Friday, January 30, 2009

Solange, Smokey & Obama

One of my favorite songs of 2008 was "I've Decided" by Solange (the much underappreciated younger sister of Beyonce) Knowles.

Weeks ago, while driving around in freezing Chicago, my sisters and I had the song on repeat, LOUD. It took me a minute to figure out why I liked the song so much. The Neptunes-produced single takes the most delicious, feet stomping part of The Supremes' "Baby Love" and loops it throughout.

Solange's song--as is evidenced by the video-- is very much of this moment, my generation (not sure what we're being called these days), searching for some kind of identity. Colorful and pastichey, the piece pays homage to all that is in this generation's cultural image-ination about the political culture of the Motown & beyond era. Quick flashes of raised-fisted Olympians from '68, Malcolm X, people being water-hosed, Rubik's cubes spinning, and the Berlin Wall falling appear amid Solange crooning and the stomping beat. To make meaning of the video is work, a student of mine complained.

There's a clear difference between the display of events being shown in the video for the Smokey Robinson & The Miracles' "Tears from a Clown."

Its three sequences reveal a clear narrative of the cultural turmoil and grief experienced by the moments/movements surrounding the JFK and MLK assasinations and the Vietnam War. "Smiling for the public eye," sings Smokey. "Don't let my glad expression give you the wrong impression." Very much a statement of the times--smiling outside but dying inside.

I was born in 1979, a decade plus after those assassinations and a few years post-Vietnam. Smack dab in the birth of hip-hop and advent of an extreme right-wing, fiercely developing global capitalist world (not unrelated phenomena in the least). The stylistic elements of Solange's song and video are telling, in that they represent how I and most of us under 30 understand the events of Smokey's song. The song's pulsating claps and the video's refusal to distinguish between cultural-poltical turmoil and social fads mute any sadness we might have even had.

It's all about that beat. Or not. At least, it shouldn't be. Not in this moment, the simultaneous 50th anniversary of Motown Records and the election of America's first black president. The final minute of Solange's video stands in abrupt contrast to the frenetic collage of iconic images of the past 40 years. Slower, more comtemplative and futuristic, its shades of blue-grays lets her imagine (at least in her love life), some other-world type sh*t. What will we do with the equally compelling and troubling elements of the world that we (and Obama) are inheriting?

What was most promising about Obama's candidacy, in fact, was the spark it produced in our populace, its positioning within the perfect storm of just enough right-wing ridiculousness, contradictions in capitalism, and technological savvy. What a unique political moment. The generation that will come of age in it ranges from being once or twice removed from Motown & Smokey, devoid of the grief of Smokey's "tears," yet with an existence and way of looking at the world that has been shaped, in part, by them.

It'll be critical that we, in our political activity, artistic endeavors, and social relationships, act in this world in a fashion that lets us appreciate the "best" parts of those old songs while keeping in mind the implications of the history and political moments that produced them.

And yeah, I'm gonna be bumping some Solange as we do so.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

i mean, i can't front on barack

Let's be clear about it; Barack Obama had my vote long before he made this brilliant speech:

I was stunned after reading only partial transcripts of it online. I instant message my ex-boyfriend, "Wow, did you see Barack hold it down?" Yes, he responds. "Barack 'killed' it." I call my Dad while walking to the train, "I loooove Barack Obama," I declared to him. "I love him too," he replied. "I heard the speech--I wept."

My dad does not cry (at least not often).

I sit on the train, dazed at something I haven't even seen yet. From the mini-world of iPod, I overhear an Indian man talking to a white man about a "speech." They both look impressed. I quickly remove my earphones and listen in, having them confirm what I instinctively know. If there were ever a critical speech about race, this was it.

I get home later that night and watch Jon Stewart (in what was probably in the top 3 of my all time favorite episodes of The Daily Show) make fun of Obama in his speech and then quip that "he talked to us about race like we were adults." Grown indeed.

I finally, physically watch it really early the next morning. A good friend has already emailed me the link. Lying in my bed, stomach down, I watch the YouTube version, trying to make it bigger. And within minutes, I cry.

I mean, I cry. For a lot of reasons, a lot of them. Some mixture of surprise, pride and relief. Someone honestly, honestly, addressing racism. And making sure that a lot of people would hear. In between tears, I think that maybe I don't care if he wins or not. I mean of course I care. But you know, if this is as far as he goes, if this speech ends up being the thing from the election season, then we're not doing too badly. But then, you know, Barack--no matter what the news reports, the Clinton Camp, or the latest polls try to demonstrate--is ahead in the delegate count. Bottom line.

He might be the next president.

You can't front on that.

But the tale's in tears. Let me tell you. A couple of days later, I talk on the phone with an old friend. He revels about how he "can't even tell what's real anymore", what with all the iPhones and the cell phones and the tv and the music and whatever else is about mediated contact. I reassure him that he's only laying out the foundation of what is media studies. And after recommending a few books, I tell him that the best I can do as someone who is fascinated and overwhelmed by media, is to allow media to enhance rather than replace my "real" life. Adding another layer to connections and make new things possible. If I can respond to media, emotionally.

Case in point--a black man, living in my hometown, running for president who gives a speech a few states away, making me cry about it a day later.

That's the kinda media I'm down with--can't front on it.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

to lauryn (another haiku)

'coz erykah badu's new album inevitably brings lauryn hill to the surface and we wonder if ms. hill will ever return for real.

and haikus are my lazy way to keep blogging. so ah hem, this is what i came up with:

girl, i'm so
sorry for what they
did to you.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

vote for Erykah?

I don't know what to many leaders to obey. But I was born on Saviour's Day, so I choose me...
--Erykah Badu, "Me" from the New Amerykah album

I raced to my local Target and along with lotion, toothpaste and an umbrella, I remember that today, Erykah Badu releases "New Amerykah", her first studio album in four years.

She sucked me in with "Honey", the first single, a loving,drawling sonic and visual (Chris Robinson, a long time music video director of hers never stops pleasing) ode to black music and independent record shops. I probably should have anticpated though, from the intensely dark and defiant cover art and album title, that "Honey" would be as sweet as it got.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. A political album in the way that only the oftentimes brilliant Badu can be comes right on time. Her album comes in the year where it is more likely than unlikely that our next president will be a white woman or a black man (John Stewart, this year's Oscars host, brilliantly quips that in the movies, when either of these groups are leading the country, the world is about to end). A new America indeed.

There's no shortage of stories that media makers have been able to produce about the potential Democratic nominees. There's no precedent for this. Pundits try to be nonchalant about this black man who raises millions in a month (okay, I sent in my $25 too) and gets more people out to vote than have in a long time. It's hard. The Village Voice and other outlets construct false divisions such as latte-labor to manage Obama and Clinton's respective bases.

Every now and then, someone remembers that a black female--that group of us who have something in common with both Democratic candidates--perspective could be useful. And true enough, Badu is no Angela Davis, Shirley Chisholm or Carol Moseley Braun, she certainly has her platform. Listening to her album, the most uneven and arguably compelling of all of them, I'm reminded of the freedoms she undoubtedly owns as an artist.

Actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith has observed that the line between politicians and actors is faint in that they are nearly equally interested in the "benefits of authenticity"--how real they can appear to the rest of us.

Dare I say that in a landscape where the political differences between Clinton and Obama are scant, what we're left to judge them on is appearance and delivery--their ability to communicate that they are the appropriate leaders of the "new" America potentially awaits us. While pundits try to wax about "issues," I consider the visceral differences in the demeanor of the two--Obama with his cool charisma and Hillary with her tough gal persona. Black man or white woman. Few would admit it openly, but I suspect that in this context, Obama might win because he seems genuinely relaxed about the mess that Bush will leave for him.

But genuineness-what's "real" can be relative. (Think the famous tune--Real, Compared to What?) So Obama scores points for being relaxed. But Clinton, who perpetually looks like she's always fighting an uphill battle (I mean, she is behind in delegates and all) exhibits a clear appeal to "working" Americans, who I suspect are reassured by someone who seems less idealistic and more about grit. Consider their campaign slogans--his hope/change rhetoric vs. her experience platform. My suspicion is that when the lights, cameras and tape recorders are off, they probably aren't as polarized as these positions would suggest.

I know one thing though--Obama had flashes of losing his cool (read, he momentarily stopped acting) when NBC's Tim Russert put him on the spot regarding Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan's support of him. What a tight space one must navigate in order to lead our country. Because if there was ever a loaded and complicated person or issue, it would be Farrakhan.

Ironically, Badu sings, "I salute you Farrakhan, 'coz you represent me." Is Farrakhan defined solely by his anti-Semitism? I don't know the answer. I agree with Obama--Farrakhan's anti-Semitism is completely out of pocket. Yet I know that he has a certain "I got your back" relationship with black folks, despite his frequently inflammatory positions. This, I believe, is the impetus behind him "representing" Badu. Which, of course, Obama could never have admitted, due to the inability of mass media and public to consider two things that appear contradictory both being true.

In the meantime, Obama racks up more victories and closes polling gaps (although this ends up being inconsequential really). Clinton holds it down in the big, traditionally democratic states. Pennsylvania, the last delegate-rich state is several campaign stops away. And I--as a woman, African-American, media producer and activist--have been enjoying the most exciting and fun political process of my twentysomething years. I can't wait to see who wins. And as I cross my fingers hoping to witness Obama and his family walking across the White House lawn, Badu remains central to my soundtrack.

As an artist who refuses to walk a tightrope, be neat or contained, she is quite reassuring. Her album is anything but crafted soundbites and slogans and the essence of lots of questions, uneven-ess, contradictions, problems and ultimately beauty. Probably more "real" than Clinton, Obama, or any politician, really, could ever hope to be. And, she won't be president.

But I tell you, I'd vote for her if I could.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

black girls in room 317 (a haiku)

showing their shiny
faces that have been touched by
love and vaseline.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

the rape of britney spears

That got your attention, didn’t it? I paused as I wrote it, looked it up to make sure I wasn’t completely far fetching this one, and indeed, saw that one of the definitions of rape is the “violent, destructive, or abuse treatment of something,” I realized that I am not off. Not in the least. I read it and thought, yep, that is what’s happening to Britney Spears, on the daily, for everyone to see. And because no one is fussing in the least about this (save for a “crazy” YouTube fan), we’re all complicit and participating.

Of course, I am not supposed to care about this. Though Britney and I are both twenty something year old women, I am black, poorer college educated and an artist. Those first two commonalities—age and gender—however, are enough to keep me interested in what happens to her.

I think of her partly because she’s been thrust in my face, whether I want to see her or not. And anytime I can awarely tell that I’m being inundated with any kind of image (or image of a person), I start wondering.

Strange how 2007 has spelled the demoralization of Spears, against a specific landscape of young, rich, blonde haired (Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Richie, Paris Hilton, and lets throw in Anna Nicole Smith who is older than them but significant all the same) white women. Though they have all had exhaustive on-screen and on print time this year, Spears eclipses them all as her fall from pop “icon” graces, fall from sanity, and fall from mothering have been well scrutinized.

Though there have been equally important mediated events regarding black women, in this one week, no less (Anucha Browne Sanders victory over Isaiah Thomas and Madison Square Garden in the sexual harassment trial, the tragic death of Nailah Franklin, a younger black professional woman from my hometown that got perhaps more press than any other missing black woman prior to), I turn to Britney. It feels odd. Because, again, I am not supposed to care.

Comic Sarah Silverman jokes that at 25, Spears has accomplished everything she’s going to accomplish in life. That her demise has garnered interest and reaction from so many makes me wonder if there could ever be anything political to get people this up in arms. Then again, there is something quintessentially political about how she has been treated.

Classic media critique arguments offer that there is as much to learn from what is given the lion’s share of attention from what is not. Perhaps there are countless other events that are wilder craizer and stupider than anyone could ever project or imagine Britney to be—the current health care, educational and military systems immediately come to mind.

You get the feeling that she’s being positioned as, made an example of what you’re not supposed to be (Think of how Jerry Springer’s immensely popular talk show became a site for us to look down on poor/working class peoples). Fat, classless, poor mother, wild, pop tart, crazy, stupid—all signifiers that have either been outwardly said or implied about Spears. Yikes.

Being young and female have not simply made her fair game to be regularly picked apart, they have determined the tone in which it has happened. It’s been quite harsh—when she performs, her body is up for debate. When she does illogical things as a parent, she’s questioned. She cuts her hair and her mental health is questioned. Most of us can’t have a “serious” discussion about her because the mere idea of her is considered silly. A spectacle indeed.

It is not to say that she hasn’t actively participated in this spectacle—clearly, she’s repeatedly made decisions that, in part, have added ignition to her public demise. No, the partying, drinking and drug use probably weren’t wise decisions. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a teen or twenty-something who doesn’t face these same issues, directly or indirectly, as a part of their newly adult lives.

In the same way that professional athletes are simultaneously loved and hated for their entertainment functions and how much they get paid to entertain us, people “hate” Britney now. As if her money should somehow buffer her from these things that frame the rest of our daily, average lives.

In a remarkable blurb in the NY Daily News (10/4/07), was quoted as having analyzed six months of celebrity magazine covers (Us Weekly, Star, etc.) on which Spears appeared on 18. While Jennifer Aniston (another younger, rich and famous blonde white woman)’s face gracing the cover of the mags boosted sales to 5 million copies, apparently Spears causes sales to slump. That this is even the focus of the article speaks volumes about the sort of scrutiny and expectation toward young, blonde women that is acceptable. Would we ever hold any male celebrity to this particular type of scrutiny?

As a black female, I’ve always been somewhat aware of society’s odd, historical relationship with young, blonde, white women. But Britney’s recent travails make it impossible not to notice that there’s something off here. It makes me uncomfortable.

Suddenly, the literal and figurative deaths of Marilyn Monroe, Jon Benet Ramsey, and Anna Nicole Smith make sense. Though the particulars of their lives and deaths vary, in many ways, they were marked as soon as they were born white, blonde and female.

I don’t know that it’s extreme to say that the pop culture machine is “raping” Britney. But as my mom says, “You gotta call a spade a spade.” True, she is being picked apart and dissected because she is a rich celebrity. But the way in which it’s happening is because she is young and female.

And that we simply sit and watch doesn’t help.

tokumbo bodunde

(I played the professor card and made my Racism & Sexism students read it in class)

Friday, April 13, 2007

black girls face: r. kelly (preview)

about one year ago, i completed the film i had always wanted to see but got tired of waiting for someone else to make. here's some snippets of it:

i purposely included the black female subjects of this documentary trying to figure things out and make meaning while they spoke. that's real to me. in watching a nation and media obsess about an older white man's remarks about younger black women, i realized that when racism and sexism are the topics, we are allowed very little space to just think and express something outside of guilt and resentment (white folks) or anger and resolve (black folks). anything outside of these emotions exceed the limits of mass media, particularly tv.

the issues underpinning the imus drama can't be resolved or even fully understood in mainstream media, mostly because mainstream media thrive mostly off of eruptions--events that ultimately become spectacles that inundate more than they inform. as far as imus went, i found myself as interested in how the story was reported on as much as the story itself.

one of the most frustrating things is the continued insistence of mainstream media to rely on perspectives from black folks who are older and/or male. to refer to al sharpton at every eruption is almost as offensive as the eruptions themselves. another reality that keeps becoming more and more clear is that if a white man is the perpetrator (imus) or accused perpetrator (duke guys) and the target(s) is black and female, the problem is consider a "racially explosive" issue and is quickly addressed. but if the perpetrator is a black man, its like the infraction didn't happen.

and i am talking about r. kelly. it's going on 5 years since he's been charged with child pornography--younger black females as the targets--and he has not seen a trial. i quietly bring and re-bring this up, not because i have a vested interest in seeing r. kelly being admonished in the same ways that imus was (as an aside, i'm not convinced firing him was necessary). it's more because as a young black woman, i care about what's being implied in all these eruptions, particularly when they have to do with my peers.

rather than glamorize what's being implied, i'll just tell you my goals for the documentary--they are purposely the opposite of what all these eruptions suggest.

show our faces,
show us being vulnerable and pensive,
show us processing,
show us as female.

then we can draw some more appropriate conclusions about black girls and women.

tokumbo bodunde