Afropunk Day 2: The Coup, Death, Danny Brown & Chuck D

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The Coup’s Silk-E and Boots Riley

We had mixed feelings about Day 1 of Afropunk. Day 2 on the other hand was one of the most musically and politically stimulating days that I have been fortunate enough to experience.

DSC_0034The day started off with The Coup‘s leader Boots Riley announcing to the audience, “We came to funk you hard. That’s easy to do. Sometimes we funk you softly… The sweet angel of revolution whispering in your ear. What does that sound like? I don’t know. I don’t believe in angels. But if I did, it would probably sound like this…” Their set did not disappoint. One highlight was the song “5 Million Ways To Kill A C.E.O.” off 2001’s Party Music. Boots introduced the song as a cover of a traditional song he once heard Paul Robeson perform.

DSC_0043Boots then presented the group’s “fiery femme fatale” Silk-E, who began a powerful soul singing showcase by saying, “We ain’t gonna talk about. We just gonna do it.”

DSC_0047The band ended their set with an “oldie but a goodie,” “Fat Cats, Bigga Fish” from their second album, 1994’s Genocide & Juice. The song, an outstanding example of hip-hop storytelling, follows a small time hustler, who learns that the real hustlers are corporate executives. Boots stepped back to allow the band’s guitar player B’nai Rebelfront unleash a filthy solo, followed by bassist J.J. Jungle doing some literal acrobatics during his own solo.

Death's Bobbie Duncan, Bobby and Dannis Hackney

Death’s Bobbie Duncan, Bobby and Dannis Hackney

The next performance we took in was from Death, a group from Detroit, who like fellow hometown hero Rodriguez was unfairly lost to obscurity before recent documentaries (A Band Called Death and Searching for Sugar Man respectively) brought the artists renewed interest and recognition.

DSC_0065DSC_0067DSC_0068Death’s unique style of protopunk was just as powerful now as it must have been in the band’s brief original career from 1971-1976. They dedicated one of their songs to David Hackney (who died of lung cancer in 2000), brother to bassist Bobby and drummer Dannis, and the group’s original guitar player.

DSC_0112DSC_0101Danny Brown was one of Afropunk’s biggest crowd-pleasers. He played some (presumably) new material from his upcoming Old album. He also returned to 2011’s critcally-acclaimed XXX, performing “Monopoly” and “Blunt After Blunt,” and leading the crowd in the unabashed ode to cunnilingus, “I Will.”

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Closing out the day for us was Chuck D, who wore a KRS-One t-shirt and performed with what he called Elements of Public Enemy or Too Much Posse. Like The Coup and Death, Chuck D demonstrated an incredible amount of energy for a veteran performer. He tossed and swung the mic, throwing it up in the air and catching it like he a quarterback passing to a wide receiver.

DSC_0181The musicians backing him up were no slouches either. He introduced drummer T-Bone Motta by asking, “Can the drummer get wicked?” That he did. Also on stage was a member of Public Enemy‘s legendary production crew, The Bomb Squad, Hank Shocklee (Chuck called him “King” Shocklee). Davy DMX, who worked as writer, producer, and DJ for early hip-hop acts Kurtis Blow, Lovebug Starski and Run-D.M.C., played bass. Guitarist Khari Wynn laid down a solo Jimi Hendrix-style by using his teeth.

DSC_0185This set was about more than just the music. Chuck D soon got into the politics that Public Enemy is known for, saying that there are “more check to check, ain’t making a check black people than ever… I ain’t talking for long, but every word I say is gonna be a motherfucker.” The group played “Black Steel In The First World” off 1988’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us BackChuck D then said, “J. Edgar Hoover set out to destroy us as a people.” He called out radio stations Hot 97 and Power 105 for playing “hate music,” or, as he put it, “Hoover music.”

Next, he addressed a subject that has been on my mind quite a bit lately. In my interview with Thoth & Lila’Angelique, we talked about how people are turning into cyborgs, constantly immersing themselves in technology, rather than connecting with other human beings. And in the recently released film, The World’s End, a group of reunited high school friends battle robots in a commentary on the insidious place of technology in our society. Chuck D said that there are going to have to be “medical services for people who keep their heads at a 45 degree angle… Be smarter than your phone. Don’t be a dumb motherfucker with a smart phone. Forget about Big Brother out to get you, people are signing up to help Big Brother.” Then he turned to the corporate suits that control the hip-hop industry, asking, “Who said it was the home of hip hop [a reference to Hot 97’s motto “Where Hip-Hop Lives”]? A bunch of motherfuckers in offices, who said they could take this shit from you. The air is the last battleground. They’ve been hating on the originators of this beautiful art form… Reclaim your air. Every city in this country needs to play local artists. Man up, local artists. We are rebellious with our homage to the people and black music, which unites people all over the world.”

DSC_0210Chuck D began the most dramatic section of his performance by asking, “What did James Brown say? “Papa’s got a brand new bag.” I ain’t James Brown, but I salute him every day, cuz I’m black and I’m proud.” He then took out a bag full of magazines and newspapers, along with a barbecue lighter. First up was Rolling Stone, which he called out for not writing about real musicians. “Fuck Rolling Stone. Don’t talk about real music.” Next up was the New York Post. When it comes to hip-hop and black people, “bad news is the only news.” They got burned, along with some other publications that Chuck D considered bad for the people.

That wasn’t the end, though. Chuck went on to say, “I don’t like the way we’ve allowed radio stations to talk bad about our mothers, our daughters, our sisters. They’ve disrespected the classic artists: DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaata, Grandmaster Flash…” Then came one of Public Enemy’s best and most well known songs, “Fight The Power,” which he introduced by saying, “We went right to a Klan rally in ’97 and played this song…” Next, he paid tribute to his DJ, DJ Lord, asking, “Before there was an MC, who’d we pay attention to? The DJ. DJs were gods.” DJ Lord then displayed some virtuosic skills on the turntables. Concluding the show, Chuck D said, “You hold this microphone like an instrument. You don’t give a microphone to a motherfucker who can’t, like Rakim says, move the crowd… I don’t smoke shit. I don’t drink. But I smoke the fucking stage.” Few in the audience could have disagreed with that statement.

-Jesse Brent and Adam Wechsler

Afropunk Day 1: Corporate Punk and The Skins

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The Skins guitarist Daisy Spencer

The consumerist appropriation of punk rock occurred early on in its history. As The Clash put it in “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais”: “The new groups are not concerned/With what there is to be learned/They got Burton suits, ha, you think it’s funny/Turning rebellion into money.” The website for the Afropunk Festival states, “the word AFROPUNK itself has become synonymous with open-minded, non-conforming and unconventional, placing the institution at the epicenter of urban culture inspired by alternative music.” Undeniably, the Festival has a great lineup, and a strong emphasis on diversity and artists with a political message. Unfortunately, Afropunk is also a corporate-sponsored event, which relies on companies like Red Bull and Absolut Vodka to keep the price of admission free. That corporate sponsorship undermines the admirable political messages of artists like Chuck D and The Coup. It also means that the speakers are turned up to unreasonable volumes (for some reason this always, in my experience at least, is the case at corporate-sponsored concerts), making the entire Commodore Barry Park deafening. And security guards in tuxedos (whoever made that costume decision for the month of August is a real jerk) guard the entrances. These might seem like small bones to pick, but it does leave the festival with a bit to be desired, especially when (on day one at least) some of the acts sounded like imitators of Korn, and DJs, at extreme volumes inexplicably ruined songs like “Billy Jean” and “All About the Benjamins” by altering them with discordant electronic effects.

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Siblings Kaya, Reef & Bayli Mckeithan

Fortunately, there was at least one group that straight-up rocked, playing a strong, high energy set of blistering punk/soul/hip-hop. The Skins are a group of mostly teenagers (and three of them are siblings) from Brooklyn. Adam and I caught up with the group’s lead singer, Bayli Mckeithan after their show. Bayli led the group in a cover of Kanye West‘s “Black Skinhead,” and introduced some of the band’s songs by yelling out, “We are all artists!” and “This is dedicated to all my soldiers. Not military soldiers, per se, but just soldiers.” This is definitely a young band to keep an eye on. Talking to Bayli made me feel a bit curmudgeonly for my thoughts in the previous paragraph. The whole experience has been fun and awesome for her, and the band, and it’s hard to see things otherwise when watching them perform or talking to them.

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WESU: How long have you been playing together?

Bayli: Just coming up on two years actually now.

WESU: Where are you from?

Bayli: We’re from Brooklyn. I live ten minutes from here. And my siblings, the bass player and the drummer, we all live together.

WESU: Did you always play music together as a family?

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Bayli: We always jammed, and that’s how the band started. We always jammed together in my basement, which is where we rehearse now. And then Daisy and Russell, we met. We always used to see each other at school, and then we met there.

WESU: What school?

Bayli: The School of Rock. It’s a real thing.

WESU: Are you signed to anybody?

Bayli: Well, we’re talking to labels.

WESU: Major labels?

Bayli: We’re talking to major and indie labels. That will probably be happening very soon. That’s what we’re excited about.

WESU: Have you released anything yet?

Bayli: We released an EP when we first started– maybe a year and a half ago. We’ve done a lot of singles and some videos. And we’re going to be releasing another EP, I think, in the coming months.

WESU: I loved your cover of “Black Skinhead.” That was so cool.

WESU: Yeah, definitely ballsy. Better than the recording.

Bayli: That’s so sweet. Thank you. We love Yeezus. We used to cover “Mercy” up until today. I guess we just love Kanye.

WESU: Would you say that you’re a punk band, or how would you classify yourself?

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Bayli with guitarist Russell Chell

Bayli: I would definitely say that we have the rock foundation. We’re a rock band. But we try to incorporate all these genres that we listen to, like punk, jazz, soul, of course classic rock and hip-hop. We try to mesh all those together.

WESU: Who would you say your biggest influences are?

Bayli: I love Amy Winehouse. As a band, we love Jane’s Addiction and Led Zeppelin, Sabbath. A lot of classic rock guys. We love the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Shit like that. Vocally, I love ’30s and ’40s jazz singers like Nat King Cole, Sarah VaughanI just really like jazz singers. Soul singers, of course, like Aretha Franklin. Janis, of course.

WESU: So have you been singing your whole life?

Bayli: I only really started singing a few years ago. Like I said, we all went to music school. I started taking guitar lessons. We had these recitals, and I would see someone have a cover show of The Beatles or Bob Marley. So I started singing there maybe three or four years ago. I heard Gladys Knight‘s “I’ve Got To Use My Imagination.” That inspired me to start singing.

WESU: Anyone here that you’re a big fan of?

Bayli: The Heavy. They just played. We toured with them. They’re the only band we ever toured with. We’ve done a US tour, cross country. They’re awesome. Definitely Le1f. I love Le1f. He was awesome. There are a lot of great great great bands. London Souls. There are some really great bands here. I’m so lucky to be playing.

WESU: I never heard of you until today, but we loved your show.

Bayli: We’re relatively new still, I guess. And I guess we’re just trying to get out there. Since two years, we’ve come so far. Literally, we were starting in the basement. And we just came back from LA, playing for writers and producers. So I feel very lucky. It’s been a really fun experience. And I know it’s going to get more amazing.

WESU: Are you doing anything other than music?

Bayli: I’m an art student. I go to Pratt Institute. And I’ve been to art school my entire life. I still paint when I have time. Mostly, we’re all into music.

WESU: Are you the oldest sibling?

Bayli: No. We have an older sibling. She’s not in the band. I’m nineteen. My sister who’s the bass player, Kaya just turned eighteen. My brother is fourteen years old, our drummer.

WESU: So are all of you teenagers?

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Bayli: Russell, one of our guitarists, he’s twenty-one.

WESU: Do you have a Soundcloud or website?

Bayli: Our website is theskinsband.com.

WESU: You designed this yourself (Bayli is wearing overalls with beads glued on in the shape of an upside down cross on the back)?

Bayli: I did this last night. So that was fun. My mother was like, “You should put an upside down cross on the back.” So that’s my mom. I will not take credit. It was so fun playing here. I love it here. Awesome atmosphere. I guess all festivals are.

-Jesse Brent and Adam Wechsler

Live from Festival au Desert, Timbuktu

Timbuktu has been a crossroads for trade and civilizations since its establishment in the twelfth century. The Saharan town has been claimed consecutively by the wealthy Mali Empire (which lasted from the 13th to the 17th century), the Islamic Empire of Songhai (that spread throughout West Africa), various Tuareg tribes, the Saadi dynasty of Morocco, the French, and finally the current Republic of Mali. As a result of these constant political upheavals, Timbuktu is home to a rich and diverse mixture of cultures. This cultural mixture was recently under threat from the conflict that took place following the Tuareg rebellion of January 2012. Since then, the Tuareg rebel group MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), radical Islamists (both homegrown and from abroad), the region’s former colonial rulers (the French), and the Mali Republic itself have fought in a violent struggle that, though now resolved, has left many residents of the region as refugees.

The most recent Tuareg rebellion was only the latest in a series dating back to the creation of the Malian state in 1960. The state itself is a creature of the carelessness of transition from the colonial era. The Saharan region of Mali (called Azawad by Tuareg) has a unique history and culture, separate from that of the more prosperous southern region. Azawad has been persistently impoverished and war-torn, and many of its residents have spent significant periods in refugee camps. Though Azawadians have suffered from economic and political oppression, their music continues to flourish. Whether as a rallying cry for rebellion or simply a part of daily routine and relaxation, music has always played an essential role in Timbuktu. So one of the most shocking and horrible results of the Islamist takeover of Timbuktu was the ban placed on music. Mohamed Issa ag Oumar of the group Imharhan told the New York Times, “The occupiers made all kinds of threats, that they would chop off your hand so you couldn’t play, or cut out your tongue so you couldn’t sing…so if my guitar couldn’t stay, I decided I would split town, too.”

The annual Festival au Désert began in 2001. The liner notes for Live from Festival au Desert, Timbuktu state that the festival’s “mission has been to bring cross cultural exchange to economically develop this desert region. These recordings are a testament to the brave efforts of Festival organizers to use culture as a means of nonviolent reconciliation.” The Festival, which normally takes place each year in January, had to be postponed this year due to the conflict throughout the region. Because of the issues in the Azawad area, Tuareg groups Tartit and Imharhan, along with Mamadou Kelly, a Bambara musician, also born in Northern Mali, traveled to the United States to tour as a “caravan for peace,” bringing the Festival au Désert with them in exile.

Live from Festival au Desert, Timbuktu is a compilation of performances from last year’s Festival, which took place just three months before the imposition of Sharia law in northern Mali. As the Festival’s founding organizer Manny Ansar writes in the album’s liner notes, “Music has no borders, no prohibitions and… it is a common good of humanity in which one can delight beyond any other considerations… The healthy meeting of cultures is the oldest weapon and today the most appropriate in the face of the violence and intolerance that increasingly immerse our world.” Many musicians still live displaced from their native land in refugee camps in Mauritania and Burkina Faso. In spite of the fear of violent reprisals for musical performance, musicians in the region are determined to continue expressing their culture and traditions.

Many different musical styles are represented in this compilation. Ali Farka Toure, the legendary guitarist from Northern Mali, whose music blended traditional Malian music with the blues, was honored by the Ali Farka Toure Allstars featuring Mamadou Kelly, who perform “Adibar.” Igbayen, an all male traditional chorus, back up a griot singer, “who tells the legend and history of the Tuareg people and their life with the Sahara” (description from the liner notes) on a song known only as “Traditional Chant.” Exemplifying the cross-cultural pollination made possible through musical collaboration, the song “Mustt Mustt” is a collaboration between Kiran Alhuwalia, an Indian-Canadian singer of Qawwali, a style of Sufi devotional music popular in South Asia, and Tinariwen, the Tuareg group that invented the genre of “desert blues” and spawned thousands of devotees and imitators both in their own region and throughout the world. The compilation is dedicated to the memory of Koudede, a musician from Niger, who died ten months after performing at the Festival. Other highlights include “Super Onze” by Douma Maiga, “a master of the traditional Takamba style” (again thank you liner notes!), which is popular in the Azawad city of Gao. Maiga plays the ngoni, an instrument that dates back to at least the fourteenth century, and evolved into the banjo when slaves brought it from West Africa to North America. This connection has been acknowledged by one of the most well-known American banjo players, Bela Fleck. On “Les femmes sont belles,” Habib Koite asks the audience “Est-ce que ça va?” (“How’s it going?”) before performing a laid back song that sounds at once traditional and current. In spite of the violence that soon followed, his performance is a warm breath of optimism and a reminder that there is a great cultural tradition in northern Mali that will survive the violence of fanatics.

-Jesse Brent

No more Al Jazeera English

To Pacifica Network listeners,

Thank you listening to Pacifca’s exclusive broadcasts of Al Jazeera English and for supporting your local community radio station. It is with great regret that we must report that Al Jazeera English is no longer available for distribution in the USA.

This happened because Current TV was sold to Al Jazeera and with this broadcast network here in the USA, they are creating “Al Jazeera America.” This is an entirely different organization, being currently built from former Current TV staff and new hires. All broadcasts of Al Jazeera English will cease in the USA on August 20th.

Pcifica has approached Al Jazeera America about being able to distribute their content for radio, the way we did with Al Jazeera English. However, they are not prepared at this time to discuss this possibility, partly because they are not fully organized and partly because they are working with stricter distribution procedures and are not sure if they will be able to make it available.

The afternoon Al Jazeera edited by Pacifica Radio ceased last month and as of August 20th the morning program will not be available.

As does your local community radio station, Pacifica is ceaselessly looking for ways to bring you excellent news and information. Thank you for listening.

Ursula Ruedenberg
Pacifica Radio Network

Daora: Underground Sounds of Urban Brazil: Hip-Hop, Beats, Afro and Dub

Daora was released on June 3rd by Mais Um Discos, a deliberately eclectic label, which specializes in Brazilian music, but is based in London. This compilation is not concerned with presenting a thorough picture of any of the many Brazilian scenes that it covers. Rather, as its title (Daora means “something that’s dope” in Sao Paolo) indicates, Daora shares the Brazilian music scene’s dopest gems– and there happens to be quite a few of them. Rodrigo Brandao put together the compilation, and his list of past collaborators– Tony Allen, The Roots, Prince Paul, various artists off the Ninja Tune roster– gives a good idea of his taste: Afrobeat, hip-hop rooted in jazz and funk, and thinking man’s electronic music.

Brandao cites both Big Boi and Arthur Verocai as influences on today’s breed of Brazilian innovators. Why shouldn’t the two go together? Verocai, whose lone 1972 solo album was first released in obscurity and later became highly sought after for obsessive record collectors, has been sampled by DOOM, whose Stones Throw labelmate Madlib has also professed his appreciation for the record. Between American and Brazilian music, it’s often hard to say who influenced whom. Of course, the Tropicalia movement of the 60s and 70s took cues from American and British psychedelia, but it twisted the music in new and exciting ways, melding it with traditional Brazilian music and inventing new innovations. Since then, Western artists like Stereolab and Beck have paid homage to Os Mutantes and others from that scene.

This is a 32-track compilation that somehow has very little in the way of weak moments.  Among the highlights are “Vestido De Prata,” a laid back reggae-psych track by Curumin (real name Luciano Albuquerque), a musician from Sao Paolo, who plays the cavaquinho, an ancient Portuguese variant on the guitar. “Balboa Da Silva” is fast-paced, funky Afrobeat performed by Bixiga 70, who take their name from the Sao Paolo neighborhood of Bixiga, which is home to immigrant populations from Italy and Africa, as well as displaced Brazilians from the Northeast. Anelis Assumpção‘s “Not Falling” first seems like a rare misfire, starting off as slow-burning dub before building up to a raucous dancehall finish in its last minute. It’s really hard to find fault with much here. The music is at once familiar and exciting– it builds off established genres, but does not repeat clichés. It fits into the long and outstanding tradition of Brazilian music.

-Jesse Brent

Thoth & Lila’Angelique: A WESU Interview

Thoth & Lila'Angelique performing at the Angel Tunnel in Central Park on July 24

Thoth & Lila’Angelique prayforming at the Angel Tunnel in Central Park on July 24

The prayformance of Thoth & Lila’Angelique is a truly unique experience. The two (together calling themselves Tribal Baroque) prayform every Wednesday-Sunday (weather permitting) in Central Park’s Angel Tunnel in New York from 3-5 PM. Thoth first showed up on my radar eleven years ago when I recall reading an interview with him around the time when a documentary about his life, Thoth won an Academy Award. Since then, I’ve accidentally stumbled into the audience of his (and Lila’s) prayformances three times, and been blown away each time. I was able to interview both of them over the phone yesterday.

What do you guys do on your days off from performing?

Lila’Angelique: We usually do all the things that we can’t do when we’re performing. We do our laundry. We rest. We work on things. Thoth works on Photoshop a lot.

Thoth: On our days off we get ready for our prayformance. We prepare our costumes. We do a lot of study and quiet time. Some times we treat ourselves to a nice meal (laughter).

Do you go out for food or do you cook yourself?

T: We cook our food most of the week, but on our days off we save money to go out, and have a nice romantic meal. We’re going to have a treat tomorrow. We also buy things that get us through the week. [Before our prayformances], we have smoothies so that we can sustain our energy throughout the day. We don’t eat anything…

Really? All day long?

T: Yeah, all day.

So just one smoothie gets you through the day?

T: Yes…. And also, the world is so… You learn to eat too much. And the reason you do is because everyone is selling food and they’re advertising really hard to people, so you have three meals a day, but you can [survive on just] a little snack. We have our snack bars right after the prayformance, and then we have a meal of whatever we feel like later. Usually [something] simple when we’re doing the prayformance five days [out of the week].

I was going to ask about your prayformance. I watched the documentary about you last night, and I know that at the time you were doing a solopera, which was all about this mythology and about a hermaphrodite. Correct?

T: I still do that.

Is there new material though that you’re working on now?

T: The new material is ours.

L: Yeah, we’ve created new material. Together we don’t do the solopera. He does the solopera every day, but we’re creating our opera.

And what’s your opera about?

L: Love and devotion.

T: They’re more miniature and more individual. They’re more thematic, whereas The Herma [his solopera] was more various chapters of an epic.

Is it still in the same world as your solopera though? Festad [Festad is the mythological world that Thoth invented]?

T: No. I can’t say it’s the same world because Festad is mythic, and we’re dealing with love and devotion and the paradigm of the movement to being.

What about the language, because I know you invented your own language. What is the language you are using now?

T: We’re still using invented language.

 So, how complex is this language? Does it have its own grammar?

T: My language has its own grammar, but what we do together is a little more simpler, more improvised.

L: His has 252 characters. We’re basically starting from the ground up again together. He built his own language and his own opera, and we’re building our own opera and our own language. His whole thing was his personal thing. He’s my teacher and he’s teaching me all the things that he learned, but now we’re building up our own thing. And we’re making an opera about how we met each other and how our lives have been. And that’s very epic too.

Can you tell me at all about that? How you met?

L: I met him in New York in the Angel Tunnel in 2008. I saw him a few times. I saw him on America’s Got Talent just in passing, and I saw him in the Tunnel and I didn’t think much of him at first. And then I saw him again, and I was really just head over heels in love basically from the moment I heard him sing, and I ran up to him, and, “Oh my God, you’re a counter tenor!” And he was really impressed that I knew that word, and I started dancing with him, and then I started singing with him. And after that winter, we teamed up and started playing together, and have been ever since.

So are you a trained opera singer?

L: Yeah. I studied to be an opera singer. That’s what I wanted to do. And then I met Thoth and realized he was making his own opera. And I found that more interesting than what I was doing singing old dead peoples’ music. That we could create our own music—I really liked that idea.

Read the rest of the interview after the jump

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