Trump, the Freedom Kids and Fascist Aesthetics

It’s been a couple weeks since those cute little Riefenstahl clones put themselves on a stage of a rally for Donald Trump in Florida and gave us the GOP ear-worm of primary season. A lot has happened since then, and none of Trump’s actions really have diverted from his usual script of “Satan’s campaign for class president acted out on the front walkway of a Hobby Lobby.” Point being, you might well have forgotten about the “Freedom Kids” in the past couple weeks, just because Donald Trump is nothing if not consistently devious and brilliantly conniving.

Nonetheless, there is something instructive in the Freedom Kids, something that can shed light on at least one aspect of why Trump is such a phenomenon and maybe help clarify the persistent (and, frankly, annoying) debate about whether The Donald is in fact a true-blue fascist or whether the designation is little more than a (well-deserved) slur. And it's a something that can be illuminated by the always brilliant, always tragic, never sugar-coated Marxist scholar Walter Benjamin. Goes to show, once again, that Benjamin's shadow deserves to loom much larger over modern radical politics than we have perhaps allowed for.

My hope is that the article I had published about Trump and the Freedom Kids at In These Times today can maybe influence this discussion. Briefly: no, he’s not a fascist, but the savviness with which he employs art, aesthetics and fragmented ideas could very well have been pulled from Marinetti’s playbook.

First few paragraphs are below, full article is at ITT.

Donald Trump does not make it easy to refrain calling him a fascist.

To be sure, people have been willing to call him that well before Democratic non-entity Martin O’Malley called him that. Since then, the debate has not so much boiled over as been reduced to a simmer, percolating and waiting for the billionaire-candidate to say or do something that would once again push it back up over the top.

Enter the “Freedom Kids,” three adorable little girls who opened up Trump’s campaign stop in Tampa, Florida. To the tune of the “Over There”—the feel-good hit of trenches and mustard gas—they invited the audience to join them in celebrating as America’s enemies “face the music.” Behold... (Read more)

Slingshots and Dabkes

May all your slingshots have Dabkes. May all your intifadas inspire dancing.

#شاهد| لقطة طريفة من شاب فلسطيني خلال مواجهات مع قوات الاحتلال تصوير: Faten Elwanتابعونا على انستغرام: https://instagram.com/shehabagency/

Posted by Shehab News Agency on Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Benjamania

I made another meme...

I think I may need professional help...

In all seriousness, however, there has been some good material released about Walter Benjamin lately. I read this as very positive. Benjamin's understanding of history, aesthetics, culture, modernity and so much else make him a crucial yet undervalued resource for any Marxist. I'm in full agreement with Neil Davidson and others who claim that Benjamin needs to be counted as part of a real, dynamic, revolutionary socialist tradition.

First is MacKenzie Wark's piece at Public Seminar insisting on the relevance of Benjamin's media theories for today. This is a particularly relevant argument given how dominant postmodernists like Marshall McLuhan are in contemporary media studies, imbuing a quasi-mystical power to the media itself. Benjamin's thoughts on the matter are far more material without becoming mechanical or deterministic. The more they can be integrated into a Marxist framework the better.

Then there's the audio from this presentation given at Berkeley by the authors of Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings. The book was released last year (I have yet to read it myself but am planning to shortly) and the presentation was given this past November, but the audio made its way to the website of Heathwood Institute only yesterday.

The presentation is worth listening to. It's rambling and often quite dry, but its most interesting moments are when the authors are clearly grappling with how one best renders the life and work of Benjamin. One should listen to it with a few grains of salt on hand, however: the authors have some very unkind words for Terry Eagleton's Walter Benjamin: Or, Towards a Revolutionary Criticism. Their gripe? That Eagleton claims Benjamin for Marxism against the efforts of a literary criticism divorced from a socialist project. Taking issue with this seems silly to me, given that there is no way to reasonably reckon with Benjamin's strengths as a critic without fairly approaching his Marxism. Parsing the two apart is rather like trying to pull apart the twines of a rope: you can certainly do it, but the rope loses all ability to fulfill its aim. Nonetheless, an interesting listen.

On a similar note, I'm currently working on an essay about what Benjamin's theories about the aestheticization of politics can teach us about Donald Trump. Stay tuned for it.

Charleston, Juneteenth and "No More Auction Block For Me"

Wednesday’s abominable act of racist terrorism (and yes, we must call it terrorism) casts a strange kind of shadow over this Juneteenth. Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white supremacist who opened fire on Emanuel AME -- a church of powerful symbolism to the Black community in Charleston and, to a degree, throughout the south -- chose the date of his attack to fall on the 193rd anniversary of the suppression of Denmark Vesey’s rebellion, which was planned at that same church. Clearly this violent racist gets the importance of symbolism, at least on some instinctual level. That the 150th Juneteenth -- a holiday marking the ultimate end of slavery -- falls just days afterward reveals both how much remains unfinished a century and a half later and how sick this unfinished business makes this country. How unfinished? Not too far from where Mother Emanuel is located, the Confederate flag flies on the state capitol, the very same flag that Roof had on his truck, right under the words “Confederate States of America.” That should provide all the answer we need.

For the past two years I’ve been researching the history of the gospel hymn “No More Auction Block For Me.”

 
 

A hypothesis I’m working with has been that this is possibly the most influential and yet unrecognized song in American history. I could very well be proven wrong on the “most influential” front, but what seems irrefutable is that this is a song that has had a massive impact on American popular music. Its recorded origins, predictably, go back to the institution of the first Black regiments during the American Civil War. An early iteration was sung as a marching song by these same regiments. It’s very likely that there were earlier versions, possibly sung in secret by slaves themselves, but the Civil War is when the song first made itself into recorded history.

This naturally placed it at a fortuitous crossroad. The Civil War, as a key event in ushering America into the modern age, was one of the first major instances of transculturation in the country’s history. There had of course been plenty of examples before with the collision of English, Scottish, German, Irish and countless other European ancestries. But for Black spirituals -- themselves the offspring of African musics and European hymns -- to travel so far and to reach so many white ears that otherwise may not have heard them; this was a giant leap in forging what we now understand as popular music. And in fact, the far-reaching travels of newly-freed Black men and women during both the Civil War and Reconstruction was what allowed what we now understand as “the blues” to form, gestate and become such a major staple of American musical culture.

“No More Auction Block” traveled along with all of these innumerable tunes and hymns. The Jubilee Singers of Fisk University toured a version around the country during the 1870’s. In the decades afterward, as the Black freedom struggle evolved, so did the song. Paul Robeson performed a noteworthy version. So did Odetta (hers is particularly moving). So did Joan Baez. Bob Dylan performed it, and it is now confirmed that the hymn’s structure provided inspiration for “Blowin’ In the Wind.” The above version from Sweet Honey In the Rock is one that departs significantly from traditional renditions, but still keeps intact its gospel feel and is certainly still recognizable as its original.

Some scholars speculated that “No More Auction Block” was also a major influence on the 1948 People’s Songs Bulletin version of “We Shall Overcome” (which, at least musically, is the version we all recognize today). And, if one elongates the notational phrasing of “We Shall Overcome,” the similarities between the two are quite apparent.

What does all of this have to do with the racist murders in Charleston? Truthfully, I was already planning to write a longer blog post about “No More Auction Block For Me” in recognition of the 150th Juneteenth. Tragedy has obviously intervened here, likely reshaping, along with countless other tragedies, both discussion and action around American racism for some time. But there is a certain significance to listening to the song in light of the Mother Emanuel murders.

During the transatlantic slave trade, forty percent of all captured Africans passed through the Charleston Harbor, by far the greatest percentage to pass through any slave port in America. The city of Charleston was, in many ways, the most important of all auction blocks. Little wonder that this same harbor was the site of the Civil War’s opening battle. Its position in the South Carolinian Lowcountry and the high concentration of both slaves and freed Blacks meant that the area was a key site in terms of the preservation of African culture and its evolution into a particularly African-American one. It bears acknowledgement that Zilphia Horton, then music director at the Highlander Folk School, first heard “We Shall Overcome” while visiting a Charleston tobacco workers strike.

Charleston, then, is a site where the ghosts of unfinished Reconstruction continue to haunt. It is, like the song, a city that illustrates the torn consciousness of modernity: its hope and promise, its radical potentials for new and amazing worlds to be imagined shuffling alongside the terror and gaping wounds of a society that drives people into the dirt and holds nothing sacred. Dylann Roof, the way in which the Stars and Bars fly openly around this country; these represent the painful latter side of this contradiction. The Black Lives Matter movement, still growing and and evolving, reflects the belief in something better that animates the former.

“No More Auction Block For Me,” in its continuation and evolution well past the Civil War, touches both ends of the modern spectrum. That it hasn’t wound up a dusty museum piece 150 years after slavery’s final end should tell us quite a bit about how much of freedom’s promise has yet to be fulfilled. It should also tell us something about how insuppressible the desire for that freedom can be.

The Liberation of Groove

Below are the first four paragraphs of a review I had published at Marx & Philosophy Review of Books yesterday. I really cannot recommend this book highly enough. Radical debates over popular music vs. the avant-garde so often end up either talking past each other or just degenerating into people defending their subjective tastes. This book presents an alternative model for approaching the question for Marxists and other radicals that actually understands music and culture as dynamic rather than staid and static. I'd say above all else it provides a framework that centralizes the possibility of a "popular avant-garde." You can read the rest of the review at the site itself, and I would really encourage readers to pick up a copy of the book. The hardcover version from Brill is prohibitively expensive, but a far more affordable paperback version is being released next month by Haymarket Books.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote precious little on the subject of popular music. This wasn’t necessarily because they were insouciant toward it, but rather because – the advent of Tin Pan Alley half a world away notwithstanding – their lives pre-dated popular music as we understand it today. Edison’s phonograph was patented only six years before Marx’s death, and Engels passed away just as mass produced records were becoming widely available to the public. Neither could have had much notion of what we now call popular music, at least not in the context of a highly technological consumer capitalism. Anything they could have written would, by necessity, be quite far flung from the final word.
Perhaps this is why debates have raged for so many decades over how Marxists should approach popular music. At issue are always the same questions. If ideas and ideologies are bound to show up in a song – be they through its lyrics or how it actually sounds – then how are we to understand it in relation contemporary society? If mass production under capitalism is inherently undemocratic, then can there be anything redemptive in songs that ape the rhythm of the system? Is there something of a genuine yearning for freedom to be found in the annals of folk, jazz, blues, R&B, rock, funk, reggae, punk, hip-hop or dance music? Or is it all just far too shaped by the dreaded culture industry, too swayed by ideas meant to buttress the present order for anything to be salvaged? Thoughtful, well-informed answers to these queries have ranged from an enthusiastic ‘yes’ to a vociferous ‘no’ and everywhere in between.
Mark Abel’s Groove: An Aesthetic of Measured Time is a book that meticulously plots out the mode, history and ontology of popular music in such a way that it is no longer cordoned off from possibilities of the critical or the avant-garde. Abel is primarily concerned with dialectically understanding ‘groove music’ at its most elemental, deliberately skirting the kind of moralistic appeals into which discussions around popular music can so often devolve. This is certainly a reason for choosing a more specific designation for his subject than just ‘the popular’ and instead opting to describe the music by the common characteristics shared across the myriad divisions of genre and style.
Music, as Abel reminds us repeatedly, is an aestheticization of time. It is the author’s contention that if we can understand music as such, then we begin to hear in its best examples ‘a modernist, non-narrative, collective response to the experience of life dominated by abstract time, one capable of figuring a liberated temporality beyond the reified temporal structures of contemporary capitalism. Groove’s political charge lies in its ability to turn measured time against itself.’

Read the rest here.

On Barrel Rolls and Judge Dredd: The Aesthetics of Being a Cop

The now-infamous barrel roll from one of the vicious cops that broke up the McKinney, Texas pool party first had me chuckling in the midst of an otherwise horrifying incident. Now, upon further reflection, it just has me more horrified. There is nothing funny about what took place in McKinney last week. On the one hand, Corporal Eric Casebolt is clearly a man who has watched one too many episodes of Walker, Texas Ranger, which on its own is pretty laughable. On the other hand, an American police department -- an institution that ostensibly exists to preserve order -- thought it was a good idea to give this racist man-child a gun. Let that sink in.

Of course, this kind of perverse immaturity isn't hard to find in any police department if you know where to look. Cops parking illegally while they pop into a convenience store for a soda, turning their lights on in their patrol car so that they can run a red and not have to wait, arresting young women who rebuff their feeble attempts at flirting; these sordid tales of entitled petulance can run the gamut from the irritating to the straight up despicable. And while it's easy to blame the individual officers, the reality is that there is indeed, forty years after Frank Serpico, a very real culture among police with very real consequences.

We may not notice because we are so used to seeing it, but everything about the police is specifically selected to communicate a sense of domination and authority. Uniforms are crisp, angular and unmistakable. Riot gear, which has infamously become more and more common as police have become more militarized, is intimidating as much for its look as it is for what it can actually allow the person wearing it to do.

Nine years ago, the NYPD started introducing Dodge Chargers -- the ultimate "muscle car" -- into its fleet. The cars, which were specially made by Chrysler for the NYPD, can go up to 150 miles per hour. When questioned about why it was necessary to have cars that can go so fast in an urban area famous for its congested traffic, then-Commissioner Ray Kelly replied "What we like about it is the diversity."

And we should also naturally consider the way in which police are represented in the world at large: the police procedural television programs, the buddy cop flicks, the way in which we are constantly barraged with the tongue-clucking of "do what the officer says" whenever some young kid is gunned down. We laugh at Onion articles titled "Insecure, Frustrated Bully With Something to Prove Considering Career In Law Enforcement" because they certainly ring true on a very instinctual level. But really what we are talking about here is an experience that purposefully instills both a sense of being society's last line of defense and one of unquestioned authority. It's not just who the departments pick; it's what they need their representatives to be if they are to serve their function.

Twelve years ago, I was outside a Washington, DC Metro station helping out with an informational table for a socialist group. The table was shut down by a police officer who told us what we were doing was "illegal." Since there are several laws on the books -- including Supreme Court decisions -- that allow people to set up small stalls on street corners as long as they don't obstruct traffic, I challenged him on it. It was a futile endeavor, but being young and cocky (and, let's face it, white) I wanted to see what kind of rise I could get out of him. When I told him that what we were doing was perfectly legal, and that it was his violation of our right to freely disseminate information that was in fact illegal, his eye started to twitch, and he replied: "I'm a representative of the law, that's enough for you." It really and truly was all I could do to stop from laughing; it reminded me so much of this:

 
 

The comic version of Judge Dredd, as fans of 2000 AD will know, was actually a rather brilliant satire of power, authority and the police. Both of its film adaptations have been downright awful. The Stallone version is barely tolerable, and only if the viewer willing to believe that the filmmaker was intending a satire so broad that it had to make the audience itself the butt of its joke -- sort of like what Paul Verhoeven was going for with Starship Troopers. At the time, however, I could not help but think that this cop, who was probably no more than five years older than me, had watched this particular moment in the movie and thought "that's what I want to do with my life!"

Twenty-five years ago, there was enough distance from the extreme urban decay and techno-porn of, say, RoboCop for people to understand what was being satirized. Now that distance has been closed, making a hyper-militarized and unaccountable police that much more plausible. The idea of being society's last resort against its own savagery is appealing on some level to the modern, anxiety-ridden human being, however illusory, violent and untenable it may be in reality. Now take that same anxiety, nurture it, give it weapons training, an imposing uniform, a gun, a taser and a souped up muscle car -- all the while encouraging its owner to believe that their worst fears are indeed just inches away from their front door. 

Again, this is easy to mock. But take the strange concoction described above, place it in a system reliant upon racism and a robust prison industrial complex, and the very palpable danger becomes quite clear. It is how Cleveland cop Michael Brelo could think that jumping on the hood of a car and firing forty-nine bullets was a reasonable response to a couple sitting in their car. It is how the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association boss Patrick Lynch can belligerently declare the NYPD a "wartime police department" and be taken seriously. From the point of view of law enforcement under contemporary capitalism, this is the ideal arbiter for the regulation of our lives. As other writers and activists have pointed out, late capitalism doesn't just need to regiment what we do while at work; it requires a very clear notion of what we can and cannot do generally, the parameters of which shift depending on skin color, gender, age, and so on. And there's the crux: the culture and aesthetic of the police aren't some freakish anomaly growing out of its own lack of accountability. It serves a very specific need at the political economic core of the status quo.

That the brutal police attack in McKinney took place at a swimming pool is telling. Echoes of Jim Crow abound. That even without legally sanctioned segregation, someone thought that Black youth did not "belong" at this community pool, that they should "go back to their Section 8 housing," speaks volumes of the kind of logic that permeates modern society: that even leisure time has to come with permission. And it's not just the most obvious "fringe racists" who think so. It is enforced and sanctioned. Where there were simply teenagers having a good time, an appointed representative of the state authorized to use violence saw a threatening horde invading an innocent respectable community. What did he feel was the best course of action? To go Dirty Harry. It is indeed a farce, but it's a farce with terrifying implications.

Briefly On Riot Fest...

After a campaign of public pressure coming from longtime community residents and Aldermen, as well as some rather veiled and not-so-veiled smearing of said activists on the part of some supporters, Riot Fest has announced it won't be held this year in Chicago's Humboldt Park. Instead, they have moved it to Douglas Park on the city's west side.

Just to reiterate (because there has been a rather unyielding effort coming from Riot Fest to paint residents opposing the festival as unreasonable if not downright childish): the damage to Humboldt as a result of last year's Riot Fest was pretty severe. The grass was virtually eliminated; a rainstorm on the first night of the event plus tens of thousands of boots essentially turned the park into one big mud-pile. Did Riot Fest clean this up? Most of it, yes. But many of the sports fields were never fully repaired, and that which was repaired took months. This is to say nothing the inaccessibility of the park during set up and breakdown.

Some may retort "So they couldn't use their park for a few weeks... So what?" But the point is that these parks are public property, designed, built and conceived of (at least at one time) as manifestation of the right to leisure. (Naturally this raises all sorts of inconsistencies having to do with racism, segregation, the state's control of public space and so on, which go beyond the purview of a short blog post.) Pulling out all the stops to make the park accessible for a privately-run event while thinking nothing of the community that uses said park is, on a very basic level, a violation of "the public trust" so to speak.

So, the decision to pull Riot Fest out of Humboldt is a big victory for those who organized against it. But it's not exactly without its darker linings. Douglas Park is in the North Lawndale neighborhood, which is heavily working class/poor and majority non-white. It is nowhere near as gentrified as the Humboldt Park area. This doesn't mean that it's somehow safe from the scourge, though. That UIC was proposing it as the site of the Obama Presidential Library may be a sign of bad things to come. So, unfortunately, may Riot Fest.

We should ask why massive, privately-run festivals have public property handed over to them so glibly (particularly in the city of the notorious TIF). We should also be asking why it is the poorer, "underdeveloped" neighborhoods that are the site for these deals. We should ask whether art and music that purports to be rebellious or righteous is actually using that appearance for the sake of something else. I'll be writing an article that takes up some of these questions more in depth, but in the meantime, they deserve to be asked. Many already are of course, but we could always use more.

If capitalism is performative, then the revolution will be a masterpiece. "Atonal Notes" is Red Wedge editor Alexander Billet's blog on music, poetry and performance. Follow: @UbuPamplemousse
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Required Reading #2

This makes two weeks in a row I've had the wherewithal to put this out. I'll go ahead and say this is something of a roll for me.

  1. The death of blues legend BB King is, naturally, the biggest news in the music world right now. There is an endless amount to say here. For all the rather cheap praise being heaped on him there is a small contingent who call his music unimpressive and anodyne. I tend to fall into both camp and neither. He was certainly marketed ad nauseam for the last few decades of his life, which makes it fairly easy to forget that he was part of a seminal generation of migratory blues musicians that electrified (I mean that in a literal sense) the genre and for better or for worse took it global. King's death, however, does provide another opportunity to talk about America's denial of its violently racist history. As Tony Fletcher writes for Salon, there is a shamelessly cruel irony in the lauding of blues as "America's music" even as the country refuses to truly deal with the painful conditions that gave rise to  it. Read Fletcher's piece. It's important.
  2. On a related note, Run the Jewels released the video for "Early" this week. It's an animated video. What it illustrates for me, which I confess I personally didn't notice when I first listened to the song, is how well El-P's verse meshes with that of Killer Mike. Mike's verse stands out given that it so starkly illustrates the phenomenon of police violence, an issue which is for obvious reasons at the front of everyone's mind right now. In light of this, El-P's verse at first blush comes off as something of a throwaway. The video is smart for highlighting the themes of a pervasive electronic surveillance state and the atomization that comes with it. Taking the song as a whole there is really is a sense of ordinary people trapped in the panopticon here, albeit in very different ways for Black and white. El was definitely on point in his tweet: it's unfortunately "always the right time" for a video like this to be released.
  3. Oracle Productions are gearing up to put on Suzan-Lori Parks' The America Play in a little less than a month. The play is a stunning piece of work, and there's plenty reason to believe that Oracle will do the script justice in a way befitting their radical cred. There's a pretty excellent (though some what postmodern) deconstruction of the play by University of South Florida professor Rachel Naor. It gives a fairly good idea of what makes the play an important one in terms of contemporary America.
  4. A far less publicized death this past week was that of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Franz Wright. Wright's poetry isn't particularly interesting in its own right, though there are clear glimpses of very vivid imagery at play in his words. For me, it only becomes interesting when you learn of the severe struggles both he and his father (also a Pulitzer-winning poet) had with mental illness. I have no idea whether this does a disservice to the man or his work but I do know that a lot of art takes on a whole different meaning when one sympathetically considers the influence of depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, so on and so forth. And to be sure, the "genius is touched with madness" trope has become a well-worn one over the past few decades, often veering into somewhat over-romanticized and frankly offensive territory. But taken on a sheer balance sheet, there is undeniably a connection to speak of there, just on the basis of understanding how the human mind works. This Brain Pickings post profiles recent work by Nancy Andreasen which insists that in fact the process of creativity and the process of becoming unhinged from reality as it were are actually quite similar. Again, it should be taken with a grain of salt or two, but it's a concept that has broad implications for the creation of art. Reading Wright's poetry with those implications in mind is when his work starts to take on real life.
If capitalism is performative, then the revolution will be a masterpiece. "Atonal Notes" is Red Wedge editor Alexander Billet's blog on music, poetry and performance. Follow: @UbuPamplemousse

Required Reading #1

I'm starting up a new regular feature here at "Atonal Notes." Every week (or so) I'm going to post up a list of articles relevant to a radical take on music, poetry, theater and other topics discussed at this blog. Obviously, it's impossible for the small staff of writers and bloggers at Red Wedge to cover anything and everything within our purview, so perhaps this "Required Reading" feature will be a way to drawing readers' attention toward solid outside material.

That being said, we'll see how long this lasts. Here we go:

  1. Independent musician Carl Magnes has a piece up at Jacobin on how badly musicians and artists are exploited by the festival circuit. This cuts against a lot of the myths tossed around that even mid-level bands have somehow "made it" when they're able to hit the road for significant periods of time. A worthwhile read on the topic of art and labor.
  2. On a similar note, there's been a flurry of opposition popping up here in Chicago to this year's Riot Fest. I admit it: I attended last year's festival and the one before. I had a good time at both of them. But the damage done to Humboldt Park -- a large, public facility mostly used by the surrounding working-class and Puerto Rican communities -- was far beyond acceptable. Local residents have been organizing against the proposal for this year's festival. There are three things that should be read on this. Kenzo Shibata's piece at HuffPo does a good job laying out how the fest is a prime example of corrupt public-private partnerships. The DNAinfo piece illustrates some of the waves that the organizing has been making in Humboldt itself. Lastly, there's the petition at Change.org, which provides a blow-by-blow of the economic and ecological damage done to the community. You should sign it.
  3. Boots Riley is making a film. It's got the same title as the Coup's most recent album, based on his time as a telemarketer and will incorporate sci-fi, surrealism and dark comedy. I could say more but honestly, why bother? That should be enough to build up the anticipation.
  4. Contemporary poetry has constructed itself into a prison house. That's the basic thrust of Felix Bernstein's recent post at Hyperallergic. There's a potential blindspot in the piece, namely that in focusing on poetry connected to the "art world" as such, it runs the risk of giving the impression that nothing good is happening in poetry. Anyone reading the newly released anthology The BreakBeat Poets can attest to that. Nonetheless, Bernstein's post is informative in its take on how poetry's postmodern cul de sac is informed by the same self-fetishization and rarefication endemic in the art world.
  5. The UK elections are over, and they've ended with bad news. I sincerely enjoyed reading this piece from veteran rock critic David Stubbs at the Quietus on the history of political engagement on the part of British pop music. It goes well beyond the usual mentions, and also serves to remind that there is more complexity to the notion of any given era's musicians being "political" or not.
If capitalism is performative, then the revolution will be a masterpiece. "Atonal Notes" is Red Wedge editor Alexander Billet's blog on music, poetry and performance. Follow: @UbuPamplemousse

The Shape of Baltimore's Segregation

  Redlining in Baltimore, circa 1930s.

Redlining in Baltimore, circa 1930s.

When it was announced some months ago that the city of Baltimore would start cutting off the water of poor residents, the comparison became inevitable: Baltimore is the next Detroit. It was, and is, still a prescient parallel, a reminder that the devastation of America's one-time auto hub wasn't so much a cautionary outlier as a glimpse into the inevitable future of urban life. And, as with Detroit, it is impossible to disentangle the economic devastation of the city from the profound racism that is a daily feature of life in Maryland's largest city. It's for this reason that there is something to the claim, made by such writers as Ruth Wilson Gilmore, that the rebellion that has rocked Baltimore was as much a visceral outcry against austerity as it was a reaction to racist police violence. Malcolm's words "you cannot have capitalism without racism" ring true in this city, as they do in just about every American urban area. Yes, Baltimore is Detroit. It's also drastically different. In fact, the former's history may make it an even more accurate poster-child for the intersection of neoliberalism and American racism.

I never lived in Baltimore proper, but I did attend high school there (which is a story for another time). My experience of the city was certainly not like that of most residents. Even from my rather sheltered position, it was impossible to not notice the segregation, which was made strikingly literal at times. Neighborhoods like Guilford -- with its sprawling, immaculate lawns and the neoclassical homes that earned it a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001 -- are separated by physical walls from the boarded up buildings of Black, poverty-ridden Pen Lucy. My first protest in the city was in front of the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center (now called the Chesapeake Detention Facility), a supermax prison where inmates were kept in their cells for 23 hours a day. It also housed the state's death chamber. This complex wasn't out in the sticks; it was (and is) located a mere stone's throw from Baltimore's Midtown area. Though I find myself convinced by radical writers who are now revisiting The Wire with fresh eyes and acknowledging its individualistic shortcomings, the fact remains that Baltimore's deep de facto apartheid and development as a late capitalist chemistry set made it a prime setting for compelling drama.

This is a city with a long history of holding tight to its racist past well after it's ceased to be practical even from the standpoint of capital. Long after the import of newly captured Africans was banned in the United States in the early 1800's, Baltimore remained a key port for interstate slave trade. During the 1850's, slavery ceased to be a profitable racket in the city, and yet it persisted as an institution. By the start of the Civil War Baltimore was home to the largest free Black population in the country, but also hosted one of the worst spates of pro-Confederate violence on Union soil in the early days of the war (an incident that killed four soldiers in the 6th Massachusetts Militia). As a "border state," the Emancipation Proclamation didn't apply to Maryland's slaves, even though its soldiers were officially on the side of the Union. 

  Pro-Confederate rioters attack the 6th Massachusetts in 1861.

Pro-Confederate rioters attack the 6th Massachusetts in 1861.

To this day the state of Maryland can't seem to let go of its southern pretenses. "Maryland, My Maryland," the state's official song, was inspired by that aforementioned Baltimore massacre of 1861; the full version labels Lincoln a "tyrant," lionizes Marylander John Wilkes Booth, and even makes reference to "Northern scum." 

In short Baltimore has long been, if you will, stuck in a kind of Yankee half-life, a place where the essence of the unfinished abolition of "the southern way of life" and the northern industrialists' haughty, elitist denial have uncomfortably rubbed up against each other. The city's history since the Civil War makes it look like any other northern town. Its railroads, shipping and factories have given it too industrial a character to be in line with the genteel agrarianism that distinguished the south into the 20th century. It was natural that the city be a major battleground during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and that it become a stronghold for organized labor up through the 1970's. "Operation Dixie" had no need to focus on Baltimore; the city was already a bastion for the Congress of Industrial Organizations by the end of World War II. Native-born Baltimore composer and pianist Eubie Blake's "hot ragtime" style was a major stepping stone in the development of jazz (a style that, appropriately, mirrored and signified the spread and evolution of the African American population), and the city was the site of important turning points in the careers of Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday.

The Great Migration and white flight have transformed it over the course of decades into a majority Black city, but you are frequently and distinctly reminded that the state surrounding it is below the Mason-Dixon line. Maryland enthusiastically embraced key aspects of Jim Crow -- particularly in the crucial industry of railroads. Between 1861 and 1933, 46 African Americans are reported to have been lynched, ten of them in the state's capital of Annapolis. The more rural and agricultural state has both stood in contrast to the city of Baltimore and provided a profoundly conservative check on the city's development. 

Daniel Denvir quotes historian and Baltimore native Rhonda Y. Williams in his solid piece at CityLab, and the quote really captures the city's dueling souls: "Jim Crow existed in its southern ways and Jim Crow existed in its northern ways... We're a border city."

Or, as it was described by Helena Hicks, the African-American Morgan State student who sat in at Read's Drug Store in Baltimore five years before Greensboro: "If you came from New York, you had fewer rights than you ever had. If you came from North Carolina, you thought you'd made it North."

Though Maryland racism can carry with it a distinctly neo-Confederate flavor, the way in which it's been kept alive by urban development has been neither particularly northern nor southern. No surprise that the historic Black neighborhoods of Baltimore, which had been that way for perhaps a century or more, were the first to be redlined, the first to be uprooted and displaced by the building of the interstates, their refugees the first ones subject to predatory subprime lending. It would be impressive if it weren't so horrifying; Baltimore has managed to maintain a durable, flexible through-line of distinct segregation that has lasted since well before the Civil War. 

* * *

One does not have to look for long to find a song about any US city's inequities, its violence and racism. Chalk it up to an essential feature of American cosmopolitanism. But it's not hard to see why Baltimore can provide such a dramatic setting, a city where America's ghosts at first seem completely out of place, but stubbornly manage to hang on. Bob Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" comes off less a folk song than a calculated, theatrical condemnation (it was, after all, based on a Brecht-Weill composition). The ironic reference to the rich, murdering tobacco farmer William Zantzinger as a "noble" rather slyly relays the aristocratic airs that the Baltimore area's "old money" has always adopted, much like the south's old planter class. 

By the time Nina Simone recorded her version of Randy Newman's "Baltimore," which has heavily made the rounds since events started popping off last week, there was a distinctly more widespread and heavy sense of desperation gripping the city. What had happened in the fifteen intervening years? In a word, neoliberalism. The economic crash of the early 70's never really bothered to leave most neighborhoods of color, and the more heavily industrialized a city was, the harder the white flight and outsourcing hit it. The sense of "heavy manners" that comes from the song's quasi-reggae sound was very appropriate.

  The 1968 Baltimore rebellion.

The 1968 Baltimore rebellion.

Baltimore was drastically and quite tangibly reshaped in the aftermath of the riots that followed Martin Luther King's murder. Denvir's CityLab piece chronicles the way in which then-governor Spiro Agnew's response to the uprising -- a sharp pivot to the right -- was something of a prelude for the law and order rhetoric taken up by conservatives after out-and-out Jim Crow bigotry had become politically untenable. 

This had a visual and aesthetic valence too, largely because law and order conservatism was so easily integrated into the deregulation, disinvestment, and the vast restructuring that allowed the bottom to drop out of poor and working class living standards. It's a common misconception that neoliberalism is essentially an extreme version of getting government out of business, when in fact there are countless realms in which a successfully implemented neoliberal project requires a robust state. Chief among these is law enforcement, which plays a particular and conscious role in keeping potential workforces pliant and communities spurned by austerity on the margins. And if all circles of daily life -- from government to culture -- are to be retooled for the maximization of profit, then it is only predictable that the city be literally reshaped by such a project, down to its very skyline. Architect and Maryland Institute College of Art professor Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson describes how urban planners deliberately shifted after those uprisings:

The architecture of cities changed after the 1960s. Here in Baltimore, we bricked over ground-level windows and turned our back on the street. Cultural institutions and universities hunkered inward. Public-facing front doors closed in favor of private, secure, bunker-like entrances. Baltimore wasn't alone. In cities across the country you saw an increase in concrete walls, barbed wire, berms, "bum-proof" benches, and soulless buildings that buffeted people from the street.

David Harvey's The Condition of Postmodernity has several references to Baltimore's shift from the 60's through the 80's in the book's chapter on postmodern architecture. Part of the significance here is that the book was published between the author's two stints at Johns Hopkins, but it's also true that the city provides some quintessential examples of the insidiousness of postmodern urban life. Billions have been spent on building what Harvey calls "managed and controlled urban spectacle," lavishly constructed projects intended to rise above the environment and emanate a sense of autonomous leisure, quite withdrawn from the realities of gentrification for a growing number of working people (particularly people of color) and the dilapidation that came part and parcel with it.

There are a couple acerbic ironies here. The first is probably the most obvious: that this spectacle, far from being truly autonomous of the urban devastation several blocks away, in fact is only possible because of it. The second is that such a philosophy inevitably backfires: the more brazen urban planners can be in denying the existence of the "other," the more likely it becomes that they start inadvertently flaunting the very disparity they were looking to paper over in the first place. How else can you place a massive prison smack in the middle of an urban area, then turn around and call it "Charm City" with a straight face? 

These are the metropolitan aesthetics of the New Jim Crow. They are not incidental, and they are not a bi-product. They spring organically from an urban vision that seeks to deny its own inequity by telling those left behind not only are they unwelcome, but that they don't exist. It has happened and continues to happen in every American city, exacerbating the persistent tensions of racism and exploitation that keep the system's motor running. But it is Baltimore, where the contradictions have always been particularly pointed, that has proven to be the powder keg. Almost fifty years after Dr. King's assassination, it has reintroduced urban rebellion not just to the realm of possibility but probability. The events in Ferguson were undeniably important, a spark for a movement that has recaptured the imagination of many. But Baltimore is where the spark really caught on, seizing a city a mere hour's drive from Washington, literally placing the fruit of America's brutality on the nation's doorstep.

* * *

The natural question now is: "what now?" The rebellion has subsided, the cops that killed Freddie Gray have been brought up on charges. The National Guard are pulling out of Baltimore, yet the New Jim Crow persists. The still-young Black Lives Matter movement has had the need for its existence confirmed once again. This piece isn't the place to hammer out concrete next steps. But it is worth returning to the subject of Detroit. Baltimore was, it is well known, far from the only city that saw unrest during the 1960's. There was Watts in Los Angeles, there was Harlem in New York, there was Rochester, there was Newark, Philly, Cleveland, Chicago and, of course, the rebellion that shook Detroit in 1967. 

  The Baltimore uprising.

The Baltimore uprising.

Detroit was, in contrast to Baltimore, a quintessentially northern industrial city. The Great Migration had transformed its demographics in a way typical of the north. The car plants that had been a relatively steady source of employment (albeit one that was still rife with racism) for arriving southern Blacks had thus made it into a collision point that transformed American culture (particularly, in the case of Detroit, music). It's telling that demonstrators blasted "Dancing In the Street" from the rooftops during the rebellion. The song was, as Rollo Romig has cited, one that was greatly informed by the outlook of Berry Gordy, which “had been shaped by the principles I learned on the Lincoln-Mercury assembly line.” It was a "crossover" song, quality-controlled by Gordy to reach into the white mainstream. Playing it during a riot clearly communicated a sense the Black community wasn't just crossing over but taking over. 

This uprising -- the largest in America during the 1960's -- wasn't just four days of mayhem and destruction. It was a key moment in the radical ferment among the city's Black population, a turning point from Civil Rights to Black Power. It was also, as such, a prelude to the foundation of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Critics' insistence that riots can never be "productive" tend to miss this -- likely because they are terrified of the organizational implications of Black workers getting a taste of their own power. The same rhythms of industrial production that had shaped the city had, with the formation of the LRBW and DRUM, transformed into fertile fields for a resistance against racism and capitalism that was living in the heart of American industry.

Which brings us to contemporary Detroit. It is well known by now how the city's planners reacted to and regained traction from the rebellions of the 60's and the recession of the 70's. The Motor City's iteration of urban revanchism is notable in its extremity, but not in its essential character. Detroit has its Renaissance Center, Baltimore its Harbor Place. Detroit attempts to sell off its world-class art collection while boosting trendy new coffee shops, but Baltimore just wants us to "Believe."

Modern heavy industry, attracted as it is to a union-free workforce, has been finding its way back down south even as the Right-to-Work model is exported into the heartlands of the rustbelt. The transformation of work -- including the almost wholesale denial of it to key demographics -- has been dramatic; the unemployment rate in Freddie Gray's neighborhood is 51 percent. This, putting it mildly, places an obstacle in front of the rebellion's potential turn to the working class. But there's no getting round the fact that it must, which is partially why the walkout of west coast dockworkers in solidarity with Baltimore mattered so much. The same can be said for the involvement of the Black Youth Project and other anti-racist groups in April's Fight For 15 strikes. When the Black working class starts to move in the United States, it can be (and has been) explosive.

It is telling that the words of Tupac Shakur on urban rebellion have likewise made their way around the internet in the wake of Baltimore:

You have to be logical. You know? If I know that in this hotel room they have food every day, and I'm knocking on the door every day to eat, and they open the door, let me see the party, let me see them throwing salami all over, I mean, just throwing food around, but they're telling me there's no food. Every day, I'm standing outside trying to sing my way in: We are hungry, please let us in. We are hungry, please let us in. After about a week that song is gonna change to: We hungry, we need some food. After two, three weeks, it's like: Give me the food or I'm breaking down the door. After a year you're just like, I'm picking the lock, coming through the door blasting. It's like, you hungry, you reached your level. We asked ten years ago. We was asking with the Panthers. We was asking with them, the Civil Rights Movement. We was asking. Those people that asked are dead and in jail. So now what do you think we're gonna do? Ask?

The quote doesn't mention Baltimore directly, but it paints a very apt picture, and one that was just as relevant twenty years ago as it is today. And, as is now well-known, Shakur spent about two years of his life living in Baltimore; years that were both politically and artistically formative for him. And what he is describing here -- albeit crudely -- isn't too far from the "festival of the oppressed" atmosphere that revolutionaries are fond of invoking. It was also on display this past weekend when, after it was announced that six cops were to be charged in the death of Freddie Gray, protests continued. Yes, they were celebrations, and the mood of the participants was far more one of levity, but they were also acknowledging that the struggle is far from over. What's more, that feeling of empowerment that comes from taking back forbidden space doesn't fade easily. The right to the city is, after all, a right.

If capitalism is performative, then the revolution will be a masterpiece. "Atonal Notes" is Red Wedge editor Alexander Billet's blog on music, poetry and performance. Follow: @UbuPamplemousse

Young, Gifted and Black... and Screwed Over

This article from the Daily Beast was just plain enraging. Many readers will likely remember when these kids went viral; they're amazingly talented and preternaturally skilled. The level of praise they've received that they have received carries with it no exaggeration: these three young musicians have as much to bring to the table as artists three times their age. Which is to say nothing about the fact that they are young people of color in a genre still largely associated in the popular imagination with American whiteness. All else aside, really what it comes down to is that the three musicians that make up Unlocking the Truth -- Malcolm, Jarad and Alec -- can play really, really great thrash metal.

None of which, unfortunately, exempts Unlocking the Truth from the music industry's typical fuckery. You name it, Sony did it to these kids: the dreaded "360 deal," the apparently generous advance that in reality comes with countless conditions attached to it, and yes, attempts to cash in on the supposed novelty of Black kids playing metal. The article is on a documentary about the group's run-ins with the harrowing realities of signing a major record deal. I won't recount the whole article for you here, but there are a few particularly jaw-dropping highlights:

“It was pretty difficult at times with these meetings—especially with this one particular lady at the label, who had a meeting with us once where she was just talking at us for six hours,” bassist Alec Atkins, 13, tells The Daily Beast. “We were pretty young at the time so we were pretty restless and wanted to get up and do something else, but she just had us in this meeting for six hours.”

Any middle school teacher will tell you how difficult it is to get kids this age to sit still and listen attentively for half an hour. But forcing them to sit while you berate them with preconceived notions of what you think their music should be? That borders on cruel.

The film also spends a great deal of time tracing the boys’ relationship with their manager, Alan Sacks—an industry vet best known for co-creating the TV series Welcome Back Kotter. It’s no mean feat trying to wrangle together a group of rowdy kids who, at times, are more interested in playing the latest Grand Theft Auto video game than practicing, but Sacks rules with an iron fist, banning Malcolm from skateboarding and, in one gripping sequence, taking a coveted bottle of soda and pouring it out in the middle of the street.

Like I said: cruel.

But then there's this, right at the beginning of the piece:

Breaking a Monster follows the band’s soul-crushing record industry journey. “It’s all about branding,” their label rep tells the perplexed boys early on in the film, before showing them a mock-up of the kids transformed into anime Boondocks-like characters for an accompanying cartoon.

And what seems particularly heartbreaking is that -- far from being the naive, easily manipulated urchins that label honchos would like them to be -- they seem to become aware that they're being used throughout the course of the film:

In one scene, Malcolm demands to see some evidence of the money, refusing to leave a van until he does. What he doesn’t realize is that the $1.8 million deal is a 360-deal that covers not only five albums, but also a cut of touring, publishing, merchandise, etc. In another remarkably self-aware moment, Malcolm turns to Sacks and asks if the only reason they were signed was because they’re these young, cute black kids who are into heavy metal. “You think Malcolm’s making this big discovery, but then you realize that he’s known this all along,” says Meyer [the lawyer representing the band and trying to get them released from their contract -- AB].

It shouldn't really be much of a surprise that Malcolm or the others make this realization. Kids aren't stupid; in fact they're very perceptive and often quite brilliant in a way that authority figures often miss or try to ignore (look at how most advocates of corporate "school reform" view children -- as empty knowledge receptacles -- and you start to get an idea of what I mean). 

They are, however, in possession of a sense of play that most adults have more or less learned to suppress by the time their teenage years are over. The three members of Unlocking the Truth are right at that all-too-precarious cusp: when their ability to think for themselves and develop their own interests start to germinate, but before the realities of society (pretty much summed up as "do as you're told or else you'll starve") have interrupted their notions of conformity and individuality. There are surely more precise ways to illustrate this via pedagogy, psychology and all the rest, but the basic upshot is that, setting aside the grandiose desires to become rock stars, the group's members appear to be about as close as you can come to "being in it just for the music." In other words they want to become rock stars not so much for fame as for the fact that it will enable them to play music all day, every day. That's not naive; in fact it's downright admirable and shows that they have reverence for their craft. One would think that this is the kind of spirit that should be nurtured rather than manipulated, berated and exploited. To be sure, this is what the recording business does to the vast majority of artists, regardless of their age. Unlocking the Truth's youth merely makes the industry's shamelessness that much more stark.

If capitalism is performative, then the revolution will be a masterpiece. "Atonal Notes" is Red Wedge editor Alexander Billet's blog on music, poetry and performance. Follow: @UbuPamplemousse