Monday, February 27, 2006

Octavia Butler, 1947-2006

      For the past week or so, I’d been filtering ideas for things to write about here. High on the list was “something about Octavia Butler,” but I didn’t know what that something could be. I jotted down the following on Thursday, February 23rd:

    I finished reading Octavia Butler’s latest novel, Fledgling, a short while ago and am already planning on reading it again in a few months. It doesn’t come close to being her best work – doesn’t quite rank with Kindred or the Parable tales – but it was so good just to be in her world again. The story opens with Shori awakening in a cave, finding herself nude. After slightly gaining her bearings but not yet her memory, she commits a violent act that will haunt her for the rest of the story. She and the reader slowly piece together that she’s a 53-year-old vampire who, due to the slow aging process of her kind, looks like a pre-adolescent girl. More specifically, she’s a vampire o’ color, nappy hair and all. That detail allows Butler to riff on her trademark concerns – racism, gender issues, power structures in different societies, complex and complicated sexualities, and the ways they all interlock. It’s a fast read, comfortingly and thrillingly familiar even as Butler puts her own identity-politic spin on vampire lore.
      But I couldn’t really get beyond that. I wanted to write something to explain her huge influence on me and so many other writers of all races, gender configurations and sexual persuasions. A 1995 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, and a 1999 recipient of the Nebula for Best Novel for Parable of the Talents, the Pasadena born and raised author was officially a sci-fi writer. But like all true artists she was so much larger than the category boxes used to define and sell her. It’s hackneyed but true to say that she transcended genre. Whether turning her eye on the distant past or the not-too-distant future, she saw the thread of identity – that which we construct for ourselves and that which is created and thrust upon us – as the rope by which we are either hung or freed. And none of it is easy or without costs. But her heroines, primarily colored girls too strong and with too many responsibilities to consider suicide even when the rainbow is kicking their asses, fought and led and showed multitudes by example. Lesbian and gay characters were presented so matter-of-factly that the but-of-course… nature of presentation itself had the kick of revolution.
      With her death on Friday, February 24 (due to injuries sustained after she fell outside her Seattle home and hit her head on the cobblestone pavement) what’s been lost is incalculable. She wrote with a fierce new center – melanin-based, female and or gay/lesbian/bi, politically progressive, democratic and inclusive – that in plot, content and her own confidence as an artist, overturned the white-hetero-male status quo that’s not only been the historical barometer of artistic and cultural validity, and individual worth, but that has also manifested in the smug-ironic-reactionary-hipster-wigger-rightwing-consumerist strain of white supremacy that's infected contemporary culture and politics. A few years ago, I pitched the idea of interviewing her to a couple of editors. I thought that – given her work and its prescience regarding how the convergence of religion, corporate America and government would detrimentally play out in the lives of 20th and 21st century people of color, sexual minorities and the poor – she’d be a fascinating voice to tackle the meaning of George Bush’s second stolen election and his plunging of the country into an ill-conceived war. I mean, who gives a fuck what a French intellectual thinks about the ills and woes of America? Why keep drawing from the same pool of old white men to analyze and contextualize what’s going on in the world? There was no interest from anyone to whom I'd pitched the piece. I still think that a taped dialogue between Butler and Margaret Atwood would have given us the blueprint to save the world.
      I loved her for so many reasons, not only for her work but for how she positioned herself as a writer. As I prepare to sell my first book, grappling with just how to do that in a way that doesn't make me feel too much like a whore or fraud, I admire her determined privacy, the way it was just about the writing, for her, and how so little was known about her personal life aside from the barest biographical details. (Not surprisingly, though, there has been little mention of the fact that she was a lesbian. In fact, only Jazzmyne Cannick has mentioned it explicitly so far.) It is so expected that writers, like everyone else nowadays, do what they do merely as a stepping stone to celebrity. The idea that we might write for a host of reasons that have nothing to do with desiring the spotlight, touring the lecture and panel circuit, or even amassing huge wealth (though wanting to at least be able to cover the basics) is anathema to the time in which we live. But she managed to do it all her way – a private private life, work that exploded the possibility of a genre, and a legacy that will be read and studied and cherished for years to come.

"Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought. To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears. To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool. To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen. To be led by a liar is to ask to be lied to. To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery."
-- Octavia Butler, "Parable of the Sower"


"I do not dream of a world where religion has no place, but of a world where the need for spirituality will be dissasociated from the need for belonging. Of a world where humans, while remaining attached to their beliefs, to a denomination, to moral values ultimately inspired by a Holy Book, will no longer feel the need to enroll in the army of their co-religionists. Of a world where religion will no longer serve as the glue for ethnic war. To separate church from state will no longer be enough; it will be just as important to separate religion from identity. And equally, if we wish to Prevent this amalgam from feeding fanaticism, terrorism and ethnic wars, it will be necessary to satisfy the need for identity in other ways." – Amin Maalouf

Shani: Go Speedracer

Photo from rodonline.

CSA: The Confederate States of America

      When I first read Things Fall Apart years and years ago, I was blown away by the simplicity of the writing, by how much emotional power could be wrought from stark / spare / direct language. I revisited the book over last Thanksgiving and was again floored. The psychological insight in Chinua Achebe’s classic 1958 African novel simultaneously illuminates past and present: how we got here, why we’re still here. Even knowing the story, a pit sat in my stomach the whole time I was reading. With each page turned, I hoped the outcome would be less than bleak, something other than what it obviously would and had to be. The fact that I was reading the book and thinking about it in English, as an American, gave away something of the ending. Any random scan of news coming out of Africa theses days, pretty much gives away the ending. (See: Darwin's Nightmare.)
      In this story of the rise and fall of Okonkwo, a proud African man who holds a hard earned position of power in his tribe, Achebe skillfully outlines Nigerian Igbo culture – the traditions, language, beliefs and practices that fall beneath the feet of European colonialists. Through his incisive sketch of Okokkwo, he beautifully illustrates the dual function of character traits, how that which drives and makes us can also be our undoing. Without flinching, he draws the brutal costs of white supremacy and racism while granting a berth and depth to whiteness that white authors who’d written about Africa up to that point had not allowed the blackness of their African characters. He says so much with such a fine hand.
      My wish for a literary remix of history while reading Fall Apart came to mind the first time I saw Kevin Willmott’s CSA: The Confederate States of America at Sundance in 2004. This mockumentary (an admittedly played out genre), shaped in the form of a PBS-style documentary but laced with prime-time style commercials, fucks with notions of historical truth and the construction of racial identities, just for starters. Deeply researched and painstakingly crafted, the film imagines what the world would be like if the South had won the American civil war. Filled with talking heads, faux file footage and photos, and dramatic re-enactments of re-imagined history, it’s a Negro fever dream that critiques white supremacy and U.S. imperialism as they play out in everything from TV advertising to U.S. global policies. Told with tongue-in-cheek and a withering, jaded eye on race matters, the film is hilarious and, as it unfolds, discomfitting. At least, it’s all of that to me.
      CSA has garnered mixed but largely fair reviews. A white friend of mine in New York emailed me that he saw it in a racially mixed theater and no one laughed the entire time. (I think that may, in part, be due to the skewed if not over inflated expectations of any art dealing with race, as well as the dynamic of a racially mixed crowd.) He also said he thought the film could have been a fifteen minute short and made its point just as well – if not better. I understand that. It’s a one-joke premise stretched into sprawling commentary. I didn’t mind riding the riffs, though, even the obvious ones. I thought the bell hooks-esque commentator was dead-on and wanted to see more of her. And I found many of the “commercials” (a number of which are based on real-life American ad campaigns) to be funny in an Oh, shit! I can’t believe that Negro went there way. Maybe the laughter is just a release-valve whistling off steam.


      There’s a spine-tingling sequence in Tsotsi that evokes both the creature and the movie Frankenstein: The title character of the new film runs across an open field in the dark of night, lightning streaking the sky. Moments later, in silhouette, he lumbers down a suburban street while its inhabitants sleep: The man-made menace has come from the margins to wreak terror. What the film achieves from that point, however, is a sleight of hand both sublime and familiar.
      We first see Tsotsi (it means “thug”) as the conscience-free, violent leader of a street gang. After assaulting one of his underlings, he carjacks a young mother and inadvertently takes her baby, setting in motion an unraveling of personal history and memory that shows how this “monster” was created. His past glints in flashback scenes; it jolts long repressed emotions for Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) that, along with the predictably soul healing presence of the of the infant (whom he decides to keep), serve to slowly re-humanize him. Expediting that process is Miriam (Terry Pheto), a second young mother whom Tsotsi forces at gunpoint to breastfeed his new “son.” When her own tragedy is revealed, it sparks something akin to warmth in the hardened thug.
      The script is based on the novel by Athol Furgard but the tale has been transferred from apartheid-era South Africa to the ghetto-steez slums of the country’s present. Knowledge that the setting has been fast-forwarded by decades isn’t necessary, but awareness of it speaks a subtext of how the legacies of apartheid play out in modern South African life. The film moves quickly, packing a lot of information, but never feels rushed or overstuffed. Nor is the character’s transformation anything less than believable, thanks to Chweneyagae’s intuitive grasp of Tsotsi’s gnarled inner life. He’s wonderful in the role, even when traversing A Thug & a Baby clich├ęs – using newspaper for diapers, dancing awkwardly to quiet the caterwauling infant, or feeding the child condensed milk straight from the can. The consequences of that last bit of ineptitude result in a scene involving a trail of ants that is guaranteed to make you squirm. Pheto has the thick, voluptuous beauty of chubby Janet or a thinner Jill Scott; her Miriam glows with both maternal warmth and sadness.
      Director Gavin Hood, who also adapted the screenplay, uses lighting magnificently, veering from dramatic starkness to a honeyed glow. Both approaches underline the harshness of the world captured while zeroing in on shards of beauty. But what makes the film so powerful is its delicate, steady weaving of sociological threads – how home & hearth violence blooms into large-scale chaos, how those damaged children cast to the margins to fend for themselves will eventually make their way back to the center. It’s not new information, but in the hands of Hood and his cast, it does stoke tears.

Monday, February 20, 2006

My Dear Negroes

Our mission is complete. We have done our job. We have hit them where they live: We have taken their children. Remember when you were in junior high and the school asshole would steal your lunch? How mom made that special batch of brownies that she doused with Ex-Lax, and that you carried to school like they were the most classified military secrets waiting to be jacked by spies? Think of hip-hop as that brownie, and the wigga as THAT nigga. (He’ll love that, by the way.) Click here to see the shit fest.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

You Tube: That Good Good

      Like too many people with far better things to do, I waste a lot of time on You Tube. I haven’t gone there with a critic’s eyes (it’s where I go to zone out mostly,) so I can’t wax deep on sociological or large-scale cultural meanings behind either it’s extraordinary popularity or the beautiful unwieldiness of its content. I love that it’s a place where any of the huddled masses with a modem and a monitor can access a bottomless trove of treasure: Old television commercials; snippets and scenes from movies and television shows that span decades; music videos old and rare, but also pulled piping hot from the corporate oven; concert footage from years ago, from last night – and from around the world.
      But I most love the homemade stuff. Everyday people doing parodies of pop culture icons and items in ways funnier and wittier than anything “Saturday Night Live” has done in decades; kids uploading the rock star performances that used to take place in front of a mirror, with a brush as their mic (now they just lip-synch like video stars); the easy jacking of movie/TV/video images and assorted music, all remixed into personal statements; bizarre but hypnotic footage of random shit seen on the streets of Compton, Paris, Rome. And beauties and delusionals of all races, genders and sexual persuasions skirting the edge of soft-core porn as they flex, preen, dance and strip for the camera – amateur models but professional narcissists.
      There’s also disturbing stuff – bum fights; footage of crackhead fisticuffs; inner-city street brawls in which people of color wild the fuck out, seemingly determined to prove their savagery. I won’t link to any of that. It’s easy enough to find.
      Below are just a few examples of how I waste my time. Some are already huge internet hits:
  1. Only hours after this much-hyped, much anticipated Brit Awards 2006 performance took place, it was up online. It’s Prince, accompanied by Wendy & Lisa and Sheila E.; I’m not sure, but I read over at the Okay Player site that the drummer is Cora Coleman. It makes me grin to see the balance struck between standard roles for women onstage – Tina Turner-ish backing dancers – and the fact that the spine of Prince’s band has a decidedly female bent. He’s so clearly most well fed by his feminine side. (Tangent: I interviewed Wendy and Lisa when they were promoting their Fruit at the Bottom album, years ago. When the subject of Prince came up, they were very dry but very, very funny in making the point that they had no desire to work with him again. Wendy even made some withering quip about him and his high heels, while Lisa laughed. So, it’s good to see them all onstage again.) I’m not crazy about the single, “Te Amo Corazon,” and I’ve never really been a fan of the song “Purple Rain,” though the guitar solo always slays me, but there is an undeniable magic to Prince onstage. Watching Sheila work it out as Wendy takes her rightful place alongside the Purple One is just… wow. And he still hits those high notes while rocking high heels. Click here to see the performance.

  2. Sacha Baron Cohen (a.k.a. Ali G) is a fucking genius. At times, his HBO show made me cringe in discomfort, though I laughed all the while. He just goes there with jaw-dropping fearlessness. True balls-to-the-walls comedy that chainsaws propriety while tackling issues of race, class, religion, sexuality, and the ignorance that surrounds them. In this clip, Cohen is the deliriously shallow, self-important and involved Austrian fashionista Bruno, interviewing real-life Pastor Quinn (from Little Rock, Arkansas) on the holy man’s religious beliefs on faggotry. It’s tempting to list some of Bruno’s more insane comments and questions, but that’d rob them of their punch when you watch the clip.

  3. You Tube’s bonafide superstars are the Chinese Backstreet Boys. They’ve spawned countless clones and parodies, but none come close to the original. (How do you parody that which is already so winningly tongue-in-cheek?) The CBC have made a half-dozen or so clips of themselves lip-synching various Backstreet Boys hits, but their first one is the best. It’s all about the choreography, the over earnest faces (Guy on the Left, his assigned position in all their clips, is the breakout star on the strength of his mugging) and the dude in the back at the computer, who’s ignoring it all. Also check out this clip, one of their later efforts.

  4. An Ode to Black Ass. On assorted streets of Paris, to the accompaniment of a booming rap track, thick women of African descent – fully clothed and never slipping into crudeness or vulgarity – celebrate their bountiful back-sides in all their jiggling, quivering majesty. To quote a dyke friend of mine after she saw the clip for the first time, “When the brotha put his ear to sister-girl’s ass, don’t you just know he heard Mother Africa calling?” I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly. I have no idea what the skinny white girls are doing.

  5. Maybe it’s my crappy computer and my DSL that moves at the speed of dial-up that grace this clip with the qualities that make me hit repeat whenever I watch it. Or maybe it really is the low-tech way it’s shot. A solitary black kid dances lovely in what looks to be a wood-paneled (or maybe wall-papered) room, with a toy basketball set and the edges of a card table visible in the left-hand corner. The blurriness of the image and the shadows that are cast give it a cool muted quality that underscores the kid’s isolation. As a moody instrumental wafts at low BPM, the boy tosses off some dazzlingly rapid-fire footwork. The contrast between the pace of the music and the pace of his dancing is mesmerizing, and by the time some clumsy tap dancing beats and a gentle female vocal kick in, you’re hooked. At least I am. I think it’s beautiful. Click here.

  6. I’m probably the last resident of planet earth who’s still a Diana Ross fan. And this clip even made me give up some love for Jamiroquai, who’s rarely done anything for me. (Check the David Morales remix of “Space Cowboy.”) The big-hatted Brit joins Ross in a duet of “Upside Down” that works surprisingly well. Maybe you have to be really, really, really, really, really, really gay to care. Props to Jamiroquai for not changing the gender – “Upside down, boy you turn me…” – as he croons the song.

  7. Isn’t she lovely? Chaka Khan playing drums in 1976; Chaka playing drums many years later. And a young Chaka singing “Sweet Thing.”

  8. This spoof classic is what you get if you type “blow job” in the search engine: click here. You also get this from Korea.

  9. Here’s a send-up of Madonna’s “Hung Up” video that trumps the original. It’s the looking-glass version whose laughs roll out in swollen proportions to the humorlessness and pretension that pulse through Mrs. Ritchie’s career. It also makes me think of the drag shows at La Plaza, on La Brea Ave. here in Los Angeles, although the queens who perform there rarely do so with irony or parodic humor. (An exception: Years ago at La Plaza, before the mainstream media would state the obvious, a flawlessly made up “Whitney” took the stage clutching a dingy sweat rag which she repeatedly wiped across her brow and upper lip, all the while intentionally flubbing her lip-synching. The Friday night crowd looked on in confusion and rewarded the performance with lukewarm applause. They thought she’d simply been a bad performer. In truth, she was brilliant.) To watch the Madonna spoof, turn up the sound and click here for the clip. Just for shits and giggles, here's another re-thinking of “Hung Up.” I have a suspicion it was made by a homosexual. You can watch it with the sound off.

  10. It’s all about House music – its fluidity, its grace and beauty. Its ability to simultaneously cup both the darkest emotions and transcendence, to sooth and inspire. It’s so much more radical and subversive than rap music or hip-hop culture. It just is. House stands – or flows – in certain opposition to the cultural / gender / societal norms that too much hip-hop too enthusiastically embraces, fetishes and amplifies. Of course, I mean real House – the stuff that’s non-white and non-hetero at the center (regardless of who makes it), even as it’s wholly universal. I mean the music and culture that flower from House’s black faggot roots. At the same time, however, I hate forced either/or choices when it comes to the myriad manifestations of black creativity, so I won’t stress the preference too hard. Check out these three clips – one, two,three. They’re all part of the same raw, shoestring budget documentary on House. These clips are not definitive, exhaustive or the place to turn for meaningful historical context or in-depth analysis. And that’s cool. It’s just that it’s unintentionally amusing to hear 20-somethings refer to themselves as battle-scarred House veterans holding it down against newbies who don’t know their history. And hearing some of these “vets” describe the House scene as evolving out of raves (da chile dun gave berf to hiz mama,) or tracing its origins back to the ‘90s is kinda funny and horrifying at the same time. But for all that which is tragically inaccurate (a Negro, DJ KD, appears in the third clip to set the record straight), there’s a real sweetness here. In the brevity, narrow goals and realized potency (not to mention shooting locales) of these clips, I’m vaguely reminded of the classic 1986 documentary Heavy Metal Parking Lot. Here, it’s just a bunch of L.A. kids – late teens / early ‘20s; largely Latino – giving props to House and its life-saving, soul-healing properties. In the third clip, kids are interviewed and dancing on the corner of Hollywood & Highland here in L.A. You can spot the red gleam of the Roosevelt Hotel sign in the background. I don’t care that some of the documentary’s “stars” aren’t that great as dancers; it’s their spirit and enthusiasm that matters. It’s interesting that almost all of them shadow the patented old dance floor moves of black queens when they dance.

    BONUS TRACKS: Years ago, when I worked in a video store on the Sunset Strip, I first became aware that there was a small population of women who were really into XXX man-on-man action. They rented from the gay porn section sans giggles or embarrassment. (I once had to help a young actress I won’t name – she rocks a Cape of Fear – pick out some hardcore gay titles. “I only like the stuff from the ‘70s,” she told me. Good taste.) And it’s long been known that Japanese teen girls are devoted connoisseurs of sexually ambiguous males and homoerotic fare. (Did you know that Brokeback means “manna from heaven” in Japanese?) The combination of the internet and the Emo subculture of whiny white rock has given rise to a stateside equivalent of the Japanese phenomenon, with teenage boys making out with one another for the pleasure of femme voyeurs. (Undoubtedly a lot of them do it for their own sword-wagging pleasure. En Guarde!) A thesis paper or three could be written on that topic. I’m not really trying to do that right now. But here's a clip put together by a girl (supposedly… who knows for sure?) who has also uploaded a few other similar compilations. And here's a clip spoofing the whole little movement. This is all old news, but I still find it fascinating… All these tremors of change and evolution taking place beneath the surface as moneyed old white hetero men who do not have lips or souls – and working with the assist of their coven of closet cases – labor tirelessly to turn back the cultural clock.


“Life is thickly sown with thorns and I know no other remedy than to pass quickly through them. The longer we dwell on our misfortunes, the greater is their power to harm us.” – Voltaire

Thursday, February 16, 2006

James Dewitt Yancey, 1974—2006. It's Your World

In the current LA Weekly is an obit I wrote on the late hip-hop producer Jay Dee/J Dilla. You can get that by clicking here.

One of the most beautiful tracks Dilla worked on was the spirit-affirming "It's Your World" from Common's album Be. It seems fitting to quote some of the words spoken by Pops (Common's dad) on that song:

    Be... Be here, be there, be that, be this
    Be grateful for life, be grateful TO life
    Be gleeful everyday, for being the best swimmer among 500,000
    Be-nign, be you...