… My heart’s in Accra Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

May 6, 2009

Slingshot Hip-hop, and the power of digital Palestine

Filed under: Developing world,Human Rights,ideas,Media — Ethan @ 3:49 pm

Monday night, Rachel and I went to our local movie theatre to watch “Slingshot Hip-Hop“, a documentary on Palestinian hiphop by Palestinian/Syrian/American filmmaker Jackie Reem Salloum. It’s the sort of film where 83 minutes of cinema can lead towards several hours of intense (and perhaps heated) conversation. The film’s stars are a set of Palestinian hiphop crews, including DAM (Da’ Arabian MCs) who are based in Lod, a suburb of Tel Aviv, and PR (The Palestinian Rapperz) who are based in Gaza. The film traces the lifecycle of each crew, the inspirations behind their music, their struggles to be heard and accepted, and their quest to play a show together.


Trailer for “Slingshot Hip-hop” by Jackie Reem Salloum

This aspiration – a DAM/PR joint concert – provides the dramatic structure for the film. It’s extremely difficult for “’48 Palestinians” – Palestinians living within Israel – and “’67 Palestinians” – Palestinians living within the West Bank or Gaza – to travel and visit one another. The struggles the two crews go through are a powerful illustration of the circumscribed lifestyle Gazans in particular are living, confined to a small, crowded, tightly controlled territory, and the difficulties of creating a coherent national identity in a “Palestine” that’s split between two disconnected territories and a diaspora.


“Born Here” by DAM

Rachel offers a helpful review of the film, as well as reflections on what is and isn’t covered in the narrative presented. As someone deeply committed to Israeli/Palestinian dialog, she’s a little disappointed that the film didn’t look at spaces – like Hip Hop Sulha – where the Israeli and Palestinian rap communities have been able to come together, connecting on stage.

As someone obsessed with the idea of “connection”, what I found most interesting about the film was the ways in which the kids in these two marginal neighborhoods found ways to connect with each other and with broader hiphop culture. An early scene shows DAM in the bedroom of one of the members in Lod. A set of exterior shots makes it clear that Lod can feel more like a developing nation than a suburb of Israel’s glossiest city. But the DAM boys have an excellent CD collection, featuring the hits of political hiphop, from Public Enemy to Talib Kweli, by way of Tupac. Their early rhymes, showed in enthusiastic but embarrasing footage, are highly derivative gansta rap… ten years later, they’re sharp political statements, which one member of the crew describes as 30% Public Enemy, 30% Palestinian authors like Edward Said and 40% the streets of Lod. The DAM boys are tightly connected to parallel communities – Palestinian intellectuals, and American political hiphop – even though they’re physically distant from many of the conversations.

(A side note: It’s interesting to rethink some of the rhetoric of late 1980s hiphop in regards to these Palestinian rappers. Public Enemy’s lyrics made it clear that Chuck D saw America as a war zone with black Americans targeted by the white majority. I heard those lyrics as poetic, not literal, part of the same atmosphere produced by the air raid sirens that punctuated live PE shows – songs like “Don’t Believe the Hype” seemed to caution against taking PE’s lyrics too literally. But the same phrases in the mouths of Palestinian rappers, especially those in Gaza, have a very different resonance. Parts of New York City may have felt like a war zone when PE was spitting tracks, but the same lyrics sound very different in a literal war zone.)

The internet is a major reason why these connections are possible. In discussing DAM’s first hit, the filmmaker doesn’t talk about record sales, but about “over a million downloads”. In interviews in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel, all the kids talk about discovering Arabic rap online and downloading as much as they could. Every shot of a rapper’s bedroom features a computer, usually a beat-up tower lying on its side, case off, innards cooled by a room fan. The computers are where rappers make or find beats, record tracks, and send their music out to the masses.

Despite my obsession with digital connection, it took my breath away when the filmmakers made it possible for PR and DAM to connect for the first time… via mobile phone. Salloum and her crew filmed PR’s first public show at the Red Crescent Society in Gaza, and brought the footage to show Palestinian rappers in Israel. We see the members of DAM call the PR crew on their mobile phones and congratulate them on a great first show. Abeer, a Palestinian rapper and R&B singer, gives one of the PR guys her IM handle, and we watch him blush beet red on the other end of the phone in Gaza.

I’ve written a bit about the ways in which the Internet can create a virtual nation that maps only partially onto a physical nation. When Kenya exploded in violent protest after the 2007 elections, a virtual Kenya, including Kenyans in South Africa, the UK and America, as well as those in the physical nation, sprang into action, building efforts to counter the violence.

From Birmingham, Alabama David Kobie decided to disable the increasingly tense Mashada forum and put up I Have No Tribe in its place, urging Kenyans to confirm that their national identity was more important that tribal tensions. Kenyans used services like Mama Mike’s to send phone minutes, petrol and food aid home – and bloggers like Juliana Rotich rode shotgun on the resulting aid convoys, documenting the distribution of food aid to those who needed it. Shuttling between the US and Kenya, Binyavanga Wainaina penned “No Country for Old Hatreds“, a plea in the New York Times to understand the Kenyan conflict as a political, not ethnic one. And a team of Kenyans in Eldoret, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Alabama and Florida came together to build Ushahidi, a platform to document Kenyan violence, which has gone on to be a popular platform for distributed reporting now in use around the world.

Digital Kenya is bigger than physical Kenya – it includes expatriate Kenyans and people who love the nation, even if they’re not Kenyan. So I wasn’t surprised by the existence of a digital Palestine… but I was blown away by the realization that digital Palestine exists in part because it’s impossible to exist in physical Palestine. The guys from DAM dismiss the idea of travelling to Gaza to give a concert as being roughly as fanciful as planning a concert on Venus – the difficulty PR has in leading Gaza to travel to the West Bank appears to confirm their skepticism. This virtual, digital Palestine beats no common ground at all, as far as the rappers are concerned – it lets them follow each other’s work and cheer each other’s successes – but the longing on both sides to connect in person feels almost Shakesperian. My guess is that Romeo and Juliet wouldn’t have been content IM’ing each other, and the separation between DAM and PR becomes yet another factor fueling the anger and passion that infuses much of the men’s work.

I wish there were some way to make “Slingshot Hip-Hop” required watching for aspiring MCs around the world. There’s a lot of guys out there who’ve got a lot of style but not much to say. You may find what DAM, PR and the others have to say uncomfortable or inspiring, but you can’t say that they’re talking a lot and saying nothing.


I wrote an earlier post on this film as it was still in production, before the storyline about DAM and PR emerged. It generated a very productive comment thread, including some pointers to collaborations between Israeli and Palestinian youth around hiphop.

March 6, 2009

Hip-hop and electoral politics: Democracy in Dakar

Filed under: Africa — Ethan @ 7:30 pm

Apologies for lighter than usual blogging the past couple of weeks. I’ve been wrestling with recurring eye problems, and since the TED conference I’ve had to cut back on reading as my left eye is partly occluded. (For those following the details – I had surgery on my right eye last year. This is the same problem that led to surgery, just the other eye. Hoping to put surgery off on this eye for a couple more years, but another month like this and I may have to change those plans.)

My eye doctor’s advice during episodes like this is to read less, sleep more and watch lots of TV. That last bit of advice isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds – focusing on a television across a room keeps your eyes still, and stillness helps the blood that’s occluding my vision settle. And so that’s how I found myself watching DVDs at 3pm on a work day, not my usual modus operandus.

Fortunately, my friends at Nomadic Wax just sent me their brilliant new documentary, Democracy in Dakar. I’m a huge admirer of the compilations of African hiphop the label’s been putting out – African Underground: Hip-Hop Senegal has been in heavy rotation on my iPod since it came out – but I had no idea how talented these guys were as filmmakers.

Democracy in Dakar is mindblowingly good. It’s not just a portrait of a country’s vibrant music scene – it’s the complicated story of how hiphop emerged as a political force in Senegal, and how that force has been both empowered and thwarted in recent elections.

Ben Herson, the founder of Nomadic Wax and the director of the film, tells the complex story of the emergence of Senegalese hiphop and its political weight almost entirely through interviews, carefully edited into a tight narrative. He – through the voices of dozens of legendary Senegalese MCs – make the case that Senegal adopted some of the most political strains of American hiphop, translating Public Enemy lyrics into French and Wolof and building rhymes around political topics from early on. Some of the more unfortunate aspects of hiphop culture – misogyny and celebration of gangsta culture – have largely failed to take root in Senegalese soil, in part due to a strong set of Islamic values shared by most Dakar rappers.

Listening to the crews featured in the documentary is a bit like a trip back in time for me, when positive, conscious hiphop seemed like it might be able to go toe to toe with odes to thug life. Watching an MC like Didier Awadi of Positive Black Soul toss off a freestyle rap about the limitations of the International Criminal Court is like waking up in an alternate reality where Dead Pres and Slum Village outsell Diddy and Kanye. It’s not clear whether all the MCs in the country are as deeply political as the ones Herson features in the film, but it’s very, very clear that there’s a thriving music scene in Dakar where the politics are as important as the beats.

This scene became deeply important in local politics in 2000 when Aboulaye Wade challenged Abdou Diouf, who ruled Senegal for twenty years in a socialist government that provided few benefits to the average citizen. Wade was a long-time opposition leader, who’d been jailed by Diouf years earlier, and many young Senegalese – including most of the hiphop scene – put their hopes in the old dissident. A great deal of music in 1999 and 2000 focused on urging the youth to vote, and to celebrating the possibility that Senegal could change and move forward.

Democracy in Dakar is set seven years later, in the days leading up to the 2007 presidential elections. Seven years of Wade’s rule hasn’t done much for Senegal’s economy, at least in the eyes of the local rappers. Their rhymes talk about frustrated young men who board pirogues and try to set sail for the Canary Islands or the French coast, often drowning in the process. Herson shows us pro-Wade graffiti that’s been crossed out, and electoral posters with the President’s face painted out.

But Wade won re-election in 2007 without even the need for a run-off. (Many African democracies have two-round elections: if no candidate has a majority in the first round, the top two run off in the second round.) While there’s widespread frustration with Wade, at least from the MCs we see, none of the 14 opposition figures emerge as a clear leader, and Wade was able to win what most observers believe was a free and fair election.

While international observers may have signed off on the election, the MCs interviewed in the film see something more sinister going on. They’ve all been recruited to perform at pro-Wade concerts, and those who’ve refused find that they have trouble getting played on the radio, or that they’ve been threatened with arrest. Some have left the country, either out of fear or for economic reasons. And those who remain are offering rhymes that are the diametric opposite of those seven years earlier – they dismiss all politicians as corrupt and ineffectual and wonder who’ll emerge to lead the country forward.

(It’s interesting for me to see parallels and differences between Senegal and Ghana, two of the more stable countries in West Africa. In both, politics continues to be dominated by politicians who were active in the struggle against colonialism. Most of these folks are pretty old, and they need to win votes in countries that are very, very young, with large portions of the population under 25 years old. But Ghana’s much more politically open, with freer media institutions and a wider space for debate… but a much less political music scene. Perhaps there’s a negative correlation between political freedom and the quality of local hiphop?)

The question left unanswered at the end of Democracy in Dakar is whether these brilliant MCs can emerge as a political force, or whether they’re going to end up marginalized and frustrated. That’s not the filmmaker’s fault – that’s a question Senegal is still answering. In the meantime, Herson and crew have turned their focus north, documenting hiphop and politics in the banlieus of Paris in “Democracy in Paris“. I’m hoping a future piece might focus on the relationship between hiphop and politics in Tanzania, where my friends tell me you’d never dream of mounting a political campaign without an MC on your campaign team.

Beautiful, provocative stuff, and something very much worth watching – if you’re half as interested in this field as I am, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy.

August 4, 2014

The biography I’m waiting for: Bambaataa and the parallel universe of hip hop

Filed under: ideas,Just for fun — Ethan @ 8:38 pm

I wrote a book review, of sorts, last week about Walter Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs and my concern that biographies, as a genre, celebrate a “great man” theory of history. While I remain convinced that we need more biographies of teams, of successful collaborations (an idea that Nathan Matias furthers in his post today on acknowledgement and gratitude), I do have a dark secret to admit: I periodically dream about becoming a biographer.

This isn’t because I believe in the biography as a form. It’s because there are people I find so fascinating, I’d enjoy spending a couple of years thinking about how they became who they are or were, and how their personal stories give us a picture of what was possible at different moments in time. I asked a room full of students and colleagues who they’d most like to read a biography of, and the responses were a fascinating picture of my friends as individuals and as part of a group trying to invent the field of civic media.

When the question came around to me, I told the room that I wanted to read the biography of Afrika Bambaataa, one of a few men who can reasonably claim the title “Godfather of Hip Hop”. What I didn’t admit is that I’ve periodically considered dropping my academic pursuits and researching this fascinating figure.

We’re getting to the moment in history where thoughtful popular books are being written about hiphop’s early years and innovators – Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop is extensively researched and thoughtfully written, and Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree has a visual style that recalls the early 1980s better than any text could.


Ed Piskor talks about his Hip Hop Family Tree project

Throughout volume one of Piskor’s beautiful history, Bambaataa recurs as an iconic figure, looming over an interchangeable crowd of short-lived MCs and DJs, as a future-looking visionary. Bambaataa was a leader of the Black Spades gang in the Bronx before deciding to dedicate his formidable charisma and organizing skills towards building the Universal Zulu Nation, a group that was part hip hop music and dance crew and part consciousness-raising Afrocentric cosmopolitan social club. Raised in the Bronx River Projects by his activist mother, he traveled to Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and the Ivory Coast after winning an essay contest run by the New York City housing authority, leading Bambaataa to adopt the identity of an African chieftan, leading his crew of former gangsters into a new artistic life of “peace, love and having fun”.

Throughout the early years of hip hop, Bam was a step ahead of his rivals. Other DJs would look over his shoulder to determine which eclectic selections Bam was using as beats – adopting a trick from DJ Kool Herc, Bam would soak the labels off his records and replace them with labels from unrelated albums, leading rivals to purchase legendarily bad albums in the hopes of replicating his sound. (It’s hard to know whether tales of Bambaataa rocking a party with two copies of the Pink Panther theme are authentic musicology or an unintentional consequence of this tactic.) While other DJs sets had MCs asking the audience their zodiac signs (early hip hop was a direct descendant of disco), Bam was playing Malcolm X speeches over his beats. (I like to think of Keith LeBlanc’s No Sell Out, sometimes cited as the first recording featuring digital samples, as a Bambaataa tribute.) When everyone else followed Bambaataa into the crates, crafting their tracks around James Brown and P-Funk, Bam had moved on sampling Kraftwerk, building “Planet Rock” and inventing the entire genre of Electro.


Planet Rock, 1982

At some point, hip hop stopped following Bambaataa. After about 1986 sampling ruled hip hop, blossoming until it was killed by the Bridgeport Music decision. Electro has influenced every generation of dance music since the early 80s, but you can instantly place any track with rapping and chilly synths as coming from the lost sonic territory of 1982-1985. More tragically, after Bam led gang members out of the streets and into the dance club, Ice-T, BDP and NWA led hip hop out of the clubs and back into the gang life.


“Surgery”, (1984) World Class Wreckin Cru, featuring Dr. Dre. Yes, THAT Dr. Dre. Look it up.

Somewhere there’s a parallel reality in which Afrika Bambaataa is the best known name in hip hop and Dr. Dre is a little-known electro DJ. It’s an alternate dimension where Bambaataa added laser fusion propulsion to P-Funk’s Starship and flew music into orbit around Jupiter rather than having it crash in South Central. In that parallel universe, the Universal Zulu Nation got Angela Davis elected president in 1988 and Bambaataa DJ’d the year-long party to celebrate the intergalactic peace accord of 1999, in which all interpersonal conflicts were put aside towards the shared goals of
peace, unity, love and having fun“.

Instead, Bambaataa has remained an honored and (insufficiently) celebrated hiphop pioneer, best remembered for one unforgettable track than for his epic social hack in the Bronx or his subsequent activism (including Hip Hop Against Apartheid and Artists United Against Apartheid.) Fortunately, the man is starting to get the respect he deserves, from an unusual corner: academe.

In 2012, Cornell University gave Bambaataa a three-year visiting scholar post. Bambaataa responded by donating his legendary record collection to Cornell’s Hip Hop Collection. This has presented an interesting curatorial challenge – the collection contains 40,000 albums, many of them with notes, flyers, press releases or other materials attached, all of which need to be scanned or digitized for posterity. For the past year, archivists have been cataloging the collection, sometimes in public, in Gavin Brown’s gallery in Greenwich Village.

afrika-bambaataa-gallery-5
From a slideshow of the Bambaataa collection on Okayplayer

The public archiving project has attracted a raft of contemporary DJs desperate to spin the Godfather’s discs. Joakim Bouaziz was one of the lucky DJ’s to be invited to the gallery, and he recorded part of his set spinning his favorites from the collection and recording the experience. No need to kick yourself for missing the gallery show – Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow are touring the US and Canada this fall, spinning the records live as part of their work building a Bambaataa tribute mix.

As for the biography? Bambaataa has been promising an autobiography since the mid-1990s. Let’s hope the revival of interest in his records leads to some helpful pressure on the man to put aside pressing Zulu Nation business for a few weeks and explain to us all What Would Bambaataa Do.


While I’m waiting for a Bambaataa autobiography, my guess is that a book that answers the questions I have would need to be biography of social movements at least as much as the story of a single individual. It’s not a coincidence that hip hop grew up in the Bronx at a moment when New York City’s physical infrastructure was crumbling and the Bronx had become synonymous with danger and decay. (Fort Apache, The Bronx came out in 1981, two years after Rappers’ Delight.) The physical and conceptual isolation of the Bronx from the rest of the city and the world allowed a culture to evolve in comparative isolation, which means that a history of Bambaataa needs to be a history of urban planning, of urban poverty and systemic racism, of the US’s housing projects. It would be a history of street gangs in New York as well as a history of Afrocentric philosophy and resistance. It would reach back to The Last Poets and ahead to Native Tongues, explore the rise of P-Funk’s Mothership and Sun Ra to understand “the Afro-Alien diaspora”. It’s more book than I am capable of writing, but damn, I hope someone takes it on.


For a taste of what those Bronx parties sounded like in 1982, here’s a collection of live recordings of early Bambaataa sets.

April 29, 2013

Cute Cats to the Rescue? Participatory Media and Political Expression

Filed under: Blogs and bloggers,Developing world,Human Rights,Media — Ethan @ 10:29 am

Some years back, I gave a talk at O’Reilly’s ETech conference that urged the audience to spend less time thinking up clever ways dissidents could blog secretly from inside repressive regimes and more time thinking about the importance of ordinary participatory media tools, like blogs, Facebook and YouTube, for activism. I argued that the tools we use for sharing cute pictures of cats are often more effective for activism than those custom-designed to be used by activists.

Others have been kind enough to share the talk, referring to “the Cute Cat theory”. An Xiao Mina, in particular, has extended the idea to explain the importance of viral, humorous political content on the Chinese internet.

I’ve meant to write up a proper academic article on the ideas I expressed at ETech for years now, and finally got the chance as part of a project organized by Danielle Allen and Jennifer Light at the Institute for Advanced Studies. They invited a terrific crew of scholars to collaborate on a book titled “Youth, New Media and Political Participation”, now in review for publication by MIT Press. The volume is excellent – several of my students at MIT have used Tommie Shelby’s “Impure Dissent: Hip Hop & the Political Ethics of Marginalized Black Urban Youth“, which will appear in the volume, as a key source in their work on online dissent and protest.

I’m posting a pre-press version of my chapter both so there’s an open access version available online and because a few friends have asked me to expand on comments I made on social media and the “Arab Spring” at the University of British Columbia and in Foreign Policy. (I also thought it would be a nice tie-in to the Gawkerization of Foreign Policy, with their posting today of 14 Hairless Cats that look like Vladimir Putin.)

So – Cute Cats to the Rescue? Participatory Media and Political Expression.

Abstract: Participatory media technologies like weblogs and Facebook provide a new space for political discourse, which leads some governments to seek controls over online speech. Activists who use the Internet for dissenting speech may reach larger audiences by publishing on widely-used consumer platforms than on their own standalone webservers, because they may provoke government countermeasures that call attention to their cause. While commercial participatory media platforms are often resilient in the face of government censorship, the constraints of participatory media are shaping online political discourse, suggesting that limits to activist speech may come from corporate terms of service as much as from government censorship.


Look for the Allen and Light book on MIT Press next Spring – it’s an awesome volume and one I’m proud to be part of.

July 18, 2012

Happy distractions: sumo, South African music, and Islamic hackerfic

Filed under: Africa — Ethan @ 9:44 am

This year is the first in decades where I’ve been beneficiary and victim of the academic schedule. While I spent almost a decade at the Berkman Center, research at that institution continues year-round, and there’s not much of a summer lull. The Media Lab is closer to the traditional academic cycle, as many students head out of the lab for internships and many of the professors hole up to complete research and writing.

I’m trying to follow their lead and am revising the book I’ve been working on for the past two years, towards a spring publication date. And that, in turn, has given me a good chance to think about distraction.

Like many people, I’m highly distractible. I do my best work in public places – coffee shops, libraries, airplanes – because they eliminate some of my favorite ways of wasting time: cutting weeds in my back yard, investigating the contents of my refrigerator, roaming the lab to see if there’s anyone interesting around to talk to. But when you’re writing a book on the Internet, it’s very hard to eliminate online distractions without cutting yourself off from your research subject. (And, if you’re sufficiently skilled at distractibility, you’ll find ways to convince yourself that the website you’re frenetically clicking through is somehow related to your core research topics.)

So, here’s what’s most distracting me today:

We’re nearing the end of the Nagoya basho, sumo’s summer tournament. Two of my favorites, Yokozuna Hakuho and Ozeki Harumafuji are both undefeated at 11-0, and everyone who follows the sport is hoping to a showdown of the two on the final day.


Highlights from day 10 of the Nagoya Basho.

Sumo’s getting much easier to watch thanks to the efforts of “Kintamayama“, whose YouTube profile identifies himself as a 58 year old dude from Tel Aviv. He posts daily summaries of the basho, evidently edited from the match livestreams. I’m not able to watch the livestream, which airs in the early morning my time, so I generally rely on torrents of NHK’s English language coverage. Those take hours to find and download, and they’re three hours long, featuring all the pre-bout ritual theatrics that accompany sumo. Kintamayama cuts to the chase – his ten minute videos feature the key high-level bouts and occasional highlights from the lower ranks, with English language information on who won and with what throw. As a bonus, his snarky subtitles during judges deliberations are always worth a watch.

While my favorite Mongolians are dominating this basho, much as they’re kicking ass in the global economy, it’s wonderful to see a veritable United Nations competing at the high ranks of sumo. The Japanese are back in force at the Ozeki rank, with Kisenosato and Kotoshugiko. Baruto weighs in from Estonia (he’s 200kg, so that’s a pun, people) and Kotooshu from Bulgaria ensure that eastern Europe is well represented at the top ranks of the sport. I’ve been having a lot of fun this basho watching Kaisei, a powerful Brazilian rikishi who’s been having a great tournament.

If you’re interested in following the next four days of the bout, try:
Kintamayama’s YouTube channel
Asahi Shimbun’s excellent English-language sumo coverage
Sumo Forum


Sumo’s great for wasting at least half an hour a day, watching the matches and reading up on the most impressive competitors, but to truly lose hours of productive time, there’s no pastime like tracking down obscure records from the 1970s and 80s. Eric Kleptone, the legendary remixer and prankster behind projects like “Yoshimi Battles the Hip-Hop Robots”, has recently turned his attentions towards one of the great musicological mysteries of our time: the identity of the album that inspired Paul Simon to travel to South Africa and record his “Graceland” album. (I’ve written at length about Paul Simon, “Graceland” and the controversies over the album.)

Simon legendarily received a cassette tape from a friend, titled “Accordion Jive Hits, Volume 2″ that inspired him to discover South African mbaqanga music. But, as numerous frustrated African music fans have discovered, no album by that title exists. Kleptone discusses the possible provenance of the album in the notes for his mix, Paths to Graceland, which is an attempt to catalog possible influences that might have led Simon to South Africa. It’s a gorgeous, lively and beautiful mix, filled with music that’s new to my ears, but so clearly kin to the music Simon featured that it seems like I must have heard it decades ago.

The rabbit hole Kleptone opens is through providing a thorough track listing, which leads me to discover that Tau Ea Lesotho is responsible for the accordion and high-octave bass guitar that causes me to engage in spontaneous, uncontrollable chair dancing. And that, in turn, leads me onto blogs like Afro Slabs, which work to track down and digitize these amazing albums. It’s probably possible to track down all the albums Kleptone references and build your own collection of early 80s South African and Lesotho music – I appear to be doing so without really trying to.


Of course, if you truly want to ensure no progress is made on a massive project like a book revision, you’ll need to get lost in a book. I’m currently ensnared by G. Willow Wilson’s “Alif the Unseen“. My wife is a huge Wilson fan, and has reviewed her graphic novel Cairo, and her memoir about conversion to Islam, The Butterfly Mosque, but Alif is the first book of hers she’s pressed on me. I understand why – Salon describes the book as “hacker meets djinn“, and the novel is an amazing tale of an alpha geek who works to protect online speech in the Arab world and a world of sinister, dark magical realism.

It’s a badass scifi yarn, with lots of provocative ideas about Islam, freedom, submission, will, gender, culture and independence. And as someone who works with dissidents around the world, including the Persian Gulf, it raises challenging and uncomfortable questions about the power and limits of speech to create change. I’m enjoying the adventure of the story, but suspect I’ll be savoring the larger questions for weeks to come.


My hope is that, like singing an earworm aloud to banish it, honoring these worthy distractions will give me a few hours of focus. Or, perhaps they’ll simply pull you down to my level of happy unproductivity.

December 15, 2010

Wayne Marshall on Nu Whirled Music… and my thoughts, too…

Filed under: Berkman,ideas,xenophilia — Ethan @ 3:06 pm

For Tuesday’s Berkman lunch, we’re blessed with a visit from DJ, blogger and ethnomusicologist Wayne Marshall, one of my favorite chroniclers of the future of digital culture. His talk is titled “The Unstable Platforms and Uneasy Peers of Brave New World Music“, a title that we could probably spend an hour unpacking.

Wayne’s talk is timely, perhaps, because of the current attention to the events of Wikileaks cablegate and the takedown of Wikileaks from Amazon. “What people take to be public platforms turn out to be anything but, and our spaces for free speech are not necessarily so free.” They’re unpredictable spaces for public speech because they’re commercial spaces. And what happens to music in these spaces may prefigure other developments in online spaces. “The ways in which culture and music are routed through the web show us some of the fault lines in public culture,” Marshall argues. “We can hear some of these songs and dances as ‘canaries in the coal mine'” of online culture – sometimes, these works disappear before our eyes due to decisions made by tool and platform owners.

One of the signatures of new world music, Marshall argues, is the watermark. Many of the audio tracks and videos that define new music scenes are marked with watermarks left by unlicensed demo software. He suggests that these watermarks may be becoming part of the aesthetics of these new forms. The people producing them are using professional-grade tools and pushing them to a public that’s potentially limitless in size. But the watermarks suggest they’ve got a different set of priorities than most producers – they’re less concerned with polish than with immediacy and immersion in the moment.

He shows this video from LA dance crew Marvel, Inc. This is one of the groups associated with the “Jerkin'” movement, a street dance associated with a small set of high schools in LA. Dance crews often take their names from comic books and cartoons, hence “Marvel Inc.” Marshall points out that the dances take place in public places, on sidewalks and in traffic-filled streets, and suggests that jerk is about public performance, both “in public places and in places as public as YouTube”. The video is a promotion for them as a crew, and for the music they’re using – the tracks danced to are listed, as is digitaldripped.com, a site that shares links to new hiphop beats and tracks. (The tracks associated with Jerkin’ are usually not available for purchase, Marshall explains – they’re downloads, not traditional releases.) And the video is heavily tagged, not just with the Marvel Inc. name and “jerkin”, but with names of rival crews and other artists associated with the movement. Despite the watermark on the video, other aspects of production and distribution suggest a high degree of care and savvy, creating a non-commercial circulation mechanism intended for their local (and perhaps, global) peers.

Watermarks appear in audio tracks as well. One of the key Jerkin’ tracks is “Buckle My Shoe” by Fly Kidd. Every few seconds, a British female voice announces “AVS Media Demo” in the midst of a catchy track. Marshall has looked for an “original” version of the track without the audio watermark and hasn’t been able to find one. The track used to be available on YouTube, but it’s been taken down, perhaps due to a copyright complaint. Now it’s available on Dailymotion, where you can’t see the video until sitting through a 30-second ad. “These are our public platforms,” Marshall tells us, “riddled with pop-up ads and watermarks”.

These platforms and tools may be rough around the edges, but they’re easy to use and easy to learn. One of the seminal Jerk tracks – “You’re a Jerk” by New Boyz – was produced using Fruity Loops, a commercial software package designed for easy loop creation. (The program offers a downloadable demo, and Marshall tells us that unlicensed and unlocked copies change hands frequently online.) It’s easy to find instructional videos on YouTube that show you how to make hiphop beats in Fruity Loops, which lowers barriers to producing new tracks. The New Boyz put a beat together, added rhymes over it and uploaded the audio track to their MySpace page. People in the Jerkin’ community began making videos of themselves dancing to the song and posting them to YouTube, which allowed the Boyz to track their success by searching YouTube for their names.

You’re unlikely to find a good version of the song this way anymore. The track became so popular that the New Boyz were signed to a small record label, and that label’s parent company (Warner Brothers) evidently asked YouTube to identify videos using the music. You can find the “official” version of the video (above), which has been viewed over 45 million times on YouTube. (I mention that last statistic for those who, like me, hadn’t heard about Jerk and briefly thought we had an insight into underground American youth culture. Little late for that, evidently…) People who’d posted videos using the song were told by YouTube that they either needed to mute the audio or choose another musical track to accompany their videos. That led to some very strange videos like the one below:

This video shows the Action Figures crew dancing to “You’re a Jerk” – it’s one of the videos that helped break the song, and Action Figures are featured in the “official” You’re a Jerk video. But this video now sports a strange, synthesized, neo-tribal beat that’s pretty far from anything the dancers originally performed to. Action Figures get to keep their video up, and perhaps benefit if anyone buys the (dreadful) track they’re now featuring, but the original video, important in popularizing Jerkin’ is now a very different document.

Whole sites and the ecosystems they support can disappear as well. Marshall shows us a screenshot of Jamglue, a site that served as an audio YouTube, allowing you to upload, sequence and remix audio tracks. A search for “Jerkin” revealed 775 mixes and 812 tracks. When the site shut down, not only did the content disappear, but people’s profiles, information on what tracks they’d liked and disliked and other metadata was lost as well. (I suggested to Marshall that there’s an odd parallel to traditional ethnomusicology here. Pioneers like Hugo Zemp spent their careers visiting people whose cultures were in danger of extinction from assimilation or the death of elders and recording their music. Perhaps we’ll start seeing modern ethnomusicologists documenting fragile digital cultures before their extinction.)

If the platforms that support this new music are unstable, Marshall tells us, the peers involved are uneasy. The people building the Jerkin’ scene were using digital tools to communicate with local friends, often people they knew in the “real world”. But the tools they used ensured that their work circulated more widely, which in turn led to some fascinating remixes.

This version – “El Paso del Jerk” – from Panama uses the backing track from “You’re a Jerk” and updates it with a Spanish rap. The accompanying video steals large chunks from the official video, but inserts scenes of Panamanian youth performing the dance steps… and also sporting some of the fashions and cellphones featured in the American video. Marshall sees this as “Panamanian kids inserting themselves into global styles,” demonstrating that they’re part of a global trend, not just in music, but in fashion and style. Marshall notes that it’s harder for YouTube to automatically remove videos like this one – because the track has new vocals, it’s not visible to YouTube’s systems in the same way as slightly distorted versions of the original are.

Other adoption of Jerkin’ are closer to a fusion – “Yaba Daba Du” is a new “Jerk Bow” song that combines aspects of Jerk with “dem bow“, a distinctly Dominican version of Jamaican reggaeton. The dance steps featured in the video include elements that are recognizably from Jerkin’, as well as moves that are clearly local. And you can see elements of Jerkin’ fashion (backpacks, tight jeans, neon colors) meshing with other fashion statements.

The frontiers of this new musical space are being documented in blogs like Dave Quam’s “It’s After the End of the World” and “Ghetto Bassquake“, which document local dance genres around the world: Cumbia, Bubbling, Dancehall, Chicago Dancehall, Jerking, Kuduro and more. This music isn’t generally termed “world music” – it circulates as “global bass music” or “global ghettotech”. Marshall wonders about the motivations in featuring this music, noting that on some blogs it can turn into “flavor of the month”. Generously citing my work, he wonders whether we’ll see more blogs acting as bridges between musical cultures, not just featuring what’s going on in Angola or Panama, but translating and contextualizing. At present, though, that sort of translation doesn’t always happen.

This new musical space challenges the old definitions about “world music” – it’s no longer about the West and the rest, the Global North and Global South, Marshall offers. Jerkin’ can circulate around the world, moving from one “ghetto” to another, whether or not those neighborhoods are actually poor or are simply asserting themselves as part of global urban culture. We need to think through the problems that come from these uneasy peers – how do we understand each other and learn from each other’s adoption and remix of these influences? And how do we solve the problems we face with our platforms. It’s great to celebrate the ways people have worked through and around these constraints, but we also need to address the limitations.


David Weinberger and Jillian York both liveblogged the talk, and did a better job getting down comments and questions than I did, as I was moderating the discussion. And if you’ve got time, you might enjoy the video of the talk and the questions and answers that followed.

I should also mention that Wayne is a tremendous blogger and writes about these issues at length at Wayne and Wax – if you’re interested in what he had to say, you should go there immediately.


There are at least two big ideas I’m deeply interested in that came out in Wayne’s talk, which is why I was so thrilled he joined us at Berkman. First, the issue of corporate control of platforms and its influence on the spread of media is something where lessons from the music world may spread into other realms. You can argue that Wikileaks is, in a weird way, an outgrowth of Napster: once you digitize something, a song or a secret, its spread online may be inevitable. But that spread can be checked by decisions made by people who own the platforms on which we exchange digital information. YouTube might have argued that an original dance video to a copyrighted track could be entitled to a fair use defense and forced copyright holders to challenge “offenders” one by one, rather than building tools for mass content removal. Amazon could have demanded an injunction before ordering Wikileaks off its servers. I don’t mean to suggest a moral equivalence between these actions – I’m far more sympathetic to YouTube than to Amazon here – but it’s worth recognizing that platforms are shaped by corporate decisions, made for business reasons, and that these decisions may not be in the best interests of free speech or free culture. Whether the answer is pressuring corporate actors to change their behavior to protect public forms of expression on their platforms or to build platforms more free of corporate influence isn’t clear to me. But Wayne’s examples are a reminder that these platform constraints can be subtle and far-reaching.

Second, I’m interested in the idea that music might have more mobility in crossing national, linguistic and cultural borders than other forms of media, and as such, I’m pretty fascinated in what global bass music might tell us about cultural adoption, fusion or bridging. I’ve been thinking about encounters between cultures through a lens provided by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart in their book “Cosmopolitan Communications“. Norris and Inglehart are interested in the question of whether encountering media from other cultures changes ones cultural values. They look at the spread of news and entertainment media across national borders and analyze the World Values Survey to try and determine whether encountering media from other cultures changes local values.

They suggest that four things might happen when we encounter media from another culture:
– We might embrace it and it could overwhelm our local culture. (This is a fear often cited with regards to the spread of US culture – the fear of the McDonaldization of the world – and used to justify cultural protection legislation.)
– We might violently reject the other culture and ban it, as the Taliban has done with aspects of western culture
– We might embrace the outside influences and incorporate them into a hybrid culture, creating something new and interesting, like the majestic Bánh mì sandwich, in my opinion, the tastiest byproduct of European colonialism yet discovered.
– We might encounter the other culture, acknowledge it as different and choose not to incorporate or reject it.

Norris and Inglehart suggest that reaction #4 – which they refer to as “cultural firewalls” – is the most common, which explains why Paris is still Parisian despite the invasion of Ronald McDonald. Good multiculturalist that I am, I’m excited about reaction #3 and am patiently waiting for my local McDonalds to begin serving kelewele with their new Ghanaian Chicken Shitor Din sandwich. Wayne’s stories offer a good chance to test the possible models of cultural influence.

“Jerk Bow” looks a lot like evidence for reaction #3, the fusion of cultures, with LA meeting Jamaica in the Dominican Republic, and perhaps especially in the Dominican neighborhoods in NYC. At the same time, watching videos of Jerk around the world gives some support for outcome #1 – if you think that McDonalds is a powerful cultural force, take a close look at the international spread of the New York Yankees baseball cap. Hiphop, an art form built atop sampling and appropriation is either being appropriated all over the world, or is America’s leading weapon in a battle for global cultural dominance. I’m not sure I buy Wayne’s assertion that we’re beyond “the west and the rest” that categorized some types of world music – it seems like much of the influence in these musical spaces is flowing out from the US into other cultures and not flowing back into American hiphop. (Wayne points out that Mexican teens in the US are getting down to cumbia and Dominiyorkers to dem bow. And he points to MIA as bringing global influence into mainstream US dance music. I remain unconvinced until Kanye drops a Kuduro single.)

Music apparently has superpowers to leap across cultural borders. I listen to Baaba Maal’s Senegalese pop and I hear piano lines from Cuban jazz… which in turn came from West African influences filtered through the American South and cities along the Mississippi. Baaba Maal doesn’t speak Spanish, but he was able to pick up influences from latin jazz records popular in Senegal in the 1960s and 70s – musical influence can spread without the sorts of translation or cultural contextualization that we need to appreciate much media that crosses national borders on the internet. This superpower can be a curse – the ease of sampling means it’s quite possible to fall victim to “flavor of the month”, as Wayne warns, or to using source material badly or unfairly. The same technology that makes Yabba Dabba Du possible allows Deep Forest to appropriate a Solomon Islands lullaby and pass it off as pygmy music from Central Africa.

Wayne’s talk suggests to me that web video has this same sort of superpower. Not only can it convey music, it carries dance and fashion as well. And if we want to know if we’re assimilating, rejecting, fusing or ignoring cultures as they bump against one another, watching youth culture through the lens of YouTube may be our best lab to carry out these experiments.

October 23, 2009

John Fort walks a new path

Filed under: Poptech '09 — Ethan @ 2:53 pm

I’m blogging from Camden, Maine, at the wonderful Pop!Tech conference. This year’s a special treat. My wife, the lovely Velveteen Rabbi, and I are team-blogging, trading off posts. You can read her posts on her website, or just read all of ours on the Pop!Tech site, where Michelle Riggen-Ransom has been doing brilliant work thus far. There’s lots of bloggers in the crowd and on twitter – follow the #poptech tag for lots of different perspectives.

The afternoon’s session focuses on energy – conservation, solar energy, and the energy of of live performance. If you were listening to east coast hip-hop in the late 1990s, you know the name John Fort. He wrote two songs for the Fugees’ breakthrough album, “The Score”, and launched a solo career… with a major interuption. In 2000, he was arrested with a briefcase containing a large quantity of liquid cocaine, convicted of conspiracy to distribute and sentenced to 14 years in prison. Thanks to intervention of Senator Orren Hatch and President George W. Bush, his sentence was commuted.


John Fort, photo by Kris Krg

It’s a treat to be introduced as a singer-songwriter, Fort tells us, because he was a rapper, selling lots of records… “until I was not.” He’s unflinching about the fact that the failure of his rap career led him to getting involved with drug trafficking. Released last year, he’s building a new identity and new career “as a guy with a guitar.” In this new incarnation, he sings a cover of Kate Bush’s “Deal With God” with versus replaced by his rhymes: one line starts, “Ressurected on my 33rd, seven years was sufficient, God…” It’s a hell of a cover – you can hear a version here.

His new songs are confessional, raw, stripped down and literate, with a songs like one with a hook “I John who am also your brother”. He closes his set with “The Breaking of a Man”, a poetic interpretation of his arrest and time in prison. It, and his new and old work, are well worth your time for a close listen – Fort’s not just performing these days. He’s working with youth, writing a book and trying to be honest about his missteps, helping others avoid the mistakes he made.

October 18, 2009

Wu Tang and a wider world

Filed under: ideas — Ethan @ 11:11 pm

Driving home from Boston Friday night, I caught much of an interview on Tom Ashbrook’s public radio program, On Point. The interview was with Robert Diggs – the RZA – the founder and leader of Wu Tang Clan, one of the most influential groups in hiphop. RZA was pitching his new book, “The Tao of Wu“, which his publisher describes as “a spiritual memoir”.

For those of you who don’t follow hiphop, Wu Tang revived the fortunes of east coast hiphop in the early 1990s – the center of gravity in the rap world had moved from the outer boroughs of NYC to the West Coast and Dr. Dre’s project – with an astoundingly fine album. “Enter The Wu Tang (36 Chambers)” featured nine skilled MCs, dark and sinister beats, and wonderfully cheezy samples from Hong Kong kung fu films. It sounded like nothing anyone had heard before, and it sounds remarkably fresh almost two decades later.

Ashbrook asked RZA about his interest in those films, revealing a personal interest in the answer – in the early 1990s, Ashbrook tells his listeners, he was living in Hong Kong, moonlight from his life as a journalist, dubbing kung fu flicks. It’s possible, he tells RZA, that his was the voice in those childhood films. RZA shares a story about a long night on Staten Island with his cousin Russell (Ol’ Dirty Bastard) that ended with the two looking for a safe place to sleep and visiting a local movie theatre that alternated between porn and kung fu flicks. While ODB slept, RZA found himself fascinated by the philosophy expressed in the films.

Explaining the significance of the knug fu flicks to Ashbrook, RZA mentions that his universe, growing up in Staten Island and Brooklyn, was a pretty limited one. Kung fu films offered a picture of life in a different place, a world where people of color were badass:

When we watch TV in those days in America, there wasn’t a lot of channels… TV programming was limited. When you see a martial arts film, you had a chance to see a time in history that wasn’t just what the western world was showing us. And especially as a young black man, you know, most of the black figures you’d see were some kind of slaves, some kind of pimps, not the sort of heroes who would inspire you. But through the martial arts films, I was seeing great heroes that inspired me, in the past, hundreds or thousands of years ago. It gave me another perception of history… It gave me a whole interest in finding out what was going on in that period of time, not only in Asia, what about in Africa, Australia?

It takes some work to find opportunities for intercultural encounter and xenophilia in kung fu films, but it’s clear that RZA was looking for something beyond the intellectual influences he was encountering in his own community. RZA and many of the Wu Tang were involved with The Nation of Gods and Earths, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam sometimes referred to as “the Five Percenters”, which offers a complex, syncretic worldview with emphasis on numerology and other esoterica. He’s subsequently found inspiration in Islam, Christianity, Taoism and in chess. While I found that the snippets of philosophy RZA offered in an hour-long interview alternated between profound and goofy, I’ve got nothing but respect for a mind that found a path from kung fu flicks to religious study via hiphop.


I wasn’t listening to Wu Tang when 36 Chambers first dropped. I was living in Ghana and the local soundtrack was heavy on Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” and lots of country music. (Seriously. Surprised me, too.) But as I started travelling around the world, I began noticing that the Wu was everywhere. In Ulaanbaatar, the most common tags weren’t in Cyrillic – they were “Wu Tang” and the Wu symbol.

ub_wu
Ulaanbaatar. There’s a “Wu Tang” on the right side of the middle mural.

I never heard much Wu in Ghana – the lyrics are a little raw for Ghanaian tastes, which tend to run towards versus you can recite on the way to church. But friends took me to a corner of Nima, one of Accra’s rougher neighborhoods, that had been dubbed “Alaksa”. I understood the name immediately – local style dictated that you wear a puffy down coat, as members of the Wu did in most of their publicity photos. Wearing actual down jackets in West Africa is impractical, so shops existed to “convert” winter coats to be Ghana-compatible. Tailors carefully ripped seams on the jackets, removed the down and restuffed the coats with crumpled newspapers, which gave the requisite puffy look but were less insulative. They weren’t cheap – kids were paying almost fifty bucks for a converted coat, and they were selling well.

What’s more incredible: that kung fu flicks turned a middle school dropout into a millionaire artist, or that a musical and stylistic statement from Staten Island would shape culture in Mongolia and Ghana?

(That may be a trick question. There’s a deep Central Asia/hip-hop connection, as exemplified in Joe Sabia’s “Tupac in Kazakhstan” video. Sabia filmed the video – which features a couple dozen Kazakhs reciting lines from Tupac’s “Changes” – while racing in the Mongol rally, an overland race from the UK to Mongolia. Unclear to me how Sabia staged the footage, but it certainly seems like many of the folks Sabia filmed knew and loved the song in question… or perhaps it’s complex revenge on Borat. Unclear.)


What quirk of character leads a person to search for new and different perspectives? John Hummel is an interesting case study. A lapsed Mormon, Hummel decided to spend a year encountering 52 different religions, one a week, and documenting the encounters through audio interviews and blog posts. His visits thus far have included mosques, synagogues, churches, and temples, and he’s interviewed Buddhists, Baptists, Wiccans, Satanists and several flavors of humanists, including Atheists. Not every experience is fully comprehensible to him – many faiths lead long services that involve languages he doesn’t speak – but he’s got a gift for finding moments of beauty in every encounter:

The next day I had a chance to interview Pastor Singh. We spoke of how the Sikh religion started, the beliefs and practices. The entire time, he and his congregation were gracious, making sure my needs were met. When I left, he was still making sure I had anything I needed – water for my trip, a bit of food if I was hungry.

I didn’t, but asked him if there was anything he needed. His eyes twinkled as he patted me on the arm. “All I need if your love, my friend,” he told me.

I was wrong. It’s not the discovery of the unknown that’s the best part. It’s meeting the people.

Hummel now identifies as an atheist, but he’s putting significant work into an exploration of a wide set of religions, attending a service a week and reading at least one text significant or sacred to the people he’s meeting with. His goals are complicated – he’s trying to demonstrate that religions he knows nothing about aren’t evil cults, but groups of people who want to be good and help one another. But there’s another motivation – a fascination with the unknown: “Then I found myself with a lot of free time on my hands, and a lot of curiosity. Like ‘I wonder what the people in that church down the road believe. And what they do to help the community.’ Or ‘That temple looks really keen – I wonder what they do in there?'”

What turns curiosity into action? What convinces a former Mormon to seek out – and hug – Tibetan Buddhists? Or visit a different New York City mosque on each evening of Ramadan? To step out of a kung fu movie and start reading Lao Tzu?

And how do we cultivate lots, lots more of it?

June 1, 2007

links for 2007-06-01

Filed under: del.icio.us links — Ethan @ 12:17 am

May 29, 2007

links for 2007-05-29

Filed under: del.icio.us links — Ethan @ 12:17 am

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