I’m thrilled to report that tomorrow morning I’m headed back to Jamaica for the first time in a couple years. It’ll also be the first time in a decade for Rebecca, and the very first time for Nico and Charlie. I can’t describe how excited I am to see their faces upon having a cold jelly, a sun-ripened banana, some ackee & saltfish, and other likkle wonders of the place. We’re very lucky to have the opportunity for a multigenerational vacation (Charlie 1.0 and Fern will be there too), to have dear friends in Kingston to receive us (bigup Sara & Marvin), and to have a lovely time ahead of us, both in town and up in Portland, arguably the most beautiful corner of a beautiful country.
Our vacation will no doubt stand in some contrast to the all-inclusive tourist-traps many college students and other folk are looking forward to this Spring Break. And so it seems as fitting a time as ever to re-run an excerpt from an ol’ “Jamaica Blog” post about our experience of an all-inclusive in Ocho Rios some 10 years back. (This was first published on 25 Feb 2003, so, yeah, still lagging a bit. Soon Come ;) I don’t feel like quite as strident a critic of other people’s experience of Jamiaca as I did 10 years ago, but I think it’s useful to register (and re-register) my experiences, aesthetics, and prejudices all the same. And I have to admit that the questions i raise at the end remain trenchant and recurring ones for me. We’ll see whether I have anything to say about all of that when I return next weekend.
L to R: sour sop, naseberry, naseberry tree, at our friend kush’s place, just outside ochi
after four weeks of living in jamaica, becca and i finally got a chance to spend a few days outside of kingston. becca was asked to speak at an internet forum being held in ocho rios by the ministry of utilities. for her part, she was provided accommodations at the hotel where the conference was to take place, the renaissance jamaica grande, a subsidiary of marriott, the largest and most prominent all-inclusive resort in the attractive coastal town. (ocho rios stands third to montego bay and negril as a tourist spot in jamaica.) despite the pre-packaged feel we suspected the hotel would have, we were both looking forward to spending some time on a beach and taking a little holiday. moreover, we were curious about the hotel, wanting to compare our experience in jamaica so far with the jamaica that most tourists are shown. we were glad to have a complimentary chance to check it out.
since i was conducting workshops at the american school on thursday, i decided to meet becca in ocho rios later in the day (she left at five am). i had planned to take a bus from kingston, which seemed to be an inexpensive and interesting prospect. it turned out, however, that one of the companies at the conference was offering a cruise departing at 5:30 that evening, so i chartered a taxi to get me there quickly (the ride can take well under two hours, depending on traffic and the driver’s desire to tempt fate). driving in jamaica is quite an experience. never mind the wrong side of the road problem, which, for the passenger (being a driver, i assume, requires more adjustment) quickly loses its jarring effect. taking corners and passing cars in kingston is often enough of an adventure. taking corners and passing cars (sometimes several at once) as one winds through the mountains, pedal to the floor, is a more grueling experience.
my driver was an excellent driver, which did a little to assuage my frequent fear of hurtling to my death. i don’t think he ever let up on the gas so long as he could accelerate, which meant down-shifting — not breaking — and speeding up around tight corners, getting as close as possible to the rapidly traveling (though never rapidly enough) car ahead, and passing caravans of slower cars if possible. that said, my driver did an impressive job. he was easily the fastest car on the road (no one passed us anyway), partly because he knew the winding road so well that he traced it incredibly efficiently. i asked him how many times he had driven this route. “how many times? nuff times, mon. sunday, tuesday, and wednesday of this week.” i got the point. he had been driving twenty-years, probably with this kind of weekly frequency through the mountains. he got me to ocho rios in the time he said he would (two hours), which was rather fast considering the thursday afternoon traffic.
having, towards the end, grown a bit nauseated by the twisting, turning, and lurching, i was not looking forward to a cruise. but it was refreshing and reinvigorating to pass through fern gully (a cool, damp stretch of road, surrounded by ferns on both sides, and covered overhead by a thick canopy of trees) and then into town, sun still shining. i shouldn’t skip over the beautiful ride by focusing on the dangerous driving. the roads through the mountains have granted me some of the most gorgeous glimpses of grand jamaica i have ever beheld. from kingston, you pass through spanish town (with its central-but-abandoned colonial-era courtyards) then you ascend into the hills, where before long, the vegetation grows denser and the air cooler. soon enough, you are driving along high mountain roads through bamboo forests. here and there people sell fresh fruit, mostly mangoes and otaheite apples. then the vegetation recedes a bit, villages spring up, and the descent begins. fern gully makes for a fitting cool down in the final stretch before the coast. once through fern gully, ocho rios springs up fairly quickly. dancehall reggae fills the air from several directions as soundsystems (advertising that night’s dance or a particular record store), cars, and vendor’s carts take part in an informal soundclash (the dancehall term for a competition between soundsystems). the jamaica grande is located right on the beach and right off the main road. i paid my driver JA$3000 (US$60), which is the standard fare for the journey in a taxi (the prices dive for buses: JA$125 – 250, or US$3-5), and not a bad price considering that my stay at the hotel would cost me nothing.
i met becca at the aptly titled “fantasy pool,” which, i noticed, was cleaned every morning by a shirtless dread, the stella-got-her-groove-back type. the cruise left from the hotel dock. (you really never have to leave the hotel.) it was not worth the breakneck pace of the drive through the mountains, but it was a good introduction to the culture of the jamaica grande (not, mind you, the culture of jamaica. oh, no. this was an entirely different animal). we shoved off with twin speakers blaring lovers rock at us, a little heavy on the treble, and set off down the coast to dunn’s river falls, a famous waterfall nearby. it was a nice enough view from the boat, but not quite worth the trip. still, the sunset was lovely, and then the stars. and the rum punch (white overproof rum mixed with water and syrup) hit the spot. the water got very choppy and we had to head in early because some people, myself not included (remarkably enough), were feeling ill. we cruised back into the hotel bay and camped out in the calm waters while a man entertained us all by eating fire, ripping apart a coconut with his teeth, and lifting up women by the belt with his teeth. then there was a limbo and a beer-drinking contest. i kid you not. participation was lackluster (we’re talking about internet service providers here), especially since the prizes were promotional company-logo polo-shirts. “hey, that would look sharp on the golf course! or on casual friday!” thoreau says beware any enterprise that requires new clothes, especially promotional polo-shirts.
the rest of the jamaica grande was less impressive than the boat ride. for an expensive resort, the lack of quality was astounding. the all-you-can-eat buffet was practically inedible, though becca and i knew quite well (and confirmed on friday night) that there was absolutely astounding food to be had around town. they couldn’t even put out fresh, local fruit or juice, never mind fish, bammie, and calalloo. (world of fish on james avenue, a short walk from the hotel, is not to be missed. even so, one is lucky to see another white face in the vicinity, especially after sundown.). it seemed as if, in truly contemporary jamaican fashion, everything was imported. the beach was a flimsy, artificial-looking strip along a stale bay. white girls aged 10-18 walked around with their hair in complimentary braids. a high percentage of guests — over half were american, and there seemed to be an inordinate number of italians this weekend — could best be described as resembling whales or lobsters, and there were plenty of lobsterish whales. the music and “culture” were completely canned. consider, for example, the dinner-time serenade of a smooth-jazz-ish reggae band doing lionel richie covers or the friday night faux-naughtiness of doing the limbo and conga-line-dancing to the lascivious sounds of trinidadian soca (“turn it around and push it back in” [repeat ad nauseum]). compare this music with the dancehall and roots reggae pounding away, day and night, in the center of town — just a stone’s throw away. to the detriment of their own experience, and certainly their cultural horizons, the all-included set miss out on the vibrant local music scene as much as they miss out on ochi’s culinary delights.
it would be incorrect to call the hotel’s bizarre mix of cultural signs a representation of jamaicanness, for the mix was too messy and the focus too vague. to be more precise, we might talk about the hotel’s “projection of caribbeanness,” which struck somewhere between exoticism and familiar fun. one wonders how much the presentation is fueled by the guests’ actual desire or by an assumption on the part of the proprietors (who are american) that such is the experience people desire. i am sure it is more of a push-and-pull than any supply/demand model could attempt to explain. still, i can’t help but feel cynical about the phenomenon. don’t get me wrong: i hold no delusion that there is some “authentic” jamaica to be found and presented, oyster-like, to fat, ignorant american tourists or to naive anthropologists or to reggae lovers. the real jamaica is, of course, all of the jamaicas anyone imagines. the projection of the idyllic and carefree jamaica creates some serious tension when compared with, say, the reputation of jamaica as the country with the highest murder rate. (the tension jumps out of the little pink booklet of dos-and-don’ts that the hotels distribute to guests.) for all of the fantasy, one always bumps up against the stark reality of poverty, of desperation, of hunger. but perhaps not if one never leaves the hotel.
i am deeply interested in the concept of authenticity, at least partly because i recognize that it operates on my own perception, my “reception,” or interpretation, of various texts, cultural and literal. i also see the way it plays into other people’s ideas about life and art, essence and appearance, soul and race. it is good to confront oneself about what one deems to be real and why. what is involved in such a value judgment? what kind of assumptions undergird the determinations we make, the reactions we have, especially to cultural materials (e.g., music, film, advertisements, language, social practices)? examining the way that i react to music that i deem to be authentic or not, and asking myself why and how i confer authenticity to something, is usually an edifying experience. the conversation about hip-hop, including and far-exceeding the lyrics themselves, is pervaded by the question of what, or more often, who, is real. i am curious about how authenticity is communicated in sonic terms — what are the musical signs which convey the real? i wonder how it works as a psychological process — is it a kind of elicited empathy? i wonder about the negative ideas that often travel with things deemed authentic — how are one’s ideas about race, about the inherent differences and aptitudes of groups of people, informed, reinforced, or challenged by the experience of the “real” in music? i wonder whether by making the machinery of authenticity more visible, i can challenge people’s complacency about their received knowledge. i wonder whether happy italian tourists give a damn. i doubt it.
me & naseberry tree, in a quieter and prettier (if less “grande”) part of ochi
Initially serving as an outlet for the IDM scene and its offspring, the label has since undergone a series of radical overhauls, consistently wrong-footing its detractors and cementing its position at the forefront of all things electronic. In the mid-2000s the label served as an essential platform for dubstepâs launch into the mainstream; in recent years it has become renowned for championing Chicago footwork, helping to plant a previously obscure music firmly in the global musical consciousness.
With footwork for example, how did you discover that? Was it something you stumbled across?
MP: âYeah. I think Wayneandwax posted something on his blog, maybe, and I clicked a link. Then I just followed all the YouTube links from there, and there was shitloads of stuff, and it was all completely amazing in its own way. Although we got a lot of criticism from certain corners of Chicago for releasing DJ Nate. So then I suppose we had to redress the balance slightly.â
Noncommital attribution or not, I do appreciate the nod. (Thanks, Mike, if you still read on occasion.) Can’t help but be delighted by even the faintest possibility that this here blog had something to do with oddball Chicago bedroom / rec-room music crossing over into the global bass mainstream (for better and worse). I started blogging about juke back when I lived to Chicago and discovered imeem (at the same damn time). Sudden juke goldmine even if everything was pretty much streaming at horribly compressed levels. And I was a certified Nate booster, so that might explain some things too. If this really was the chain of events, sure was a roundabout way to finally score some Nate 320s!
Speaking of betterdom or worsement, allow me to share a bit more:
In general do the Chicago scene approve of what youâve done with footwork?
MP: âI think they just want to make money. I mean I think they care whether theyâve been represented, individually, correctly or not, obviously. And that the scene has been represented OK. And thatâs why they didnât like what had happened about DJ Nate â self-appointed scene members were upset by it. But above that, I suppose everyone wants to be successful. I think artistically we were successful [with Footwork], but it hasnât been the best-selling thing. Some of the artists made advances from us, and thatâs been good for them. And Rashad and Spinn have been playing out a lot. Iâve always wanted Hyperdub to release some [footwork]. Because I felt like people were looking at Mu as if it was mental, releasing all this Chicago footwork. I wanted not to be alone. Though there are a lot of labels releasing pseudo-footwork â even us, even Planet Mu.â
What sort of things are you referring to?
MP: âPeople like Machinedrum. FaltyDL has been doing a bit of it, though I donât think itâs been released. I think Machinedrumâs has been successful in that it wasnât emulating footwork â he was taking a deeper sort of response to it. But there has been a lot of other things â like Krampfhaft â itâs all a bit pyrotechnic-ey. I donât think the European and white American response, unless youâre in the [Chicago] scene, has been that successful. Itâs not very grassroots is it, itâs just part of the post-dubstep scene, and so thereâs not really a big reason for it to exist other than, âOh Iâve been listening to a bit of this, Iâm going to put it in my musicâ. Some of itâs more successful than others. I think the first successful track for me â apart from Machinedrum â was Mark Pritchard as Africa Hi-Tech, âOut In The Streetsâ. But then Markâs a fucking great producer.â
My first reaction was: don’t blame me for future-juke! Just kidding, my actual first reaction was: gotta appreciate the candor. Paradinas appears to come by his love for and opinions about the music honestly. Gotta appreciate as well that he’s put some Chicago-based producers, established and emergent, into circulation for entirely new publics — and into little more posterity than the socialmedia “platform” du jour.
The Young Smoke album Planet Mu put out last year was one of my favorite things of 2012 and still resides on my smartphone many months later (which is something, trust me). To think that I might have had some passing influence on the processes that led to this music finding me 6 years later puts a little smile on my face, no lie.
I’ve already fallen behind on my goal of reblogging our ‘03 Jamaica Blog in sync with this year’s calendar. But since I don’t plan on re-running every single post (and since you can still see them here), I haven’t built up too huge a queue yet. Speaking of queues, the following re-post is one of my favorites from our time in Jamaica, expressing vividly — including a handy visual aid! — our deeply frustrating encounters with Jamaica’s bloated bureaucracy. Given the topic, I shouldn’t make you wait any longer. Here goes…
i left my pro-tools system in cambridge because i thought my laptop would be sufficient for organizing sound and creating music here and because the system would have been way too much to carry (the mixing board itself is not big, but the computer it runs on is). during my second week here, however, it became clear that the pro-tools system would be indispensable to my efforts. there is a good amount of interest on the part of many artists down here to collaborate with me, which, as far as i’m concerned, creates some rather ideal circumstances for trying to understand the musical choices that people make and why.
late last week, upon his return to cambridge, charlie fed-exed me a large suitcase containing the pro-tools mixing board, the computer, mouse, and keyboard. we received a note saying that it was being held at customs at the airport, that we needed to bring a number of mysterious forms with us, and that charges would begin to accrue if we did not pick up our package within one week. remembering our awful experience running back and forth between various ministries to get our visas extended, becca and i were prepared for the worst. we made sure to call both fed-ex and customs ahead of time to make sure we would have everything in order and would not be sent home from the airport (an expensive cab ride that we would rather not have to repeat). we were told that all we needed was the notice itself, some identification, and plenty of cash (“be prepared,” was, i believe, the way they phrased it).
we took a taxi to the airport and went to the customs office, but it turned out that we needed to go to a separate fed-ex facility a bit down the road. upon reaching the building, we were waved into the parking lot by a man in a bright white-shirt gesticulating rather frenetically. not knowing whether he worked there or not, but assuming by his clothing and his officiousness that he did, i handed the papers to him, which he was grabbing out of my hands at any rate. he flipped through the pages, already printed in triplicate, and mumbled things like, “oh, this is very bad,” “you will have some trouble,” “you will need three copies of this,” and so on. it soon became apparent that he did not work there but was offering to help me out, bypassing official channels (he introduced me to a “customs official,” who was dressed similarly, but had a badge, and who claimed that if i attained a c-79 form inside he could get me my package within a week — not a promising agreement). to be honest, i was not sure whether these guys were telling me the truth or just trying to get some money from me. it seemed totally plausible that they could guide me through the bureaucracy and get me my package faster, but at the same time i didn’t want to be taken for a sucker, especially when such valuable belongings were at stake. taking my papers back, i told them i would try my hand inside, but thanks for the help. they said i would be back. they were right.
we went into the building and joined the queue. a security guard approached us and told us that we would indeed need three copies of the first form. no one had told us this when we called, of course. and where could we get copies made? outside, he told us. of course. at this point, i became deeply distrustful of the entire place, feeling that everyone was in collusion, but i wanted to get my computer, so i went back outside while becca stayed in line. after a few i-told-you-sos and a few JA$20 coins, the man went off to make the copies for me (through the back of the same building), leaving me with his customs-officer partner. the freelance “officer” again offered his services. i complained about the system here: the impenetrable and illogical bureaucracy, the corruption, the chaos of it all. he told me matter-of-factly, and a bit pridefully, that there was no avoiding the system. fair enough, but i was not about to support its messy outgrowth if i did not have to. i got my copies and walked back toward the building, knowing full well that i may have to come back out and swallow my own pride.
i rejoined becca in the queue, which had not budged. the customs office was small: two window-partitioned cubicles, a long desk opposite them, a small desk wedged between a cashier’s window and a room with a mirror-plated door, and, across from this, another door opening out into a large, cardboard-box-filled warehouse. the path that i would take through this small room over the next hour was stupefying in its zig-zag pattern, its redundancy, its absurdity. this is bureaucracy at its worst: too many people doing too little and exercising every bit of power they have at every opportunity. i went to each spot at least once, had to present my passport at nearly every checkpoint, and never knew whether people were dealing with me on the up-and-up. i understand that such a system of checkpoints and paperwork is in place to limit the possibility of theft or the smuggling of contraband into the country. nevertheless, i feel the need to illustrate the surreality of the experience, which made last week’s travels, or travails, between the ministries of labor and national security seem like a cup of tea. so pardon the detail. (see becca’s diagram for an intricate pictorial representation, whose colors paint the experience as more cheerful than it was, of our customs house wanderings.)
we finally reached the end of the first queue, where i submit my papers, including the three additional copies i had procured (which, in fact, turned out to be quite necessary). the man behind the window checked my passport, put a number of stamps on a number of things, signed within the stamps, generated a several carbon-copy forms to add to my pile, and accepted JA$300 (about US$6) for his labor. next, i was sent to the adjacent cubicle, where i re-presented my passport and papers, which were stamped a bit more. the man behind the window collected a copy for himself (at each stage, some paperwork was generated and retained) and gave me a carbon-copy form, the famous c-79, to fill out. the same security guard who sent me back outside was very helpful in assisting me with the form. from there, i first went to the warehouse door, presenting one copy to a man who would fetch my package, and then to the other side of the room, to a small desk where a young woman once again verified my identity, took more copies, generated more forms, and sent me back to the warehouse door to get my package. there the suitcase stood in pretty good shape (much better than the dented cardboard boxes which littered the place and frightened me with the prospect that my computer had experienced similar handling). the next stop was the long desk, where someone would determine how much i had to pay to bring my computer into the country. at first, no one was there and it seemed that we may have to wait for some time, especially if the fellow had gone to lunch. fortunately, someone emerged from behind the mirror-plated door soon enough. the clerk asked me to open the suitcase so he could inspect its contents. there, under a pillow and surrounded by foam, was my computer, the mixing board, the peripherals, and, in a little stroke of genius by charlie, a copy of the no substitute cd. the clerk quickly reached for the cd, saying, “this fellow looks familiar,” giving me the chance to explain that i use this very computer to make my music, that my name is actually wayne marshall, that i’m into dancehall and rap, etc. the whole tenor of things changed after this exchange. i told him he could keep the copy of the cd, if he was nice to me, and he seemed grateful and cooperative. he totaled up the tax to JA$700, and sent me behind the mirror-glass door to get yet another new form signed by a woman inside. next, i went to the cashier’s window to pay the charge. the cashier was already listening to “no substitute” and seemingly enjoying it. a co-worker in the cashier’s office was surprised by the opening track with its dancehall rhythm and amused by the wayne&wax name. (oddly enough, wayne is quite a popular name in jamaica. i have probably met and/or heard of at least twenty to thirty jamaican waynes.) after paying i was sent back to the long desk, where my papers were validated once again by the same woman who was digging “no sub” in the cashier’s office. she did some more paperwork and then sent me back across to the second cubicle i had visited. there i was given a final carbon-copy form, which would get me through the security at the door. at each of the two security check-points i gave the guard the proper copy of the form, and my passport, and we were finally done. we got in our cab (we paid the driver to wait for us) and headed back into town in time to make our third meeting of the day.
it was a long and harrowing day. carrying around a couple heavy bags, loaded with computer equipment, tired me out and gave me a splitting headache. when we finally got home, we took cold showers, had a drink on the porch, and tried to relax a bit. we made ackee and saltfish for dinner and watched the local news. given the day’s events, i was extremely amused by an excerpt from the morning’s parliament meeting. the permanent secretary of finance, speaking on a problem with some inter-government accounting in nigeria, explained that “nigerian culture does not lend itself to good record keeping.” “sometimes,” he continued, “you cannot get an original invoice.” the irony of this statement was just too much for me at this point in the day. i cracked up laughing. i must admit that i am a little apalled by the degree to which many jamaicans — especially those working for the government or some other sprawling corporation — not only accept but naturalize the thick bureaucracy here, as if proper paperwork is innate to “jamaican culture.” as if anything is. surely, the british are responsible for these structures: how better to keep the reigns tight on colonial control than to regulate the most mundane comings-and-goings through a labyrinthine process, subject to the arbitrary exercise of power along each rung of the ladder. though the brits officially took their leave in ‘62, it seems that jamaicans have adopted many of their practices and structures uncritically, sometimes with pride.
shortly after the news, i began to feel quite ill: my headache worsened, i got the chills, my joints began to ache, my nose grew congested. i was overtaken by flu-like symptoms. my worst fears kept whispering, “ackee-poisoning,” but i was pretty sure i just had the flu, or some similar stomach-bug. forced into bed before 9 pm, i spent most of the night tossing and turning, feeling my body slowly recover. i got a chance, with all my restlessness, to listen closely to kingston’s night noise. as the cars on hope became less frequent and noisy, the dogs began their all-night barking. they were joined a little before sunrise by the crowing of cocks. soon the cars began again, and by about 7, the kids were arriving at school next door, filling the air with the sounds of play. had i felt at all able to get out of bed, i would have made more recordings (the dogs were especially impressive last night). [2013 note: hear recordings of these sounds at this re-post.]
the most disappointing result of my sudden illness was that i was unable to attend a wayne marshall sing-alike competition at a nearby club. my jamaican doppleganger has made quite a name for himself with his sing-songy style, and i would have loved to see a room of people trying to judge who sounded most like the “tr-true-true” wayne marshall. talk about life in triplicate: here was the chance to see a dozen wayne marshalls! supposedly, wayne marshall himself was to attend, and i am sorry i missed the chance to bear witness to such weirdness and to meet the other mr. marshall. at some point, perhaps in the not too distant future, i will get a chance to cause a little trouble with my name, confronting wayne with his american double, and really get underway on some mobius-strip-style research. alas, last night was not the night.
ps — I’ve still never met the Jamaican Wayne Marshall in the 10 years since this post, despite no small number of mutual friends or offers to introduce us. Someone needs to rectify this! Also, can an ethnomusicoloblogger get a disambiguation page or what?
Here’s another ten-years-gone re-post from the initial instantiation of my blog, back in 2003 when Rebecca and I moved to Jamaica for six months of doctoral research — and, as a side gig (if one deeply intertwined with my research), a series of digital music workshops in schools and prisons.
What I’m going to do in this case is cobble together and remix two overlapping posts by yours truly and my “companion on Hope Road” — detailing a trip to a nearby high school where we conducted one of our first workshops after moving to Kingston, exactly 10 years ago today. Mainly, what I want to share here are the ebullient sounds of students at St. Andrew High School for Girls freestyling about an upcoming teacher’s strike — and working up some first-time beats.
Howard Campbell is a teacher at St. Andrew High School for girls, just down the road from us in Halfway Tree. He is the head of the computer labs and the coordinator for all kinds of technology education at St. Andrew. We met him at the Harvard-Jamaica Association meeting where he had come with his friend Marvin, not because they were from Harvard or cared at all about a Harvard Alumni Association, but because they were educators interested in our project. In fact, it seemed that from experience both Howard and Marvin had learned that top-down organizations, such as the association we were forming and the school system in Kingston-St. Andrew were not the best way to get things done. They encouraged us to start from the teachers in the schools if we wanted to get in and start working. After seeing Wayne’s demo, Howard offered St. Andrew as a good place to start. Yesterday we went to St. Andrew for the first time.
At 8am we had a class of 4th formers (10th grade). We were to do a demo with them in this period and then a workshop with them from 10-11 in the computer lab. When Wayne got Fruityloops up on the screen and started talking, the class was polite and paid attention. Once he hit the first kick drum, they began to look really interested. And as soon as he put up a little hip-hop beat and then turned it into the grindin’ beat, they were hooked. (Side note: from Cambridge to Kingston, it seems that kids everywhere are loving the grindin’ beat and banging it out on their desks. Way to go Neptunes.) They started dancing in their chairs when he showed them how to make some dancehall. Next he made a song with the class, getting a few brave souls to make some noises and sing a bit and putting it together into a dancehall rhythm:
[2013 Wayne here just pointing out the obvious reference here to "In Da Club," another ubiquitous song at this time.]
At 9 they reluctantly left for their next class, seemingly a combination of a particular attachment to Mr. Campbell, interest in what Wayne was doing, and dislike of whatever they would have to do for the next hour.
At 10, girls piled in and sat one or two to a computer. Wayne managed to hold their attention for a few minutes to repeat some basics. And they got started. I was glad I had watched Wayne so much and messed around on Fruityloops myself because there were too many questions for Wayne to handle by himself. Girls went at different paces and made every kind of music from dancehall to techno. As they would run into trouble, Wayne would go to them and give them a few pointers to keep them moving in a good direction. At 11 they were all still going strong. Howard came and told us that it was their lunch period, but if we didn’t mind, they could stay. We didn’t mind. Most of them stayed through most of their lunch period and came away with some pretty good little songs.
Cue 2003 Wayne:
the workshop proved to be quite productive, if a little cacophonous at times. (half a dozen computers blasting beats together in a small room can create quite a sound clash, to use the local term; headphones are helpful). through their own predilections, and the contingent curve-balls of the creative process, the girls came up with some diverse stylings. “catherine’s rock rhythm” (as she titled it), probably takes its name from the “dirty-guitar” sample that, unfortunately, is missing here since i seem to be missing it in my own sound bank (i am converting it to mp3 on my laptop today, away from the school). nevertheless, it puts a strong foot forward with its bouncy bed of techno–not the most popular genre here but one in which a couple of girls decided to create.
sydoney and zelieka collaborated to create a rhythm that, while borrowing from the neptune’s ubiquitous grindin’ beat (in the third and fourth bars of each six-bar, AABBAA phrase), almost defies category with its future-funk, electro-slanted hip-hop.
and “shanika’s hip-hop beat” is, quite honestly, one of the illest things i have heard in a while. not bad for a first try!
we went home to have lunch and do laundry. at two o’clock we headed back to the school to do another demo–this one for an afterschool music club, which seemed like an appropriate audience. howard told us on the way down hope road that a buzz was already passing through the school, accelerated in part by my famous name. we had some time to see the grounds before the music club meeting, so howard showed us around. most impressive was a front courtyard where girls were hanging out and waiting to be picked up from school.
one group of girls stood in a circle under a tree, coaxing a makeshift rhythm out of an empty coke bottle and an igloo thermos. they were DJing, laughing, dancing and exhorting each other. it was an absolutely wonderful moment of improvisation and collective music-making. as howard (with his video camera), i (with mic and laptop), and becca (with her digital camera) moved in for some samples, it was clear that this cipher was no rehearsal. these girls were not only creating extemporaneous raps in DJ-style, they were humorously riffing on the topic of the hour: the imminent teachers’ strike and the small holiday the students would enjoy.
as the girls waited for the beat to begin again (having located another empty coke bottle), one called out for them to freestyle, dubbing the day “freestyle friday” — a reference to a popular segment during a music-video program on BET. the seamlessness of this reference in the context of the girls’ play is another testament to the fluidity of cultural forms here: hip-hop and other american exports are absorbed and spun back out, sometimes more and sometimes less like a copy. today was no copy. the girls may have assimilated the hip-hop term for in-the-moment rap, but their form was strictly dancehall. [Indeed, though I didn't realize it at the time, they were closely riffing on a beloved Shabba ranks routine.]
hear the distinctive 3+3+2 dancehall beat, the staccato, end-rhyme style of the vocals, the chorus of gun-shot-big-ups that follow the first good rhyme, the “booyaka” refrain — more onamatopoetic gunfire — that cracks everyone up. listen closer for the topicality of the text: “ting-a-ling-a-ling / school bell nuh ring / go and mek the teacher buy the bling-bling.” the call to give the teachers some money to buy jewelry and other nice things [but also basics, like "dumpling"] is at once a crack at those not providing for their teachers and a good-natured ribbing for the teachers themselves (who are either impoverished or greedy by implication). and lest one think these students are disappointed about school being cancelled, they dispel any such notions with a “no school” celebratory chant.
back to Bec for a sec:
“No school, no school!” was the main refrain and the main topic of conversation. Why? A nation-wide teacher’s strike is scheduled for Monday and Tuesday as a demonstration of dissatisfaction with the wage increase that the teacher’s union and the government have negotiated. Here, as in the U.S. but on a more extreme scale, the teachers are drastically underpaid and their work undervalued. Howard takes the problem quite seriously and is an active participant in organizing some form of peaceful resistance. He is clearly a caring and beloved teacher. He supports programs like ours as a way to move education forward in Jamaica. He is just the sort of person one would want to see standing up for the rights of teachers because it is teachers like him who demonstrate how much a teacher’s work is worth.
And I’ll pile on just a little more:
many of the students were worried about the strike, including a number of them pursuing a rumor that howard, a clear favorite at st. andrews, would be resigning. as various girls ran up to greet him after school, howard assuaged their fears and pointed out that, although he may be “on strike,” as they could see, he was still at school, and well into afterschool hours. as we continued walking through the grounds, on our way back to the computer lab, we came across a girl practicing piano in a large performance hall that stands in the middle of the campus. i got a little of her rendition of beethoven’s moonlight sonata on my laptop, a chord of which ended up in the song i created with music club, who decided to do their own little version of sean paul’s terribly popular, “gimme the light.” [n.b.: fairly horribly harmonized -- or not at all, really -- on my part]
after the demo, which was received positively, complete with (in true jamaican style) some fairly formal and very charming thanks from the music club’s spokesperson, i went back to the lab to collect the tracks that the students had created in the morning so that i could post them on the blog. at four o’clock on a friday afternoon, the lab was full of girls making music, most of them new. very promising indeed.
Almost incredibly, it was ten years ago today that I put my first blogpost online, less than a week into a six month stay in Kingston for doctoral research, accompanied by my better half — my partner on Hope Road, as I ultimately dedicated the dissertation — who blogged along with me. Written in plain ol’ HTML — if I had known about the recently launched Blogger, I would have jumped on it — and posted to a domain that I let lapse long ago (but which is all archived here), it began bloggily enough:
it is my intention to keep a daily, or near daily, weblog of my thoughts, experiences, and other media that i record or create while in jamaica. not only is this a great way to force myself to articulate some things on a regular basis, but i hope that by sharing ideas, sounds, and images with a larger audience i can invite others to get in on the conversation.
A great deal of that first post is, frankly, hard for me to read (probably for you too — don’t feel obliged). And not just for the typical reasons of feeling like a different person and cringing at my naive former self. No, it’s just some really awful writing, almost the whole way through. Not only is it rather muddled (if, ok, a first post and an attempt to condense several days of activity and months of preparation), it’s riddled by doubt and qualification, on the one hand, and by smugness and narcissism on the other. Shit, maybe my writing is still like that, but I think I’ve been able to get away from some truly bad grad-school habits over the years, especially the endless hedging and explication. It’s funny that even then I was consciously struggling with these issues –
to some extent i am striving to expunge jargon from my vocabulary and to speak and write in clear, simple prose. on the other hand, i am swayed by the feeling that i can express myself more succinctly and precisely with these newly accented words of critical/cultural/post- studies. words which tend to sound either vague or big to the uninitiated. words like discourse and liminal.
LOL. I can’t even tell if I’m being sarcastic there at the end. Despite the cringeworthy moments, I have to remind myself that I was writing in a strange hybrid style mixing personal fieldnotes and public-facing presentation — not only unorthodox from the perspective of field research but with little aside from gonzo journalism as a guide (not that I was trying to do that either). It was a risky voice to assume at the time, and it’s still a dangerzone I find myself inhabiting here and on Twitter and every other (semi)public forum where private/unguarded/frank talk mingles with more carefully crafted performances.
I’d be remiss not to note that the way I ultimately got myself through that awfully awkward phase was, fairly simply, by keeping up a “near daily” regimen of putting my words together and putting them out there for anyone to see — just as I had promised to do. But I shouldn’t exactly say “got myself,” since it was the engagement and encouragement from friends and strangers that made these posts into something more than notes to myself. As folks found the blog and left comments and sent me emails, a deeply fulfilling and remarkably fast feedback loop began to emerge (especially in comparison to academic conventions and tempos). Over the years, such a discipline — in combination with a real community of co-readers (reading me but also reading the world along with me) — has helped me to find a voice that feels less awkward and more authentic. I’m grateful there’s a record of all of that, even if earlier versions of myself are sometimes, as they say, not a good look.
forever <3 that tam becca knit me tho
In lieu of reposting much prose from my initial post here, I’d like instead to highlight some short recordings I posted, mostly attempts to record and represent our new soundscape but a couple whimsical collages too and snippets that, looking back, seem to capture some little moments pretty vividly.
Like an aborted excursion on Hope Road, cut short by sudden rain–
Or the sounds of kids playing at the primary school across the street — quite a delightful part of our daily soundscape:
Or the stray dogs that liked to hang out in the yard behind our apartment and bark and howl, often pathetically, at night — not quite as delightful, but an inescapable part of the sound of Kingston:
A few weeks later I chopped up the barking and whining for “Dog Gone Diwali,” a humorous attempt to cut-and-paste some very local sounds into a riddim that was at that moment totally ubiquitous and which I wanted to better understand by recomposing (this was the spring that Sean Paul’s “Get Busy” ran the world, though I swear “Sufferer” was the more popular Diwali voicing inna JA):
Along those lines, my initial post also included an odd bit of dancehall concrĂšte, a piece I whipped up in front of and with the help of a live audience at an ICT conference Rebecca and I attended in the hope of making some contacts to help with our volunteer work in prisons and schools. This was a little schtick of mine back then — making a little ditty out of the sounds people would make in front of my laptop — sometimes with great results, sometimes more meh, but usually at least producing an interesting memento of sorts, e.g.:
Over the course of this spring I hope to revisit a number of the more interesting posts from our likkle Jamrock fieldwork adventure. If they’re not too embarrassingly full of qualifiers and parentheticals, I might even run one on occasion as a full re-post here. I don’t think any readers, even longtime friends of W&W, should be too annoyed. I mean, really, it’s been ten years!
Today I’ve got a Q&A with Jared Demick at his site The Jivin’ Ladybug, a “Skewered Journal of the Arts” or in slightly plainer terms, “an online arts journal devoted to word-whittlers, picture-pizzazzers, & sound-slingers, all over this here globe!” Though the latter most obviously describes me, and the middle option may seem more dubious, I like to consider myself all three. (I mean, look at that picture of a ladybug drawn in sidewalk chalk — full of pizzazz!)
At any rate, Jared asked a bunch of questions about the stuff that I do and think about, and because I think it offers a good glimpse at my current thoughts about blogging and DJing and meaningful mixes, world music 2.0 and appropriation, and platform politricks, to name a few, I’m cross-posting the convo here too. Without further ado–
How does your DJing & academic work connect with each other?
I discover a lot of music in my research, and DJing allows me to “activate” these tracks in a new social setting, to sit with them and hear and feel them in new ways, and to share them with other people. As someone who studies DJ culture, and as something of an old-school participant-observer, I think it’s pretty crucial to put my intellectual work into practice in this way. Another way to look at it, though, is that my abiding love for music propels all that I do, and I’ve managed — or attempted — to chart a course where sharing music is central to my life and work.
What got you blogging so extensively?
I started blogging back in 2003 when I moved to Jamaica to do research for my dissertation, which largely consisted of visiting dancehall events and recording studios and turning my own apartment into a collaborative space for making and talking about music. (One result of which, apart from the disseration, was my self-released album, Boston Jerk.) Initially I figured the blog would only be read by academic peers and family and friends, but I was happily surprised when it turned out that a wider readership of people who were interested in taking hip-hop and reggae (and their interplay) seriously had also found their way to my research-in-progress and thinking-aloud. More than anything, the deeply encouraging feedback loop of a community of co-readers (for I think of myself as engaged in a collective process of interpretation) is what turned the blog from a research experiment into the most important and fulfilling part of my work.
Does this âworld music 2.0â (or as you cheekily dub it âglobal ghettotechâ) phenomenon, this global mix nâ match of genres, leading to greater musical variation or homogenization? In other words, is it a scenario of capitalism doing cultural colonization or is it reflective of increased diasporic movements?
As much as I’m suspicious of how capitalism shapes and circulates culture, I don’t buy the “cultural grey-out” anxiety that haunted so much globalization theory in the 1990s. Examining hip-hop or reggae as a global phenomenon (which is to say, a trans-local thing) gives the lie to any sense that local transformations of these forms are simply imitative. It has been well observed, of course, that capitalism thrives in the production of novelty, so one could argue that the lack of homogenization is, in a sense, just as useful for selling things. At any rate, I think it would be hard to make a case for anything other than greater variety in terms of the music to which we have access today, and whereas “world music” used to be a fairly exotic product, I find some optimism in the newly quotidian qualities of “the world out there” in an age when media travels so instantly and rapidly, especially when coupled with an increasing recognition that our own neighborhoods (at least in fairly cosmopolitan cities) are amazing and rich repositories of world culture. To the extent that exposure to new sounds — rather than simply the products of the media capitals of the US — might engender a more mutual regard for each other, a respect and tolerance for difference, is about as good as it could get. That, and radical wealth redistribution. (But I wouldn’t wait on “world music” to deliver that.)
Are these emerging musical trends sticking around or do they rapidly rise and fade? Who are the primary producers and consumers?
The whole “world music 2.0″ scene is still pretty small and definitely marked by a hype-cycle dynamic. This is perhaps reflective of the “Western hipster” base for a lot of this stuff — at least once it’s been remediated by DJs and bloggers. But for every bandwagoneer, there are people whose interest in new sounds serves to drive their curiosity about other places, about other histories and narratives, and even about other people in their own local communities. Of course, we shouldn’t let out of sight that lots of these exciting sounds from around the world are emerging from rich local scenes which could care less about a few downstream DJs and bloggers (although, on the other hand, there are clearly some opportunities to be had, lest only the middlemen make the metropolitan money). But the production of the music that circulates on blogs and Soundcloud as a sort of “WM2.0″ is no longer entirely “outsourced,” if you will. Rather, instead of simply “digging” for far-flung sounds and scenes (a la funk carioca, kuduro, cumbia), as the case of moombahton shows, new genres have emerged that partake of the templates and circuits for “global ghettotech” while being almost completely unmoored or grounded in any particular place, hence inviting a broader sort of participation (especially from more privileged corners) and perhaps entailing a different approach toward exoticism.
Why do economically disadvantaged urban areas (the ghetto, favela, barrio, shantytown, and its many other manifestations) play such a prominent role in the circulation of this material?
For all their actual impoverishment (or one might say because of it), ghettos are also immense sites of creativity — and, part and parcel of that, powerful repositories of authenticity. I would alter your question to note that while these places play a prominent role in the production of this material, they are less involved in its circulation. Increasingly, grassroots producers from around the world are using “social media” to share their productions with their peers and wider audiences, but a lot of the wider circulation of these genres is being initiated by web-trawling bloggers and DJs who are enthralled by the stuff they’re hearing. Sometimes the grounds for that fascination and/or empathy are spurious, sometimes sincere.
Do you see any political ramifications to this increased cultural dialogue?
It’s not always clear to me that this phenomenon entails a “dialogue” except in a rather vague (and one-sided) sense. I do think that playing music for local audiences (say, here in the US) which is not what they typically encounter can do a sort of political-cultural work insofar as it reforms ideas about us/them. I tend to reserve my greatest hope for the locally transformative power of these engagements — that is, we can work in Boston or New York to reshape our own sense of our soundscapes and our neighbors, and ourselves.
What makes the contemporary musical practice of appropriating and recontextualizing sounds so prominent and attractive?
The relatively novel ease of cut-and-paste is what accounts for the prominence of these methods. As for their attractiveness, I think that recontextualization, reframing, and remaking culture is simply an elemental way that we make sense of the world and share that sense with others. Of course, the advent of the global internet also means that distant appropriations are easier and more commonplace than ever.
Youâve talked about how this emerging global musical culture is precariously archived within corporate platforms. How could we create a public, non-privatized space on the internet?
This is a serious problem for posterity, and even for present practice. It reflects both a corporate capture of “public” spaces as well as a new prioritization on the part of music-makers and -sharers toward immersion and participation. Toward remedying that — to the extent that people care to — I think we really need to develop (and invest in) new platforms that allow people to personally host (or better, collectively distribute) the media that we make or care to share. I wish there were a will to do this at a municipal or even federal level — to really do it with public funds, as an investment in infrastructure — but there are too many conflicts, I suspect, to make this possible now. So, this has to start with a collective but individual move toward our own servers, and with insisting that we keep copies of everything we post to the corporate platforms whose only value — beyond the user-interface they provide — is entirely generated by our presence and participation there. An open-source alternative to Facebook / Twitter / Soundcloud / YouTube that allows people to maintain more control over their digital culture would be a killer app to be sure.
In both your essays and your mixes, you chart out the routes of particular sounds such as the dembow riddim or the âzunguzung memeâ as they get reappropriated in a variety of different contexts. What kinds of insights about contemporary musical culture does such a method provide?
Since — as I think such mixes make audible — it’s not so easy to generalize about “appropriation” when a tune or drumbreak can clearly take so many forms and support such a diversity of messages, the most consistent insight has more to do with the fundamental flexibility and reconfigurability of musical forms (and cultural forms more generally). Although I think this phenomenon far predates the age of technological reproducibility — and results from the essentially mimetic basis of culture — I do think that, with regard to the contemporary, these mixes show not only that it’s easy and commonplace to appropriate or allude to or otherwise invoke and rework previous performances, but that a great deal of creativity, and localization of the power to affect an audience, is very audibly a part of the process.
Which of your currents projects are you most excited about?
I’ve got an ongoing project about the Boston soundscape that I’ve just extended recently with the publication of “Love That Muddy Ether” / Boston Pirate Party — a brief reflection on the rise of Caribbean low-power / pirate radio here in Boston and an audio collage that tries to encapsulate, and take some poetic liberties with, this city’s segregated soundscape. I’m also embarking, after a couple trips to Rotterdam last fall, on a book project about bubbling, the Dutch-Caribbean hyperactive twin of reggaeton, which seems, like kindred genres such as jungle and bhangra, to speak volumes about the musical mediation of a changing sense of place.
So, I know it seems like it’s been a quiet year here at W&W. It’s true that posts dropped off precipitously once things warmed up in May and I found myself outside with the kids a lot more often than at my laptop. My tweets and flicks have never really slowed — to the contrary actually, being easier outlets — but since my postdoc at MIT finished up, full-time daddy duty and part-time employment have clearly taken a toll on the frequency of my blogging.
I want to remedy that in 2012, since this remains one of the most fulfilling spaces/practices in my life. I’m a little sad that the conversation here has been gutted by, in addition to my own pauses, the dispersions of RSS, Twitter & FB, etc. But c’est la vie. I want to thank all of you who still stop by occasionally and tell me that you’ve missed me. I’ve missed you too, and I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
Anyway, to show I haven’t been a total slouch and since I never make actual end-of-year lists (despite plenty of kind invitations) and since many might have missed a gem or two buried under Beat Research announcements (which are sometimes jewels themselves), I figured I’d take this opportunity to be a bit of a self-linking jerk and put together a list of my own favorite bloggy/art/media work of the last year.
Hope you find some things worth revisiting — or checking for the first time. 2011 may have been slow here at W&W, but it hardly lacked for excitement. 2012 looms large. See you on the other side!
The first isn’t technically from 2011 but a late entry from 2010 that may have been missed by some already drawn deep into last year’s holidaze. It traces Bangladesh’s “Banana Boat” sample for Lil Wayne’s “6 Foot 7 Foot” to Harry Belafonte’s own complex engagements with the song. A classic tale of tangled musical borrowings and the meanings they make.
I <3 Dembow Dominicano. The way DR producers and audiences have held the torch aloft for the mid-90s proto-reggaeton style pioneered by Playero and The Noise collective is one piece of evidence that reggaeton hasn't at all run out of gasolina. So much more to say about this exciting scene, especially if Venus ever gets me the DR dembow playlist she’s promised.
It’s not that I have so much to say about this as much as I still find it a totally fascinating example of how hip-hop (and US gangster style more generally) can travel and take shapes so obviously recognizable and yet so utterly foreign. Sin duda, Movimiento Alterado deserves a place in the rich story of hip-hop / African-American style in Mexico.
The first of several multimedia works I produced this year, this beat-matched YouTube collage realizes a longstanding dream of setting as many renditions of the pasodoble/bullfight classic, “EspaĂ±a CaĂ±i,” to the remarkably consonant, revved up riffs of Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina.” Muchas gracias otra vez a NWLA.tv for the encouragement to get this made!
A troika of posts on SoundCloud and some clownings thereon serve to extend the anxiety of my “Platform Politricks” post from Dec 2010. With the help of a couple illustrative mashups and a great number of embeds, these posts examine both the remarkable activity and collateral damage facilitated by increasingly popular “platforms” for socially-networked media-sharing at a moment when cut-n-paste creativity is more commonplace than ever but so are the blunt tools of copyright.
St.Paddy’s Day gave me reason to realize another funny little musical experiment I’d been considering. Noting that the signature rhythm of the hot new dance music from Mexico, tribal guarachera, has a lot in common with traditional Irish jams, I couldn’t resist a little timely juxtaposition — and to connect them to some interesting Mexican-Irish lore.
My first contribution to the awesome & insurgent Cluster Mag, edited by Max Pearl & co., this little megamix bumps its way through an overview of how very pliant and popular a tune can be. Obviously, I find audible genealogies utterly mesmerizing, and this buoyant melody makes the voyage a dream, not at all unlike rowing a boat gently downstream.
An examination of Colombia’s choque dance craze — and by extension, debates about race and sexuality and nation raised by spectacular copulative dance more generally — this was maybe my all-time fave post of the year, and perhaps the most praised around the net as well. It’s also another example of how reggaeton rages on, global and local as ever. I love this dance so much, and its oddly kindred relation to disco’s “bump,” that I couldn’t resist using my 2nd contribution to Cluster Mag to follow up with a funny but edifying montage, namely –
A directly related item to the last couple, of course, is my recent attempt to sketch out a brief history of perreo in order to provide context for a review of some recent headline grabbing versions of the form. Read and see how 16th century Spanish clergy, 1930s West Indian editorialists in Costa Rica, post-millennial Puerto Rican senators, and 2009’s Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica all agree to be aghast at the sexy socializing/socialization of “kids these days.”
Last but not nearly least, I’m thrilled to share by the end of this year a project long in the making. Boston Pirate Party is a radio-sourced follow-up to the Boston Mashacre and Smashacre, and it is accompanied, over at Cluster Mag, by a short essay reflecting on the significance of Boston’s community radio renaissance (if it can even be said that such an utterly local radio scene ever existed here before). If a Caribbean-centered soundscape seems implausible for this town with such a rep for whiteness and the segregation that produces it, do let me lend you my ears. Here’s hoping that Boston might yet seem as open & lively as the airwaves suggest.
Pardon the late notice, but for anyone who can attend, I’ll be talking today at Tufts at the annual conference of the Transnational Studies Working Group, which this year gathers around the theme: “The Sights and Sounds of Transnationalism: Sensing Through the Nation-State” (pdf).
I’m happy to report that I’ve been asked to speak as part of a “keynote panel” at noon. Even more exciting, especially given the setting, I’m thrilled to have been invited to talk about, when it comes down to it, my favorite form of publication: this here blog. Importantly, this means that I’ll also be noting the crucial participation of all you dear readers and interlocutors, who I think of — even and especially in contentious moments — as a strong, supportive, and engaged community.
My talk is called âImagined Community Organizing: Research Blogging as Transnational Addressâ (I had to add the subtitle later, fyi), and the first part of the title is an idea I’ve been playing with for a few months now (and using as a self-description here and on Twitter). Of course, me being me, I couldn’t resist a semi-self-deprecating pun, and so obviously I plan to examine the ways that I conceive of my blogging (and social media/ting more generally) both as a form of “organizing” around imagined communities (e.g., via hip-hop, reggae, reggaeton) and as an “imagined” form of community organizing.
I’ll also feel compelled to note the irony that my efforts in this realm, despite obvious enthusiasm among some academic peers, don’t (yet) really seem to count according to hiring committees. I’ve been taking some risks with this blog over the years, no doubt, and the departments I tend to apply to don’t appear ready to take certain risks themselves. See you on the other side of the sea change. (But I’ll save the semi-annual talk of my imminent joblessness for another post!)
Srsly, thanks to all of you for the affirmation and engagement that keeps me going.
If you’d like to hear more about how Masala’s collaboration with Ruff Riddims relates to the central questions of “world music 2.0″ — a term that has seemingly (thankfully?) gained as much traction as “global ghettotech” (if among the commentariat rather than, say, DJs and bloggers) — you should tune in to a recent episode of Spark in which I discuss the phenomenon with the show’s sharp host, Nora Young.
The full show, aired a week ago, is streamable/downloadable here, and it includes segments on Glenn Gould’s prescient technoptimism, online curation, toddlers and cavemen. You can listen to any of the segments individually over there (and check out a bloggy supplement I submitted), or you can just stream the world2.0 segment right here (it’s just under 10 minutes long, FYI):
Because the show is based out of Toronto, it seemed a fine occasion to talk about my Canadian brethren at Masalacism — what they’ve been up to and how they fit into world music 2.0’s distinctive media ecology. I’ve been reading their blog for many years now, and we’ve collaborated on a variety of things, from gigs (in Montreal and Boston) to radio shows.
Staying in Canada’s remarkably wide world, then, the show afforded an opportunity to listen to and discuss ATCR’s remix of “Red Skin Girl,” which I described as stunning — a response that lingers. Note how well it fuses Northern Cree traditions with contemporary dubsteppery:
ATCR deserve their own post, opening into the fascinating questions around hybridity, modernity, and refiguring indigeneity, but aside from what I said on the show — noting the marked difference between what ATCR appear to be doing (i.e., inserting themselves into the global bass scene with an air of local authenticity) and what previous sorts of native/indigenous “world music” sounded like (i.e., New Age synthflute fantasia) — I’ve got to bracket that larger discussion for now.
Meantime, you should definitely check their Soundcloud page, especially the Electric Pow Wow Mini Mix (DL), and some of their equally amazing videos, produced by crew-member Bear Witness, a few of which I’ll embed below. Their provocative, propulsive mix of global dance currents (hardly limited to dubstep), traditional music, and surreal pop representations of Indianness (“I’m an Indian Too”!) adds another important accent to the conversation, to be sure.
Last week month marked the release of Airtime, an EP from Masalacism Records. A happy convergence for me, the project brings together two sets of friends from far-flung parts of the world: Canada’s Masalacists and Botswana’s Ruff Riddims. The EP features the singular style of MaSuper Star, a dynamic duo who teamed up last year with local producer Red Pepper, aka Moemedi Ramogapi, for an epic recording session at his studio in the town of Palapye, about 150 miles northeast of Gaborone.
I’ve been in touch with Moemedi since the spring of 2005, when he showed up in my inbox to thank me for some beat-making tutorials I had posted to the web — fruits of the digital music workshops I was giving in schools, community centers, and prisons in Boston, MA and Kingston, JA. He had tracks to share and questions about linking up with reggae vocalists and getting his stuff out there. I thought his early productions showed a lot of potential. I encouraged Moemedi to keep at it and sent his rough riddims around to friends like Ghislain Poirier and other DJs/bloggers with an interest in African hip-hop and reggae. I also recommended he check out Versionist, back when that existed, where his productions landed plenty of praise and constructive commentary. (Ah, the early days of p2p music industry.)
Moemedi and I have been corresponding pretty regularly ever since — mostly via gchat — and I’ve admired the ways he’s refined his operation, whether steadily improving his tools and skills as a producer, or crowdsourcing a design and building a beautiful studio –
Like lots of music-industrial activity today, it’s all an experiment, so in addition to collaborating with these three labels, Moemedi’s also releasing stuff directly. (Ruff Riddims’ biggest hit to date has probably been Skeat’s kwasa-house anthem, “Dumelang,” which spread like blogfire and found itself in regular rotation among the Dutty Artz and Ghetto Bassquake crews, to name a couple kindred collectives.)
When I first heard MaSuper Star, I couldn’t help but agree with Moemedi that, “they are FIRE, MOLELO.” I was quite struck by the combination of the duo’s stripped-down sound and Moemedi’s digital beats — especially on the title track, where the drums remind me a lot of the post-Coolie Dance riddims of 2004 (Scoobay!). Give it, and the rest of the EP, a listen:
I was convinced that this fusion of contemporary dancehall rhythms and acoustic elements could find an audience, especially overseas where the soukousy guitars would dovetail with a resurgent interest in afropop of all sorts (whether stoked by the likes of Vampire Weekend, The Very Best, or loving re-issues). Interestingly, and a little ironically, precisely because of this same presence — what Moemedi calls the “kwasa influence” — MaSuper Star might prove a difficult act to promote via popular media in Botswana. Local radio DJs, for instance, have refused to play some of Ruff Riddims’ productions because they’re supposedly “not urban”; according to Moemedi, they just want hip-hop. Apparently, a certain target audience rejects familiar guitar figures for differently accented signs of the global modern. But this all remains to be seen. I’m hoping, as is Moemedi, that his stable of artists can catch fire in Botswana as well as abroad.
The other odd side to this strange kind of currency is that Ruff Riddims’ more straightforward reggae and hip-hop productions are less likely to succeed in the metropoles of the so-called Global North, so suffused by such sounds as New York, London, and Toronto already are. To my ears, then, Ruff Riddims has a better shot at finding support in North America and Europe by pushing the productions that signify the difference being in Botswana should make (at least for certain listeners). In other words, to go for the niches opened up by “world music” as aesthetic and institution.
Far as I can tell, at least from reviews such as David Dacks’s recent piece in Exclaim, this hunch about the music’s resonance may be borne out with the release of Airtime:
MaSuper Star aren’t the future of music: they’re the present. These superstars are a duo from rural Botswana, composed of Kenny and Soops, who find their music being released in Canada thanks to the internet-driven forces of World Music 2.0. Soops plays a homemade guitar fashioned from a can, while Kenny sings. âŠThese are street songs, simply executed and instantly hypnotic. MaSuper Star’s themes are universal, though far from the boilerplate topics of peace, love and world unity. Rather, title track “Airtime” is a plea from a long-distance love to send phone credits. Its hook is intoned by a plummy, British-accented voice: “You have no available minutes, please recharge and try again.” Everyday problems. âŠKudos must go to the Masalacism label for making this available; they are changing Canada’s relationship with world music.
If you like this stuff. And I unabashedly do. I urge you to support all those involved by plucking down some digital dollars. This EP embodies a model of music industry that merits our investment: small-scale (but scalable), fair and collaborative, generous and open.
According to the guys at Masalacism, they’ve got a 50/50 deal with Ruff Riddims, after expenses (#realtalk). Guillaume elaborates,
Our expenses are quite limited but we’re doing a proper mastering in a pro studio (which as I understand isn’t that common for a net label) and some mailing expenses for Radio and Radio tracking, + some minimal marketing expenses in order to put the music in the store. The rest is pretty much DIY. Music is on sale on Itunes all over the world, Amazon and Emusic + on our own store: http://store.masalacism.com
The Masala guys also deserve credit for commissioning an amazing kuduro remix of “Airtime” from Portugal’s DJ Mpula, which cranks up the tempo a good 15bpm. And I guess somewhere in the calculus, according to David’s Q&A with Moemedi, I may myself merit some credit for serving as a crucial node in the network.
orthogonal image copied from some website or other
I’ve been working on this monstruo post since last January, and hinting at it here and there, making it feel all the more urgent to finish though I haven’t had the time to tie it up. And yet, what has made finally publishing this post so hard is also what makes finishing it all the more pressing: the seemingly unending array of reasons to be suspicious and cautious toward the so-called “platforms” of the net.
The issue has, of course, come into more intense relief than perhaps ever before with the last weekâs commotion around Wikileaks and the way that what many of us understand as, in some sense, âpublicâ “platforms” hosting âfreeâ “speech” have been exposed as anything but public or free. But we’ve been following this plot for some time now, with ephemeral but irrepressible songs&dances serving up so many canaries in the coalmine. In other words, the so-called platforms falling out from under Wikileaks are the same ones that have been shifting beneath our footworking feet for years. Once again grassroots popular culture — as animated by music in particular — stands as a harbinger for a brave, new, and rather unstable future.
Clearly, mere vigilance will not suffice. New media literacies, even, only go so far. My aim here, then, is to reaffirm (with the support of many smart thinkers) that for those of us who see, hear, and feel a lot of promise in the participatory publics and creative, critical cultures that coalesce around certain websites and protocols, there is real need for action — toward bringing the most popular platforms to heel with regard to users’ demands and expectations of fairness, for one, but more importantly, toward a collective investment in self-determined and self-controlled architectures, where we can share in the value we ourselves create through the network effects of a critical massive.
While I don’t think I’m saying anything terribly new here, as my reliance on the writers below attests, I do think music plays a remarkable role in these matters and can offer an instructive, persuasive thread through this tangled web. Moreover, I’m interested in synthesizing various debates in recent technology and media studies for the music-centered conversation (esp for participants and practitioners — namely, many of you who read this blog).
IMEEM, IâM SAYIN
For some time now, my research has felt increasingly like sorting through a disturbed graveyard, names and dates scraped off tombstones, everything scattered if not missing.
Weâve all seen blogs and blogposts and videos disappear, often thanks to specious legal challenges. Even more troubling, weâve seen entire media ecosystems, such as imeem or Jamglue, succumb to the sudden slash and burn of corporate logic, which cares little for what we might celebrate as cultural vitality.
Many imeem users were shocked and dismayed when MySpace, after acquiring the site in a copyright-hobbled firesale (for reportedly under $1M), suddenly nuked it without warning. They promised post-facto to let users “transfer” their media over to the misguidedly redesigned MySpace Music, but this turned out to be true only for the sort of corporate-owned content that proved to be imeemâs downfall (in the form of unauthorized uploads impossible to monetize to the satisfaction of certain record labels). The substantial amount of independently produced and remixed music on imeem, which is what drew me and so many there in the first place, simply disappeared into the e-ther.
Whatâs striking is how much more vibrant imeem was as a musical-cultural space than MySpace Music or Facebook could ever be — precisely because it was so unruly. For some time, it stood as a remarkable platform for musically-organized social networks, musically-animated public conversations, and the peer-based, non-commercial sharing of worlds upon worlds of music.
I mean it when I say imeem was amazing: I often found myself drawn into a veritable maze of media there. As a somewhat self-contained (but outwardly connected & embedded) media ecology, it managed to become a willynilly archive for all kinds of audio (YouTube now largely fills this function, of course), and it networked a variety of vibrant publics (e.g., juke publics, Trini publics, West Indian publics, Caribbeanist publics, nu-whirled publics, and so on).
Unfortunately, especially from a research/advocacy perspective, unlike the more widely mourned and archived Geocities, no one seems to have mirrored imeem â or even get decent screenshots. More recently, a similar site, Jamglue, which also offered users the ability to (re)mix tracks online, joined imeem in the web2.0 scrapheap (though that metaphor fails to capture the utter lack of scraps left behind). At least in this case, there was a little notice, leaving me enough time to get some screengrabs. A glance at the number of jerkin mixes and tracks in circulation at the time of the site’s shuttering, most of them home-produced, is impressive:
This disappearance of archives, of crucial contextual data, is a product of “preferred” protocols as dictated by Big Copyright. Flash-based media are not so easily archived. (Had torrent technology triumphed in the battle over critically-massive streaming media, we likely wouldn’t be having the same problems.) And the sort of ad-hoc archiving that perseveres in an age of flash-media — save something here, fave something there — will hardly help us to reconstruct some of the most important information we lose when sites like imeem go under (whether data or “metadata”). Even if many of us take the trouble to download an FLV file or rip some other format from it, that’s hardly the same sort of preservation as one that would keep intact the broader contextual framework for any particular instantiation of audio or video. When platforms go poof, a lot more disappears than awesome dance vids.
Following a host of media scholars, we might productively (if provisionally) think of all this contextual data — interfaces, playlists, connections, conversations, and records of embeds and changes and the like — and to the careful cultivation it calls for, as constituting a particular site’s ecology (which, of course, is itself embedded in other ecologies, not to mention situated in various topographies). Thinking about media in terms of âecologiesâ or âtopographiesâ can help us to understand the implications of the so-called “architectures of participation” that increasingly structure social connectivity and cultural production. Such biological and spatial metaphors suggest modes of interplay as well as types of terrain, as shaped by particular affordances & constraints.
It is instructive to note how the distinctive design and address of Fotolog, for example, facilitated the efflorescence of flogger culture in Argentina and beyond. No less a spokesperson than the de facto leader of the floggers, a tomgirl photogenic who calls herself Cumbio, has discussed the signal differences of certain socially-networked media-sharing sites, and how they can seem inviting in certain ways, or not:
âFacebook asks your religion, your eye color, your relationship status,â she explains, âWe donât ask any of those things. We floggers just accept people as they are. We say, âShow yourself.â And we accept you.â
Floggers may be an extreme example in this regard; after all, they’re named after their preferred platform for a reason. But given such a clearly constitutive relation, we might wonder about the implications, say, for a substantial shift away from Fotolog (in Argentina, at least) in the wake of increasing inroads by Facebook:
Given the important irruptions of the public sphere that floggers staged in Argentina and across Latin America, we might find a statistical plunge like that worrisome. When we talk about disappearing platforms, we’re also talking about disappearing people. And in reflecting on various kinds of âdisappearing peopleâ on the net, from bloggers to floggers to subjects of extraordinary renditions that never get leaked, I inevitably start thinking of this as a serious collective action problem.
For some time, including rather explicitly on this here blog (sheesh — that post is nearly 4 years old!), weâve been bearing witness to, and bemoaning, the effects and losses associated with this relocation of public culture to the corporate net. But we haven’t done much at all to change the status quo.
âIS OUR CHILDREN LEARNING?â
After my âSkinny Jeans and Fruity Loopsâ talk last year, the ever-sharp Chrysaora asked me the silly but poignant question above. At the time, she was working at MITâs Center for Future Civic Media, and my concerns about public music-and-dance culture on the web clearly resonated with the underlying issues theyâve been exploring there. My answer was, simply, no. Savvy as they clearly are, I donât generally see a lot of young people (or older folks, really, myself & peers & forbears included) employing what we might call a strategic approach to culture on the net; rather, it would better be described as tactical.
But alas, moving relatively unhindered from imeem to the next thing, or ignoring âwatermarksâ from demo/unauthorized software — essentially privileging, as I’ve put it elsewhere, “participation, immersion and immediacy” — is not what activist-artists usually have in mind when they talk about “tactical media.” The sort of tactics we behold on web2.0 may represent a form of subversion, in a sense, but they hardly constitute an intervention.
As I attempted to trace out in the “Sounds of the Wide, Wired World,” what we see and hear on the net offers ground for celebration. And yet, the audible and visible aesthetic traces of our compromised ability to freely share the fruits of collective creativity also remind us that we’re building our cultural heritage on shaky foundations. They may even highlight what Siva Vaidhyanathan, in his forthcoming The Googlization of Everything, would call a “public failure.”
Clearly, this predicament is far from ideal. “Kids these days” enjoy an effervescent, exciting, but deeply compromised public culture. Which, among other things, gives the lie to facile celebrations of “millennials” or “digital natives” as inherently or naturally equipped to navigate this brave new world. Take, for example, David Parry’s warnings about assuming far more digital literacy on the part of our students (and brothers and sisters and sons and daughters) than is warranted:
I do not mean here to suggest all of that nonsense about digital natives versus non-digital natives; indeed I am actually suggesting something quite the opposite: students are not digital natives who possess some unique set of skills whereby they can magically manipulate the network and gadgets to do whatever they want with outstanding acumen, rather that students are for the large part unreflective about the way they use these network technologies, and what is more are unreflective about the ways in which their use (or our use) has already been historically determined and shaped, an unreflective response which gives up power and control over to these systems.
And yet, as important a reminder as this is, the critique of naive kids and their crummy tactics can also go too far, as in the elitist screeds of Andrew Keen, Mark Bauerlein, or Jaron Lanier. As pointed out in a pointed critique in Pop Matters, such rants tend to miss out on a lot of what does drive this stuff — the sort of thing I’ve celebrated here again and again, the stuff of music as social life:
The implication of Lanierâs argument is that people are motivated to create only by rewards rather than by the pleasure of creation or participation itself, an assertion belied by Web 2.0 voluntarism. âIn the open culture future, your creativity and expression would also be unpaid, since you would be a volunteer in the army of the long tail. That would leave nothing for you.â
Nothing, that is, except the pleasure that stems from creative work itself, the solidarity that derives from participation, the satisfaction of contributing useful social labor, and the expanded potential for recognition expressed in non-monetary terms.
This calls attention to the importance of understanding what motivates people to do what they do (and hence opens up important space for ethnography). The question of motivation came into fine focus, at least for bloggers, with last February’s so-called “musicblogocide” (which also extended to such seemingly unlikely targets as insouciant teen fashion blogs).
Among those that moved, some offered poignant testimony about what they do and why they take umbrage at having their platform unjustly pulled out from under them. Allow me to quote Masalaâs manifesto-like response to Blogger in some length:
- At Masala we believe that music, like culture and art at large, is a mix of influences and is largely derivative. No artist is creating anything from scratch. We also believe that if the copyright laws (DMCA) prevent culture and music from circulating and being reinterpreted and mix, weâre moving towards a monolithic culture (to the economic benefit of a few).
- The music weâre promoting here is the incarnation of this idea. Itâs often music made by young people wired to the world through internet or 1st, 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants. People who are inventing themselves through and with the world theyâre living in, trying to connect their local tradition and history with what they receive from the outside.
- We believe that by posting MP3s on this blog, weâre encouraging people to broaden their horizons, be curious and open minded about other peoples music and in the case itâs possible, (and itâs often not possible), to buy the music, support the artist and the people who made it possible to circulate.
- Donât believe the hype, every download is not a theft or one less sale. Music lovers have a pretty limited bank account. But do support art when you can! Recording music industry is shifting and doesnât make as much money as they used to and on the other hand, the music industry at large is doing ok (publishing, shows, merchandising, sponsorship etc.).
This resonates righteously with Larisa Mann’s (aka, DJ Ripley’s) notion of “saving the world” (a phrasing that also evokes archives), by which she means to underscore how music blogs, regardless of the platform on which theyâre hosted, are an important part of the cultural ecology of popular music and the forms of sociability that grow up around it –
Masalacism is a perfect example of music-making, in that the blog is part of the conditions for my favorite music, it creates the possibility of audience for/creation of music variously rooted in geographically and socially distant scenes.
I’m talking about music as a social practice, not music as a recording or a particular moment frozen in time or on paper. Masalacism makes music involving actors from all over the world, it draws them together and opens lines of communication between people, places, scenes, who might not get to know of each other in any other way. This is some of the best music-making there is, in my opinion. I love the specific &local, juxtaposed with other specific & local, to make a kind of conversation between localities and experiences, when music does this well, it also does this for the bodies &minds of people involved, bringing them into conversation or dance with each other, physically or mentally or both. Which is part of saving the world, kind of, or at least getting us there.
How do we save a world that can disappear behind a URL redirect in the blink of an eye? In the long term, we need to build better platforms; in the short term, we need to proceed with far more suspicion when that term gets so loosely thrown around.
In a recent article, Tarleton Gillespie discusses the politics of ‘platform’, arguing that the term serves as an effective bit of rhetorical judo to do the delicate job of knitting together the multiple constituencies of sites like YouTube — among them, the uneasy triad of professional content producers, advertisers, and end-users (that’s us, pretty much, though I hate being called a user, esp when I’m actually a product). For Gillespie, “This is where the discursive work is most vital.” He continues,
Intermediaries like YouTube must present themselves strategically to each of these audiences, carve out a role and a set of expectations that is acceptable to each and also serves their own financial interests, while resolving or at least eliding the contradictions between them. … Curiously, tropes like âplatformâ seem to work across these discourses â in fact, the real value of this term may be that it brings these discourses into alignment without them unsettling each other.
More specifically, Gillespie notes that
The term âplatformâ helps reveal how YouTube and others stage themselves for these constituencies, allowing them to make a broadly progressive sales pitch while also eliding the tensions inherent in their service: between user-generated and commercially produced content, between cultivating community and serving up advertising, between intervening in the delivery of content and remaining neutral.
And yet — and you saw this coming? — for Gillespie, portraying itself as a platform “is a claim that arguably misrepresents the way YouTube and other intermediaries really shape public discourse online.” Gillespie’s use of the term “intermediaries” is important, for he argues that sites like YouTube, or in his own words “a handful of video platforms, search engines, blogging tools, and interactive online spaces,” have become — for better or for worse (for better and for worse?) — “the primary keepers of the cultural discussion as it moves to the Internet.”
Hosting the public conversation on private, commercial “platforms” is problematic for any number of reasons. One of the primary ones — and the one most salient for me — being that our shared culture (especially in the form of recorded sound and video), and all the discourse in and around it, is not only constantly vulnerable to cooptation and exploitation — worrisome as those are — but to outright disappearance. This is problematic from an archival/heritage perspective as well as for anyone interested in contemporary practices, politics/publics, and the chilling effects constraining the creation and circulation of the (peer-to-peer) popular culture of the 21st century.
Without needing to get so romantic about it (e.g., invoking das volk), we would do well to consider the framing offered by Yochai Benkler in chapter 8 of Wealth of Networks, which concerns the power of peer-production: âFrom the perspective of liberal political theory,” writes Benkler, “the kind of open, participatory, transparent folk culture that is emerging in the networked environment is normatively more attractive than was the industrial cultural production system typified by Hollywood and the recording industry.” He is quick to caution, though, that, “We cannot, however, take for granted that the technological capacity to participate in the cultural conversation, to mix and make our own, will translate into the freedom to do so. The practices of cultural and counter-cultural creation are at the very core of the battle over the institutional ecology of the digital environmentâ (277).
It should probably go without saying that the biggest threat to continuing the “cultural conversation” on our own terms is the hammer of copyright being wielded by Big Media companies — and more recently, in the case of Wikileaks, by the US government — to force compliance from the corporations who are hosting more and more of our socially-networked digital culture. In Benkler’s words: âthe tension between the industrial model of cultural production and the networked information economy is nowhere more pronounced than in the question of the degree to which the new folk culture of the twenty-first century will be permitted to build upon the outputs of the twentieth-century industrial modelâ (300).
Allow me to quote him at a little more length (as appropriate for Yochai ;) –
In this battle, the stakes are high. One cannot make new culture ex-nihilo. We are as we are today, as cultural beings, occupying a set of common symbols and stories that are heavily based on the outputs of that industrial period. If we are to make this culture our own, render it legible, and make it into a new platform for our needs and conversations today, we must find a way to cut, paste, and remix present culture.
On the other hand, lest technoptimism run away with the spoon, in a provocative article about what he dubs our emergent “network culture,” Kazys Varnelis contends that if âappropriation was a key aspect of postmodernism, network culture almost absentmindedly uses remix as its dominant processâ (150). The effect is to invite the tentacles of capital into everything we do, via legal capture and a certain subtle, insidious consumerism:
But such peer-to-peer production also faces challenges. Chief among these is new legislation by existing media conglomerates aiming to extend the scope of their copyright and prevent the creation of derivative work. Even if advocates of the free circulation of cultural goods are successful in challenging big media, it is still unclear if the burgeoning fan culture is critical, or if it only re-inscribes, to a degree that Guy Debord could not have envisioned, the colonization of everyday life by capital, with debates about resistance replaced by debates about how to remix objects of consumption. Furthermore, the possibility of consumers not only consuming media but producing it for the (new) media outlets suggests the possibility of new, hitherto unanticipated forms of exploitation.
FREE CULTURE, FREE LABOR
In an attempt to debunk the all too uncritical embrace of web 2.0 rhetoric in the tech conversation, Trebor Scholz charges that:
âA fine example of the Web 2.0 Ideology,â writes Scholz, âis immaterial free labor,â which he calls âa fairly unpopular and very complex subject.â But he gives it a shot:
The Web makes people easier to use. By âsurfingâ it, people serve their virtual hosts and they are not unhappy about it. Online, service platforms rather than products are offered, and users are encouraged to participate, communities become the brand.
Itâs precisely this scare-quotable way of âsurfingâ the net that inspires Astra Taylorâs recent critique of the myriad ways weâre actually âserfing the net.â For Taylor, the key bit of deception is with the word âfree,â namely that it excites both the technoptimistic âfree cultureâ kids as well as the rapacious capitalists eager to have “pirates do the work of mass marketers, while industry pretends to defend the very artists they have exploited for so long”:
Where free is concerned, weâre typically told that âthe kids,â impatient and entitled, want their culture this instant and will not pay a dime, so theyâve embraced piracy. But the young pirates arenât really leading a mass insurrection; theyâre a symbol or a scapegoat employed to obscure a larger struggle about culture and valueâand in whose pocket that value accumulates. The owners of social networking sites may be forbidden from selling individual songs posted by members, but the companies themselves, including user content, can be turned over for a hefty sum: almost $900 million for Bebo and far more for YouTube. Google doesnât see the mammoth archive of books it currently hopes to digitize as a priceless treasure to be preserved; itâs a trove of content to sprinkle with banner ads. Google, as Chris Anderson points out many times, succeeds because of an almost unfathomable economy of scale; each free search brings revenue from targeted advertising and fodder for the data miners: each mouse click is a trickle in the flood. Technology writer Nicholas Carr and others call this âdigital sharecroppingâ: Itâs not that the production or distribution of culture has been concentrated in the hands of the few â itâs the cultureâs economic value. Somebodyâs got a massive financial interest in free, and itâs not the people uploading footage of kittens to Vimeo.
Given all this talk of serfing, itâs no surprise that feudal metaphors appear to be proliferating in critical discourse about the current state of the net. Matteo Pasquinelli offers up âdigital neofeudalismâ to call attention to the alarming trend whereby the utopias of the net have shifted âfrom self-organised media to generic activism on corporate platforms with their closed code and protocols,â a provocative parallel to Jodi Deanâs critique of activism in an age of âcommunicative capitalism.â For Pasquinelli, digital neofeudalism describes
the polarised scenario where few landlords owns the whole infrastructure of communication (hardware layer, protocol layer, meta-data layer, social network layer) and face a multitude of cognitive workers forced to âcreativityâ.
profit is the income made selling commodities, rent is the income made by a monopolistic exploitation of spaces. In feudal times, it was the exploitation of land cultivated by farmers, in the internet age itâs the exploitation of the immaterial spaces cultivated by cultural producers, prosumers and the notorious Free Culture.
And while I’m not nearly as cynical and I might take issue with Pasquinelli’s use of music as an example — I’m not sure the situation is “squeezed” for more musicians now than a decade ago; the myth of a middle-class of musicians better off under Big Music is one that really needs debunking — taking a big picture view, with the idea of a hamstrung 21st century (popular, p2p) culture in the balance, this is a necessary and bracing critique.
Itâs a little dispiriting, to say the least, that this harrowing specter was raised at least a decade ago. In an article called “Free Labor” (pdf | html), first published back in 2000, Tiziana Terranova argues that, if I may update her argument a bit, the kids on web2.0 “are not working only because capital wants them to; they are acting out a desire for affective and cultural production.” For Terranova, “Free labor is the moment where this knowledgeable consumption of culture is translated into productive activities that are pleasurably embraced and at the same time often shamelessly exploited.”
She also speaks to the particular predicament of such collectively produced fields as fashion and music:
If knowledge is inherently collective, it is even more so in the case of the postmodern cultural economy: music, fashion, and information are all produced collectively but are selectively compensated. Only some companies are picked up by corporate distribution chains in the case of fashion and music; only a few sites are invested in by venture capital. However, it is a form of collective cultural labor that makes these products possible even as the profit is disproportionately appropriated by established corporations.
Recently, a number of artists, writers, bloggers, etc., in sectors like fashion, are picking up on this, um, thread. And clearly, a large number of artistsdesign workers also agree with this perspective, feeling more and more like assembly-line workers in a precarious world of rapid deskilling, reskilling, and unsatisfying work.
I like the Rasta term ‘politricks’ for its slip-tongued critique: in a Babylon system, politics is rigged so better to turn to (and invest in) culture, to various practical toolkits for dealing with, persevering under, and triumphing over Babylonian fuckery. But what happens when that culture to which we’ve turned gets folded back into what Peter Tosh dubbed the shitstem? And where does a total retreat leave us? (All too often, it seems to pave the road not for independence but for exploitation.)
The irrepressible DailyMotion so embodied by youthful (net-abetted) dance crazes tells me, again and again, that the genie’s out of the bottle. They can’t shove it back in. But they can try to build a bigger bottle. And call it a platform.
THE FUTURE OF MUSIC âŠ AND HOW TO STOP IT
Against this creepy, creeping context, some suggest that âweb 3.0â might well be conceptualized as a âgrand retreat back to our own servers.â
But will this vision of an interconnected independence prevail, or will it be a ZuckerBorgian colonization of the net as we know it? Given what Iâve sketched out above, the specter of a âsecond Internetâ should be a scary one–
Facebook, with the private information of over 350 million members, now constitutes what Wired magazine has called a “second Internet.” By encouraging members to bring their Facebook settings with them onto the rest of the Web, Zuckerberg hopes to take this new Internet, with its pretensions to privacy, and place it at the foundation of the old one.
While Zuckerberg’s ambition to reduce the experience of the Internet to a more human scale should be applauded, his site, despite its recent openness, prevents users from transferring their information to other social networks — a restriction, considering the huge time and effort many members put into their profiles, akin to prohibiting homeowners from packing up their houses and moving elsewhere. Moreover, with the site’s huge database of personal information and its hopes to profit from highly targeted ads, Facebook creates its own surveillance problems. If anything, Zuckerberg looks, in some distant but discernible way, like the Robert Moses of the Internet, bringing severe order to a chaotic milieu.
Facebook’s OpenGraph indicates that they’re moving away from the walled garden approach toward simply being one’s portal to the web (like AOL 2.0), but the fact is, there’s an increasing amount of self-censorship in the ever-expansive realm of Facebook. And that’s not great for the kind of unruly culture that many of us prize.
As far as silver-linings go, the Robert Moses reference above makes me wonder: if Facebook is the Cross-Bronx Expressway of the Internet, what sort of hip-hop will emerge from under its overpasses and beyond its walls? What kinds of cultures will thrive in the corners of the net, unhindered by auto-takedowns and the prying eyes of parents and employers?
This degree of dominance, Facebook’s increasing mediation of the internet itself, opens up the idea that Facebook resembles a utility and perhaps, as danah boyd argues, it should be regulated as such:
If Facebook is a utility — and I strongly believe it is — the handful of people who are building cabins in the woods to get away from the evil utility companies are irrelevant in light of all of the people who will suck up and deal with the utility to live in the city. This is going to come down to regulation, whether we like it or not.
Iâd advocate turning social networks into public utilities to better hew it towards the Bill of Rights, but not in a country that passes the Patriot Act. Weâll have to wait until the revolution comes to nationalize Facebook. And by that point, lots of people wonât even be able to afford the internet.
But why expropriate when we can innovate? That’s what Mark Andrejevic suggests with regard to YouTube — or more to the point, suggests that YouTube, as a commercial venture, may never become the platform it promises to be:
The objective is data-driven control: the channeling of usersâ own activity to further a goal arrived at neither through shared participation not conscious deliberation: that of increasingly accelerated consumption. âŠ That the offer of a platform for ânon-estrangedâ production might threaten this goal constitutes the contradiction at the heart of YouTubeâs marketing plan, and helps explain the ambivalence and even hostility of commercial content providers toward âamateurâ content. They want the user-generated data without the user-generated content. If sites like Hulu start to gain large and loyal followings, they may well succeed, and in so doing demonstrate that the more appropriate infrastructure for a site like YouTube may not be commercial, but collectively owned and operated.
It’s been all too easy to let corporate enterprise host our collective culture. We didn’t know some of these things were possible, and we didn’t necessarily have the critical capital to bring such things into being. But this is a devil’s bargain we’re making. Certainly we can do better. The network effects of critical mass constitutes a great proportion of the value that we bring to these sites (user-generated data, as opposed to user-generated content, pace Andrejevic). But when will our critical mass become a truly critical mass?
At least in the near term, one way, among many, to address the issue of control (and hence stability/sustainability) is what some have called “virtual rights management” (and hence, activism, architecture, self-determination). Along these lines, see, e.g., the Berkman-related Project VRM (and Doc Searls’s emphasis on internet geology), as well as the Mine! Project (about), or the badly-named but well-meaning Diaspora, or the fledgling Poyozo. If any of these gain serious steam, they can create a serious opening.
While we’re at it, as Kevin Driscoll asked many months ago, who wants to start a broadband collective?
To return to the words of Jace Clayton, let us commence our grand retreat —
NO SURRENDER, NO DELETE
Or, as he put it elsewhere and with regard to something else:
The key is openness. Together we can make everything last.