Ornette Coleman once said that “Sound is to people what the sun is to light.” Sound is foundational to the human and it enhances our other senses. For Indigenous communities in Canada, music can be a healing balm and it is essential to cultural, spiritual, and communal beliefs and daily practices. Like my previous Black Lives Matter playlist and my ENGL 125 playlist, I offer this playlist in relation to my ENGL 332 coursefocused on Indigenous literature and media with a particular focus on artists living on Turtle Island. Indigenous music unifies and celebrates, but it can also resist and serve as protest. I hope you enjoy the music and please do let me know if you have any musical recommendations to add.
Week 1: Willie Dunn, “I Pity the Country” (1973) and Native North America
“I pity the country / I pity the state / And the mind of a man / Who thrives on hate”
There is so much fantastic Indigenous music in Canada and we are in the midst of an Indigenous resurgence and renaissance in music, art, literature, and film. That said, Indigenous creators have been part of popular music since its early days even though much of the music has been forgotten by mainstream Canadians. A good example of this is the remarkable collection, Native North America (vol. 1) by Light in the Attic. The collections features music from the Indigenous peoples of Canada, recorded in the turbulent period between 1966 to 1985. The genres are far ranging, and the compilation showcases Indigenous folk, rock, and country. It is criminal that much of this music remained unheard to modern audiences and the music deserves more than preservation—it merits many repeated close listenings and appreciation. Given the current climate crises, and the need for social revolution around Indigenous issues in Canada, the music is essential and urgent.
I’ve added a number of songs from the collection to the Spotify playlist, and I want to draw your attention to “I Pity the Country” by Mi’kmaq/Scottish/Irish Canadian artist Willie Dunn, which opens the collection. Writing for Pitchfork, Stephen M. Deusner describes the politics and personal verve of Dunn’s song: “The impression is one of forced isolation, as though society has stripped away every refuge that might comfort the singer – except music, that is. It’s a startling opener to the comp, especially since Dunn’s steadfast voice conveys resignation more than anger. He’s not fighting the system, but pitying the sad men who perpetuate their own unhappiness.” Have a listen to this song and the few others I’ve posted to the playlist, but I can’t recommend the entire collection enough.
Week 2: Three Songs from Buffy-Sainte Marie
We are circling Circling together We are singing Singing our heart song This is family, this is unity This is celebration, this is sacred.
—We Are Circling
I’ve added three songs to the Spotify playlist from Indigenous folk trailblazer, Buffy Sainte-Marie. Sainte-Marie was a major part of the 1960’s Canadian folk and rock scene along with artists like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young. Her 1964 anti-war song “Universal Solider” gained her attention beyond the folk circuit. The other songs I’ve included are from her 2015 album, Power in the Blood. Sainte-Marie continues to reinvent herself and push her music in new directions, as evidenced on the anthemic title track, “Power in the Blood.” In the song, she tackles everything from the environmental crisis, biotechnology, and the perpetual drums of war. The other song, “We Are Circling,” is Sainte-Marie’s riffing on an “old hippy campfire song. It encapsulates [her] philosophy of Life: that we’re all ripening, all the time everywhere, and that’s good” (from her website). I had the chance to see Buffy-Sainte Marie in Nanaimo back in 2016 and urge you to do the same if you ever get the chance. Check out the video for “Power in the Blood” and head over to the playlist to hear the other two songs.
Week 3: Bebe Buckskin, “Muddy Tracks” and “Muskeg Blues”
Given that Green Grass, Running Water takes place in the fictional town of Blossom, Alberta, I thought it makes sense to feature an up-and-coming Indigenous artist from Alberta. I’ve chosen two songs from Nêhiyaw singer, songwriter, and matriarch, Bebe Buckskin. Given that the “interfusional”—the mixing of writing and orality—is a big part of King’s approach, Buckskin’s music also feels appropriate as she fuses rhythm & blues, classic rock, and soulful roots. Check out videos below for “Muddy Tracks” and “Muskeg Blues.” Both songs have also been added to the Spotifyplaylist.
Week 4: A Tribe Called Red/ The Halluci Nation
“After what happened in the last hundred years, the simple fact that we are here today is a political statement. As First Nations peoples everything we do is political.”
(Liner notes, Nation II Nation).
A Tribe Called Red consists of three Indigenous DJ-producers: DJ Shub (Cayuga, Six Nations), DJ NDN (Ojibway, Nipissing First Nation), and Bear Witness (Cayuga, Six Nations). The group’s music has been described as “powwow-step”, a style of contemporary powwow music for urban First Nations in the dance club scene; popularized by the media as a description of the band’s unique style, the term originated as the title of one of the band’s own earliest singles. Their music mixes electronic dance music, hip-hop, and traditional Indigenous singing and drumming. Given our current text, Green Grass, Running Water , focuses on the importance of the past within the present moment and what it means to be Indigenous now, the Sun Dance (and the importance of regalia and ceremony), I felt the group’s music was a good representation of cultural resurgence through music. Through traditional chant, we see how the past is incorporated into a modern medium: dance music. I’ve added a few songs that demonstrate their unique sound, as well as one song from DJ Shub who has since branched off on his own: “Electronic Pow Wow Drum,” Stadium Pow Wow,” “Sisters” and “Indomitable.”
Below are videos for “Stadium Pow Wow” featuring Black Bear and DJ Shub’s “Indomitable,” which was shot at the Grand River Champion of Champions Pow Wow in Haudenosaunee territory. Turn these ones up!
Week 5: Jeremy Dutcher, “Mehcinut” and “Ultestakon”
There is such incredible Indigenous music coming out of Canada/ Turtle Island. Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa is the debut album by Jeremy Dutcher and it won the 2018 Polaris Prize. During his studies at Dalhousie University, Jeremy Dutcher, a classically trained opera singer and musicologist of Wolastoqiyik descent, began working with the wax cylinder recordings of traditional Wolastoqiyik songs. Dutcher reworked these songs and even sampled some of the original wax cylinder recordings. The cover art recalls the singer being recorded while the back cover shows the sitting position of the anthropologist. Like Thomas King, Dutcher reminds us about the importance of the past while finding a way to bring the stories into the present. It’s an absolutely stunning album. Listen to “Mehcinut” and “Ultestakon” on the Spotifyplaylist and see the beautiful video for “Mehcinut” below. I’ve also posted a video with and about Jeremy Dutcher’s Juno acceptance speech. In it, the Arkells demonstrate what being a good ally and holding space looks like.
This week we are looking at Michael Nicholl Yahgulanaas’ Carpe Fin: A Haida Manga, which in some ways is a prequel to Yahgulanaas’ critically revered Red. Check out this very cool video (also below) that goes over the process of putting Red together with music from Cris Derksen (a two two-spirit Juno Award–nominated Cree cellist from Northern Alberta, Canada). Given the focus this week is on Haida Gwaii (in both our reading and viewing), I thought it makes sense to feature something about Haida Gwaii. The song, “Save Our Waters” features Mohawk (and French, German, and Irish) singer/rapper Kinnie Starr and Haida rapper, Ja$e ElNino. As stated by the director, Amanda Strong, on her YouTube page, “Haida Raid 3: Save Our Waters tells the story of what happens when Prime Minister Stephen Harper attempts to take the Bitumen Valdez Super Tanker around Haida Gwaii and up the Douglas Channel. Watch Raven Hair and Moss Head as they confront the Prime Minister in this new anti-pipeline and anti-tanker Haidawood (Gwaai Edenshaw, Jaalen Edenshaw, Ken Raj Leslie) animation.” Given Carpe Fin deals with a fuel spill that has contaminated the marine foods the village was preparing to harvest, the song feels as pertinent as it did in 2014, even though we have a new Prime Minister at the helm.
Week 8: Hip-Hop Rez Life: War Party and Snotty Nose Rez Kids
I want to focus on two Indigenous hip-hop groups this week. The first is War Party whose first album, The Reign, put Indigenous rappers on the Canadian Hip Hop radar: their song “Feelin’ Reserved” (2000) was the first major Indigenous Hip Hop music video to get rotation on Much Music; furthermore, War Party won the Aboriginal Music Award for best rap album in 2000. In a conversation with Tara Henley of Vancouver’s Georgia Straight, Rex Smallboy (the then de facto leader of War Party) states that it was natural for Indigenous youth to adopt Hip Hop as a mode of expression: “When I heard a lot of the African-American artists talking about what they saw in their communities, the social conditions, that made me take a look at what was going on in my own neighborhood […] This is the reserve—this is not Compton; this is not the Bronx” (“Beyond the Reserve”). In War Party’s The Reign, there is no romanticizing life on the reserve: it is depicted as a place of loss, degradation, and ultimately as an endless reminder of the effects of colonization. By transforming the reserve into a place of power that yields activism and opportunity, War Party spotlights reserve life to raise awareness for an area that has been marginalized from mainstream society.
There are now so many important Indigenous artists making politically charged music in Canada, but it’s been incredible to watch the rise of Haisla Nation duo, Snotty Nose Rez Kids. Given we are now reading Monkey Beach, it makes sense to feature a group from Eden Robinson’s hometown. Their latest, Trapline, is full of deft lyricism, unique beats that mix classic hip-hop with trap, and raw truths. They have so many excellent songs and videos and so I’ve featured a number of their videos below and on the Spotifyplaylist. Skoden!
Week 9: Mob Bounce, “Vision Quest”
I wanted to include another Indigenous hip-hop group from BC, and decided to focus on the group, Mob Bounce. Mob Bounce is Craig Frank Edes, aka The Northwest Kid (Gitxsan), and Travis Hebert, aka EarthChild (Cree/Metis). They deliver passionate and soulful hip hop music that blends acoustics and electronics with elements of Indigenous cultures. Since 2015, Mob Bounce has focused heavily on creating social and environmental awareness through the arts by leading workshops and youth dances to help youth explore their cultural identity. I’ve included a short video about the group and have chosen their song, “Vision Quest,” which fits well with some of the themes around spiritual awakening and the quest for social justice and truth that we see in Monkey Beach.
Week 10: Leanne Simpson, Selected Music and Poetry
This week in class we are listening to and reading the poetry and theory of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. Simpson is a renowned Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, writer and artist, who has been widely recognized as one of the most compelling Indigenous voices of her generation. Her work breaks open the intersections between politics, story, and song—bringing audiences into a rich and layered world of sound, light, and sovereign creativity. Her poetry collection Islands of Decolonial Love features collaborative recordings of a number of the poems, and I urge you to download them and give them a listen. Also, you can listen to a narrated version (read by Tantoo Cardinal on Spotify). The collection of poems is largely a balm for colonial wounds and the title—adapted from the words of writer Junot Díaz—speaks to the radical capacity of love and justice in relation to Indigenous sovereignty and relationships. I am reminded of a quote from the scholar bell hooks, “Without justice there can be no love” (All About Love 30). Simpson confronts colonial violence throughout her text, stating in “buffalo on,” “let’s admit we’re both from places that have been fucked up through no fault of our own in a thousand different ways for seven different generations and that takes a toll on how we treat each other. it just does” (85). On the next page she reminds us that what people are looking for is “acceptance, intimacy, connection and love.” Her poetics are endued with a sense of urgency and she speaks of Indigenous resilience and resurgence with the hope of finding healing.
Teaching a text like this reminds me as an educator to embrace pedagogies rooted in the practices of decolonization. When possible, this involves using sharing circles in class, having assignments that function as critical interventions, and allowing space for divergent viewpoints, provided they are not harmful. This also means allowing space for Indigenous theories of interpretation. The hope is to foster classroom spaces that challenge the colonization that affects us all, whether we are aware of it or not. I think it is paramount to make space in the classroom for the kind of theory that “isn’t just an intellectual pursuit,” but is, as Leanne Simpson describes in her essay, “Land as Pedagogy,” “woven within kinetics, spiritual presence and emotion, it is contextual and relational” (7). The challenge is to find alternatives to the Settler society model in place. Such a truly multicultural space must involve cocreative and interrelational ethics with others.
Beyond the link to the poems, I want to share a few of her music videos as well.
First up are two songs from her album, F(l)ight (2016).
“How to Steal A Canoe” tells the story of a young Nishnaabeg woman and an old Nishnaabeg man rescuing a canoe from a museum and returning it to the lake it was meant to be with.
“Under Your Always Light” is directed by Elle Máijá Tailfeathers and is filmed at The Nanaimo Boxing Club (how cool is that!?). The video features Ivy Richardson (Gusgimukw and Nuxalk Nation) who is the founder of Red Girl Rising.
Simpson’s latest book is Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies (2020), and I thought it worth sharing an immersive reading from the work. The video is really cool, and her reading takes place over a wintery soundscape of drone and vocal composed by her sister Ansley Simpson, brought to life with visuals from Sammy Chien of Chimerik似不像, an interdisciplinary collective of performance, art & technology.
Lastly, on her latest album she covers Willie Dunn’s “I Pity the Country,” which is the first song on this semester’s playlist.
I hope you enjoy her music and poetry.
Week 11: Selected Poems
This week we are working our way through the selected poems in the Indigenous Poetry Reader. Last week we looked at the poetry and theory of Leanne Simpson and this week we go back to earlier works such as Chief Dan George’s 1967 Centennial Speech, “A Lament for Confederation” (1967). We also look at contemporary award-winning poets like Katherena Vermette, Jordan Abel, Billy-Ray Belcourt, and Joshua Whitehead. Indigenous poets are producing some of the most innovative and exciting poetry in Canada, and the recordings below demonstrate this.
Firstly, it makes sense to begin with Chief Dan George’s 1967 Centennial Speech. This was delivered nearly 54 years ago. Has anything changed?
Case in point, Métis poet Gregory Scofield details the violence Indigenous women face— his aunt was murdered in 1998—in his powerful poem, “She is Spitting a Mouthful of Stars.” See the video for the poem, here.
In terms of innovative poetry, there are few poets taking the kinds of risks that Nisga’a poet Jordan Abel is taking with his conceptual poetry. Injun is built from a single Word document that is comprised of ninety-one Western novels in the public domain that were published between 1840 and 1950. Using his computer’s find function (CTRL+F), Jordan describes how he searched the source text for the word “injun”: “a query that returned 509 results. After separating out each of the sentences that contained the word, I ended up with 23 print pages. I then cut up each page into three-to-five-word clusters.” His work combines digital and analogue processes), as he describes how he sometimes would “cut up a page without looking,” while at other times he would “rearrange the pieces until something sounded right. Rather than a standardized reading of Injun—if such could even be possible—Jordan manipulates and remixes his own vocal recordings of the poem through an Akai APC mini, a laptop, and Ableton Live. For a typical DJ, the APC pads would trigger drums and other samples, but Jordan uses it to trigger his recorded voice in real time in a way that speaks to how the poem functions on the page, bending, elongating, and echoing words in a polyphonic mashup that, at times, breaks down words into phonemes and pure sound. The experience of listening to the work—with the volume level way up—is often described by listeners as deeply uncomfortable, but one that speaks to the experience of Indigeneity and the textured layers of racism in the Western genre.
The last poem, “Love and Heartbreak are Fuck Buddies,” is from Billy-Ray Belcourt (Driftpile Cree Nation) whose 2018 collection, This Wound is a World won the 2018 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize, which is Canada’s top poetry prize (Abel won it also in 2017). The work of Belcourt (and Joshua Whitehead who is also included in the collection) open up more space for grief, queer sexuality, and decolonial love.
I hope you enjoy these poems and the ones in the reader.
Week 12: Gord Downie, The Secret Path
The Secret Path is the fifth studio album by Gord Downie (The Tragically Hip) and the final album released during his lifetime. Released on October 18, 2016, the project is a concept album about Chanie Wenjack, a young Anishinaabe boy from the Marten Falls First Nation who died in 1966 while trying to return home after escaping from an Indian residential school. All proceeds from the album and book (the album goes along with a graphic novel and video from illustrator Jeff Lemire) being donated to the University of Manitoba’s National Centre for the Truth and Reconciliation project. There is also a Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund. I think it’s a powerful and sensitive reflection on the story of Chanie “Charlie” Wenjack and Jeff Lemire’s illustrations work well with the music. While it is a powerful work, it is important to acknowledge that it is a work created by two white men.
I’ve included one of the videos from the album, “The Stranger,” as well as the full album that details the genesis of the project and includes an all-Indigenous panel discussing the album in relation to reconciliation. If you have time, it is worth viewing the entire video. The panel discussion begins at 59:45.
Week 13: Week 13: Tanya Tagaq’s Innovative Music
Tanya Tagaq is an Inuk throat singer, a cappella artist, songwriter, novelist, and visual artist, from Cambridge Bay (Ikaluktuutiak), Nunavut, Canada, on the south coast of Victoria Island. While studying visual arts at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design she developed her unique solo form of Inuit throat singing, which is normally done by two women. Tanya Tagaq might be the only “pop” artist to combine free improvisation with Inuit throat singing. As Jon Caramanica of the New York Times describes, “[Tagaq] made it (Inuit throat singing) sound fiercely contemporary, futuristic even. Recalling animal noises and various other nature sounds, she was a dynamo, delivering a sort of gothic sound art while she stalked the small basement stage with feral energy.” Her album Animism won the prestigious Polaris Prize and her first novel, Split Tooth, was longlisted for the Giller Prize. If you want to learn how to throat sing, Tagaq, in jest, suggests you spend one year trying to sound like your dog. Her live Polaris performance from 2014 is very intense and addresses the issues of missing and murdered women with their names going across a screen in the background. She shows incredible range, reworking alternative songs like The Pixies “Caribou” (on the Spotifyplaylist) or making mesmerizing songs like “Snowblind” (below). I hope you enjoy her music and seek out more of it.
Week 14: Cris Derksen: Two Songs and a Performance
I am closing out the Spotifyplaylist with the powerful music of Cris Derksen. Derksen is a two-spirit Cree cellist whose music is described as “electronic cello” and it fuses traditional Indigenous music with fusion and classical music. “Round Dance” is composed in relation to traditional powwow music forms and features the powwow group, Northern Voice. I’ve also added the beautiful “We Danced Movement I” to the playlist. Her music makes for great music to write to as you finish up your papers for this class. I’ve also enjoyed watching her live performances from her living room and I’ve included her performance from the virtual cabaret Queer Pride Inside below. I hope you enjoyed the music from the playlist for this course and discovered some new artists in the process.
Ornette Coleman once said that “Sound is to people what the sun is to light.” Sound is foundational to the human and it enhances our other senses. Like my previous Black Lives Matter playlist, I offer this playlist in relation to my ENGL 125 course focused on music, literature, and popular culture. Music is a through line of the two primary texts—Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen—and the anthemic refrain of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” punctuates the final work studied in this course: Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Music unifies and celebrates, but it can also resist and serve as protest. From Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” (write-up on my #BLM playlist) to Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name,” music has played an integral role in the pursuit of social justice. That all said, get comfortable. Grab a cup of tea, coffee, or your beverage of choice, and sit back and listen.
Week 1: Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime” and DJ Techné, “Portals”
Given that one of the short readings for this week was David Byrne speaking about the coronavirus as offering an opportunity for change, I thought it appropriate to include a song from the rock/new wave band he led for nearly 30 years: Talking Heads. Talking Heads have a number of albums that appear on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, and they are probably most known for their song, “Psycho Killer.” Another one of their well-known songs, and the focus of this week’s listening is the obfuscate, “Once in a Lifetime” (produced by Brian Eno from Remain in Light). Sonically, the song is inspired by the Afrobeat sound of Fela Kuti, and lyrically Byrne borrows from the cadences and antiphony of sermonizing preachers (see the lyrics). In part, the song deals with the pointlessness of not being content with what you have. It is impossible to remove the water at the bottom of the ocean and there is no way to stop the flow of life. There is certainly a lesson here, especially in terms of how we adapt and try to remain content during the challenges presented by COVID-19. In an interview with Time Out, Byrne describes how the song came from “evangelists I recorded off the radio while taking notes and picking up phrases I thought were interesting directions. Maybe I’m fascinated with the middle class because it seems so different from my life, so distant from what I do. I can’t imagine living like that.” The song has also been analyzed as an invective against consumerism, but the central question the song asks is “How did I get here?” A question, we can ask ourselves as individuals and as a species. On NPR, musician Travis Morrison praised the lyrics saying it is the perfect song: “The lyrics are astounding – they are meaningless and totally meaningful at the same time. That’s as good as rock lyrics get.” What do you hear in them, and does the technologically outdated, but certainly interesting, music video for the song clarify its meaning? Probably not, but check it out.
Another song worth mentioning is Byrne’s Broadway cover of Janelle Monae’s anthemic “Hell You Talmbout,” which functions as a protest and uses call-and-response as the names of victims of police violence are shouted out. I am sharing the original Monae version, which feels as timely as ever, as it is not available on Spotify (but you can check out Byrne’s version there).
Lastly, I want to share my live track, “Portals.” The track opens with a sample from the Man Booker Prize-winning Indian novelist Arundhati Roy speaking about the coronavirus pandemic as a portal: “It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” With systemic injustices more visible than ever, she asks us to use this opportunity to imagine another world, which is echoed in the second part of the performance as Sun Ra envisions music as another language. There is freedom in sound (especially when it is open to different styles) to dream and shape the future, which fits with Sun Ra’s vision of music as a gateway to a better world. If you listen closely, you will also hear vocal samples from Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Charles Mingus. Will we ignore the rupture the pandemic created and return to “normal,” or will we improvise and step through the portal into another world?
A slightly different version of song can be heard on my album, Portals.
Week 2: Feelin’ Blue: Johnson, Parker, Bessie, Billie, AND Armstrong
“I contend that the Negro is the creative voice of America, is creative America, and it was a happy day in America when the first unhappy slave was landed on its shores.” —Duke Ellington, The Duke Ellington Reader, 147
“There is no true American music but the wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave.” —W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk 7
I realize there is a lot of music for this week. Too much to fully grasp the meaning of all of the songs, but hopefully even reading through these short write-ups and having the playlist playing while you read the material, or think through it, will prove helpful and insightful. Esi Edugyan also made a written playlist to accompany her text, which you can find on VIULearn in the folder for this week’s class. This week is all about the blues and jazz.
The form of the blues comprises work songs, spirituals, field hollers, shouts, chants, and ballads, among other styles. However, it took some time before the blues were as classically ubiquitous and cross-cultural as they are today. As the Du Bois epigraph elucidates, and as James Weldon Johnson accurately predicted, “The day will come when this slave music will be the most treasured heritage of the American Negro” (Autobiography 1197). The blues plants the roots of much music: it is pervasive in jazz, provides the foundation of rhythm and blues, and the twelve-bar blues progression can even be heard throughout rock and roll. One particularly common feature of blues music is the blue note, which for expressive function is sung or played flattened or bent (from the minor 3rd to the major 3rd) relative to the pitch of the major scale. The idiom itself, “the blues,” refers to the “blue devils,” implicating melancholy and sadness with an early use of the term appearing in George Colman’s one-act farce Blue Devils. Some early innovators of the blues are W.C. Handy (known as the Father of Blues), Bessie Smith, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Mamie Smith, Lead Belly, Robert Johnson, and too many others to list here. What is interesting to notice about this tentative list is how prominent women blues figures were in the creation, innovation, and dissemination of the blues, as female vaudeville blues singers were eminently popular in the 1920s.The blues genre—and the spirituals preceding it—helped materialize a classical African American canon of music (a formal counter canon to the European classical tradition), which provided potent standards off of which other artists could riff, beginning with the early spirituals. Case in point: the Negro Spirituals “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Go Down Moses” have been covered and recorded on thousands of records, becoming standards, with everyone from Louis Armstrong, Etta James, Duke Ellington, Johnny Cash, Parliament, The Grateful Dead, and hip-hop group Bone Thugs and Harmony covering the former, to everyone from Grant Green, Fats Waller, Archie Shepp, and Will Smith on the sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air covering the latter. The blues have the power to connect people across diverse backgrounds and time periods, and represents, as Black liberation theologian James H. Cone argues in The Spirituals and the Blues, “The power of the song in the struggle for black survival—that is what the spirituals and blues are about” (1).
Jazz, similar to the blues, is a distinct musical form, prominently of African American origin, which emerged in the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century, although ragtime from the 1890s is also a type of jazz. Similar to the blues, jazz incorporates, adapts, and subverts other musical elements, with early influences including “African and European music, American folk music, marching band music, plantation songs, spirituals and gospel music, minstrelsy, ragtime and the blues” (Stanbridge 286). Jazz is largely defined by its ability to amalgamate other forms, along with the music’s broader techniques, which include various rhythmic properties, from swing and syncopation to complex harmonic languages, as well as an overarching focus on improvisation.
The first song I want to draw your attention to is Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” (also known as “Crossroads”). Recorded back in 1936 the song is about the crossroads in Mississippi—“I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees”—where Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical talents. The song was popularized by Eric Clapton—who deeply admired Johnson—in the late ‘60s. Another standard and related Johnson track is “Me and the Devil Blues” (1937), which tells the story of the devil knocking on Johnson’s door and telling him that it’s time to go. Notice the call and response technique as various lines are repeated with some spontaneous vocal alteration. This antiphonic form is a big part of the blues and jazz, and it would later be heard in punk and hip-hop music. I remixed Johnson’s track with Bessie Smith’s “Devil’s Gonna Git You,” along with film and art, which you can view, here.
Hopefully, you had the chance to read James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” which introduces us to a few pivotal figures of jazz, namely Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. While Armstrong is redeemed in Half-BloodBlues, he is considered “old-time, down home crap” (although check out his “What Did I do to be so Black and Blue” for its persistent themes) by Sonny largely because he wants to play what is new and cutting edge for his time: Bebop music. I’ve written about the power of Bebop music and its relation to hip-hop before, but what is so exciting about Charlie Parker for Sonny is that he took the music somewhere completely new as heard in “Ko Ko” or “Ornithology,” which is a contrafact—that is, a newly created melody written over the chord progressions of another song, in this instance the standard “How High the Moon.” Sonny also covers “Am I Blue” (notably recorded and performed by Billie Holiday) and makes it his own.
Many of these songs would make for excellent choices for your close reading if you decide to go that route.
Week 3 (Half-Blood Blues): King Oliver, Bessie Smith, Jelly Roll Morton, Oscar Peterson, AND ARMSTRONG
I hope you are enjoying Half-Blood Blues. If you were finding the language and style difficult, I also hope that it is getting easier for you as you work through it. There are a number of musical references throughout the novel and this week I want to draw your attention to a few of them.
“Crowder told Armstrong Hiero reminded him of King Oliver in his prime” (84) … “Have you ever seen King Oliver?” (111)
The novel talks a lot about Louis Armstrong (and later features him as a character) and Armstrong is considered one of the great innovators of jazz, but without King Oliver (1881-1938) we might not get Louis Armstrong. Oliver was both a mentor and teacher of Armstrong. As Armstrong says, in Satchmo: My Life In New Orleans, “if it had not been for Joe Oliver, Jazz would not be what it is today.” I’ve added both “Riverside Blues” and “Speakeasy Blues” to the Spotify playlist.
“He was playing Empty Bed Blues, but doing it so coy it ain’t sound nothing like itself.” (122)
Bessie Smith was a major figure of the blues (we will watch the film Bessie about her in a few weeks), and she, along with others like Ma Rainey represent, as observed by Angela Davis, a “black working-class social consciousness,” while moreover they “foreshadowed a brand of protest that refused to privilege racism over sexism, or the conventional public realm over the private as the preeminent domain of power” (Blues Legacies 42). And so, (in tandem with its often-bawdy nature), the blues genre was, as Davis concludes, “responsible for the dissemination of attitudes toward male supremacy that had decidedly feminist implications” (55). In a moment that leaves Sid very jealous, Delilah and Hiero perform Bessie Smith’s “Empty Bed Blues” (originally from 1928). You can read the lyrics here and listen to the song below (also on the playlist).
What do you think this song is about? Read the lyrics while listening to the song and then come back here. I’ll wait…
Okay. Did you listen to the song and read the lyrics? It is full on innuendos about sex (“coffee grinder”) and even references performing cunnilingus: her new lover is a “deep sea diver” who can “stay down at the bottom” holding his breath. No wonder Sid is jealous.
Deeply personal and explicit lyrics have always been part of the blues. At one point in the novel Jelly Roll Morton is mentioned. Born in 1890 Jelly Roll Morton is one of the earliest jazz artists and he even claimed to have invented the music in 1902 (this is disputed). He also played in Vancouver cabarets as early as 1919 and as late as 1921. He played piano, gambled, drank, told bawdy jokes, and sang during his residency at the Patricia in Vancouver. He also wrote some very explicit music, such as “Winin’ Boys Blues” (recorded by Alan Lomax in 1939).
Warning: the song below is very explicit and you may find it offensive (lyrics, here). There’s a clean version of it on the Spotify playlist, as well as a version by singer Stephanie Niles with the original explicit lyrics. Does our understanding of the song change when a woman sings it?
“I’m from Montreal … Little Burgundy” (108).
Alright, let’s end with something less dirty. We learn that Delilah is from Little Burgundy in Montreal, which is the home of famous jazz musicians Oliver Jones and Oscar Peterson. You can view a short Wikipedia article that I wrote about a legendary club in Little Burgundy named “Rockhead’s Paradise” if you want to learn a little more about the history.
While there are number of Canadian jazz songs I could add, I will share one from Oscar Peterson. Drawing on the energy of the black church, and speaking across borders, Black Montreal-based musician Oscar Peterson conceived of “Hymn to Freedom,” which was sung in various places in the States as an anthem to the Civil Rights Movement.
Also, make sure you check out the clips from Jazz (posted to VIULearn) as they provide more detail about the man and legend, Louis Armstrong. In particular, see the short clip on the novelty number called “Heebie Jeebies,” which Armstrong sang with vocal improvisations. Innovation is often a result of chance, and Louis Armstrong’s impromptu scatting in “Heebie Jeebies” (the first scat caught on a recording) was the result of a mistake: as the legend goes, Armstrong’s lyric sheet fell while recording and so he began to scat/improvise.
You can hear the song (and the others) on the Spotifyplaylist.
Week 4: Louis Armstrong, “West End Blues” (1928) and Ella Fitzgerald, Ella in Berlin (1960)
It is hardly an understatement to say Louis Armstrong helped invent modern time. “West End Blues” is a multi-strain twelve-bar blues composition by Joe “King” Oliver that Armstrong uniquely makes his own. The opening is one of the great cadenzas in modern music and it helped define jazz as a soloist’s art. Make sure you watch the segment on “West End Blues” from Jazz in the lecture on VIULearn. Armstrong continues to inspire musicians, such as DJ Kid Koala, whose “Basin Street Blues” riffs on another Armstrong track.
Also, worth mentioning is Ella Fitzgerald’s incredible live album, Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin (1960). In her version of “Mac the Knife,” Ella forgot the lyrics and improvised new ones on the spot showing her incredible skill as a consummate improviser.
Equally impressive and one of the best scat performances ever recorded is Ella’s version of “How Hight the Moon.” The way Ella uses her voice like a horn, her references to Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology,” and her ability to improvise upon a standard, is absolutely stunning. One must simply hear it to believe it. Enjoy.
Week 6 (Watchmen): Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row” (1965)
At midnight all the agents And the superhuman crew Come out and round up everyone That knows more than they do
-Bob Dylan, “Desolation Row”
As Dave Gibbons—the illustrator behind Watchmen—wrote in his 2013 preface to the book: “It began with Bob Dylan.” This song formed the spark that would one day ignite Watchmen: “These lines must have also lodged in Alan’s consciousness for, nearly twenty years later, Dylan’s words eventually provided the title of the first issue of our comic book series WATCHMEN.” I hardly have the space here to describe a song like “Desolation Row” in detail, but I suggest you listen to the song in its entirety with the lyrics (and detailed notes) open on Genius. The song is an 11-minute epic of entropy (comprised of 10 verses) that features a large cast of iconic characters (historical, biblical, fictional, and literary). The song was the final song on Dylan’s classic, Highway 61 Revisitedand the lyrics move between the surreal and the hardships and realities of the Holocaust and post-World War II society. Desolation Row plays on the expression “skid row,” which is used to describe a seedy run-down part of town. Some interpretations have read the song as an allegory for the Holocaust, but part of the power of the song is that it resists simple interpretation, much like the graphic novel we are now reading. The band, My Chemical Romance performed a cover of the song for the 2009 soundtrack of Watchmen, but that film actually opens with another Dylan song.
Even three chapters in, you’ve likely noticed that music runs through the veins of Watchmen as chapters and themes are shaped by individual songs and artists. A song like Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” which moves across time and space from Nero to Einstein, speaks to the possibilities of the graphic novel as an artform informed by music (and other media). The first three chapters also feature Elvis Costello’s “The Comedians,” Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” The Police’s “Walking on the Moon,” and references to The Beatles and Elvis (but while you likely know his version of “Hound Dog,” how many know of Big Mama Thornton’s earlier, and frankly, better version). These have all been added to the playlist.
Also, check out the student playlist comprised of songs from your close readings:
Week 7 (Watchmen): Nina Simone, “Pirate Jenny” and Billie Holiday, “You’re My Thrill”
The majority of the musical references in today’s Watchmen readings are in Chapter 7, but there is also a coded one in Chapter 5. In Chapter 5, The Black Freighter (a reference from “Pirate Jenny”) takes on symbolic meaning in the comic-within-the-comic as a revenge fantasy, but the song is also endued with the spirit of overcoming anti-Black racism. The use of music in Chapter 7 highlights Dan and Laurie’s age gap, their nostalgia for the past, and their unfolding romance.
“Pirate Jenny” is a song from The Threepenny Opera written by Brecht and composer Kurt Weill. In Half-Blood Blues we listened to “Mack the Knife” from that same opera. Nina Simone included the song on her 1964 album, Nina Simone in Concert, which featured other civil right songs such as “Old Jim Crow” and a track we previously listened to, “Mississippi Goddam.” “Pirate Jenny” is a song about a maid who imagines herself getting vengeance for the contempt she endures from the townspeople. She teams up with pirates from the Black Freighter and kills everyone and sails away to sea. Simone adapts the song into an African American context and uses “The Black Freighter” as “metaphor for an African-American force powerful enough to destroy the racism and intolerance of the American South. Simone did not perform the song often, saying that it took so much energy out of her that it took her seven years to recover each time” (Mary Borsellino, Watchmen and Music). It is also worth noting that the song was a major influence on Bob Dylan who would record “Desolation Row” (the genesis of Watchmen) just a few years later.
In Chapter 7 we get a number of music references, including Devo, Billie Holiday, and Nat King Cole. Many of these references are picked up in both the Snyder film and Lindelof’s HBO series, including Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” and Billie Holiday’s “You’re My Thrill.” In part, music functions as a cultural marker of connection or disconnection and it highlights the stark difference between Laurie and Dan in terms of age. Laurie’s Devo reference goes over Dan’s head while Laurie is unable to recognize the voice of Billie Holiday, which plays just before they have sex.
Week 8 (Watchmen): Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, “All Along the Watchtower” (1968) and John Cale, “Sanities” (1982)
Chapter 10’s title of Watchmen is a reference to Bob Dylan’s song “All Along the Watchtower” (1967/68): the song is partially based on Isaiah 21, the prophecy of the fall of Babylon. The song is not only the source of the chapter’s title, but it provides imagery that is quoted and echoed in the chapter: “Two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl.” However, the really iconic version of this song appears on Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland album released around the same time as Dylan’s version. Everyone from Eric Clapton, Neil Young, and Pearl Jam have covered the song, but Hendrix’s version is the most well-known and potent.
The final chapter of Watchmen, Chapter 12, gets its title from a 1982 John Cale song, “Sanctus (Sanities).” The song ends with the lyrics, “All so that it would be a stronger world / A strong though loving world / To die in.” Moore slightly misquotes these lines at the very end of the graphic novel, and we get a paraphrased version by Adrian Veidt in Lindelof’s Watchmen series (2019).
Week 9: Intercultural Hip Hop Panel with Mo Moshiri, Nantali Indongo, and Curtis Clear Sky
See the event page and feel free to let friends know in case they want to watch too. The event will be recorded in case you are unable to watch live. You don’t need a Facebook account to watch, but if you are signed in you can comment and ask questions during the live broadcast. The co-host will share the Zoom link (it is not our regular class link) towards the end of the interview in case you want to jump on that way to ask a question.
I will ask our panelists to talk about their personal journeys in finding their voice through hip hop and how it connects to identity, culture, and community-building.
The three artists:
Nantali Indongo aka Tali Taliwah is a Montreal emcee of Caribbean roots and a member of multilingual hip hop super group Nomadic Massive. In addition to performing live hip hop Nantali is host of CBC Montreal’s provincial arts and culture program, The Bridge, as well as a regular arts contributor for CBC Montreal. Indongo is also the co-founder of Hip Hop No Pop, an educational and interactive workshop series that looks at the non-violent origins of hip hop culture and uses hip hop as a tool to encourage storytelling and foster confidence in youth.
Nantali (Tali) raps second on the Nomadic Massive track “Times.”
Curtis Clear Sky is a Vancouver emcee and funk musician of Blackfoot and Anishinabe heritage. In 2005 the United Nations Human Settlements Program designated Clear Sky as an International Messenger of Truth, a group of artists recognized for their ability to reach young people through their music. In recent years he has shifted efforts to his band Curtis Clear Sky & The Constellationz, a hip hop funk group that invites engagement and participation in healing, growth and recognition of Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island over funky danceable grooves.
Mo Moshiri has lived in four countries. He was a refugee at age three and a Canadian citizen at age 19. He speaks English, Farsi and German. He first became known in Canadian hip hop as a member of Sweatshop Union, a BC conscious hip hop collective which has produced six albums and earned many awards and Juno nominations. He is now focused on solo work and applying his hip hop experience to inspire creativity and musical expression among children and youth though workshops and after-school programs. Mo released his first solo album Can I Tell you Something in 2019.
Everyone is welcome to this free event! See the full 2020 International Hip Hop Forum Schedule, here.
I’ve also suggested you check out Ed Piskor’s Hip-Hop Family Tree available on VIULearn. I’ve added a few early hip-hop songs to the playlists: “Rapper’s Delight” (1979), “The Breaks” (1979), “That’s the Joint” (1980), “Rapture” (1981), and “The Message” (1982).
Week 11:Watchmen (2019): The Ink Spots and Eartha Kitt
Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen is full of music. I’ve added a few key songs to playlist from various episodes, but I want to focus on a few that I discuss in my lecture for this week from episode 6, “This Extraordinary Being.” In that episode we see Hooded Justice release years of hurt, trauma, and aggression on a group of Klansmen. The scene is also beautifully choreographed in its kinesis and the song “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” by The Ink Spots is a clever choice not only for the juxtaposition between the action and violence but in the layered meaning of the group name and song. The episode features three songs by The Ink Spots and the name of the group recalls a Rorschach test. Rorschach was one of the main characters of the original series and a Rorschach test is used to examine one’s personality and emotional functioning. The song playing, “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” was used in commercials in the 1980s, which is when the original Watchmen was set and one of those commercials was for a perfume, which again reminds us of Nostalgia from the original comics. This nostalgia and heritage, a reminder where one comes from as well as the history of hate that pervades the present is entangled throughout the episode. We also get two other songs from Ink Spots: “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow, And Me)” and “Whispering Grass (Don’t Tell the Trees).”
Lastly, we get Eartha Kitt’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” when Hooded Justice infiltrates the Cyclops plot. The song fits the episode’s focus on fire, but it goes deeper than that. Kitt—a Black woman known for her song “Santa Baby”—was also known for her masked role as Cat woman for the 1960s series of Batman. We are being shown how media can demonize and create stereotypes and how it also has the power to resist and undo them. Hooded Justice literally and figuratively burns it down. I hope you enjoyed the TV series and its clever use of music throughout.
Don’t forget to check out my full lecture for this week, here.
Week 12: It’s Bigger than Hip Hop
Hip-hop music and culture is a chiaroscuro of social consciousness and mainstream commodification, a chameleonesque art form that adapts to every environment it encounters, a personal saviour and communitarian mobilizer born out of a disenfranchised youth movement in the post-industrial urban nightmare of America’s neglected ghettos. There are many songs I could highlight here, but I’ve kept it to six songs (3 American and 3 Canadian).
I’ve been listening to EL-P and Killer Mike since the early 2000s and so I was thrilled when the two formed Run the Jewels back in 2013. The fervour of dissent in their fourth offering (2020) feels louder and more urgent with recent protests and Anti-Black racism and killings in North America. One of the most powerful verses on the entire album comes from Killer Mike on “Walking in the Snow” where he raps: “And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me / Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, ‘I can’t breathe’ / And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV.” Given this track was recorded months ago it is about Eric Garner, but it is also inadvertently about George Floyd too. Despite the nearly six years between these events, and the very public spectacle of the unjust killings, the lyrics underscore the perpetual cycle of America’s racist violence. This spirit of protest—although the album is still full of the usual braggadocio lyricism the two are known for—runs through the veins of the album. The first single (released back in late April)—“Ooh La La”— is a homage to the old school for the present moment and features veterans DJ Premier and Greg Nice. The video for the song, as described by RTJ “is a fantasy of waking up on a day that there is no monetary system, no dividing line, no false construct to tell our fellow man that they are less or more than anyone else.” I’d also be remiss to not mention ““JU$T,” which features Pharrell Williams and Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha and a classic protest chorus: “Look at all these slave masters posin’ on yo’ dollar (Get it, yeah).” Kill Your Masters.
Speaking of America, Childish Gambino’s “This is America” (2018) remains a visceral and surreal statement for addressing gun violence, racism, and police brutality in America: “This is America / Don’t catch you slippin’ now / Look at how I’m livin’ now / Police be trippin’ now / Yeah, this is America.” In the video, directed by Hiro Murai, who also directed the incredible “Teddy Perkins” episode of Atlanta, Gambino plays with the Jump Jim Crow caricature, as he directly deals with America’s persistent violence. You’ve likely seen the video for Gambino’s “This is America,” but even if you have, it’s worth another close watch.
Anderson .Paak’s “Lockdown” speaks to the COVID-19 lockdown as a kind of container that makes systemic injustices more visible than ever, and which overfills and explodes as we’ve seen in recent protests: “You shoulda been downtown, the people are rising / We thought it was a lock down … Sicker than the covid how they did him on the ground / Speaking of the covid is it still goin around? / Oh why don’t you tell me bout the lootin what’s that really all about? / Cause they throw away Black lives like paper towels.” It’s often easier to talk about the past, but I feel that Anderson really captures this moment in relation to the ongoing struggle for Black liberation. Also, if you haven’t seen The Free Nationals featuring Anderson .Paak’s Tiny Desk Concert, do yourself a favour and watch that! ✊🏾
There is a long history of hip-hop culture and music in Canada as well as a long history of Black resistance going back to slavery in Canada. Critic Rinaldo Walcott usefully contends that “what is at stake in Canadian hip hop is a refiguring of an elaboration of the urban landscape of Canada and by extension the urban landscape of North America—black and otherwise” (“Methodology” 239). In Canadian hip-hop, narratives of belonging and unbelonging resist simple reductions of multiculturalism and ask us to reconsider the scope of Anti-Black racism, the nation-state, and geographical boundaries.
The first Canadian track is from Maestro Fresh Wes. Maestro Fresh Wes’s 1989 “Let Your Backbone Slide” was the first Canadian hip-hop single to break into the US Billboard chart. But, it is his track “Nothin’ At All” (1991) from his follow-up album that I want to highlight, which directly looks at Canada as country a “plagued with racism.” Despite this, Wes rightly celebrates Black excellence.
To the guys that draw lines and make the borders real But then bend the rules when there’s more to drill Don’t turn away the stateless, think of the waste If one in three refugees is a Lauryn Hill
—Shad, Flying Colours, “Fam Jam”
Shad’s “Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrins)” is a throwback and toast to the trials of immigrant experience in Canada—deconstructs the faulty notion that immigrants contribute little to Canadian society by providing potent examples of how immigrants construct the new Canada, consisting of the catchy hook, “Not bad, huh, for some immigrants?” The hook is a direct sampling of Jay-Z’s identical line in the track “Otis,” which itself was taken from the movie Scarface: a film about the perversion of the American dream. In the Canadian context, the line sounds the possibility of the Canadian dream within the larger multicultural project. Shad describes that on working on “Fam Jam” (from Flying Colours) “in the city of Toronto offered a daily reminder of the diversity of stories in our midst. This diversity is often and rightly celebrated, but the innumerable stories that comprise our treasured multiculturalism here in Canada can also hold a lot [sic] pain, as well as some complicated questions around what it means to succeed, and what it means to belong” (Blog, “Fam Jam”). The feeling of not fully belonging is manifested when Shad raps, “Don’t turn away the stateless, think of the waste / If one in three refugees is a Lauryn Hill,” referring to the Grammy wining artist who was part of the group The Fugees, a word derived from refugee, which was a derogatory term for Haitian Americans. The video for “Fam Jam” provides a celebratory mix where the larger community gathers—family, friends, children—in order to throw a large party that celebrates diversity. Like K’naan’s negotiation between borders and two worlds—Somalia and North America— Shad confronts his own negotiation of borders: “Now when you’re Third World born, but First World formed / Sometimes you feel pride, sometimes you feel torn / See my Mother’s tongue is not what they speak where my Mother’s from / She moved to London with her husband when their son was 1.” Shad, who was born in Kenya of Rwandan parents, uses his own story as an example of how much an immigrant can achieve in order to remove the negative connotations of the word, suggesting that Canada should allow for dual identities and cultural allegiances if it is to work against global colonialism and be a truly multicultural society.
War Party’s first album, The Reign, put First Nations rappers on the Canadian Hip Hop radar: their song “Feelin’ Reserved” (2000) was the first major First Nations Hip Hop music video to get rotation on Much Music; furthermore, War Party won the Aboriginal Music Award for best rap album in 2000. In a conversation with Tara Henley of Vancouver’s Georgia Straight, Rex Smallboy (the de facto leader of War Party) states that it was natural for Indigenous youth to adopt Hip Hop as a mode of expression: “When I heard a lot of the African-American artists talking about what they saw in their communities, the social conditions, that made me take a look at what was going on in my own neighborhood […] This is the reserve—this is not Compton; this is not the Bronx” (“Beyond the Reserve”). In War Party’s The Reign, there is no romanticizing of life on the reserve: “it is depicted as a place of loss, degradation, and ultimately as an endless reminder of the effects of colonization.”
I’ve added these songs and a few others to the playlist. Happy listening.
I thought I would make a short song (beat, lyrics, and video) to supplement the readings and songs for the week. Yes, your professor is rapping. While it has been some 11 years since I last recorded myself rapping standard verses, I thought I would give it a go. The track is a short history lesson about some of the roots of Hip-Hop music and culture and it focuses on the four essential elements: graffiti, breaking, DJing, and emceeing. Hip Hop is an improvisational art form that draws from the long history of disenfranchised people repurposing the tools of the master to create new forms of art. I also tried my hand at creating a lyric video with clips and made the most use of the classic Hip Hop documentary Style Wars (1983), which looks at Hip Hop culture during its early days in the 1970s until the early 1980s.
Week 13: DJing and Wayde Compton: Kid Koala and Charlie Pride
Various DJs, producers, and archivists use recorded material in inventive ways that show they are highly aware of the improvised nature of history and cultural practice.Sampling, like quotation, provides diacritical difference, detournement, carnival, wildstyle, parade, and allows, as Paul D. Miller (DJ Spooky) suggests, “people to replay their own memories of the sounds and situations of their lives … sampling is dematerialized sculpture” (Rhythm Science 28-29). The rise of the DJ fits within the postmodern desire of contemporary masses to bring things closer. Technology changes culture and the invention of the Technics 1200 series of turntables, manufactured from October 1972 until 2010 (and then resumed in 2016) by Matsushita (and later known as Panasonic), made DJ culture largely possible in the first place, even though the Technics 1200 was never intended to be repurposed as a musical instrument. The Technics 1200s (in hip-hop they are often referred to as “Tec 12’s,” “Wheels of Steel” and the “Ones & Twos”) with their direct drive high torque motor design initially made them suitable for cueing and starting tracks on the radio, although young DJs in New York would soon realize just how much you could do with a turntable and some records. As Compton writes in “The Reinventing Wheel,” “the author was born in 1972,” a direct reference to the invention of the Technics 1200 turntable, the primary signifier of hip-hop and remix culture.
In an Interview I conducted with Compton, he described how changes in technology are swift, while also asserting the value of traditions, which are never static and are always technological: “There are new things so quickly that I want to engage with. That’s the other beauty, the beauty of hip-hop. Kid Koala, he’s still vinyl. He’s still a vinyl guy, a vinyl and turntables guy. It’s all still there. So talking about tradition, he is working with the traditional tools that are old, old tools now, forty-year-old tools. Well, older than that” (“Audio-interplay” 10). Kid Koala is a Canadian DJ, turntablist, musician and author/illustrator, among other things, who is known for his incredible tactile manipulations on the turntables. Koala popularized a method of playing the turntable like a melodic instrument, where a long, single note is dragged under the needle at different speeds, creating distinctive pitches. This effect can be heard on his mix of “Moon River,” where he creates and edits in an extended violin solo by playing various long violin notes from the song’s instrumental section at different pitches on three turntables, all live. Compton was enraptured by Koala’s performance—“There were certain points where I was looking at it, saying, ‘You can’t do that. You can’t do the thing I’m watching you do. It just can’t be done. And yet you’re doing it’” (8)—describing the story to me as how “his [Koala’s] mom couldn’t understand that he could be doing this, how this was his job. And so he said, ‘What’s your favorite song? I’ll do a version of it. And we’ll meet here, somewhere. You’ll understand.’ And then he did it, and it’s the most beautiful thing he’s done” (“Audio-interplay” 10). It is precisely Kid Koala’s version of a 1961 easy listening song—far removed from the context of hip-hop and remix culture—that highlights how the past is a network for DJs to rework.
Henry Mancini initially composed “Moon River” with lyrics written by Johnny Mercer. The song received an Academy Award for Best Original Song for Audrey Hepburn’s performance of the piece in the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s been covered thousands of times, although Kid Koala’s version is the most adventurous. Here’s the original and then check out Koala’s live performance below. I’ve added a few other songs by Koala to the playlist.
Compton doesn’t only reference hip-hop and DJ culture in his act of audio recovery. His poem “The Essential Charley Pride” is about the African American (of mixed-race) country singer, Charley Pride. Given how white country music was in the 1960s (and still is), for the first few years of Pride’s career no pictures of him were distributed in order to avoid Jim Crow backlashes. Hence, Compton’s poem opens with the following lines:
There is a Church of John Coltrane; Charley Pride is a heretic. There is a Funkadelic Parliament; Charley Pride is Guy Fawkes.
By calling Pride a heretic and comparing him to Guy Fawkes (a man who tried to kill the King and was hanged for treason), Compton sets up how radical the concept of a black country singer was in the 1960s, even though country is actually the music of black and white people playing together in the rural south. Compton calls Pride “the Jackie Robinson of country and western” (37) and claims him as part of the black nexus, even “though the Afrocentrists won’t even have him” (38). Compton goes on to write that the “first black person in the Country / Music Hall of Fame ranks somewhere lower / than the seventh black astronaut in space” (38). Pride’s crossing over into a predominately white genre, and Compton’s assertion of the value of that crossing, defies the specious notion that skin colour determines identity, or citizenship for that matter. “The Essential Charley Pride” references (samples) essential Charley Pride recordings throughout, much in the way that “To Poitier” samples various Poitier films, in order to represent the diaspora and Blackness as boundless.
I’ve added a few Pride songs to the Spotifyplaylist.
Week 14: PUBLIC ENEMY, “FIGHT THE POWER” (1989)
Public Enemy’s anthemic “Fight the Power” was written at the request of film director Spike Lee who was looking for a musical theme for his 1989 film, Do the Right Thing. The song remains one of the greatest protest songs of all time, and its militancy can be heard in both its lyrics and sound (which features samples from Civil Rights refrains, the black church, and the music of James Brown, including the line “I’m black and I’m proud”). Sadly, after I played Do the Right Thing in a FILM 101 class last year, I had many white students focus on the loss of Sal’s Pizzeria while the murdering of Radio Raheem didn’t register. The reality of “We Can’t Breathe” remains and is part of a continuum that stretches back to slavery. Lee’s film was inspired by a 1986 event, where a young black man, Michael Griffith, was chased by Italians and then killed by a car. With this background, and throughout the film, the refrain of Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” functions like a Greek Chorus. Coming from the ghetto blaster of Radio Raheem, we are given a sonic metaphor for what it is like to walk in stereo. Like the “love” and “hate” brass knuckles that adorn the hands of Radio Raheem (and like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” blasting out of his portable ghetto blaster), we need to find ways to use love to battle the hate that cannibalizes North America. We need to continue to find creative, positive, hopeful, and, at times, militant ways, “to fight the powers that be.”
Note 1: Spike Lee directed the video for “Fight the Power” and staged a protest/ live performance. Lee opens the video with footage from the 1963 March on Washington, which transitions to a staged political rally in Brooklyn named the “Young People’s March to End Racial Violence.” See the full version, here.
Note 2: I’ve also added Brown’s Black Power classic “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968) to the playlist.
Note 3: I wanted to share the 2020 remix version of the song as well, which features Nas, Rapsody, Black Thought, Jahi, YG & QuestLove.