Monthly Archives: August 2008

Message in the Music

The United Nations’ 2001 World Conference Against Racism official report declares (on page 10) that (bold my emphasis):

13.    We acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade, including the transatlantic slave trade, were appalling tragedies in the history of humanity not only because of their abhorrent barbarism but also in terms of their magnitude, organized nature and especially their negation of the essence of the victims, and further acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade are a crime against humanity and should always have been so, especially the transatlantic slave trade and are among the major sources and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and that Africans and people of African descent, Asians and people of Asian descent and indigenous peoples were victims of these acts and continue to be victims of their consequences;

The declaration that the transatlantic slave trade was a crime against humanity was a historic victory for the reparations movement — unfortunately, the tragic 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington D.C. came just a few days after the conference concluded in Durban, South Africa. The news from the conference was effectively buried.

Last week, a group of musicians, artists, and activists from the U.S. Virgin Islands released a roots reggae single that is sure to draw attention back to the issue of reparations in the months to come. The single, simply titled, “We Want Reparations,” will be the new anthem for the St. Croix based African-Caribbean Reparations and Resettlement Alliance (ACRRA). You can listen to the song here.

There are musicians and artists who just like making good music. Then there are musicians and artists who know that once they’ve been given the spotlight and the microphone, they have the responsibility to speak out on issues (and give their audiences information) that affect our communities and societies. This combination of music and activism is more powerful when the music (including the songs, rhythms, melodies, and vocals) and the activism (in lyrics, content, and activities outside of music) show that the musicians/artists are seeking true perfection in what they release to the public. Bottom line, the music has to be good, and the activism sincere. Put them together and you got something special.

These VI roots reggae artists fall into this latter group. Batch, Niyorah, & Danny I provide the lyrics. The music is a collaborative production of the “Zion I Kings”: a collective made up of Laurent “Tippy” Alfred of I Grade Records, “Jah David” Goldfine of Zion High Productions, and Andrew “Moon” Bain of Lustre Kings Productions. Excellent hornlines were provided by Celebrity Horns. Some choice lyrics:

“Look how dem profit from free African labor (African labor)/ Who built up dem cities and dem towns, laid down foundation without compensation (without compensation)/ Never giving nothing to the offsprings of the younger generation”

and:

“They make payment to the Jews, make payment to the Japanese/ Nazi Germany, Communist Soviet, and the Chinese/ Yet you don’t want to give what is due to we/ Haffi protest, petition constantly”

ACRRA says the song offers a unique merging of culture, information, and consciousness purposed to result in international awareness, community education, and activism in the territory.  ACRRA’s president, Shelley Moorhead (who is currently on a hunger strike and sit-in on the steps of St. Croix’s Government House seeking support on the issue) puts it best when he says:

“I am uncertain how many people in the world will pay a fee to come and hear me or any other leaders in the territory speak on a given subject. These young, talented local artists and musicians have crafted a ‘word + sound=power equation’ that regularly commands crowds of 10, 20, and 30,000 people in Europe, the United States, South America and the Caribbean who pay upwards of $20 USD to hear what Virgin Islanders are saying about the world’s issues. We are happy to now have them as ambassadors of the Virgin Islands Reparations Movement.”

Late Update: After two weeks, the Governor of U.S.V.I. asks Mr. Moorhead to end his protest on the steps of the Government House. Mr. Moorhead says he is not moving.

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It’s All About Narrative

So in my attempt to “understand” the American electorate and how we make decisions about who to vote for in political campaigns, I came across this article by Dr. Drew Westen, a psychology professor at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Dr. Westen is the author of the book, The Political Brain: How We Make Up Our Minds Without Using Our Heads. In his article, “Why Voters Say they Don’t Really Know Barack Obama (and Why They Don’t Really Know Much about John McCain, Either)” Dr. Westen explains that while we think that political campaigns (well, at least presidential campaigns) turn on substantive debate about the issues, they are rather all about the narratives you weave about yourself and your opponent. He argues that a winning campaign focuses on four stories:

the story you tell about yourself, the story your opponent is telling about himself, the story your opponent is telling about you, and the story you are telling about your opponent. Candidates who offer compelling stories in all four quadrants of this “message grid” win, and those who leave any of them to chance generally lose.

I am personally intrigued by this idea due to my own focus on and fascination with media/communications, news, and how people get their information. Dr. Westen goes on:

Regardless of how detailed your policy positions, that isn’t enough. It isn’t memorable. It doesn’t capture the imagination of a brain wired over the long years of our species’ evolution for a particular kind of narrative structure, when the only way to pass knowledge and values down across generations prior to the rise of literacy–and when our children have not yet learned to read–was through stories.

Right now, John McCain is doing a better job than Barack Obama in telling these four stories in a compelling way. I believe Westen’s article is a must read for the Obama campaign and his supporters at this point in the summer campaign. I also think that if Obama can weave together “the four stories” in this current political climate, he will have a very high chance of winning in a landslide this November.

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Just One Additional Poll Question

A Rasmussen poll from yesterday finds that 53% of voters (including half of Democrats and 2/3 majority of Republicans) think Barack Obama’s “dollar bill” comment was racist, while 38% disagree. (In the same poll, only 22% of voters think that the McCain commercial with Obama and Brittney Spears/Paris Hilton was racist, while 63% say is was not.) Watch Obama making his “dollar bill” comment and judge for yourself, but keep the following in mind:

  1. This is something Obama has talked about consistently for the last year. He has been saying that “they” (any of his opponents) will be trying to make voters afraid of him — “and did I mention he’s black?” — at a fundraiser in Florida in mid-June. Not a word from the McCain campaign then. So timing (not even a full week after Obama arrived back from week on the world stage, on which he seemed to excel) is something to keep in mind here. Maybe something of a, “Quick, change the subject” type move.
  2. Obama never said that the McCain campaign (nor the candidate himself) was racist. He never used the word “racist” or the word “McCain” in the “dollar bill” comment.
  3. Excelscior1, blogging at DailyKos, says that perhaps Obama’s comment was in direct response to a McCain web ad where Obama’s face is placed on the $100 bill, as the voiceover asks, “what will he change next?” It is possible that he was indirectly referring to this web-ad (I believe the ad first ran in late June, but have not verified that yet).

Most importantly, in my opinion, the Rasmussen poll should have included one more question that directly addresses the substance — which I’ve been saying is sorely lacking from the discussion on all of this — of Obama’s “dollar bill” comment: “Is it racist that every one of the 43 presidents of the United States has been a white male?” I think the results of that question would add some context to Rasmussen’s poll numbers. Now, it is an incontrovertible fact that there have been 43 white male U.S. presidents (i.e. all of them). This is also obvious, and I think Obama’s “dollar bill” comment basically alluded to this fact. So I’m going to have to assume, based on common sense, that the Rasmussen poll results from above and from my additional question would correlate with one another. Regardless, the results, I think, would say something about Americans’ understanding of what is “racist” and what is not, as well as well as how we generally understand racism.

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When Race is Forced Front and Center

It’s the first week of August, and instead of talking about the enormous challenges (and crises) this country faces, the McCain campaign and its surrogates have driven the “Double-Talk Express” and the debate into the mud. The last week has been almost entirely about Barack Obama and his character. The constant chatter and shouting matches on cable news have been about race, Brittney Spears and Paris Hilton. Excellent political analysis of the last week can be found in this John Heilemann article.

So all this got me thinking: is this really where we’re at in this country? Why do we settle for such garbage? The McCain campaign is hitting every possible negative angle through, as Heilemann notes, “distortion, innuendo, and outright slander.” In one word, deliberate lies. The caricature of Barack Obama is, as we speak, being painted and hustled out to the American public in an extremely calculated fashion.

I think that Bob Herbert hit the nail right on the head today by discussing what I was writing about in my last post. Some choice excerpts from Herbert’s column:

You knew something was up back in March when, in his first ad of the general campaign, Mr. McCain had himself touted as “the American president Americans have been waiting for.”

There was nothing subtle about that attempt to position Senator Obama as the Other, a candidate who might technically be American but who remained in some sense foreign, not sufficiently patriotic and certainly not one of us — the “us” being the genuine red-white-and-blue Americans who the ad was aimed at.

and

Nevertheless, it’s frustrating to watch John McCain calling out Barack Obama on race. Senator Obama has spoken more honestly and thoughtfully about race than any other politician in many years. Senator McCain is the head of a party that has viciously exploited race for political gain for decades.

This week, what many earlier this year were worried would happen if Obama became the Democratic nominee, i.e. a presidential campaign with race being forced front and center, happened. Why? Because Republicans know that if the campaign is about Obama and his race (cleverly disguised in code language like “other” and “American”), they have their only real shot at winning the election.

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