Saturday, April 21, 2012

Power & Lights On, The Griot Gathering and the Sound of the City

The East Meets West of Troost compilation, The Griot Gathering, is a unique album in the strictest sense.  For starters it explicitly tackles Kansas City issues--from the disregard for human life at the Honeywell plant, to the dismantling of the public school system, to the racist dress code in the Power & Light District—while contemplating their connection to a range of universal issues including the fate and purpose of hip hop.  That focused directness underscores its uniqueness, but that also unifies the album because it works like a train of thought.

On “The Colonel’s Brief,” longtime Honeywell worker and human rights fighter Maurice Copeland declares the necessity of political dissent as an act of patriotism.  With “Community Update,” Rapper Dirty D (aka King Kihei) focuses on the nuclear weapons plant issues that motivate Copeland’s activism, stressing its significance to the larger community.  Then, Cherith Brook’s “Honeywell” directly calls out the Kansas City nuclear weapons plant for giving hundreds of workers chronic beryllium disease.  Sahjkaya’s reggae-flavored “Nuclear Weapons” contemplates the insanity of nuclear testing, and, on “Self Destruction,” rappers Theodore “Priest” Hughes and Desmond “3-3-7” Jones (aka The Recipe) specifically tie the suicidal nature of nuclear weapons production and the military industrial complex to the orchestrated ignorance and destruction of American society as a whole.

Dirty D’s and the Recipe’s “Recess/Parent Teacher Conference” take the focus on social destruction to the specifics of a public education system under attack.  Sahjkaya returns with “Political Strings” to call out the “set up” that needs to be fought down.  With “Power and Lights Out,” Dirty D confronts the fatal flaw in the KC Chamber of Commerce’s crown jewel, and the Recipe asks “What Happened to Hip Hop” in this moment of need.  R&B singer Flowrese brings a refrain that questions each of the rapper’s answers—“money”…”greed”…”igonorance”—by keeping the question of hip hop open, “Did we lose sight of what kept us strong, what helped us to hold on?”

The last track, “Palm of Your Hand,” another collaboration between Dirty D and the Recipe (with a distinct, building intensity at least in part thanks to producer Smart Alec) is all about hanging onto that sight and holding on.  Against a staggered heartbeat rhythm and an impassioned, obscure R&B sample—“everywhere you go/everywhere you stand/you know you hold my heart in the palm of your hand”—each rapper testifies to his vulnerability at the mic, his need for the audience to hear him to complete what he’s trying to create.  It’s a manifesto that blasts through the line between artist and audience—“strap your heart to your palm and make them haters heads bop!”

The Griot Gathering argues that the value of music cannot be separated from its context. Seven out of the CD’s 11 tracks carry some mix of ambient sounds.  A bird sings spontaneous accompaniment to Maurice Copeland’s spoken word intro, traffic sounds accompany the Recipe on at least one cut, and Dirty D sounds like he’s rapping about the Power & Light District from the District.  The jazz-flavored protest Honeywell, featuring marching band drums and horns, actually overturns the concept of background and foreground in its recording—the listener is clearly in the crowd, handclaps louder than the performers.  What may be pure happenstance, wanting to include a great political event in the larger soundtrack, fits as if intentional --everybody willing to lend a hand gets to be centerstage.  The music of the city doesn’t stop at studio walls, and the work of the Griot Gathering has just begun with its last refrain—“everywhere you go/everywhere you stand.”  

 The Griot Gathering Web Page

Power and Lights On, Part Two
On Tuesday, April 15th I tagged along with the 250 person-strong Pay Up KCP&L Tax Day Parade from Barney Allis Plaza to the Bank of America Building (which houses not only Bank of America but also KCP&L and Great Plains Energy), AMC Theaters and Computer Sciences Corp.  Designed to highlight the way these organizations' millionaire CEO’s and the corporations themselves avoid paying taxes 99% of Americans do, this was an amazingly effective piece of street theater.  Marchers told their 99% stories and organizers presented oversized checks estimating taxes left unpaid by the rich.  The march was generally accompanied by honking horns and smiles by passers by, and, after an initial show of force, even the poker-faced security at Bank of America did not seem unsympathetic.

Because of its profit driven model, the utilities company (and its parent company Great Plains Energy) uses decreases in its profits as an excuse to raise rates and downsize.  Last year, the company eliminated 150 positions, and it has raised rates by 66% over the past six years.  Meanwhile, this company pays no federal income taxes and, as Lenny Jones of the SEIU Healthcare union pointed out, CEOs aren’t paying tax rates comparable to their administrative staff.  

The demonstration was peaceful, good-natured and unifying.  A mock court proceeding outside of the Bank of America building brought much needed humor to a serious situation, while unforgettably illustrating the fundamental injustice.  If demonstrations seek to help people feel their strength in the face of power, the Tax Day Parade managed to not only achieve that aim but find the fun in the process.

Pay Up KCP&L will meet again on May 1st at 9:00 a.m. at the JC Nichols fountain before confronting a meeting of KCP&L shareholders from 10:00 to 11:30.  If you could make it, I know you wouldn’t be sorry, and your support would be more than welcome.