Saturday, July 25, 2015

Urban rebel music subverting your earwaves

This article originally appeared on The Kasama Project 21 March 2014. Reposting here to preserve a broken link. This article may also be accessed here.


When people start talking about radical or political music, I'm always surprised how the topic of conversation rarely moves outside the genres of hardcore head-banging punk or earnest sing-along folk. Sometimes talk moves on to the well-worn populism of mass-appeal pop-rock, the Springsteen/Mellencamp/Fleetwood Mac tunes so beloved by bourgeois politicians trying to put something over on voters, and there's the counterpoint of classic hip-hop with its righteous anger against cops and sometimes problematic derision of women and gays.

Without disparaging any of these rich genres of music, I want to recommend some really great and really radical tunes from genre-busting urban musicians who sometimes defy easy categorization but whose visionary art is something that revolutionaries can really embrace.

These aren't all brand-new cutting edge musicians by any stretch of the imagination. But these are hard-working artists with a message in their music that deserves exposure. Some of these musicians have been gaining mass exposure in venues like Brooklyn's annual Afropunk festival (photo above), but others rely on in-the-know loyal fanbases.

Jill Scott

You say you mean good for me
But you don't do it
You say you have a plan but you just don't go thru with it
You say you know the way to go
And I should follow
But all of your empty promises
Leave me hollow
And oh
How do I trust you
How do I love you
When you
Lie to me repeatedly
And oh
How do I have faith, in you
When you just don't come thru
Like you say you could
One can be forgiven for hearing these lyrics and thinking that actress/poet/singer JIll Scott is singing about a failing relationship. Well, she is in a way, but she's not singing about her partner. "My Petition," from her Beautifully Human album of 2004 is one of the most awesomely subversive songs ever. You realize as the song unfolds, musically quoting that wretched anthem "The Star-Spangled Banner," that she's addressing the America of the failed dream. When she sweetly but accusingly sings, "I believe you owe it to me/Give it to me like you said you would," she's not talking about a lover's advances. When she says, "I want to have faith in you/I really do/but you keep lying to me/It hurts," the natural reaction is to tell her to leave that lying m-fer cold. When you realize that the lying m-fer is the USA, the song becomes transformed. It's sheer brilliance, in the form of a vaguely adult r&b ballad.

Here's the audiotrack on Youtube:

Ursula Rucker

In my youth revolution was what we rose with the sun to seek
we were fierce

Now, our glory days are nothing but a page,
in an edge worn book
an afro a raised fist,
a black beret, black pride
set aside to mere history,
it saddens me,
hmm it saddens me,
but will these words fall on deaf ears cos my tears won't
fill up the riverbed of resistance and change,
it's gone dry
and gone and unkown are the names which gave that river its
tranquility, its beautiful force and godspeed
rise up out of the complacency induced sleep
we need, an Awakening.

Bring the noise daughter
now is the time for you and your generation to put this universal
chaos in order...
Philadelphia-based Ursula Rucker is a performance artist and poet; her work is sometimes sung but more often takes the form of poetry chanted in cadence to music. She made her professional reputation cutting tracks for American and European DJs like King Britt, 4Hero, Jazzanova and Little Louie Vega, but she has a string of brilliant solo albums as well. In "The Awakening," recorded for 4Hero on their 2007 album Play with the Changes, she constructs a dialogue between generations as a mother attempts to pass a radical legacy on to her daughter and a new generation. "This planet and life are gifts to all/not just a chosen few, but now our future are up to you/so what are you and your brothers and sisters gonna do?" The daughter despairs, "But Mama, the resistance seems so futile/when all the while, government and media massacre my dreams/We, my brothers and sisters and me/are at the mercy of Dotcoms/Bombs that kill at least 30 daily..."

In response the mother affirms, "Baby girl, you sound ready to me/the spirit, fire, of Assata, Angela, Gandhi, King and Garvey in your veins/bleed for your legacy, keep the eyes on the prize of peace/and don't pardon me while i preach..." It's movingly soulful jazz poetry against a drum-and-bass dance music soundscape. Much of her other work is also political, bringing a womanist, spiritually-visionary sensibility to song topics like 9/11, Afro-Caribbean cultural heritage, domestic violence, ecological catastrophe, and the quest for liberation in the face of deadening, challenging urban dangers.

In "Release" off her second solo album Silver or Lead, she recites:
So here I stand... at the crossroads of my life
Do I choose plata or plomo?
Silver or lead

When boys be dying on blocks everyday
An the TV and the paper don't never say
Nothing about them
When tattered yellow paper flags be taped to forgotten project windows
When billowing waving flags be perched on car tops of bigots and
Crooked politicians
Has anything changed?
What changed?
Who really changed?
Rucker is basically pleading for people to give a shit; arguing against apathy, against the status quo of false choices. Her words are righteously hypnotic.
The 4Hero production video for "The Awakening" is on Youtube:

Erykah Badu

To my folks on the picket line
Don't stop til you change dey mind
I got love fo' my folks
Baptized when the levy broke
We gone keep marchin' on
Until you hear dat freedom song

And if you think about turning back
I got the shotgun on ya back
And if you think about turning back
I got the shot gun on ya back
Erykah Badu is an extraordinarily creative musician with a provocative edge and a complex sense of humor. Melding a jazz sensitivity to a hip-hop sensibility her work is rich in ideas. Her last two albums were entitled New Amerykah (part 1: 4th World War and part 2: Return of the Ankh). I think of her as kind of earthy, hippified antithesis to the slick sell-out commerciality (and terrible politics) of Jay-Z and Beyonce, with whom she shares Brooklyn as a home base. "Soldier" is a standout track from the first part of New Amerykah. Not unlike much of Rucker's work, "Soldier" is about a generation struggling with a sense of obligation to engage with what's wrong with the world. She sings, "You need to watch da dirty cop/Dey the one you need to watch." It's the same haunted world that Rucker sings of. "You get the wake up call/When you saw the buildings fall/Bowties with the final call/Get ya money dollar bill, ya'll" she sings, obliquely evoking the Nation of Islam in a search for answers.

"Do you want to see?/Everybody rise to the next degree?/Raise ya hands high if you agree." The lilting groove-heavy music belies the song's deadly serious call to rise up and fight.
A pre-release performance video of Soldier is online:

Boots Riley/The Coup

Don't talk about it
It won't show
Be about it
It's 'bout to blow
Oakland activist and Occupy veteran Boots Riley's incredible song "The Guillotine" has been noted on Kasama before. From his group The Coup's recent album Sorry To Bother You, "The Guillotine" is not only an exciting marriage of rock and rap, but a compelling political manifesto. Riley doesn't hold back from a call for revolutionary retribution against the capitalist system. And not only is it a call to action like the other songs I've written about here, it's got a clarity of vision with a resolute determination and brutally straightforward diagnosis and prescription.
Hey you!
We got your war
We’re at the gates
We’re at your door
We got the guillotine
We got the guillotine, you better run
If the other songs I've quoted have faults, it's a sense of ambivalent weariness weighed down by the tragedies and hardships of urban life under capitalism; or in the case of Badu and Rucker, their need to place their hopes on the next generation. Scott, Rucker and Badu sometimes seem to be waiting to be proved wrong about how dire the situation is. "The Guillotine," however, dispenses with the sentimentality and uncertainty. "Sleep in the doorway, piss on the floor/Look in the sky, wait for missiles to show/It’s finna blow cause/They got the TV, we got the truth/They own the judges and we got the proof/We got hella people, they got helicopters/They got the bombs and we got the, we got the...Guillotine." This song makes it clear: we have a reason to fight, the obligation to do so, and the tools we need to win. "You can hear the sound of limitations exploding." Who can resist this call to arms?

The extraordinary video for "The Guillotine," which hilariously riffs off of the Quincy Jones/Michael Jackson film version of The Wiz, is a must see on You-tube.

Welfare Poets

so don't tell me he's down with the people
because of that ganja shit
cuz the billionaires will put a black face at the head of american imperialism
ponder it
The "he" in this lyric is none other than President Obama, and so for obvious reasons the final act I'd like to recommend is much more on the underground tip. The Welfare Poets are an incredible Afro-Caribbean performance/hip-hop troupe out of the Bronx, New York. These lyrics are from their song "Let It Be Known," recorded right after Obama's first election in 2008. I first saw the Welfare Poets perform at an event sponsored by Occupy Sunset Park in Brooklyn last year. Their mix of live music, singing, rap, dance and beats was explosive and exciting. And their message is completely unsubtle. They're explicitly anti-imperialist and fierce advocates of independence for Puerto Rico.
its egregious, he so facetious
deceiving the people regarding change we can believe in
as he turns a deaf ear
on real people grieving
The song closes with an extended clip from Rev. Jeremiah Wright (who Obama had recently thrown under the bus) recounting the hypocritical adventures of American imperialism. It's really stirring stuff.

The video opens with quotes from Harriet Tubman and Audre Lorde. It's on You-tube and vimeo.

Who Are You Listening To?

I would be really interested in hearing from Kasama readers if you have other subversive rebel music to recommend. What artists are inspiring and moving you? Drop a recommendation in the comments!

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