Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Why Taglit-Birthright Doesn't Deserve Hip-Hop

Six months ago, I ran into someone I knew in college. She was a couple of years ahead of me, but in the same department. During my sophomore year, she lived in the apartment adjacent to mine. I never had a particular affinity with her; we ran in different circles. Nonetheless, I thought it would be polite to simply catch up and exchange the usual niceties.

She asked what I was up to. I told her I was writing a book about how the global upsurge against neoliberalism is shaping music, starting with the Arab revolutions. She balked, but only a slight bit, and I figured she just found it a little strange.

Then I asked what she was doing. Turns out she worked for Taglit-Birthright, the non-profit organization that sponsors heritage trips to Israel for young Jews in the United States in Canada. “So I know a thing or two about what the Arabs are up to,” She said. “But then I’m biased.” The conversation didn’t last much longer.

I didn’t think about her again until last week when +972 Magazine reported that Taglit-Birthright, in collaboration with a group called “Artists 4 Israel,” was now planning tours“specifically offered to hip-hop heads.” That’s right: hip-hop tours of Israel. A music and style that gestated in reaction to the willful neglect and apartheid treatment of African-Americans and people of color is being used to burnish the image of an apartheid regime among young people.


It might be easy to ask how something like this could happen. But hip-hop can be treated as a commodity and have its soul sucked out just like any music genre. Ironies like this can be found in the use of Clash songs to sell mobile phones, 50 Cent selling Vitamin Water and just about any example of a rock star endorsing a product assembled in third world sweatshops.

Still, there’s something that stings about the brazenness that this kind of ploy requires. The use of hip-hop to sell the continuation of Zionist colonialism is particularly irksome considering the way in which Palestine’s own flourishing rap scene has gained worldwide fame of late. DAM, Sabreena Da Witch, Palestinian Rapperz, not to mention the instinctive solidarity with Palestine that many artists associated with the Arab spring evince in their rhymes. This vein of sympathy has even made its way to the mainstream with Lupe Fiasco’s line “Gaza Strip was getting bombed, Obama didn’t say shit,” on top of many other even more straightforward statements of support for the Palestinians.

Contrast this with the recent revelations of the ongoing dehumanization of Palestinians practiced by Israeli soldiers. Try though they might to make the crosshair Instagram photointo an isolated incident, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg, and it’s getting more attention than ever.

Taglit-Birthright is complicit in this kind of dehumanization. Kyle Matzpen (not his real name), a Jewish anti-Zionist and Palestinian solidarity activist was coerced into going on one such ten-day trip by his parents as a way to “knock some sense into him.” His trip began, interestingly enough, right as Israel launched its “Operation Cast Lead” attack on Gaza in 2008. As he recounts:

The amount of racism I heard on the trip, from both my fellow Birthrighteers and the actual American and Israeli tour guides, was mind-boggling.

For example, a tour guide informed us as our bus was driving on a Jewish-only access highway through the West Bank that Palestinians “went to the bathroom in the street and bred like rabbits.”

One afternoon, they took us to the Israeli-Lebanese border to get a better view of “the enemy.” From our vantage point next to a rather plush Israeli suburban town — which wouldn’t look out of place in Orange County — we were assured by our tour guide that somewhere in those bombed-out buildings in Lebanon, Hezbollah was waiting to kill us. The tour guide then taught us about the dangers of Islam. He said, “To me, ‘radical Islam’ is a misnomer since 80 percent of imams preach Jihad. Just saying.”

I would find out after returning that, oddly enough, at the same time that this lecture was happening, a UN-controlled school in Gaza that was being used to distribute aid was being shelled, killing 40 civilians…

As the slaughter in Gaza was intensifying, and bits of information began floating in to us by rumor, the trip organizers found it necessary to intensify our propaganda education with “structured discussions” and a lecture from an IDF lieutenant colonel. We were told candidly that the siege was not, at its core, a response to the rocket attacks, but was an attempt to wipe out Hamas — to “squash out the cockroaches.”

To quote the lieutenant colonel, “We gave them [the Gazans] democracy, and the land, and opened up the borders to goods and services, and what do they do to repay us? They voted for Hamas. They failed our test…I don’t understand what they mean by ‘innocent bystanders’ in Gaza, because they all voted for Hamas.”

This is the kind of hard ideological barrage that Birthright participants have crammed down their throat on these trips, despite public claims that they are “non-ideological” in nature. Replace “Muslim” or “Palestinian” with “Black” and you start to get a clear idea of how utterly offensive it is that hip-hop culture be used as, in Artists 4 Israel’s own words, “the security fence against cultural terrorism.”

Unreconstructed gutter racism

Thinking about all of this — the absurdity of Taglit-Birthright and hip-hop being used in the same short story let alone sentence — my thoughts naturally drifted back to the old college acquaintance that I had run into before. Then to my college years themselves. The small performing arts department we were both in was well-known around campus (and it was a big campus) for parties with elaborate themes. Some were innocuous enough: the yearly Halloween party, the spaceman party, the pirate party (that one was actually pretty fun).

Then there were the ones that not only lacked creativity but were outright offensive: the “cowboys and Indians” party, the “pimp and ho” party. These were party themes more befitting a fraternity of good ol’ boys in their unreconstructed gutter racism. I tried to steer clear of these events; I did go to a few out of sheer curiosity and to see if maybe there was more to it than just the idiotic themes, but always found myself leaving not long after. Whatever it might say about her, Ms. Birthright was an attendee at many of these parties, though to be fair I can only speculate as to what she thought of their racial implications.

In recent years, colleges have rightfully caught a lot of flak for allowing parties with racist themes to go off. Fraternities have provoked protests from Black and Latino student unions for these racist soirees. And every Halloween it seems like we’re bound to be treated to photos of some white kid slapping on blackface for his Lil Wayne costume. The thing that seemed ludicrous to me then, as it does now, is that most of these folks who would dress in the pimp costumes would be getting down to the likes of Jay-Z and Three 6 Mafia that very night. They’d count hip-hop acts among their favorites, and yet would see no bigotry in their behavior. It’s a warped irony, and on an ideological level is not too far from the idea of using hip-hop to promote racist apartheid. This, of course, flies in the face of hip-hop’s own roots.

Still, if one is possible, then the other isn’t too far off. Both navigate in the same superstructure where anything rebellious is seized upon by the powers that be like vultures to a fresh carcass. Give them enough time and they can shape anything real into a gimmick — or worse.

Colonizing hip-hop

This isn’t to say all is lost. I have a hard time picturing Artists 4 Israel’s hip-hop themed trips being very successful. On top of that, there is, as always, the potential to organize, as many hip-hop artists themselves doing. Look, for example, at the hip-hop tours of the West Bank and other brilliant work that organizations like Existence is Resistance are doing.

In the 1970s, after Eric Clapton went on a drunken tirade at a performance in Birmingham, England in which he shouted “we need to get the wogs out, get the coons out” and of the need to “keep Britain white” before it becomes a “black colony,” artists and activists called him out: “Come on, Eric, own up… Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist.” And thus, Rock Against Racism, one of the most successful progressive cultural movements in history, was born.

It’s fitting that they called Clapton out as a “colonist,” because if there’s one word that describes what Taglit-Birthright and Artists 4 Israel are up to, it’s colonialism. The continued colonizing of Palestine and the colonizing of hip-hop. It’s the systematic whitewashing of a system that breeds racist brutality and the history of a style that at its best speaks more to the struggle of Palestinians than perhaps anyone else. Honestly, it’s probably also a fitting description for the thirty-year push at filing all of hip-hop’s dangerous edges off in order to make it more marketable. How else can we account for college kids that have no bones with engaging in racist behavior and yet call themselves “fans”?

Never was there a more stark illustration of the need for cultural boycott of Israel. Tours like these are designed to make a colonial state appear more culturally sophisticated and tolerant. A movement that can deny Israel its cultural smokescreen is crucial. And in the same fell swoop, we might just save the soul of our favorite music too.

First published at the Electronic Intifada

Monday, February 11, 2013

Bye-Bye Black Byrd

When we speak of jazz, we must speak of Donald Byrd. When we speak of the style's relevance and evolution, his name has to be up there. Born Donaldson Toussaint L’Ouverture Byrd II, his output oddly befits the Haitian revolutionary for whom he was named. If jazz was a leap forward in African American music, then Byrd was one of that select, forward-thinking few bold enough to take what was handed him and keep running with it, and to hell with the nay-sayers. His death on February 4th at the age of 80 leaves a gaping hole in the art-form he helped shape.

He was born in Detroit in 1932. His father was a Methodist minister and amateur musician who encouraged young Donald to pursue both education and the trumpet. Byrd dove into both with vigor, and by the time he graduated high school he had already performed with legendary vibraphonist Lionel Hampton.

In the 1955 he moved to New York City in order to pursue a Masters from the Manhattan School of Music. By the end of the year he had joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers group. He only stayed with the Messengers a handful of months, and went on to play with Max Roach, Sonny Rollins and, of course, John Coltrane... all this in less than two years!

These experiences essentially meant that Byrd had been thoroughly steeped in the bebop tradition. This is significant, as bebop itself was a pivotal moment for jazz; it was a moment where Black musicians were consciously reconnecting their music with a sense of both seriousness and improvisation. Gillespie, Parker, Monk and Roach. These players didn’t view themselves as entertainers but artists.

Some of this spirit must have rubbed off on the young Donald Byrd. As in all genres of music, here have always been those looking to draw a line under jazz’s current state and definitively state that anything beyond those parameters isn’t “pure.” These are the timid souls who want music easily compartmentalized; all the easier it will be to sell or stamp into a never-changing tome of music history.

Byrd wasn’t one of these types. He took the scholarly and historic importance of jazz very seriously; in the mid 60’s as Civil Rights morphed into Black Power he campaigned hard for the colleges at which he taught to bring jazz history into the curriculum. But he also seemed to understand that no music can be relevant unless its own practitioners are willing upset the set-up every now and again.

Stepping back, Byrd’s nuanced and eclectic musical ethos seems to almost perfectly mirror these times. The boom in Black consciousness and the anti-colonial struggles inspired many to turn their attention to Africa, and Byrd became fascinated with West African rhythms and sounds. It was also around this time that funk and soul began to be folded into his songs, putting him into the same league as countless others breaking down the barriers like Miles Davis, Nina Simone and Gil Scott-Heron. Sure, plenty of purists turned their noses up, but nobody can remember their names.

The Black struggle in the United States has at its strongest balanced between knowing your past and envisioning your future -- the notion that in order to get where you want to go, you need to honor the fights your ancestors have put up (indeed, this can probably be said about any struggle for rights or self-determination). If this is true, then Byrd’s pinnacle in the early ‘70s was musical proof positive. The melange of African sounds, soul swagger and funk outrageousness slapped onto a jazz pallet made the end result so much greater than the sum of its parts. And the purists -- those Booker T. Washingtons of the jazz world whose selective amnesia and narrow visions led them to call Byrd all kinds of names -- had to eat their words when 1973’s Black Byrd became the best selling album in the history of Blue Note Records.

In the 80’s and 90’s, Byrd focused mostly on his teaching his love at various colleges. His output slowed, and primarily returned to a more conventional hard bop mode. This didn’t mean he was renouncing his role as an innovator; far from it actually. When Gang Starr’s Guru threw his Jazzmatazz project into the ring, Byrd was one of the many jazz players who joined in with enthusiasm. He was sampled by the likes of Nas, Public Enemy, Pharcyde and Del tha Funkee Homosapien. When asked in 1994 why he was willing to join up with Jazzmatazz, Byrd put it plainly: “I knew that something new was getting ready to jump off.”

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Byrd was extraordinarily cerebral; by the time of his passing he had two Masters degrees to his name, as well as a Ph.D and a law degree. But he always managed to dodge pretense and remain thoroughly organic. You can hear it in his playing. Much like Miles Davis, his trumpet virtuosity didn’t come so much from being able to play innumerable notes in quick succession as much as it did from knowing which notes to play. He was someone who knew how to weave experiences and knowledge into his music in a way that was never wooden and left things open for interpretation.

That said, it was never too difficult to figure out what Byrd was up to during his creative peak. Electric Byrd, Ethiopian Knights, the soundtrack for blaxploitation film Street Lady, the highly underrated Afrofuturism of Stepping Into Tomorrow where the listener is musically exalted to “Design A Nation.” These albums are nothing short of masterpieces.

In these degrees of genius, however, nothing even comes close to the nuanced perfection of Black Byrd. The album cover is decked in the green, black and red of African pride, with a scene at its center that appears to be straight from an early 1900’s juke joint. “Flight-Time,” the first song, opens with the sound of a jetliner taking off before easing into an almost highlife-style trumpet and flute part framed by punctuated electric bass and keys. We get the feeling that we’re almost literally being taken on a trip to the motherland.

Then there’s the title track itself. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to put your own name in a song or album title. But because there is an effortless confidence flowing through the song, Byrd gets to pull it off with admirable style. The rubbing together of past and future, the tamblas and congas mixing in with the electric trumpets and keyboards, result in the feel of a slow tide rising.

The choral lyrics are minimal and even at first a bit silly. Combined as they are with the swagger and sense of irresistible reckoning though, it sounds almost as if the “black bird shouting” is actually something much more symbolic and collective, the invocation to “get in the groove and move” applicable to much more than just music.

In 2011, in an interview he did with JazzTimes, Byrd reflected on why he recorded Black Byrd: “Black Byrd is indicative, from the album cover to the music, of where Black people are at today.”

So what was he trying to tell us when he made music like this? Why evolve? Why change? Why bring up the state of Black America via the music at all? The answer might be found in the often cited observation of fellow jazz innovator Max Roach. Roach, of course, is one of the fathers of bebop, and he pointed out that what made the sub-genre’s improvisation so revolutionary was its thoroughly democratic ethos -- the possibility for all those involved to have their say and bring something unique to the table. This was something that Byrd appeared to be aware of. In the same 2011 interview, he commented on why he allowed himself to evolve as an artist:

Western music has become too traditionalized that it has killed itself. And the fact of that is it is clearly evident; like when you look at symphonic music and their so called cultural music and so forth, it is so dead it has to be subsidized by the government because there is no participation whatsoever. It's possible to actually exhaust just about all the possibilities of a certain type of system... and that’s what has happened. So Black music has continually evolved and changed because it‘s an all-encompassing music type, by that it draws upon all types of music, and it’s being incorporated into it. Western music is so standardized that you can’t do this, you can’t do that, so what happens is that by the time you have gone through the educational process of learning so called western music, it has completely bleached out any feeling whatsoever. And even in the philosophy of the music, it’s supposed to be up and beyond the people. But Black music isn’t. It has a tradition, but it hasn’t been standardized to the point it completely negates any input.

The Western music world Donald Byrd left behind is one where the room for input and participation from Black artists remains deceptively narrow, despite the rich tradition these artists may represent. On the one hand things are immeasurably more diverse in the musical mainstream than they would have been during Byrd’s heyday. Finding artists of color on the airwaves in the pages of the biggest music rags isn’t hard.

At the same time, the overall structure of the business has become so much more homogenized and controlled. There are a lot fewer stories and struggles related. For lack of a better term, it’s been Westernized. Hopefully, there will be more artists like Donald Byrd looking to decolonize it all in the years to come.

First published at Red Wedge

Monday, February 4, 2013

No Jobs, No Masters

"Look, the people you are after are the people you depend on. We cook your meals, we haul your trash, we connect your calls, we drive your ambulances. We guard you while you sleep. Do not... fuck with us.” 

The board members of HMV Group might be now wishing they hadn’t stocked so many Fight Club DVDs now. The massive UK entertainment retailer -- specializing in music, film, video games and other entertainment -- rang in the new year by running aground, with its British stores going into administration and its Irish locations shuttering entirely on January 15th.

Next day, retail workers at two of the Limerick, Ireland locations staged a sit-in. They refused to leave until they were given unpaid wages, including holiday pay and redundancy, which Deloitte professional services (who were handling the company’s assets) refused to release. As news spread of the occupation, and even spread to another location in Cork, messages of support were sent to the laid off protesters. Mainstream media began to pick up on it too. 

Speaking with Trade Union TV in Ireland, HMV worker Brian Fitzgerald said “we were last paid on the 21st of December, so tomorrow will be four weeks exactly since we got paid. We worked those days; we worked hard over Christmas. We deserve our money, and that’s why we’re here.”

This could have obviously been a disaster for a company already desperately clinging to whatever good face it might have left. And so, within a couple days, all laid off workers were paid their wages. Occupation over, end of story, right?

Wrong. Fast forward two weeks to January 31st. When HMV, now under the control of buyer Hilco, announced that it would be laying off another 190 workers in Britain, one disgruntled “intern” took to the company’s official Twitter account to let the world know that they too were getting the axe.

“There are over 60 of us being fired at once,” said one of the rogue Tweets. “Mass execution, of loyal employees who love the brand.” Another pointed out that the official HMV Twitter account had itself been set up by an unpaid intern, which is apparently illegal under British law. My personal favorite is this one: "Just overheard our Marketing Director (he's staying, folks) ask 'How do I shut down Twitter?'" Pity the marketing director who doesn’t update his social media passwords.
These rebellions, insignificant to the cynic, reveal something much broader that is taking place right now. It wasn’t Fight Club that inspired these workers’ refusal to just take it lying down. Rather, it’s a rebellious mood that has been percolating for some time and may very well be on the verge of boiling over. Says Richard Seymour, writing for the Guardian:
These scattered rebellions by HMV workers stand in a venerable tradition. When workers were threatened with redundancy at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago, workers occupied and won a series of demands. When Ford Visteon workers [in the UK] were unceremoniously sacked, they occupied production plants and called for solidarity.

Likewise, the watchword of Occupy has remained on young people’s brains even as the movement itself has faded. The step that many are grappling with is how to bring it back to the workplace.

There's another layer though. HMV has long been a presence in the UK's cultural face. Its iconic logo of the little puppy listening to "His Master's Voice" on the gramophone just about says it all: thatourmusic and movies come to us through some mystified stratosphere of talent. Harsh, mundane ideas like "labor" don't factor in here.

This mask has always been shakily worn on the culture industry. It’s popped off frequently -- whenever screenwriters or orchestras have gone on strike. Where it hasn’t happened in that same industry is in the realm of distribution and retail. The irony of course is that the very people who stock the shelves with our favorite CDs, DVDs and books are the ones with whom we have the most interaction.

Like “associates” at Wal-Mart or burger flippers at McDonald’s, these people are the “visible invisibles,” the glaring truth that stares us in the face amidst a cacophony of lies about the West being one massive middle class. 

When Tower Records went belly up in the winter of 2006 we were treated to endless moaning about what a dark day this was for music, how Tower’s “deep catalog” was falling victim to internet downloading. Little was said about the folks who actually made that deep catalog possible in the final sense, who rang up our Bloc Party CDs and Jurassic 5 posters and struggled to make ends meet.

All that was before the crash of 2008, before Republic Windows and Doors, before Tahrir and Syntagma and Zuccotti. The workers at HMV made damned sure they were heard. For as fleeting as their resistance has been, it’s also a reminder of a magnificently dangerous reality: that nothing in this world moves without us.

First published at Red Wedge magazine