Archive of posts tagged with "nation"

March 5th, 2009

Music Unites Us, Gets Under Our Skins

I couldn’t be more thrilled to announce this —

At a time when the arts community at Brandeis is feeling rightly beleaguered, it brings me no little satisfaction to know that we will be putting on a rather art-ful residency later this month, sponsoring the US premiere of such an exciting, provocative, and relevant group as Nettle. It brings added satisfaction that we’ve been able to pull this off at all, especially since we thought we had to call it off back in October. We have some dedicated fundraisers and generous donors to thank for that.

For those who don’t know, Nettle is the brainchild of Jace Clayton (aka DJ /Rupture), someone who is no stranger to readers of this blog. He started the group when living as an ex-pat in Barcelona along with several other ex-pats (from Scotland & Morocco), all of them speaking second or third languages in order to converse with each other. There’s a lot to like about the group, starting with their unique sound but branching out into the myriad questions their collaboration seems to pose about cultural & social life in our contemporary, globalized cities.

Jace has quite a way with words, though, so I’ll let him tell you more himself (via) —

Nettle originated in my fascination with the concept of an album heavily influenced by Middle Eastern ideas, but not necessarily at the audible level. I was unsatisfied with the narrative poles of electronic music — loop-based dance pieces or abstract/ambient pieces without storytelling force. A suite of rigorous modal improvisation in Arabic music called taqasims offered the solution: I knew and loved their internal play between free-flowing improv and strict technical guidelines. I spent a year or two translating these ideas into pieces for samplers and laptop. Two albums later I still wasn’t satisfied: one-way cultural flows aren’t good enough. I wanted community, two-way translations, the squeal of a feedback loop.

Earlier this year I was commissioned by a British arts council to transform Nettle into a proper live ensemble. Violin, oud, percussion, electronics, realtime sampling. I’d been involved in Barcelona’s Moroccan music community for a while, but the Nettle project has upped the intensity of collaboration. A few days ago, Nettle’s violin and oud player, Abdelaziz Hak, brought up taqasims to explain his response to a beat I’d prepared for him.

I broke into a silly grin.

This is working. We’re starting to get under each other’s skin.

When I met Judy Eissenberg last year and she told me about the MusicUnitesUS program & how she was inspired to start it in the wake of 9/11 as a way of embracing and exploring cultural difference, I almost immediately thought of Nettle.

Whereas MUUS residencies in the past have offered an opportunity for intercultural exchange, bringing representatives of some ‘non-Western’ society to share their traditions with the Brandeis community, what is wonderful about Nettle is that the group already embodies that process of encounter and exchange. What especially attracts me to the group’s sound and spirit is their eschewal of easy fusion cliches, choosing instead to embrace moments where they “get under each other’s skin,” as Jace puts it.

Electronic beats rumbling beneath folk and pop idioms from North Africa and avant-garde cello, Nettle represents the sound of New Spain, but they also, to my ears anyhow, offer pregnant musical metaphors for our ‘Nu World,’ to put a zeitgeisty spin on it: they seem to revel in the cultural ruptures — and spaces — created by today’s rapid circulation of people and media, in which some things have an easier time crossing borders than others. (On that point, INSHALLAH that Abdel & Khalid don’t get tripped up by customs agents, even in the age of Obama.)

I’m further delighted to report that Nettle will be joined by their occasional percussionist (aka Filastine!) and visual artist Daniel Perlin (aka DJ N-RON!) who will be providing realtime visual accompaniment. It’s gonna be quite a show.

If you’re in the Boston area (or not!), you’re welcome to attend any of the on-campus events, which, aside from the concert Saturday night, are all free and open to the public. I expect tickets for the concert to go quickly, so you may want to snap some up ASAP. I’ll be giving a brief talk in the Rose Art Museum directly prior to the concert, exploring the ways music expresses selfhood and neighborhood in our globalized, if perhaps not quite (yet?) cosmopolitan, cities.

Hope you can join us!

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February 19th, 2009

Old (and Not So Old) Weird (and Not So Weird) America

We’re visiting Becca’s sister, her husband, and their 6-month-old twins in North Carolina this week. Initially drawn to Durham/Duke, Leila&Sebastian und Sasha&Max now live in a small-ish town called Burlington, in an old mill house they rebuilt themselves (with a little help from their friends).

Yesterday, we escaped some rainy morning blues by heading to a nearby antiques mall. It was, to say the least, a trip. The building, essentially a warehouse (or maybe formerly a supermarket), houses hundreds of individual stalls, each of them a little shrine to some collector’s material muses.

Amusing indeed. But also, utterly utterly odd. I mean, was something like this “Jolly Chimp” actually intended to amuse (as opposed to, terrify) children?

Beyond marvelling at such oddities and artifacts in their own right, I couldn’t help but be struck by how the thorough juxtaposition of tchotchkes from across the ages seemed to flatten even as it called attention to the differences across the mythified decades of our collective past and their symbols, their peculiar fixings — often, in this case, in the form of cheap commodities — of the imagination of self, other, past, and future.

How easily the dated images from the 80s and 90s sit alongside counterparts from the 50s, 60s, 70s, &c —

Or how “African” art of various sorts (or carved wooden exotica more generally) found space alongside kitchen kitsch and cross-stitched masterpieces —

Perhaps unsurprising, given all the dirty laundry on display, America’s racist representations of itself also reared their ugly heads. Most frequently in the form of the mammy —

yes, alongside a wooden watermelon

Another strange refraction of racial representation was embodied by the following curiosity (of which I spotted two specimens): Big John, “the Chimpee Chief.” Given current controversies here in present-day post-racial America, I think it’s not too much to ask you to read this, with me (and Al Sharpton), as an insidious if everyday example of substituting one dehumanized subaltern for another —

And yet despite reservations aplenty (no pun intended), I admit that there were a couple objects that were quite arresting — charming in a different manner than those above, if still tainted with resonances of the primitive. Take, for example, this amazing “outsider ark” (and don’t miss the Scooby Doo detail), which is sui generis if anything ever was —

Will I forever regret not picking it up for a mere $50? Would I forgive myself if I did?

No matter, already made my day.

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January 9th, 2009

Welcome to Brownsville

Former wunderkind hip-hop critic and now English prof at Vassar, Hua Hsu asks some great questions in his hot-off-the-press Atlantic cover story, itself a question, “The End of White America?” —

What will it mean to be white after “whiteness” no longer defines the mainstream? Will anyone mourn the end of white America?

I especially appreciated — and anticipated — how hip-hop figures in the story he tells. This merits quoting at some length:

Over the past 30 years, few changes in American culture have been as significant as the rise of hip-hop. The genre has radically reshaped the way we listen to and consume music, first by opposing the pop mainstream and then by becoming it. From its constant sampling of past styles and eras—old records, fashions, slang, anything—to its mythologization of the self-made black antihero, hip-hop is more than a musical genre: it’s a philosophy, a political statement, a way of approaching and remaking culture. It’s a lingua franca not just among kids in America, but also among young people worldwide. And its economic impact extends beyond the music industry, to fashion, advertising, and film. (Consider the producer Russell Simmons—the ur-Combs and a music, fashion, and television mogul—or the rapper 50 Cent, who has parlayed his rags-to-riches story line into extracurricular successes that include a clothing line; book, video-game, and film deals; and a startlingly lucrative partnership with the makers of Vitamin Water.)

But hip-hop’s deepest impact is symbolic. During popular music’s rise in the 20th century, white artists and producers consistently “mainstreamed” African American innovations. Hip-hop’s ascension has been different. Eminem notwithstanding, hip-hop never suffered through anything like an Elvis Presley moment, in which a white artist made a musical form safe for white America. This is no dig at Elvis—the constrictive racial logic of the 1950s demanded the erasure of rock and roll’s black roots, and if it hadn’t been him, it would have been someone else. But hip-hop—the sound of the post- civil-rights, post-soul generation—found a global audience on its own terms.

Today, hip-hop’s colonization of the global imagination, from fashion runways in Europe to dance competitions in Asia, is Disney-esque. This transformation has bred an unprecedented cultural confidence in its black originators. Whiteness is no longer a threat, or an ideal: it’s kitsch to be appropriated, whether with gestures like Combs’s “white parties” or the trickle-down epidemic of collared shirts and cuff links currently afflicting rappers. And an expansive multiculturalism is replacing the us-against-the-world bunker mentality that lent a thrilling edge to hip-hop’s mid-1990s rise.

Coming back to Combs (preceding the passage above), Hua makes sense of Diddy’s embrace of WASPy-kitsch —

…consider Sean Combs, a hip-hop mogul and one of the most famous African Americans on the planet. Combs grew up during hip-hop’s late-1970s rise, and he belongs to the first generation that could safely make a living working in the industry—as a plucky young promoter and record-label intern in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and as a fashion designer, artist, and music executive worth hundreds of millions of dollars a brief decade later.

In the late 1990s, Combs made a fascinating gesture toward New York’s high society. He announced his arrival into the circles of the rich and powerful not by crashing their parties, but by inviting them into his own spectacularly over-the-top world. Combs began to stage elaborate annual parties in the Hamptons, not far from where Fitzgerald’s novel takes place. These “white parties”—attendees are required to wear white—quickly became legendary for their opulence (in 2004, Combs showcased a 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence) as well as for the cultures-colliding quality of Hamptons elites paying their respects to someone so comfortably nouveau riche. Prospective business partners angled to get close to him and praised him as a guru of the lucrative “urban” market, while grateful partygoers hailed him as a modern-day Gatsby.

“Have I read The Great Gatsby?” Combs said to a London newspaper in 2001. “I am the Great Gatsby.”

Moving backwards further, this brings us around to the place where the article begins, a reference made in Gatsby to what Hua calls an “eerily serene” E20C white supremacist tract which claims, among other things, that

“Colored migration is a universal peril, menacing every part of the white world.”

Apropos of that, here’s a visualization I stumbled upon yesterday (h/t johnnn) —

Immigration to the US, 1820-2007 v2 from Ian Stevenson on Vimeo.

Go read the whole thing.


September 22nd, 2008

(Tight)Pantshall & Metro Cool, or “How Mi Look?” “Gay!”

I’d like bring something from the comments into full view here, as it has sparked a lotta thought for me in recent days. Let’s begin w/ Brian’s response to my note about Assassin’s “Dem Nuh Want Nuh Gal” (an anti-gay anthem) ascending to the #1 on the JA charts —

Assassin – is telling gay people to run away better than threatening to find and kill them? I dunno, but somehow it’s not as scary to me as Mavado’s “Dem a Fag” on the Self Defense Riddim.

These songs aside, there is SO MUCH gay style goin on/being integrated into Dancehall (Ravers Clavers, I’m looking at you guys in particular)



to which I replied,

Wow, they’re practically vogueing in that first one. (And is that Elephant Man employing a Ricky Blaze chant? That’d be interesting. To my knowledge, stuff doesn’t typically travel that way. YouTube diaspora boomerang!)

[ok, now watching the second one…]

Ah, I see that you were pointing out the vogue style. Unmistakable, for sure.

I’m pretty curious about the current cultural politics in JA (and the JA diaspora, but there I’d expect a little more, er, deviation from the norm — not to get all Foucaultian) around what gets marked (often aptly) as “gay” style. As I mentioned back here,

a friend told me recently that while in JA this spring, his friend — an ol rasta chap — remarked about the recent trend toward tight pants, oversized belt buckles, and ‘metro’ fashion among young men, “me never know jamaica would have so much gay”

And there’s no question that part of the perception in JA — not among the “tight pants bwoy” who, presumably (and I can’t say for sure since I haven’t asked), don’t think of their style as queer — is that this effete affect is an imported, yankee, babylonian ting.

From what I can glean via YouTube, there’s some interesting friction a gwaan right now between Jamaican (/JA-American) youth who have embraced rockstar/nerdcore (racial?) crossdressing and those who reject it as battyboy bizness. Take, for example, the video you and Kevin embedded recently —

The top comment currently is by some dude (calling himself “MrJama1ca” no less!) who says/threatens —

my yuth f u come a see breeze wid dem handicappp dancing deh u will dead

& I love how the guy dancing (and the owner of the YouTube channel posting this video), 225MILO, replies —

OH GEEZ MAN!! thanks fi di advice i was bout to go over there with ma handicap moves too lol…..

I think it’s pretty clear who wins that one.

Interestingly, a quick search shows that there’s been some anxiety around this fashion turn in JA dance circles for a little while now, judging by this piece in the Gleaner from last summer.

And as I’ve noted before, this anxiety about tight pants style has also motivated some rudeboy/crunky protests in the diaspora (i.e., Brooklyn) as well. To wit (?) —

What is of most interest to me in all of this is, to put it clunkily: the increasing and vividly/video-ly mediated exchange between yard and foreign, JA and BK(etc.), and the way that Jamaican and black (youth) cultural politics have been changing as a result of this greater degree of (digital) cultural production and p2p exchange. Jamaican (countercultural) style, at least since independence, has been very much animated by cosmopolitan/metropolitan movements and strivings. It’s not surprising that as black (American) youth culture has embraced rockstar/nerdcore/racially-transgressive style — often marked by what might be labeled “metrosexual” fashion — so have Jamaican youth in Brooklyn and Kingston alike, an ambivalent development for many observers/participants but nothing truly beyond the pale as far as JA-appropriations of foreign steez go (just check 70s reggae photos for tight clothes that put today’s fashions to shame).

The fact that Elephant Man — no sloucher when it comes to homophobic calls-to-arms — can now chant along to hip BK catchphrases while dudes in tight white pants essentially vogue for the camera is, well, interesting to say the least. But that’s kinda the price of an omnivorous (if distinct) approach to global/metro culture. Note as well that the first guy dancing in the video to which Brian points not only sports a white-n-blue mohawk, but, in a nod to recent hip-hop/metro trends (as one of my Palestinian/Arab-Israeli students pointed out last week), a kufiya as well.

To make one more connection, if a bit of a stretch (pants?), how easy would it be to distinguish one of these super-stylee Ravers Clavers from, say, this Nawlins Sissy Bouncer?

And though some of us might be tempted to dismiss, as with kufiyas and jihadi-chic, such fashion statements with cynicism, I think that would be a mistake. There’s something subtle and important about these (semi-ironic) performances of selfhood (and nationhood?), something that undercuts essentialist orthodoxies and embraces more fluid, fun notions of the art of the possible. This is pretty clearly evident in another set of comments around that “handicapp” video embedded above —

Low him indeed !

Moreover, as Rachel notes in a follow-up to my and Brian’s musings, change is in the air. The anti-tight-pants brigade are fighting an uphill battle, alongside racists and sexists and other policemen —

those comments remind me o the gay riotz in mexico. the haterz cant fight it tho, gays are sneakin up on yall.

and though Rachel is clearly being a bit cheeky here — they were “emo riots”, not “gay” riots; let’s not validate the haterz’ perspective — I agree that there are obvious parallels a gwaan, and not only in this hemisphere. Rachel brings West Africa into the convo too —

even mbalax videos of late seem to be more female gazey

Ah yes, teh gaze.

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July 11th, 2008

Where Do I Begin (To Tell the Story)?

As long as we’re on the topic of “Arab Face” I’ve decided to dust off and finish up this post that’s long been sitting in my drafts folder. (It’s post #100, and I’ve recently published #400, if that’s any indication of how long it’s been on a backburner.)

There are countless twisty, tangly stories of sounds & images & ideas going from there to here and back again. They make for rich discussions of allusion, appropriation, borrowing, copying, re-use, remix, and the like. And they’re often a lot more complex than any ol’ East/West, North/South dichotomies can explain. The question of exploitation — of big pimpin’, eh? — typically looms large, especially in an asymmetrically dominated/accessed global economy. But the evidence of cultural vitality, and the degree to which that depends on mimetic representations, is perhaps what should assume the foreground.

What I like about the example clustered around Truth Hurts’s “Addiction” is how it calls attention to the both-waysness of such phenomena. I’m afraid it’s a LOT more complicated than any of the accounts I’ve yet encountered online. And the misconceptions around the case are quite telling, especially as they’re used to cast aspersion on this party or that. It’s taken me quite some time to try to piece things together, verify certain claims and discount others, and I have to admit that there remain a number of details I’ve yet to pin down. Perhaps putting this out there will help tie up loose ends.

Most readers are no doubt familiar with the Truth Hurts song&video —

As you probably know — given that the initial $500M lawsuit made some news — the filmi sample for “Addictive” comes from a song called “Thoda Resham Lagta Hai (Kaliyon Ka Chaman)” as composed by Bappi Lahiri, sung by the great Lata Mangeshkar, and featured in this scene in Jyoti (1981). That initial lawsuit was instigated by Saregama India Limited, a major film and music firm based in Kolkata which, presumably, owns the mechanical rights to Jyoti and its soundtrack. Later, the composer himself would also sue Dr. Dre & co. (“Addictive” was produced by DJ Quik for Dre, who exec produced the Truth Hurts album), for the more modest sum of slightly more than $1M. Both cases, predictably/typically, were settled out of court.

And yet, one bit of misinformation among others is the falsehood that Lata herself instigated a suit. Richard Roughinhere, for example, whose nu-whirled blog has become increasingly devoted to Bollywood, is unfortunately guilty of spreading that rumor when he wrote about hip-hop sampling B-wood a while back. Unlike MIA’s apparently licensed versions of filmi songs, Richard writes that “Addictive,”

was done without permission and resulted in a big law suit from Lata Mangeshkar, which I think is kind of unnecessary…but never mind.

Now, I appreciate Richard expressing his liberal opinion about sampling practices, but it doesn’t serve anyone — least of all a towering figure like Lata, who nonetheless (presumably) holds no rights for most of the 30,000+ (!) songs she recorded — to get the facts wrong when we’re talking about allegations of appropriation and exploitation.

[Update (7/14): Richard has been in touch, and I owe him an apology for the accusation above. He points out that there are several sources which seem to allege that Lata either sanctioned the lawsuit or was perhaps even party to it. I still need to see some more conclusive evidence (i.e., legal docs or Lata’s own words), but plenty of reporting and discussion on the web — thin as it is — does suggest that Lata might have, at the least, given her blessing to the lawsuit by Saregama. I’m eager to know whether she holds any rights to the recordings, or whether it’s a matter of pride / permission / “moral rights” for her.

Update II (7/14): I found one legal document pertaining to the case, from August 07. It names Lahiri and Saregama as plaintiffs (not Mangeshkar) and discusses the interesting fact, which the defense — for Universal / Interscope / Aftermath / Dre — attempted to use to its advantage, that the two parties (Lahiri and Saregama) each separately filed in early 03 for the US copyright to “Thoda Resham.” I have read in a few places that both claims were settled out of court. As late as fall of 07, however, the case was proceeding. Interestingly, a judge ruled that Lahiri did not appear, under Indian law, to own the copyright for “Thoda Resham” as recorded in Jyoti having signed that away long ago to Pramod Films, the production company which made the film and later sold these rights to Saregama. Given that ruling, I don’t see why UMG / Dre would settle with Lahiri except to put the thing to sleep.]

Another major source of confusion around this case is that another song, “Kaliyon Ka Chaman,” released the same year as “Addictive,” is sometimes identified as having refashioned the Lahiri composition first. Even though it’s an “interpolation” rather than a direct sample, in Indian parlance this “cover” version is known as a “remix.” Notably, “Kaliyon Ka Chaman” has stood at the center of some rather contentious local debates about the value/originality of “remixes” in India, inspiring such alarmist turns of phrase as “musical terrorism.”

A huge hit in India, “Kaliyon” helped to launch Meghna Naidu‘s buxom, er, career. Interestingly, like “Addictive,” it was distributed by Universal, which, oddly, decided to license the rights to “Thoda Resham” for “Kaliyon” in India while failing to do so for the Truth Hurts song:

Coincidentally, UMG’s foreign subsidiary Universal India sought and was granted permission to license the song for an unrelated use as a cover 12 days before Truthfully Speaking was released June 26, furthering the suit’s claim that “the defendants clearly and admittedly knew their activities were, and currently are, infringing on [Seragama’s] copyrighted work.”

A Universal Music Group spokesperson had no comment on the matter.

Here’s the video for “Kaliyon Ka Chaman.” Look familiar?

Sometimes people are pretty quick to point fingers. The person who posted the above to YouTube declares that Truth Hurts “ripped” the above “off” rather than vice versa. (Indeed, the video has been titled “truth hurts addictive kaaliyon ka chaman ripped off” — lest one miss the description.) Although I haven’t been able to verify the comparative release dates, I have to admit that I find it really implausible that the song&video for “Kaliyon” were not themselves directly influenced by the Truth Hurts production rather than vice versa. (Please, correct me on this point if you have any evidence.) There are several bits of circumstantial evidence that seem to affirm the “originality” of the Truth Hurts version, including that quotation above which notes that the Lata sample was cleared for “Kaliyon” only 12 days before Truth Hurts’s album was released (and well after her single had entered heavy rotation).

Let’s agree on this much (though I hope to confirm this soon, and I think the genealogy is obvious): the two songs and videos are so similar in structure and imagery that any thesis of independent emergence seems absurd. The choreographed Indian-inflected bellydancing, the shots panning up and down the bed, the same use of the same parts of the Lata song, the same overlayed drum patterns, the mutual use of melodies unrelated to the Lata original — all suggest that one came first.

Beyond the licensing timeline (and in the current absence of release dates for both), DJ Quik’s story about how he encountered and hooked-up the sample would seem to offer strong evidence that it was Jyoti rather than “Kaliyon” which inspired the making of “Addictive.” According to Kevin Miller, whose “Bolly’hood Remix” explores the practice of sampling Indian music in hip-hop,

DJ Quik first heard the Lata Mangeshkar song while watching the Hindi film Jyoti on Z-TV, and subsequently looped large sections into a framework over which the R&B lyrics were laid.

Elsewhere, Quik has described it himself in the following manner, which seems to square —

“I woke up one morning, … I turned on the TV and landed on this Hindi channel and just turned it up real loud,” Quik explained this past summer. “There was a commercial on, and I just got up and went into the bathroom and started brushing my teeth. I’m brushing, and before I knew it, I was grooving. … [The beat on the TV] was just in my body. I went back in there and looked at the TV — there was a girl on there bellydancing, just like real fly. So I pushed record on the VCR.”

Moreover, a blurb from March 02 about the making of the video suggests that the choreography and setting was, if cliche, also in its way “original” — a classic bit of US orientalism, conflating South Asia with the Middle East:

The video, directed by Philip Atwell (Real Slim Shady, Bad Intentions), complements the song’s East Indian sound with belly dancing choreographed by Fatima Robinson, and her body decorated with henna art.

And yet, if one checks the Wikipedia entries for “Addictive_(song)” or “Truth_Hurts” one finds the following text pasted, verbatim, into each article:

Though the original song, Lata Mangeshkar’s Thoda Resham Lagta Hai, was used as the main base of the track within the chorus, the modern-style beats, rhythm, melody and even the video was copied from the original remake (first version), UMI10’s Kaliyon Ka Chaman Jab Banta Hain featuring Meghna Naidu. This original remake was highly popular amongst the youths in South Asia, though it was almost non-existent within the West due to the language barrier. The first version was therefore only deemed popular to a specific niche market and culture. Although very little was changed to the original remake of the classic song, Truth Hurts’ version was more marketable for mainstream release and therefore became more popular internationally whilst the original remake wasn’t known to exist.

That’s a lazy bit of revisionism there, Media Research (if that’s your real name) — and offers no evidence to support its rather far-reaching claims. That this blurb now turns up in the descriptive texts for YouTube instantiations of these videos, and fuels ignorant debate which can spiral into nat’list&racist vitriol, is troubling to say the least.

Setting the record straight here is important, not least because misunderstandings about the (multi)direction(ality) of influence and borrowing and copying and ripping off can so quickly lead to charges of “cultural imperialism,” as Lahiri himself gave voice when bringing forth his lawsuit.

In an age of waning/maintaining Empire, such charges should not be taken lightly (that is, if we believe in cultural politics and understand how they can be linked to subjugation as well as subversion). Indeed, there is already enough to address w/r/t what Sunaina Maira would call the “imperial feelings” staged by “Addiction” and its video, without needing to discuss questions of international copyrights and wrongs.

The conflation of Arab / Middle Eastern symbols and the sounds/images of South Asia has been a common thread in hip-hop’s new millennial orientalism. Such careless, ethnocentric representations are problematic not least because they contribute to the kind of us/them discourse which subtly and powerfully dehumanizes people who can easily enough end up on the wrong side of a Blackwater scope. Or, to return to Kevin Miller’s analysis:

Other Indian elements—such as henna hand designs and head movements characteristically used in Indian dance—are freely mixed with Middle Eastern elements—most apparent in the profusion of belly dancing. An indulgent fantasy space is thus created through the collapsing of two or more distinct cultures—an action that denies an accurate reference to the geopolitical origins of the Mangeshkar sample, yet at the same time pays homage to the eclectic fantasy sequences so common to the Bollywood cinema.

Maira goes a step further in her work on bellydance in the US, concluding that

Belly dancing is seductive, not just because it is sensual or titillating, but because it lures viewers into a liberal Orientalism that evades the violence of U.S. penetration of the Middle East and assaults on Arabs and Muslims in the United States and taps into a larger, and quite pervasive, cultural imaginary of “un-free” Arab and Muslim women needing emancipation by Western modernity and “democracy” that is used to justify the War on Terror.

Maira’s critique would appear to apply to all instances of bellydancing in the US (at least by non-Arabs), regardless of how conflated Arab gestures may be with, say, Indian ones (or New Age ones for that matter). This is especially true since, as she argues, such mixtures are endemic: “The belly dancing subculture loosely mixes symbols and references to the Middle East, various parts of Asia, and Africa.” But before we rush to condemn Indian-accented bellydancing as, in itself, a form of orientalist conflation, we should note, as Maira herself does, that the story of bellydance is inherently one of international hybridity, with roots in the subcontinent among other places. Indeed, it is more significant that despite such hybridity — in the form’s historical formation as well as reinterpretation in the comtemporary US — bellydance is repeatedly, ironically, perniciously reduced to a symbol of an “ancient” Middle East:

… while belly dance is hybrid in its origins — variously linked to India, Egypt, North Africa, Central Asia, Turkey and the Levant — its reinvention as a putatively “ancient” Middle Eastern dance form in the West is significant becase it has continued to be a popular site where actual Middle Eastern or Arab individuals step out of public view.

It’s worth noting, in this light — at least in defense of the dancing in “Addictive” — that the routine cooked up by choreographer Fatima Robinson for Truth Hurts, which certainly seems to my eyes to offer a mix of Arab & Indian movements and postures (however stereotypical), has direct precedent in the scene from Jyoti which included “Thoda Resham” and which DJ Quick taped from the TV. I confess that I know little about the history or forms of bellydance in India, but I think the dancer/actress in Jyoti, Aruna Irani (herself of Iranian-Indian heritage), actually is bellydancing (if with an Indian accent). Her routine may be a hodgepodge, as a lot of bellydancing is, but it certainly seems to contain elements related to bellydance — at least to my amateur eyes (expert opinions welcome).

[Update: while reading Nabeel Zuberi’s informative article “Sampling South Asian Music” this morning (12 July), I encountered the following, albeit brief, affirmation of the use of Arab forms in Jyoti: “DJ Quik’s account is testament to Bollywood’s exotic fascination with Arab culture…”]

So despite that one critique of the Truth Hurts video is its conflation of such (presumably “ethnically” / nationally distinct?) things as henna and bellydance — not unlike Erick Sermon rapping about scooping up “an Arabic chick” over a filmi sample — the Indian-accented bellydance in the Truth Hurts video (just see the image at the top of this post), which appears to have inspired rather similar moves in “Kaliyon Ka Chaman,” is not itself necessarily a particularly American invention.

Opposing US military/economic imperialism is one thing; opposing US hip-hop producers’ forays into “foreign” territory is another (despite parallels to US bellydance). Bracketing (for now) a discussion of Lahiri’s own “sampling” practices, is the composer right to charge “cultural imperialism”? For Chris Fitzpatrick, a former features editor @ popmatters, it would seem so. In an article on “Addictive” penned for the website, Fitzpatrick advances an overbearing but by no means invalid critique of hip-hop orientalism in the would-be New American Century. But he undercuts his argument by voicing a bit of paternalistic orientalism of his own, playing preservationist for the pure, pristine, and timeless traditions of the East (/Third World). Writing about hip-hop’s orientalist producers (e.g., Timbo, Dre, E.Double, R.Kels), Fitzgerald argues that —

They set imperialism to a new bass-heavy beat, claiming traditional “third world” art forms as hot commodities.

The aural and visual epitome of this “new beat” is the Henna-soaked music video entitled “Addictive” by Truth Hurts, featuring Rakim. DJ Quik produced the song, sampling traditional Hindi music. Although the track is centered on sounds from India, the video features choreographed belly dancing: a Middle Eastern dance form. This odd combination is indicative of a typically totalizing Western mentality: India, the Middle East, what’s the difference? The entire “third world” is one big backwards and “underdeveloped” wasteland, right? Wrong, but such assumptions are embedded into every note, chant, beat, image, and dance in “Addictive,” relying on the romantic notion that the Middle East and India are inherently mystical and sexy, as if everyone studies the Kama Sutra, practices Tantric Sex, rides magic carpets, and belly dances naked in the moonlight.

While the video’s “exoticism” may seem exciting to the average Westerner, who’s more used to grinding and grabbing on the dance floor, it comes with imperialist undertones. “Addictive” paints a Westernized Middle East, offering a luxurious palace-turned-nightclub, full of beautiful models slinking and gyrating sexily on the dance floor, in “ethnic,” sequined costumes and Henna.

Bollywood may indeed be “traditional Hindi music” in its way (and draws on what might rightly be called “traditional” Indian music of all kinds), but not in the way that Fitzgerald imagines or projects here. “Assumptions,” you say? “Chants,” eh?

The question arises: If it’s not so clear-cut that the direction of influence / appropriation / exploitation / representation is a one-way (East–>West) street, how do we proceed with any conversation about musical/cultural value that grapples honestly with the question of cross-cultural exchange?

I ask because charges of cultural imperialism — whether overblown, reflexive, or sincere — can distract us from some of the more positive politics of culture on both sides of the fence (you make a border real by policing it). In these cases above, and in those below (just wait), we can hear — in addition to rehashed stereotypes — examples of what we might consider “convivial appropriation,” attempts to take part in global modernity (and local multiculture) by expressing a cosmopolitan orientation, to demonstrate open-minded, up-to-the-time tastes, all the time vibing ineluctably — I’m afraid — with the shimmer of difference under advanced global/gunboat capitalism. This is as true in LA as Bombay — sorry, Mumbai (which raises the question, shouldn’t we be calling it Mollywood now?). To put it another way, per Michael Taussig, we can hear&see in “Addictive,” “Kaliyon Ka Chaman,” and even in “Thoda Resham Lagta Hai,” the power of mimesis to “explore difference, yield into and become Other.”

Although an argument about musical mimesis — whether we want to call it copying, allusion, or influence — arguably extends to all instances of performance and production, it merits emphasis that in genres such as hip-hop and filmi the incorporation of previously recorded riffs, rhythms, and all manner of musical material is especially essential to the creative process and often crucial to the production of meaning in moments of reception.

Dancehall too. Many readers are no doubt familiar with yet another recent use of “Thoda Resham” — and, like “Kaliyon Ka Chaman,” one inspired directly by “Addictive”: the Bollywood riddim, aka “The Indian” as it was known in Jamaica, a place where East Indians have been a visible minority since the L19C. One review of the riddim notes that its appearance accompanied several other eastward-looking productions (a trend that I discuss in a piece I penned a few years back for XLR8R on Jamaica and the War on Terror):

“Bollywood” is a great bouncing riddim, actually Computer Paul’s JA rub from “Addictive”, the worldwide hit by Truth Hurts, which was produced by DJ Quick from the Dr Dre camp. Musician Paul “Computer Paul” Henton has used a sample of “Kalyon Ka Chaman” sung by Lata Mangeshkar and has also added an indian-like riddim drum pattern in order to keep up with trendy dancehall riddims like for example “Tabla”, “The Return” and “Diwali”.

There’s actually a lot more going on in Computer Paul’s / In The Streetz’s “rub” of “Addictive” than the addition of an “indian-like riddim drum pattern” (whatever that means — it actually sounds more like a stripped-down version of the percussion lines in both “Addictive” / “Thoda Resham”), including a wheezy synth line, a buzzy bass (giving it that ol’ 3+3+2 bomp-bomp), and the kind of layered variation one expects with post-millennial riddims. And when one takes into account the various other songs, melodies, & texts alluded to by the artists who “voiced” the riddim, this is — par for the course — one deeply intertextual production. As is typical for riddims these days, the Bollywood supported around 2 dozen official/sanctioned voicings, including such local hits as Beenie Man & Robyn’s “Red Red Red” (which interpolates as it critiques Khia’s “My Neck, My Back“) and, my fave, Tanya Stevens’s, “Addicted” — an obvious nod to the Truth Hurts song (and perhaps a bit of counteraction to Truth Hurts’s sometimes submissive lyrics) which includes some wonderfully assertive innuendo about men who brag about their prowess yet “cannot pitch a tent.” But I digress.

Back to filmi. No one well acquainted with the filmi tradition would deny that it too is an inherently intertextual genre, and composers have long drawn from local folk, classical, and pop music as well as the folk, classical, and pop traditions of the wider world. One favorite of mine, an example that I often use when teaching classes about Bollywood/filmi, is “Engal Kalyanam” (from Worlds of Music, a textbook I once used), which alternates between obvious rock’n’roll tropes and more local sections and includes Woody Woodpecker’s trademark® laugh as a recurring interjection —

As I reported last summer, after a great overview of the “musical bondage” between Bollywood diva Asha Bhosle and her husband, composer RD Burman, one of the presenters, Shuchi Kothari, was quick to point out — when asked whether hip-hop appropriations of Bollywood were more “ignorant” than vice versa — that Burman was quite “cavalier” in his borrowings. And the same could be said for just about any Bollywood composer.

Lahiri is no exception. Indeed, this page details but a few of his many, many “borrowings” from the likes of Beethoven, Barbara Streisand, Boy George, and Beverly Hills Cop, to name a few beginning with B. (Interesting, innit, that in all the discussions of MIA covering the filmi hit “Jimmy Jimmy” few mention that Lahiri “borrowed” liberally from a Canadian disco group for the “original.”)

Given the degree of intertextuality in Bollywood, and the craze for “remixes” (i.e., covers), it is perhaps of no surprise that other composers attempted to capitalize on the success and resonance of “Kaliyon Ka Chaman.” (And, lest we forget, so did Lahiri, rather forgettably.)

A Kannada-language film called Rakta Kanneeru, for instance, includes a song called “Ee Deshadali Karunaadu Ide” which quite obviously and audibly takes its cues from “Kaliyon Ka Chaman” (and hence from the Truth Hurts and Lata versions as well). Perhaps predictably, given the degree of “derivation,” some viewers/listeners do not regard it very highly and accuse the director, Sadhu Kokila, of the same sort of “blatant” “copying” as Dre/Quik. As posted on a Kannada-centric messageboard (note, interestingly, the assumption that Meghna Naidu’s version is itself an unauthorized remix.):

Innu blatant copies irbekaadre intha chikka putta songs na bittbidbeku :)

Another example –

Kaliyon ka chaman by Lata ==>
Silently stolen by Dr. Dre to make Truth Hurts ==>
Back to unauthorized remix in Hindi featuring Meghna Naidu ==>
“Ee Deshadali Karunaadu Ide” … Terrible song in Raktha Kanneru by Sadhu Kokila

Judge for yourself. Here’s that one — a clear rip-off of a clear rip-off of a clear rip-off, right?

Listen to Raktha Kanneeru – kannada Audio Songs at

As I hope I’ve been able to show to this point, setting the record straight — or telling the story right — is important not just b/c of charges of imperialism or orientalism and their implications, but b/c of our very understanding of commonplace cultural practice, especially in the age of mechanical/digital reproducibility.

Given this state of affairs, I’d like to recuperate the idea of “copying.” Sometimes in copyright/left/wrong conversations “borrowing” starts to feel like a euphemism, especially when we’re talking about digital sampling. So let’s call a spade a spade, but more than that, let’s use the more inclusive term, for it is true that sampling and recomposition each constitute, in their own ways, direct forms of copying. One may seem more “exact” to certain observers because of the way it approximates the sound of the original at such an infinitesimal level of detail. But they are both uses of rather precise, powerful technologies (digital sampling and “Western” notation) to do essentially the same thing: to recontextualize a previous performance for a new creation. Indeed, along these lines, it’s interesting that the term remix refers to this very process — making new, audibly, from old — in both “teh West” (and the wider world) as well as in India, though in the former(s) as a result of sampling and in the latter via recomposition / rearrangement.

A lot of this is, of course, nothing more than mental hand-wringing. For despite the occasional chilling effect brought on by a lawsuit, culture continues to make copies. Or to put it another way, people do. Copying and transforming cultural forms — sometimes (often?) just by making a bad copy — is not simply commonplace but crucial, and our world is richer and funnier and more connected (intertextually, symbolically, even socially) for it.

The advent and mainstreaming of the mashup is a prime example of how copying continues unabated and takes still more ostentatious forms because of the magic of binary code (0s and 1s are waaaay easy to cut’n’paste). So isn’t it fitting that a (presumably Indian?) bloke who calls himself DJ Brown Fiyah (a layered, appropriative name in its own right) mashed together “Kalion Ka Chaman” and Usher’s “Yeah” —

Or — look ma, an analog “appropriation”! — what about this blazing new joint from Maga Bo, which ended up in my inbox earlier in the week and, wouldn’t you know, opens with a pretty familiar vocal melody (which has nothing to do with Lata, btw; it’s all Truth Hurts, and yes it turns up in “Kaliyon Ka Chaman” too) —

Both examples above are, I submit, rather clear instances of how people use recognizable bits of “foreign” / global culture to articulate something new — and, notably, something locally meaningful which nonetheless can resonate in the wider world.

Just culture at work here, people. Plain and simple Rich and complex.

But in case your sense of injustice is still seething, perhaps in sympathy to Lata Mangeshkar, who, if anyone, is perhaps the artist most deeply uncompensated in all of this (not that she’s doing too badly, all things considered), allow me to pose a commonsensical counterfactual: how much do you think Stevie Wonder should sue for Lata for her performance on “Aate Jaate Hanste Gaate” (from Maine Pyar Kiya [1989])?

It’s a silly question, isn’t it. Not least of which because Stevie and Lata are both quite well-off. But the example gets us back, yet again, to one of the most troubling aspects of all this: the tendency for people to couch their (often ignorant) criticisms in value-laden double standards. The Wikipedia page for Maine Pyar Kiya, for example, currently reads:

The opening track, Aate Jaate, is said to have been inspired by Stevie Wonder’s 1984 single, I Just Called to Say I Love You, while the track Mere Rang Mein Rangne Wali was directly inspired by Swedish rock band Europe’s 1986 single, The Final Countdown and theme from Love Story’s Where Do I Begin. The track Antakshri was a medley of various Bollywood songs based on the Antakshari game, which was popularized with this film’s release. The remaining tracks, including the popular Dil Deewana, were original compositions.

“Said to have been inspired by”? Really? Is that level of vague attribution not a little odd in such an audibly obvious case? I mean, I guess if you put it that way (who “said,” btw?), that’s not, like, copying at all. But please explain, given this wording, how other instances of “borrowing” on the soundtrack can be described as “directly inspired by” (my emph) or a “medley of” or, even, “original”?!? There is a spurious sort of double standard at play here, which is one reason I’m so interested in the particular, tangly, but in many ways representative & suggestive case of “Addictive.”

As a sidenote, tho — incidentally but not insignificantly — I am very pleased to be better acquainted with all of these tracks, including the one I’ve used for the title of this post, as well as Europe’s over-the-top synth anthem and the filmi track that combines the two —

Yes, there are structural/financial issues at issue here and I’m far from an apologist for imperialists or capitalists, but these lawsuits and biased Wiki edits are not going to correct anything. It’s the latter that cause me more concern. I’m happy to let rich people sue the pants off each other. Who cares? I take issue more strongly with the sticky memes of originality and ownership projected so strongly by the plaintiffs of such suits. They propagate notions of “intellectual property” (a bad idea to copy, IMO) wholly out of step with cultural — indeed, intellectual — practice. They favor certain notions of musical labor or process or value that primarily or exclusively benefit themselves (and often hypocritically at that).

Truth hurts.

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June 24th, 2008

Flag This: A Glance @ Google Nationalism

What can be gleaned by glancing at the first page of returns via Google Images for certain nations and their flags?

I don’t know exactly, but I found the results fascinating enough to take several screenshots. I do like the play between a sort of repetitive stability and the occasional, odd (but telling) aberration, e.g., the sudden appearance of Superman, George W., Pitbull, flames, sneakers, or a bikini-clad babe —


June 22nd, 2008

linkthink #519292: Loosing My Mind [sic]

videyoga ::

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June 16th, 2008

linkthink #69377: Who Wants to Bet That Obama Becomes a Far More Common First Name Than Barack?

videyoga :: (my brother clowning me at my other brother’s wedding, 4 yrs ago)

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May 30th, 2008

Notes on Neighborhood

Although my research/interests often turn to (trans)nationalism, lately I’ve been thinking less about nationhood and more about neighborhood — not in terms of an actual space or place (though that’s part of it), but something more akin to neighborliness, to being a good neighbor, to finding an ethics of neighborhood in an intensively globalized/mediated era. I’m curious about a musically-mediated aesthetics more specifically — one that responds not to the condition of living in a world of strangers, as Anthony Appiah might put it, but a world of neighbors. This is a concept that I hope will be useful in coming to terms with what I’ve variously, loosely, referred to as nu-whirl music and global ghettotech.

I have to admit that I’ve yet to catch up with the philosophical (or anthropological, sociological, etc.) literature on “the neighbor.” I was enthused to see that Ian Biddle’s recent piece on “musical neighbors” offers some musicological and theoretical directions, which I look fwd to pursuing. Right now my notion of neighborhood is much more commonsensical, I should confess, which may be for the best, ideological mess that common sense is — the “folklore of philosophy,” as Gramsci called it, among other things.

Not unrelated to the Neighbors Project perhaps, but less concerned w/ addressing gentrification per se (tho it is certainly part of the story), my own impulse — shared by many peers, I think — to attend to and represent local soundscapes seems, nonetheless, to offer some real promise for reconciliation and productive, interactive cohabitation (perhaps visitation too — i.e., a kinder, gentler tourism). I’m obviously a firm believer in the power of music to shape our world(s), and I know that my own ideas about selfhood&otherness, place&space, and social connections & “social consciousness” have been deeply informed by music (and, in partic, hip-hop). Theory too. Indeed, my current thinking about neighborhood has been inspired without a doubt by Paul Gilroy’s recent remarks, in which he makes an argument for “conviviality” and “mutual regard” in the context of the postcolonial multiculture that is London — and by extension, though this is perhaps my own leap of imaginary — to the great number of cities today which host so many people from so many places, especially the once (and future) metropoles of empire.

That said, I don’t have much in the way of developed ideas & theories of my own, but I would like to throw the term out there, to invite feedback, to think aloud about how we might hear neighborhood in musical experience and practice, mediated as it may be by various technologies & distances. Toward a more fleshed out notion, allow me to share a few instances that come to mind via the likkle corner of the musiconnoisseurosphere in which I find/embed myself —

1) One set of examples that comes to mind, consonant with Gilroy’s LDN-centric frame, is the work of man like John Eden, Martin “Blackdown” Clark, & the extended crew responsible for Woofah (now available, for those in my neck of the woods / side of the pond, via ForcedExposure). All of them reflect on the London soundscape in ways that, for me, really help to redefine what England looks and sounds like these days. John Eden not only represents for his own hood as a straightup activist, he amplifies articulations between hoods, and, of course, is constantly mining London’s Caribbean connections (or, perhaps better, its Caribbean constitution), either through his posts and mixes devoted to homegrown reggae, fastchat, etc., or those that — like Woofah itself — serve to underscore the relationship between reggae and, say, grime. Of course, this is a story being spun by the Heatwave boyz too, and it’s worth noting that another keen Londonian observer and sense-maker about reggae, Dave Stelfox, with whom I shared some delish Turkish bbq along with the Heatwavers in London last spring, was, when I ran into him, totally raving about the Kurdish dance sessions happening on his street (which he recorded on his cellphone) — demonstrating a rather Gilroyan sense of regard. And, of course, when he’s not busy translating and transmitting the future-present sounds of London, Blackdown’s own music, which I’m eager to hear in album-form, engages with the wider London soundscape as well, dabbling in desi beats and other formerly “strange” strains which are now utterly familiar (thx in part, no doubt, to noisy neighbors like the Panjabi Hit Squad).

2) Another is offered by Cheif Boima, a freq w&w commenter and someone whose mixes I’ve been flagging here for a minute. Boima’s latest mix, Baobab Connection Vol 2, has been making the rounds recently. It’s a pretty excellent example of exactly what I’m talking about here. Boima’s engagement with coupe decale, which precedes more recent critical fawning and which he brought into the convo here last June, is much more than a web-mediated connection. He DJs twice a month at a club in SF called Little Baobab, playing a mix of African dance tracks to a mix of African ex-pats and 2nd-gens. As such, Boima’s love for Ivorian pop, although definitely a homegrown one (i.e., he grew up listening to it with his father and family), is not just about his own strong connections to a place far away, but has been strengthened and shaped by matters very much close-by. Moreover, his decale-style remixes of US hip-hop and r&b offer a rather compelling fusion of the Bay Area soundscape as it swirls around in his head&heart (not to mention, as he’s made clear in other mixes, the Salone soundscape). And though I don’t want to dilute the degree to which Boima’s neighborly soundings are quite locally grounded, it’s worth noting — in the nu-whirl context — that he’s joined another neighborly (LDN-based) blogger, Vamanos @ Ghettobassquake, to share sounds from around the world/way. Did I mention that Boima works with underprivileged youth by day? Nuff said.

3) Finally, though I there are many others I could mention, I want to call attention to the work of Greg Scruggs, a former student, graduating senior (!), and intrepid observer of the intersections btwn city-space and soundscape. Many readers of this here blog are familiar with Greg’s Beat Diaspora, on which he’s chronicled in great, reflective detail his experiences of listening and learning in Rio, Paris, New Orleans, Detroit. But mostly Rio, where he spent last summer — and some other stints — not just going to bailes and interviewing funkeiros, but living and working alongside community activists like the Two Brothers Foundation. Perhaps most impressive, though: Greg spent a good deal of time hunting down funk artists in order to compensate them for an unlicensed compilation issued by US-based Flaming Hotz records and, even better, seeking out other funkeiros in order to strike an ethical agreement (em Português!) to release their music through the same label, with payment upfront and royalties to follow. “Fair trade funk,” Greg calls it, and the album, Pancadão do Morro (Big Hits from the Hill), is an exemplary release in just about every sense: great music, lovingly and ethically compiled, richly contextualized without recourse to the same ol’ sensationalism, and so nicely packaged that you actually want to buy the physical CD. One last bit of nu-whirl localism wrt Senhor Scruggs: I’ll be joining Gregzinho, a not-too-distant neighbor here in Cambridge, this very evening to chat about and broadcast a bunch of the music whirling around this discussion. Greg’s hosting a Nu Whirl Orgy tonight on WHRB — that’s 95.3 if you’re local to (Greater) Boston or streaming here if you’re not. Should be fun(ky)!

It’s probably clear that my notion of “neighborhood” is meant as a way of reading nu-whirled movements in an engaged, positive manner. It moves away from notions of the strange(r) and foreign to the familiar. We become familiar with our neighbors when we have some regard for them, when we listen and play collectively, and I’ll be so potentially naive as to suggest that DJs and bloggers can serve as cultural agents in this process. For all of the inherent problematics, many of the middlemen and women of the “nu world” are aware of their power and privilege, actively resist discourses of the exotic and touristic, and propose other modes of interaction with the strangers / others / neighbors among us: from collaboration, to taking a focused and sustained rather than “eclectic” or trendy approach, to preferring “getting under each other’s skin” rather than simply “used to each other,” as Appiah would have it. Although we see some ways that “nu world” is derivative of “old” “world music,” many of the so-called globalist DJs are quite antagonistic to the underlying exoticism. Like Ghis said

World music is more exotic, the sounds we play are more urban. They all come from common backgrounds: people without much money, doing music in home studios or in a laptop. It’s something more urgent.

There’s always a nagging question, perhaps, as to whether we’ve simply shifted from safari tourism to slum tourism, but the urgency, urbanity, and class dimensions which Ghislain notes give the endeavor a different sort of spin. Global ghettotech offers a soundtrack to a planet of slums, a ghetto archipelago linking Rio to Detroit to London to Kingston to Salone, decentering the US in the global music industry and imaginary, but — perhaps most crucially — also calling attention to a global underclass whose struggles are shared and intertwined and who reside not just on the next continent but, increasingly, next door.

Good fences make good neighbors, yes, but so do good parties.

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April 6th, 2008

Hip-hop Japanthropology & the End of the Jews

Recently I brought two authors to campus to share their work with my class — that’s the only connection between the two otherwise disparate topics in the title of this post. (Hope I didn’t alarm anyone by implying improbable causal relationships.)


The “hip-hop Japanthropology” was c/o Ian Condry, a professor at MIT who wrote Hip-hop Japan — one of the texts we’re reading in my “Global Hip-hop” course this semester. The book is really quite good, an ethnography and analysis of, as the subtitle says, “Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization” in Japan. The text’s most important contribution to the global hip-hop literature, in my mind, is that Condry directs the reader away from misleading binaries such as local/global or imitation/authentic in order to focus on what seems the more interesting implication of hip-hop as a cultural phenom in Japan: i.e., the way that the use of such a “foreign” cultural resource as hip-hop serves to animate discussions in Japan about Japan — esp, about the alleged homogeneity of Japaneseness.

It’s a well rounded, deeply informed study, and Condry offers some supplements on his website, including a link to a subtitled version of King Giddra’s “911,” a striking meditation on, as GW would say, September the 11th. For Condry, Giddra’s “911” demonstrates that, despite such close engagement with US culture, Japanese hip-hoppers have a distinct, distanced, nuanced take on American affairs (connecting the event, for example, to the bombing of Hiroshima and criticizing our Manichean media response).

The refrain of “9 – 1 – 1” in the chorus, reminded me of the following song, which made me wonder: is it really possible that no jaded observer has yet redeployed Flav’s chorus as a critique of the other 9-1-1?


The End of the Jews refers to the new novel by Adam Mansbach, a self-proclaimed (and justified) hip-hop novelist. When he spoke to the class, Adam did a wonderful job explaining what he means by the phrase “hip-hop literature.” He doesn’t mean books about hip-hop or featuring graffiti-esque fonts on the cover. Rather, for Mansbach, hip-hop literature comes into its own when it’s no longer about content but about form: hip-hop form. Hence, he likes the idea of hip-hop’s aesthetics as applied to things other than, say, the ol’ 4 elements. He discussed hip-hop academics as an example (and I’d like to think that I do bring a little hip-hop to class & conferences with me, whether or not I’m talking about hip-hop). But, most important, he talked about how he saw hip-hop inform in his writing style — the way he “chops” his words, the sense of flow, of play and humor, and, among other things, an underlying engagement with ideas about race and self and community and struggle.

Dude’s gotta show and prove, of course, and so his latest novel is about a multigenerational Jewish family rather than, say, a rapping, riot-causing race traitor. Sure, there’s a hip-hop gen DJ/graf-writer among the protagonists, but also a depression-era novelist and an Eastern European jazz photographer. It definitely reads as if written by a “head,” and even in the passages where one might least expect it. See, also, for example, “The case for ‘White History Month.'”

Mansbach may seem a stretch of a guest in a “Global Hip-hop” course, and it’s true that he was. But I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to have him share his story of black-Jewish relations, otherness, and hip-hop aesthetics with my class, especially considering where I teach. The week Adam visited us, we were studying Germany, which of course has its history of struggling with notions of self and racial otherness. This is a dimension unavoidable in a study of German hip-hop, since so many groups (e.g.) have represented the interests and plights of gastarbeiterin and their children and childrens’ children. So I introduced Adam by noting that Jews were archetypal racial others in Germany (and Europe more generally, along with “gypsies,” “moors,” etc.), but that for all their persistent otherness here in the US, it is an otherness of a different kind from that of blacks. This is an idea I cribbed from an interview with Adam about the book, in which he argues that

one of the great — if complicated — stories of 20th-century American culture is the relationship between blacks and Jews as Others, where immutable black Otherness has served as a foil for the mutability of Jewish identity, a dynamic that binds us together, if uneasily.

I’ll stop there for now, but suffice it to say that the book’s a good read. I’ll finish by saying that one thing I’ve learned to love about Adam is that he’s both an erudite mu’fukah and yet still sorta talks like a homeboy.

Reminds me of someone.

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March 12th, 2008

Conversación Cumbia2.0 Continúa

thx to all for the continuing cumbia convo, esp those who have left comments and/or sent emails (is it telling that not all can be aired here?) i guess this stuff cuts close to the bone, but that’s how we like it here at w&w — jugando con fuego desde 2003!

& thx to KG for the collegial nod over @ the ethno-centric (heh) blog, musicologymatters

speaking of ethno colleagues, my interlocutor responds! [my words in blue; his in black]

> Sure, there’s always something that
> smacks of “slumming” with this kind of class-crossing interest in
> music (and often a bit of racialized exoticism to boot), but in that
> way it’s no different than the mainstream embrace of jazz, blues,
> hip-hop, salsa, bachata, merengue, soca, reggae, you name it.

Right: it’s certainly not unique in that respect. But every one of those musics
is attended by the same kinds of complaints about cross-class appropriation (not
sure about bachata, but I can’t imagine that it isn’t): founded or unfounded, I
think they indicate that there is an open and important debate about the issue.

> And I think that your comparison to Deep Forest is off-base

Well, that’s freely conceded: that was a lame and lazy placeholder on which,
however, see below.

> and leads
> us to an unfair and facile dismissal rather than a closer engagement
> with what is going on in B.A. and the blogosphere. For the most part,
> the Zizek artists are not sampling distant sounds for their cosmo
> cocktail parties. Rather, they’re synthesizing their own versions of
> the music that pervades their local soundscapes (backyard sounds can
> carry). In a sense, one could argue that they’re grappling with class
> and cultural divisions in B.A. as much as they may be benefiting from
> them. It is a fair question to ask whether these scenes (will)
> intersect at all. Far as I know, there’s not much crossover between
> the neo-cumbia scene and the cumbia villera scene. It would be great,
> as has happened with the international and middle-class interest in
> funk carioca, to see this (re)surgence of interest in cumbia translate
> to new opportunities for the “everyday” “people” with whom you seem,
> understandably, concerned.

All true. On this point, I would, I guess, contextualize my instinctive
reaction against this kind of thing in terms of my own work, and actually life
experience as well (in respect to which latter point, I will not bore you).
(Let me also warn you: the following section, unlike your mercifully orderly
paragraphs, is bound to be virtually incoherent and poorly phrased, as are most
of my thought processes and hence, emails.) Obviously, as your last set of
quotes here indicate, it’s not only the poor/working class/whatever who are
“everyday people”; and obviously other actors have the right to create
understandings of their social situation using the tools at hand. For me,
whether or not that can be usefully understood and critiqued as “appropriation”
boils down to the terms on which these cultural fashionings are presented by
their creators and taken up by their targets.

That being the case, the phrasing in your original message (viz “cumbia resurgence,”
which I took to be the manner in which these artists present themselves, which seems
*not* to be the case given what you’ve written here) seemed to me to recall a
number of similar situations from throughout the Americas (and beyond) in which I
have no trouble pointing the finger and saying “now, that’s *definitely* an
oppressive form of appropriation.” These are the cases in which a national
bourgeoisie finds, suddenly, to its surprise, that it is culturally rudderless and no
longer in command of general esthetics (never mind that it never is anyway:
discursively, that’s not the point). Usually, the result is that whatever is
currently popular among the working classes (or insert subaltern population
here) is newly indicated as the “real” location of collective
self-understanding, but simultaneously derided as a debased version of some
alternatively “purer” or more interesting form of itself, and in need of
“correction” by an intelligentsia that holds the intellectual and/or
technological keys to rescuing what is “actually valuable” about the popular.
The procedure is then to adopt elements of the popular, in either a “cleaned
up” (ie “restored”) and/or a “developed” form (watch for this word in Peru, and
you will find it used to death), suitable for consumption by the class alters of
those who have, thus far, created and consumed what I’m (lazily and this time,
acknowledgedly) calling “the popular.” These versions of the popular seem
inevitably to smooth out precisely the elements that are pleasurable for the
popular classes from which the idioms are abstracted in the first place – those
that mark the *difference* between a bourgeois cultural project and a popular one.

Now, that’s perhaps no big deal as long as great claims are not made by
those involved to be “bettering” the popular in the first place, and as long as
the goal is not to *replace* the popular in some fashion. However I rarely see
that happening in these situations, in Peru: in every case, historically, there
has been a distinct effort to convince the public at large that the new version
of “the popular” is the legitimate and authentic one, and to replace the
popular with this bourgeois neopopular version of itself. And it’s worked, in
fact, time after time. Convenient, because time after time it’s allowed the
national bourgeoisie to fashion itself as relativistically in-touch with
popular esthetics and appreciative of the contributions of the popular classes
to “national” culture, *even as they strain out everything that indicates a
popular esthetic opposed to the national bourgeoisie*. This has definitely
been the case with cumbia as well, though not only cumbia. And I think, when
you have a case where an intelligentsia claims to find value in the popular,
but only to the extent that it can be made into a new esthetic object, before
which the thing’s original is made to look foolish, then you’ve got a case of
something we might well call appropriation.

(btw, I think Dan Party’s work on balada is interesting in this context: similar
case, except that there is an open acknowledgment on the part of contemporary
balada fans that the “dangerous” aspect of liking for balada revolves around,
precisely, the danger of cross-class contamination. This doesn’t seem to me to
lead to some sort of productive engagement, though, it leads those who like
balada either to affect a kind of irony about it, or to refashion it using
alt-rock sounds and procedures.)

This is all pretty stock, of course: nothing new here, this reading has been
done to death. (I would add: it’s been done to death because in any given
situation there’s potentially a hell of a lot of truth to it.) And there’s a
big analytical difference between the national frame of reference I’ve just
been relying upon and the international dimensions of this cumbia trend. But I
say all this to indicate that a response to anything is shaped by one’s
background. I’ll freely acknowledge that my general visceral reaction against
intellectual/cosmopolitan/bourgeois usages of working-class elements grows out
of the confirmed suspicion that these things are *not* usually carried out in
the sense of exploration and alliance that seems to be indicated by Carolina
Gonzalez, but rather, as you say above, cross-class slumming and an exoticist
craving for a *mediated* sensuality/authenticity/spirituality [insert desired
quality of subaltern population here]. (Aside: in this context, actually, I
would say that the lazy and already disowned Deep Forest reference comes out of
the same background: it’s inappropriate for Buenos Aires perhaps, but it isn’t
for Peru, where internal exoticism is certainly an engine of the historic
dynamic I’m talking about.) And I would be willing to be argued out of that
suspicion in any given instance, perhaps this one: but I don’t think that I
want to change the fact that this is the default position from which I begin,
because it seems to be to be so close to the historic truth of artistic
interaction and development.

To phrase/restate this all another way: I’m certainly a judgmental cynic, and
perhaps what I interpret as your optimism is more open-minded and fair. But I
think I need my way for the work that I do. Maybe we should write brilliant
Keil-Feldish dialogues where we argue about who’s right, since the discussion
is so much more interesting than coming to any convincing conclusions about it.

(No, I don’t actually think that I’m Steve Feld or Charles Keil. You can speak
for yourself.)

About the blog: I guess, if you haven’t already gone ahead with it, I would
rather it were posted anonymously, though that’s fine by me. (I’m also
increasingly cynical and suspicious about the internet: I had a Facebook
account for three weeks and shut it down because it terrified me.)

Hope all’s well in Boston,

No further comment from me for now, though I’m tempted to add lots of little things. Let me leave you instead with this bit of apropos videyoga ::

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I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com


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