Saturday, October 30, 2004

Sign Of The Times

To paraphrase Prince, I was feverish when I wrote this, forgive me if it goes astray...

"These Are Trying Times", Donny Hathaway sang 30 years ago as Vietnam and Nixonian malaise reigned. Less highbrow perhaps, Pete Rock & CL Smooth talked about "The Anger In The Nation" a decade ago in a post-Rodney King LA riots era. These are not the most obvious examples but they are audible fragments of a meme that has been floating around my head.

I've been growing increasingly uneasy of late and, like many, have been grasping for a vocabulary with which to express what I feel. I find myself falling back to popular culture to better articulate this and hence I've been thinking a lot about the artistic response to one's times.

Life in America in the post September 11 era is in many ways a matter of angst in the nation. It is no coincidence that one of the things I'm reading is a piece in Harper's titled "Our Present Disillusionment" or that recent series in the Detroit Free Press, Anger in America. And it's not just that this past few months have been a Rovian-inspired season of electoral frenzy. It's a more pervasive sensibility that is quite unsettling to an outsider and even to someone as assimilated as I am to this culture.

Perusing today's headlines I notice Eminem giving Bush the finger and Springsteen on the stump for Kerry. And yes, I've read The Culture of Fear, watched Bowling for Columbine and the Fog of War, listened to the pundits, read the historians, politicians, economists and the social theorists. I read widely, but I still don't have the words to describe what I feel.

I suppose I'm asking for a poet laureate, for a crown prince to mine the zeitgeist, and sing Strange Fruit, someone who'll paint the Guernica of our times. Reading a piece on Bob Dylan, who fits that bill for a certain generation this quote stood out to me:

One mark of a genius is that "he's attuned with what's going on, what needs to be named or said."
My own affinity is to urban griots of one sort or another (I don't like Dylan much to be frank) and I'm not searching for a genius; I do want someone to name these things for me however.

Listening to the news these days is very trying, and made worse if you are a news junkie like me, monitoring dozens of news sources regularly. The litany of tragedy is, as ever, epic, awful and mostly man-made: Darfur, Haiti, Beslan, Madrid, Bali, Istanbul, Casablanca, last week Taba and the list goes on.

And then there's Iraq, that unmitigated disaster. The continued almost-daily suicide bombings, so-called precision munitions bombing residential areas, beheadings and now summary executions. And the black hole of pestilence and perversity that Abu Ghraib stands for just underscores everything. Ineffable sadness all around.

But there's also the perennial mindless savagery of adolescent rage take for example the teenager shooting up his school in Argentina killing his classmates.

Economic anxiety doesn't help, a recession and job insecurity all contribute to my unease but I discount those somewhat. What does makes thing worse is that cognitive dissonance is so prevalent. It's not the flag-waving that bothers me, it's what appears to be a uniquely blinkered outlook in the discourse. No one wants to admit that they were wrong, or, as the case may be, duped, despite the best evidence to the contrary.

Where once angst was an occasional issue, the words of the day are more forceful and pervasive: unease, disquiet and foreboding. My own outlook hasn't reached for those heavy hitters (fear, trouble or terror). However everywhere I look, many are behaving accordingly. Aaron MacGruder's Boondocks comic strip has been skewering this trend in recent weeks: people stocking up on duct tape, hiding from the world and checking Tom Ridge's colour-coded Homeland Security threat alert system. It might as well be Code Red when people start censoring themselves and others or spying on their neighbours.

As an African immigrant, I tend to keep a low profile (borne of years of seeing the radioactive effect of carrying a Ghanaian passport which loudly advertises economic desperation). I can't imagine however looking vaguely middle-eastern or carrying a Saudi or Pakistani passport in America these days (or in the Russian context, being a Chechen woman). Chris Rock has a good bit about how it feels good to be black after September 11 because now there are others who were receiving worse treatment. It's twisted social commentary but it hits a truth that you can even be part of the establishment these days and worry (somewhat) less about things like 'driving while black'.

We all like to watch train wrecks but this society actively celebrates ambulance chasers (viz. the rise of reality TV). The problem is that train wrecks these days don't only come in the form of O.J. Simpson or Michael Jackson. These days it's a matter of beheadings, hostage taking and torture (of the Rumsfeld-Cambone nudge-nudge wink-wink variety or even of the official policy kind). And all of this captured on tape as Susan Sontag has noted (Regarding the Pain of Others).

I wasn't alive during the height of the Cold War paranoia in the 50s and 60s but I feel a similar paranoia reigning today. There's a distinct chill in the air even in soi-disant "liberal" Massachusetts. A puritanical streak and self-righteous hurt will of course lead to witch hunts and here the overbearing John Ashcroft looms large on the discourse. My impressions of the hysteria of McCarthyism are informed the arts, plays like Arthur Miller's Crucible or films like The Front. In this sense the remake of The Manchurian Candidate is timely reminder of paranoia as is a movie like Dogville on Puritanism, even if so didactic and stylized.

I suppose all this is a pointer to a foundational shock to the American psyche. America is a huge country dominant in so many ways but one gets the sense of a fragile cultural fabric, easily traumatized by a short history. And yet the solipsism borne of wounded pride is a little jarring. It's an insular and personalized defiance that one can't counter with european-like sophistication that terrorism is nothing new. Sighing wearily that that I've lived through the depredations of the IRA is of no consolation in fact it's positively enervating. Nor are anecdotes about being stuck weekly on crowded trains in the London Underground for some security alert or the other. Security is a process and a nuisance but everyone should just got on with it. Instead there's an exceptionalism in the trauma: no one has ever been hurt more than us. In much the same way, I've seen people bristle about how nothing could compare to the Holocaust, not genocidal Cambodia, not low-budget but highly efficient bloodbaths in Rwanda.

Via Tom Engelhardt and Jonathan Schell, I note James Carroll's piece which gets to the language that we use. George Lakoff would likely have much to say about framing in the same vein.
After decades [following the A-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki] of implicitly waiting for the mushroom cloud to appear over the nation, we saw the clouds of ash rising from the World Trade Center as a version of that horror. As I heard the scholar John Dower observe, the use of the term 'Ground Zero' in New York is an unconscious appropriation of the authentic Ground Zeros in Japan. That is why 9/11 traumatized us out of all proportion to the scale of destruction, which, while tragic, was hardly world-historic.


As the proverb goes, when elephants fight it is the grass that gets trampled. Africa has long paid a price for being a battleground. Just ask Angolans what Jesse Helms' friend, that freedom-fighter, Jonas Savimbi has wrought. Latin Americans too know all about power imbalances. And to add to economic and ideological warfare, we are now prey to the theological nihilism of Al Qaeda. What had Kenya or even proto-socialist Tanzania ever done to deserve being waylaid by the 1998 US embassy bombings?

When I read a story titled Al-Qaeda tea brew hits Guinea, I sincerely hope that the locals are just doing good agitprop marketing and nothing more. You really don't want the US Army in your backyard as you're trying to get on with that messy business of rising from poverty. Nor do you want to be the combat ground, the soft target or the collateral roadkill. And that explains the alarm that I felt on my Christmas 2001 trip home when I saw that little girl running around Osu wearing the yellow Osama Bin Laden shirt. God help us. Thankfully I haven't seen more of that since but it's worth worrying about any residual currents. Development is hard enough that we know we can't afford Nigerian Taleban.

Africans are no strangers to social dislocation. In many ways upheaval is our close companion. The contours of my life and of many my age have been shaped by 3 coups d'états so it stands to reason that these I would reach to them to try to grapple with defining my unease. A slight detour then into personal memory...

A signal part of Rawlings' first coup in Ghana in 1979 was when the 8 generals and other senior officers were summarily tried in a kangaroo court, tied to the stake and executed by a firing squad of blood-thirsty junior officers. Memory being what it is, I can't recall if I watched the grainy broadcast or saw the photos of these poor men. What I do remember vividly was the tenor of the talk in the playgrounds in the ensuing weeks, the urban legend being about the colonel who refused to die and kept getting shot. Similarly, after the December 31st 1981 coup, at school children talked about some of the people who were being called up on radio to report to the army camp, Burma Camp, "with immediate effect" some of whom we knew would never make it back and many who returned broken.

And yet it was not the armed soldiers and tanks on the streets or the oppressive curfew that caused the dread and disquiet, it was rather the tone of the talk, something that hit very close to home. The French word, ricanement (roughly translated as snigger), comes the closest to encapsulating the mocking tone I heard in those voices: the sound of unfocused vengeance, score-settling, of larger violent forces wrecking havoc on lives.

In Ghana there's been a National Reconciliation Committee, which has just completed its look at the more egregious episodes we've faced in the hope of finding catharsis. My own submission to such a forum would not be about the upheaval in one's life, which after all was all too common, but rather a pointer to this great queasiness that returns in my thoughts. Of the worrying about friends and family and even those perfect strangers who would get caught up in the turmoil. Of the sheer waste, injustice and arbitrariness of it all.

In 1989 or maybe 1990, I recall heading to an acquaintance's house (he was Liberian, there were a number of Sierra Leoneans and Nigerians there) only to discover them watching the notorious video of the last hours of Samuel Doe, when Prince Johnson's militia did its worst. I walked out, why watch this? True Master Sergeant Doe was an ogre in the mould of Idi Amin, savage and ruthless (and a useful pawn during the Cold War) who similarly tortured his opponents. But what did all this bode? What did the circulation of these bootleg videos, passing from hand to hand from Liberia to London, bode? Think of the bazaars in Baghdad today?

And so it came to pass. Liberia and Sierra Leone have endured the most wrenching 15 years with more cruelty and viciousness than ever. In the grand annals of wickedness, people like Charles Taylor would have a lot to pay for (and of course Ghaddafi, who has sponsored almost every misadventure in Africa and elsewhere). Instead it's a comfortable exile...

I offer these anecdotes, and grasp onto the inchoate emotions they raised because they are close counterparts to my rising unease, accelerated as it is by this notion that such things are filmed, that depravity is such a commonplace that it can be entertainment or even motivational. And so when I think of a world of Abu Ghraib, I reach for Anthony Burgess and Stanley Kubrick's take on "A Clockwork Orange".

On War

I long for the War on Poverty but am confronted only with the War on Drugs and that new friend, the War on Terror. The creeping militarization of the US troubles me greatly. I personally prefer the police and I write this with wary trepidation of the living memory of the 41 bullets that lay Amadou Diallo down.

Armies everywhere are awful - just ask anyone living near about a army camp. Power and perversity are close cousins and combining youth, testosterone and guns is a dangerous thing. So the military is at its honourable best, a necessary evil, but is more often a coercive force (and in the case of modern Africa or Latin America, an entirely disastrous institution). And so the spread of this military and security industry is alarming. When I attend conferences, I see that a large proportion of the jobs in my field are targeting defense.

Artists from Homer to Hemingway via Wilfred Owen have long found prime material in considering war. I thought David O. Russell's Three Kings was a great take on the first Gulf War and highly relevant to this present Iraq excursion. It is in the same vein of Robert Altman's M*A*S*H and Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove and Coppola's Apocalype Now which considered earlier misadventures.

I've been reading the first part of Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honor trilogy, Men in Arms which is suitably trenchant in skewering English society in the Second World War shining a light on the conduct of war. It's a great novelistic examination of that blight on the last century. But it is a passage from his earlier savage satire, Vile Bodies (recently turned into a very good Stephen Fry film, Bright Young Things) that I turn to in thinking about these times of war. This was written in 1930 displaying a prescience about the coming war with Hitler and it could well stand in for much of the discourse of the past three years.
"And anyway, what do you mean by 'historical'?"
"Well, it's like this war that's coming... "
"What war?" said the Prime Minister sharply. "No one has said anything to me about a war. I really think I should have been told. I'll be damned," he said defiantly, "if they shall have a war without consulting me. What's a Cabinet for, if there's not more mutual confidence than that. What do they want a war for, anyway?"
"That's the whole point. No one talks about it, and no-one wants it. No one talks about it because no-one wants it. They're all afraid to breathe a word about it"
"Well, hang it all, if no one wants it, who's going to make them have it?"
"Wars don't start nowadays because people want them. We long for peace, and fill our newspapers with conferences about disarmament and arbitration, but there is a radical instability in our whole world-order, and soon we shall all be walking into the jaws of destruction again, protesting our pacific intentions."
"Well, you seem to know all about it," said Mr. Outrage, "and I think should have been told sooner."

On September 11th

The heavy hitters of American letters, Updike, Delillo, Mailer and now I suppose Phillip Roth, have all tried to grapple with September 11th but I'm left cold by their efforts. Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 is more vigourous but felt like a hammer where a scalpel was needed.

This has meant that so far Spike Lee's 25th Hour has been the best artistic response to that tragedy. The city of New York is itself a character in the film and, like all the other characters, is uneasy and walking wounded. This is the tenor of our time; the tragedy is mostly only obliquely referenced but its undercurrent is plainly evident. When Spike Lee has strong material (as when taking over from Scorsese and bringing Richard Price's tome of urban dysfunction Clockers to life) he is almost untouchable... of course then he follows up with She Hate Me...

On Violence

The Columbine massacre has been well covered by artists in documentaries like Bowling For Columbine, novels like Vernon God Little or even Gus Van Sant's Elephant. But I turn to City of God as perhaps the best recent commentary on violence and its effects - a panoramic film about young life in the favelas in Rio. Apart from being utterly compelling, extremely well-edited and controlled, it was a personal, yet Dickensian look at urban blight and the unruly life on the margins; news from a personal war, as it were.

On the war on drugs I turn to my favorite show The Wire a novelistic approach to the topic that deconstructs the city of Baltimore and all the various players, to that Channel 4 mini-series Traffik (along with its American remake Soderbergh's Traffic) and think of the mournful weight in Benicio Del Toro' and Don Cheadle's eyes. And I'd add the recent Maria Full of Grace humanizing the mules in the drug trade.

The Urban Griot Soundrack

The seventies saw a great flowering of the social commentary from the arts. In music this was spurred on by the rise of the album. Many took full advantage of the expanded freedom of that form and started a conversation full of call-and-response.

Marvin Gaye's entire What's Going On album is thus a focused meditation on his times and perhaps the best examination of that era, certainly my fondest. The story of his soldier brother returning from Vietnam and discovering mayhem in the social fabric: those Inner City Blues were enough to make you wanna holler Mercy, Mercy Me.

The Temptations jumped in and bluntly asked War, What is it Good For? Donny Hathaway too kept everyone honest and wondered about The Ghetto and the Voices Inside while hoping that Someday We'll All Be Free. Similarly Bobby Womack considered the broken windows Across 110th Street. The O'Jays wondered what people would do For The Love Of Money.

Curtis Mayfield too was a major part of the debate. A serious musician, his earlier work with The Impressions was the soundtrack to a forceful civil rights movement: People Get Ready was essential in this respect (and served to inspire the Bob Marleys of this world). As he grew as an artist, he couldn't fail to comment on the ills of his time. In SuperFly, he wanted his music to stand as a counterpoint to what was displaying on the blaxploitation screen. I'm Your Pusher is a commentary on a problem not a glorification of the dealer. Or consider songs from the essential Curtis (Live) album like We're a Winner where everyone is 'moving on up' and the admonitions to "keep on pushing", the ironic (Don't Worry) If There's A Hell Below We're All Gonna Go, Stone Junkie (about escaping from reality through drugs) or even the sublime We the People(who are darker than blue)
We People Who Are Darker Than Blue
Are We Gonna Stand Around This Town And Let What Others Say Come True
We're Just Good For Nothing, They All Figure
A Boyish Grown Up Shiftless Jigger
Now We Can't Hardly Stand For That
Or Is That Really Where It's At?
James Brown too knew that it was Hell, and that King Heroin reigned. Truth be told though, Soul Brother Number One was more interested in getting on the good foot than on being a generation's conscience. He had to be prodded into making "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" and was happy to campaign for Nixon and even to sing at Nixon's inauguration. This juxtaposition with the likes of Spiro Agnew still confounds me when I think about him.

Gil Scott-Heron who has maintained his stance as the angry young man to this day claimed The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and asked with mournful indignation Who'll Pay Reparations On My Soul? Later on he considered the effects of drugs in tracks like Angel Dust and more generally his society, see Winter in America.

But it isn't all bleak. Stevie Wonder's Songs In The Key Of Life is all exuberance. The double album, set a decade after the civil rights gains, is an affirmative celebration of all the facets of his times. Of course, he didn't realize that it was an interregnum, that the reality would be more like the one he painted in Living For the City five year's earlier in Innervisions.

Similarly Chic talking about the Good Times in a contemporaneous disco era were only fooling themselves. Carter's malaise was well-founded since for African-Americans the coming years were of the Reagan Retrenchment and the Crack epidemic. A comedian like Dave Chappelle nevertheless proudly mines that legacy today.

And what of the more recent music? Responding to September 11th, I like Meshell NdegeOcello's Forgiveness and Love more for the feeling in music than any real lyrical insight. The DJ Shadow/Zack De La Rocha collaboration March of Death was similarly topical, and had a grinding and dirty industrial backbeat that would have made the Bomb Squad proud. Antibalas also pose the question: Who is this America Dem Speak Of Today? from the Afrobeat context.

One strain in hip-hop, outside the braggadocio, lyrical gymnastics and beat mining is that pose of representing the streets, of realism, of being the social barometer for what is going down. That's why Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets are often mentioned as important precursors to say Grandmaster Flash's The Message or Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation to Hold Us Back. Rappers like KRS-One, Ice Cube, Rakim and N.W.A. among others would claim to be the CNN of the ghetto. And so there a multitude of hip hop artists jostling over this throne but I discount most of them - deep down, most just really want to party and that's fair enough. We can use some groove in these days.

I'll skip the brouhaha over Eminem's latest screed and just mention two recent songs both titled Why? that are among the hip-hop generation contribution to this debate. The first by Jadakiss and Anthony Hamiltonwas percolating in the charts all summer. Jadakiss is not my kind of thing as a rapper (and it struck me as simplistic Bush-bashing as inane as say Puff Daddy's Vote or Die stance) but the song (especially the remix with Common, a more 'conscious' artist) proved to be very popular, put people on the dancefloor and did, in fact, foster some contemplation. The second Why is more thoughtful and articulate given the source; it closed out The Root's Tipping Point album. They acknowledged it in their liner notes as a gesture towards creating their own What's Going On to serve as a poignant commentary on this Dubya era and it works well in that respect.

And so I'll end this by commenting on the song that for me best exemplifies the artist responding to his times and managing to capturing it all, Prince's Sign 'O' The Times. The lyrics depict headlines from a week or even a precise day in the late 80s but they still they resonate today in their depiction of social dislocation. The musical arrangement of song itself is very spare: Lynn drum, bass, quiet fills of rhythm guitar. Buried in the mix is an emotional guitar solo that gets me every time I listen to it. A few lyrics:
In France A Skinny Man Died
Of A Big Disease With A Little Name
By Chance His Girlfriend Came Across A Needle
And Soon She Did The Same
At Home There Are Seventeen-Year-Old Boys
And Their Idea Of Fun
Is Being In A Gang Called The Disciples,
High On Crack, And Totin' A Machine Gun.
Time, Time

Hurricane Annie Ripped The Ceiling Off A Church
And Killed Everyone Inside
U Turn On The Telly
And Every Other Story Is Tellin' U Somebody Died
Sister Killed Her Baby
Cuz She Could Afford 2 Feed It And
We're Sending People 2 The Moon
In September My Cousin Tried Reefer 4 The Very First Time
Now He's Doing Horse, It's June.
Times, Times.

It's Silly, No?
When A Rocket Ship Explodes
And Everybody Still Wants 2 Fly
Some Say A Man Ain't Happy
Unless A Man Truly Dies
Oh Why?
Time, Time.
This line about "Some Say A Man Ain't Happy Unless a Man Truly Dies. Oh Why?" has been my personal soundtrack for the past few months. Still, I like the way he ends the song: it isn't all doom and gloom, life carries on.
Sign O' The Times,
Mess With Your Mind,
Hurry Before It's 2 Late
Let's Fall In Love,
Get Married, Have A Baby
We'll Call Him Nate (If It's A Boy)
So I try to just get on with it, to get back to work.
It's just a song, it's just a book, it's just another movie.

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.
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