Politics

New Young Journalists Development Program - start date 1st May, 2019

This is a call for young writers, aged 17-22, interested in developing core writing/journalism skills who want to write on hip-hop/music and/or other subjects. Women especially encouraged to apply. Intended for a small group of two, or three people.

This program is designed for people who do not have access to such training at school or in their communities; people who might be interested in becoming journalists, but feel that it is closed to them for whatever reason. It is aimed for people who are not represented in mainstream media spaces, because of background/place of residence, who want to write about stories relating to their communities, thereby altering the current media bias towards white, middle-class voices.

The program could be a formal training program, or informal mentoring arrangement depending on the need and interest of the trainees. No previous experience or publications required - but preference will be given to applicants with no other opportunity for media/journalism training of this kind and members of under-represented groups.

If interested, or you have questions: contact me with a brief introduction to yourself and what you’d like to achieve at madeleinebyrne.writer@gmail.com Proposed program start date: May, 2019

READ MORE

"Killaz Theme," writing on Cormega, betrayal and justice in hip-hop and other genres

“[Intro]
Heh heh, yea
Hahahaha, right
Part the crowd like the Red Sea
Don’t even tempt me ”

Genre: Hip-Hop Style: Thug Rap, Conscious


Towards the end of a 2015 interview with Dead End Hip Hop (DEHH) that’s equal parts monologue and free-form talk, New York rapper Cormega says that remaking his début album The Realness was always an option, but that he wanted to do something more, something different to reflect his changed perspective. The man who made the music more than one decade ago was not the same one speaking today. “If we go back to the year of The Testament, (2005) I would have had at least 14 more friends physically still breathing, I would have no kids ...” Not only that, throughout the interview the Queensbridge MC stressed how he was aware of his position as a role model, as someone who could show others ways to move forward in their lives.

One of the DEHH team had suggested that his album Mega Philosophy was “preachy” in parts, then later clarified that he missed the “charismatic Cormega” (before listing all the tracks he liked). “If you speak truths, I don’t consider it preaching, maybe I’m wrong but I don’t,” Cormega replied. “Everything else I said was to uplift us, to say we’re not at the bottom, we’re more than ni**as standing on a corner dealing, jail is a business trying to employ our children, and destroy our mental; every day we’re more conditioned to conform to ignorance …” Starting to rhyme, momentum building as he interspersed lines about how he sees the world around him today with references to African lineage and references to pyramids in Egypt and Sudan to conclude that Black Americans “came from something great.”

Another DEHH host added that Cormega’s serious lyrical intent was “good preaching … (The word) preachy is now given a negative edge so when he says it sounds preachy it sounds like an insult … I say make it preachy as possible because we need that.”

READ MORE

Retro poetic: ‘Thieves in the night’ Black Star (Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, Rawkus Records, 1998) plus Toni Morrison and Langston Hughes

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?/And who are you that draws your veil across the stars? 

Langston Hughes, 'Let America Be America Again' (1936) 

Listening to “Thieves in the night” now, a song I know well and have listened to so many, many times over the years, what strikes me most is its intimacy, in particular, the verse of Talib Kweli. This reflects the way it’s recorded, there seems to be no space between the elements; this makes the music sound close to you. But it’s also the way Kweli sounds so sincere, so urgent, when presenting his verse.

Urgency is a key defining quality for me when appreciating the work of an MC, especially when you can sense something of the artist's personality and if it feels true, sincere. I’ve had plenty of conversations with hip-hop fans, more knowledgeable than me, who argue for the quality or cleverness of rhymes as being the key defining element of an artist's worth. Often such talk comes across as mathematics. For whatever reason I hear the music/feeling first – the way the music sounds, the way it’s put together.

Strange, though, to be speaking of this in relation to “Thieves in the night” that is at once heartfelt and political. I won’t summarise/paraphrase the politics as it’s there for you, written on the page, but this is politics as lived experience, as something that is deeply felt. The genius lies in the way the song allows for sentiment to co-exist with the message. See, for example, the wry quality of the hook, with its mild admonishment that can still make you smile – ‘now who the nicest?’ – while savaging the compliance, complicity of the oppressed.      

[Hook: Mos Def, (Talib Kweli)]
Not strong (Only aggressive)
Not free (We only licensed)
Not compassionate, only polite (Now who the nicest?)
Not good but well behaved
(Chasing after death, so we can call ourselves brave?)
Still living like mental slaves
Hiding like thieves in the night from life
Illusions of oasis making you look twice
Hiding like thieves in the night from life
Illusions of oasis making you look twice

***     

[Verse 1: Talib Kweli]

Our morals are out of place and got our lives full of sorrow
And so tomorrow coming later than usual
Waiting on someone to pity us while we finding beauty in the hideous
They say money’s the root of all evil but I can’t tell
You know what I mean, pesos, francs, yens, cowrie shells, dollar bills
Or is it the mindstate that’s ill?
Creating crime rates to fill the new prisons they build
Over money and religion there’s more blood to spill
The wounds of slaves in cotton fields that never heal, what’s the deal?

Produced by 88-Keys, the only track he produced on the record and inspired by Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel, The Bluest Eye 

Thieves in the night is also the title of a novel by Arthur Koestler, published in 1946 and described by this contemporary New York Times review as ‘bitter, sardonic, probing and introspective, and it is given an ironic kind of pity and terror by the struggle between yogi and commissar that still seems unresolved in Mr. Koestler's soul’.

Many of the listeners commenting below the YT video single out Mos Def’s - Yasiin Bey's - verse, understandably perhaps, as it is a classic example of an MC speaking directly to the listener, as if he is sharing some essential truths, “most cats in my area be loving the hysteria/synthesized surface conceals the interior …” The line about “America, land of opportunity, mirages and camouflages” connects with the repeated refrain in the hook about “illusions of oasis.” Mos Def here is relating a kind of false-consciousness, as it used to be called. Certainly, there’s frustration in the following:

America, land of opportunity, mirages and camouflages
More than usually, speaking loudly
Saying nothing, you confusing me, you losing me
Your game is twisted, want me enlisted in your usury
Foolishly, most men join the ranks cluelessly
Buffoonishly accept the deception, believe the perception
Reflection rarely seen across the surface of the looking glass
Walking the street, wondering who they be looking past
Looking gassed with them imported designer shades on
Stars shine bright, but the light rarely stays on
Same song, just remixed, different arrangement
Put you on a yacht but they won’t call it a slave ship
Strangeness, you don’t control this, you barely hold this
Screaming “brand new”, when they just sanitized the old shit
Suppose it’s, just another clever Jedi mind trick
That they been running across stars through all the time with
I find it’s distressing, there’s never no in-between
We either n*ggas or Kings, we either b*tches or Queens
The deadly ritual seems immersed in the perverse
Full of short attention spans, short tempers, and short skirts
Long barrel automatics released in short bursts
The length of black life is treated with short worth
Get yours first, them other n*ggas secondary
That type of illing that be filling up the cemetery
This life is temporary but the soul is eternal
Separate the real from the lie, let me learn you
Not strong, only aggressive cause the power ain’t directed
That’s why we are subjected to the will of the oppressive
Not free, we only licensed, not live, we just exciting
Cause the captors own the masters to what we writing
Not compassionate, only polite, we well trained
Our sincerity’s rehearsed in stage, it’s just a game
Not good, but well behaved cause the camera survey
Most of the things that we think, do or say
We chasing after death just to call ourselves brave

But there is also great tenderness in this verse. It is written from the perspective of someone who is speaking to those who like him are trying to make sense of a frequently hostile environment, where their very existence often seems to be open to debate. Such writing is comparable in impact (and theme) to the famous Langston Hughes poem, ‘Let America Be America Again’ published in 1936 in Esquire. 

A poem that would have had an enormous impact when published in that era of Jim Crow in the way it presents unspeakable truths, while giving voice to people not commonly heard. Here is an extract, the poem can be read here

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

Strangely, or perhaps not so much, the poem’s title has been misused, co-opted by a number of (white) politicians in the US, as Wik explains, ….

"The title of this poem was used by Democratic United States senator John Kerry as a campaign slogan in his 2004 presidential campaign. In 2011 an exploratory committee for conservative Republican former senator Rick Santorum used a variant of the phrase ("Fighting to make America America again") on its website; told of the slogan's derivation from the Hughes poem, Santorum stated he had "nothing to do with" its use by the committee."  

Even the most extreme and successful example of a white supremacist politician, the current US President, seems to have co-opted the title in his inane campaign slogan that is all about race-based exclusion and violence. This co-option reflects what I often think is a degree of awareness among white racists that the very foundations of their bigotry are not only morally abject, but untenable. Everything, in the end, is stolen. And they know it.

And yet, despite or perhaps because of this, the poem by Hughes has a kind of secrecy about it that gives it enormous power, particularly in the repeated refrain, (America never was America to me.) Never before has the use of punctuation been so charged, full of meaning. But this secrecy is also there in the italicised lines and the poem's conclusion, which contains apparent contradictions within it in terms of its tone. It includes extremely tough depictions of suffering (the perpetrator of the crimes remaining nameless) to end on a kind of rallying cry.

Langston Hughes, like his descendents sixty years on, had the capacity to speak on many levels, while maintaining emotional intensity. This underscores their status as great writers. But Hughes inevitably was also writing in code, able to share one hidden, unacknowledged truth – “the rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies” – but only by cloaking it in the notion that this suffering was universal and might lead to a greater good. This interplay can be seen particularly at the end in the final verses of the poem. 

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

In praise of: ‘Terrorist Threats’ Ab-Soul, feat. Danny Brown, Jhené Aiko (Control System, Top Dawg Entertainment, 2012)

The song itself is popular - almost 20-million views and the first result when you put Ab-Soul’s name in a search engine; this is where the irony begins. Two wealthy, successful rappers in branded clothes, with money to burn (even if it is done ever so carefully, so delicately) giving voice to the marginalised.

Personally, I think this is one of the best political songs in recent hip-hop for two reasons. First, for many of the ideas conveyed. The way the lyrics, delivery, mood and music coalesce, allowing space for interpretation even if some of the lyrics are so clean and direct and memorable – catchy even. Some of the words could be used as slogans, worn on a T-shirt, or  unfurled on a banner, held high above people’s heads:

Peep the concept
You’ve got progress, you’ve got congress
We protest in hopes they confess
Just proceed on your conquest
I ain’t got no gavel, I ain’t finna fight nobody battle
I just wanna be free, I ain’t finna be nobody’s chattel

And second for the way, Danny Brown’s verse conveys something of poverty as a felt experience, rather than something abstract, or described as a narrative about someone else in a story that is being told.

In this extract from the Ab-Soul’s verse above there is some nice word-play with the repetition of “pro” and “con” (“for” and “against”), some listeners claim this reflects Ab-Soul’s belief that this is how the system operates, as a series of mediating and opposing forces. Lyrically Ab-Soul’s verses are super-dense, I won’t unpick them, as that goes against the spirit of it – for me – to read the track’s lyrics and interpretations, go here

It’s also hard to dislike a mainstream hip-hop/rap track that opens with a reference to Selassie, making connections to another radical Black musical/cultural tradition. The hook is great, so concise and powerful: "Wish I could see out of Selassie' eye/Maybe my sovereignty would still be mine/If all the gangs in the world unified/We'd stand a chance against the military tonight.”

Maybe there is some kind of connection here with the Mos Def/Massive Attack track from 2003 (and then Bad Brains’ track of the same name released back in 1986) even though there is a long, maybe unrecorded history of MCs and producers making such links between the genres.   

There’s also other stuff going on at the start, with direct references being made to the key sample used by producer Dave Free: Jay-Z’s “Ni**a What, Ni**a Who” that originally came out in 1998 (this is the j-version, not sure why, of the same song).

Danny Brown gets a mixed response critically and among hip-hop people, with some turned off by his “insane in the membrane” antics. But his verse here is genuinely affecting, stops you. And for this reason it's political. His words and delivery convey something of how it feels to be poor, the relentless and mundane reality of struggling to get by when you don’t have enough money to feed yourself or your children: "Feel my pain, goin' insane, I'm ashamed

‘Cause I ain't got shit but an EBT card
From a fiend that owe me and it's in her daughter name
How the fuck is they 'posed to eat?
How the fuck am I 'posed to eat?
Got a nigga in the streets, no health care
Tryna slang weed just to put shoes on his feet
So fuck you! You don't give a fuck about me
Can't get a job if they drug test me
Got a ni**a stressed, depressed
Got a feelin' in his chest
And the world's stripped of happiness
I ain't got no gavel, I ain't tryna fight nobody battle
I just wanna be free, I ain't finna be nobody's shadow."

(I’m not sure if the final word is correct, if it should be “chattel” as before). There’s nothing heroic or remotely Romantic about any of this. Nothing noble, it's soul-destroying. That makes this true: “Feel my pain, goin’ insane, I’m ashamed.” 

Eminem, BET Hip-Hop Awards Freestyle Cypher, Detroit MI, 10.06.17 (Rap as poetry & LKJ)

Would some of the age-based prejudice that afflicts hip-hop - distorting the critical reception of the contribution of artists and encouraging a kind of jockeying for space and attention - fade if we spoke of MCs as poets, and often great ones at that? As Rapsody said recently when dismissing the sex-based labelling of women who rap, being a skilful MC is not linked to physical strength, it’s all about the intellect, so why is there a culturally imposed age limit on the practice?

I’m no particular fan of Eminem. This reflects my inbuilt interest in the marginal and esoteric: there is comfort to be found in this quiet space for people with a temperament like mine. But most of all, I have never listened to an Eminem record from beginning to end because I will never accept the premise that there is anything worthwhile in music, or art, that revels in violence against women. Just like I wouldn’t sit down on a Sunday evening to watch a classy-take on a lynching, or a well-shot video showing the physical, sexual, or emotional abuse of a child, I refuse to acknowledge music/art/literature that holds up violence against women as entertaining, or cathartic (choose your adjective) for men. I make no exceptions here. None.

For too long male artists have argued that their art matters more than the abused bodies of women: in a literal or figurative sense. But it seems the times are changing, as even pretty, white women are speaking up about the abuse they have suffered in the popular media these days.

But to return to Eminem and this question of rapping as poetry. Certainly, this freestyle is manufactured and stagey and not even something I’d listen to twice, but it has an undeniable power. It is pure and resolute in its political message and I hope impact, not unlike this wonder from Linton Kwesi Johnson from another era, another locale (1980).       

Both peel your eyelids open and force you to take notice, while carrying the imprint of the artist. Within the critical/cultural milieu surrounding LKJ it would be strange for someone to dismiss his art and contribution, past and present, based on the fact that he is no longer 20-years-old, simply because it is a generally accepted fact that he is a ‘tap natch poet’ (and a much respected, beloved one at that). 

Maybe a similar shift would occur within hip-hop culture, if we just changed the terminology: rather than focussing on MCs as performers, jumping around, we started to speak about them as poets, speaking truth to power ... Maybe the overwhelming response to this Eminem freestyle will be part of this cultural change, we’ll see. It’s certainly needed.  

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power exhibition, Tate Modern London

‘The ghetto itself is the gallery.’

Emory Douglas, Black Panther Party Culture Minister

Before seeing this exhibition, based on the name alone, I was expecting a show turned up to peak volume; not that there is a problem with this, as someone who adores noise, the blacker the better, but wondered if it might operate on the level of radical pastiche.

None of this was a judgment of the curators, Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whiteley who have assembled 150 works from 1963-1983 by black American artists or the museum, but more an expression of personal confusion or alienation now that transgressive art, culture and ideas from the past are routinely transformed into commodities to be sold.

As I soon discovered, though, this often delicate and complex show was light years away from such mind-static. Introspection, restraint and a deep thoughtfulness pervaded much of the art – and its presentation - allowing us to take time to reflect and feel something of how it might have been to be alive then.

‘H20gate Blues’ Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson  (Winter in America, Strata-East Records, 1974)

Certain artworks, such as ‘Injustice Case’ (1970) by David Hammons worked on the level of the gut –

the artwork depicts Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, gagged and shackled at his 1969 trial after the judge ordered he be chained to his chair following a series of interjections. He was being tried as one of the ‘Chicago Eight’ on charges for conspiracy to cross state lines, according to the history.com site, ‘to cause a riot during the violent anti-war demonstrations in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention’. He was later tried alone for contempt charges and received a four-year sentence.

Here, Hammons printed his own body, objectifying it, transforming it into an surface, he 'coated his body (along with his clothes and hair) in margarine and then rolled his torso and limbs onto a large piece of illustration board, printing the image by pressing his body onto the smooth surface of paper, often arrayed on the floor’ – this is taken from Apsara DiQuizio's article, ‘David Hammons: Printing the Political, Black Body’. 

Because of its life-size dimensions, the essential savagery of what it depicts – chaining up a man as if he were a dog at his own trial - and the genius of the presentation/idea, this work is deeply affecting. Resembling an X-ray in an airport, the image transforms Seale into little more than a squashed/flattened body/bones in his fingers, while forcing us into the role of those conducting the surveillance. An older white man standing in front of me, shook his head when reading the description for the artwork and swore under his breath.        

There’s a lot to write about in terms of this exhibition, I kept writing notes and taking photographs of the descriptions of the works, as I was struck repeatedly by the fragments and splinters of ideas, often formulated as questions, see this from the brochure: ‘Was there a ‘Black art’ or a ‘Black aesthetic? Should an artist create legible images or make abstract work? Was a choice to be made between addressing a specifically Black audience or a ‘universal’ one?’

***

Black Light

Roy DeCarava (1919-2009) Man in window, New York, 1978 

 

'... the self as a secret entity, as a secret, hidden place.'

Note beside an artwork by Martin Puryear, 'Self' with regard to his sculpture (1978) 

One of the rooms seemed darker than the others and held a series of fragile and extremely beautiful installations by Betye Saar from the early 70s that drew on time spent in Haiti, entering the room was like going into a crypt ... On the walls, there were finely-constructed collages, often held in wooden boxes, filled with very small objects. There was something deeply private and intimate about this art that moved me.

The act of collecting and putting these objects together was a recurring theme in the exhibition; for example, the room called ‘Los Angeles Assemblage’ that included this commentary:

Los Angeles was a city experiencing great racial tension in 1962, police had entered a mosque and shot an unarmed member of the Nation of Islam. Two years later, another instance of police violence in a predominantly African American neighbourhood triggered the Watts Rebellion, which left 34 dead and properties and shops in ruins.

The artists featured in this room - Noah Purifoy, John Outterbridge, Melvin Edwards and Betye Saar - ‘created art by recycling and bringing together objects in different formations, known as assemblage’.

Of particular interest to me was the ‘Lynch Fragments’ series by Melvin Edwards, a project he started in 1963. The aggressive-looking steel objects, made up from refuse found on the streets of LA completely reversed expectations of how to represent race-based violence; here there is no victim – and no audience – but an object of torture, made from scrap metal.

Melvin Edwards (born 1937) Some Bright Morning, Lynch Fragments 1963

Christopher Knight writing in a Los Angeles Times review of a show marking the 50th anniversary of the Watts uprising quoted Purifoy as saying the following regarding the Watts Towers that he said was 'arguably America's greatest modern folk-art masterpiece.'

What if these people could look at junk another way — as a symbol of their being in the world, their being just in relationship to something.

Knight then concluded with these sentences: 'Their being in the world — battered and discarded, like the broken glass and pottery of the soaring towers but also reassembled and reborn into something beautiful, mysterious and profound.'

mysteries.jpg

Romare Bearden (1911-1988) Mysteries, 1964 

New section on the site: Interviews & Essays

Some of you might have noticed the recent addition of a new section in the menu to the left - Interviews & Essays - well, the logic behind this is to collect my longer pieces of writing in one place. Writing on hip-hop; such as my first extended interview/essay on Detroit producer/MC Black Milk from 2015 and that of New York-based producer, Marco Polo ... or my conversation with MC Sha Rock, the first female MC in hip-hop culture.  

Also, you'll find essays on 90s instrumentals and Mick Jenkins' track, 'Fall through' from his 2016 record, The Healing Component - and my interview with BROOKZILL! (Prince Paul, Ladybug Mecca, Don Newkirk and Rodrigo Brandão) published in Ambrosia for Heads last year. Apart from the hip-hop related content, there are essays on French politics and police violence in the US and Paris and electro/DnB musicians from the UK.

Over time, I'll keep adding to this section, including pieces from the past and those to come. My hope is that those of you who are interested in reading the longer pieces, and there's quite a few out there it seems, will try out the various subjects and take a chance on something new. Mixing it up ...

Children of the Indigo: ‘Fall through’ Mick Jenkins, prod. THEMPeople (The Healing Component, Cinematic Music Group, 2016)

Resistance at the point of listening to (new) music. Sometimes reactions can be so intense they stop you from listening further; telling you, no, this is not yours, it’s not for you - and then, other times something keeps you there with that same music, despite your instinct to leave.

It was months back now, so I can’t remember what it was that kept me at a remove when first listening to Mick Jenkins’ The Healing Component (it was probably related to the beat, so wafery/illusory like paper being burnt, the flame curling in on itself, refusing any sense of home: the same beat that provides the unstable foundations of the modern hip-hop aesthetic, where the edges are forever privileged over the centre). 

Then I heard this song and my favourite ‘Fall through’… which made me realise. 

[Intro]
I see the light
Hesitate
Hesitate
Hesitate
Hesitate

[Hook]
Don't you feel the soul?
That's the truest well
Of all the things you know, do you know yourself?
Well enough to trust the way you go
When you don't, know the way
See the light, still hesitate
See the light, hesitate

Contemporary poetic: opening up the conversation about love, politics and remembrance. 

READ MORE