Friday, June 22, 2012

How To Celebrate Black Music Month? Build a Movement Against the System That Keeps it In Chains

Celebrating Black Music Month--or African-American Music Appreciation Month for those of you who aren’t into the whole brevity thing--brings with it a passel of contradictions. On the one hand, there are surely many a well meaning folk out there who aren’t even aware such a month exists in the first place!

Neither MTV nor VH1 have recognized the celebration this year--even on their websites. Neither, for that matter, has Rolling Stone or Spin. XXL, Vibe, and other outlets for “urban music” have stepped up and recognized, often with some quite insightful contributions, but in light of the broader ignorance, it almost comes off as ghetto-ized. Roughly three weeks into what should be a nationwide celebration, most of the mainstream has made nary a peep.

Black Music Month, however, isn’t anything new. According to its entry on Wikipedia (whose full length reaches a grand total of four sentences):
African-American Music Appreciation Month is a celebration for African American Music every year in the month of June in the United States. It was originally started as Black Music Month by President Jimmy Carter, who on June 7, 1979, decreed that June would be the month of black music. Since then, presidents have announced to Americans to celebrate Black Music Month. For each year of his term, President Barack Obama has announced the observance under a new title, African-American Music Appreciation Month.
Unsurprisingly, Obama’s own decrees regarding this month have largely flown under the radar. After all, the nation’s first African-American president has been too busy promoting policies that keep Blacks under a boot for this kind of announcement to receive any real credence.

The outrageous tragedy here is, of course, that American music would look absolutely nothing like it does today without the influence of Africa. This deserves to be recognized, and not just during the month of June.

Without slave spirituals and the “blue note” common in West African music, we wouldn’t have the blues. Without the blues, there would have been no ragtime or jazz. Neither would there have been any R&B, rock or soul. Disco and funk? Nope. And as for hip-hop, a style and culture that has now become a global force, it wouldn’t have even been a distant twinkle.

Make no mistake: this evolution was far from a smooth one. Untold numbers of slaves were beaten or killed for singing spirituals for fear that they provided coded escape plans (which they sometimes did). The blues was derided as “devil’s music” by white preachers, as well as a few Black churches.

Jazz innovator and “father of the blues” W.C. Handy’s bassist was killed in the South because a white man didn’t like that the musician was wearing a nicer suit. John Coltrane’s best friend was beaten to death by a Philadelphia police officer for refusing to walk in the gutter. Abbey Lincoln, after recording her wonderful “Freedom Suite” with Max Roach, found it impossible to record for years afterward.

Many readers are no doubt aware of the long string of scapegoating campaigns against hip-hop--from the PMRC to the Fraternal Order of Police. And then there are the innumerable dollars of unpaid royalties (millions of by some estimates) still owed to this very day to Bessie Smith, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Sarah Vaughan, DMX and countless other Black artists or their estates.

Running next to all of this is a history of sonic resistance too rich to recount in one article. Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige” suite, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Gil Scott-Heron, Public Enemy, Erykah Badu. All of these are artists who stood up and in their own way said that things have to change. In the process, they most certainly did change music.

Any true music lover would jump at the opportunity to celebrate all this. So why the silence? Why has there been so little mention from the music scribes on this topic? Why so little recognition? Might it be that, in “post-racial” America, we have little need for a Black Music Month?

Or might it be that so little attention is paid to these landmark contributions in popular culture because, as so often happens, the wrong questions might be asked?

After all, any honest look at African-American history is bound to yield a few inconsistencies. Today, sanitized recreations of Martin Luther King are played during commercial breaks in between speeches from the nation’s first Black president. It’s all proof that racism is a thing of the past, that America has finally buried the hatchet of slavery, Jim Crow and beyond.

Except for Trayvon Martin. Or Ramarley Graham. Or Darius Simmons. Or Tamon Robinson, Shantel Davis, Rekia Boyd, Stephon Watts or any of the others gunned down by racist cops and vigilantes in the past several months.

Except for the 2.3 million people behind bars, the vast majority of whom are people of color, their labor exploited in prison, their names permanently tagged with stigma after their release that can prevent them from getting a job, decent housing, or government assistance. Except for reparations, the forty acres and a mule, the unpaid royalties still due after all these years and the scapegoating of hip-hop that still takes place to this very day.

The phrase goes that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In some ways, that’s exactly what continues to frighten so many in the American establishment--that a new wave of protest might rise up declaring that the Civil Rights movement isn’t over.

These are all precise reasons for Black Music Month to be recognized much wider than it currently is, and these just scratch the surface. It should be celebrated, studied and learned from well past the end of June. There’s some unfinished business out there, and I can think of more than a few musicians who would agree.

First published at Dissident Voice

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Reflection Of the Struggle

There’s an old mantra from the heyday of the Surrealists: take two elements that we’re taught don’t work together and combine them. If you’ve truly committed, the results won’t only work, they’ll be profound.

This is probably the best way to describe the music of Excentrik. His songs use plenty of samples and break-beats, and have the occasional rapped verse, but none of them could be called hip hop. Middle Eastern instrumentation, including oud and doumbek, feature prominently on several tracks, but the oblique, mushy category of “world music” falls short too. Fuzzed-out keyboards and distorted guitars aren’t enough to make his music punk, though the spirit is certainly there.

“Loungy,” the opening track on his latest album Now Here Nowhere, released this past fall, seems an excellent example. It’s entirely instrumental, but somehow the combination of the oud’s lilting twang and a familiar rock drum-kit beat conveys a sense of the mysterious emerging into plain sight. For Western listeners, daily-fed spoonfuls of Orientalist thought, taught that the Arab world is one of mystical irrationality, this experience can be a prescient one.

Reflection of struggle

Born Tarik Kazaleh, Excentrik is Palestinian-American. Though both of his parents were born in the US, his grandparents, aunts and uncles were born in Palestine. Kazaleh tells me in an interview that much of his life has been characterized by a search for where exactly the American ends and the Palestinian begins, or vice versa.

“The name Now Here Nowhere is a reflection of that struggle--either in Palestine or the States I’ve felt a strange duality of identity, personally and musically,” Kazaleh says. As he was recording the album, even he was sometimes struck by how seamlessly the music of the West blended with Middle Eastern and Arab sounds.

“When the record was being cut, there was many a moment when all that was being pointed out by people who’d be like ‘dude that shit sounds hella Arabic’ and I’d be thinking it was hella Western. But that’s been my deal for quite a while--even when I was primarily just rapping, there was always a Palestinian voice within it all.”

That Palestinian voice isn’t always integrated so subtly, such as when he samples British MP George Galloway telling off a belligerent interviewer: “You don’t even know about the Palestinian families! You don’t even know that they exist!” Other tracks bring the story back stateside. The message communicated in the hard-edged, manic title track is rather unmistakable: greedy politicians and mortgage-lenders get their comeuppance.

Sonic collision

Obvious as these moments are, they hardly seem out of place. In fact, given the eclectic, unpredictable musical context, their gravity is only enhanced. Moreover, these upfront moments themselves lend graceful meaning back to the sonic collision that Excentrik has coalesced.

Thinking about it in terms of pure logic, Spanish guitar and wavy pyschedelics wouldn’t work on the same track, and yet on “Dheisheh,” they do. Same for “Somebody At My Door.” One second, it’s delicate strings caressing your ear (including the Electronic Intifada’s own Nora Barrows-Friedman on cello), then the menace of heavily-distorted vocal samples and delicate female singing running side-by-side.

“There’s somebody at my door,” the female voice sings, “and I’m not sure it’s you.” Who is she talking to? A jilted lover? An angry landlord? Immigration authorities, their deportation warrant in hand? We have no idea, but throughout, the feeling of the old and new, concrete and tangible, dangerous and familiar, East and West, global South and global North, are meeting somewhere in between.

“I really want people to get a sense of uniqueness,” Kazaleh tells me, “be it within the messages and especially the musicality. I didn’t want to ‘anthemize’ the music. I also didn’t want to be so general that it’s on some ‘fuck this, fuck that’ amateur shit.”

As an MC, Excentrik’s flow is often as smooth as it is spiky. And yet there’s something almost deadpan about his delivery. It doesn’t lack emotion--there’s plenty of that--but he seems perfectly comfortable relating stories that, if one thinks about it, are absurd, almost macabre.

One thing about the absurd, though: it has a habit of becoming reality, and Excentrik’s ability to communicate that in the subtlest way is his greatest strength. Take, for example, this snippet from “Go Down Standing”:

"But bygones ain’t bygones
When my home’s been cluster-bombed
And I hold these memories of smoke and twisted pylons
Whose piece of the pie gone
Yet they wonder what our mind’s on
Fuck that peacefulness, I’m on some freedom shit
Let’s get this fight on!"

Blunt? Yes, but deceptively so. The notion that obliteration of one’s home can be a “bygone” is completely messed up in itself, but it’s also the basic line of so many who keep the status quo running--whether their house has been physically destroyed or simply taken by the bank.

A contradiction to revel in

The same might be said for juxtaposing peace and freedom. How often do we hear from oppressive rulers that those who oppose them hate peace or freedom? How many times have both been snatched away in their own name by these very same rulers? And how many times have those at the short end of the stick been forced to remind the world that words mean nothing unless they have humanity at the center of their meaning? Contradictory though it all might seem, it’s all too undeniably real.

If one is really honest with themselves, then it’s not hard to see this kind of strangeness as a daily feature, and the fact that it’s so often justified by this or that leader or mouthpiece makes it all the weirder. Starvation in the midst of plenty, whole sections of the planet cordoned off in the name of freedom. It will certainly be no news to any regular visitor to this publication that these are the daily experiences of Tarik Kazaleh’s distant relatives in Palestine.

Not that they are necessarily alone in this. In fact, the weirdest part of these daily contradictions is how accustomed so many of us have become to their occurrence in our own backyard. And so while Excentrik’s music plumbs these dualities, this own comfort in relating them is both familiar and disconcerting on a rather primal level. It’s a contradiction that he revels in.

Good thing, too, because in so doing, while dodging the pitfalls of easy categorization, he reminds the listener that all of us — including Kazeleh himself — share in a world that is truly topsy-turvy. In a way, it’s the emotional stuff of solidarity, communicated in a manner that is gracefully unbent. Sometimes merely relating this truth is the most radical act an artist can commit.

First published at the Electronic Intifada

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Madonna Sings for Apartheid

Madonna kicked off her “MDNA” tour on 1 June with all the spectacle one has come to expect from her. First-rate choreography, costume changes galore and, of course, all the hits trotted out for a crowd of 30,000 at Ramat Gan Stadium on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. There was even a little controversy mixed in to remind us of the days when the “Queen of Pop” used to be truly shocking.

Now, the hired pens are frothing over her depiction of French far-right leader Marine Le Pen with a swastika on her forehead. Predictably, the responses range from the obtuse (“how can she show the swastika in the land of the Jews?”) to the supportive (“she was right to bring attention to the rise of the right in Europe”) to outrage from Le Pen herself (who is threatening to sue “if she tries that in France”).

All of this commentary misses that which is both most obvious and most hidden: that in order to play in Israel in the first place, Madonna had to cross what must be world’s largest picket line.

“I chose to start my world tour in Israel for a very specific and important reason,” said Madonna from the stage of the stadium. “As you know, the Middle East and all the conflicts that occur here and that have been occurring for thousands of years, they have to stop. You can’t be a fan of mine and not want peace in the world.”

That same day, two Palestinian brothers, both in possession of tickets to Madonna’s “peace” concert, filmed their attempt to get to the show.

That attempt was thwarted by Israel’s wall in the West Bank. Madonna said nothing about them or the other innumerable Palestinians who were similarly unable to attend. For all her rhetoric about world peace, she said nothing of the very segregated crowd for whom she was performing.

Silent on Palestinian Suffering

She said nothing of the Palestinian political prisoners on continued hunger strike. Nor did she say anything about the members of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, calling for African refugees to be summarily deported. In fact, her “thousands of years” line, parroted from the same old Orientalist schlock fed to the West every day, reveals that Madonna knows absolutely nothing about the daily conditions of Palestinians.

Even the debate over the image of Marine Le Pen ignores a massive part of the issue--specifically that even while the fascist menace seems to be gaining traction in European elections, the far-right is on the rise in Israel too. Ultra-orthodox gangs are allowed to beat up Arabs on Israel’s streets with impunity. Cities like Haifa are warning businesses that they’ll lose their licenses to operate if they hire African refugees. Avigdor Lieberman, the same foreign minister who routinely promises “transfer” of Palestinians, has enthusiastically met with Geert Wilders, the hard right, anti-immigrant leader of the Dutch Freedom Party.

One simple, shocking image of Marine Le Pen won’t even scratch the surface of this, and as you may have guessed, Madonna didn’t mention any of Israel’s home-grown proto-fascists. As for the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, the Queen of Pop wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.

This, in essence, is where the victory lay for Israel’s occupation of Palestine: the brutal reality of a colonial settler state relying on a policy of racism and apartheid, repainted as a clash between a peace-loving bastion of culture and a civilization bent on war.

It’s no wonder, then, that such fanfare has surrounded Madonna’s Israel tour-launch. Ever since she announced it at this year’s Superbowl, the concert has been touted loud and clear--perhaps by nobody more than Israel’s politicians and officials. In the days leading up to the concert, the Israeli embassy in London took time to smear the BDS campaign as “an anti-Israeli movement.” The Board of Deputies of British Jews called comparisons to apartheid South Africa “a specious and desperate effort by a failing boycott campaign.”

PR Gimmick

But if the push for cultural boycott is failing, then why go out of the way to denounce it so vociferously? Why is the Knesset passing laws that allow for boycott advocates to be sued in court? Why is the Israeli government discussing stepping in to insure promoters against the financial effects of “politically motivated cancellations”?

So scared of BDS are some in the music industry that last year saw a consortium of American and Israeli entertainment executives to set up the “Creative Community for Peace,” whose expressed intention is to counter the movement for a cultural boycott of Israel.

Truthfully, the Israeli government and concert industry have plenty of reason to be nervous. Though the launch of the “MDNA” tour did indeed take place in Israel, the BDS campaign surrounding it was one of the most high-profile in some time. It was so public that Madonna’s public relations team stepped in to announce that 600 tickets to her show would be given to members of left-leaning organizations.

This too backfired. Some groups declined the invitation on the grounds that those living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza wouldn’t be able to attend. And given the amount of publicity surrounding the controversy, they were afforded a larger platform to make the case for BDS.

Among these were Anarchists Against the Wall and the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, the latter of whom released a statement making clear that: “Madonna has never criticized the Israeli occupation, its separation policies, or its regime of privileges. Therefore, we believe that the reason she sought the presence of Israeli peace activists was to further a public image of an artist who promotes peace in the Middle East. We refuse to be a public relations gimmick for Madonna at the expense of the Palestinians. This is not our way.”

The inequities of Israeli society have even been inadvertently illustrated from within Madonna’s own camp. Headlines were made when Ali Ramadani, one of Madonna’s backup dancers of Palestinian heritage, tweeted from al-Aqsa mosque while visiting. “At the amazing al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem,” wrote Ramadani. “I don’t want to say it’s in Israel, but Palestine, strength and honor.” Israeli newspapers called his tweet a controversy.

It seems, then, that even as the Israeli concert industry has stepped up its game, so has the BDS movement. The campaign surrounding Madonna’s mega-show has arguably been the most high-profile since 2010, when the Gaza Freedom Flotilla massacre provoked several well-known acts to cancel performances in protest.

Since then, there have been several other cancellations Israeli concerts (Tuba Skinny, Natacha Atlas and Cat Power) after consistent campaigning from BDS activists. Still others (The Yardbirds, Zdob si Zdub), while not officially joining the BDS campaign, have quietly canceled their gigs in Israel without rescheduling. Far from failing, the cultural boycott movement is doing exactly what it’s meant to do: shine a light on the fierce injustice of Israeli apartheid and shame those who cross the picket line.

If the stakes have indeed been raised on both ends, then the need for sharp critique and hard arguments can’t be understated. Madonna’s endless prattle about world peace may have been hollow, but it’s also effective in the hands of colonizers. Just as in South Africa, Israeli officials have long sought to paint the Arab-Israeli conflict as “equal-sided.” Famous images of young Palestinians slinging rocks at massive tanks provided to Israel by the world’s biggest military superpower have gone a long way toward poking holes in this myth over the past twenty years.

Obscuring a Double Standard

Nonetheless, Israel’s political class--from its far-right to its dwindling liberal camp--continue to demand that Palestinians put down their arms, even as Israeli settlers and the Israeli military barrel through towns in the West Bank, and Gaza is locked from the rest of the world. The double standard is palpable, but the role of culture--at least in the hands of the occupiers’ government--has been to obscure it.

Speaking of those activists that did attend the concert, Madonna told the crowd, “There are several very brave and important NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that are representing both Palestine and Israel together.” Again, note the wording. And note the implication: that it’s two equal sides at war here.

Never mind the Nakba (the systematic ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948), never mind the decades of displacement, the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees scattered by Israeli land grabs or the thousands locked up in its prisons. Never mind that Israel is armed to the teeth by the west and is one of the world’s top military spenders as a proportion of national income. With that simple turn of phrase, all of this history and reality is swept aside for words that let the colonizers off the hook and place at least some of the blame on the colonized who dare to resist.

There is another crime, more esoteric in nature, at play here. Whether Madonna is aware of it or not (and there’s a good chance she is), her music and art are willfully being lent to the cause of crude state propaganda. This is no conspiracy theory. Israeli politicians are frequently over the moon to have high-profile artists play in Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu himself was so publicly chuffed to have Justin Bieber perform in Tel Aviv that he attempted to force a meeting with the teen pop star.

When fake punkers Simple Plan announced their own show in Israel earlier in the spring, it made it onto the State of Israel’s Twitter account. Nissim Ben-Sheetrit, former deputy director general of the Israeli foreign ministry, has said publicly, “We are seeing culture as a hasbara (propaganda) tool of the first rank, and I do not differentiate between hasbara and culture.”

This, of course, flies in the face of everything that those who are against BDS tell us: that art is somehow “above” politics, and has no role to play other than “bringing people together.” No matter how many times it’s debunked, this old chestnut persists. It ignores that art, for all its high falutin’ pretensions, is a form of labor. And, as any union member will tell you, when labor is withheld it can throw one hell of monkey wrench into the gears of the machine.

This is, ironically, even more true for mega-stars like Madonna. Though she may not have to put the same amount of sweat and sacrifice into her music that she had to 25 years ago, her shows require countless stagehands, sound techs and security staff to pull them off.

And so, once more, it really can’t be denied that the launch of the “MDNA” tour in Israel was a victory for the apartheid state. What also can’t be denied is the growth of the movement for BDS. Every effort was taken to put the heat on Madonna’s camp, resulting in some surprising chances to speak truth to power. Case in point: the ongoing campaign to get the Red Hot Chili Peppers to cancel a forthcoming Tel Aviv show has gained a welcome shot in the arm.

There’s no substitute for that experience. The opportunity to shine a light on Israel’s crimes is arguably bigger than it’s ever been. Madonna’s glitzy, glaring flash might blind and confuse for a little while, but in the end, it’s really no match for the collective effort of all those pushing that light in the right direction.

First published at the Electronic Intifada