Sunday, March 31, 2013

More Cowbell... and More Blog!

Rebel Frequencies started out as a way to share my daily thoughts on music and radicalism as well as published articles on the same subject. But as I started getting more and more serious (writing a book, editing a radical arts publication, blogging for Electronic Intifada, staying sane overall) it became pretty obvious that daily posts weren't really going to be possible anymore. So I scaled it back a great deal, essentially transforming it into an archive of my articles.

But this simply won't do either. Something that's been obviously missing has been more of the informality, and the ability to write in a vein that doesn't fit into more serious publications. So here's the happy medium, and my promise to you all, the fine readers: Rebel Frequencies will start to function as a blog again, and will include not just my published articles (including a review of the new Jasiri X, something on the ongoing San Francisco Symphony strike and much more) but material much more recognized as "bloggy" material. Informal thoughts, musings, you get the drift. But it won't be daily; that's not feasible with all the aforementioned responsibilities.

So we're probably talking about posts maybe a few times a week when all is said and done. Think of it as a Lenin's Tomb for music! And yes, there will also be updates on the progress of the book, upcoming events and other projects. Keep tuning in; we'll see you on the streets and in the pit!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Banning Persepolis?

Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis has got to be one of the most important graphic novels of our time. Since its publication in 2000, the series has sold over a million and a half copies, and won several awards. The 2007 film adaptation was nominated for an Oscar.

It has also been banned in Satrapi’s native Iran. This isn’t particularly surprising given how the author portrays her country since Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power in 1979. That it has ended up the center of a controversy in Chicago’s public schools, however, is certainly enough to take you aback -- at least at first. To anyone who knows the ins and outs of the crises facing Chicago’s schools and youth, it’s sadly not as shocking.
On the evening of Thursday, March 14th, word began to spread that the principal at Lane Tech High School had received an order to remove all copies of Persepolis from classrooms and libraries. Teachers were to be prohibited from using the book in their classes. Turns out the order went to all Chicago public schools. Friday morning is when things really started to catch fire, with coverage on comics websites, commentary on education blogs and many mainstream newspapers picking up the story. The Chicago Teachers Union issued a statement denouncing the book’s removal.

So did Satrapi herself. And she didn’t mince words: "I am ashamed of people who make these kind of decisions."

By the time students at Lane Tech High School had announced their plans to hold a rally outside their school in protest of the ban, the school board was being forced to backpedal and claim that it was never really a “ban” per se. Rather, according to a statement released by Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the book is unsuitable specifically for seventh-graders because of its "graphic language and images."

Says Byrd-Bennett, the images depicting torture and violence require that CPS “develop professional development guidelines, so that teachers can be trained to present this strong but important content. We are also considering whether the book should be included, after appropriate teacher training, in the curriculum of eighth through tenth grades.”

Like many things emanating from Chicago’s school board nowadays, this explanation stinks to high hell. As one Chicago public school teacher pointed out, upper elementary and middle school students are taken to the Holocaust museum every year, which features a great many disturbing images -- images that don’t require “training” to explain. But then, one should never underestimate the willingness of CPS to meddle with teachers’ curricula, or insult the intelligence of its kids.

The Occupied Chicago Tribune’s Nick Burt is certainly right that the Chicago school board is such a bureaucratic, unaccountable mess that they simply let a bad notion slip away from them. For that same reason, CPS probably won’t be forthcoming anytime soon with the ultimate culprit’s identity. But someone clearly had the brilliant idea that now would be the perfect time for a besieged, scandal-wracked school board to mimic Joe McCarthy. Though we won’t know who, there’s a good bet why.

Says the Chicago Teachers Union’s Financial Secretary Kristine Mayle:
We understand why the district would be afraid of a book like this -- at a time when they are closing schools -- because it’s about questioning authority, class structures, racism and gender issues. There’s even a part in the book where they are talking about blocking access to education. So we can see why the school district would be alarmed about students learning about these principles.
Like most cities trying to gut their school systems, CPS long for an acquiescent union, and fret about radicals in the ranks. This is a book that references Marx, Trotsky and Che Guevara. That may tell you all you need to know.

A related but seldom spoken-of factor is what the book might specifically tell young readers about their right to express themselves. Here, of course, is another trend that CPS is a bit afraid of. In the rush to close down and privatize every school they can get their hands on, arts and music programs have been the first on the chopping block.

In contrast, one of Persepolis’ most memorable scenes comes when the young Marji is harassed by Guardians of the revolution for her “Punk’s Not Dead” jacket right after she purchases illegal cassette tapes.

This also may be a bit too close for comfort. Dress codes and uniforms seem to be a favorite band-aid solution for school boards across the country. Provocative t-shirts, hoodies, spiked hair and mohawks, chain wallets and backwards ball caps all seem to have landed in the crosshairs of uptight administrations over the past two decades.

Those who doubt whether these measures are intended to do anything other than criminalize youth might want to check how many of these same cities are arguing ordinances against sagging pants. The school to prison pipeline can easily be greased with dress code violations.

Once again, there’s much to gain from this kind of repression, and not just more bodies to populate our prisons or sweetheart deals with charter operators. Historically, the more youth subcultures are allowed to thrive, the more they're spurred on by adults who get the importance of them, the sooner they start to come up against the pervasive injustices that surround young people. The sooner they can learn lessons, and the sooner they can figure out how to challenge those who have denied them. If those who don’t move don’t notice their own chains, then CPS is rather intent on kids not moving at all.

Not that it appears to be working. The school board’s “compromise” included the promise that Persepolis will be available in libraries. The problem is that of the 600 some odd schools in Chicago, 160 don’t even have libraries. Kids at Lane Tech aren’t buying it. Monday morning saw them attempt to stage a sit-in at the school’s library in protest against the school board’s control freakery.

Despite assurances from the principal that they would be allowed to send a message to the school board, it appears at the time of this writing that the protest was blocked. "Books banned," writes retired teacher and activist Fred Klonsky. "Peaceful protest blocked. A teachable moment?"

Indeed. And it won't be the last.

First published at Red Wedge

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Who You Callin' A Bitch?

There’s a good amount of implicit racism in the claim that hip-hop is solely the purview of men. Assertions like this tend to serve only the Don Imuses of the world, the kind of crusty old white dudes who need to invent degeneracy in oppressed communities to justify their own bigotry. They also completely ignore the formidable shadow cast by female artists in the style.

What so much of the discussion too often misses is that society in general is intensely misogynistic. Women are objectified in the home and on the TV, in advertisements and the workplace. And hip-hop doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Singling it out -- especially when it’s done by people who couldn’t give two shits about poverty or racism -- tends to let the rest of the world off the hook. I tend to agree with the likes of Kate Burns and bell hooks; when it comes to sexism we should be asking a lot less about hip-hop’s influence on society and a lot more about society’s influence on hip-hop.
Nonetheless, precisely because we live in a world of intense sexism, we have to admit that tuning into hip-hop’s mainstream doesn’t exactly present us with a picture of equality. Just last month, Lil Wayne proved that oppressive ideas of one kind can easily open those of another when he dropped the lyric “beat that pussy up like Emmett Till.” The line provoked such outrage, in particular from the Till family, that it was removed from the officially released version of the song.

Then, of course, there’s Weezy’s protege Nicki Minaj, who many may point to as an indicator of gender balance in the music biz. But whatever talent she has (and she has quite a bit) the way she’s talked about is rather analogous to the few who make it to very top and are pointed to as an example that capitalism doesn’t have to be sexist. She’s made it, so why can’t you? Meanwhile, the Chinese women who stitch together her new Kmart clothing line tend to get ignored. That is, unless they manage to surreptitiously sneak notes into the products they’re making.

Again, artists like Nicki Minaj have to be placed in a context. An industry that is swimming with manufactured pop nightingales like Katy Perry (who openly denounced feminist politics when she received Billboard’s “Woman of the Year” award) isn’t exactly going to provide a lot of room for female artists who challenge the norm. The way that women are undervalued in pop music generally is probably best exemplified in Taylor Swift. Whenever a critic dares to point out the intensely problematic and straight-up sexist image she presents young listeners with, her defenders inevitably shriek “but she writes her own songs!” As if that by itself were enough.

It may sound odd for folks used to how things are today, but twenty years ago actually seemed to provide a lot more breathing room for sisters in the music world. Indie and punk had riot grrrl. “Alternative,” such as it existed at the time, included quite a few female voices. The dance scene seemed to be almost entirely dominated by women.

And in hip-hop? Well, there was MC Lyte and Roxanne Shanté. There was Lady of Rage and Sister Souljah and Salt-N-Pepa. And then there was Queen Latifah. I say “was” not because I don’t think highly of her acting work (she is Mama Morton) but because, well, the difference between her persona now and that of her MC days is markedly different. It’s hard to imagine a major record company heavily promoting a single that celebrates a woman’s right to hit back and asks over and over “who you callin’ a bitch?” But at the time it was released, “U.N.I.T.Y.” won a Grammy.

These types of acts didn’t just come out of nowhere. That decade was a turbulent one where women’s rights were talked about in a very different way (i.e. they were, well, talked about). College campuses in particular became places where feminists and women’s rights activists challenged much of the machismo that dominated their environments through such actions as “Take Back the Night.” And in the early 90’s, with the “culture wars” raging, such sentiment was bound to spill over.

The 1992 March for Women’s Lives in DC brought out 750,000 people out to defend a woman’s right to choose as conservatives sought to ram through restrictions on abortion. High-profile cases of sexual harassment (such as that involving Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas) and rape (William Kennedy Smith, nephew of Senator Ted Kennedy) put debates about women’s autonomy and the nature of sexual assault in the public spotlight. In other words, there were a lot of women out there asking “who you callin’ a bitch?” other than the Queen.

Songs and artists like these weren’t the whole story of course. There was still plenty of misogyny in music, including in hip-hop. But as anti-racist and anti-sexist activism dovetailed (and they frequently did), there was a feeling that a conversation was possible -- a conversation about a common struggle.

That conversation was in some ways literal; the 1992 meeting and interview between Angela Davis and Ice Cube being a prime example. Davis wasn’t able to move Cube very much on women’s issues, but the very fact that meetings like this were happening was definitely a positive sign.

This small but significant wave of activism around women’s rights receded later in the decade. The music industry got bigger, but it also got passed into fewer hands; hegemony 101. Queen Latifah let her rapping fall to the wayside as Afrocentrism was pushed back out of the mainstream for a time. Salt-N-Pepa called it quits in 2002 while Lauryn Hill consciously retreated from the business. As the political climate seemed shift back to the right, it left a lot less room for female-centric acts of all stripes.

So why bring all of this up now? Why on International Women’s Day must we discuss hip-hop in particular? Mustn’t we also talk about punk, dance music and folk? And why just music?

The fact is that we need to talk about all of these. We need to talk about the cultural and political in the same breath. We absolutely need to recognize how very much the myriad struggles of the oppressed -- and the artforms that spring from them -- share in common. “Intersectionality” isn’t just some academic term for gender studies programs (invaluable as those programs are), it’s an actual living reality that leaves our struggle hollow if we fail to recognize it.

Hip-hop, probably more than any other style or genre out there, has the attention of the world’s young and exploited. Any struggle for women’s liberation will at one time or another have to reckon with it. And in fact, hip-hop may be uniquely equipped in some ways to put that struggle at center stage. A passage at the Hip-Hop Archive reminds us:

In a world that consistently undervalues women in general and black women in particular, women in hip-hop often offered an inspiring alternative, be it through boast and braggadocio like the simple yet grave lyrics of [MC] Lyte... or be it through astute and direct criticisms of inequality and abuse... Many of the songs of strength and raps of reason from our powerful soul sisters served as the survival mantra for many girls and women battling the blues and blows that life brings.
Right now, there are quite a few “blues and blows” that women have to face. It goes further than the videos or the dearth of strong female voices in music. It’s a society that at every damned turn seeks to turn women into less than full humans.

There is actually no lack of strong women in hip-hop today. The quandary, however, is that a spineless music industry has no idea what to do with acts like Jean Grae, Rita J or Invincible (a Jewish anti-Zionist who supports the boycott of Israel? They would have absolutely no clue). As for gender-queer rappers like Big Freedia, it’s safe to say that she’d make the execs’ heads explode.

Whether any of these artists ever get the credit they deserve, whether their immense talents and powerful messages will ever reach a wider audience can’t be answered at this point. Lord knows they deserve it. But a movement that can push back against the misogyny that runs through America’s veins -- a movement that appears to be on the verge of exploding as we speak -- would certainly help.

First published at Red Wedge