Saturday, September 26, 2009

Hip-Hop Has Saved My Soul (and Spirituality) by BYC

I'm reposting this note that I was tagged in from my Facebook page. It is from a very good friend of mine in Seattle, BYC, who I and LBoogie also collaborate with (among several other good folks) on a new blog called Gathering Forces which I hope all of you will read and participate in too.

This is a very introspective and striking essay that means a lot to me on a very personal level. Personal, because everyone has their own story of how hip-hop has transformed them. In the case of BYC, as a conservative youth evangelist who was repelled from hip-hop due to its apparent violence and patriarchy, to his process of becoming a revolutionary who finds within hip-hop a deep sense of spirituality and struggle and not the cartoonish and proselytizing forms we see with Jin, Toby Mac, or still worse manifestations.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Is Kanye Our Generation's Muhammad Ali?

Ok, so admittedly the post title is an exaggeration, but Kanye's making headlines again and it got me thinking (and I'm not the only one). Apparently, at the MTV VMAs when country artist Taylor Swift was giving her acceptance speech for Best Female Video of the Year, Kanye got up on stage, took the mic and in no uncertain terms said Beyonce had the best video of all time (ergo, Taylor, you shouldn't have won that shit). The audience booed, Taylor looked stunned, and later Beyonce made a conciliatory move and invited Taylor back on stage to give a real acceptance speech.

The Strengths and Limitations of Banksy's Art

We've posted some images of Banksy's art on D&HHP before, and here's a decent article exploring some of the questions that inevitably come up when talking about Banksy or other artists who border the line between subversive political art and co-optation by a reactionary art establishment. What is the significance and consequence of "political art" in a period where there's not yet a mass movement to shape, and be shaped by, that political content? Is there an "authentic" political art that only happens in the streets? Is political art undermined when it is incorporated into doing big gallery shows or selling your work for $500,000 a pop?

This is tangential, but this article about Banksy reminded me of the scene in Frida (the Selma Hayek version) where Diego Rivera gets shit from David Siqueiros, a Stalinist Mexican muralist, for painting a mural for Rockefeller in New York. When Rivera jokingly tells Siqueiros that he paints for the rich because they have good taste, Siquieros replies:

"The rich don't have good taste. They pay someone to have good taste for them. And they don't hire you because you are good. They hire you because you assuage their sense of guilt. They use you, Diego, and you are too vain to see it."

While that's a great scene in the movie, that argument is one-sided and makes it seem like different social forces cannot act out their conflicting interests in the same medium -- i.e. that while Rockefeller was using Rivera for his own purposes, and Rivera was surely using Rockefeller for his own, Rivera's art served yet another purpose for the multitude of working class people who saw and were affected by his work.

From his interviews and own writing, Banksy seems to be well aware of this dynamic and seems intent on maintaining an independent artistic sensibility and politics despite what the wealthy art gallery owners and yuppie or hipster art buyers get out of his pieces. The crux of it is this, as the author of the article below puts it:

"Unlike most of his contemporaries Banksy points to real issues that resonate with wide layers of the population. He calls the art world 'the biggest joke going ... a rest home for the overprivileged, the pretentious, and the weak.' However, the simple iconoclastic images and one-liner jokes that often accompany them, while offering an angry and healthy protest, are also informed by a certain resigned cynicism. In his book Wall and Piece he writes, 'We can’t do anything to change the world until capitalism crumbles. In the meantime we should all go shopping to console ourselves.'...

For something 'serious to happen,' which Banksy and any artist should aspire to, then a serious (not humourless) approach to art is required. Whether Banksy’s work progresses in that direction or whether he is merely co-opted to become another bad boy for the art establishment is yet to be decided."

Britain: The strengths and limitations of Banksy’s “guerrilla” art
By Paul Mitchell
10 September 2009

Over 300,000 people saw the exhibition of works by “guerilla” graffiti artist Banksy at Bristol museum and art gallery this summer. The number of visitors, queuing for up to six hours, approached the total population of the city in the west of England.

Banksy has undergone a meteoric rise to fame. His unknown identity and nocturnal spray-painting activities have all added to the mystique surrounding him. The city’s chief executive Jan Ormondroyd said, “It has probably been the most successful exhibition in the UK. It is more than any of us expected, certainly in terms of putting Bristol on the map. We have to say a big thank-you to Banksy.”

There is a social conscience evidenced in Banksy’s work and a certain dry wit, but there are limitations of both an aesthetic and political character.

Visitors entering the Bristol Museum’s palatial entrance hall were confronted by a burnt out ice cream van playing its plaintive melody. Behind it a life-size Metropolitan policeman wearing a “Metropolitan Peace” badge creaked to and fro on a fairground horse. Close by a classical statue adorned with shopping bags and sunglasses contrasted with her neighbour covered in a ragged blanket—a dog and broken bicycle at her feet.

In a second room, stencils, paint cans and other tools of the trade littered one corner, while right wing radio show hosts ranted over a loudspeaker about graffiti defacing private property. Britannia, the symbol of British imperialism, held her spear topped by a CCTV camera. Riot police ran through the grass holding hands and smelling flowers. An African child with a sign said, “Peaches Geldof, please give generously.”

Further along, copies of old master portraits sported beady eyes or a plastic nose. A beautiful mountain landscape was captioned with the words “Subject to availability for a limited period only.” At the far end of the room hung a huge House of Commons canvas, with Members of Parliament replaced by chimpanzees.

In a darkened third room named “Unnatural History,” cages had been constructed containing lifelike animatronic figures. A hen looked out of her coop at her offspring—chicken nuggets—pecking at a sachet of ketchup, a rabbit preened herself in front of a mirror and a balding Tweety Pie blinked forlornly on his perch.

Elsewhere in the museum various objects such as a muzzled woolly lamb lay hidden amongst the stuffed animals and scientific specimens. In the art gallery hung copies of well-known paintings, defaced in some way.

A video of Banksy installing the exhibition can be viewed on a YouTube video.

Banksy’s surreal and satirical graffiti work has appeared in numerous locations around the world, addressing topics such as war, the power of the state and corporations, environmental degradation and animal rights. Many municipal authorities who once rushed to scrub off what they ridiculed as vandalistic rubbish are having second thoughts as the prices of his works skyrocket.

Banksy’s graffiti first began appearing in the UK in the 1990s. He admits he used stencils because “spray paint’s actually quite hard to use… and I found myself painting embarrassingly bad pictures, illegally on a wall, at 21 years old.”

He claims, “I got politicised during the poll tax, the Criminal Justice Act and the Hartcliffe Riots—that was Bristol’s Rodney King. I can also remember my old man taking me down to see the Lloyds bank—what was left of it—after the 1980 St. Pauls riots.”

Banksy began to produce “subverted paintings” such as Monet’s Water Lily Pond—with its superimposed shopping trolley and traffic cone.

In the Paris Louvre he pinned up a copy of the Mona Lisa adding a yellow smiley face. Similar pranks followed in London’s Tate Modern, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and other institutions.

In 2005, Banksy went to Israel and painted on the security barrier dividing the West Bank. His images included a girl floating over the wall holding onto balloons and children digging through it to reveal a tropical beach on the other side.

“How illegal is it to vandalize a wall?” Banksy asked his critics.

“The Israeli government is building a wall surrounding the occupied Palestinian territories. It stands three times the height of the Berlin wall and will eventually run for over 700km—the distance from London to Zurich. The International Court of Justice last year ruled the wall and its associated regime is illegal. It essentially turns Palestine into the world’s largest open-air prison.”

In 2006, Banksy smuggled an inflatable orange suited doll representing a Guantanamo Bay detainee into the California Disneyland theme park. The following year he painted the Jackson and Travolta characters from Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” above a London Tube station, substituting bananas for their guns. Transport for London ordered its removal, saying it created “a general atmosphere of neglect and social decay which in turn encourages crime.”

In 2008, Banksy marked the third anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina disaster by producing a series of graffiti works on derelict buildings in New Orleans.

As Banksy’s fame spread so did the price tag on his works. When his “Space Girl and Bird” sold for $576,000 he posted a painting on his web site of an art auction with the words, “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.”

Last year Banksy’s pastiche of a Damien Hirst spot painting “Keep It Spotless,” showing a Condoleezza Rice figure sweeping dirt “under the carpet,” sold for nearly £1 million.

Unlike most of his contemporaries Banksy points to real issues that resonate with wide layers of the population. He calls the art world “the biggest joke going ... a rest home for the overprivileged, the pretentious, and the weak.”

However, the simple iconoclastic images and one-liner jokes that often accompany them, while offering an angry and healthy protest, are also informed by a certain resigned cynicism. In his book Wall and Piece he writes, “We can’t do anything to change the world until capitalism crumbles. In the meantime we should all go shopping to console ourselves.”

Elsewhere he says, “To make a piece of art that actually provoked something serious to happen? I couldn’t even dream of that ... but yeah ... I guess that’s the aim.”

This is all pretty passive stuff.

Why reject a priori what Banksy acknowledges should be one of art’s highest aims?

In a corner of the Bristol exhibition, Banksy took a copy of Millet’s 1857 painting “The Gleaners,” renamed it “Agency Job,” cutting out one of the three peasant women labouring in the fields and placing her on the frame smoking a cigarette.

Millet had been deeply affected by the 1848 revolutions and their promise of democracy. He became the first European painter to portray the peasantry, a doomed class impoverished by advancing capitalism, in such a sympathetic and noble manner. His calm imagery, which declares, “Yes, the world can be changed into a better place,” was castigated by bourgeois society and taken up by the emerging socialist movement.

Banksy texted the media regarding his exhibition, “It’s nice to see it’s been so popular but it makes me a bit suspicious. Throughout history all the great artists have been overlooked in their own lifetime and only appreciated once they’ve gone. I’m starting to worry I’m not one of the good guys.”

It is right and proper to ask such questions of oneself and one’s work. For something “serious to happen,” which Banksy and any artist should aspire to, then a serious (not humourless) approach to art is required. Whether Banksy’s work progresses in that direction or whether he is merely co-opted to become another bad boy for the art establishment is yet to be decided.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Deep Thinkers "Burn Em Up"

This is "Burn em Up" from Deep Thinkers, a duo based out of Kansas City. It's a bit of a throwback; I believe it dropped in 2003. There is also a personal relevance as I have known these two cats, Brother of Moses (MC) and Leonard Dstroy (DJ/producer), for over 12 years. Bro of Mo is also a highly accomplished artist who, along with Lenny D, instructs youth at Hip-Hop Academy in KCMO.

Aesthetically this is a great video. Some of the imagery is a bit cryptic and it's hard to deduce a logical direction other than the pictures' inherent political character. I'm not quite sure what it's going for but it works.

Jay Smooth's humorous and critical take on Michael Steele

Contrary to Smooth's argument, Steele shows here just how skilled he is as a politician. Jay isn't wrong about all the reasons he is weak, but in this case he's tactically sharp in defending the Right when they disrupt Democratic speakers and having a quick-witted response to the woman who tries to shout him down for his stance on healthcare.

He won't last as chairman but certainly won't be responsible for any Republican recomposition. This is due not least to his opportunistic appointment, his dislocation with the hip-hop generation, and for the very reason that the Republican Party is a long way from breaking from its white populism. But hip-hop generation activists have MUCH to learn from the tactical edge and militancy of the Right from above and below. Here's just one example.

How is hip-hop being used?

reposted from Rebel Frequencies

The right got their ass in a sling this past Labor Day weekend over Van Jones, who, following revelations of his past political activities, resigned as President Obama's 'green jobs' czar. Fox News' Glenn Beck lead the charge in leading a weeks-long campaign against Jones, who was radicalized by the Rodney King verdict back in '92 and later joined a small Maoist group known as STORM (he left a few years later).

Jones had some impressive organizing credentials for sure, not the least of which was the formation of Oakland's Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. The Baker Center, since its establishment in 1996, has lead some important programs in the Bay Area, including ones against police brutality and the prison industrial complex. The center also hosted the Third Eye Movement, which was lauded as a prime example of hip-hop activism and lead a campaign against California's Proposition 21 (a 2000 prop that would have increased sentences for youth offenders).

It's really no wonder that the right hates Van Jones. The racism was in full-force as they sought to villainize him. One comment on a Fox News message board read 'Proof Positive that you can send a THUG to and Ivy League school and all you get is and slightly educated arrogant THUG. He only got in by using the school's quota system not by merit...'

Jones stepped down just days after RNC chair Michael Steele showed up at Howard University in DC as part of his 'Freedom Tour.' There were more than a few things wrong with Steele's speaking engagement. First, he showed up at a historically black university and had the first row of the auditorium reserved for white members of student Republican groups. He then declared from the front that '[i]nstead of becoming rappers, young people should set higher goals for themselves, such as owning their own record companies.'

Steele has long used street lingo to try to appeal to the hip-hop generation. He's said publicly that he wants the Republican Party to welcome 'hip-hop Republicans and Frank Sinatra Republicans,' and when asked about economic reform stated 'the American people don't have that kind of bling-bling in their pockets.' At this specific event, he attempted to jokingly encourage students to study business using the phrase 'mo' money.' I'd imagine the only people who laughed were the white folks in the front.

This was before he literally turned his back on an audience member whose mother had died because she couldn't afford her cancer meds, then told her that shouting accomplishes nothing and she should listen instead.

That the right-wing can villify a liberal's former street cred while allowing their own party to use hip-hop culture as a fig leaf for their agenda is shameful. That Obama refused to come to Jones' defense is an M.O. that is becoming frustratingly familiar.

It's further proof that hip-hop is safest in the hands of folks at the bottom. Days after Steele left, Howard erupted in a day of raucous protest against the university's cuts in housing and financial aid. These folks are the ones who get it.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

'Run this town'

reposted from the Duke Chronicle column by Michael Stauch

"Only thing that's on my mind / Is who's gonna run this town tonight"-Rihanna, on Jay-Z's "Run This Town."

Since October 2008, the world has undergone an economic crisis on a scale unknown in over half a century. With it, all the accepted wisdom of textbooks, of professors and school administrators, of public figures great and small and of official society more generally, has been thrown out the window. Never in our lifetimes has there been a crisis so total.

Everything is up in the air, and everyone is searching for answers. How will society be governed? According to what economic principles? Based on what social contracts, between whom and with whose consent? Most importantly and succinctly, who is gonna run this town tonight?

All around us, forces both left and right are emerging and, in the wake of the collapse of official society's legitimacy, providing answers to these questions.

In the streets of Iran this summer, a democratic movement of students, workers, white-collar professionals and others brought Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the authoritarian Iranian regime to its knees. Recently in the rainforests of Peru, a militant movement of indigenous people forced Peru's Congress to repeal its efforts to privatize the Peruvian Amazon. On the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique this spring, lengthy general strikes won significant concessions from the French government. More locally, laid-off Latino workers occupied the Republic Windows factory in Chicago, winning severance pay from Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase, and highlighting the hypocritical logic of a government bailout that saved huge banks from bankruptcy while threatening ordinary folks with destitution.

Although these struggles seem random and unrelated, they are embers of a common fire, flung far and wide by years in which the flames of freedom have been trampled on. Together, they suggest one answer to the questions we face today-a society organized from the ground up, committed to justice and freedom and ready to fight back.

But victory is by no means certain. The forces of darkness are also on the march, and they have answers of their own. In recent elections to the European parliament, far right and anti-immigration parties made historic gains at the expense of liberals and social democratic parties. Two members of the conservative British National Party in the U.K. were elected to the European Parliament. A right-wing nationalist party in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders' "Party for Freedom," took second place in national elections. In Hungary, the far right Jobbik party is organizing a right wing militia with insignia reminiscent of the uniforms World War II era fascists wore while sending hundreds of thousands of Jews to death camps.

In the U.S., right wing violence is on the rise against immigrants, abortion rights advocates and Jewish people, or simply those that like to visit Holocaust museums. Just down Tobacco Road, the nationalist student group Youth for Western Civilization has also revived fascist-era symbolism-the Italian "fasces" on which the word "fascism" is based-in their logo, while also bringing anti-immigration speakers like Tom Tancredo to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's campus. Somewhat further afield, the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement is planning a national conference in Greensboro, N.C. this weekend, seeking to draw in fascist supporters from across the U.S.

Although by no means a complete picture, these developments also suggest an answer to the problems facing our society today. That answer represents not a vision of a new society, a new social order, but the continuation of the status quo, a ratcheting up of the barbarism of the world we've known so long, a reversion, even, to the bloodiest and most violent era in human history-the 20th century, a century that knew genocide on a greater scale than any other, and a time when the greatest of human achievements were applied not to the advancement of human freedom but to the greatest destruction of human life.

And yet, we live in a time of great promise. People are questioning the old order on an unprecedented scale.

In an era when the old visions of social order have come crashing down, the question before us is, "Who's gonna run this town tonight?" The answer is up to us, and depends on our actions today.

Michael Stauch is a second-year Ph.D. candidate in history. His column runs every other Friday.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

So long, New Orleans. Hello, Austin.

Last month, LBoogie and I relocated to the Austin, TX area. We've been busy with numerous other projects which has necessarily taken away important time from adding new content to the blog. Making the transition to a new city also requires becoming familiar with not just its local hip-hop, but the nuances of Austin and Texas in terms of how it sees itself, what it has developed out of, and the independent contributions it is making.

Related to this, a couple of weeks ago, I met an MC by the name of James Price who attended the Citizen Review Panel held by the Austin "rainbow coalition" for the slaying of Nathan Sanders and near-fatal shooting of Sir Smith by Austin police last May. When it was James' turn to speak he spit a rap about the racism of the ATX police and police in general, the tradition of black revolt, and the need for people of color to unite in struggle against white supremacy. I've included the video from it below. We spoke for a few minutes afterward and I look forward to building with him more.

One point worth noting that you'll hear in the video is James referring to J. Edgar Hoover as a "homo." While Hoover's sexual orientation has historically been questionable at best, I raised the point to him that queer people of color are both murdered by pigs and fight against them. A successful struggle against white supremacy can't be waged without queer folks. Anyhow, James Price's rhymes speak to the natural intersection of political struggle and hip-hop.

After some initial observations living here for a month, the tensions between the police/city gov't and the black community are as aggravated and as tense as I had seen in New Orleans, if not more so.

And here's the dash cam murder of Sanders and shooting of Smith. Heads up, it will make you fuckin sick.