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.