Sunday, December 30, 2012

Lupe Against the World

There’s been a lot of controversy, debate, and straight up drama surrounding Lupe Fiasco around the release of his most recent album, Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1. This is, honestly, rather true to form for the rapper. Lupe has a real knack for provoking debate with both his music and his comments, if for no other reason than the fact that both willingly draw outside the lines of what hip-hop is “supposed” to be.

First came the Chief Keef beef, with Keef physically threatening Lupe over Twitter the day after he had told reporters that Keef “scares” him. Keef has become one of the most controversial rappers to emerge from Chicago this past summer. His uber-violent rhymes have once again provoked that tired debate over what is “wrong” with hip-hop culture, and all the not-so-thinly veiled racism that comes along with it.

Keef later claimed that his Twitter account was hacked, and that it wasn’t he who threatened to “smack” Lupe next time he saw him. This didn’t stop Lupe from sending out a series of increasingly agitated Tweets that first attempted to play the moral high-ground to Keef and culminated in his threatening to retire from hip-hop altogether (and not for the first time either). Though the Twitter war lasted all of a day, the chatter it caused in the blogosphere and in entertainment media was nearly enough to overshadow the release of Food & Liquor II.

Then came another worn-out hip-hop chestnut: sampling rights. “Around My Way (Freedom Ain’t Free,” the first single released from F&L II, sampled the iconic sax-and-drums beat from Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.).” Pete Rock, once again over Twitter, expressed straight outrage at Lupe’s decision to sample the song (ignoring the fact that “T.R.O.Y.” itself was taken from music written by Tom Scott and James Brown). Though Pete apologized soon after, the relationship between he and Lupe remains rocky.

As if this weren’t enough, Lupe then made a rather poor choice for the album’s second single, “Bitch Bad.” The song, an unsuccessful attempt at deconstructing the use of the word “bitch” in hip-hop, ended up backfiring. The song’s refrain, “bitch bad, woman good, lady better,” was interpreted -- rightly -- as reinforcing the same standards that Lupe was trying to break down. Says Nikeeta Slade writing about the song in Red Wedge magazine:

“This hierarchy in which ‘lady’ is ‘better’ ultimately divvies up which women are worthy of being treated like human beings and which ones are not. Ideas of ‘proper’ womanhood and ladylikeness are too subjective and ever changing to use them as standard measures for deciding which women deserve to have their humanity and dignity honored. The politics of respectability always seem to dictate that we tell young girls and women how to be more ‘respectable’ but the more apt and important message is that all girls and women are worthy of respect.”

Slade’s criticisms are spot-on. Lupe may have been raised steeped in radical thought (his parents were both Black Panthers in the ‘60s), but that doesn’t by itself immunize him from backward ideas. The same is true for all of us; history is filled with those trying to fight oppression who end up slipping into some of the very same ideas.

Wedged in the middle of these odd bookends, Lupe has once again found himself at the ever-shifting and precarious tipping point between hip-hop’s pain and promise. It’s difficult to look at F&L II separately from all of this (and why should we after all?). The tragedy here is that there’s a lot on the album that can solidly stand on its own as great hip-hop.


Stepping back and merely looking at the album’s title, there are a couple things that stand out immediately. One: this is “the great American rap album.” Two: it’s only the first part. The second part of F&L II is scheduled to be released later in 2013. Now that the considerable amount of dust that was kicked up this past fall has settled, we can actually ask ourselves whether this album lives up to its pretense? Or, alternately, has it at least begun to carve out a place so that years down the line, when we look at both parts, we can see this was a turning point for rap music?

Fiasco is definitely aware of the need for his genre and style to turn a corner from the obsession with “hip-hop presidency” that has been bogging the mainstream for the past four years even as the term itself has faded into distant memory. The album’s opening track is a poem by Lupe’s sister Ayesha Jaco stirring ghetto poverty, US empire and the racist killings of Trayvon Martin and Rekia Boyd into a climactic hope that “the revolution is becoming second nature.” There’s little more than Ayesha’s rhymes and background street noise here, and it sets the tone of the album well.

From there, Lupe takes over in “Strange Fruition”:

“Now I can't pledge allegiance to your flag
Cause I can't find no reconciliation with your past
When there was nothing equal for my people in your math
You forced us in the ghetto and then you took our dads
The belly of the beast, these streets are demons' abs
I'm telling you that setup in them sit-ups is so sad”

Lines like these are Lupe at his best: symbolic, clever, and yet, somehow, incredibly plainspoken and almost humble in his delivery. The same goes for many of the album’s other songs, whose lyrics balance between the personal and political in a deft enough way that neither overtakes the other, and both remain genuine.

To some listeners, it might seem that Lupe can’t quite let some things go. He’s aware of this (his response to “Lupe rappin’ bout the same shit” is “that’s cuz ain’t shit changed”). And some of it seems to spring from the fact his position -- that of a rapper whose mainstream success hasn’t cowed his social consciousness -- is unfortunately somewhat unique. Fifteen, twenty years ago, it wasn’t so difficult to find rappers who dared to lay down a few harsh truths about white America. Now, after two decades of music industry consolidation, saying these kinds of things makes one a target.

Once again, Lupe is conscious of this. In “ITAL (Roses)” he mentions the gasps provoked in 2011 when he called out President Obama’s silence over Israel’s bombardment of Gaza: “Called the President a terrorist / Corporate sponsors like, how the fuck you gon' embarrass us?”

Much of what mars this album flows from the same corporate reality. Lupe’s previous album, Lasers, put excellent tracks like “Words I Never Said” and “All Black Everything” next to transparently “radio-friendly” songs. Lupe fought for two years for Atlantic Records to release Lasers, and even then they would only do so if much of the album was watered down. This same pressure to put quantity of units sold before the quality of the album is likely at play in F&L II’s weakest moments.

The aforementioned controversies that have dogged the album, while frustratingly tabloid-esque in their content, provide a bit of a window into this. Take, for example, the hubbub around the audio for “Around My Way.” The song is a solid listen. Lupe’s lyrics are eloquent and sharp, and they without a doubt mix with the saxophone soul of the beats. But those very same beats aren’t so much reappropriated with producers B-Side and Simonsayz’s own twist as they are lifted almost wholesale from “T.R.O.Y.”

Though there are plenty of strong moments on the album, those points when creative beats and Lupe’s unique rhymes manage to collide, there are also significant missteps. Sometimes, such as “Battle Scars,” the beats are there but the lyrics get lazy. Others, like “Cold War,” are just the inverse. There’s room for a lot more originality here, and facing the facts, that room might not get taken up until the label execs are knocked back on their heels yet again.

So what’s the problem? Simply that while Lupe has refused to let himself be completely gentrified, he’s still only one person against a whole system’s bulldozers. The “great American rap album” this isn’t. That being said, hip-hop is a lot richer to have artists in its midst still trying to reach those heights.

First published at WIN Magazine

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Spirit of Strummer

Five years ago it was a lot easier to find crude hagiography dedicated to the late, great Joe Strummer. It’s still easy, but the proliferation has slowed a bit. The music industry and all its merch-hungry incarnations loves that Strummer is dead, because it gave them the long-awaited opportunity to make a buck off of his name and image without as much worry about the man himself objecting. The industry may be kind to its living conformists, but it knows very well that the money to be made is off the dead rebels.

Now, with the ten-year anniversary of Strummer’s untimely death upon us -- he died a few days before Christmas of a rare and undiagnosed heart condition -- the output isn’t quite as everywhere as it was even a few years ago. Part of it is likely that Sony and the rest ran out of stuff to release. The Clash’s catalog was fairly deep, but not that deep. Strummer only released four full albums of material by himself (with the Mescaleros and the Latino Rockabilly War). And you can only do so many reissues until people stop paying attention. Some time after the release of the Live at Shea Stadium album, the companies realized there wasn’t a hell of alot more they could do past the run-of-the-mill t-shirts and such.

There’s another possible reason that we haven’t heard as much from Joe by the way of the industry lately. And that’s because in this age of vicious austerity and explosive struggle rocking the planet, Joe’s work is probably more relevant than at any other  time in decades, and certainly more than any time since his death.

It’s just a hunch; but it’s a widely known truth that capitalists will sell us the rope we use to hang them. However while shouts of riots, strikes and revolutions can be easily brushed aside during periods when not much is happening, they’re a lot harder to dismiss when they’re actually happening. And well, they are. What’s more, we know for a fact that the rich and powerful are scared shitless by their existence. A soundtrack is the last thing they feel they need to provide us.

Think about the world that the young John Graham Mellor entered into as he began to morph into the Telecaster toting missionary known as Joe Strummer. Britain wasn’t so much an empire anymore as it was an empty concrete shell wrapped in the Union Jack. Recession and depression, racial scapegoating prodded on by a racist elite, revolutions popping off abroad, complemented by a rash of strikes and riots in everything from mining to film processing labs.

And yet, if one enduring trait could be found in Strummer’s songs -- from the raw punk anthems through incorporations of reggae, soul, hip-hop, bhangra and calypso -- it would have to be a righteous optimism. A sober honesty about how nasty and brutish the world could be tempered by the steadfast faith that those of us suffocating the most under the boot might have what it takes to win it all back.

Some people have said that this is why Strummer was the consummate “global citizen.” In his biography of the man, Redemption Song, Chris Salewicz recalls the altar at the front of the church festooned with all the flags of the world. It was befitting for a man who at once loved the rock and roll and boogie-woogie of the United States, but also convinced his bandmate Mick Jones to retool his “I’m So Bored With You” into “I’m So Bored With the USA.” So little tolerance did he have for the Yankee dictators of the world.

Yes, Joe was born in Turkey, grew up in Mexico and travelled around as a kid thanks to his diplomat dad, but many of his closest friends recall behavior from him that was stereotypically “British.” By that same turn, he was a man who loathed those who wore their “Britishness” as a badge of authority -- like the National Front and other racists -- and sympathized with the likes of Victor Jara, the Sandinistas and Caribbean immigrants taking on the police at the Notting Hill Carnival.

He wasn’t just an internationalist, but a bottom-up internationalist, which is a crucial distinction (after all, the likes of Tony Blair and George Bush, as well as others of an even more liberal sheen, are perfectly willing to bomb the hell out of other nations in the name of “internationalism”). To him, it was the people that made it all tick. The one quote that seems to sum this up came from an interview he did not long before his passing -- a quote that’s become probably one of his best-known:

I'd like to say that people people can change anything they want to; and that means everything in the world. Show me any country and there'll be people in it. And it's the people that make the country. People have got to stop pretending they're not on the world. People are running about following their little tracks. I am one of them. But we've all gotta stop just stop following our own little mouse trail. People can do anything; this is something that I'm beginning to learn. People are out there doing bad things to each other; it's because they've been dehumanized. It's time to take that humanity back into the centre of the ring and follow that for a time. Greed... it ain't going anywhere! They should have that on a big billboard across Times Square. Think on that. Without people you're nothing.

From Willesden to Cricklewood, from Tottenham to Tahrir

Now think of how many Clash songs came to mind when London exploded in an uprising against poverty and police repression last summer. If you’re a particularly socially engaged reader, you can probably think of a whole number that were posted on your Facebook wall in reference to the riots: “London’s Burning,” “Guns of Brixton,” “Career Opportunities.” Something about the place-specificity of the band’s lyrics and the chaos of the sound just made sense in relation to the fire and rage gripping Britain’s streets.

There is something particularly satisfying in ruminating on what Joe might think of the rebellions gripping the Middle East and Arab world at this moment. Plenty of conservatives have taken the lyrics of “Rock the Casbah” as proof that the group was keen to some kind of “Islamic despotism.” And there’s a certain logic to this if you’re listening to the song in the context of all the never-ending sabre rattling over Iran. Whether willful misinterpretation or not, lots of cheerleaders for empire have used the song as a kind of cultural rallying point.

That was what happened when a few smartasses wrote “Rock the Casbah” on the side of a missile headed for Baghdad during the first Gulf War. Upon hearing that this had happened, Strummer was said to have cried. According to some friends, he pondered whether he supported the imminent invasion of Afghanistan after the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001. It didn’t last very long, though; within a few months he was telling author Antonino D’Ambrosio that there was no way he could support such a venture:

When I first met Strummer in 2002, one of the first things we discussed was the suppression of countervoices as the United States banged the drum for war, made the Patriot Act law and established the Department of Homeland Security. He understood that there was a very real -- and frightening -- possibility that music like his would not only be censored but held up as subversive or dangerous.

Context matters, though, and for that same reason, “Rock the Casbah” has a much more prescient meaning now in light of the uprisings gripping Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and the like. The way that these millions of young Arabs are rocking their own Casbah is probably the kind of thing Joe would have loved. And perhaps wrote a few songs celebrating too.

There’s likewise something quite striking in Strummer’s fear of censorship (which he also covers in “Rock the Casbah”) nowadays, when things like the Patriot Act seem quaint in comparison to the likes of the National Defense Authorization Act, the detention of whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and the hunt for Julian Assange. In some ways, the world has become an even scarier place than when Strummer passed away. But, as Michael Franti of Spearhead reminds us, “The underlying message that you get from Strummer’s music is the world can be a terrible, scary place but it is worth fighting for.”

People can change everything

It seems almost idiotically obvious to point out that there are countless punk bands who took a cue from Strummer’s rebel stance. Lots of these acts adhere to a blueprint of punk rock that Strummer himself was rejecting as early as the songwriting for London Calling.

The musical palette was even wider when he emerged from his “wilderness years” and got the Mescaleros together. The three albums that Joe put out with this group are punk and aren’t at the same time. The rebel attitude and pride at being dangerously down-and-out were there, but the songs are at one turn dub, the next folk, the next just straight-up rock and roll.

“We exist in this kind of nether world beyond MTV where only hipsters venture,” he told interviewer Dan Grunebaum in November of 2001. And it’s true; most of today’s music industry wouldn’t touch a genre-bending figure like Strummer or a band like the Clash with a ten foot pole. However -- and this is quite interesting to this writer -- today’s “hipsters” don’t really exist in the way they did in 2001. Whether Joe was talking specifically of skinny jeans and Lucky Strike cigarettes isn’t quite clear, but while the underground sensibilities remain, economic crisis has fractured this most post-modern and rootless of sub-cultures.

What makes this germane is that while so much of the Pitchfork style has drifted into a snide, upper-middle class elitism, what remains of “indie” culture is core of disaffected and cast out youth trying to survive a world of recession, debt and enough systemic existential threats to boggle the mind. Much like Strummer’s own contemporaries when the Clash first got together in the mid ‘70s.

This is almost certainly why the sometimes isolated torch-bearers of aesthetically radical politics have looked to Strummer’s work for inspiration -- and even a template at times. “Straight to Hell” is definitely a brilliant song, but it’s not exactly one of the Clash’s better-known. That didn’t stop M.I.A. from sampling and twisting it around into her smash-hit declaration of war from the Third World: “Paper Planes.”

More than just a smart use of sound, “Paper Planes” seemed to almost turn “Straight to Hell” inside out. From a western indictment of western empire and the thousands “Amerasians” left fatherless by GIs in Indochina, M.I.A. managed to transform it into a confirmation that the denizens of the developing world (perhaps including a few of the Amerasians) are indeed a threat... to those looking to loot and plunder their towns and homes.

There’s an added bonus in M.I.A.’s use of the Clash’s music. In a 2000 interview with Punk Planet’s Joel Schalit, Strummer lamented how so much of the mainstream narrative of hip-hop’s early years overlooks the role that the Clash played in it:

Don’t forget that our entry into hip-hop culture was back in 1980 with "Magnificent Seven." It was a huge hit in New York that summer on WBLS [the primary ‘urban music’ radio station, and the only that played any rap back then]. I want to point that out because we always get passed over in these hip-hop histories.

Seven years later, albeit in a rather roundabout way, Strummer’s work was finally getting its due vis a vis hip-hop.

That kind of acknowledgement isn’t hard to miss in political hip-hop if one knows where to look. One of this year’s most notable releases has been Sorry To Bother You by the Coup -- whose frontman, Boots Riley, also did a cover of “Paper Planes” with Street Sweeper Social Club a few years back. Anyone who searches online for images of “Boots Riley Strummer shirt” is bound to find a pic of Boots wearing an olive green military style shirt with the word “Strummer” stenciled on the pocket.

As the story goes (and this has been verified by Boots himself), the shirt once belonged to Joe himself, who years ago gave it to Billy Bragg, who then gave it to Boots. The symbolism couldn’t be more poignant or perfect. There, in a nutshell, is where Joe Strummer’s legacy is really living. It’s living in the many artists who aren’t just looking to “do something different” in their music, but are looking to the world first and allowing it to change them before they pick up a microphone. So much better may their art move others to change this tortured, beautiful world of ours.

First published in Red Wedge

Monday, December 3, 2012

Listening to Music While Black

Jordan Davis was shot to death because his music was too loud. It wasn’t because he was aggressive toward the man who killed him. It wasn’t because Davis had a shotgun; police have found no such gun. No, Jordan Davis, a seventeen year old high school student, was shot because his music was too loud. And, of course, because he was Black.

Davis was shot over the Thanksgiving weekend in a Jacksonville, Florida convenience store parking lot. He and some friends were sitting in an SUV listening to the stereo. Michael Dunn, whose fiance was inside the store, stopped and asked if Davis and his friends could turn down the music.

The teens obliged. When they turned it back up, however, things evidently got heated. Public details are still sketchy, but what’s certain is that Dunn went to his glovebox, pulled out his 9-millimeter, and fired eight times into the SUV. Two of the bullets struck Davis, who was in the back seat, and killed him.

Dunn has been arrested, but his defense team have wasted no time in trying to slander Davis and his friends, in order to paint him as a dangerous thug. They claimed that Davis had rolled down his window and pointed a shotgun at him before opening the door. Once again, no gun has been found, either in his friend’s SUV or in the surrounding area. Dunn is pleading not guilty and claiming immunity under the state’s infamous “stand your ground” law.

And having a red-faced goon like O'Reilly near your network isn't a good thing either.
It’s a script we’ve heard recited so many times before. Parallels have rightly been drawn between Davis’ murder and that of Trayvon Martin this past February. Both involve apparently unarmed, seventeen year old Black males, profiled by an armed, white self-appointed vigilante.

And, significantly enough, both involved some kind of cultural marker so often used in racist America to deem Blacks a “threat.” In Martin’s case it was a hoodie pulled up over his head. For Davis, loud music is evidently enough to signify you as a potential murderer.

Invoking Emmett Till, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry put it succinctly: “Then, it was a whistle at a white woman. Now, it’s a hooded sweatshirt or music being played loudly from a car.”

None of the coverage of Davis’ murder has revealed what artist or song was blasting out the car’s speakers. But it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what kind of music raises the umbrage of a forty-five year old white gun collector in Florida.

People like Michael Dunn obviously don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist in the midst of a hodgepodge of ideas constantly swirling around all forms of culture, including (and perhaps most especially) surrounding “urban” music genres like R&B or rap. Despite raking in untold billions for record labels, the styles are still looked upon with suspicion by a segment of mainstream (read: white) America. In fact, it seems that as many of the most right-wing ideas are pushed to the margins, their most prominent spokespeople have become increasingly vicious in their scapegoating of hip-hop.

Take, for example, Bill O’Reilly. The nut-job face of Fox News loves -- seriously, loves -- to go after hip-hop culture. Over the years he’s scapegoated Snoop Dogg, Common, Jay-Z, Ludacris, Nas, Lupe Fiasco and other rappers on his show. More recently he’s used wide support for Obama among rap’s most famous as a way to paint the prez as the great enabler of food stamps and welfare.

Writing for the Grio, Camilo Smith sums up this hatred:

“He knows conservative Fox viewers love to be stirred by the other world that is hip-hop. No matter how mainstream the culture and music has become, there’s still a segment of (White America) who thinks that rap is all guns, gangsters, strippers and saggy jeans, and only focused on the worst of black America.”

This, of course, dovetails well with O’Reilly’s recent explanation that Obama’s reelection; that America isn’t as white as it once was, and that young people of color “want stuff.”

Not that liberalism has exactly provided these loose demographics with all the “stuff” they want, or, for that matter, need. Black unemployment has gone up on Obama’s watch. Now with his “grand bargain” on the horizon, his potential cuts to Medicare and Social Security will disproportionately affect poor people of color.

His milquetoast responses to Trayvon’s murder, compounding his relative silence on the murders of Oscar Grant, Sean Bell and others like him, have revealed him to be about as concerned with racist violence as most past presidents (which is to say not at all). During his first term, the percentage of people who hold a “negative view” of African Americans actually went up, from a slight minority to a slight majority.

It has to be said that this isn’t exactly a surprise. Shoulder brushes aside, Obama has been all-too-willing to play the personal responsibility card when it comes to issues of racism and poverty. And just as with any moment when racism has come to the forefront, Obama has done little more than shrug any time hip-hop has been under attack.

One might go so far to say that, in fact, Obama has merely enabled America’s right-wing to keep up their bigotry. It wouldn’t be the first time a liberal president has done so, would it?

Bring it back to Jacksonville. Bring it back to the mind of Michael Dunn, a middle-aged white man who resides in a privileged and heavily white section of Florida (Satellite Beach, where Dunn resides, is almost 95 percent caucasian). He’s the vice president of a software development company, is a lifelong gun collector and member of the National Rifle Association. Here is a man who falls into an almost textbook example of the white well-to-do conservative, clinging to his privilege (or in his mind his rights) against his own delusions of an America under attack from thuggish hordes of welfare recipients. It’s not hard to see why to this man, a bit of booming bass in a parking lot might be the sound of his own march into oblivion.

Perhaps Dunn could hear in each rhyming couplet the imminent tearing down of the walls surrounding his own gated community world. He could have just ignored the music, just as George Zimmerman could have seen a young man with a hood pulled up over his head and decided to mind his own business. But neither Zimmerman nor Dunn did that. Instead, they saw something “Black.” Then they saw red.

“Listening to Music While Black.” It may very well take its place in the vernacular next to “Driving While Black” and “Walking While Black,” yet another activity that African Americans may have to look over their shoulder while doing. And once again, we’re forced to ask exactly what it is that African Americans can do safely in a country so deeply racist as the United States.

First published at Red Wedge magazine