Monday, July 30, 2012

Pussy Riot For the 99 Percent

When you're in a hole, you stop digging. Even if this weren't a cliché by now, it would still be common sense. Does this mean, then, that Vladimir Putin and the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church lack basic reasoning skills? The decision to extend Pussy Riot's stay in prison certainly seems to proves it so.

In roughly five months, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alokhina--three feminist activists accused of storming the altar of Christ the Savior Cathedral during Pussy Riot's "Punk Prayer"--have become a global cause célèbre.

It's not an exaggeration to say that most of the young people forming the core of the Occupy-Indignado generation know about the band and support the three women. Benefit gigs and actions in front of Russian consulates and embassies have become commonplace from LA to Prague to Tokyo.

As Pussy Riot's profile has grown, so has the level of embarrassment for the Russian state. All of the Putin regime's least savory characteristics are encapsulated in the Pussy Riot case: the disregard for democracy and civil liberties, the nepotistic coziness with the Orthodox Church, the willingness to sink to any low in order to silence his political opponents.

Given all of this, it seems that the smart thing to do, the reasonable thing to do, would be to simply let Alokhina, Tolokonnikova and Samutsevich go. Hit them with a fine, cut the government's losses, and live to fight another spineless fight another spineless day.

The court that heard their case on July 20 didn't think this the best move. Instead, the judge decided that, with still no word on when the actual trial will start, the three women will remain in a Moscow jail for at least the next six months, until at least January 2013. For singing a song.

The rationale of the court was so stupid as to cause nosebleeds. According to prosecutors, the three women cannot be released because they are somehow to blame for a fatal anti-Muslim assassination and car-bombing that took place in the region of Tartarstan the day before.

"[The prosecutors] believe that the recent murder of the Mufti [Valiulla Yakupov] was provoked by the actions of the defendants, which is why they must remain in custody," said the women's defense attorney Violetta Volkova. The women are charged with "inciting religious hatred."


Within just a few days, the backlash against the courts was intense. Attorneys for the Pussy Riot three have gone on the offensive, demanding the court call both Patriarch Kirill and Putin himself as witnesses.

Alokhina, Samutsevich and Tolokonnikova are reportedly on hunger strike in protest. The morning of the court hearing, a fresh spate of protest developed outside of the courthouse.

The last time the Pussy Riot three's stay in jail was extended (in late June), it led to a large increase in awareness of their case. Amnesty International had already declared them "prisoners of conscience," Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys had already DJ'ed at a benefit for them.

Within days of the June 20th announcement, though, Anti-Flag had recorded and released a cover version of the "Punk Prayer" online for free. Faith No More, during their Moscow show, brought members of Pussy Riot on stage and publicly declared their own support.

A Paris art display was thrown together and unveiled dedicated to the group. Red Hot Chili Peppers' Anthony Kiedis recently performed wearing a homemade Pussy Riot T-shirt, and the whole band has sent personal messages to the women in jail. Franz Ferdinand's members have also spoken out during their own shows.

The support for Pussy Riot among musicians and artists isn't coming out of nowhere. The same day as their most recent day in court, a poll was released from the Levada Center, a sociological research NGO.

The poll revealed that 50 percent of Moscow residents believe the three women should be released, while 36 percent supported prosecution. Meanwhile, Putin's approval ratings in Moscow have dropped to 38 percent.

This, in the context of global dissatisfaction against the status quo--a dissatisfaction that is swiftly finding expression in every city--is not good news for any leader, be they an Obama or a Putin.

This past winter, in the wake of elections rightfully seen as rigged, those cities grew to include Moscow, St. Petersburg, Vladivostok and others. One would think that the wise thing to do would be to pretend everything's gone back to normal, but now, Pussy Riot's public profile has virtually backed Putin into a corner.

If the charges are dropped, the government looks weak. Even if they succeed in jailing the three women, they run the risk of further inflaming public protest.

It's become so obvious that even those in Putin's own camp are publicly voicing concern. Andrey Kuraev, an Orthodox priest and well-known blogger, recently stated that the continued detention of Pussy Riot "only boosts the number of those sympathizing with them and gives weight to the critics of the Church, who point to it as one of the drivers of the prosecution."

Dig up, Vladdy. Dig up.

Note: while this article was going to press, a trial date was rushed through for Tolokonnikova, Samutsevich and Alokhina.

First published at

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

In Defense of El Sistema: The Case For Radical Public Arts

It is surely one of the saddest comments on our bankrupted system that many of America’s city orchestras may be going the way of the dodo bird. It’s been woefully underreported by our news shows and periodicals, but it’s a process that is most definitely real. The recent years of economic crisis have brought with them several strikes, lockouts and labor disputes between highly-trained classical musicians and the management of city orchestras.

Most well-known thus far has been the strike of American Federation of Musicians Local 5 against the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. That strike lasted from October of 2010 to April of 2011, resulting in a partial victory for the musicians. This past January, the New York City Opera locked out its pit musicians. Most recent is Louisville, Kentucky, where in April the city’s symphony signed a contract that, while ending a similar lockout, also beat back significant pay cuts on the musicians.

In all of these struggles, the same contested issues arose: the right of musicians to make a decent living (proposed wage decreases have ranged anywhere from 30% in Detroit to a whopping 80% at the NYC Opera), and whether these musicians should shoulder the weight of management’s incompetence (many city symphonies have been hemorrhaging subscribers). More broadly, the overarching question is whether access to the arts is a privilege or a right, and whether or not any decent society will nurture that right.

One might reasonably point out that America’s symphony crisis is rooted in the decline in favor for classical among younger people in the working and middle classes. This could very well be true, though one should be cautious to not corner working people as the dumb, uncultured, Larry the Cable Guy clones that the one percent wishes us to be.

And yet, there are larger trends at play. As Ira Grupper reported in a recent article on the Louisville lockout, the Jefferson County School Board was as much to blame as the management of the Louisville Orchestra. It was the school board who canceled a program providing for 4th and 5th graders to attend orchestra performances as part of their music appreciation. Before its cancellation, this program had been in existence for over 70 years, and had provided the orchestra with a pillar in its funding.

If kids are imbued with no sense of classical music’s importance, if no attempt is made to place the great composers in some kind of context, can we really be surprised that young people are shrugging their shoulders?

The fact that questions like these even have to be asked is enough to make a true music lover despondent. In a society that needs little from ordinary people aside from their ability to perform monotonous, mind-numbing labor, music and the arts are seen as disposable. The outright assault on working musicians’ wages also reveals that only a tiny fraction of orchestras’ funding comes from local or state governments, despite the fact that most orchestras carry the name of their city. On the whole, these institutions rely on the money of season ticket holders and the patronage of the rich. Another model is desperately needed.

Strangely enough, one doesn’t have to look far to find an example of this alternative model. True, there are examples several decades back in US history--the large public arts projects that emerged as part of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration--but there actually isn’t any need to go even that far back.

Look at, for example, the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The institution itself is little different from most US city orchestras; it’s funding is primarily private, but its innovative programming has allowed it to remain relevant to the LA public. Of particular note is their conductor: Gustavo Dudamel.

At the relatively tender age of thirty-one, Dudamel is among the youngest of the world’s most accomplished classical conductors. It’s not just Los Angeles that has him in high demand; he is also the conductor for the Gothenburg Symphony in Sweden and is frequently requested as a guest around the globe. In fact, his youthful and ebullient charisma has made him something of a rarity for modern classical music: a celebrity!

On June 23rd and 26th, Dudamel performed for a packed house in London’s Royal Festival Hall. He was conducting the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, from his native Venezuela. The performances were called by one Guardian commentator “vivid painting in sound, but also a psychological journey, a journey of the human spirit.” She wasn’t laying it on thick.

The Bolívar Symphony Orchestra is, along with Dudamel himself, perhaps the most widely revered product of the Fundación Musical Simón Bolívar. Colloquially known as “El Sistema,” and funded entirely by the Venezuelan government the FMSB has over the past 37 years succeeded in its task of training literally hundreds of thousands of kids in classical music and technique.

Once the main component of El Sistema, the median age of the Bolívar Symphony is now too high for it to pass as a “youth orchestra.” The symphony’s success and skill, however, meant that El Sistema was loath to simply scatter its musicians to the wind, and so it was graduated en masse to a full, world-touring, professional orchestra. Another youth orchestra has taken its place representing the cream of the crop within Sistema, alongside many others, and there’s plenty of reason to believe that this one will sooner or later also become a force to be reckoned with.

An estimated 70 to 90 percent of Sistema’s students come from poor families. Pianist and scholar José Antonio Abreu, who founded the program in 1975, has stated in the past that "Music has to be recognized as an agent of social development, in the highest sense because it transmits the highest values--solidarity, harmony, mutual compassion.”

It’s this, along with savvy political maneuvering from Abreu, that has kept Sistema going for almost four decades and several administrations. While so many scripted US politicians may give lip-service to “investing in our nation’s children,” Abreu and Sistema have put it into real, tangible practice. More than this, the program has thrived, giving rise to world-class musicians and orchestras like Dudamel and the Bolívar Symphony.

For his own part, Dudamel has infused Sistema’s populist sensibility into his own work in Gothenburg and LA, assembling free concerts in poor Swedish suburbs and pushing those who work at the LA Phil to bring their friends:

"I said, 'We have to do concerts for these people!' Because they are working there, they are giving their life for that hall and they love classical music. It's the same for the community... It's not that people don't like classical music. It's that they don't have the chance to understand and to experience it. Going to a concert can sometimes be very difficult. It can be a long journey. There's the ticket prices. But when the music goes to the community--not the community coming to the concert--they say, 'Wow! I didn't know that this music was so amazing!'”

Not everyone is quite so excited about Sistema’s current iteration, however. In particular, they are upset that the program has received increased funding and attention on the watch of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Gabriela Montero, a world-famous Venezuelan pianist who was an original member of the Bolívar Youth Orchestra, expressed to the New York Times in February that “A lot of us are upset that Chávez has taken Sistema as his own child, and it’s not... It’s almost like he’s stolen something that we lived with for the past 40 years and dirtied it with his presence.”

Montero, whose mother is American, is part of the small clique of elite Venezuelans who, throughout the process of the “Bolívarian revolution” have set out to discredit and slander Chávez in any way possible. Ever since the failed US-backed coup against the president in 2002, he has declared a model of “socialism for the 21st century.” He has seized control of Venezuelan oil companies and supplemented social spending any way he can possibly manage. And, of course, he’s attempted a balancing act of thumbing his nose at Venezuela’s ruling class and its US backers without rocking the boat too much.

Chávez’s public embrace of El Sistema is part and parcel of his overall attempts to bolster his popularity and carry through the establishment of a robust social safety net. In 2010, Sistema was placed under direct control of the president’s office, a move that had many in the bash-Chávez brigade calling “tyrant.”

Gustavo Coronel, an anti-Chávez member of Venezuelan parliament and oil official (hint), wrote in an online editorial for Petroleum World (hint, hint!) that photos of meetings between Abreu and the president “reminded us of other sad times, like Chamberlain’s meetings with Hitler” or “Ezra Pound’s with Mussolini.”

Abreu, who has kept Sistema going through right and left-wing administrations, is notably less histrionic when explaining his own connections with Chávez: “our relationship with the state is very simple. Our kids have the right, the constitutionally given right, to musical education.”

This, as we’ve seen, is the polar opposite of the way symphony orchestras are treated by American society. So too in relation to arts education. Here in the US, the arts are an afterthought, and teaching kids how to appreciate or make it is viewed as a waste of time--a distraction from the task of turning them to the perfect, unquestioning stock-boy and fast-food worker, cubicle jockey and soldier. So it’s little wonder that, just as the nation of Venezuela has found its way into American imperial crosshairs, and even as the whole military industrial edifice finds itself interminably stalled, Sistema has been the target of derision.

Over all of this, the Sistema model has met with great interest from many who would agree with Abreu’s belief in the power of music. Sistema has been the subject of several documentaries over the past several years: The Promise of Music in 2008, El Sistema: Music to Change Life in 2009, and Tocar y Luchar (To Play and to Fight) in 2010. In January, writer Tricia Tunstall released her book Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music.

Dudamel himself has been invited to set up programs emulating El Sistema in the US--most notably in collaboration with the LA Phil and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The major difference of course is that, just as most American city orchestras are primarily funded with private money, so are the Sistema-copy programs.

It is certainly worth noting, however, that like Sistema, most of the kids in these programs are from poor and working class backgrounds. While this is a contradiction that may one day down the line create problems (private funding for programs that help the poor only lasts as long as the philanthropists’ desire for public praise) it does create a crack in the accepted norm.

That crack, generally, is one that presents a threat to the established order here in the United States--particularly when it comes to the narrow dialogue on children’s public access to culture. There used to be a time, believe it or not, when that access was valued; it was one of the motivations behind the Public Broadcasting Service and shows like Sesame Street. It was one of the reasons that every museum sought to include a children’s section. It was respect for a child’s intelligence, creativity and innate curiosity. Though seldom mentioned nowadays, it’s been a focal point of every successful attempt at youth arts education, and is now the focal point in Sistema.

Perhaps most threatening about El Sistema is the fact that it works. Children who have gone through the program haven’t only succeeded; many, like Dudamel, have gone on to become accomplished musicians, composers or conductors. For all the distracting pomp and circumstance spewed by the US ruling elite, their saber rattling only really serves to cover a paralyzing fear of a different economic model--one where people’s needs and talents come first.

That success El Sistema’s success is so stunning makes the tragedy of America’s public arts all the more pronounced. How many Mozarts or Debussys will never have their latent talent nurtured? How many Pavarottis may be left behind because school boards didn’t see them as a worthwhile investment? We may never know the answer to that, but we’ll certainly all be poorer for it. If that isn’t to be the case, then perhaps we would do well to take a cue from our Venezuelan counterparts: in order to play, we need to fight.

First appeared at ZNet

Monday, July 9, 2012

Homophobia Is Bigger Than Hip-Hop

First things first: it takes an immense amount of bravery to come out of the closet. That’s true whether you’re a student, a file clerk or a hip-hop artist. Though the circumstances are all very different, the once certain common denominator for coming out is courage. This is, of course, the main motivation for the amount of support rightfully being offered up to Frank Ocean.

Like all other music in today’s world, Ocean is a contradiction. He is an excellent rapper and lyricist who’s made a name for himself in the indie hip-hop and R&B scenes while at the same time writing lyrics for Justin Bieber, Brandy and Beyonce, and collaborating with Jay-Z and Kanye West. He’s part of the collective of young uber-misanthropes Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (OFGKTA). His relationship with Nas, an MC whose own political and lyrical evolution place him heads above the Odd Future crew, seems to have Ocean straddling a wide spectrum.

Now, he is the first hip-hop artist to come out of the closet while in the midst of his career. On July 4th, Ocean wrote on his Tumblr page that he is bisexual, stating that four years ago he had had a relationship with another man his age. Though he didn’t mention the man’s name, he did thank him for his influence. Ocean also said: “I don’t know what happens now, and that’s alrite [sic]. I don’t have any secrets I need kept anymore… I feel like a free man.”

Some might say that the news of Frank Ocean’s coming out as bisexual might be made “simpler” if he weren’t such a musical contradiction--in particular if he weren’t affiliated with a group who have become infamous for front-loading lyrics that feature gruesome violence against gays and lesbians. But then, the politics of sexual liberation have never been simple. Neither is popular music, or, for that matter, hip-hop.

Timing is everything, and there’s without a doubt some telling timing in Ocean’s decision to come out--namely that it comes barely two months after President Obama himself has announced his support for same-sex marriage. Some have gone so far as to thank Obama for Ocean’s coming out in the first place!

In a certain sense, it’s not so far-fetched. Especially if one accepts the logic that has been promoted for years in the mainstream debate over the rights of LGBTQ people--and the logic of how civil rights are won.

In broad strokes, that logic can be summed up like this: that the leaders know best, that they always have a reason for supporting or opposing something. Those who want just treatment immediately are being reckless, and ironically jeopardizing their rights by standing up for them. If a president changes his position, it is due to his wisdom--a wisdom designed to protect us from ourselves. The state, no matter its laws, can’t be hateful one way or the other because it’s the state, an entity hovering above us all, and it’s our own ideas that are really the problem. The notion of bottom-up movements and cultures providing spaces of enlightenment is right out.

So it’s little wonder that few have asked why despite his own support, Obama continues to drag his feet on signing an executive order around same-sex marriage. The street-level activism that has put years of pressure on the prez has been at best glossed over.


Ocean’s revelations have provoked some thoughtful and interesting debate.’s editorial section carried a piece entitled “5 Things That Will Come Out From Frank Ocean’s Coming Out.” The article points out that there have been countless rumor mills about this or that rapper’s sexuality for a long time, then goes on to say that:

"Hip-Hop will be forced to cool off on the homophobia. The fact is, Hip-Hop has had gay people in it for a very, very long time. That is a fact and far truer than people care to admit. But, somehow, unlike the rest of the world, the Urban Music world has been slow to accept homosexuality. Sure, there have been folks like Little Richard and Sylvester back in the day, but recently, gays in R&B and Rap stay tucked away in the closet. Frank Ocean is at the beginning of his career, but you better believe with Jay-Z and Kanye West as homies, along with Odd Future, maf*ckas are going to have to recognize."

Russell Simmons, in a very brief article of his own, extended his congratulations to Ocean on Global Grind:

"I am profoundly moved by the courage and honesty of Frank Ocean. Your decision to go public about your sexual orientation gives hope and light to so many young people still living in fear. These types of secrets should not matter anymore, but we know they do, and because of that I decided to write this short statement of support for one of the greatest new artists we have."

While both of these tributes are certainly appreciated, they also present a very skewed picture. For one thing, Kanye is already on record declaring that homophobia in hip-hop needs to go. For another, as society’s own ideas have shifted on sexuality, so has the rejection of homophobic ideas within hip-hop--though once again, as in society as a whole, those ideas have not completely disappeared.

Even when it comes to the debate around Odd Future, the tendency has way too often been to place the reactionary ideas squarely on hip-hop’s doorstep with nary a mention of the deep homophobia that prevails in the world at large. Too many commentators, including within hip-hop itself, are willing to present the art-form as a monolithic entity.

A similar dynamic took hold two months ago when Tom Gabel of agit-punkers Against Me! announced her intention to begin hormone therapy and to live as a woman named Laura Jane Grace. There was plenty of thought-provoking and incisive commentary on the matter, including many in the scene asking themselves about the nature of machismo in punk rock. There was little acknowledgement that, along with this machismo, punk also provided a space to question dominant sexual mores (Tom Robinson, Jayne County, Genesis P-Orridge and others).

Looking from the outside, punk must have looked like little else than a bunch of dumb white kids looking to beat up anyone not manly enough. Now, this same one-sidedness has been amplified and sharpened around Ocean and hip-hop.

While Ocean’s announcement is surely significant, it’s not as singular as one might be led to believe. Note the wording in the third paragraph of this article: “[Ocean] is the first hip-hop artist to come out of the closet while in the midst of his career.

In other words, the hip-hop world is filled with queer and trans MC’s, but most of them have been out before they started recording and touring. The Lost Bois from DC, New Orleans’ Big Freedia, and countless others from various underground scenes, many of whom can rhyme with the best of them. This is befitting a sub-culture that’s grown from a cry against invisibility in the South Bronx to a global language encompassing a diverse array of experiences--racially, economically, and sexually.

The difference, though, is that the major labels have no idea what to do with artists that push sexual taboos--no matter what we’re told about hyper-sexualized teen pop stars. Record companies have spent years molding all popular music into something that is easily consumed and tossed aside; ideas of sexual liberation don’t square with this.

Onus for all this falls squarely on the shoulders of the execs and moguls, who have a fundamentally opposing interest in music to that of the artists. And so while Russell Simmons may have rushed to be one of the first to congratulate Ocean, nobody seems to be asking why Simmons, when he was head of Def Jam, never signed any openly queer MC’s himself.

Nobody appears to be pointing out that homophobia isn’t specific or unique to hip-hop, that it’s woven into society’s fabric and has to be torn out by the root. And, of course, it’s not pointed out that there is a ruling clique of politicians and industry moguls who materially benefit from bigoted ideas running through society, whatever their own race or sexuality.


This skewed picture, at its most extreme, portrays on the one side a mostly tolerant and accepting musical mainstream ready to join hands and sing kumbaya across all lines of sexuality, while on the other side of “urban” music is an endless array of MC’s searching for the word that best rhymes with “faggot”. The underlying message isn’t very thinly veiled; we heard the same script with different actors when African-Americans in California were blamed for passing Prop 8.

It’s a dangerous assumption to make. Not only does the “hip-hop equals homophobia” equation paint with far too broad a brush--forgetting, for example, that historically Blacks have been the most enthusiastic supporters of civil rights legislation. But that same equation lets off the hook a broad structure that remains profoundly unequal and discriminatory toward anyone who deviates from the norm of straightness.

Harvey Milk was murdered by a white former cop. It was a duo of young white men who beat Matthew Shepard and left him to die on a fence in Wyoming. It was a group of older white people who called CeCe McDonald and her friends “niggers” and “faggots” before attacking them and forcing her to defend herself. And it was a white prosecutor who refused to drop the charges of manslaughter against CeCe.

None of these cases are to say that queer-bashing or transphobia, wherever they may rear their ugly heads, should be given a pass from anyone of any race. It will certainly be interesting to see if Ocean’s newfound public sexual identity will have any bearing on OFWGKTA’s future material (I won’t hold my breath, though).

We live in a “post-civil rights” era, however; one in which politicians will gladly use hip-hop culture as a proxy for African-America in their push to divide and conquer. Readers only have to think back to the fallout from Don Imus’ “nappy-headed hos” comment in 2007 for an example of this. The shock-jock’s excuse was that rappers use the same language. Within a few weeks, Imus was out of the spotlight and there were hearings being held on the Hill about hip-hop’s “depravity.” What could have been a national dialogue about structural sexism was now twisted into a conversation about the misogyny of Black men. Obama, right at the start of his presidential campaign, was perhaps more eager than anyone to join that chorus.

A far more effective tactic could be seen last summer, when none other than Odd Future were announced as headliners at Chicago’s Pitchfork Music and Arts Festival. Though the awful misogyny and gay-bashing of the group’s lyrics were rightfully highlighted by activists, they were careful to not let their arguments turn into ones about hip-hop in particular. Rather, the organizers of the Pitchfork Festival themselves were targeted and called out for denying domestic violence and queer community organizations table space in the fest. It was this way that these same groups were able to turn attention toward the sexual violence that is endemic in society as a whole.

And now, as it turns out, such an argument has proven prescient. If a bisexual man like Frank Ocean can find himself affiliated with a group who so casually use anti-gay violence in their lyrics, then it goes to show just how deeply rooted homophobia is in our world. It also speaks toward the urgent need for an alternative that points to the common interests of ordinary LGBTQ people and working people of color.

That’s the reality of the system we live in, and the conversation can’t stop at any one style or culture. Homophobia, bigotry and the struggle against them are, after all, bigger than hip-hop.

First published at Dissident Voice