Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

For Earth Day: The Story of Van Dyke Parks & The Esso Trinidad Steel Band

For Earth Day, I invite you to read the story of how composer and arranger Van Dyke Parks came to produce the 16-man steel pan band,  Esso Trinidad, following the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969. Thanks and congratulations to both Parks and Esso: Not only is their album a foundational contribution to the catalog of music that matters to the earth, the post you will be directed to is the number one most-read on this site, receiving daily views. Thanks for your readership and if you are able, please do something today as a steward of the ground beneath our feet (Mr. Parks suggests planting milkweed, to save the Monarch butterflies).

When 80,000 barrels of oil spilled into the waters of the Santa Barbara Channel in January of 1969, the crude-splattered water, beaches, and birds along the California coast in its aftermath became the symbols of modern eco-disaster. While the ensuing public outcry helped hasten the formalization of the environmental movement as we now know it, for musician Van Dyke Parks, the spill and “the revelation of ecology,” as he calls it, was a very personal, life-altering occasion. “It changed my M.O. and changed my very reason for being,” he says. The Union Oil rig rupture in Santa Barbara made Parks go calypso.

“When I saw the Esso Trinidad Steel Band, I saw myself in a Trojan Horse,” he says. “We were going to expose the oil industry. That’s what my agenda was. I felt it was absolutely essential.” From 1970 to 1975, Parks waged awareness of environmental and race matters through the music and culture of the West Indies, though in the end, “You don’t know whether to laugh or cry. That’s what makes Van Gogh go,” he says, “That’s what great art does.” Though Parks is referring directly to Esso Trinidad’s happy/sad steel drum sounds, he could just as easily be talking about his own experience during his Calypso Years. Read the full story here:

 

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Filed under: Arts and Culture, Bob Marley, Calypso, Civil Rights, cross cultural musical experimentation, Earth Day Music, Environmental Justice, Georgia, Harry Belafonte, Interview, Reggae, video, , , , , ,

For National Poetry and Jazz Appreciation Month: Gil Scott-Heron

April marks National Poetry Month and Jazz Appreciation Month. This month’s posts will attempt to shine a light on great moments and people in jazz and poetry history, specifically where the two forms meet and get real. Gil Scott-Heron is a timeless poet and performer who published poems and prose, in addition to performing songs on piano–often classified as jazz–but with an emphasis on words. Truth was, there were echoes of blues and gospel, rock’n’soul in his grooves, though if ever you go and seek his work in the record bins, cross-check the jazz or “miscellaneous” sections and you’re likely to find discs there. Come April 19, Record Store Day, there will actually be a new slab of wax in the stacks by Scott-Heron: Nothing New is a collection of stripped down tracks, recorded in 2005.  This sample cut, “Alien (Hold On To Your Dreams),” was originally released on the 1980 Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson album, 1980. Amazing how timely the song and its sentiments remain, though that is of course the nature of visionary poetry–and jazz. 

In 1970, Gil Scott-Heron was barely 21 when his first novel, The Vulture, was published and his startling, spoken-word record, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, caught his incisive cool on tape. “I consider myself neither poet, composer, or musician. These are merely tools used by sensitive men to carve out a piece of beauty or truth that they hope may lead to peace and salvation,” he wrote in the album’s liner notes. Accompanied only by conga drums and percussion, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox featured a reading of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, Scott-Heron’s most enduring work and an early masterpiece, its flow combining elements of both poetry and jazz.

“The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox

In four parts without commercial interruptions.”

Excoriating the media and marketing, the song’s structure burrowed its way into the collective consciousness of musicians—both mainstream and underground—and listeners alike; it is referenced throughout music, and rather un-ironically the title phrase has been repurposed to advertise consumer goods, from sneakers to television itself. The piece is also, of course, foundational to hip-hop, its words potent and direct, even if some of the allusions and references may be lost on those uneducated in ‘60s or ‘70s culture. It also sounds great, which explains why it’s a standard-bearer for all music, whether it be politicized rock’n’soul, funk or jazz. Pulsing throughout the piece is Scott-Heron’s projection, a foreshadowing of the realities of global connectivity and the pacifying effect on the brain produced by viewing from a small screen. Heron’s vision was a word to the wise:

“The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal…
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
thinner, because the revolution will not be televised.”

Positing a necessary parsing of media-generated “reality” from truth and setting his poem to music on his 1971 album, Pieces of a Man, Scott-Heron was caught in the chasm between jazz and soul, poetry and rock, and few knew just what to do with the new poet and big bass voice on the scene, though time would reveal his impact: As the years rolled by, this poet of vision would weigh in on matters environmental and racial, as well as political and social. Though Scott-Heron’s voice was too often a cry in wilderness, it served as a clarion for future generations of conscious writers and thinkers.

Born in Chicago April 1, 1949, Scott-Heron was raised in Tennessee by his grandmother until he and his single mother, a librarian, eventually moved north to New York City. As a teenager, he excelled at writing and earned enrollment at Fieldston, a progressive Ivy League preparatory school. Upon graduation, he chose to attend Lincoln University in Philadelphia, quite simply because it was the alma mater of poet Langston Hughes. As a musician, Scott-Heron’s style was conjoined with the word styles of Hughes, as well as those of talkers like Malcolm X and Huey Newton. But it was “musicians more than writers” who inspired him, and he used the rhythms of folk, blues, soul, and jazz to fulfill the intensity of his emotion. “Richie Havens—what he does with the images and themes, Coltrane—the time defiant nature and thrust of his work. Otis Redding—the way he sings lyrics so that they come through as sounds. You can really appreciate how close a saxophone is to the human voice when you hear Otis singing. I sometimes write poetry, in a way, like Otis sings. The sounds form shapes. Like clouds banging into each other. That’s how I get loud sounds in my poetry,” said Scott-Heron to Jazz and Pop‘s Nat Hentoff.

Read: More on Gil Scott-Heron in Keep on Pushing.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, cross cultural musical experimentation, Earth Day Music, Environmental Justice, Gil Scott-Heron, Immigration Reform, Poetry, Protest Songs, vinyl, , , , , , ,

History: Rosa Parks Born Today

February 4 is the birthday of Rosa Parks, the civil rights activist remembered for refusing to move to the back of the bus: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, in the name of the desegregating public transit, was organized immediately following her arrest on December 1, 1955.

Born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1913, Parks was a student of non-violent protest, an active member of her local chapter of the NAACP in Montgomery and a great admirer of both Dr. King and Malcolm X; her refusal to move on the bus that day was not part of any kind of group action or occupation—she held her seat on her own steam. And yet far from receiving any heroine’s awards, Parks paid the price for asserting her right to ride: In the immediate aftermath of the desegregation effort, she could no longer find work in Montgomery.  She and her husband Raymond moved north, eventually settling in Detroit where she worked the better part of her life as a secretary for US Representative John Conyers.

Parks would one day receive the highest honors in the land– from the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal (Harry Belafonte was honored in 2013), to the Presidential Medal of Freedom (awarded to her by President Bill Clinton) and the Congressional Gold Medal.  And if you dared to mess with the Mother of the Modern Day Civil Rights Movement and her legacy in a movie or a song, look out:  Parks was known for slapping down artists with legal actions and launching her own boycotts against them. But there was one song that met Ms. Parks’ high standards: “Sister Rosa,” a tribute to her by New Orleanians the Neville Brothers, appeared on their 1989 album, Yellow Moon.  Produced by Daniel Lanois, and accompanied by The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Brian Eno for the sessions, Yellow Moon is an exceptional record, even by the Nevilles’ own high standard: Produced by Daniel Lanois, the band transforms two Bob Dylan songs (“With God On Our Side,” “The Ballad of Hollis Brown”), the Carter Family classic “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” Sam Cooke’s civil rights anthem, “A Change is Gonna Come,” and Link Wray’s “Fire and Brimstone” (title self-explanatory, taken from the guitarist’s obscure and brilliant 1971 album). Standing alongside the Neville Brothers’ bayou-fired originals, “Sister Rosa” is their attempt at rap.

Parks passed in 2005, though matters of her personal estate have not been resolved and her detailed personal archive has not yet found a permanent home.  She would’ve been 101 this year.  For more information on Rosa Parks, visit the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute.

Filed under: Civil Rights, cross cultural musical experimentation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Freedom Now, Hip Hop, Malcolm X, Never Forget, Uncategorized, video, , , ,

Rest in Power, Amiri Baraka

Nobody sings anymore.

And then last night, I tiptoed upamiribw

To my daughter’s room and heard her

Talking to someone, and when I opened

The door, there was no one there …

Only she on her knees, peeking into

Her own clasped hands.

-LeRoi Jones, excerpt from Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note… 1961

“Never settle for the given.  What is it that hasn’t been mentioned? What is beyond that?” These are the words of activist, actor, poet, playwright, director, and music critic Amiri Baraka. He passed today in Newark, NJ at the age of 79.  “Art is supposed to unlock you, make the world more available to you,” he said.  It was the way he felt when he heard Thelonious Monk for the first time. I heard Baraka speak at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles two years ago this month,  in conversation with his daughter, Kellie Jones, curator of the wildly successful exhibit, Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960—1980, discussing art and family, though the conversation inevitably turned to Baraka’s recurrent theme, surviving America. “Do you understand the world?…What do you think?… What is important to you?…What is it you want to say?…How do you say what the world is?…How do you tell us who lives on this planet?…How do you make something speak to the world?…” These are the questions he asked of himself and of other artists, for over 50 years.

Born Everett Leroy Jones in 1934 in Newark, NJ, where he lived until the end, he changed his name to LeRoi and chronicled the birth of free jazz as a journalist; he wrote an Obie award-winning play, The Dutchman, and he is the author of Blues People, one of the first books to make connections between music and social history. Equally informed by the poetry of Langston Hughes, the politics of Malcolm X and the Black Mountain College poets, Allen Ginsberg and the Beat movement, in the mid-‘60s, Baraka founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School (BARTS) in Harlem which contributed to the development of a new, unapologetically black style of writing, its creation dovetailing with the Black Power movement’s cultural agenda. By the late ’60s he’d changed his name to Baraka; his album It’s Nation Time—African Visionary Music, for Motown’s Black Forum label, features his Black Nationalist poetry set to music.

Stirring it up for 50 years, in 2002, Baraka was named Poet Laureate of New Jersey and of the Newark Public Schools amidst controversy over his poem, “Somebody Blew Up America” (who? who?  who?). That same year, The Roots accompanied him on “Something in the Way of Things (In Town),” on their album, Phrenology. Condolences to the surviving members of the Jones and Baraka families.

(More on Amiri Baraka, the Black Arts Movement, and his connections to music, from blues to hip hop in Keep on Pushing) 

Filed under: Book news, Books, cross cultural musical experimentation, Jazz, Obituary, , ,

“Five to One” Again

(Preview of the book,  Shaman’s Blues: The Art and Influences Behind Jim Morrison and the Doors, by Denise Sullivan, coming soon)

“Five to One,” was the outgrowth of a philosophical conversation among enthusiastic film students Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, and their friend Alain Ronay. Though it remains a lyric that was never fully explicated by Morrison for the record, the original conversation among student artists reportedly concerned a generation at odds with the established order at the height of the Vietnam era (“they got the guns but we got the numbers”). Driven by drummer John Densmore’s strict timing, there is a tension evoked as Morrison explodes into rebellious nuggets of truth— “Trading your hours for a handful of dimes”—blowing holes in the bubble once known as the American Dream. The song is also the source of the epigraphic phrase that would go on to be associated with Morrison and the Doors for all time: “No one here gets out alive.”

Morrison’s  twist on the subject of power, his credibility as an outlaw street poet, and the Doors’ deep grooves would eventually weave their ways into the rebel music of the next generation and beyond, from punk rock  to hip hop. Like Morrison at his finest, hip hop artists tell stories, some real, others fantastical, born from urban legend and rooted in folk and oral tradition. Hip hop’s more conscious artists seek to shine a light on societal ills, and work toward changing and correcting them; many have paid a price for their points of view by becoming ostracized from the mainstream or hunted by law enforcement. Like the bluesmen and rebel poets before him, Morrison shall remain a touchstone for the  those who work in the tradition of prophetic and poetic verse, though his impact on hip hop, remains largely overlooked and under-explored.

The Cactus Album by 3rd Bass was an early example of the Doors’ embrace by hip hop artists (samples of “Peace Frog” and An American Prayer were used for its Bomb Squad-produced tracks in 1989). Since that early appropriation, DJs, producers, and emcees continue to pay homage with samples, mash-ups, and even covers (Snoop Dogg played with “dog without a bone,” in his own “Riders on the Storm”); there would likely be even more were the Doors not extremely protective of its legacy and cautious of approving tracks. “I’m the main spoiler in that area,” admits Densmore. He was however, willing to make a big exception.

In 2001, the Doors’ music made a massive leap into hip hop consciousness when producer Kanye West pulled a sample of “Five to One” to create the music bed for “Takeover” by Jay-Z. Conceived as a dis of fellow rapper Nas, “Takeover” launched a rap battle royale and series of answer songs and copycat tracks. “He sent me…a letter, explaining how what they were trying to do was what we were trying to do in the ‘60s, talk about social change, and I went, ‘Wow, and I got educated,” said Densmore who has done his best to maintain the integrity of the Doors’ catalog by holding out on commercial uses.

“You know a long time ago, Jim Morrison kinda blew up at us, because we were considering, “C’mon Buick, light my fire.’…Because the dough looked good and we were young,” he recalled.  “Jim didn’t primarily write that song, and I thought God, he cares about the catalog, what we represent in general, the whole thing. And he’s dead. And I’m not. So I’m not gonna forget that.”

Jim Morrison died on July 3, 1970 in Paris, France. Largely estranged from his bandmates, family and friends who were in the midst of the US Fourth of July weekend, final arrangements for his burial at the Père Lachaise  Cemetary were postponed until July 7.

Filed under: anti-war, Blues, cross cultural musical experimentation, France, Hip Hop, , , , ,

Cambio: He, Too, Sings America

Cambio’s album title,  I, Too, Sing America caught my eye for being named after a Langston Hughes poem (his answer to Walt Whitman’s work, “I Hear America Singing”). Cambio’s music caught my ear, too, thanks to his talk with Ignacio Palmieri on KPOO last week.  With allusions to illusions, references to referendums, and tracks built on layers upon sound bites, scratch noises, and clips of speeches, Cambio’s point of view is progressive to the max, and that powerful voice is at the center of the mix.

Californian by birth, Latino by descent, Cambio is from Watsonville while belonging to Quilombo Arte,  the international collective of artists, writers and musicians spearheaded by Mexico’s Bocafloja,  committed to breaking down barriers and to emancipation for all people.

As a Latino influenced by hip hop, a young man in love with basketball and a speaker of “broken Spanish,” Cambio described himself as “having issues within his own community.” It was through becoming educated and learning the stories of colonization that he began to seek and  find his place in the world as an artist. Beginning to record and perform locally, it was by chance that Bocafloja heard Cambio’s recordings and reached out to him.  Though he records in English, Cambio has since found an audience for his music in Mexico and throughout Latin America.

An earlier album,  Or Does It Explode?, also has a title borrowed from a Hughes poem (“A Dream Deferred”); a newer project, Underground Railroad, of course refers to the network built from slavery to freedom. History, poetry, social movement and music are among the themes in Cambio’s work:  One minute he’ll borrow from Malcolm X, Fred Hampton or Che Guevara, the next from Nina Simone or Bob Dylan. Here’s  “Eyes Wander,” featuring Favi and DJ Ethos.

There is so much to like about Cambio, so much more to learn and know, but the music speaks volumes on its own. Listen for yourself on his Bandcamp page.  You may also hear the archived broadcast (scroll down) of the show I heard. I encourage you to listen and support cambio: Positive hip hop is marginalized and Cambio’s is a voice that if given a proper hearing could resound all over this land.  He, too, sings America.

The following clip features the voice of Langston Hughes reading from the poem that started it all.

Filed under: Bob Dylan, cross cultural musical experimentation, Hip Hop, Immigration Reform, Latino culture, Malcolm X, Mexican American/Latino Rock, Poetry, Protest Songs, , , , , ,

Punky Reggae Party Revisited

images“Anybody’s who’s meant to get it, gets it, and those who don’t, they never will,” says Don Letts. The filmmaker and musician is talking about the ways in which the rhythms of Africa have a habit of turning up in popular music from around the globe, most noticeably these days in the work of Vampire Weekend and Animal Collective. But Letts could just as easily be commenting on his own career as a DJ, writer, and member of the Clash posse, or as an accidental pioneer of sampling as a member of Big Audio Dynamite, the Mick Jones-led Clash sequel.

“Like a lot of great ideas, these things are stumbled upon rather than by design,” he says, somewhat understatedly. But when it comes right down to it, Letts’ life story reads like a series of 20th century music history flashpoints: From the time meeting with Bob Marley led to the Rastaman’s song “Punky Reggae Party”, to when, as a punk club DJ, he spun reggae when he ran out of punk discs (few existed at the time). “New wave/new phrase,” sang Marley. “Rejected by society / Treated with impunity / Protected by my dignity / I search for my reality / It’s a punky reggae party / And it’s all right.”

You might even say that without Letts’ point in the magic triangle, the resulting permanent alliance between the two major forms of rebel music might not have ever happened.

READ MY FULL INTERVIEW WITH DON LETTS HERE:

Filed under: cross cultural musical experimentation, film, Interview, Punk, Reggae, , ,

“Sister Rosa”

February 4 is the birthday of Rosa Parks, the civil rights activist remembered for refusing to move to the back of the bus: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, in the name of the desegregating public transit, was organized immediately following her arrest on December 1, 1955.

Born Rosa Louise McCauley in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1913, Parks was a student of non-violent protest and an active member of her local chapter of the NAACP in Montgomery, but her refusal to move on the bus that day was not part of any kind of group action or occupation—she held her seat on her own steam. And yet far from receiving any heroine’s awards, Parks paid the price for asserting her right to ride: In the immediate aftermath of the desegregation effort, she could no longer find work in Montgomery.  She and her husband Raymond moved north, eventually settling in Detroit where she worked the better part of her life as a secretary for US Representative John Conyers.

Parks would one day receive the highest honors in the land– from the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal (Harry Belafonte will be honored this year), to the Presidential Medal of Freedom (awarded to her by President Bill Clinton) and the Congressional Gold Medal.  But if you dared to mess with the Mother of the Modern Day Civil Rights Movement and her legacy in a movie or a song, look out:  Parks was liable to slap you with a legal action or a boycott. “Sister Rosa,” a tribute to her by New Orleanians, the Neville Brothers, appears to have passed the test (though atypically for the Nevilles, it’s a rap track, taken from their 1989 album, Yellow Moon).

Parks passed in 2005, though matters of her personal estate have not been resolved and her detailed personal archive has not yet found a permanent home.  She would’ve been 100 this year.  For more information on Rosa Parks, visit the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute.

Filed under: Civil Rights, cross cultural musical experimentation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Harry Belafonte, , , , , , , ,

Summertime Blues

Chuck D and Tjinder Singh consistently stick out their necks to make music that matters. Here are their summer jams: Two that will help keep cool, the old school/soul school.

“I Shall Not Be Moved” from the new Public Enemy album, Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp

and “Milkin’ It” featuring In Light of Aquarius, from the new Cornershop album, Urban Turban

Filed under: cross cultural musical experimentation, Hip Hop, Now Playing, , , ,

Song To Woody: “Paper Planes”

The following is an adaptation of a section from my book, Keep on Pushing. The passage concerns the legacy of protest music and American hero, Woody Guthrie.  The people’s singer was born in Okemah, Oklahoma in 1912 on July 14. This weekend, all over the world, people gather to sing-out,  in honor of his 100th birthday and centennial year.  

“Paper Planes,” M.I.A.’s irresistible and ubiquitous alternative hip-hop track from 2007-08 combines her riff on the lyrical threads of the Clash classic, “Straight to Hell”, as well as a sample of it, alongside her own insouciant rap style and insistent and poetic verses. Punctuated by percussive pop, pop, pops and ka-ching sounds, the songs roots roll deep—from British punk and black empowerment, to American topical protest, in the mode of Woody Guthrie. Five years later, Maya Aprulgasam’s “Paper Planes” endures as music with a pointed message, a high-tilt boogie down production taking in immigration reform, ongoing war, and economic disrepair, though at the time it was released, it was largely misunderstood.  It was also a hit record, the likes of which Woody Guthrie would not enjoy or ever know in his lifetime. But safe to say, he was the first contemporary singer to take on the dignity of the immigrant as the subject of a song: In 1948, Guthrie wrote “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).” It is performed here by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.

The song concerns the treatment of 28 migrant farm workers, their deportation, and accidental demise in a plane crash as they were being returned to Mexico from Central California. Guthrie was struck by the facts: The immigrants were not mentioned by name in news reports (the vitals on the American flight crew got full coverage) and they were buried in a mass, unmarked grave. He wrote the unidentified departed what started out as a poem: “Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita, adiós mis amigos, Jesús y María.” Ten years later, schoolteacher Martin Hoffman set it to music. Popularized by Pete Seeger, it is still sung and recorded, most famously by the Byrds, Joan Baez, Billy Bragg, and Bruce Springsteen. “Deportee” remains standing not only as a eulogy, but as a statement on the lack of rights and the poor conditions faced by immigrant farm workers to this day.
The Clash, and Joe Strummer in particular, were known the world over for covering the common man’s concerns, as well as the human cost of empire-building in song.  Opening her immigrant song with four bars of “Straight to Hell”, M.I.A. tells us where the song is going and what it’s about before singing a word. Among Strummer’s most celebrated lyrics, its verses are devoted to the plight of the dispossessed. Not exactly sung (perhaps inspired by his new friend, poet Allen Ginsberg, who sat in on the Combat Rock sessions), “Straight to Hell” is a song to the outsider. It signifies where she stands in so-called “polite society,” whether cast-off North of England or in Vietnam: It could be anywhere… any hemisphere… no man’s land and there ain’t no asylum here, in the words of Strummer, or as Guthrie plays it, They chased them like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.  
Guthrie’s Some of us are illegal, and others not wanted, ring out in Strummer’s … There ain’t no need for ya. Go straight to hell, boys…..  The Clashman said he wrote the song while staying at the Iroquois Hotel, a home away from home for workers on the road to rock and roll.

“‘Straight to Hell’ was one of our absolute masterpieces. But the band had to shatter after that record,” Strummer said. Success contributed to hardliners the Clash giving up the ghost, but what they lost, 25 years later, was found when London called again in the form of M.I.A.

Originally appearing on her 2007 album, Kala, “Paper Planes” pushed ahead in 2008 when it was featured in the trailer for the stoner movie, Pineapple Express, as well as in the musical montage sequence to Slumdog Millionaire (the latter film arguably introducing a portion of mass American audiences to the multi-dimensionality of India at the time of its emergence in the world economy). Downloads of “Paper Planes” soared and an uncensored video became a YouTube sensation; to date the single has sold over two million singles in the US and has topped countless best-of lists and polls, receiving more royalties and accolades than Woody Guthrie or even Joe Strummer ever saw. The artist said her song’s success surprised her; she reckoned few would ever hear it, given her indie status at the time of its recording. Though on her way to hitsville, the song took some hits and stuck in some craws; critics thought it thuggish and hard and found ways to put down the singer’s tone. And while Arulpragasam dubs it a satire, “Paper Planes” also fits the categories of protest or empowerment anthem, reclaiming racial stereotypes.

“I don’t think immigrants are that threatening to society at all,” she said.  “They’re just happy they’ve survived some war somewhere.”

As for the gunshots and cash register ring: “You can either apply it on a street level and go, ‘Oh, you’re talking about somebody robbing you and saying I’m going to take your money.’ But, really, it could be a much bigger idea: Someone’s selling you guns and making money. Selling weapons and the companies that manufacture guns—that’s probably the biggest moneymaker in the world.”

“Paper Planes” is commentary; an alternative point of view of the hardship of immigrant life and reconsideration of  stereotypes leveled at those arriving from the developing world.  When M.I.A. was put into the position of having to explain her song, the truth emerged in the light:  The majority of immigrants are hard-working people. Many recent arrivals from far off shores have second and third jobs, driving cabs, working in restaurants, supporting families at a distance, while living multi-generationally in cramped rooms. When they die, their lives often go unacknowledged, by strangers in a strange land.  That the M.I.A. song was ill-perceived speaks largely to the idea that there isn’t  much familiarity or empathy for the subject of immigrants in our land, in the media, or among what used to be called “the record buying public.”  It may also serve as an example of how unsung people and stories can be great motivators for songs and dialogues on a theme. Certainly the Guthrie, Strummer, and M.I.A. songs share a common message, and a common form, a heart-worn song.

Guthrie, Seeger and Paul Robeson were branded communist sympathizers and put out of work when they sang songs about forgotten people from other lands. Bob Dylan sang of the injustices met by the poor and black at home, though when he famously retreated from rigorous protest music, he was criticized and lost a portion of his audience in return for his trouble. He sang “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” and people hardly noticed it among the tracks on John Wesley Harding. When Bruce Springsteen sang “Born in the U.S.A.,” the story of a discarded veteran, he was almost universally misunderstood to be singing a patriotic song.  This business of protest music has been known to be a hassle and a bit tricky; and while on one hand its more potent and pointed songs often get relegated to the underground, occasionally a white-hot blast like “Born in the U.S.A.” or  “Paper Planes” strikes a chord with the mainstream, which is when there’s a chance for a real public discussion about it.  Further distinguishing “Paper Planes” from much of the music on the popular charts: There is something to discuss in its content.
The additional touch of a child’s chorus in M.I.A.’s song (“All I wanna do”) was a precedent set by another important artist with an anthem: James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

The depth of Brown’s message song catapulted him to a front seat in community leadership; M.I.A. has also become a symbol for young people of color, especially for women’s empowerment across the world, from the subcontinent, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, to Hollis Queens, and East LA. Surely that is a good thing, though there are those who have designated her work as dangerous as they did Brown’s; what these misguided souls seem not to get is that both James Brown and M.I.A. are artists.  Although M.I.A. hails from London, she was raised partly in Sri Lanka and in India by activist parents associated with the fight to liberate the Tamil region of their native country. Today, she makes her home in Brooklyn. Confusing? Not if you consider that Maya Arulpragasam, the person behind the artist M.I.A. is  a refugee from a war-torn country, looking for a home in this world. The spirit of Woody Guthrie is alive and well in her and in all artists who use their voices, guitars and pens to fight injustice where they see it, recording it in a song.

[post-publication, it occurred to me that there is an undeniable link binding “Paper Planes” to Althea and Donna’s 1978 UK hit, “Uptown Top Ranking,” but that’s an extrapolation that will have to wait for another occasion].

Filed under: anti-war, cross cultural musical experimentation, , , , , , ,

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