Monday, July 27, 2009

‘BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATERS

“Go to the door, get frisked, just in order to get in.. and if you wasn’t from this town, then you couldn’t fight and win…” MC Shan, “The Bridge”, 1986

So, as President Obama made his pitch for health care reform at a White House press conference, a seemingly left-field question asked him to address the recent confrontation between Harvard Professor Henry Louis ‘Skip’ Gates and members of the Cambridge, Massachusetts police force. What is known is that Professor Gates had recently returned home from a trip overseas. Apparently at the time, there was a call made to local police alleging two black men were trying to break into a local home. The slightly built Dr. Gates had trouble opening his front door, and asked his driver’s help. Shortly after entering his home, police showed up.

“The bridge is over, the bridge is over… biddy-bye-bye.. the bridge is over, the bridge is over, hey-hey…”
Boogie Down Productions, “The Bridge is Over”, 1986

Arrested Developments

From there, the accounts vary on what exactly happens next. Dr. Gates claimed that the police were being hostile and belligerent—refusing to leave after he confirmed that he was a resident of the house and refusing to give him their names and badge numbers. The arresting police officer, Sgt. James Crowley, claims that Dr. Gates was being hostile and belligerent. Dr. Gates was ultimately charged with disorderly conduct—a charge that was dropped as the story went national.

“..The term they apply to us is a n-----; call it what you want ‘cause I’m coming from the corner, same applies with a PH. D.”
Chuck D, “Tales from the Darkside (Endangered Species)”, 1990


President Obama’s initial statement was to say that the police acted “stupidly”, which caused a firestorm of backlash, certainly from conservatives who feel that a President should not be commenting on a private citizen’s legal problem (funny, that wasn’t the case with Terry Schiavo), let alone openly criticize law enforcement authorities. Certain pundits now seek to use this as an example that Obama is out of touch. Plenty of folks are looking at it as just another ‘liberal intellectual elitist’ seeking publicity. “Racial profiling? Pfaw!” Once again, where people fall in this debate depends on their cultural position. For sake of (relative) brevity, I’ll defer to some statements I made in a blog well over a year ago (3/21/08; in italics):

It’s like this. Say I’m minding my own business in my house. Looking out the corner of my eye, I see the neighbor’s kid in their yard; he’s trying to hit a baseball by himself. Suddenly, crash! A window breaks, and I see there’s a baseball. Looking directly out the broken window, I see the neighbor’s kid with the bat, still in his yard, staring right at me. So I walk over, knock on the neighbor’s door, and the kid’s dad answers. I explain to him nicely that apparently his son hit the ball that broke my window. But Dad isn’t trying to hear any of this. “Not my son! He’s too classy!” Incredulous, I still try to nicely explain what I saw with my own eyes and the evidence at hand. Says Dad: “What ball, and what bat?” I’m more than a little flustered, now, but I’m keeping my cool.

Then the son shows up, and I ask him to tell his Dad what happened. The son starts parroting Dad, claiming he was trying to fry ants with a magnifying glass. Then Dad takes it to another level: “How do I know you didn’t break your own window?” Only when I finally blow up and start cursing him out, then I can probably find myself getting labeled as A Troublemaker, and maybe the next day I find myself with a citation for not having my front yard bushes trimmed to some arbitrary figure. Insult upon injury. Your intelligence, your ways of reasoning, your method of interpretation, is always called into question when it contradicts something within white cultural defaults. Your grievances, your concerns, are not addressed, ultimately, because they are not even “real”. This is the burden that black America bears that white America has never truly had to deal with in the aggregate.


It’s Miller Time… ?

Allegedly, the President has attempted to broker a peace meeting between Dr. Gates and the Sgt. Crowley, ostensibly over beer at the White House. I will not attempt to speak for Dr. Gates. I will say on my own behalf that that if I feel that I’ve been deliberately mistreated, I have no interest in trying to settle things by bonding over beer (and not just because I’m not huge into beer). Even if there was unlimited iced tea being served, I would have no interest in invalidating my experience to appease the skepticism of others.

“Siberians no better than Nigerians.. My nationality’s reality; And, yo—a prejudiced man is of a devil mentality…”
Kool G. Rap, “Erace Racism”, 1990


I don’t feel obligated to convince anyone (in particular, law enforcement apologists, or self-described moderates who feel that racism officially ended with Obama’s election) that I’m not the kind of (black) person who constantly looks for any angle to whine or seek victimhood. I am not, for example, someone who finds fault with the fact that most commercially available paper is white (and, apropos of nothing, I would be remiss not to point out that its original form tends to be brown before bleaching makes it just right for our printers). Still, I feel that searching for common ground in situations like this—even as espoused by the President—is quite overrated; especially if the other party feels I have to pass some litmus test just to prove I belong. If someone considers that as ‘burning bridges’ then so be it: Perhaps the toll is too great.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Black Is Back (All In We’re Gonna Win?)
rap,old school,public enemy
“Radio stations, I question their blackness; they call themselves black but we’ll see if they’ll play this”
Public Enemy, “Bring the Noise”, 1987


Longtime U.S. congressional representative John Conyers is promoting a bill (H.R. 848) that would revise practices in American radio stations. Specifically, it would call for royalties to be paid to artists whose songs are played on the air (even if they are not the composer or hold the publishing rights).

Cathy Hughes—who is African-American—is one of the most prominent voices against the bill. She’s CEO of Radio One Network, which in the Detroit area owns WCHB 1200 AM (Gospel & Talk), Hot 102.7 FM (Hip-Hop/R&B) and 105.9 KISS FM (Contemporary/Classic Soul). The ‘Save the Radio’ campaign seeks public support to stifle the bill. The argument is that the implementation of paid royalties for every spin would bankrupt minority-owned and low-power radio operations. The website http://www.saveyourradio.org/ offers a litany of reasons why the bill should be blocked from passage. Such figures as Duke Fakir of the Four Tops has come out in support of the bill. Select politicians and activists (including Al Sharpton) have come out against it.

I have to say that I really don’t feel a heck of a lot of sympathy for these stations who are complaining the loudest. The current state of ‘urban radio’ (decades ago, simply ‘black radio’) could be a hell of a lot better than it is now. As it stands, not much if any stylistic diversity is being given any love on the playlists of these stations. In this current era of heavily corporate-owned-and-managed radio, almost nobody is allowed to break "format" and push anything new that could catch on, so a status-quo of styles is constantly reinforced. A regional program director for a Clear Channel-affiliated station in Detroit may not even have to live in Detroit.

Local up-and-coming artists tend to be barely heard, with scant few exceptions. I went to a Michael Jackson tribute event at downtown Detroit venue Chene Park a few weeks ago, and most of the artists who performed were local; most were pretty good. A few months ago I checked out a concert from a hip-hop group that hails from Senegal. You have to check for these artists’ material on the Web, though; it’s not on terrestrial radio.

My take is that a lot of it has to do with the undercurrent in black America of looking at non-American black cultures as "foreign/weird/backwards", and tacitly if not blatantly assuming that black-American derived artistic contributions are the only "standard" that matters. There’s also the undercurrent of overdependence on radio for information in general.

reggae,marley
"You can fool some people sometimes... but you can't fool all the people all the time"
Bob Marley, "Get Up, Stand Up"

Look at how during Bob Marley's life he wanted to be on black/R&B radio, but it didn't happen. During the 1970s, outside of Caribbean-American neighborhoods, reggae didn’t seem to have much pull in black America, though plenty of white hipsters got into it. It took Stevie Wonder doing a song like "Jammin" (http://tinyurl.com/3wpoo5) to introduce a reggae-style song to the "mainstream" of the black American community (also, Rick James' "Mary Jane" (http://tinyurl.com/5frut8), the main rhythm track, was reggae-derived.) Stevie and Bob were supposed to do a joint tour circa 1980, but Bob's cancer worsened and he died. Going into the 1980s, Eddy Grant's "Electric Avenue"(http://tinyurl.com/3awcmd) and Musical Youth's "Pass the Dutchie" (http://tinyurl.com/3mgm3e) were looked at as novelty hits. It took the eventual rise of hip-hop and its reggae connections to finally get Caribbean-derived songs on urban radio on a regular basis. Even today, no reggae is on the "classic soul" stations.

afrobeat,funk,african pop
Black musical diversity is not really promoted. ‘Classic Soul’ and ‘Smooth Jazz’ stations don’t play anything from the late Fela Kuti. How about some reggae beyond the most obvious hip-hop-dancehall artists? How about some black rockers? Even the exalted Prince doesn’t get the spins that he used to in his 1980s heyday. Lenny Kravitz might as well be from Mars.
rocker,lenny,black

Watching cable TV, I like to check out MTV-Tres. Plenty of the programming features videos from Latin hip-hop and reggaeton artists; songs which would seem to have a welcome home on urban-format stations—but they’re totally absent from 'standard' urban radio. Active middle-aged rappers like Chuck D, KRS-One, even LL Cool J have been shunt into a limbo where they’re apparently not hot enough to be played alongside Soulja Boy but obviously too hip-hop for an ‘adult soul’ station. Where’s the hip-hop equivalent of a classic-rock station?

afrobeat,african pop,youssou
When it comes to AfroBeat-type recordings, like Youssou N’Dour, etc., they have a cult of black American fans (usually well in their 20s or older, or maybe they’re children of African immigrants) who have awareness and who are into this. But these artists are not remotely uplifted compared to others.At minimum, the urban format stations should have an ‘alternatives hour’ every day of the week, showcasing funk/jazz/hip-hop/soul from different parts of the globe. Local artists shouldn’t have to make their name known in New York or Los Angeles before Chicago or Detroit stations give them a chance to be heard.

There is a wealth of interesting music (especially from global artists) that is not getting the exposure it deserves. Conyers’ bill definitely needs to speak to these issues in addition to fairness in royalties.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Health Care Scare

President Barack Obama is defending his initiative to overhaul America’s health care policies this week. He defends his plan from not only Republicans but the so-described ‘blue dog Democrats’ in Congress who are known for being fiscally conservative (or they represent socially conservative districts and they squeaked by in the last election). On the Today Show, the President explained his views further- http://tinyurl.com/l7n3nc

obama,president

"We can't afford the politics of delay and defeat when it comes to health care,"- President Obama, at Children's National Medical Center, 2009.

Instituting a national health care plan is important for me because I believe that in the wealthiest country in the world, no one should have to suffer from the lack of health care. It is virtually unconscionable that as of 2009, the United States still does not have a comprehensive national health care plan. In this regard we lag behind Canada, the United Kingdom, India, and several other nations. Seniors and children are among the most vulnerable population who are affected by having either no health coverage or an inefficient plan. Far too many working adults put off seeing doctors or having important medical procedures done because of the prohibitively high costs incurred, and the comparatively minimal benefits from their current health care insurance plan.

“If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”- South Carolina Senator Jim Demint.

governor mark sanford
South Carolina governor Mark Sanford

Even after being busted with his side chick from Argentina, I wonder if South Carolina governor Mark Sanford intends to hold on to his job if only because he knows he’s got a cushy health care plan (I can hear some of his supporters now- ‘stop badgering that man, he’s a Christian!’). Anyway, his salary is just over $106,000 a year; the state employee insurance plan can be found here- http://www.eip.sc.gov/index.aspx. At the risk of being presumptuous, my layman’s point-of-view would classify the good governor and his senatorial confederates (pun intended) as ‘haves’. Those who are our poorest citizens tend to be affected the most regularly by being a ‘have-not’, though everyone is affected by this.

senior medical care

Housing, food and transportation are already major expenditures for most American households. Many seniors and the middle-aged have to declare bankruptcy due in great part to health-care debt (http://tinyurl.com/pm79ol). Younger adults are saddled with debts that inevitably affect their credit rating- affecting the results of trying to rent an apartment, buy a house, get a business loan, or lease a car. The heavy debt that goes along with such things as hospital visits tends to make people ambivalent about seeking proper medical care for themselves.

dental visit

My own health care coverage (through my job) is ‘okay’, as in, better than nothing but hardly all-encompassing. Let’s not forget about dental care, typically considered separate policy coverage altogether, which may have similarly daunting costs incurred. I have been affected by this myself, as high health-care debt makes me recurrently anxious about physician visits. I suspect that I’ve needed braces on my teeth for years, but I can’t afford the steep co-pays. I also remember being ultimately sued by a medical equipment supplier, relating to a doctor’s prescription that they lost and my insurance carrier’s subsequent balking at covering any costs (Appearing at Michigan’s 36th District Court, parties representing the equipment company failed to appear—twice—but they apparently had deep pockets for appeals, which is how yours endearingly finally got zapped in the end. But I suppose judicial system loopholes are a rant for another day.)

A national health care plan should also be looked at as an opportunity to redefine the ‘war on drugs’. Look at California (http://tinyurl.com/n96847): If marijuana alone were legalized across the board, taxed and regulated, it could also become a source of tax revenue. It could partially subsidize the national plan. Social conservatives may blanch, but decades ago, well-meaning but short-sighed teetotalers wielded their influence to give America the 18th Amendment. Alcoholic beverages were rendered illegal. Lasting from 1919 to 1933, those years padded the coffers of assorted gangsters and the like before the law was repealed. Going back even further, American-grown tobacco was—and is—a major cash crop, especially when slave labor was supporting it (whoops, sorry to bring that up, the Senate finally apologized this year.) Both of these substances have since been regulated and taxed.

The national health care plan must be bold enough to include basic health care coverage for all, regardless of race, gender, age, income or national origin. Money can be raised for the plan by raising taxes on well-to-do corporations, cutting back on certain federal spending earmarks (such as two prohibitively costly foreign wars- http://zfacts.com/p/447.html. http://zfacts.com/p/272.html ), and more. As the woes of Chrysler and General Motors came to a head during this past year, one of the prominent issues that both executives and rank-and-file workers had was the status of health care coverage for employees. A national health care plan could arguably take much of the burden away from both big-time companies and smaller firms alike in terms of having a baseline alternative to coverage.

doctor's office visit

The old ways of thinking about health care must be cast aside. Reactionary obstructionism must be overcome with logic and facts. Proponents must point out that the current status quo on health care is no longer sustainable. We must cast aside such politically negative and emotionally misleading terms like ‘socialist’ or ‘welfare’ when talking about a national health care plan. We need to evolve and embrace the 21st century and be a true leader in the developed world on this issue. Nothing less is acceptable.

“All I can say is, this is absolutely important to me, but this is not as important to me as it is to the people who don't have health care.”- President Obama

Monday, July 20, 2009

Comix Reviews for the Month, pt. 1

The Brave and the Bold #24 and 25
DC Comics, 2009
SPOILERS CONTAINED
DC Comics’ The Brave and the Bold is an anthology series featuring team-ups with various characters from the publisher’s fantasy universe. #24 allows Static and Black Lightning to meet and team-up for the first time. Teen hero Virgil Hawkins (Static) is resentful that the reputedly corrupt Jefferson Pierce (Black Lightning) is the keynote speaker at his high school’s latest commencement (Virgil is still an underclassman). Flame-throwing villain Holocaust shows up to kill Pierce on the assumption that he took a bribe without proper ‘kickback’ (he didn’t, but many villains aren’t known for their deep insight). Since Pierce’s identity as Black Lightning is publicly known, the fracas starts right away—after young Virgil changes into his costume (his identity is secret), Static joins the fray and the pair join their electricity-driven powers.
#25 gives the spotlight to two technology-heavy superheroes: Hardware and Blue Beetle. Both Hardware and Blue Beetle wear high-tech suits of armor which assist them in fighting crime. Their story involves Hardware tracking down shipments of armored battle-suits being sold to gangsters and terrorists. Since the action starts off near the teenaged Blue Beetle’s hometown, he joins the fight, to the sardonic Hardware’s chagrin. The two get off to a rocky start, but start to get used to each other when the Beetle helps Hardware recover from being short-circuited (with literally shocking results).
These issues give welcome attention to ethnic minority heroes: Static, Black Lightning and Hardware are African-American; the current Blue Beetle, Jaime Reyes, is Latino. Indie publisher Milestone Media recently entered an agreement with DC to integrate (no pun intended) their characters (like Hardware) into the DC canon to fight alongside such longstanding crusaders at Batman and Superman. These are a pair of good done-in-one stories, hopefully leading to more appearances from these characters in the near future.
Punisher #7
Marvel Comics
Writer- Rick Remender
Art- Tang Eng Huat (pencils/inks), Lee Loughridge (colors)

SPOILERS CONTAINED

The latest issue of Punisher continues the second story arc from series author Rick Remender, paired with pencils & inks by Tan Eng Huat. The story involves protagonist vigilante Frank Castle—the Punisher—taking on New York City’s legion of super-criminals, who are largely led by Parker Robbins, a.k.a. the Hood. The Hood’s vast supernatural powers have enabled him to resurrect 18 formerly dead super-criminals, who are then charged with killing the Punisher or returning to the grave. The resurrected villains include a baker’s dozen of ‘Z-list’ crooks like Mirage, Turner D. Century and Birdman who were murdered in a long-running Captain America series subplot in the 1980’s. Most of them are portrayed as simpletons with little but bungled bank robberies in common. Female members Letha and Lascivious step up as de facto leaders within the group. However, Basilisk and Death Adder have already defected, kidnapping former federal agent G.W. Bridge and coercing him into helping them track down the Punisher.

The conceit of the series—so far—is that the Punisher has shifted his focus away from purely human gangsters to super-powered scoundrels. Castle’s chief assistant is Henry, who in this issue starts chafing with his boss’ s monomaniacal focus on killing targets. A brief scuffle is abruptly stopped with an ultimatum by Castle, who means to kill more criminals before the day is over. The issue closes with a look at the Human Fly, an insect-powered villain whose mental faculties have clearly been drastically affected by his mutation. After the Fly makes short work of a group of policemen, the Punisher appears in the last panel, offering himself as a substitute for Spider-Man.

Author Remender has a good handle on Frank Castle, pitting him against costumed criminals on a regular basis. The magic-powered Hood has become as legitimate an adversary for the Punisher to overcome as the various Mob bosses that have come and gone since the Punisher’s adventures first became a regular series in the 1980’s. A subplot involving tension between sidekick Henry and Castle seems to be reaching a boiling point; something to keep a look out for in future issues.