Thursday, May 01, 2014

Donald Sterling, owner of the National Basketball League team the Los Angeles Clippers, has been officially banned from any public association or site-based interaction with his team as of this week.  Sterling was also fined $2.5 million dollars.  The announcement by NBA league commissioner Adam Silver of the aforementioned sanctions happened earlier this week in a press conference.
The hotly-anticipated press conference followed in the wake of the leak of an audio conversation between a man presumed to be Sterling (which has since been officially confirmed in an NBA investigation) and a female companion, presumed to be a Ms. V. Stiviano.  On the audio, Sterling and Viviano could be heard in a heated exchange, initially concerning Stiviano's posting of an Instagram photo on the Internet of herself and NBA great Earvin "Magic" Johnson together.  The fan-photo apparently rubbed Sterling the wrong way, as he engaged in a rambling tirade concerning his preference for Stiviano to avoid publicly associating with blacks.  In particular, Sterling admonished Viviano to not bring Johnson or any other African Americans to basketball games.  Other comments in the exchange diverged into ostensibly uglier territory between Sterling, 80, and Stiviano, who is reportedly 50 years his junior.
The controversy over the leaked conversation went just as viral as the audio posting itself (initially published by TMZ Sports and  Sterling received a public thumbs down from various personalities connected to the NBA, including Johnson himself (who vented during his current stint as a commentator on the NBA playoffs), team owners Michael Jordan (Charlotte Bobcats) and Tom Gores (Detroit Pistons).  Even before the Silver press conference, Johnson expressed that Sterling should be compelled to lose his status as an owner by being forced to sell the Clippers.  An assortment of other observers concurred, and Silver has promised that he will do everything legally possible to convince Sterling to sell the Clippers.
News stories published since the controversy broke have highlighted Sterling's less-than-stellar reputation as a businessman during his decades-long tenure of ownership of the Clippers.  Sterling, who also owns various real estate throughout California (in particular, apartment buildings) was compelled to settle a racial discrimination lawsuit in 2009 and 2005 totaling millions.  NBA Hall of Fame inductee Elgin Baylor sued Sterling after a lengthy stint working for the Clippers-- Baylor eventually lost the suit, but among his various allegations were that Sterling openly spoke of his players in crude terms, and allegedly froze Baylor's General Manager salary at $350K for years on end while a white head coach was able to enjoy a four-year, $22 million contract.
As of this writing, Sterling has allegedly balked at the idea of selling the team.  In the meanwhile, the Clippers are still alive in the playoffs, and as a group they staged a "silent protest" of turning their practice uniforms inside-out before squaring off against the Golden State Warriors in a recent game.  Some observers may feel that the worst is over in this saga, and that the problem-- Sterling's racism-- has been solved.  But has it?
The notion that comes to mind for this writer-- which admittedly is pure fantasy (like the Pistons winning the title again in the immediate future)-- one wonders whether Sterling be compelled to simply abdicate the team, or perhaps only sell at his original purchase price, to the city of Los Angeles or Los Angeles County, making it a publicly owned team along the lines of the Green Bay Packers. Legally, this writer is unclear how something like that could be finessed.  But anyway, if Sterling is compelled to sell for "full price", then there should be a mechanism that diverts all profits into fair-housing-advocacy nonprofits and up-to-snuff apartments, with third-party oversight. Again, a lofty if unlikely notion.
Kudos, one supposes, to Mr. Silver, for his decisive response (though he seemingly had little choice, given the public awareness and internal vitriol within NBA ranks). However, the history of the "culture of enabling" concerning Sterling remains. Bosses like Sterling don't exist in a vacuum. Former NBA Commissioner (and Silver mentor) David Stern should be put under the microscope as well, since he ought to have been well familiar with Sterling's philosophies over the years.
It is also both hilarious and infuriating that apparently the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP was poised to give a "Lifetime Achievement" award (technically, the second such acknowledgement) to Mr. Sterling via his charity operations. Apparently their vetting process could use some improvement. Try Google, maybe?
Civil libertarians have crowed about the ethics of how the original audio was obtained.  Did Sterling know he was being taped?  Did Stiviano leak the audio herself?  Did she pass it along to a friend?  A representative for Deadspin has as of this writing confirmed that they did pay for access to the audio, but the second party was not identified.  These are certainly legitimate concerns, broadly speaking.  For now, this writer is less hung up on Miss Stiviano and her ethical breaches.  She's not innocent in this saga, but she doesn't own the team either.  Mr. Sterling may well join his wife in suing her vigorously (after Mr. Sterling was apparently doing other vigorous things with her for a while) if they feel strongly enough about the "violation". Also, whenever Ms. Viviano (inevitably) goes on the talk-show circuit (possibly with lawyer in tow), she should come completely clean about what went wrong with her sugar-baby stint.
If Magic Johnson and his current Los Angeles Dodgers partners get the nod to pick up the Clippers pink slip, it may well be a solid publicity move for the NBA corporation-- though one of the sobering asterisks in such a scenario would be that Magic would technically not be "majority" owner-- not to cast aspersions on the Guggenheims, who also are partnered with Johnson in ownership of the WNBA's L.A. Sparks. But "scandals" like this only offer surface glimpses at how the multicultural-social-equity-via-sports "messaging" of the NBA as a global brand clashes with the vast structural inequity that exists within its own hierarchies of owners and employees.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Did Hip-Hop Fail Urban America?

Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, bandleader for the Roots,  is in the midst of a weekly editorial series about hip-hop music and culture and its relationship with the current state of African American economic and cultural interests.

Thompson's second essay can be found here:

Hip-Hop's been praying at the altar of celebrity billionaire Warren Buffett for years, even if the vast majority of artists have no idea who that is..  ;)  Rappers can go on a rant against recently-embattled Los Angeles Clippers' owner Donald Sterling (bravo) but in various other aspects of their lives and songs, it's not unusual to find them openly fantasizing about having his same lifestyle as Sterling and his contemporaries, with virtually the same disdain for the have-nots: ostentatious wealth continues to be implicitly equated with moral righteousness.  Artists claim perpetual outlaw-status while several flaunt their endorsement deals/co-ventures with assorted high-end corporate brands.

It's another excellent commentary by Questlove on the current state of hip-hop music/culture. The Roots’ “What they do” has come home to roost. (Feel free to YouTube it; it's quite good). Ironically, I think Jay Z put together his own ‘backpacker’ satire video shortly after. Of course, they all did Unplugged together, so it’s not like there’s beef.

It seems like so many artists of today—in terms of lyrics-- have topics that revolve around a zone of billionaire envy and egregious mobster fantasy that I scarcely even find anything engaging with what’s on the radio now. To me, a lot of stuff that’s out now is damn near self-parody, or heck, it just is. Who’s the guy who keeps going “Versaci versaci versaci versaci” in his rap? As far the music/rhythm tracks go, whenever ‘keyboard-beats’ became the standard, I guess Reagan-era-rap-spoiled me started to find a lot of "hot" instrumentals barely tolerable.

Going to and from work, I'm usually tuned into (non-opinion) news radio or NPR. Besides that, I'll flip around to jazz/soul, country, classic rock... I’ve come (slowly back) into listening to top 40 “churban” stations (ostensibly pop/rock crossover driven with an expanded emphasis on hip-hop/R&B) in recent years. Somehow, I’m finding that quite a bit of ‘hip-hop’ has been coming from pop artists- various pop performers either share producers with rappers, (Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Kesha) or even if they don’t, hip-hop informs a lot of contemporary pop production (I'll hear a breakbeat cut/scratch on Taylor Swift and Leann Rimes songs.)

The critique that "rappers" aren't expected to be "uplifting" while their pop-rock contemporaries are allowed to be "vapid and meaningless" is valid, to a degree-- however: based on many of the interviews that rappers conduct, the self-absorption is rather grating. Audiences have been subjected for years to revolving doors of "street reporters" who nonetheless seem to have more in common with the performers from World Wrestling Entertainment. To confront any of them that what these "artists" are all about is just schtick to make their bucks is met with glowering resentment that implies a certain form of cultural treason. For many of them, apparently, the vices of the ghetto are signifiers, freely used to support their self-directed commercial enterprises.

The notion that a strip-club anthem all of a sudden makes somebody an activist/ revolutionary along the lines of Stokely Carmichel is ludicrous on its face. But this is kind of where the standard is. Performing de rigueur community service activities like donating holiday turkeys & gift baskets is nice-- but heck, when every other rap is "I've got a fleet of Maybachs and you don't", the philosophical cleavage is rather stark. Being a flamboyant self-aggrandizing entertainer doesn't make somebody Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, even if social conservatives offer plenty of "hate me now" fodder.

Unfortunately even when there’s a thoughtful reaction (and not just a reactionary reaction) to the dumber stuff in the culture, the observer(s) often get put into a zone of blanket-hater and bourgeois-flag waver. Sometimes this comes from hip-hop journos and editors themselves, when they could be aiming for the middle ground. For the urban-music mags that are still staying afloat, only the handful of megastars from 10 years ago and beyond get feature articles even if they’re still active, and you can almost forget about the cover. Hip hop's media infrastructure (terrestrial, non-internet, non-satellite broadcast radio, magazines, online) has yet to create a cultural "classic rock" zone for most veteran acts of the 80s and 90s.  That would go a long way to help nurture a niche through which veteran hip-hop acts could maintain a presence in the consciousness of the music's initial (and successive) audiences.

Monday, July 15, 2013


Justice—as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary, it is:

1. The quality of being just; fairness.

2.         a. The principle of moral rightness; decency.

b. Conformity to moral rightness in action or attitude; righteousness.

3.         a. The attainment of what is just, especially that which is fair, moral, right, merited, or in accordance with law.

b. Law The upholding of what is just, especially fair treatment and due reward in accordance with honor, standards, or law.

c. The administration, system, methods, or procedures of law.

4. Conformity to truth, fact, or sound reason.

On Saturday, July 13, 2013, a jury of six people delivered the verdict of ‘not guilty’ concerning the trial of George Zimmerman, who was charged with 2nd degree murder regarding the 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.  State prosecutors had successfully given jurors an additional optional verdict, one of manslaughter, but jurors decided that Zimmerman was not criminally culpable for shooting the teenager.
“All of us are endangered, damn!” - Chuck D, “Tales from the Darkside”
The basis sketch of the case concerns this:  On February 26, 2012, the then-28-year-old Zimmerman, a resident of Sanford, Florida, and the son of a retired judge, spotted Martin walking home on the night of their confrontation.  Zimmerman, a self-described neighborhood watch volunteer with a concealed pistol license, called 911 and proceeded to rant about alleged criminals in the neighborhood.  He was advised by police not to follow Martin, but did so anyway, apparently at one point leaving his car to pursue Martin on foot.  Martin was unarmed, only having a canned beverage and a packet of candy on his person.  The specifics of the fight that progressed were in dispute during the trial, including the source of a voice on a phone call that Martin made to classmate Rachel Jeantel as he was being followed by Zimmerman.  Ultimately, Martin died from a single gunshot wound to the chest.
“They shot down one, they shot down two, now tell me what the $&@# am I supposed to do?”  Boogie Down Productions, “Love’s Gonna Getcha”
Initially, Sanford police did not charge Zimmerman with a crime, simply sending him home after a brief interview at police headquarters.  The subsequent explosion of public attention brought to the case, including local demonstrations in and around Sanford prompted a special prosecutor to be appointed by Florida’s governor—months later, the investigation resulted in charges of 2nd degree murder for Zimmerman.
Racial conflict was at the forefront of this case from the beginning.  The shooting victim Martin was black; Zimmerman identifies as Hispanic via his mother, who is reportedly of Cuban background.  Also at issue was the so called Stand Your Ground law, which exists in Florida and dozens of other states.  Effectively, the law—an extrapolation of the Castle Doctrine—says that any person who is under attack, anywhere, is at liberty to use lethal force against his or her aggressor.
“Your honor may it please the court, swear me in on a book full of 2Pac quotes..” Street Sweeper Social Club, “Fight! Smash! Win!”
In court, state prosecutors deemphasized any racial context to their portrayal of Zimmerman’s behavior.  Prosecutors said that Zimmerman profiled Martin, but not racially.  As the trial progressed for four weeks, numerous witnesses were called to the stand, including residents of the gated community where the incident occurred and Martin’s friend Jeantel.
The defense team “highlighted” its assertion that Martin was the aggressor in his confrontation with Zimmerman by pointing out Martin’s previous brushes with mischief:  a school suspension for Marijuana residue being discovered in his book bag; a school investigation into stolen jewelry that resulted in neither suspension nor criminal charges; most spuriously, separate photographs of Martin wearing a hooded sweatshirt and smiling with a gold-plated “grill” mouth insert.
After the prosecution and defense both concluded their cases, the jury was sent to deliberation on July 12, delivering its verdict the following evening.
“They declared the war on drugs like a war on terror but what it really did was let the police terrorize whoever…”  Killer Mike, “Reagan”
The ‘not guilty’ verdict spawned protests in several American cities, including New York City, San Francisco, and Atlanta.  Thus far, the public demonstrations have been largely without violent incident.
Zimmerman, legally, is a free man.  Some observers, especially on social media, have expressed the idea that he will be a pariah for the rest of his life—fairly or unfairly.  As of this week, the U.S. Justice Department confirmed that it have reactivated an investigation into whether Zimmerman violated Martin’s civil rights by accosting him on the night of February 26.
“It's just I'm getting heated by the way things is, who says racism ain't the same biz?” King AdRock, “Kickin’ Wicked Rhymes”
Considering the Zimmerman supporters who are now lauding him, his defense team, and even possibly the jurors to a certain conservative-culture superhero status, one suspects that their economic future may be more prosperous than not.  Given what often transpires in the aftermath of such high-profile court cases, several among them may soon become published authors and paid lecturers.  In the case of Zimmerman himself, his acquittal means he can bypass any sort of restrictions like the 'Son of Sam' law that prevents convicts from profiting off any sort of subsequent business deals related to their crime.  Double jeopardy status is also in effect, so he cannot be tried again for the same charge.
The Martin family, who established a nonprofit foundation in Trayvon’s name, have vowed to advocate for the repeal of Stand Your Ground law.  They are also exploring the possibility of a civil suit, according to Martin family attorney Benjamin Crump.
Justice, despite the dictionary definition, is a severely subjective concept.  It is an abstraction, yet rooted in the deep structures of any given culture.  In a country like the United States, its multicultural masses of varying ethnicities, economic strata and career conditions make for what can be wildly divergent interpretations on what justice—legal, moral and ethical—can or should be.
“Your laws are minimal… ‘cause you won’t even think about looking at the real criminal.”  KRS-One, “Sound of da Police”
Justice does not exist until laws like “Stand Your Ground” are declared unconstitutional and voided.  In essence, these laws (which often find their origins in the lobbying by well-funded policy think-tank organizations like The American Legislative Exchange Council) have enabled people to effectively kill others unprovoked, and provided that the incident occurs in isolation, the surviving party can create any story that fits a convenient narrative.
In the Zimmerman trial, the US justice system failed to protect one of the country's most vulnerable demographics: its children. Post-verdict statements by the defense team and others who support the acquittal seem to be not only celebrating the exoneration of Mr. Zimmerman, but also apparently celebrating the shooting death of this unarmed 17-year-old boy—who is black.  As such, a ghastly, abhorrent ideology being uplifted here, the likes of which is scarcely addressed in the mainstream of the culture, but which is frequently discussed in black households:  the idea that African American life is considered by the majority culture to be cheap and unworthy of mourning, and that black males in particular are assumed to be of a criminal class by their very existence, even as early as childhood.
“…But I suppose the color of my clothes match the color of my face as they wonder what’s under my waist..” - Chuck D, “Tales from the Darkside”
‘Sundown towns’ are an almost forgotten part of American history.  These were cities—statistically, largely in the North and the West— and to be clear, many of them still exist—where African Americans were openly told that they were not welcome except as daytime laborers or servants.  To be seen “after sundown” was to be met with arrest, assault, or, yes, murder.  The Sanford police department’s already reportedly strained relationship with African Americans is perhaps now irrevocably conflated with sundown town policy.  Ironically, the new chief, replacing the fired former chief Bill Lee, is Cecil Smith, who is black.
“Is it because I was caught in production, when a young black life means nothin’?”  Ice Cube, “The Product”
The jury’s verdict in the Zimmerman trial reinforced the loathsome narrative that African Americans—especially if they are seen in a neighborhood where they are not the dominant ethnicity—by default are to be feared, surveilled, provoked at will, and if so desired, killed with impunity.  Justice does simply not exist until cultural narratives like the one Zimmerman’s defense team promoted, and the jury to all appearances accepted—that Martin was a vicious hoodlum on a rampage with intent to commit mayhem— are also voided in the hearts and the minds of Americans writ large.