Friday, December 30, 2011

Swipe: Radical Black Reading, 2011

Much thanks to Reginald Harris for sending me the link to the article I've swiped below:

Radical Black Reading, 2011

      While post-Black vapors have intoxicated contemporary culture, many of our favorite books of 2011 were part of a wave of scholarship that re-evaluated the Black Arts Movement and the Black Power era and took a second look at a long-ago time when “black” was still Black. In Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination (Minnesota), Alondra Nelson provides a smart and timely evocation of the Black Panther Party’s forgotten community health care initiatives. Art historian Kellie Jones’ lavish Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, 1960-1980 (Prestel) was published alongside an exhibition of the same name that was part of Pacific Standard Time, a sprawling multisite project on postwar LA art. Howard Rambsy’s The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetry (Michigan) offered an innovative and exciting approach to Black Arts print culture while in Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry, poet Evie Shockley (Wesleyan) explored experimentation and form in Black radical verse.

      Yet Black Power and Black Arts were not the only examples of black radicalism that came across our desk in 2011. With its stylish and spirited ethnography of everyday life and everyday desire among Afro-Cubans in Havana and Santiago de Cuba, anthropologist Jafari S. Allen’s ¡Venceremos?: The Erotics of Black Self-making in Cuba (Duke) demonstrated how quotidian gestures can embody the most radical practices. Minkah Makalani reconsidered the transnational activism of Black Communists including CLR James, George Padmore, and Cecil Briggs in In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939 (UNC). Stephen M. Ward compiled the writings of Detroit autoworker and political philosopher James Boggs in Pages from a Black Radical’s Notebook: A James Boggs Reader (Wayne State). Louis A. Parascandola continued his fantastic work resuscitating the legacy of the enigmatic Guyanese writer Eric Walrond, co-editing, with Carl A. Wade, In Search of Asylum: The Later Writings of Eric Walrond (Florida).

      Let’s not forget the independents. 2011 saw a number of wonderful releases from those presses that have fought to forge a public discourse on Black politics and Black culture that is unencumbered by either corporate imperatives or academic distractions. Black Classic Press continued their righteous mission of keeping Black history’s sacred volumes in press by re-issuing Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Pambazuka, who gave us an incredible dossier on the anniversary of Frantz Fanon’s death, released Jacques Depelchin’s Reclaiming African History, a slender but powerful volume on the history and political economy of pan-African dispossession. They also published Africa Awakening: The Emerging Revolutions, a compendium edited by Firoze Manji and Sokari Ekine examining the 2011 uprisings from the perspective – finally – of Africa. The legendary Présence Africaine published Moïse Udino’s meditation on the condition of Antilleans in France, Corps noirs, têtes républicaines: le paradoxe antillais. While London’s Peepal Tree Press has made available the Selected Poems of Una Marson, the great West Indian poet, publisher, broadcaster, and pan-Africanist.

      Earlier in the year, our Reading Haiti post highlighted some of the notable volumes published on Haiti since the earthquake – but we completely passed over the titles of independent Montreal publishing house Mémoire d’encrier. Certainly among the most exciting publishers in North America, and rapidly emerging as critical platform for writers from the global south, in the past year alone Mémoire d’encrier has published Rapjazz: Journal d’un paria, Frankéttiene’s poetic meander through Port-au-Prince, Dany Laferrière’s earthquake memoir Tout bouge autour de moi, and Refonder Haiti edited by Pierre Buteau, Rodney Saint-Éloi and Lyonel Trouillot. Refonder Haiti brings together more than forty Haitian writers and thinkers addressing the question of reconstruction.

      Two other assessments of post-earthquake Haiti are due out early in 2012: Haiti: the Aftershocks of History (Metropolitan) by historian and Duke University Haiti Lab co-director Laurent DuBois, and the mammoth anthology Tectonic Shifts: Haiti Since the Quake (Stylus/Kumarian), edited by anthropologist Mark Schuller and NACLA editor Pablo Morales. The contributors to Tectonic Shifts address questions of neoliberalism and disaster capitalism, resettlement and forced evictions, and women’s rights and public health – all of which move us far beyond the vapid pronouncements of a post-black condition.

Be sure to click the link to the original article; it will take you to several cool links for the books and publishers mentioned in this piece.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Interview with Andrew Haigh, the director of "Weekend"

I've conducted three interviews this year (2011) that made me happy I do what I do for a living. One was with Macy Gray (so chill, so sweet.) Another was with Dee Rees, the director of Pariah; she's brilliant, shy, sweet, dope. That interview will post here soon. And this one, with Andrew Haigh, director of Weekend -- one of my favorite films this year. He was the definition of charming when we spoke. A version of the interview ran a few months ago in the LA Weekly and Village Voice. Space constraints meant that it was a greatly truncated version. What appears below more fully captures the conversation we had.

When Kim Yutani, Director of Programming at LA’s Outfest film festival, introduced Weekend to a packed festival audience earlier this year, she remarked that it raises the bar on modern queer film. Many in the audience arched their eyebrows and smirked at what seemed typical programmer hyperbole. By the film’s end, even doubters had been won over. If the film doesn’t raise the bar, it certainly takes its place among the best of queer cinema. This smart, engaging British film – somewhat formally demanding as it nudges viewers toward emotional epiphanies and a moving ending – is filled with ideas and heart, humor and sadness, all of it strategically mapped out. Unfolding over the course of a single weekend in which handsome, melancholy lifeguard Russell (Tom Cullen) meets and falls for Glen (Chris New) a firebrand art student with prickly notions about marriage, family, sex, and art, the film both defies expectations and honors classic film tropes. It unfolds primarily through scintillating conversations the two men have – post-coitus, over meals, while smoking pot. It pulls you in slowly before you realize you’re completely hooked.

ERNEST HARDY: Weekend feels out of time – a throwback to indie film of the late ‘80s-‘90s, including New Queer Cinema, but very forward in its depiction of gay relationships. Formally, with its measured pacing, minimal use of music, and long one-take scenes, it makes demands on the viewer. How much of that was dictated by the specific story, and how much is simply your filmmaking aesthetic?

Andrew Haigh: I knew when I was writing it that it wasn’t going to be an easy thing. It kind of starts off slowly and takes its time. You have to work at it a bit. I always knew that was going to happen. That was intentional. I like things to breathe. The kinds of films I like are the ones that take their time. It was always a choice, and not just a story choice. I think all my films are going to be like that.

The payoff is that the emotion in the third act is so powerful because it’s been earned. There were no shortcuts or easy formulas to get you there.

If you reach an emotional pinnacle too early on in a film, that’s kind of it. There’s only so many times you can do that – and it’s probably only once – so you have to work out what that moment is. I think, as in real life when you’re getting to know someone, it starts off slowly. Little things are hinted at and you want it all to accumulate slowly and gently. My idea was that [for the viewer] the emotion would suddenly be there and you’re like, “Oh, I didn’t know I cared about these characters.”

An interesting thing about responses to the film is that even people who haven’t had many “weekends,” including a lot of heterosexuals, recognize and relate to what’s being said about loneliness, emotional isolation and longing.

Yeah, that was always really important to me. I personally think it’s because of the issues happening underneath the film, which is two people trying to work out who they are, what they want, how they’re gonna live their lives, and how they’re gonna be in public to the world. It’s what we all deal with all the time, whether you’re gay, straight or whatever. That’s why I don’t think you have to be a gay guy in your late ‘20s or early ‘30s to get the film.

Silence itself is a character in the film – the silence that envelopes Russell at certain points, the ways in which the presence of only ambient sound underscores his isolation within the frame. Was that aspect of the film part of your initial concept of it, or was it something that evolved as you wrote the script?

It was always very much from the beginning. And when filming, I never shot any coverage. With each scene, the one shot that you see is the only one ever filmed. There was nothing else ever. The investors were like, “Could you just shoot some cutaways or anything else?” And I was, like, “No.” Essentially, each scene is only one shot and there was no inter-cutting ever, apart from a few cheats. And I knew part of that would be silences, which I didn’t want to fill with music. There’s no traditional score. It makes it harder work, I think, because as an audience you have to engage in it a little bit more. Also, I didn’t want to force the audience to look at something. Like the scene on the sofa, where they’re talking about family and coming out and stuff, it’s just the one shot of the two of them. As a viewer, you decide if you want to look at him or look at him.

You already touched on my next question, which was to do with the use of music, which is sparingly doled out. It seems that whether it’s a Hollywood blockbuster or a so-called indie film, so many movies now are wall-to-wall with music…

Yeah, and it’s the same music as far as I can tell. It’s like, 'Oh, great, here comes the melancholy indie music.’

How did you come to use John Grant’s Queen of Denmark CD? It’s an inspired choice because your film and Grant’s CD are tonally in sync.

The album’s really popular in the U.K. I’ve been to so many film festivals [in the U.S.] and nobody’s heard of John Grant. I think it’s exactly what you said. John Grant is gay and out, and singing songs about yearning and kind of painful stuff. But there’s humor, and that was really nice, to me. And that’s kind of what I wanted to do – play with identity and what you think a gay film is, or what you think a gay musician is. I loved the album, was obsessed with it. I contacted him and explained what I wanted to do, and he generously allowed us to use the music. The thing that I like about the end-credits song is that it’s got the right tone but the lyrics aren’t anything to do with two boys who’ve had a weekend together.

It’s not on the nose.

Yes, exactly. And I think that’s always what I try to do.

Speaking of not being too on the nose, it’s interesting to see the subtle ways class differences play out between these two characters because that’s something that’s usually either ignored or caricatured in gay films. But everything from their occupations to where they live – even though we don’t ever literally see Glen’s home…

You kind of get a sense of where he lives. And there is, obviously, a class thing in the film but it becomes an unsaid character. They never really talk about it. But it’s there. And I think Glen, who in my head is much more middle-class, is almost embarrassed of being middle-class. He doesn’t want Russell to go back to his house. The apartments where Russell lives are quite ugly but he likes living there. He’s made what he can of the environment and filled it with things that he likes.

You’ve mentioned that one reason you wanted to shoot in Nottingham is that it’s where Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was filmed and that’s one of your favorite films. In what ways did filming there – or just thinking about that film while making Weekend – feed your own creativity?

I love that film. As I was writing this I didn’t feel that I was directly inspired by it, but then as I started thinking about the two films – and obviously they’re very different – but in a way Albert Finney’s character, and the woman with whom he’s having a relationship, are trying to work out their place in a changing world, whether they want to accept the mainstream opinion or fight against it, and how they react to the social times. In a way I kind of see Glen as an update of Albert Finney’s character, just in the modern world. He’s still fighting against the mainstream but he’s also fighting against the gay community and trying to forge his own path, even if it makes him unhappy. Which I think is kind of what Albert Finney does in Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. There’s the sense that he’s just fighting for the sake of fighting. Plus, the realism in that film – I mean, now it’s very obvious that it’s a product of its time – but for the time it was a very honest depiction of those lives.

Those cultural artifacts which push the envelope or challenge the mores of their time often retain something of their subversive or titillating energy, even after time passes and cultural evolution makes them somewhat old-hat.

Exactly. And it was great for us because the apartment block that [Weekend] is set in is actually built on the spot where the house [from Saturday Night] used to be – exactly on the same place. And that wasn’t intentional. It was pure coincidence but it was really nice. And Glen wears a t-shirt on the first night [the two characters meet in a nightclub] that says Saturday Night Sunday Morning. Hardly anyone notices because [the scene] is filmed in all these reflections. We spent loads of time getting this t-shirt, and then when I shot it I thought, “No one’s gonna read it because every time you see it, it’s in reflection in the mirror.” But I quite like the fact that it’s there, just kind of lurking.

Can you talk a bit about the use of water in the film? Russell is a lifeguard; he takes bathes as opposed to taking showers, and we see that bathing – for him – is a time of reflection as well as cleaning…

That should have been a conscious thing but it’s not. It was a subconscious choice, definitely, because I knew I wanted him to have baths instead of showers. That made sense to me. I can’t even articulate why. It’s almost like it’s his time to reflect on who he is, or whatever. Whenever I thought about what Russell would do [for a living], I always wanted him to be a lifeguard. It was the first thing. It’s like he’s always there to save other people. He’s always there to look after other people but he’s never had a family to look after him. No one’s gonna be there for him, that kind of thing. And also, those apartments are a bit rundown so the showers never work. [He laughs.] It’s interesting how things just happen in your brain and then it makes sense for the character. Like, Glen would have always have a shower. He would hate baths.

One choice you made that seemed very conscious is that when the characters have sex, there’s no discussion of AIDS or safe sex. Was that because the introduction of that topic would skew the tone of the film too much?

I think it would certainly skew the tone, change the tone of the film based on this talk about safe sex. But it’s interesting to me because in my head they have safe sex. They would have used condoms. Maybe that’s just because the generation that I’m from, I just assume everybody would use a condom. Why wouldn’t you? A lot of people have brought that up. Someone asked me if I feel that I’m promoting unsafe sex. I was just like [groans] Nooooooo! I mean, to me, Russell is the kind of guy where, of course he would have safe sex. Glen would. They would have safe sex. It’s always an issue, isn’t it? Especially in America, it’s a kind of… I don’t know. In England we have such amazing advertising around the issue of safe sex.

I think it’s an issue in the States because there are groups where the rates of infection are skyrocketing again, so it’s kind of at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds.

Yeah, that makes sense. I would hate anybody to think I’m promoting unsafe sex. It’s crazy that people wouldn’t use condoms. But let’s face it, if in that scene [everything] suddenly stopped and had been like, “Make sure you use a condom; this is how you put it on properly,” that’d probably destroy the tone of the whole thing.

Do you see this film as sort of validating – for lack of a better word – the ways in which gay men have connected historically, ways that are kind of demonized by some of the more vocal, increasingly conservative quarters of the community?

It’s such a complicated issue, isn’t it? For a long time gay men fought to be seen as different, doing our own thing: This is our lives, this is what we do, accept it. There’s a conservatism that has come into the gay community: We’re just like you, just like everyone else. And maybe some people are and they do want to get married and so on, but that doesn’t mean that other people that don’t wanna get married… [He pauses.] Sometimes, I feel like the straight world is actually hooking onto the idea that they’re quite happy for us to get married because it means, “Whew! They are like us.”

A lot of so-called progressive hetero folks support gay marriage because ultimately it validates them and an institution that validates them and their relationships. It removes the weight of respecting and valuing truly diverse ways of being.

Yeah, it validates them. And now you get this pressure. I’ve got my mum asking me when I’m gonna get married, and I’m like, “Probably never.”

Look, of course everyone should have the right to get married. But I think people need to remember sometimes that we don’t all need to be the same. There’s thousands of different types of relationships that people can have, whether it’s completely monogamous or it’s not monogamous, or they’re married or they’re single or whatever it is. All of those are valid as long as you are doing what you want to do, and it’s your choice. Our forefathers [he laughs] fought to not be like everyone else, and to be accepted on their own terms. It’s complicated. It’s quite exhausting and there is a point where you maybe do want to be seen like everyone else. [Laughter]

I hope the film shows that it’s a complex issue. Nobody’s usually on one side or the other. Glen may say, “I don’t want to get married,” but if you listen to him enough then you realize he does want to be in love and he does want some security, and so we’re all just flowing along on this thing of, “Do we want it? Do we not? Security? Freedom? What do I want?”

The main thing is simply to be allowed to come up with your own definitions of security and freedom, which may be in direct opposition to the notion of marriage.

Absolutely. And that’s nothing to do with being gay. A struggle that almost everybody faces is finding that balance between feeling like they’re free as an individual, and having a kind of social safety and comfort. Everyone deals with that. It’s universal.

One of the ways Russell deals with his longing for security and comfort – family, if you will – is by paradoxically putting up barriers between himself and his straight best friend. While the film wonderfully captures the ways in which many LGBT folks can be outsiders in the midst of our own families or groups of friends, and the ways that they can be oblivious to our isolation, it also shows how we can let our fears lead us to make unfair assumptions about what they’re interested in or able to handle – and in the process we might sell them and ourselves short.

And it’s because it’s scary. We all know what it’s like to tell our family and the people we love that we’re gay. It’s a hard thing to get out, and that fear is still there, the worry that you have is still there. It doesn’t completely go away just ‘cause you’ve told them. Maybe some people are great at it but I think, especially if you are not obviously gay, or if you could be perceived as straight, that it’s almost harder because you’re constantly having to come out, and so there’s constantly the fear. Even with your straight friends, they almost forget you’re gay until you say something and they’re like, “Oh, yeah.”

And you gauge your straight friends’ reactions, their unconscious blanching or visible discomfort if the conversation steers a certain way, the ways that they can be oblivious to the ways in which your life and theirs is just not the same, and you condition yourself to censor yourself…

Because you feel uncomfortable. They can talk about girls they’ve had sex with and feel free to go into all sorts of details, but if you mention it they’re like, “Um...” So you censor yourself. The thing is, you shouldn’t censor yourself. You should just be as open as you can.

I mentioned at the start that the film is reminiscent of indie and queer films of the ‘90s in the way it experiments with form and expectation. But the ending also harkens back to classic Hollywood flicks. But the reference isn’t played for irony, isn’t lobbed from some theoretician’s chilly distance. It’s unabashedly romantic.

I knew that setting a scene in a train station was gonna reference Brief Encounters and a million other films. That was intentional, and the end of the film is quite positive. You think, “They’re gonna be alright, these two people.”

Friday, December 23, 2011

Double Burger With Cheese

This video for Lupe's track "Double Burger With Cheese" is a densely packed ride through late 20th century Black American cinema. It's layer upon layer of the exact images that Lupe is rhyming about. It's fantastic.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A very cool poem...

One of the cool things about what I do for a living is that I get to meet some very dope people, and sometimes hang out with them for a bit. Earlier this year I was introduced to the poet Douglas Kearney (of whose work I am a big fan) and we've had some really amazing conversations since then. For me, it's just been a real pleasure hanging out with a heterosexual Negro male who is genuinely non-plussed by faggotry. (They ain't rare, but they can be hard to find...) Turns out, he's really been taking notes when we talked. (They ain't rare, but they can be hard to find...) He just sent me this poem, which he dedicates to me and my ace boon coon, Tisa Bryant -- who's also his colleague at Cal Arts, here in LA. Click the image to enlarge it. The poem will soon be published in a chapbook called Skinmag, and I'll keep you posted on when that drops and where you can cop it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Future is here... again

I'm a huge fan of comedian Louis CK and was pulling for him with his recent experiment in self-distribution of his latest concert film. It appears to have been a massive success, and is a template (or inspiration... or both) for creative folks still on the fence about the DIY approach. Click this link. It's a must read.


Janelle Monae Live @ the Nobel Peace Prize Concert 2011

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

More... a poem

My poem in the latest issue of Slake Los Angeles (the War and Peace issue) can be read by clicking More...

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Monday, July 25, 2011

Amy Winehouse, R.I.P.

Today my bird flew away
Gone to find her big blue jay
Starlight before she took flight
– “October Song,” Amy Winehouse

“Addiction is not a chemical reaction. Addiction is an experience, one which grows out of an individual’s routinized subjective response to something that has special meaning for him – something, anything, that he finds so safe and reassuring that he cannot be without it… We learn habits of dependency by growing up in a culture which teaches a sense of personal inadequacy, a reliance on external bulwarks, and a preoccupation with the negative or painful rather than the positive or joyous. Addiction is not an abnormality in our society. It is not an aberration from the norm; it is itself the norm.” - Stanton Peele, 1975

“Expecting willpower to do jack for an addict is like saying positive thinking is going to get your beloved paraplegic walking again.” – Facebook posting

“[It was] only a matter of time…” – Janis Winehouse, Amy’s mother, in the Sunday Mirror

      My one time seeing Amy Winehouse perform live was in March of 2007, at the Roxy here in Los Angeles. The hype machine was in full effect, already fueled as much by stories of her battles & lapses with booze & drugs as by the fact of her talent. (Her first and still biggest U.S. chart hit, and the way most Americans were first introduced to her, was the single “Rehab.”) That night she was funny, charming, and in great voice. The crowd was hers from the moment she took the stage, and the night was one of those wonderful meldings of artist and audience, with Amy’s music being the glue holding it all together. Her 2006 sophomore album Back to Black, her first official U.S. release, hadn’t been out that long but the crowd already knew the words to every song and they sang along at maximum volume. Many of them had likely bought the import version of the CD, released well ahead of its arrival in the states. They’d been primed to do so by Frank, her flawed but wonderful 2003 debut album that had won awards, prizes and critical acclaim in the UK but hadn’t gotten a U.S. release. It was a hot import item on these shores, though. With her and her music’s arrival in America, hipsters and hype-men had fresh meat to hawk and consume, but a lot of folks were already well under the sway of the music and the artistry (and artist) behind it.
     Still for all her charm that night, Amy seemed uncomfortable in her own skin. Bone-thin (the naturally sexy, fleshy body she inhabited when she first broke was now emaciated), wearing clothes and shoes that were too large for her, flashing really, really shitty tats over her body, and noticeably missing a tooth, she fidgeted with her clothing and hair, danced her patented herky-jerky, off-the-beat dance (sans irony; she simply couldn’t dance), and took frequent swigs from the massive glass of beer at the foot of the stage. It was obvious that the stage was not her natural element. I suspected that – as winning as she was that night – the booze she was swilling wasn’t just alcoholism at work but a way to help her navigate an aspect of her “artistic calling” that turned the calling into a chore, maybe even ordeal.
       I’ve never seen an artist dash off the stage at the show’s end like she did, never once looking back at her band or the audience, eyes trained hard on the wings as she made her exit. I don’t think it’s excusing either laziness or diva entitlement to mark the difference between someone’s drive and joy in creating (and wanting to share what they’ve created with the world), and noting their deep apprehension and unease around actually performing on a stage. Those are two completely different things. Entirely different skill sets and impulses are at work across that divide, and though they often converge, they sometimes don’t. Simplistic conflation of them (by artists and fans) can lead to expectations and demands beyond those the artist wants or even can meet… at least without “help.”
      Watching Youtube clips of Amy at the start of her career, when her body was voluptuous, her hair long and flowing (and clean), her skin not yet mapped with badly drawn ink, is to see that even when she was in full and even dazzling vocal command, she still only rarely seemed truly at home onstage. Her glorious AOL-Session performance is a notable exception; but that’s just her and her band – still a protective cocoon, if you will.

      Here’s the thing: We’ve so romanticized the tortured artist, been complicit in turning her/him into a blueprint pose and commodity, that we’ve forgotten there is sometimes painful truth at the root of the cliché: There are artists whose muse and round-the-clock demons really are one and the same. We, the herd of consumers, cheer the bad behavior, eat up the self-destructive actions, nod theatrically (so everyone around us can see) that we identify with the pain, maaaan. But we grow impatient when the artist who’s genuinely fucked up doesn’t act like a mercenary CEO, keeping just inside the lines of marketable debauchery and edible despair. We laugh and mock, made uneasy when it turns out shit is real. My writing this isn’t an attempt to excuse or glorify bad behavior or the selfishness of an artist showing up (over and over) too wasted to perform. It’s not meant to “enable.”
      It is an attempt, however, to recognize a broader context of issues (addiction; depression; creativity; the places where they meet) that are deserving of thoughtfulness and some measure of compassion. Immediately following the announcement of her death, witless would-be wits chortled across the blogosphere, “Guess she shoulda gone to rehab / shoulda said yes, yes, yes…” Insufferably sanctimonious folks who don’t really know a thing about addiction (or depression) – but would never miss a chance to wag a finger – started lecturing and moralizing about… that which they know nothing.
      There are a host of issues that Amy sparked conversation or just thought about (I’m not talking about tabloid crap,) and a lot of that is brought up in Prof. Daphne A. Brooks’ controversial but, I feel, worthwhile '08 essay here. I much appreciate Prof. Brooks raising the racial concerns she did in her essay, and though I’m a fan of Amy’s – and Prof. Brooks is not – I think the points raised are valid and shouldn’t just be dismissed, as some have done. She and I simply draw different conclusions about who’s culpable and how for the ways that the politics of race and racial privileging played out in Amy’s career. There was undeniably a Great White Hope/Hype aspect to the way a lot of gatekeepers – music industry types; ahistorical, revisionist or just plain lazy music critics – pushed and sold the late singer/songwriter, and I think the ire should be directed at them, not Amy.
      What I will say is that the sartorial drag she chose to wear (the retro hair and clothing style), the hip-hop swagger that manifested in her lyrics and often in her video persona, as well as the influence of singers whose performing styles she heavily imitated and emulated (Billie, Ella, Sarah, Erykah… and most especially Lauryn) were partly shtick, partly protective armor, and partly just a young woman swimming in cultural currents that spoke to and moved her. She molded and conveyed the influences of iconic Black women singers through affectation of their tones and phrasing while forging her own style. At times that could be cringe-inducing but it was also forgivable because her own talent shone so strongly through. She was clearly working through a process most young artists go through – trying on the signature garb of your heroes as you grow into yourself. Back to Black showed the hard work she’d put in toward synthesis, and not just regurgitation, of those influences. It was far from finished work, but Amy seemed to have abandoned the project of artistic growth and evolution long before she died.
      But I want to talk about the only thing she really owed us – the music – and the ways in which she absolutely delivered. Much has been written about Frank, whose highlights are the withering kiss-off “Stronger Than Me;” the beat-driven girl-meets-boy “You Sent Me Flying,” in which disorientating disappointment supplants the longed for happily-ever-after (“The message was brutal, but the delivery was kind…/ And although my pride’s not easily disturbed / you sent me flying when you kicked me to the curb);” and the magnetic mid-tempo “Know You Now,” a quick-draw dismantling of male ego and posturing in which our heroine unabashedly admits her attraction to the very pose she’s lampooning. The Special Edition of the CD, released a few years ago, contained the bonus cuts “Help Yourself,” “Cherry,” “Brother” and “Mr. Magic,” all of which are as good, if not better, than a lot of what made the final cut. I want to focus on a few tracks to illustrate what pulled me into her camp, which has a lot to do with how strong and lovely her pen game was. (And note must be made of her savvy in picking partners in creative crime; not just producer Mark Ronson, but also the sorely under-rated Salaam Remi, who produced two of Amy’s very best tracks: “Just Friends,” and “Tears Dry on Their Own.”)

“Fuck Me Pumps.” A blistering anti-tribute to plastic – in all senses – women who chase athletes (and other rich men), and fuck with the goal of being wifey’d up and immersed in a world of endless wealth. It’s not an anthem of sisterhood, not an empathetic or sympathetic examination of the pressures on women to conform to crippling terms of beauty, or to notions of womanhood that have them hitch their wagon to (well paid) men in order to be “self-realized.” No, Amy’s approach was much more brusque & scathing, hilarious & truthful: I’m calling these ‘hos out.

“Cherry” is something of a throw-away ditty, except it’s much more. I dig that it’s an ode to female artistry tucked inside Amy’s taunting of a half-ass lover. It’s a love song to her guitar, and Amy has gendered the instrument as female, underscoring the feminine dynamic of her work. The song outlines the ways her guitar feeds her, grants her a voice and the space to express what she otherwise can’t – for a host of reasons – to or with her man. Ultimately, she’s celebrating her own creativity (and therefore her deepest/ truest self) as her greatest companion, the one entity she can fully trust and be herself with– warts, blues, neediness and all.

In one of her biggest fan-favorites, "Stronger Than Me," Amy asks her guy, “Don’t you know you ‘sposed to be the man? / Not pale in comparison to who you think I am…” There’s so much to pull apart in this song, whose basic sentiment is, Dead the sensitive male shit. Man the fuck up… But from the first time I heard it, the lines I quoted above stuck out. They seethe with exasperation at her man’s being daunted by his own perception of her, of his being cowed by the box in which he’s put her. In the song she’s bulldozing his reaction and his filter of perception. But I also take it to mean that he’s intimidated by her real – not imagined – strength of presence and forthrightness. Or maybe it’s just womanhood, period, that flattens him. And she’s over it. But I also love the hypocrisy that’s in play. In refusing to be boxed in by him, she brutally derides him – largely by impugning his sexuality (“I’ve forgotten all of young love’s joy / Feel like a lady and you my lady boy…”) – and demands that he slide himself into the pose of machismo to keep her. It’s the humanness of the double-standard that draws me into the song, the way it reflects something of the way that many of us refuse to be locked into someone else’s perception or stereotype of manhood or womanhood, even as retrograde masculinity or femininity is what we’re most drawn to and demand in a partner; it’s our drug. And when you listen to a lot of Amy’s music, the realization of the costs of this particular kind of “addiction” simmers and spills between her unconsciousness and consciousness.

This performance of “Brother” starts off rocky but Amy self-corrects and kinda gets it back on track. The song itself is now both eery and moving, as she’s chastising her brother and demanding that he take responsibility for his life and stop breaking their mother’s heart. Yeah, for real. Especially poignant lyrics: “Responsibility comes down to you / but how can I expect you to understand when you live life like you’re so run through…” The full lyrics scroll across the screen in this clip, which is worth checking out.
And finally, from the Back to Black CD, there’s:

The David LaChappelle video for “Tears Dry On Their Own,” a sublime dancing-with-tears-in-my-eyes track, seemed a disappointment at first but repeated viewings convinced me how wonderful it is. The clip captures the essence of Amy’s confessional songwriting – her loneliness and isolation, even in a crowd; her status-quo pining for her dependably missing man, with her hitting the pavement to go on a circular and futile hunt for him; the unforced way she is immersed in – but still apart from – freaks and outcasts, folks who may do daily battle with voices (internal, external) that tell them they ain’t shit, and whose defiance of those voices (and attempts to mute them) frequently dovetail into self-destructiveness that is then used by detractors as proof in their argument. In the video, Amy and LaChappelle show her allegiance to and solidarity with those outcasts, but without heavy-handed forcing of the issue. Amy cares not at all if you were born this way or that, and she’s too caught up in her own shit to pen clumsily pandering anthems about you. Fuck if you’re faggot, dyke, trans, cholo, thug, ‘ho, or of whatever race. Are you cool peeps or not? End of discussion. She made her own struggles universally recognizable, using both droll humor and raw poetic honesty; that was what drew her fans to her music, and to her.

My original review of the Roxy concert is here.
Shout out to Sofia Quintero for the Stanton Peele quote above…


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Rahsaan Patterson Interview

If you go to the website for Rahsaan Patteron's record label, Mack Avenue, they have up the bio I wrote for him for his latest CD, Bleuphoria. It's a very, very dope CD. I've had it on repeat for months now. I don't think Rah or the label were  crazy about the bio but they never got back to me to let me know one way or the other. I didn't even know they'd put it up until a moment ago when my RedBone Press publisher Lisa C Moore sent me a link to it, saying how much she liked it; she didn't know I'd written it. When I agreed to do the bio, I told the label I wanted to write it like a magazine profile. I didn't want to do the generic bio thing. What you see on the site is pretty much what I turned in. For the record, it's been eons since I wrote a music piece for any publication (that's not been my choice; I've just aged out of relevance for the music press), and I mainly make my living writing liner notes and film reviews now. I swore off writing bios years and years ago 'cause it's kind of a thankless gig, but I wrote this one for Rah 'cause I've always been a huge fan. As I said, the bio they have on the site is pretty much exactly what I turned in, except they inexplicably chopped off the very beginning, which was simply me setting up the interview by quoting lyrics from the song "God," from the new CD:

taking high chances
in this divine dance
in this divine dance
– “God” from Bleuphoria

For the entire bio/profile, go here: Mack Avenue. By the way, a longer, much more dope version of this interview will be in Blood Beats Vol. 3

(Rich) Food for Thought

Click this link and read it through. It's one of the best things I've read in a very long time...

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Taking it Back...

"In the 1970s politicians and real estate developers promised New Yorkers that an expanded tax base was necessary to pay our bills. Now, NYC is overflowing with rich people and we are losing hospitals, teachers, and bus lines by the day. The rich got richer, and subsequent gentrification produced a homogeneity that undermines urbanity, which is dependent on the dynamic mix to thrive. As a result we have a gentrification of the mind as well as neighborhood. The panelists imagine how to de-gentrify New York and take her back as a place of refuge, insight, and a key global headquarters for the production of new art ideas and political movements for the world to enjoy again."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Updates on what I'm doing...

While waiting to hear if War Diaries wins its Lammy (we're up for Best LGBT Anthology), I'm celebrating news that my poem "More" will be published in next month's issue of Slake, and I just received news that my short story "Cold and Wet, Tired You Bet..." (which appears in War Diaries) has been selected for inclusion in the anthology Best Gay Stories 2011, edited by Peter Dube and published by Lethe Press. I'm also prepping for a talk I will be giving at DePaul University on May 12th for LGBT Month.

Words o' the Day

"If you're going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don't even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery--isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you'll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you're going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It's the only good fight there is." -- Charles Bukowski, Factotum

Thank you, Sonny Fullwood

Monday, April 11, 2011

Life Lesson

"If you have a dime, save a nickel... You're independent, you don't have to depend on anyone else. 'Cause when you have money you can talk big. Save your money."

Friday, April 08, 2011

Jam of the Day

ERYKAH BADU IN STUDIO from Creative Control on Vimeo.
The New Amerykah CDs are two of the best music releases of the last several years. I kinda understand why the first one didn't have a larger commercial impact. In today's pop culture climate ("pop" stretching from Britney to hip-hop to that god-awful Euro club shit everybody seems to be flocking toward) it's kinda "art-house." I love the collection but I do understand the resistance to it. NA Part 2, however, is just sublime, smart, hip-hop/funk inflected words & grooves that could easily nestle in anybody's Top 40. Shoulda been huge. But charts and sales don't matter. Artistry does. Badu still has it in spades.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Preach, brother...

A perfect blend of lyrics (social commentary), images, soundbites, and righteous anger...

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Quote of the Day

"Simply because one is Black or Latino or lesbian or gay or whatever does not guarantee the person’s fidelity to a body of politics that empowers the particular constituency that they supposedly represent. The number of black elected officials has risen from 100 in 1964 to more than 9000 today. The number of African Americans who were in congress 30 years ago was about five; today it is over 40, an 800 percent increase. But have Blacks experienced an 800 percent increase in real power? It hasn’t happened. So, I think the emphasis of this liberal notion of social change by working solely within the established electoral system is just fatally flawed."

A Humane Society is Possible Through Struggle: An interview with Manning Marable” (1998)

Monday, March 28, 2011

Quote of the Day

"It is the duty of righteous men to make war on undeserved privilege, but one must not forget that this is a war without end." -- Primo Levi

Sunday, March 27, 2011

E-Badu in Miami

LO DOWN LORETTA BROWN from Creative Control on Vimeo.

Black Power Mixtape

Body Mind Spirit

Redemption Songs

The news is so fucking grim all around the world. It wears you down. Drains you of hope, even as images of protest and justified, righteous rebellion pour in from across the globe. Shit's whirring through the fans and we are so clearly at a crucial crossroads. We must be clear, though; the world ain't ending. Mama Earth may well be shrugging the parasites known as humans off her tit... but the world ain't ending. Still, you want to know that your fellow humans are putting up the good fight, resisting the bullshit government/corporate machinations that reduce the bulk of us to cogs in the service of a few. You want to draw strength and inspiration from those who are doing work that shifts our collective consciousness toward awareness of and reverence for our connectedness, reclaiming notions of worth and value that have nothing to do with material possessions. I found two clips this week that gave me a glimmer of hope, and then I went old-school to one of the premiere poet/prophets of our time. Peace...

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Happy Birthday, Miss Ross

I've written at length about my great love, respect and admiration for Diana Ross. One article is here. Today, I just want to put up some clips that capture her throughout her career. The O.G. Diva...

Monday, March 21, 2011


Here's the latest short by Barry Jenkins, whose Medicine for Melancholy is one of my favorite films of recent years. This clip is another angle for Jenkins to explore issues of race, class and erasure of working folks (especially Black working folks) from San Francisco. Check it out.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Mindful Tool, from Gary Kobat

Every fear or insecurity we have about ourselves is a button waiting to be pushed.
The fact that people push these buttons is not at all remarkable.
What is remarkable is that we blame them for pushing them.
When others trigger us, our reaction has nothing to do with the other person.
Our reaction shows us where we are in conflict, not where the other person is.
When we wear a sign that says "hit me", are we surprised that a few people
come along and take it literally?
Some people who attack us think we want them to do it.
And we allow them to do it.
The abuse will stop when we learn how to say "This is unacceptable. I will not permit it."
Until we have the courage to stand up for ourselves fully,
someone will always be around to abuse.
Actually, we will keep calling them in until we decide that we have had enough.
Don't blame them.
Ask instead, "Why did I allow myself, once again, to be drawn into a situation
in which I am not respected and listened to?
See our own low self-esteem. See how we accept love at any price. See how we keep
recycling fear and abandonment because we are afraid to face it head on.
Stand up and stop the game. Refuse to be an object, even though being
an object seems to offer us the attention we desire.
See the broken promises and tears of regret. Conditional love has given us nothing,
it just deepens feelings of abandonment and fear.
Let us remind ourselves that we decided to play the game, we gave permission.
Take responsibility. Acknowledge, learn, and don't repeat.
Until we say yes to ourselves, we won't be able to say no to others.
Others don't betray us, we betray ourselves.
Without their help, our awakening process would take considerably longer.
They teach us, we teach them.
We are equal passengers on the same journey.
Be patient. This is the journey of self-empowerment.
And when the self is fully empowered, abuse will be impossible...
... and the possibilities infinite.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Unions and Collective Bargaining

From the Color of Change petition link below:

In Memphis in 1968, Black sanitation workers worked in dangerous, inhumane conditions under abusive White supervisors for little pay. After two workers were crushed to death by a malfunctioning city garbage truck, the city's Black sanitation workers sought to unionize. They demanded better wages, safer working conditions, and the right to collectively bargain for these things. They took to the streets of Memphis bearing signs that read, "I am a man." During the strike, police attacked and jailed Black workers for peaceful protest. Months later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said that "all labor has dignity," joined these workers on the front lines. He was assassinated while leading the effort to win collective bargaining rights for these workers.

Save the unions and collective bargaining rights. Click HERE.

Two of My Favorite Ways to Pass Time

Vintage Black Glamour

Eff Yeah Diana Ross!

Aloe Blacc - "Loving You Is Killing Me"

The little boy in this is rocking that 'fro and killing his moves...

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Mama Said There'd Be Days Like This

Girl-group sounds and aesthetics, and the retro grooves and moves of Black music, period, have been ruthlessly mined for quite a few years now. Some good shit has come of it, but so has a lot of uninspired dross. This clip is kind of obvious in a lot of ways, and yet I dig the way it works on so many levels: highlighting the irony of Black folks churning out sweet pop sounds against the backdrop of struggles for basic human rights; underscoring the way in which scorching political reads can be applied to even the most disposable of art; reminding us that throughout America's history, the saying, "the show must go on" has often had a different meaning for Black folks who had to "smile and sell" even as they were roiling inside. "And then I might find / I don't want you any old way..."