The struggle for social justice is an all-tilt fight that most people don’t get a choice about. If you do get the privilege to reflect on where you fight, then ethically I think you should double down on your work.
Breai Mason-Campbell outlines the particular tensions with whiteness and the risks that encountering the pain of Coronavirus might encourage some white folks to tighten up and cling to white supremacy even more. The whole essay, published in a new magazine Pipewrench, is a potent read and a compass to guide us through the dark.
“Devoid of the necessary layers of sturdiness and resilience, Nice White Folks were not prepared for a pandemic that required universal suffering under the weight of compounded and inescapable realities. This was a foray into unknown pain where White Supremacy, clad in a MAGA hat, revealed its capacity to make pawns out of its own members. This was unadulterated Whiteness, feudal and indiscriminate in its destructive impulse and maskless irreverence. Being the teacher, and the nurse, and the custodian, and the cafeteria manager, and the boss or the employee, and the significant other, and the caretaker of older parents, bound to keep smiling and keep working because your life or someone else’s depends on it — it hurt in a way that Whiteness is not supposed to hurt. It broke the rules.
It also created an opportunity for real change. This pandemic squeezed empathy from a stone by thrusting White people into the uncharted territory of unmerited adversity; plagues, as the Hebrew Bible teaches us, open small windows of opportunity for liberation. Still, even after the worst pestilence temporarily broke Pharaoh’s resolve, abuse of power would not learn. His grief turned to blind rage and a renewed commitment to destruction and domination at any cost. White Power may be down, but it’s not out. “
Hearing the verdict doesn’t change the necessity for change and one white police officer having a moment of accountability doesn’t change the larger stakes and the necessary work.
Making things is important. I believe strongly in Do-it-yourself and love creating things. My own hands on skills are improving every day and I feel like it is a conscious effort to be part of creating and repairing things in a throw-away society.
We are encouraged to throw away broken things and buy the replacement. We are taught to accept the constant cycle of consumer capitalism which teaches that we all lack and that buying things is the only way forward – and that those things are likely to break and we’ll have to repeat the cycle.
Most people I know aren’t pure vegan monks who make their own gruel by growing grain in their yard. Most people know that the system is rigged and have very legitimate primary emergencies for consuming. Inconsistency in this case is evidence of the ever-present nature of the problem – that there is no space free of consumer capitalism. Knowing that we are fucked isn’t all that helpful.
Enter Van Neistat who has successfully kickstarted a sort of autobiography of a self-styled repair man (conscious choice of Neistat). The first video I saw was about his stint as the repair person for a large museum installation that takes a more personal turn when the installation is moved to Berlin. Shout out to my homie JMORG who hipped me to this series.
There are other threads to be pursued in the area of repair as existential location to critique capitalism. (You could debate whether Van Neistat is doing this – I certainly am). Thomas Twaites work to create a toaster from scratch operates in similar terrain.
Both are theatrical ways to make visible just how far most people are away from repairing their own stuff. They also point out what it makes to construct or repair anything.
The downside of both projects is that they sort of idealize those brave (usually male) nostalgic figures who against-all-odds learn how to repair or build things. They make the work seem next-to impossible and don’t really invite other people to actually get their hands dirty. I also loathe the single dude genius trope. I rather like the idea of feminist and anti-racist maker spaces where young people learn by doing with a few old folks brought along.
In my current period learning about audio and electronics I’ve come to really appreciate those folks who came before me. Usually I like people who seem humble and invite you to experiment because they make it seem easy. One way is that they will usually joke about their own failings or seem accessible.
Alienation is the trick to subvert our powers of self expression and creativity. Combatting the overwhelming invitation to despair is hard some days. Learning to create, repair and make things can be a part of finding your own power.
On January 6, supporters of the sitting president of the United States attacked the United States capitol and rioted inside the building. The stories, images and fallout are all visible and well documented. Here is how I understand that we got here:
In the 80s, republican operatives, mapping demographic changes and voting assumptions began to see rising numbers of people of color as a threat to the electoral power that they had held. Billionare conservatives started funding very specific media sources (Breitbart, Fox News, Daily Caller) to make money from a new market – white people who could be made angry about changes for justice in order to create an enthusastic white supremacist voting block to keep republicans in power.
In their mind, there were just a few short decades to go until the showdown, so they strategized in a couple of very focused ways to ensure that conservative business leaders could resist.
They funded, fostered, nurtured white anger against people of color at every opportunity. Using the axis of race, right wing journalists could re-articulate crushing poverty as the fault of the gains of people of color. It was the Southern Strategy on steroids.
They invested heavily in controlling the courts. Federalist society, nurturing young conservatives, scholarships, mentorship, and guidance to create targeted young right wing ideologues ready to carry the white supremacist mission long after they are dead.
They worked hard to win state legislatures, and use gerrymandering to minimize the power of voters that didn’t vote republican.
They succeeded in establishing a relationships to politicize videogame players and an emerging online troll culture to embrace the symbols of white supremacy with ease and comfort.
They absorbed / hijacked the Republican party in the 2010s and reassured the traditional elements of that coalition that the gains in power would be worth the harm to the nation. Corporate donors, philanthropists, government agencies, and many others became complicit in a full-fledged white supremacist government structure working under the Trump administration to do active harm to people of color at almost every turn.
Here is where we often get it twisted. The justifications and explanations for each of these activist strategies are fairly well documented. The key question is how do a small number of very privileged republican organizers spin this strategy? What do they specifically say and to who – these questions can be part of the educational work to innoculate future fascist moments. In this case, the narrative of white supremacy was the only communiciation strong enough to push working class white people to harm people of color and it was buoyed by hatred of women and an anger at lack of white solidarity.
There are a lot of issues of accountability that will be navigated in the next few weeks. Criminal charges for those who killed a cop, resignations from those leaders who are identifed as responsible (or those who are scapegoated). And this rupture will open the space for new policies that will often have profoundly negative implications for people of color, poor people, women and disadvantaged folks (increased surveillance, new anti-terrorism laws, policing in communities of color etc). To rush into policy-making without reflection is a terrible path forward.
We should take stock of the recuperation efforts. Examine those who played a role, or had been connected to the violence and some-how are attempting to detatch themselves. We should be asking how the invitation was framed such that it made sense to so many people. But finding access points is important.
My first off note about this was Strava – the bike riding app told me that it didn’t support the insurrection against the US government and weren’t cop killers in an announcement at the top of the app. Well yeah . . . you are supposed to be an app that tracks my cycling miles, I hadn’t honestly assumed that you were in favor of a violent overthrow of the government by Nazis and their allies.
“What we saw in the US Capitol this week was the antithesis of what Strava stands for,” the letter read. “It was internal terrorism and we denounced it. Whatever the limits or flaws our democracy may have, we believe that we must protect it. ”
“This is not about politics. These are fundamental principles in which we deeply believe: treat ALL people with decency, respect and fairness ”. says the letter. “When you joined Strava, you joined a global community of athletes who are in line with our community standards: respect each other, respect the rules, and be inclusive and anti-racist.” (Sidenote: it looks like Strava disappeared this note almost as soon as it was made. The only reference I can find to this quote is from a weird fitness webpage that is giving me fascist vibes . . .)
We can probably distinguish those corporations who took a serious loss from their de-platforming of Donald Trump from those who chose the moment to try to forward their brand. In this case, we are talking about a corporation that commented on the attacks either for their own gain or to protect themselves from public relations losses.
Axe Body Spray for instance.
Axe Body spray is the worst. Not only in aroma, but in the toxic sexist rape culture advertising that has been marked, mocked and mapped. I’m not surprised that Axe body spray had to respond – they must know that the bogus entitlement to sex because you sprayed yourself down with duck urine is tied to the entitlement of those who tried to murder Nancy Pelosi.
“We’d rather be lonely” is the most minimizing and trivializing read on the events of January 6. To understand that Axe would go without their body spray rather than be affiliated with the murderous nazis and that they still have time to indicate that it would make them lonely is grotesque. They still want you to know that if you don’t wear Axe Body Spray you won’t get laid . . . Axe sells entitlement and in this case, a multinational corporation’s PR team put it clearly that this one was too far (but all the other normal entitled crap will continue).
I think that whoever run’s Axe’s twitter handle might not get the depth of this moment. But then again neither did the men who came to DC to murder uppity women. For instance Cleveland Grover Meredith Jr. The investigating report indicates that he voluntarily showed Federal agents text messages planning to kill Speaker Pelosi.
Misogynistic slurs have been uncovered and amplified in the quotes of those who drove to the capital heavily armed with a desire to do harm. The centrality of violence against women is really tied to the logic of the transgression of violating the capitol. The goal was similar to the early 1900s strategies of faux-assasination communications attentat – to illustrate the potential for somene to be harmed. To illustrate that a president or a king can be reached and to strike fear.
We could also examine this from the perspective of the domestic violence literature. Understanding the power and control wheel and the transgression of safe spaces to induce terror. Abusers will communicate in many small ways that the abused is not safe – including by invading previously safe space to communicate disempowerment.
There was no way to understand the photos of the dude with his feet up on the desk outside Speaker Pelosi’s office and his initial encounters with the press documenting his take on the event. Barnett is his name and we can match the entitlement and joy in transgressing with is deep hatred of a powerful woman.
Donald Trump has articulated the hurt done to white men in several divisive ways, but the deeply sexist and racist framings he has presented seem to have tracked well with the people who showed up to do harm on January 6.
Challenging white supremacy means contesting the common-sense nature of the dialogue. Fragmented social media (where people can bury themselves in media which affirms their point of view) has reached a point of insulation – where it can protect harmful ideas from critique. This means that unpacking white supremacist (ill)logic means navigating the ways that sexism and racism co-create this moment of deep entitlement and violence.
It is hard to fathom the loss of DOOM (editing note – “all caps when you spell the man’s name”). I listened to a lot of MF DOOM and spent quite a few hours discussing, debating and analyzing his lyrics. I can’t capture the depth and weirdnesss of thoughts about DOOM in a single post – every time I sit down to outline this post I get a gigantic spider web of entwined themes.
Black america, slang, diaspora reflections, coded language in hip hop, sample choices, mocking, survivorship, graffiti, families, drugs and alcohol, masking, comic books, representation, sex, communication strategies and a million other threads travel through DOOM lyrics. All you can really do is pull some of those strings and hope that they spark meaningful thoughts.
So maybe we start with the fact that DOOM wrote about his death, his legacy and the fragile nature of human existence in his first song as DOOM.
Daniel Dumile emerged in the NYC hip hop sphere as MF DOOM for the potent first album Operation: Doomsday with the support of Bobbito Garcia and his indie record label Fondle ‘Em. Although Dumile had rhymed with KMD, this was a new incarnation for the artist with a new mask, lyrical style and stylized representation as a villain – exhaggerating every hip hop trope with double and triple entendres.
“On Doomsday/ ever since the womb/ ‘Til I’m back where my brother went, that’s what my tomb will say/ Right above my government: Dumile/ Either unmarked or engraved, hey, who’s to say?”
MF DOOM “Doomsday” from Operation: Doomsday.
Dumile’s brother Subroc was killed in a car accident the same week that his band KMD was dropped from Elektra shelving their second album Black Bastards. The band was fired because of the album cover art presenting the hanging of a Sambo character – symbolizing the birth of a new Afro-centric Black man who refused to perform demeaning roles. Cue Dante Ross.
How do you make art out of this kind of stuff? DOOM is honest about his own upcoming death in the chorus, then he names the stakes. It has been DOOM’s day (centered on him) and also a apocalypse/catastrophe (doomsday) from his birth until his death. His tomb might be engraved (famous) or he may finish his run on this earth as an un-acknowledged anonymous dead person but he is going to work.
It is a weird thing to put in the middle of your comeback/vengence album. But for DOOM life and death never seem all that far apart. This is the opening track (after the intro skit) an honored place in the hip hop album – the centerpiece to tell a consumer if they should buy the album. It might seem morbid, but this is life and death stuff and that crucible produces amazing art.
Doom reports that he made the album while semi-homeless, sleeping on couches, battling doubt and an industry that didn’t understand or like him. Which forced a very intimate album. The samples are friendly (if you like 80s and 90s RnB – DOOM and his friend’s limited record collections) and looped with careful MPC skill by the masked villain himself (as he writes in “Operation: Greenbacks” he owns the crown in “microphone, beats or the wheeles of steel”).
For me this song presents a declaration of his rebirth into a new world of DOOM. The song is an invitation to understand an artist’s use of the medium of hip hop to embody his own will to re-define and rearticulate himself. From a traumatized rejected creative artist who had tried to do the right thing (KMD) to a retaliatory bad-man who was beloved and could also pay his electric bill. That transformation came through intention, lyricism, imagination and the follow-through to make something happen.
We can imagine the tomb as an end piece – the final resting place – but we can also understand the tomb as a transition between worlds. Most mystery cults (and the saccharine descendants like the masons) use simulated burial, re-birth and re-naming as ritual symbols marking a person’s change by committing to the worldview.
In similar ways the end of KMD, ending of intimacy (you don’t get to see DOOM’s face after this) and the death of Dumile’s brother come to a focal point in this song’s chorus. Like a mystery cult burying an initiate in a stylized coffin suffused in incense and low lighting only to have them emerge reborn and shrouded in a new costume and given a new name.
For the comic book loving Dumile, it is also the birth of every significant bad guy character. It is Doctor Doom from the Fantastic Four comic book crafting his metal mask, studying esoteric magic and creating the character to plague the comic book heroes. It is a great story arc for an artist and Dumile could foster a literal mask to keep the public just far enough away from the actual pain while still talking explicitly about how much he missed his brother and was still angry at the journalists and record labels that had ruined he and his brother’s career.
The new DOOM, clad in the metal mask is ready to make fun of the goody goody rappers like KMD. Not only that, he wants their money, the credit and the praise. In his mini Jeopardy segment in the song, DOOM chooses the category “Means to the end” – he will do what needs to be done to get the money. He is “Bound to go three Plat / Came to destroy rap.”
Emerging as a villain from the tomb had to be liberating – and DOOM is free to drive off with sexy women, brag about his toughness in jail, mock the current so-called tough guy rappers and play with verbal expression without any limitations other than being the best. And that is what made him a villain in their eyes — and a hero in ours.
But the annual return to the emblematic and lyrically gifted emcee is a good chance to think about Ghostface Killah in the current moment. It seems as though the hip hop of Wu-Tang golden era through the 2000s offered creativity and unlimited opporunities for growth. If you were talented, relentless and willing to match the moment then the world was your oyster. Cue the Wu Wear documentary.
Artists could make a living by spitting aggressive disrespectful bars spotlighted in videos of New York backstreets and bodegas made by friends, cousins and sycophants. I watched the RZA centered Wu-Tang: An American Saga which offers up the early years of the Wu-Tang conglomorate in glacial formation. The series has ended with the crew on the verge of what we know is industry-wide revolution.
In this series the Ghostface character comes across as heartfelt and desperate. A debonaire loyal friend with the need to earn money to support disabled siblings and a drunk mom. For those of us who spent years trying to decode Wu-Tang slang by rewinding the CD, the show was a revelation – background characters and stories come into visibility through memorized Wu-Tang lyrics. And then it all stops.
Amazing emcees with historic catalog of genre-defining tunes who get the veteran musician documentary treatment can still disappear (Ghostface Killah’s most recent album Ghostface Killahs charted at 25 on Billboard top 100, this video has a little more than 100,000 views).
I think that this experience of being squeezed out has guided Ghostface Killah to a more conservative discourse. The rhymes are crisp with clever inventive word choice (“My moms never knew she was nursin’ a wolf/And I wrote this on 9/11 covered in soot”) and the now-pattented rhymeflow that can only be Ghostface Killah (or Action Bronson).
But the subject matter is old. Guns, home invasions, objectification of women, liquor brands, fashion label, and the relentless juxtaposition of upper class symbiology brought to lower class contexts. I loved this from Ghostface Killah in the 1990s, but today it seems nostalgic and out-of-date. The fact that Ghostface created some of the most significant home-invasion fables of all hip hop history probably leads him to lean on this genre when it comes to 2019 recordings, but I find myself longing for a little more from Ghostface.
The other part that seems old is the use of the anti-gay slur “faggot” in a 2019 record. The last 30 years have been a significant period of culture change in hip hop. Hateful language and insulting slurs were the norm in hip hop and over the course of a few decades things have changed. The genre itself has opened, and the artists who record hip hop music select from a wider genre of symbols and narratives. There are quite a few hip hop artists who present a kind of repudiation of the traditional masculinity of hip hop (Lil Yaghty, Future, Young Thug).
The battle for the soul of hip hop can be understood as attempts of gender policing (Sean Price’s anger at emcees wearing tight pants). The small symbols and language of inclusion (and lessening of hateful language) should be understood as a genre discussing teaching, evolving and learning from itself. Careful observers of hip hop can map lyrical choices of emcees to understand how the discourse of the genre evolves over time.
Conservative hip hop vocalists might veer back into the gender policing of men in hip hop in order to dip into the well of hip hop authenticity. This is a tactic to identify who is real and who isn’t. But the cost is too great – the community of those who are comfortable with hateful slurs isn’t real hip hop – it is casual gate-keeping to create an artifical community that nurtures bigotry.
To understand the multiplicity of Ghostface Killer discourse should be a semester-long university course. The contributions of an artist who should be honored and critiqued in equal measure. Which is how we move forward into Ghostfacemas this year – critical, optimistic and savvy about the possibility that the next year might disappoint.
The election of 2016 marked an deep downward pull for American democratic traditions. After the election the institutions that make up government became under attack by the President and the cabinet members. Each American agency seems to have been sapped of leadership, undercut, and in many cases, the people working at the State Department or the NEH found themselves directed to work 180 degrees opposite the purpose of the agency. The Environmental Protection Agency for instance:
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, said he was freeing oil and gas companies from “burdensome and ineffective regulations.” By rolling back an Obama-era policy designed to curb gas leaks at pipelines and wells, the EPA administrator was essentially giving energy companies the go-ahead to release much more climate-warming methane into the atmosphere.
Let’s not pretend that the United States confidence in government was very strong before all this. But you pile on the increasingly refined ways that people gather news and form opinions and the genuine cynicism that everyone seems to share, and we face a deeper problem.
We risk losing the inability to discern fiction from truth – (and I’m a postmodernist), or the ability to debate complex ideas. I’m sure that the basic skills still exist on college campuses and the nod toward some shell of debate and rigorous argument can be found in corners of youtube.
Joshua Yaffa writes in the New Yorker about the continued focus on Russian propaganda (Yaffa outlines how much of this should be considered a threat) and the more problematic impact of the President and Fox News reporters muddying the waters over the significance and response to Covid-19.
Yaffa writes: “When it comes to COVID-19, the apparent result of the combined disinformation campaign of Trump and Fox News has been devastating. A working paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research in May analyzed anonymous location data from millions of cell phones to show that residents of Zip Codes with higher Fox News viewership were less likely to follow stay-at-home orders. Another study, by economists at the University of Chicago and elsewhere, suggested a disparity in health outcomes between areas where Fox News viewers primarily tuned in to tucker Carlson, who, among Fox hosts, spoke early and with relative urgency about the danger of COVID-19, and places where viewers preferred Sean Hannity, who spent weeks downplaying its severity. The economists found that in March, viewership of Hannity over Carlson, in the locales they studied was associated with a thirty-two-per-cent increase in infections, and a twenty-three-per-cent increase in COVID-19-related deaths
(Yaffa, Joshua.”Believe it or Not.” New Yorker. September 14, 2020, p. 29)
With these kinds of numbers, we need to be making the connection that information literacy is a public health investment. In 2020 being able to discern if a source is lying to you is a survival skill. Fortunately it is one that a couple of hundred thousand teachers can resolve with some investment and support.
It took three videos from W. Honky before I ran into this nice gem where he calls upon white Americans to acknowledge the benefits they get from white supremacy. Specifically he calls upon white people to film themselves articulating their understandings of white privilege. “To get white people to take some responsibility.”
Honky is light on intersectional analysis. Consideration of ability, sex and nationality in relationship to race sort of enter in the late part of the video. Thinking about all layers of oppression at the get-go, what Mari Matsuda calls: “ask the other question,” foregrounding multiple frames of identity at the same time might help support Honky’s key suggestions of accountability and public dialogue.
And of course, given that the key problem is white supremacy might one try to privilege non-white speakers? Many other persuasive people of color have made almost the same arguments and yet not had the same traction as W. Honky. We might note that those who are most deeply to benefit from white supremacy may not be listening to thoughtful women of color, but they might listen to W. Honky.
People like Honky (and myself) benefit from white skin privilege, which means access. A good example of W. Honky’s articulation of what to do about white privilege is his piece on the Bass Pro Shop (boycott).
It is an interesting arc and you come to wonder about the creator (Jorge Moran). I have a suspicion that this is a character, a performance. Even if it is, I’m impressed with the quality of the arguments, the passion and the realness. More is the accessibility – I would like to drink a beer with this guy and talk about race. He seems honest about power and at the same time ready to think slightly out-of-the-box about class, race and identity in general. He seems like the kind of guy I’d like on my team.
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