We are not we

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 8.47.22 PMIn the recently released “White Privilege II”, white rappers Macklemore and Ryan Lewis address uncomfortable questions of cultural appropriation and the role of white Americans in support of the protests over Blacks being shot by police. The song starts out this way, with Macklemore referencing the the 2014 Black Lives Matter march in Ferguson, Mo., that he participated in:

Pulled into the parking lot, parked it
Zipped up my parka, joined the procession of marchers
In my head like, “Is this awkward?
Should I even be here marching?”
Thinking if they can’t, how can I breathe?
Thinking that they chant, what do I sing?
I want to take a stance cause we are not free
And then I thought about it, we are not “we”

Can the “we”, i.e. those marching, include someone (white) who has not had the same experiences as those (blacks) marching? Should he be a participant or just an observer:

“Am I on the outside looking in,
Or am I on the inside looking out?
Is it my place to give my two cents
Or should I stand on the side and shut my mouth?
‘No justice no peace’
Oh yeah, I’m saying that.
They chanting out BLACK LIVES MATTER
But I don’t say it back.
Is it O.K. for me to say? I don’t know, so I watch and stand.”

The song is actually a sequel to the the 2005 release “White Privilege”. It may be that the title of the new song is in part an effort to remind us that Macklemore’s not a Johnny-come-lately to the issue. On the original “White Privilege,” he had already acknowledged the fact that he’s using an art form that has its origins in a wholly different context from his: “Hip-hop started off in a block that I’ve never been to/ To counter act a struggle that I’ve never even been through”. Macklemore is not of course the first white rapper; as he mentions in the song there have been a whole host of singers, going back at least to Elvis who have built careers off of songs or styles originating in African-American culture. Not all have acknowledged the debt or pointed to the potential unfairness of the process: “We take all we want from black culture, but will we show up for Black Lives [Matter].”

Macklemore ends the song with Black poet and singer Jamila Woods singing the final lines, which some have interpreted as an attempt to legitimize his right to rap on this topic by including a supportive Black voice. Gene Demby, the lead blogger for NPR’s Code Switch team, who is African-American, wrote a piece this week, “Guess We Gotta Talk About Macklemore’s ‘White Privilege’ Song”, indicating by its title and its opening (“So. Macklemore. I suppose we have to talk about Macklemore.”) a distinct lack of enthusiasm. He does credit Macklemore with good intentions, and admits that engaging in dialog (at least among whites) is helpful:

It’s worth noting that Deray McKesson, one of the faces of the Black Lives Matter movement, has argued that this song does exactly what lots of people say they want more of in conversations about race — that is, it would be great if more white folks actively engaged in uncomfortable conversations about race with each other. McKesson’s note was ostensibly an endorsement, but it’s also an acknowledgement that this song is not really meant for people of color. That would seem to underscore Macklemore’s larger existential dilemma regarding his relationship to black audiences: He really seems to want to be talking to us, but he’s not saying anything we don’t already know.

At nine minutes long, the song may not prove to be a hit, but it does stir the pot.

Who owns music?

Australian rapper Iggy Azalea

Australian rapper Iggy Azalea

One of my rock heroes died this week. Jack Bruce was the bass player for the super-group Cream from the 1960’s. When I was an undergraduate, my floormates and I had endless conversations about who was the essential member of the group. The obvious choice was Eric Clapton with his soaring guitar solos. Others argued for Ginger Baker, a brilliant drummer – amazingly athletic despite looking like he was on his death bed. I – and others – argued for Jack Bruce, whose inventive and pulsating bass lines seemed to me to be the real heart of Cream’s music. Cream’s favorite musical genre was blues-based rock, often covering the songs of black blues artists such as Robert Johnson. By the late 60’s there was no controversy about white Brits playing such music. That was not the case earlier in the decade, however, when British invasion bands like the Rolling Stones were not just playing blues songs but imitating singing styles from black blues singers. What right did privileged white boys have to play music born out of the life struggles of poor black singers? To be fair, Mick Jagger and others recognized and admitted their debts to blues and R & B singers like Muddy Waters and helped in some cases such singers to be appreciated by their young white audiences. But the issue still remained for some critics that young whites had no right to appropriate the cultural capital of the African-American community.

Such controversies re-appear with some frequency. White rap singers like Eminem initially faced similar criticism. Now that hip hop has representatives all over the world and has in effect become indigenous to a wide variety of cultures, such views seem irrelevant. Still there are arguments to be made about cultural appropriation, such as Brittney Cooper did this summer in a piece in Salon about Australian white teenage rapper Iggy Azelea:

I resent Iggy Azalea for her co-optation and appropriation of sonic Southern Blackness, particularly the sonic Blackness of Southern Black women. Everytime she raps the line “tell me how you luv dat,” in her song “Fancy,” I want to scream “I don’t love dat!” I hate it.

For Cooper, Iggy’s use of black vernacular English is an affront to the struggles of the African-American community – and specifically black women – to be accepted by the white mainstream:

She does not understand the difference between code-switching and appropriation. She may get the science of it, but not the artistry. Appropriation is taking something that doesn’t belong to you and wasn’t made for you, that is not endemic to your experience, that is not necessary for your survival and using it to sound cool and make money. Code-switching is a tool for navigating a world hostile to Blackness and all things non-white. It allows one to move at will through all kinds of communities with as minimal damage as possible. But it is also rooted in a love and respect for one’s culture and for the struggle.

Rather than seeing Iggy’s popularity as a sign of the irrelevance of race in today’s society, Cooper sees it as an indicator of the different kinds of treatment of white and black women in US society.

The ability of Blackness to travel to and be performed by non-Black bodies is supposed to be a triumph of post-racial politics, a feat that proves once and for all that race is not biological. Race does not have any biological basis, but I maintain that there is no triumph and no celebration when we embrace a white girl who deliberately attempts to sound like a Black girl, in a culture where Black girls can’t get no love. How can I “love dat,” when this culture ain’t never loved us? Iggy profits from the cultural performativity and forms of survival that Black women have perfected, without having to encounter and deal with the social problem that is the Black female body, with its perceived excesses, unruliness, loudness and lewdness.

Folk Music Blendings

guWe all know that one of the best ways to connect across cultures is through music. Its power to connect and blend cultures is second perhaps only to food. A recent piece on NPR about the Australian singer Gurrumul has led me to reflect on other musical blendings I have encountered recently. Listening to the music of Gurrumul at first gives you the impression that it could be North American folk music. In fact, it’s clear that his work is within a universal folk tradition. But he rarely sings in English. Mostly he sings in the indigenous language of his people, the Yolngu, of northeast Arnhem Land in northern Australia. It’s not just the language that’s distinctive. He sings about the everyday life of the Yolngu. He has written, for example, wonderful songs extoling the orange footed scrubfoul (a strange bird indigenous to the region – see clip below) or about the rainbow python, who in the Yolugu mythology created the world. One of his rare songs in English is “Gurrumul History (I was born blind)” in which talks about himself and his family and about his experiences as a blind man, including traveling to New York City.

Another amazing blend of styles, cultures, and languages is represented by the music of Abigail Washburn, an American claw hammer banjo player and song writer. As she explains in a TED talk, she originated wanted to study law in China, but decided instead to pursue a career in music. She has spent a considerable amount of time in China and sings in both English and Mandarin. Shortly after the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, Washburn and Dave Liang of the electronic group The Shanghai Restoration Project, went to Sichuan and created Afterquake an album to raise awareness and funds. She recently created a theatrical work entitled Post-American Girl in which she explores her connections to China and to different types of folk music. She also has created a shadow puppet version of her song “Ballad of Treason” with puppeteers from the ancient Muslim quarter of Xi’an:

A final blending is the music of Bostonian Shannon Heaton, who plays Irish style flute, sings, and composes. She also sings in Thai, having studied abroad in Thailand. She does an amazing job combining Irish traditional music and Thai folk styles in a rendition of the Thai song Lao Dueng Duen (By the Light of the Full Moon):

“Frozen” goes international

frozenThe Disney film “Frozen” has been a big hit, and not only in the U.S. It’s been dubbed into 41 languages and has played to audiences throughout the world. Interestingly, Disney made an unusual decision with the Arabic translation, dubbing it into Modern Standard Arabic. As pointed out in a story on NPR, in the past Disney dubbed movies such as Snow White into Egyptian Arabic, the dialect with the most number of speakers in the region. While native speakers of Arabic understand Modern Standard Arabic, it’s not the language they speak daily. Rather they speak their own dialect such as Moroccan Arabic – which like other versions of the language is very different from Modern Standard Arabic (and from one another). Apparently, Disney has awarded distribution rights to its films to Al Jazeera, which has a policy of using Standard Arabic. According to the NPR story, the reaction to the dubbed version in the Arabic-speaking world has been mixed.

Versions of the song “Let it go” sung in numerous languages have gained interest in the media. Disney has responded to that interest by putting together a clip which splices in 25 different languages being sung:

There has been an interesting discussion on the Language Log about the Chinese version of the song (ràng tā qù 讓它去 in the most literal translation. There are three different Chinese sets of subtitles for the song (and the entire film), in Mainland Mandarin, Taiwan Mandarin and Taiwanese. Victor Mair (University of Pennsylvania) points out in the post that contrary to the popular view, it’s not true that the written language is used to render all the different Sinitic languages (those spoken in China):

If anyone ever tries to tell you that Taiwanese, Cantonese, Shanghainese, and dozens of other Sinitic topolects are “all the same when written down”, you can politely inform them that they simply don’t know the grammar, lexicon, and syntax of these different languages. As has been pointed out again and again on Language Log, especially with regard to Cantonese, normally what gets written down is Mandarin, not Cantonese, Shanghainese, Taiwanese, and so forth. In other words, native speakers of Cantonese, Shanghainese, Taiwanese, etc. must learn a second language, Mandarin, if they are to become literate according to the standards of educational authorities.

To write spoken Cantonese or Taiwanese in Chinese characters is to give an approximation based on coming close to the meaning and the sounds but not giving a precise equivalent. Victor Mair has another interesting post on the mutual intelligibility of Sinitic languages – a short summary: they’re not.

Carefully taught

south_pacific“You’ve got to be carefully taught” is both a song title, from the 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, and an entry in the Race Card Project. Having grown up partly in Hawaii, I have a special feeling for the musical, but had not thought much about the message of tolerance it contains until a story this morning on NPR on the song, suggested by multiple entries for the song title in the Race Card Project, which happens to have the same number of 6 words called for by the project. The song lyrics are surprising for the year in which they were composed:

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

The message is clear: prejudice is not something you are born with, but is culturally conditioned. It’s so sad to see children spouting racist or homophobic slogans, as those early learned views are so hard to lose.

Code-switching Arabic in song

Yasmine Hamdan

Yasmine Hamdan

Interesting review today on NPR of the latest album from Lebanese singer, Yasmine Hamdan, Ya Nass. She is well-known in the Middle East, going back to her days in Soapkills, the duo she founded with Zeid Hamdan. Hamdan now lives in Paris and is fluent in English, French, and Arabic. However, she sings exclusively in Arabic. This is a decision that is culturally understandable, but which tends to limit her popularity. According to the BBC, Hamdan was offered a lucrative contract by music executives, if she were willing to sing in English, but she refused. She’s forgoing catering to the larger English-speaking public, at least in part, because her songs are culturally and linguistically tied to the Middle East. As she has traveled and lived in a variety of Middle-Eastern countries, Hamden speaks a variety of dialects of Arabic, which, according to Wikipedia, has enabled her “to playfully use various dialects of Arabic in her lyrics, which alternate between Lebanese, Kuwaiti, Palestinian, Egyptian and Bedouin, as well as some of the code-switching which is so typical of Middle-Eastern humour”. Clearly, English or French would have a whole different dynamic in her songs, losing much in the translation.

Code-switching among Arabic speakers is common, but that occurs principally between speakers’ own dialect of Arabic and Standard Arabic. Typically, Standard Arabic is used in formal, religious, and literary contexts, while dialectal versions are used in everyday situations. Code-switching can be used for paralanguage purposes, i.e. to convey irony, disdain, or special emphasis. It also has social functions, such as its use for identity negotiation, social-group membership, or to signal social solidarity (or superiority). Less common than the back and forth between Standard Arabic and dialect, at least in normal everyday situations, is the kind of dialectal code-switching done by Hamdan. However, it is used for effect in the entertainment industry. Such code-switching occurs in the U.S. entertainment as well, for example, by having a character speak with a strong hillbilly-like accent, a clear signal of unsophistication and a source of humor.

Yasmine Hamdan – Ya Nass ياسمين حمدان – يا ناس‬

Pete Seeger

peteAre there distinguishing characteristics of Americans?  To my mind, one of the qualities that fits many of our “American originals” is idiosyncratic creativity – making your own path to success and keeping to it despite obstacles and opposition.  Pete Seeger is a great example of holding to your convictions and following through.  His mission was to make the world better – end wars, encourage cooperation, promote democracy – through music.  Despite personal attacks on him and his beliefs, including being blacklisted, Pete Seeger kept to his mission. He didn’t have a beautiful voice – he would be the first to mention that fact.  But his voice had the ring of authenticity and originality, reminiscent in that respect of Jonny Cash, Bob Dylan, or Kris Kristofferson.  His songs draw from American history and American circumstances but have resonated well beyond the borders of the U.S. American music has been one of our best, most positive exports, and reminds us of how much music is one of the human achievements that helps draw us all together.

One of the central ways Pete wanted to bring people together was through having them sing together.  Any concert he gave inevitably included sing-alongs.  He was especially eager to have children sing.  Up until his death, he volunteered at a local school to come in and teach and sing with the children.  One of my fondest memories of his music are his wonderful animal songs.  I remember playing “The Foolish Frog” over and over again for my children.  Pete had a serious mission in life but he knew the value and power of humor  – something which is evident in a lot of his songs.

Of the many tributes coming in now upon news of his death yesterday, that by Andrew Cohen in The Atlantic seems to me to have struck the right note: “His critics often called Pete Seeger anti-American. I think the opposite was true. I think he loved America so much that he was particularly offended and disappointed when it strayed, as it so often has, from the noble ideals upon which it was founded. I don’t think that feeling, or the protests it engendered, were anti-American. I think they were wholly, unabashedly American.”

German rock

Dieters-Dance-Party

Dieter’s dance party on Sprockets

Story today on NPR about German pop singer Herbert Grönemeyer, one of the more popular singers in Germany in recent years.  He has a new album in which he sings some of his best known songs in English.  This has always been a dilemma for German singers, whether to record in English, so as to reach a larger audience.  Even within Germany there have been periods when radio stations would be more likely to grant air play to German singers if they sang in English, as the overwhelming number of songs played were in English, building that expectation for listeners.  Of course this has been in issue in rock music not only in Germany but for all rock singers whose native language is not English.  Interestingly, hip-hop, has gone mostly native in non-English cultures, as can be heard in popular German, French, Turkish, etc. hip-hop groups.

Predictably in the NPR interview, Grönemeyer had to address the perennial question from the US when it comes to popular artists in Germany:  what about David Hasselhoff,.  American journalists may know very little about contemporary German music, but they do know that David Hasselhoff has been very popular in Germany, not just for Bay Watch, but for his singing, hard for Americans to understand.  Scott Simon in the interview also brings up the old stereotype chestnut that in Germany there is “taste for some of the darker material than we do in this country or they do in the U.K.”  You need only consider the popular SNL skit Sprockets, in which Mike Myers played the very dark and eccentric Dieter (“Touch my monkey!”) to see this idea perpetuated.

Hava Nagila

hava_nagilaInteresting story today on NPR about a new movie documentary on the classic Jewish song Hava Nagila (Hebrew for Let  us rejoice).  Anyone having attended a Jewish wedding or bar mitzvah is likely to have heard the song and seen the ceremonial hoisting in the air of the honored individual(s) in a chair. According to the story, the song originated as a Hassidic nigun, or wordless prayer or melody from Ukraine and text was subsequently added by Jewish musicologist, Abraham Zvi Idelsohn in 1905.  Idelsohn had lingusitic and political movitations, according to film maker, Robert Grossman: “There were people who were, of course, revitalizing Hebrew as a modern spoken language, and then there were people who were using that modern spoken language to create poetry…Edelson had in his mind that if you could create a repertoire of folk song drawing on the roots of Jewish music from all over the world, in this case from Eastern Europe, and added Hebrew lyrics to it, then you could create a folk repertoire for the new nation, and that would help build the nation.”

Strangely, Hava Nagila became widely known in the United States, through its performance by Harry Belafonte, someone culturally far removed from the song’s origins.  In the film, Belafonte recalls singing Hava Nagila in Germany, “It hit me kind of hard that here I was, an African American, an American, standing in Germany, a place [that] just a decade earlier had been responsible for one of the greatest mass murders the world had ever known. And here were these young German kids, singing this song, this Hebrew song of rejoicing. ‘Let us have peace. Let us rejoice.’ And I got very emotional.”

Competitiveness

Screen Shot 2013-02-03 at 10.26.11 PMI’m in the process of watching the Super Bowl, a quintessentially American institution and a demonstration of American competitiveness. There’s a lot of stake of course, but do the coaches and the players have to look so angry all the time? It started with the coin toss when the team captains frowningly looked away from each other. As the game progresses, lots of scowling players.  The tv commentators commented that the respective coaches encourage their players to be “on edge”.  In fact, lots of pushing and near fights.  But for me the most interesting scowling was the “game face” on Beyonce throughout her half time set. Does even music have to have an “in your face” attitude? This is an image of America that’s being projected to the rest of the world, in an event broadcast to a large number of countries.

Here’s another TV program which may not embody the best of a culture:  the German variety show, “Wetten, dass…” (I’ll bet that…).  An article in today’s NY Times, “Stupid German Tricks, Wearing Thin“, discusses the drop in popularity of the show which has run since 1981 and has been one of the highest profile shows on German TV.  I have to agree with the article that it’s astounding that such a dreadful show would have such a long run, given the grand cultural traditions in German literature and music.  Of course one could say the same for the popular German singers of recent decades such as Peter Alexander or Heino.  Could it be that the silly antics of “Wetten, dass..” (contestants bet with the host and others that they can win ridiculous challenges) are a release valve for the seriousness of German life? German society, like that of the US, is largely individualistic and values and rewards individual achievement. But for Germans, entertainment is making a mockery of that competitiveness.

Reconciliation

barbaraStory today on NPR about the song “Gottingen” from French singer Barbara.  A beautiful song, beautifully sung, on an unlikely subject for a popular French song – French-German friendship.  This was even the more the case at the time when the song was written, in 1964, when the memories of WW II were fresh.  More surprising is the fact that the woman who wrote and performed the song, whose real name was Monique Andrée Serf, was a French Jew, who had a traumatic childhood, hiding from the Nazis in occupied France. She had been invited to come to Göttingen, a small university town in central Germany. She categorically declined the offer, but eventually was persuaded to come for just one concert, but then ended up staying for a week, having been overwhelmed by the positive reception and the friendliness of the people.

At the end of the week, she wrote the moving tribute to the city, in which she dares to compare the sleepy German town to Paris.  She celebrates “les enfants blonds de Göttingen” (the blond children), the Grimm fairy tales (Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm were professors there), and the dark soul of the Germans (“Eux, c’est la mélancolie même” – with them it’s melancholy itself).  The images strike us today as stereotypes, but they are positive – not like the negative images prevalent at the time in France. The song had an impact on the relations between the two countries and has been referenced by politicians from both Germany (Gerhard Schröder) and France (François Mitterand).

Desert chamber music

Recent NPR story on the music of Sidi Touré And The Sonic Heritage Of The Sahara. Beautiful guitar music – delicate and comples – against the backdrop of a region (city of Gao in Northern Mali in Africa) torn by ethic conflict.  His music harkens back to the Songhaï Empire, which ruled the region in the 15th and 16th centuries.  Tuareg rebels captured the city of Gao in March and proclaimed a Tuareg homeland that they are calling Azawad.  It’s amazing how much great music comes from Mali, much of it going back to ancient traditions, particularly from the Mande Empire.  What makes the music today so good and different is the mixture of many ethnic cultures, including French and Arab, that continues to influence Mali musicians.

Korean Rapper

tabloInteresting story today on NPR about Tablo (Dan Lee) a popular Korean rapper. Intriguing from a cross-cultural perspective.  Part of his rise to popularity in Korea was tied to the fact that he had two university degrees from Stanford – hardly an auspicious background for a U.S. rapper. Highlights the very high role education plays in Korean society.