Don’t mind me, Macadam Avenue. I’m only driving around your neighborhood for the past 6 months playing music at the LOUDEST POSSIBLE VOLUME!
— Justin Leverett (@justinlev7) March 20, 2015
I know I’m not the only one feeling it. That profound pain, disbelief, grief, outrage, horror, and shock at the depths to which our society has run off the rails. To many, it feels like powerlessness, or fear of looking the problem in it’s eye. For others, it feels like the logical continuation of a life already lived in ever-present fear. I tend to process things through music, so I’m attaching a video below that really hit close to home for me. Recorded by hip-hop artist J. Cole four days after the shooting of Michael Brown, “Be Free” was an extremely powerful piece of music that sampled a CNN interview with witness Dorian Johnson, and was a song I listened to on Soundcloud over and over again while the protests raged in Ferguson this summer.
The video pairs that haunting song with images and clips of police brutality, interlaced with statistics on racially biased police brutality, and images of the protests throughout the U.S. in the last few months. It’s a stirring video, and heart-wrenchingly appropriate today, as protesters and families of victims converge in Washington D.C. for the “Justice for All” march, organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton. Like others, I’m struggling with the feeling of being a spectator. I want to do something. Anything. I want to help the effort. I want to somehow ease some of the pain. But as I was reminded this morning, right now what is really essential is to continue to listen and to engage. I feel that is likely the best, right now, that someone in my position can hope to do.
There’s a tempting simplicity to the thought of flipping over the front page of my newspapers so I don’t have to see what new horrifying headline is popping up daily, or to scroll down in my internet news feeds, to try to work and play and go on like nothing new was there. But even if we tried to ignore it, the tragedy of it will continue to glare back at us, like a beast from behind the mirror. It would be easier not to talk about it. But it MUST be talked about.
When protests ignited this summer shortly following the shooting death of Mike Brown, startlingly close to where I lived in Illinois, part of me wanted to up and go to Ferguson. I said the same to a photographer of our local newspaper who was working on a project about Ferguson. Journalists there had their hands bound with plastic, and I was hearing a lot of disgust that the protesters and rioters were mostly outsiders; that the damage from the riots was harming the Ferguson community, and that fires and shooting had even closed the St. Louis airport.
I deliver newspapers overnight as a second job nowadays, which has given me lots of late nights in my car listening to the radio while I drive through the neighborhood my routes are in. This morning I happened to tune into a show on the Portland community station with a few young white people my age trying to sort through the issues at play in these protests. It was hard to listen to at times, and certainly not an easy subject to tussle with. But it was comforting to me to hear other young people my age talk about it on a public forum, and to open it to callers.
They expressed many of the feelings I share: Frustration at attending march after march, and protest after protest, and not seeing concrete results. Wrestling to check our privilege and own that we, as white people, don’t truly understand what communities of color are experiencing. Hunger for some kind of change, but uncertainty as to what it will amount to. All that, and a good deal of outrage at the idea of a “colorblind” culture, and rejection of the emergence of All Lives Matter in response to Black Lives Matter.
So I called the radio line, and spoke briefly with them. It was good just to speak to others who felt the same way I do. They, like I, want to support the communities that are pushing to make their voices heard, while treading the delicate line of learning to listen and teaching ourselves when not to speak. I don’t know what my place is in this movement, but I want it to be grounded in a place of solidarity, not privilege. I want to encourage voices like that of J. Cole, and that of Atlanta rapper Killer Mike, whose passionate preface to a show in St. Louis recently also ranks, for me, among the most emotionally poignant listening out there on the subject of police brutality, racism, and the current protests. I think the best thing that I can do right now is open my ears, not my mouth. Listen, closely, to what these voices are saying about how life is experienced today by people of color in the U.S.
The deaths of these men has brought us to our knees, and chilled us to our bones. We’re now incarcerating more black men than any other subgroup in America, and the wealth gap by race is greater in America today then in South Africa during apartheid. Check out this article by Nick Kristof for more (and regardless of your take on his politics, it’s hard to argue with the numbers he’s giving us.) There’s a breakdown in the justice system, that no one seems to know how to fix.
Most importantly, I think that we shouldn’t fear what might happen, and what we might find out, when we do open ourselves up to these voices. Coming to terms with privilege and institutional racism is not supposed to be easy, finding the strength to address it will be even less so. But don’t let that cause you to shut down. I felt so much healthier this morning when I spoke what I was feeling, to someone, anyone, even the young people sitting in a radio station somewhere, and allowed myself to make mistakes and then correct myself, and opened myself to learning a few things.
These times are scary, but I think what we are seeing in the U.S. right now is a call to challenge ourselves. The movement is growing. And know that it’ll be a struggle. But, know that you’re not alone.
“House,” and the value of music mentoring
There is something so utterly innocent, beautiful and inspiring about this video, that it brings tears to my eyes just to think about. We begin with a monologue by UK artist Kindness, seated and addressing the camera initially with a brief discussion of “pop music.” He is dressed in a minimalistic black suit and long hair, and asks us “Why do adults resent [pop music] so?” he asks. “And why do I like it?” Kindness is struggling to understand the joy and frustration that he draws from pop music, in all it’s mysterious, shining inconsistency and occasional brilliance and joy. Pop music has been frustrating intentionally subversive, and derided or misunderstood by older people since its birth. I am speaking especially of the 20th century, and particularly referencing Beatlemania.
In this video, Kindness is seated alongside two keyboards and a drum machine, with a child named Ramon. The first half of the video shows the two of them playing and experimenting with the instruments. They talk, test their instruments, and experiment with the fascinating sounds that they can make. Together they try to recreate the sound of Kindness’s most popular song, “House.”
About halfway through the video, another musician joins them, and soon they are making music, dancing around the room and celebration the feeling of the music, and the spirit of experimentation and freedom licensed to people when they are free to test themselves creatively, and test what can result from uninhibited collaboration and self-expression. Their dancing communicates pure joy and youthful celebration, and it is one of the cutest things you can hope to see.
What I love most is that this video pairs the hopefulness and vibrancy of the song “House”, which is a warm and gentle plea for love in the face of desperation, with the innocence and simplicity of a music lesson on video. “I can’t give you all that you need/ But I’ll give you all I can feel,” goes the chorus of the song, and this line, to me, lies at the core of this video’s genius. Music is such a pure and universal expression of one’s feelings, and it appeals to every person, regardless of background. Given access to an instrument, or a studio, and a good teacher who can provide proper motivation and encouragement, any person can create something unique and beautiful that reflects their indelible individuality and humanity. This video demonstrates just such loving and nurturing support for individual creativity, a thing that is rare in most educational settings, and it is a beautiful thing to witness.
When the two try to describe the sounds of the track, they struggle to find the words for the sound they are creating. Adjectives like “muddy” and “scrambled” emerge in their conversation… but in fact the feelings associated with their music is impossible to describe. The effect of good music is that it eludes description, and can hardly be captured in words. Kindness can only have created the sound we hear by testing and experimenting with the equipment and instruments, and only with the guidance and training of a previous mentor, just as he is mentoring this child.
To me, this is what makes music so precious… it is the collective story of people, passed down from person to person, through the decades, centuries, and millennia. We have been recording music with our guitars, keyboards, synthesizers, and microphones, turntables, and computers in recent years, but people have been strumming and dancing and testing sounds and harmony and lyrics, expressing the human experience in sound, since the beginning of recorded history. It is the lifeblood of personhood, and it is infinitely precious. What I love so much, is that this video manages to encapsulate that experience. Kudos to Kindness, this video is brilliant.
Imperturbable, quiet beauty in the midst of chaos
First things first. This video is downright classic. I’m honestly not sure I’m entirely worthy to write about it. I’m not sure anyone is. Let’s get that out of the way. The song and its video is better than me, it is better than you, and it is better than any of us are likely to be. 🙂 This is a Fiona Apple cover of the Beatles’ timeless hit “Across the Universe,” originally released in 1999, for the film Pleasantville, and the video is an unmistakable and genuine, perfect, and timeless accompaniment to a brilliant recording. Bravo.
The only piece of color in the entire video is a piece of cubist stained glass artwork adorning the outside a 1950s-style soda shop, which we see in the opening shot. The camera moves close lazily, deliberately, following along with the slow, intentional, tidal rhythm…
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I’ve begun a music blog called Needle on Vinyl! Check out the most recent post: a brief look at the video for People Help the People, by Birdy!
Sun-drenched, charcoal shades of black and white adorn the video for the song “People Help the People,” but the true revelation of the video is the way it pairs transcendent music with such stunning images of urban life and its people. The song is a call for compassion between all communities, and a ballad of universal love and solidarity.
A couple weeks after Macklemore won the Grammy Award for Best Rap Album earlier this year, a number of old friends I grew up with and I launched into a fiery debate on Facebook regarding the song “Same Love”. The song and its video, which emerged as one of the popular Seattle rapper’s most socially-conscious and politically significant offerings, spread virally following its release in 2012. With lyrics openly supportive of same-sex couples’ right to marry, Macklemore simultaneously paints a portrait of a man struggling with his own sexuality and tussling with the stereotypes and stigma associated with homosexuality.
For those who don’t know, Macklemore is a prominent white rapper who, like Eminem, very quickly ascended the ranks of popularity and success in the hip-hop genre. “Same Love” was a song created explicitly to express support for the right for same-sex couples to marry. Today, gay marriage is slowly but surely becoming a reality in more states.
Significantly, the song includes heavy criticism of the reluctance in religious circles to embrace the gay rights movement. I remember first hearing the song and watching the video, and I remember how it made me feel. The song brought me to tears. Anchored by Mary Lambert’s soothing refrain- “My love, my love, my love, it keeps me warm,” the song is organic and warmly textured, with gentle piano reined in by strings, horns, and an upbeat drum track.
I remember sharing it in my feed, and commenting at the time that this, to me, was an example of modern hip-hop at its most resonant and emotionally poignant, not to mention politically significant. It brings modern conservative Christianity directly into its crosshairs, saying firmly and directly it is wrong to preach hatred and stigmatize those who identify as lesbian, gay, bi, trans, or queer. Macklemore raps:
“When I was at church they taught me something else
If you preach hate at the service, those words aren’t anointed
That holy water that you soak in has been poisoned
When everyone else is more comfortable remaining voiceless
rather than fighting for humans that have had their rights stolen.
I might not be the same but that’s not important.
No freedom til we’re equal… damn right I support it.”
In the months following this, a variation on the song emerged from the upstart Detroit rapper Angel Haze. Also called “Same Love”, the song has the same chorus and loosely, the same song structure, but with lyrics intentionally altered to reflect the point of view of a person who had experienced the struggle for gay rights from the perspective of the oppressed. Several of my friends claimed vociferously that Angel Haze’s song was the stronger and more significant piece.
Angel Haze identifies herself as pan-sexual, meaning, in her words, that she conceives of love as a concept that transcends physical differences and lines of gender identification. “Love is boundary-less,” she said in an interview with British newspaper The Guardian, “If you can make me feel, if you can make me laugh – and that’s hard – then I can be with you.” Her version of the song describes the rejection she faced from her mother upon coming out of the closet, and the ensuing suffering inflicted upon her by a parent who was neither understanding nor accepting. Like Macklemore, her voice is anchored by Lambert’s refrain- “I can’t change, even if I tried, even if I wanted to.” Angel Haze rejects “every single hand that chooses” and asserts that love is central, and that love is not something to be treated, transformed, or controlled regardless of what shape or form it may take. Her song is about self-acceptance on your own terms, regardless of the scars you might be tending to or the crosses you might bear.
While I identify as heterosexual (or ‘straight’, as we tend to say), I sympathize strongly with the gay rights movement and try to the best of my ability to do my part, as an ally, as often and as consistently as I can in my daily life. This is not by any means an easy position to take, seeing that our culture has for so long placed such powerful stigma and negative association upon homosexuality, queerness and transexuality, or even upon the intimation that one might associate, sympathize, or experiment with these identities. I strive to believe in the Kinsey-an concept that sexuality falls on a spectrum, and that these labels we place on ourselves, including those I place on myself, have very little real value except to box in and pin down our conception of sexuality, as though it were a butterfly that could be described scientifically, named, and classified. My own sexuality is anything but simple or one-dimensional, and I doubt that it is for anyone, regardless of their identification.
I found myself thinking about the two versions of “Same Love” last night, as I sat in a coffeeshop in Dupont Circle, here in Washington D.C. It’s a spot well-known for its nightlife, for the presence of an active lobbying voice, and for its openness and acceptance of people who identify as LGBTQ through yearly events in the neighborhood. Though I am a relative newcomer to serious analysis of hip-hop, I do try to keep up with the rappers who become celebrated and prominent, and particularly with those who write songs that offer meaningful commentary on issues of social, civil, and political import.
To my mind, Macklemore’s song was a statement of solidarity with and affirmation of the movement to achieve widespread acceptance and approval for the rights of same-sex couples in the United States. To others, and particularly to those who can legitimately claim to represent the voice of the oppressed communities, the song came across as the imposition of an outsider, and that Macklemore was undeserving of one of the most prestigious awards in the music business. That he was just another straight, cis, white, male appropriating the culture of a marginalized community whose struggles and experience he could not have possibly understood. What’s more, they argued that he was profiting from his stance, and that he was unworthy of the prestige associated with the award.
But for me, Macklemore’s song was equal in importance to Angel Haze’s, if not even more inspiring, considering my particular relationship to the issue. To hear a white, straight male show support and “come out,” unequivocally and inspiringly, as an ally and supporter of gay rights, in spite of the struggle it took him to reach that place, gives me the courage to raise my voice in support of my friends and loved ones I care for who identify themselves in that way. It gives me the will to be vocal and persistent in my allyship, and to speak up when I see my gay and lesbian friends marginalized, abused, dismissed, or disregarded. And ultimately, I think Macklemore’s statement is interwoven with that of Angel Haze, who speaks of a reality I prefer to embrace. She is rapping about a world where labeling and arbitrary division is irrelevant in the face of a love that overwhelms fragmentation, whether it be along racial, class, or sexual lines. She put it best in her lyrics:
“No I’m not gay.
No I’m not straight.
And I sure as hell am not bisexual.
Dammit I am whoever I am when I am it
Loving whoever you are when the stars shine and whoever you’ll be when the sun rise.”
What’s more, I think that the faith community needs to recognize that acceptance and inclusiveness to the broader LGBTQ community is integral to success in the 21st century. As long as Christianity is associated with images of hellfire and damnation for those we arbitrarily consider “sinners,” the church is going to lose more and more young people. Forward-thinking denominations today actively minister to LGBTQ issues, and I personally would like to see this trend spread to the evangelical community and to the more orthodox circles of other religious communities, and particularly to more synagogues and mosques.
Today I am lobbying the office of Representative John Lewis, the civil rights hero and staunchly progressive legislator from my home, Atlanta, the cradle of the civil rights movement. I am so lucky to have this opportunity to make my voice heard to an American hero, who displays the audacity and integrity to stand up for the rights of the oppressed, even when his actions put himself and his fellows at risk. Just as Congressman Lewis made a stand for the sake of future generations in the 1960s, so will it take the voices of brave souls like Angel Haze and allies, like Macklemore, to achieve equality and justice for the LGBTQ community, and for other oppressed communities.
It is patently wrong to preach hate, and I, for one, will no longer stand for it. To me, that is what it means to be an ally, and to live out this definition today. The music of brave artists like Macklemore and Angel Haze should inspire us, in our efforts at civic engagement and positive contribution to political society, to create the world we want to live in, no matter our background or orientation.
In the two years of restaurant work following senior year, and extending in my life far before that, music has been such an important source of strength for me. It has sustained me and awakened me, and it has piqued my intellectual curiosity and comforted my pain. It has been my guardian angel.
In my two years at the restaurant, it became clear to me that I couldn’t stay there forever. I knew that this wasn’t the work for me. I knew that this wasn’t my dream. I knew that there was so much more to see and to do in the world. I felt, in the depth of my soul, the passion and call to follow my dream and reach out for what the world has to offer. And it was Ellie Goulding that became the soundtrack of the months leading up to my eventual move to Atlanta. Just as the lights were calling her, in the song, the lights of Atlanta were calling to me.
Its music video is spare; minimalist; monochromatic; almost anemic. It is a teen drama unfolding obscurely, from the depths of emptiness at the heart of faceless suburbia. Grounded by a solemn, pounding drumbeat that feels as inexorable and imposing as a beating heart, the song itself is repetitive and catchy, like good pop music should be. Layered vocal tracks and pulsing bass lift the arrangement beyond the realm of the ordinary, and it is no wonder the song Royals is such a hit. The song holds the longest reign at No. 1 on the billboard charts for alternative songs, by a female artist. But there is something more going on. Why is every face you see in this video white? What is with those lyrics, so openly critiquing popular hip-hop? What… exactly… is happening here?
… every song’s like gold teeth, grey goose, trippin’ in the bathroom
Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room,
We don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.
But everybody’s like Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your time piece.
Jet planes, islands, tigers on a gold leash.
We don’t care, we aren’t caught up in your love affair.
From the first line of Royals, Lorde sets up her song as a commentary on wealth and its pursuit. “I’ve never seen a diamond in the flesh,” she sings, as she transfixes the camera, and the viewer, with a sweet, venomous and icily subversive blue-eyed glare. Such sweet irony that she speaks of jewelry “in the flesh” as though diamonds were organic, and wedding rings were something to cut your teeth on. As though “ice” could buy success. As though jet planes, islands or tigers on a gold leash could fill an empty, twin-sized bed. As though alcohol, like Grey Goose or Cristal, or a lifestyle of ‘trashing the hotel room,’ were telling of a glamorous and luxurious life well-lived.
As early as the first verse, Lorde rattles off a list of black celebrity cultural touchstones in the music industry. Gold teeth, Cadillacs, Maybach… these bring to mind a kind of wealth and luxury that are decidedly.. not-white. These are phrases and references that bring to mind Lil’ Wayne, the Dirty South rap movement, Rick Ross, Mike Tyson in “The Hangover…” in other words, mainstream, primarily straight black male, hip-hop culture. A culture that is loud, expressive, aggressive and colorful…. even, at times, intentionally boastful about violence and often unapologetically misogynist, sexist, and homophobic.
Lorde, a 16-year old musical artist from New Zealand, skyrocketed to international fame and renown in late 2013 on the basis of a hit song that directly calls to account the very same hip-hop culture that produced Kanye West, who in his most recent album Yeezus, rapped lyrics as enlightening as “When a real nigga hold you down you supposed to drown” and “One good girl is worth a thousand bitches,” and Rick Ross, founder of the Maybach Music Group, who last year withdrew lyrics celebrating rape and apologized publicly for them. Royals, since it came onto the scene, has since been remixed multiple times, including at least one instance with Rick Ross as a featured guest, and has received four nominations for Grammy awards, including for “Song of the Year” for Royals, and “Record of the Year” and “Best Vocal Pop Album” for Pure Heroine, her debut offering.
The song has received its share of criticism, including being labeled racist by prominent blogger Bayetti Veronica Flores on the website Feministing. Flores’ criticism of the song comes with the context of the difficult history of U.S. race relations, knowledge of which may not necessarily be a safe presumption for a young musician from New Zealand. But Flores’ most basic issue with Royals is that it is directly and openly hostile to hip-hop culture, and more specifically, to black cultural tropes. And that is accurate. What is more, anyone who has traveled can tell you that American pop culture crosses international boundaries, and any discussion of a song at this level of popularity can’t be limited only to its influence or airplay in the U.S., particularly since Lorde herself hails from overseas. If Royals is racist here, it is racist everywhere.
But dismissing the song as simply racist does not touch the full depth of the song. I would argue that Royals, and its companion music video, when taken together, represent a broad critique of the mainstream and primarily American culture of wealth acquisition, masculinity, and their interconnected relationship with issues of racial identity.
The video is a series of images of young white men… thin, muscular, with short brown, red, and blonde hair, white T-shirts and shorts, standing, boxing, and relaxing in an empty, unadorned suburban home, with pale tan curtains and stark geometric lines. The young men are seen eating cereal, boxing in their living room, staring hopelessly at the ceiling of a basketball court, submerged underwater in a swimming pool, and in one powerful image, laughing and bleeding from the mouth. They have the bodies of athletes, probably swimmers, and their imperfections are on display for the world to see: acne, tufts of shaved brown hair falling to the floor when they shave, a close up of an adolescent Adam’s apple. While the song itself openly rejects tropes of black culture and proclaims proudly that “We’ll never be royals,” the video methodically constructs a stripped-down image of white masculinity.
And throughout it all, we are shown the eyes and voice of Lorde, an unmistakable smile hovering behind her unreadable eyes. She blinks her heavily mascara’d eyes, adjusts her mess of curly hair, visually daring you to question her. She strikes an unreadable, but unmistakably subversive, intelligent demeanor.
The song, to my mind, is less about deconstructing expectations and dreams of people identifying themselves as part of a particular race, than it is about deconstructing expectations and dreams of everyone. We all, white or black, male or female, dream about diamonds, fancy cars, parties, and the intrinsic feeling of royalty and privilege that we associate with wealth and material success. To say the song is all about race, is to miss the point entirely. The song is about wealth, pop culture, and the difficult relationship that average, hardworking people have with the constant media barrage of decadence and material excess.
Mainstream pop music has pretty recently released a number of songs asserting and rejoicing in the trappings of youth, “We Are Young,” by Janelle Monae, being a prime example of this. For the most part, these songs celebrate the enjoyment and glory of a life of wealth and excess, partying and drinking and knowing that, after all, You Only Live Once. But Royals has a distinctly different agenda.With this song, Lorde is making the case for a new kind of love, “a different kind of buzz,” a kind of youthful ethos where money, wealth, and alcohol are secondary. The young men in the video of Royals are not in it for the money. Their television displays only static. In their alienation from the decadent pulse of mainstream American culture, these young men display a grounding and motivation that come from within, from each other, and not from the diamonds and dollar bills that characterize material success.
Towards the end of the video, there is a shot of one of the young men riding on the train. His head leaning against the cold window, the man, who is hardly an adult, watches out the window as the world passes by him. The image visually mirrors a scene toward the end of the movie “Crash,” from 2004 (nearly ten years ago). The film, an extended meditation on race relations in urban Los Angeles, won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Towards the end, the character played by Chris “Ludacris” Bridges leaned his head against the window of a bus, public transportation he had sworn he would never use, because, to his mind, the system of public transportation is part and parcel of instutionalized racism in urban America.
In both scenes, lost young men, both presumably from backgrounds of poverty, find themselves on the periphery of mainstream society. The cold glass of the bus window symbolically separates them from a cold exterior world, a world of rough black pavement, cold steel automobiles, and the grinding pursuit of wealth. Houses and buldings pass them by in a blur, and they wonder what it means to come of age, and accept the mantle of an adult male in a capitalistic, wealth-driven society. What does it mean to be successful? Can money bring us happiness? What is this “love” thing everyone keeps talking about? Am I going to be ok? Who do I want to be? What kind of a person am I? What sort of future do I want to create for my children? These are universally difficult questions, for adults of every race, and to my mind, every gender.
This is a song about the pursuit of happiness. This is a song about finding meaning in a media-drenched world whose songs and movies reflect an idealized worldview that doesn’t necessarily match with bitter reality. This is a song about learning who we are, and learning to feel comfortable being ourselves. This is a song about coming of age.
I couldn’t speak to whether Lorde could be considered a feminist, and I couldn’t say whether Royals is, in fact, racist. But I think that Lorde, at the tender age of 16, has produced a piece of art that effectively challenges and questions the importance we place on wealth in Western society. I think the song, and the video, are attempting to critique the pulse and tenor of modern pop music. And, in my personal opinion, I think the song and artist deserve every bit of renown they have received.