago when the Swedish hardcore four-piece split up, it was a bit unceremonious. Punk bands have a propensity for going out with a whimper rather than a bang. Their final US gig was in a Harrisonburg, Virginia basement and was shut down by the local police. Not exactly befitting a band who had named their album The Shape of Punk to Come.

Since then, however, the title has proven correct. Odd time-signatures, alternate tunings, electronic sampling and the usage of revolutionary Situationist imagery made Shape far from your typical punk album. It was more in the vein of the Clash or Nation of Ulysses--using the spirit of punk as an excuse to subvert some of the genre’s most ingrained standards. Hardly a surprise then, that like many of their forerunners, Refused were political revolutionaries too.

The Shape of Punk to Come is now regarded as one of the most influential albums ever made–not just in punk, but music as a whole in the last 25 years. The “new noise” that the group attempted to forge (“how can we expect anyone to listen if we’re using the same old voice?”) clearly resonated with more than a few people out there.

To be sure, the members of the group haven’t been twiddling their thumbs since its demise. Some went back to school and got degrees or started new bands. Dennis Lyxzen, the group’s frontman, formed the (International) Noise Conspiracy and continued to explore that indescribable nexus between rock and revolution. There was always, however, a feeling of that “we never did The Shape of Punk to Come justice back when it came out.”

Indeed, there does remain a lot of unfinished business. Namely that business itself has gotten a lot uglier, a lot more cut-throat and brutal even as it’s proven itself to be a lot more resilient. When Refused called it quits in 1998, it was easy to think that the whole rotten system was on its last legs. The Asian economy was in shambles, and the revolutionary rumblings in Indonesia might be spreading. The general strikes in France a few years before had given rise to a slogan: “the world is not for sale.” Globalization was being proven a sham, and a world-wide movement was taking shape that made it seem a more humane order was right around the corner.

As we all know now, that’s not exactly how it played out. Even as Refused’s star ironically continued to rise in the years after their breakup, humanity’s prospects got dimmer. The alter-globalization movement sputtered out as America puffed its chest into Afghanistan and Iraq. Even as capitalism hobbled its way through the panic of ‘08, it managed to be arrogant and brazen. They created the crisis, and yet we bear the brunt.

Alongside this is the interminable decline of the big-time music industry. It bears mentioning that even as The Shape of Punk to Come became near iconic among musical misfits of varying stripes, Refused were never on any of the “big four” record labels. The condescending, formulaic and whitewashed approach of label CEOs doesn’t square with reality for most people.

And so the amazing thing about Refused getting back together in the here and now isn’t how ill-timed and hackneyed it so often seems to be when bands reunite. Quite the opposite; if anything, the songs of Shape are more relevant, more hard-hitting, more resonant than they’ve ever been. Yesterday’s buzzwords of “national security” and “war on terror” have been pushed to the side in favor of “occupy,” “indignados” and “Tahrir.” In straightforward terms, the same people whose fates appeared sealed just a few years ago have found a voice; the impossible has now, once again, become possible.

One of the common slogans of the Situationists by whom Lyxzen and company have long been inspired is the “revolutionizing of everyday life.” In other words, even the most mundane and apparently co-opted entities under this system have the potential to be turned back in on themselves, re-appropriated for the cause of true liberation. There might be more than a little truth to this. Recent surveys have revealed that despite the inexorable fall in both living standards and album sales, ticket sales--even to expensive mega-fests like Coachella--continue to rise.

It doesn’t take too much speculation to figure out why: in a world where so much is denied, even a vague experience of affirmation and communal feeling has no price tag. Cynical booking agents and promoters might laugh at a band playing Coachella having “a bone to pick with capitalism.” But when they made it clear that they also have “a few to break,” there’s a good bet that many of this forgotten generation felt it in every fiber of their being. A world of affirmation might be worth a few busted knuckles.

First published at Dissident Voice

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Tracks For Trayvon

In a recent interview with Hip-Hop DX, a hoodie-clad Nas exhibited an understandable amount of despair at the case of Trayvon Martin:

"You never want to hear that kind of news. When it happens, you remember how many Trayvon incidents happen everyday all over the world... It doesn’t seem like the race problem will ever get solved. I like to be optimistic, but it doesn’t seem like it’ll ever get solved."

And yet, later in the interview, speaking of the same 17-year-old high school football player gunned down for walking while Black, some of that optimism seemed to peek through. “Maybe he thought in football he’d have a legacy.” said the widely respected rapper. “But now his legacy can become something that helps change things, hopefully.”

With that, Nas exhibited the ongoing battle between pain and promise that hip-hop, at its best, has long tapped. The killing of Trayvon Martin, and the wave of outrage it’s provoked, has once again put this struggle at center stage.

This is far from the first time that the hip-hop community has been moved to speak out on the flagrant racism of America’s criminal injustice system. Incidents like Trayvon’s are so shamefully frequent that Chuck D’s famous quip, “rap is CNN for Black people,” seems cliche by now. Something about this feels different, however.

Numbers of protest attendees alone don’t do justice, but they do give you an idea. Thousands in New York, 5,000 in Minneapolis, 1,500 in Rochester, somewhere around two thousand at three different actions in as many days in Chicago, a thousand in Denver, and countless smaller actions from Maine to San Diego. All on top of high school walkouts across the state of Florida, and the thousands who have descended upon Sanford in several marches.

Comparisons to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, which some consider an opening shot in the Civil Rights movement, have abounded. Like Till’s death, Trayvon’s murder has pulled the lid off a long-simmering anger at the persistent racist bile that continues to run through American society.

And as before, it’s opened the way for so many who might otherwise remain silent to stand and be counted--even MC’s not normally considered “political.” Among those is Young Jeezy: “He looks like an innocent kid. I understand the situation as far as dude wanting to be [on] neighborhood watch, but everybody that’s black and young ain’t ‘up to no good.’”

The Game has similarly been moved to dismay in a recent interview: “For some reason, people don’t think that they need any excuse to kill us, beat us, hit us, run us over, disrespect us or anything like that.”

As always, however, the most moving responses have come from artists more in touch with hip-hop’s grassroots. At the time of this writing, Mos Def has teamed up with dead prez to record a tribute track for Trayvon. Immortal Technique has pointed out that vigilante violence is a regular occurrence on the US-Mexico border. RodStarz of radical Bronx duo Rebel Diaz, appearing on Davey D’s radio show, was quick to draw comparisons to Ramarley Graham, another Black teen gunned down by the NYPD a few weeks before Trayvon’s killing.

One of the countless local artists to write tracks dedicated to Trayvon is DC’s Slimm Goines. Though this isn’t the first political song he’s written, it seems that this murder has hit Slimm, like so many others, in a very deep place. When I ask him why he wrote “My Hoodie Weighs a Ton,” he responds “not sure. I just needed to say something. I haven’t written anything overtly political in a while. I just felt I had to.”

Slimm points out that the hip-hop response to cases like Trayvon’s is, of course, nothing new:

"Hip-hop has always been quick to take up cases like this. Be it Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst back in ’89, the beating of Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima, Sean Bell, the hip-hop world has always been at or near the forefront in speaking out against the senseless violence against young black men that seems to be excused in this society. Most hip-hop folks, being young and non-white, have intimate experience with being racially profiled, harassed, and in some cases, assaulted for being in the ‘wrong place at the wrong time."

The sense that we’ve been here before poignantly runs through most of the tracks dedicated to Trayvon. Mistah FAB, the Bay Area MC who first popped up on many fans’ radars for his track dedicated to Oscar Grant, released his song “God Don’t Love Me” on March 21st. It’s a simple, bare-bones track connecting the dots between Trayvon’s death and African America’s daily degradation at the hands of the criminal injustice system:

"The whole world wanna talk about Kony
But ain’t nobody speaking on the little homie
So many Trayvons over the years
Left so many Black minds puzzled, in tears
We kill them we’re in a cell doing life
They kill us they post some bail ‘cuz they’re white"

Pittburgh rapper Jasiri X takes a different direction. The acclaimed activist MC, who, over the years, has responded in this same manner to the cases of the Jena Six, Troy Davis and others like them, does his best to put himself in Trayvon’s shoes:

"Trayvon never gave his cousin [sic] the Skittles
Mr. All-Star Game didn’t see another dribble
And George Zimmerman wasn’t even arrested
The message is white life is only protected in America!"

Indeed. We most certainly have been here before. Far too many times. But it seems every time that the issue of race is brought up in the US, it’s brushed aside in favor of rhetoric of the “post-racial society.”

What has made hip-hop in particular both so durable and controversial over the past thirty years, however, is that it’s been one of the few bastions in popular culture where post-racialism is called out as a sham. It’s been one of the few art forms that has dared to speak up and say that the Civil Rights movement of yesteryear left a lot of unfinished business in its wake.

Perhaps that might be changing. It may be painful to acknowledge that it’s taken the death of yet another young Black man to finally provoke a modern movement for Black liberation. There’s no doubt, however, that such a movement is needed. The increased attention and mobilization around cases similar to that of Trayvon in the past few weeks--Ramarley Graham, Rekia Boyd--may signify that the time has at long last arrived.

“The world is changing pretty fast,” says Slimm. “From the Arab Spring to the Occupy movement, ordinary people are standing up. We’re less willing to accept the excuses that the people in power try to offer in situations like this. That nonsense about ‘waiting until all the facts are in’ is no longer good enough for us. The facts on the surface were enough for most folks to say, ‘You’ve gone too far this time.’ And, you know what? As the facts come in, we continue to be proven correct.”

That’s what it all comes down to. The countless thousands now marching for Trayvon, Ramarley and Rekia, who have hit the pavement for Sean, Oscar and Troy, the MCs who have dared to speak out from the street corners to the recording studios, were correct to do so. They’ve known what the disdainful shills for Zimmerman and his ilk have never quite grasped: that hungry people don’t stay hungry for long.

First published at Dissident Voice