Archive for December, 2013

Race, Ethnicity, Kwanzaa, Africa, etc.

Posted in race with tags on December 28, 2013 by darryl zero

Kwanzaa is an odd time of year for me.  On one hand, I’ve taken to acknowledging it because it’s the only ostensible “holiday” that specifically refers to Black Americans; on the other, I feel uncomfortable celebrating it, not because of the obvious misgivings surrounding its creator’s past, but largely because its designated purpose is to reinforce Black Americans’ connection to Africa, which is something I’ve never felt comfortable doing.

I struggle when people try to dance around the notion of calling me “Black” by referring to me and people that look like me as “African-American.”  I understand the need for white people to feel as if they are being politically correct, and appreciate the effort taken to refer to my people in a manner that is neither offensive nor derisive; likewise, I appreciate it when people of my race want to look beyond shortsighted descriptions of who we are as people in an effort to transcend the bloody, chaotic, horrible origins of post-African diasporic peoples in the Americas.  I love the idea of Pan-Africanism–in fact, I embrace it–but I find the idea that people of the diasporic community must look back to Africa to be counterproductive to what Pan-Africanism wants to accomplish, especially when the only connection most U.S. Americans have to the African continent is the color of their skin.  For that matter, while I also appreciate how Pan-Africanism recognizes the ethnic and racial diversity in the African continent, I also think that such a blanket characterization of distinctly unique peoples actually contributes more to the minimization of micro-cultures in favor of a macro-culture–in essence, doing the exact same thing white Europeans have done to everyone else.  So, while I’m definitely a Pan-Africanist in that I recognize Africa as the birthplace of humanity and civilization, the rest of my own philosophy on race, ethnicity, and how they relate to culture is something a bit divergent.

For one: I’m not African.

I mean, I am definitely of African descent–one needn’t do anything more than look at me to determine that–and I definitely identify as a person-of-color (something the vast majority of Africans also could do, even if they choose not to), but what would truly make me African?  Having roots on the African continent?  If that’s the case, I’m no more African than I am European–something that is definitely true for more so-called “African-Americans” than they care to admit.  But, really, when you get down to it, doesn’t everyone have roots on the African continent?  Actually, strike the rhetorical–everyone has roots on the African continent,so shouldn’t everyone be called “African-American?”  What about white South Africans, South African or Ugandan Indians, or Arab Egyptians/Algerians/Moroccans/etc.?  What about Freddie Mercury, whom most people mistakenly consider “white,” but who was actually an Indian Parsi born and partly raised in what is now Tanzania by parents who were, due to the quirks of international politics, British citizens?

I get in trouble on occasion when I bring this up amongst people that fancy themselves “African-American,’ mostly because it parallels some logical arguments well-(and sometimes not-so-well-)meaning white folk also bring up, but also because it exposes the truth of what people mean. Depressingly Foucauldian though it may be, when people affix “African” or “Afro” to any term, they couldn’t possibly mean “of the African continent,’ because the continent is more ethnically diverse than any place on the planet.  If anything, they mean “of or relating to the sub-Saharan Africans transported from Western and Central Africa via the slave trade,” a population of people more diverse in background, language, and culture than anyone probably realizes, but with one common characteristic: their relative skin tone.  Their “Black” skin tone.

I bring all of this up because, as anyone who has watched the news in the past fifty years can tell you, there is no monolithic “African” culture–that the diversity that makes African genetics so fascinating so often turns fatally violent when those lines are drawn between cultures.  The average U.S.-born person (Black or white) probably can’t tell the difference between a Hutu and a Tutsi, for instance.  Rwandans, on the other hand, can, and recent history proves how dangerous such discernment can be when given too much ideological weight.  I don’t like to even allow for those divisions, because, to me, if I pass a Black man on the street, it doesn’t matter one iota to me if his ancestors were Fula, Mande, Hausa, Tuareg, Hutu, Tutsi, or any combination thereof.

Which leads me to my next point: just as the diversity in genetics led to distinct ethnicities amongst people on the African continent, similar diversity in cultural identities have developed among the diasporic peoples even after the Atlantic slave trade ended.  Haitians, Dominicans, Jamaicans, Panamanians, and certain Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and (especially) Brazilians all clearly share sub-Saharan Black ancestry, yet nearly all are quick to deny their Blackness in favor of calling themselves Latino/Hispanic, or reference their specific New World country of origin; I found this out the hard way when, Freshman year of college, I jokingly referred to my Puerto Rican colleague Felix (a man just as dark as I, whose hair was just as nappy) as “negro.”  He immediately frosted over and was quick to assert he wasn’t “Black.” I had a similar experience recently with a young man of my skin tone who works at a local burrito place; the Texas-born, Chicago-raised son of Panamanian immigrants, he once expressed how he was frustrated at how people were often surprised to see his Spanish last name and comment on how they thought him Black, whereas he thought himself “Hispanic.” (“Brother, please,” I told him.  “I speak more Spanish than you do.  Congratulations: you’re Black.”)

For that matter, I even find people from the African continent who try to distance themselves from Black U.S. Americans.  I’ve been called “cotton picker” or some derivation by French Blacks before (something not unique to my own experience, and is in fact common enough to make its way into pop culture).  The experience of a Chadian man in France, for instance, may be parallel to that of a Black U.S. American, but the similarities are often lost on people.

This brings me to my overarching problem with Pan-Africanism, Kwanzaa, and the “African” or “Afro” prefix in general: much like Dominicans et al claiming to be Latino, it stresses, glorifies, and emphasizes a muddied, misinterpreted, and often outright-invented past.

Now, I don’t want anyone to misinterpret this and think I am, somehow, not proud of the fact that I am descended from the African disapora.  I self-identify as Black–occasionally in defiance of those who would dare to classify me as “half-white” or “mixed”–and I consider my experience to be that of a Black person.  But to call myself “African” or “African-American” is both logically and ethnically inaccurate at best and downright insulting at worst.  Because my experience is different from that of a Rwandan or Liberian refugee.  My experience is different from that of a Zulu, or an Oromo or Amhara Ethiopian, just as it’s different from a Dominican or Brazilian.  We are a century removed from the days when Africans were brought to the Americas as slaves; while it isn’t really that long in terms of lasting cultural legacies, cultures have grown and developed identities far faster in the information age.  Much has been made of the diasporic community’s near-complete disconnect from its roots on the continent; while I certainly understand the need to acknowledge the tragedy and its effect on Black U.S. American identity, I’ve always been of the mind that repatriation isn’t the solution.

Because that just plays into the hands of the dominant social group in the U.S., that we Blackfolk are outsiders whose true place is somewhere far away, and far removed from our practical reality now.

I repudiate that–again, not because I’m not proud to share ancestors with my brothers across the Atlantic, but because I’m from the United States of America, and I belong here.  My people may have been brought here illegally, unethically, and immorally, but they are here, now, and they have become as influential to this country’s cultural fabric as any other group (and, in the case of music, considerably more than any other group).

So, when I nod to someone with a similar skin tone, when I refer to a Dominican or a Black Frenchman as “brother,” when I capitalize the B in “Black” when referring to a person, even when I celebrate Kwanzaa by examining concepts named with words created by cultures that largely didn’t contribute to the makeup of post-Africans in this country, I’m not doing it because I consider myself to be “African.”  We’re not all African.

But we’re still Black.

Just thinking.

Darryl Zero’s Top Albums of 2013

Posted in best of lists on December 6, 2013 by darryl zero

While I liked a lot of albums this year, I was surprised at how many of them came from artists I’d listened to for a long time.  It’s easy to get caught up in the new and shiny; however, I can’t help but admit that a lot of veterans showed up this year and turned in some downright awesome albums.

You might notice the ties in odd places.  Frankly, I just loved those albums in equal amounts, for similar reasons.  In any case, it’s my list, so if you don’t like it, sod off.

Honorable Mention:

Balance and Composure – The Things We Think We’re Missing

Deafheaven – Sunbather

Pelican – Forever Becoming

Medicine – To The Happy Few

Marnie Stern – The Chronicles of Marnia

10) Sigur Rós –  Kveikur

Reduced to a three-piece, one would think the Icelandic epic post-rock band would strip down their sound.  Which they did, but instead of leaning heavily on frontman Jónsi Birgisson’s vocals, they instead went with a rattle and a clang.  While the band had previously experimented with harder musical styles (most effectively on Takk…), Kveikur feels unapologetically heavy and, well, metallic.

9) Death Grips – Government Plates

In 2012, Sacramento’s art-noise-rap trio managed to simultaneously blow up and implode in equally enormous ways, from pulling off the unlikely coup of signing to a major label in February, releasing one of the year’s best albums in April, scheduling–and shortly thereafter canceling–an epic (if you’ll excuse the unintentional pun) tour in May in order to record another album, grappling with said major over the release of that second album, only to sabotage their deal by leaking said album, resulting in getting dropped from said major label.  While comparatively quieter, 2013 still found the band courting controversy (mostly through canceling or flat-out not appearing at their shows), such that, when they band finally dropped Government Plates, it was a pleasant surprise to find the band still as focused and interesting as ever.  Plates is remarkably subdued for a band brash enough to plaster their drummer’s erect penis on an album cover: MC Stefan Burnett’s once-prominent vocals lurk in and around the songs for the most part, and the post-digital hardcore electro-rap arrangements lurch and stutter in more challenging directions.  While shallower minds focused inexplicably on Kanye West’s clumsy biting of Death Grips’ style, the band clearly takes a Henry Rollins-esque approach; leave scars, then just leave.

8) Sepultura – The Mediator Between Head and Hands Must Be The Heart

Sepultura continues their post-Cavalera trend of releasing unexpectedly awesome albums.  After Jean Dolabella’s departure, the band found 20-year-old Eloy Casagrande to man the drums–and the youth infusion adds a much-needed sense of raw, punk-y urgency to the band’s sound.  Mediator doesn’t fuck around–it hits hard, fast, heavy, and crushing, with Andreas Kisser and Paulo Jr’s guitars scraping by at breakneck speeds.  Derrick Green–now the band’s longest-tenured frontman–has long since come into his own as a vocalist, but his meaty growl reaches tones so visceral they almost sound like they’re making him bleed.

7) My Bloody Valentine – mbv

Twenty-two years after releasing an album that could convincingly (although not by this reviewer) be called the greatest album ever made, My Bloody Valentine surprised everyone by releasing its follow-up.  While mbv certainly isn’t Loveless, it manages to be the next best thing; the album they ought to have released after Loveless, while still managing to sound future in a musical landscape populated with bands clearly indebted to them.  In fact, the only bad thing about mbv is that it overshadowed another comeback album by a similar band (Medicine’s To The Happy Few, which would have made this list but for the Death Grips album).  While their American counterparts emphasized beats slightly more over bombast, My Bloody Valentine wisely stuck with what brung ’em–Kevin Shields’ cascading downpour of guitar.

6) Hoax – HOAX LP

New England punk rockers Hoax self-released their final release and toured on it shortly before breaking up.  Not unlike other bands of the newer wave of heavier, extreme metal-inflected hardcore punk (think Trash Talk, Trap Them, Kurt Ballou), Hoax scraped the gutteral, crusty edge between punk and metal enough, not so much blurring the edge as bloodying it.  The band’s self-titled LP is entirely too good a step in the right direction to be the swan song it is, apparently, supposed to be.

5) Chelsea Wolfe – Pain Is Beauty

Wolfe’s somber melancholy often finds ways to simultaneously soar and lurk–which separates her from other ostensibly folk singer-songwriters.  At the same time, her unabashed grit and heaviness keeps her from landing in the tiresome neo-goth of the witch house scene, regardless of the amount of electronics she layers beneath her gorgeously haunting voice.  While Wolfe still succeeds most effectively when muscling her way through a guitar-driven arrangement (“We Hit A Wall,” PiB‘s snarling second track), the synthesizer sounds and chattering drum beats suit her surprisingly well.

Tie

4) Oddisee – The Beauty In All

While Oddisee resents being labeled “underrated,” it’s hard to describe someone so visionary that isn’t treated as a genius on par with J Dilla or Dr. Dre as anything but.  Oddisee’s MCing often gets undercut by his disappointing lapses into contemporary hip hop cliché (well, one specific one beginning with the letter “n”), but his production is arguably the best in the business, be it underground, backpacker, or pop.  De facto single “Afterthoughts” demonstrates the Oddisee formula: accentuate samples with subtle touches of sometimes live, sometimes synthesized instrumentation; the end result is almost always golden.

4) Scout Niblett – It’s Up To Emma

Emma Niblett’s break-up record begins pretty by-the-numbers for her: her midrange-y voice cutting across overdriven electric guitars.  Mercifully, Niblett abandons the aloofness that plagued her across previous albums and instead settles into a focused, logical aggression.  Interestingly, for an album about dissolved relationships, Niblett couldn’t have made a sexier batch of songs; her (thankfully) lucid take on TLC’s “No Scrubs” wisely avoids clumsy irony and instead simply repeats the song’s chorus over a stark drums/guitar progression, while album opener “Gun” harnesses a sludge-metal arrangement and lyric sheet, strips it of its lunk-headed bludgeon and instead sharpens its edges:

3) True Widow – Circumambulation

Admittedly, True Widow’s combination of unabashed heaviness and churning understatement are such breaths of fresh air regardless of the scenes to which they easily fall (metal and so-called “indie rock”) that it’s almost stupid not to like them.  That said, Circumambulation finds the band narrowing the scope of their compositions to less-intimidating lengths (the only song that goes over seven minutes does so just barely); while the approach is jarring in how brief it makes the album seem, the band is just so damn catchy that it just plain doesn’t matter.  The band doesn’t quite reach the same levels of brilliance on their earlier releases–there’s nothing as genius as “Bathyscaphe” or “Skull Eyes”–but each arrangement is so, well, hummable, that it doesn’t matter.  The lone exception–“Numb Hand”–is a song that’s just plain fucking perfect:

2) Nails – Abandon All Life

I won’t mince words: listening to Nails sounds like being beaten with a chain feels.  You know the brutality is coming, you know it’s going to hurt, and it still shocks you as much as it completely removes you from reality.  Gloriously unsubtle and unabashedly harsh, the band cuts a bloody swath through ten songs in under twenty minutes–some slow, most obliteratingly fast.  While the twenty-four second “Cry Wolf” is perhaps the most cathartic, second track “Tyrant” is perhaps the most beautiful bit of post-Converge neo-hardcore committed to recording in the past decade:

I struggled for weeks with how to list the following three albums. I honestly can’t rank any one of them above the other, but they’re just so damn awesome that I have to put them ahead of all the rest (which is saying something).  So, we have a tie for #1:

Solex – Solex Ahoy! The Sound Map of The Netherlands

Too few people know and care what became of Elisabeth Esselink, the quirky Dutch record store owner-turned-quirky electro-rock darling.  A solid six-year, four-album run between 1998 and 2004 ended with The Laughingstock of Indie Rock; apart from a 2005 In The Fishtank session with the Maarten Altena Ensemble, little was heard from Esselink (at least, in the Americas) for a solid five years.  2010’s woefully overlooked Amsterdam Throwdown King Street Showdown, a collaboration with Jon Spencer and Christina Martinez, flew under pretty much everyone else’s radar, but after that, more silence.

Until 2013, when Solex Ahoy, a long-gestating project chronicling the sound of the Netherlands’ twelve provinces.  Using Esselink’s patented knack for sampling, paired with recordings of street musicians invited into Esselink and her partner’s house boat, the album took shape quietly and was released even more quietly Stateside.

And it’s the best, most vital thing Solex has done since 1999’s Pick Up.

Nirvana – In Utero (20th Anniversary Edition)

It’s hard to tell what’s more shocking–the fact that Nirvana’s last studio album is twenty years old, or that its obligatory reissue was so absolutely fucking perfect.  I suppose both facts were equally inevitable; time catches all, and In Utero engineer Steve Albini’s relentless perfectionism would mean that the eventual record company cash-grab would result in a veritable cornucopia of details–if not the music, than simply for the interviews.  While Albini definitely gave a fantastic interview on the subject, he also stepped way the fuck up to the plate, providing both an exquisitely detailed remastering of the album and–as an even better treat– a complete remix of the album using alternate takes and ideas, largely supervised by Krist Novoselic (with input from Dave Grohl and Pat Smear).  The album’s myriad easter eggs and addenda, far from feeling bloated and/or superfluous (like box set With The Lights Out or the absolutely needless self-titled greatest hits collection), only enrich the mythos surrounding what was, at the time, an album whose hype only barely exceeded its controversy.  And it’s all fucking awesome.

Jucifer – за волгой для нас земли нет

Husband-and-wife nomadic metal duo Jucifer is as known for their annihilatingly loud live show as they are for their surprisingly eclectic, nuanced records.  Their sound has always run the gamut from ersatz-folk-country to black metal, pulling influences from everywhere (grunge, downtempo electronic, twee, even hip hop) to make albums that perpetually confound expectation.  A move to Relapse Records after a long stint on Velocette (which was, in itself, borne of a major-label deal with Capricorn shortly before it went defunct for its second and final time) signaled a slight shift toward the direction of making albums that sounded closer to their ear-slaying live experience.  Throned In Blood, 2010’s sort-of-Relapse swan song, seemed to be about as close as it was going to get.

Until 2013, that is.  How, twenty years into the band’s career, they could release their most vital and visceral album is a question only the band themselves can answer, but the bottom line is that the album–whose title translates to There Is No Land Beyond the Volga and is both inspired by and whose concept is directly taken from the history of the Russian city Volgograd–is both an ambitious story and the first time the band’s live sound has been precisely committed to tape.  The album feels epic, it feels brutal, it feels sludgy and yet beautiful–it feels like a storm of hot, heavy, world-breaking, reality-warping destruction.  It’s Jucifer, twenty years slaying ears (to borrow their own words), and it’s a necessary listen.