Sunday, November 30, 2014

Working on a Building and Thinking about Shame

There's a lot of shaming that takes place on the Internet. Some of it is deserved, but I don't think most of it is. I don't think putting potential allies down does much good. I want us to find more ways to be open about our flaws so that we can learn from each other. I'm afraid too much of this shame that gets thrown around is the by-product of a system that's been built to keep us feeling weak and self conscious. Specifically talking about the way some Black activists talk to other Blacks,  #blkgrrrrl writer Teka-Lark Fleming said on the 27th, "...stop judging people in the same manner corporate America and white supremacy does." I want to generalize that to how all social justice fighters talk to one another. Somehow, we need to balance vigilance and patience. As Fleming writes, "This is a process."

I've got reasons to think most people we're talking to are fundamentally decent. It's a conservative estimate that I've worked with 5400 students at two different community colleges since I moved here in 1987. I'm a writing teacher, so I've learned a great deal about what most of them think about a wide array of subjects. Two impressions up front: while there's a great deal of ignorance in every segment of our society, people aren't dumb, and most are far more open and sensitive to social issues than anyone gives them credit for being. The second is that most are strong potential allies around any human rights issue.

But, of course, like almost everyone you or I know personally, my students tend to be very busy and very stressed. For reasons that seem well established (if in doubt, please check out Brigid Schulte's bestselling 2014 primer Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time), we are living in the busiest era of our lifetimes. If you've ever been underemployed or unemployed like (again, conservatively) about 22 million Americans today, then you know that state of being is no less busy and all the more paralytic.

And this paralysis is at least part of why, when Ferguson brings people out in the streets calling for an end to systemic brutality, many who are sympathetic are not there. This is why most of America is not out in the streets protesting the fact that 30,000 Detroiters have no water this holiday season. This is why people in Kansas City react little to my posts about the Reverend Edward Pinkney, even though he is being threatened with life imprisonment for obviously trumped up charges because he's fighting corporate control of his community in Benton Harbor, Michigan. This is why most never hit the streets over what happened to the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. This is why whatever energy put thousands in the streets of KC protesting the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions, we don't see that same kind of energy around war 13 years down the road. Meanwhile, the "War on Terror" only fuels new brutal forms of resistance, and most Americans are afraid to say anything that might be mistaken for not supporting the troops. Busy-ness is at least part of why people might be excused for thinking Occupy just went away despite the fact that core organizers are still very active around many different fronts, most prominently in KC around the minimum wage struggle.

My heart is with those folks who are meeting on the Plaza every night at 7:00 and in other parts of the city to protest the Michael Brown Grand Jury decision. I will join these folks at several of these protests as well as a community debriefing next weekend. But I know I will probably go to such events alone and leave such events alone. I will struggle as I've struggled for over a decade to find some meaningful way to plug into the work on the ground. Like many Americans, I struggle to balance the demands right in front of me with the call of street activism, and, locally, my friends in activist circles are increasingly distant relations, not unlike most of my work relationships.

It's ironic because my first core of close friends in Kansas City were all met through activism, specifically a 1987 In Defense of Music event that I helped organize at the Charlie Parker Foundation. That first year, I became close to another recent arrival, Anne Winter who ran Dirt Cheap records. We would meet every Friday at the Corner restaurant and discuss what possibilities might exist for music-related activism in Kansas City. The two of us, along with almost everyone else I knew, helped launch Culture Under Fire by 1989. By the simple fact of world events, that event became, in part, a protest against the first Gulf War. We'd later join forces with the Kansas City Missouri Union of the Homeless, and, by 1992, we held a Break the Blackout Summit, signing an agreement to share media between a variety of national organizations. This was the era of the Rodney King verdict and the L.A. rebellion. We were manic and ever-ready because the world was on the cusp of massive change.

We weren't wrong about that, but we couldn't predict the form it would take or the speed with which it would happen. The world has changed dramatically. Today, virtually everyone carries around computer power that wouldn't have fit in my home when I was a child, and we've seen social upheavals in over 20 Middle Eastern and North African countries and at least another 12 major ongoing protests around the world since the Arab Spring and Occupy Movement of 2011. There's liberating potential in those little electronic devices, but that power also stands as a real economic and social threat to the current system, and the resulting violence shows many signs of developing into yet another World War sparked by a technological revolution that more than rivals the Industrial Revolution that reshaped the world at the start of the last century. There's an obvious, admitted class war against the world's poor already raging, and it's becoming a form of corporate-sponsored fascism in America. Most terrifying today is the fact that we're going into this next period of nationalistic struggles with nuclear weapons we couldn't have even imagined back when we used to watch A-Bomb readiness films in school.

I don't know how it could be more obvious that the status quo is going to rob our children of a future.

So I came to this computer this morning wanting to ask you to use your imagination and help me answer a question. How do we build community in new ways that work with today's new realities? How do we built connections that will be able to forcefully (not just virtually) fight for justice and stand up against these dangers?

I believe we are living in a new era, and we have to find a way to come together in something resembling the 99%, exponentially larger numbers than we saw with Occupy. In the past, America's most successful social movements have been rooted in the church, and I have to admit, that's the best community model I've seen. For about four decades, I've observed the way my father's church comes together for celebration, and they help one another in times of need (they've certainly been there for me); they do elder care and community food programs, and they even discuss contemporary literature on Sunday mornings.

For better or worse, I'm not religious, and I suspect there will only be more problems with the church model in our future. I was always able to explore my spirituality and my social vision more honestly with others in a secular setting, particularly around popular music. The idea of a hip hop collective like the currently reuniting KC group Flavorpak is closer to my sense of community, but it's a cultural event community. And even the potential of a hip hop collective as a force for change makes me wonder about organizing with my other friends who may be rooted in folk music or country music or heavy metal. The first thing I start thinking about with any group is who might be excluded.

To be honest, most often when I'm at an activist event, I feel that I've simply found my way to another group that unconsciously excludes more than it invites. There's a group culture that takes over, and it creates its own top down assumptions. It's usually dry--too culturally cautious, too emotionally narrowed, and too romantically tied to old myths of revolutionary struggle. (I am very loyal to a few groups that are not trapped in these boxes but only because they constantly fight their way out of them.)

And there are many more reasons why my core of friends involved in political work are, for the most part, no longer the people I know out in the streets. My activist life played a big role in killing my first marriage, the part that wasn't killed by the hours of neglect that tend to come with writing itself. I won't blame my first heart attack on this activity, but I will say it makes me more personally cautious today. It's part of the reason I want to underscore that shaming people for any sort of perceived inactivity holds no interest to me. People do what they know they can, like water rising to its level.

Still, I believe we need to come together. There is unique value in ongoing physical fellowship, friendship and camaraderie. I believe people have to go eye-to-eye to talk things through. I believe no individual is smarter than a group sorting through our problems together, and I believe a healthy group best strategizes visible, public political action. Though, as a writer, I probably need to be alone to do my best work, I also know that my best work is only what it is because of the work I do with others. Living in Kansas City, I often feel starved for all of these aspects of community, yet I know it's all around me.

So, I repeat my question as a list of starters. I would appreciate it if you wrote me back with your thoughts. I'll include my email address so that you don't have to blog it. I can compile the results and share them in some way in a future blog. I'd certainly like to talk about what ever responses you have with each of you personally.

How can more Americans become part of a community that can address the challenges ahead of us?

What new forms of community organization would you like to see?

What such activities that don't currently exist would you attend?

What forms of community could enhance and ease the burden of your day to day life rather than make it harder?

What would you want to avoid?

Are new forms even possible? Has it all been done? Is there no need for this kind of thinking when so many organizations already exist?

Any thoughts are not only welcome but needed.

I've been writing on the theme of coming together for a very long time. I need some fresh thoughts about how to move forward. Oh, and you if you think of yourself as outside of this audience but you've read this far, I probably want to hear from you the most. Our biggest problem is that we spend too much time talking to ourselves.

 My email is

Thanks ahead for anything,


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

My Two Cents On Ferguson (In the Wake of the Grand Jury Decision)

About twenty years ago, I was leaving a Westport club with two friends when we witnessed a shoving match between two young men, one white and one black. Within moments, the always everywhere Westport police had the black man on the ground in cuffs, while they talked to the white man (who was uncuffed) at the back of his car. The three of us, and several dozen people around us, all saw the same thing. There was no difference between what the two men had been doing. We were shocked and began to raise objections.

Rather than ask us to testify to what we saw, the police told us to disperse. One of my friends, the singer for a very popular local band at the time, refused to shut up or back down until one of the police officers began to fling her handcuffs at his wrists. He pulled away, and we walked several yards back.

“Westport’s closed!” the police mantra went up, along with warnings that we would be arrested if we didn’t leave.

I’ve been in violently tense situations before—in schoolyard fights, in a country bar when a fight broke out, at a hip hop show when a fight broke out, at a variety of concerts when the crowd was being treated like criminals—but this was particularly bad. I wasn’t afraid of the violence so much as I wanted to break something.

I had friends who were DJs who were regularly told to change their music “because the floor’s getting too dark,” my favorite Westport club had been shut down because that end of the street was “getting too dark,” I’d been at more than one raid at some of the most optimistic, integrated events this city’s ever seen, thrown by the hip hop collective Flavorpak.

This booming message--Westport’s closed!  You didn’t just see what you just saw! Go home or you will be arrested!—it was like getting our collective noses rubbed in every indignity we’d ever witnessed or suffered.

It took the three of us a while to quit staring from a distance—blood rushing in our ears, kicking brick walls—and decide, yes, I guess we have to go home.

Our musician friend peeled off, and my other buddy walked with me back in the direction of my car across Broadway. I was parked behind the bank there on Westport Road. We were about half a block away when we saw a crowd of young black men standing around my car. The biggest guy was rocking my little bug of a car back and forth, like he was trying to pick it up.

I got this. I have Johnson County (white flight) plates. That night Westport was clearly sending a signal that it was made for white people only. I knew just the thing to do…run my little white butt in the other direction and let the guy do what he wanted with my car.

But my friend was far braver. He shouted “Hey,” and darted across the parking lot. Honoring guy code, I followed on his heels.

This led to a stand-off, where the two of us just stared at the other guys while they got back in their car. We didn’t say anything, and they didn’t say anything. I got in my car. My buddy got in his (Missouri plated) car.

And we went home.

But I wanted to say something. I wanted to tell the guy who'd been rocking my car I understood. I wanted to say I was on his side. I wanted to tell him I wouldn’t even blame him if he decided to beat me down or take me out.

Whatever I said, though, I knew it would sound empty. Unfortunately or fortunately, I knew what he knew. When things like what went down in Westport that night go down, words don’t mean much.

According to both the Bureau of Justice Statistics and research by P.M Stinson at Bowling Green University, 400 people are killed by police each year.  .01% of those police are ever brought to trial. Though most of those people killed are white and male, a disproportionate number are young black males, who are also imprisoned disproportionately, pulled over disproportionately, questioned disproportionately, and harassed disproportionately.

In that climate, explosions will happen....Nevermind when it seems the whole country might, for once in a great long while, almost be prepared to listen….and then even that gets snatched away.

And from The People's Tribune:

Friday, October 31, 2014

All Saints Day Thoughts on My Halloween Mix

Seven days ago, I wrote a piece on Halloween records for Cuepoint at All week long, while I waited for it to run, I thought about what's wrong with it (of course), but more importantly, I found myself thinking about what more there was to say. In many cases, these things are interrelated.

One tactical thing that's wrong with the piece is that I set Halloween records up in opposition to Christmas records, as if either were taken very seriously in our culture. Novelty records (holiday records of any kind) define one pole of our pop culture, which, on the whole, is not taken seriously even by many of its fans. The two are interrelated, the Christmas ghost story being a very old tradition (Dickens' A Christmas Carol only the most famous example).

More generally, what's wrong with the piece and what's right about it reflect who I am. I'm all unmoored intuition (until I'm not). I speak in contradictions. If I can at once point out that rap and metal are the most gothic of genres and then find only one example from either genre I want to put in my Halloween mix, well, that says something about how I regard the gothic differently than others. My Halloween aesthetic has to do with a certain kind of fear and thrill that involves brushing up against the unknown. While I love rap and metal as genres, most of the more gothic pieces are simply too strong to capture a kind of quiet, primal fear I'm after.

(Similarly, I could have used a bunch of murder ballads, but I instead went for more overt examples of the country music ghost story.)

What I'm find myself thinking about most is why I made the mix I made. I built the article around a playlist, and I made it the way we used to make mixtapes--sitting immersed in all of this music and going from the gut.

So I wound up with interesting demographics that were more accidental than thought out--

On a 20 record mix, I have 5 records from the 50s, 5 records from the early 60s, 1 record from the 70s, 3 records from the 80s, 1 from the 90s and 5 from the past decade, and that was by design, half being what "I" think of as older records....before my time. 15 of the records are from a time before the experience of millenials, and I suppose that impulse comes from the same place my preference for old horror movies comes from--ghost stories are all the more ghostly when they speak from another time. The experience is, in and of itself, interacting with another world.

More important, most of the older music is doowop, and I do speculate about that in the piece. It is also interesting, though, how (well into the fifties) the roles of black characters in fright films was typically racist comic relief, and on these records, black's buddy up to Frakenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, zombies and various other kinds of undead. On the Duponts' great "Screamin' Ball" there's a prototype for the Bootsy Collins' vocal, prefiguring where funk might take all of this a short time in the future.

Finally, I think what's most interesting is how much of this haunting occurs in the presence of deindustrialization and economic collapse. This is true of the Thatcher-era British records, of course, but it's also true of the Los Angeles punk bands after almost a full decade of decline of Southern California manufacturing. Cleveland rappers' Bone Thugs N Harmony's track is two decades into the Rust Belt's economic decline, and shows it with the angriest, most offensive piece to make the mix. The Low Anthem's record is actually recorded in an abandoned Rhode Island factory. Al Spx and Ariana Gillis may be harder to pin down on this issue, but that makes them the only two exceptions, and Gillis confronts the economy pretty directly with both the opening cut and the closing cut of the same 2010 album. Janelle Monae grew up in perhaps the most economically devastated (and crack ravaged) neighborhood in Kansas, and Bruce Springsteen's song closes Wrecking Ball, his response to our most recent recession.

I have no doubt there's more to say, but these are some of the things crossing my mind, and, on some level, the reasons behind the reasons are why I think writing is worth it. All caveats aside, I think the Cuepoint piece reads well and looks nice, and I hope others get plenty out of it. I always want to start a conversation, and the conversation isn't ever really just about the specifics--it's about why we need to talk to each other in the first place, where we might go together.

So, if you haven't read this yet, I hope you take a look and see what it says to you. If you want to let me know, it will only help clarify things. Thanks for reading this far, really.

Happy El Dia de los Muertos!

My Halloween piece for Cuepoint--

Thursday, May 08, 2014

RRC Extra No. 47: Mary J. Blige

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SLIP SLIDIN’ AWAY… Danny Alexander writes: Researching the book I’m writing on Mary J. Blige for University of Texas Press,  I’ve been puzzled by the precipitous drop in her album sales after 2006’s multiplatinum The Breakthrough. Her strong follow up, 2007’s Growing Pains, sold half as many records, and her sales have declined steadily ever since. 2011’s My Life II: The Journey Continues, was not just a worthy sequel to her 1994 classic My Life but contained great potential for hit singles. It opens with five of the hardest-hitting tracks she’s ever recorded and closes with three gorgeous ballads, while in between there are duets with Drake and BeyoncĂ©. But somehow that record sold the least of any studio album in her career and didn’t produce a Top 40 single.

At first, I just presumed she’d aged out. After all, the oldest African American woman sharing the radio with her in 2011 was BeyoncĂ©, a full decade younger, and the white woman getting significant airplay who is closest to her age, Pink, is eight years her junior.  But then I compared the Year-End Singles charts from the year of My Life’s release with the Year-End Singles charts the year My Life II came out. In 1994, 37 of the year’s top records came from records featuring women and 24 of those songs featured Black women artists, almost a fourth of the most popular singles on the pop charts.

             Seventeen years later, when My Life II came out, the Year End Singles chart included only three Black women—Janelle Monae (singing a few lines behind .fun), Nicki Minaj, and Rihanna. Where Black women held onto their new share of the charts in the 90s and the early new millennium, over the past ten years their presence has shrunk as dramatically as Blige’s sales. Only a half dozen different Black women (most often on duets with other artists) have made these charts in the past five years.

            Again comparing that to 1994, then the music came filled with a torrent of Black women, including Salt-N-Pepa, TLC, Dionne Farris, Des’Ree, Janet Jackson, Vanessa Williams, Brownstone, Brandy, Monica, Aaliyah, Crystal Waters, Da Brat, Faith Evans, Lil’ Kim, Xscape, Queen Latifah and SWV. 

In the 90s, much of what was happening on the pop charts was tied to social and cultural movements, whether it was gangsta or Black nationalist or young country or the punk impulse suddenly rising to the surface with grunge. It’s hard to see any such signs of cultural movement on the charts today—most obvious would have to be the punky white teenage girl pop acts, and then there are the folkies, and Macklemore’s argument with rap. But those forms seem individualistic, atomized, not particularly connected to one another. There’s not a single voice that seems to stand for the working class women Mary speaks so forcefully to and for. In a sea of surface sonic perfection, Mary J. Blige comes across as real, playing to the women from around the way who fill her shows and saying to them, “I’m here for all the women who work at Wal-Mart."

            Race is an unscientific concept and counting colors and genders to find a story seems a crude way to take the measure of a complex and vibrant art form. Still, the story of popular music has always been filled with and often defined by the voices of Black women, voices too little heard elsewhere. It begins with many forgotten names, from churches and juke joints, soon represented by the likes of Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, and Billie Holiday. Once rock and roll takes off, a steady stream of Black women artists--Ruth Brown, Tina Turner, Etta James, Lavern Baker, Martha and the Vandellas, and Aretha Franklin—fuel the music of the Civil Rights era and set the table for some of the brightest lights of the 70s and 80s. As if they heard Janet Jackson’s call for “Control” and took her at her word, Black women doubled their numbers on the charts in the mid-90s and hung onto that share for a decade, while making space for more Black men and, eventually, a greater number of white women.

            So what happened in 2006 to reverse those gains? It certainly can’t be ignored that American Idol launched four years before, screening out artistic diversity in terms of showboating histrionics. And no doubt the change also has something to do with YouTube’s launch the year before (ironically, inspired by a PayPal employee’s search for Super Bowl footage of Janet Jackson’s breast). The digital analysis company Big Champagne declared YouTube the world’s number one distributor of music the year My Life II came out. At the same time, former MTV, Six Flags, and Century 21 CEO Bob Pittman, dubbed “the wonder boy of branding” took over Clear Channel radio (and, in essence, terrestrial radio), promoting it with a major music festival devoted to the iHeartRadio phone app, described by one of his cohorts as “Live Aid without the charity.” As the potential for democratic distribution of music exploded, the most focused front for such distribution,  radio, has grown more reactionary. In a market guided by conformist network talent shows, YouTube fads and superstar concerts dedicated to corporate greed, what interest is there in Mary J. Blige’s audience? For that matter, what interest is there in the ideas that once made mainstream R&B so vital—the complicated demands of relationships, the necessity of dealing with the consequences of one’s actions, and the hopes and dreams of those used, abused and unheard?

There was a time when those ideas poised to guide us to higher ground. I’m thinking of a great video made for Mario Peebles’ 1995 Panther movie of Joi’s song “Freedom.” The video features a choir of women—twelve across and five deep—almost all with hits on the pop charts. The singers offer an “a-whoop” over the rolling bass line and present shimmering sustained notes of light after lines like Mary’s opener—“Turn us loose, set us free, from these chains that bind me,” all of this intercut with shots of the civil rights struggle. The jubilation and strength that fills the screen—and every note of song—reflects a new world being born. Twenty years later, as beautiful a moment as it is, the feel of that promise betrayed makes it hurt.

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