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Category Archives: barack obama

Solange, Smokey & Obama

Solange Knowles photo from DJ Wonder site

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.

1-31-09

 

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.

 

vote for Erykah?

I don’t know what to say…so 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.