24 August 2011

re: Talent, Wasted

I was just about to take this down and re-write it, because I realised that my thinking on it isn't fully fleshed out in a lot of parts. And it's about a lot of people and things, currently all jumbled together. But instead, am going to leave this initial brainspasm as it is and have a think about a longer/more intricate piece over the next week.

So keep your eyes peeled.

In the meantime, some really good hip hop that still carries a few of the devices and tics I feel confused and weird about. But passion, realness. That's life.

23 August 2011

Talent, Wasted: hip hop deceived by its own devices

Several times in the last few months, mostly at clubnights (most of them run by these guys, who also have a radio show on NTS ), I've heard this amazing Busta Rhymes' verse getting played in the middle of a set. It's over a kind of hazed--out electronic beat, sounds like a melted glitch, and Busta spits about 200 words in a minute over the top. Usually it cuts in over the end of Break Ya Neck, or some other piece of Busta audacity. And it's amazing.

I had no idea where the verse came from. But I thought, shit, if that's a verse, and the production is that good, this must be an incredible song. So I do a little searching and I discover


Oh God. Chris Brown. This is a horrible song. What's more - it's just pop music! That verse of Busta's that might have been a moment of sublime rap is...a bad commericial pop song.

It is also the most openly cynical 'selling' of a horribly pastiched 'gangsta' schtick I have ever seen. A perfect example of how 'HIP HOP' has become a commodity, a device, to make money; a collection of simplistic images, tics, phrases and gestures. In the video, Brown wears a series of shirts and hats for various sports teams across different cities in the US. He's not even representing something, or somewhere, he's just...representing. He bangs his chest. He tries to look hard. His entire body, from the tattoos criss-crossing all over his body, to the jewellery to the endless emblazoning of different cities across his chest, is a kind of vacuum, neatly polished with mindless 'signs' of 'HIP HOP'.

Has anyone else ever stooped that cynically low?Chris Brown is dressed in the video exactly like S.Mouse, Chris Lilley's parody of Soulja Boy (and Brown)-esque Rice Krispies-lite 'hip hop' stars. the video is nothing but cynical styling, money making without a statement from start to finish.

Brown is a pop star. Kind of clean (although his first hit 'Run It' had him boasting about his sexual prowess that would have us saying he couldn't be 16...), definitively boring. He went out with Rihanna. And he treated her extremely badly, resulting in physically attacking her in 2008. I can understand that he says feels terrible about this, and does not want to be the only thing by which he is judged for the rest of his life.

But songs like this make a mockery of the physical abuse of Rihanna. How to put uncomfortable domestic violence behind you, Chris? By reinventing yourself as a gangsta parody, a trite amalgamation of commercial hip hop cliches, preaching the same violence, the same misogyny, in his songs. Idiotic, ignorant mechanics, which do nothing but perpetuate a myth that these kind of violences are all ok. All in the game.

What's more, apart from the production and that Busta verse, it really is a shit song; Chris Brown's entire contribution competes only with Lil Wayne for casually offensive triteness and lack of originality. The whole endeavour smacks of the most cynical meeting point between pop star ego and record label greed.

Listen to the laziness of Chris Brown's 'dick' verse and then Lil Wayne at the end.

.......I hate myself for it, but I still want to listen to it. That Busta verse! The insistence of the rapping, faster and faster, over that lazy, oozy beat....it's so....ahhhhh....alluring. And that's really what bites about the song. Not the trite hip hop cliches. They're not clever. What is clever is using someone's virtuosity - Busta's vocal talents as an MC, one the key original disciplines of hip hop - to peddle this shit. To disguise the messages, to distract.

I let myself get taken in by what's being done, I let what's being said slide, because LISTEN TO WHAT THE FUCK BUSTA IS DOING WITH HIS MOUTH.

And yet- and yet - I can't totally turn a deaf ear. I still hear those words, though I wish I didn't.

And this is my problem with (even vaguely) commercial hip hop - I never feel able to say I like someone like Busta as a rapper - because for the incredible vocal dexterity and skill he has, the things he actually says are deplorable, and the stories he tells aren't worth listening to. All the old-school devices and talents of hip hop, are being unravelled from their origins and being used to essentially sell pop records. Hip-pop. Brilliant wordplay all to inform us about your lifestyle choices. What do I know or care about his cars and shaved pussies and all the other posturing that is his life? What do I care? Why don't I listen to more (god who doesn't hate this term) 'conscious' hip hop?

You know why? Because for all the Mos Defs and Talib Kwelis (amazing lyricists, neither commercial rappers nor insecure gangsta fakers), the fact is that they don't have the sick beats that Rick Ross, or Pusha T or Noreaga might pull out. And I hate most of the things that guys like Cam'Ron say: but I love the way they say them.

So I can almost understand how, caught up in the seductive 'way of saying it' - the beats, the vocal dexterity, the production and the energy - we can let so many terrible statements slide. But I have no idea why we can actually listen to that stuff, and then praise what it is being said. Or even repeat it. I thought that the obsession with 'realness' in hip hop might mean that the majority of listeners being rapped to by millionaires in basketball jerseys riding Segways inventing ridiculous dance moves, would see the bullshit.

What part of life are they rapping about? Even Watch the Throne...it's full of disses, and still packed with traditional devices of old school hip hop...but Jay and Kanye, if you're the only 'gods' up there in the clouds, who's this 'you' you keep hating on? If no one else can touch you, the only people you're hating on must be your listeners, the plebs and groundlings that you gotta tell how amazing you are, how above them you be.

Fuck keeping it real. It's finding the real we should worry about. There's always been exaggeration, self-construction and fantasy in hip hop - the whole movement arises from a culture and peoples whose economic reality and social repression and exploitation means that life revolves around money (not having it, or having it and spending it) - but reality should have a place.

Even Grandmaster Flash was driven by real stories, giving a voice to the ghetto: the music was an incredibly imaginative way of showing the world these stories. The majority of hip hop that gets heard and played these days - and not just purely commercial stuff but also by a lot of hip hop heads, radio stations and the like - seems to feel pressured to imagine something to rap about....instead of looking at the real shit around them. The majority of hip hop listeners are being told about 'real life' that sounds like a fantasy, or some overblown dream.

Who is someone like Kanye keeping it real to now? Who lives that life that he raps about? Footballers, basically. In the UK at least. They're some of the few people in the world who share a lifestyle and economic freedom similar to massive rap artists. Talented performers who have been awarded staggering amounts of money by an originally working class, communitarian, movement/pursuit, that is now enthralled by commerce and consumerism. Converted into gods by money. And encouraging a culture of waste; throwaway materials, throwaway people....and throwaway talent.

It would be easier if Kanye West - and even our original adversay, Mr Chris Brown - was a talentless douche. Kanye is very smart, witty, insightful. And Chris Brown is actually a great dancer. Not a special singer, but as a dancer, amazing. So why doesn't he spend more time working on what he's good at, and being even better at it? And why does Kanye West use that talent he has to endorse and further embed the dominance and wealth of the few over the many? And what positive thing is Busta doing with his doubtless talents, apart from getting paper with the help of the teen dollar that Brown brings in?

Money is in hip hop. It's a crucial part of it. I am not an orientalist utopian idiot who likes to think that back in 79 it was all about peace and love and emancipating black people together. That's another form of ignorance. Hip hop arose out of a web of social and economic factors, that impinged enough on a certain group of people, on their spirit, put pressure on, so that this new way of expression, combining music, lifestyle, dance, emerged. What I'm saying is that it came from feeling. From a real, deep experience, an impulse and desire to say somethign new, to express - and breakdancing, MCing, djing, swagger, became devices to do that.

But what I don't understand is why, and how, money seems to have become the dominating factor in hip hop and in contemporary society. If there is still 'real' hip hop, real protest, then it's surely about using talent and insight to present the alternatives; to show society that there is another way of structuring your life, so that it doesn't revolve around getting paper. Not just for the streets that hip hop set out to speak for, but even for the record execs and the record buying public and the millions of people now affected by it. Use talent, the virtuosity and audacity, to move us differently.

Barrios Beats and Blood

This morning I watched, again, this documentary about young men in Ciudad Juarez who use hip-hop to talk about the violence and corruption suffered by their city.

It's brilliant and apt, especially watching it in London now. The young people of Juarez, generally aged between 15 and 30, are known as 'Ni-ni' (neither-nors): 'ni escuela ni trabajo' (no school nor work). Their situation is very extreme, but the fingers of free market capitalism (encouraged by the much-maligned North American Free Trade agreement) have played a massive part in the undoing of these young people's lives, as the very agreement which Mexico willingly signed to allow the US an Access All Areas pass to its resources and labour force, is the the same agreement whose porous borders permits the drug trade to hoover up swathes of lives and aspirations from the coca leaves of Colombia up to, finally, the noses and pipes of the world's biggest cocaine and crack market, the United States of America.

Northern Mexico, essentially a zone of vigilante justice, where there are as many criminals in the police force as there may be on the streets, has the highest murder rate in the world. Yet it has shamefully little coverage. Two prominent massacres - the most recent within the Juarez jail - receive little attention in international media, least of all neighbouring United States. It truly is a war; and not just over drugs, as President Obama and Felipe Calderon would have you believe.

The war, of which narcotics have become the symbol, is actually a battleground where the results of adopting a free market economy tumble and scream and slide: voracious and unchecked globalisation of capital; privatisation of welfare services; overwhelming emigration of cheap labour forces; the conversion of society and community ties themselves into a 'free market'; the resultant alienation, lack of legal employment.

Equally disturbing is the fact that the femicide in Juarez - a big campaign for Amnesty and other human rights and women's rights groups at the end of the last decade - has been forgotten outside the North Mexican desert.

Hundreds of women, many of whom were immigrants working in the maquiladoras, some as young as 12, installed the Mexican side of the border for their cheap labour costs, were found dead, usually showing signs of rape and mutilation, dating from as early as 1993, until around 2008. The frequent appearance of new bodies, murdered with almost a complete lack of motive, led many to label them the result of 'blood sport' in which men who felt free to act outside the law - policemen as well as cartel members - would ride around Juarez, and rape, kill and dump women's bodies for fun.

It is essentially one of the biggest 'unsolved' mass murders of all time - in which the identities of several perpetrators are not a mystery at all, but are in burned or buried case files; despite brave campaigning, it seems that a fear of violent retribution, and a murky legal process rife with misdemeanour, means that the authorities keep the case open, and the truth closed.

This is important. Real. And happening now. So why does nobody want to watch this here in London? These factors are at work in the society in which we live - we made it so because we adopted the same policy, the same economics - and we cannot simply ignore Mexico because it is 'culturally' different.

Is there a way that the virtual media, that we often use to distract us, or to facilitate or ignorance of what is physically occurring on our streets or on the bus (we can cloud it all out with an iPod!), can actually tell these real stories?

In a town where words and deeds are themselves corrupt and corrupting, music, dance, sport, performance, seem to be the few ways of practically, honestly allowing the Ni-Nis to communicate with those in their town. And photo and video documentary, made by journalists like Rancho Aparte, seems to be one of the most practical, honest, ways of sharing these troubles with the world. This photo blog here is one case in point.

Barrios, Beats and Blood demonstrates the extent to which a real and perceived lack of support, trust, and governance in the official and municipal fabric of the city has allowed such corruption and doubt to unravel. These young men are perceptive, intelligent and funny. They talk and joke with each other (Axer lists the weapons he used to carry 'a 38mm...no, 2 38mm...and a few grenades...' he kids) with the resilience and innocence of youth, but the stories they tell and their insight makes them seem like the only adults with cool heads in a world where authority figures and institutions are either completely corrupt, or struggling against a mentality which now perceives them as corrupt and untrustworthy.

And weirdly, the presence of the camera, for which of course we all perform, feels candid. It somehow invites smart observations from its interviewees - and makes smart observations of its own, simply by being moved around. And because it isn't a person, it doesn't have its own voice which is inherently corruptible, it somehow becomes trusted. An object that can capture, and be confided in.

Ultimately, what keeps me coming back to this film is that the life within these young MCs fights that cynical notion presented by Mexico's media and politicians that in Juarez, it's lose lose. It is hell and there's little to save it - you try to find a way to make peace in hell and they say you must be the devil.

That 'lose-lose' perspective in the UK has also resulted in some pitifully reactionary shit being spouted by local citizens to the Prime Minister, about how to 'deal' with the apparently violent, mindless criminals terrorising 'our Britain'. Behind those reactionary missives is the message to the young people of the UK that they're in hell, they made it, and there's no way out.

A complex problem, one which requires care and, more than anything else, attention, simple attention to the circumstances which created it, is turned into a doctrine. You are bad, you're a devil, or you are good; that's what the coalition is telling us. The bad will be punished. The good will prevail. Just when we discover how brutally economic policy has mutilated social, ethical and working life in urban Britain, the government is going to bury the case file, and call this a moral crusade. A simple battle between good people and bad people. Nothing to do with money, or any of those complicated things, at all.

Yet just one glimpse at Ciudad Juarez is enough to show us all how laughable that ideology is.

19 August 2011

Security Measures tighten on the edges of the City

Chatsworth Road, E5

On a very eerie road in Clapton -
where gentrification and smart delis collide
but don't communicate -

with tyre repair businesses

remnants of white working class industry

African and Caribbean food shops and cafes

skinny white 20 somethings on thing bikes speeding past young black kids doing wheelies.

all watched over by machines of love and grace?

the only big brother watching is this one, probably. not even sure it should be considered an advert.

The Louys Project

I thought I'd use this little pocket of cyberspace to eschew reviews for a moment and write a little on the performance I'm currently working on.

It's with a very new company called Lifeguard Productions, set up by Farah Merani, who I met at a TAMASHA training course. Farah asked me if I'd be interested in directing a devised project she was trying to get off the ground, and I said...yes.

We've been working from a book of poems called Les Chansons de Bilitis, with a group of five women (the performance at the moment has four as the delightful Ari Phillips has been busy with new job).

We're grappling with the curious identity crisis behind the writing of the poems - passed off as the discovered works of an ancient Greek poetess but actually the imaginings of a middle aged French man in 1894 - and once we knew about the authorship of the poems, the whole project became about 'who speaks for women?'

We realised that we couldn't 'perform' the story of Bilitis, because we didn't really believe it. It was essentially a series of changing relationships between identity and desire: the shifting position that her body takes with the world around it. Childhood and openness; first desire and nervousness; discovering sex and wanting to fuck the world; giving yourself totally, wildly, and becoming jealous, possessive, betrayed.

These are all somewhat conventional patterns of behaviours - or relational norms - which women are still encouraged to perform. But in 2011, we're encouraged to perform these shifting positions by the media in all its forms, from newspaper articles to magazine covers to pop videos to self-help books. Like Louys' presence in the Chansons de Bilitis, these media are the shadowy voices of authority that stand behind our experiences of desire and instinct, shaping not only how we communicate them - but perhaps dictating how we feel and act in the first place.

So the project as it stands at the moment is a summary, a collage of observations, of contemporary 'authority' figures which dictate how or what women should feel as they grow. This is done physically by the performers: we see them pluck at their bodies in an invisible mirror; be transformed from nervous self-conscious wrecks into a punching army of aggression and 'self-assertion' (fascistically, utterly controlled by one leader); turn everyday situations of irritation and pressure into pop idol dance moves. This is paired with the equivalent poem or moment from Louys' shaping of Bilitis' life.

In many ways, we're playing into dangerous hands here - because rather than straight out rejecting these existing authorities and their versions of womanhood, we're trying to adopt them without getting lost or brainwashed. It's risky: but I want to push further into these shapes and 'versions' of womanhood, to find a truer and realer voice, a voice which emerges through the exhaustion of these conventions and cliches.

Because I think that if you don't address what exists, if you start as if none of these other patterns and version influence you and bombard you every day, you'll just self-consciously replicate them. You have to know the rules - or at least recognise them - before you can break them.

Tonight's the last performance of part one - the 'collage of observations' on who speaks for women - at the New Diorama Theatre. I've been writing a few blogs on the rehearsal process on the company website here (designed by Dylan Spencer-Davidson). And there'll be more. Brain is whirring constantly so over the weekend expect some knee-jerk missives (and hopefully a few more reflective ones) on where we go next. Have got lots of spinning-top thoughts and am figuring out which ones to keep whirring.

8 August 2011

London political weather forecast 2

Monday 8th August, late afternoon.

Clarence Road, Hackney.

A heavy and darkening cloud engulfs parts of the city. Police response, radio and television coverage looks set to further hyperbolise reality over the week, with increasing risk of continued turbulence.

London political weather forecast 2

Monday 8th August, evening.

Grouping clouds meet developing smoke. Fires further south.

A chance of increasing helicopters across Hackney and Greater London.

Sirens and constant whir overhead.

London political weather forecast

Saturday 6th August, evening

Riots in Tottenham Hale.
Rainbows in Hackney Central.
Sirens moving north.