Tag Archives: Detroit

MC5 and the American ruse

Rolling Stone magazine put the MC5 (short for Motor City Five) on their January 1969 cover before the world ever heard a note of their music. Considered the missing link between free jazz and punk, the MC5 were a raw and primal band, considered to be unstoppable when they were clicking. A generation of bands, including The Clash, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Motorhead, and Rage Against the Machine, would be inspired by their sonic and political blueprint. Led by guitarist Wayne Kramer, the MC5 reflected their times: exciting, sexy, violent, chaotic, and seemingly out of control–characteristics that ensured their time in the spotlight would be short-lived. Members of the band were galvanized by the racial and class politics of the 1967 Detroit riots, which left many of the local neighborhoods Kramer knew decimated. He and the MC5 toured the world, played with a number of music legends, and garnered a rabid following, their music acting as the blistering soundtrack to blue-collar youth movements springing up across the United States and elsewhere. Their vehement antiauthoritarian stance found especially fertile ground in the 1960s antiwar movement. The lyrics of their 1970 song The American ruse (from the album Back in the U.S.A.) perfectly captured the sentiment of the movement during that political moment.

“69 America in terminal stasis
The air’s so thick, it’s like drowning in molasses
I’m sick and tired of paying these dues
And I’m finally getting hip to the American ruse.”

Listen to American ruse below.

Kramer wanted to redefine what a rock ‘n’ roll group was capable of, and although there was power in that cause, it also was also a recipe for disaster, both personally and professionally. The band recorded three major label albums, but by 1972, it was all over. Kramer’s story is literally a revolutionary one, but it’s also one of deep personal struggle as an addict and an artist, as well as a survivor and rebel. From Kramer’s early days in Detroit to becoming a junkie on the streets of the East Village, from Key West to Nashville and Los Angeles, in and out of prison and on and off drugs, his life was that of a classic journeyman, only with a twist.

By 2009, Kramer had cleaned up and established Jail Guitar Doors U.S.A., a nonprofit organization that offers songwriting workshops in prisons and donates musical instruments to inmates. As Kramer described in a 2015 interview, “The guitar can be the key that unlocks the cell. It can be the key that unlocks the prison gate, and it could be the key that unlocks the rest of your life to give you an alternative way to deal with things.” Possibilities that Kramer understood well from personal experience.

Wayne Kramer passed away on 2 February 2024.

Read more in The hard stuff: Dope, crime, the MC5 & my life of impossibilities by Wayne Kramer (Da Capo Books, 2018). Find it in RILM Abstracts.

Below is a video of the MC5 performing live and outdoors at Wayne State University in Detroit, July 1970 (Kramer is on vocals and guitar for the first song Rambin’ Rose).

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Filed under North America, Performers, Politics, Popular music

Hip hop at 50: Part II–Indigenous hip hop as decolonial art

Indigenous hip hop in recent years has created a space for unpacking ideas of authenticity, contemporary Indigenous identity, links between indigeneity and U.S. Blackness, and urban Indigenous experiences. But what is Indigenous hip hop and what does it represent? Indigenous Hip Hop is a culture first adopted and then produced by Native people to challenge settler colonialism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy, among other issues. One of the primary objectives of Indigenous hip hop has been to assert the sovereign rights of Indigenous people and to assert their humanity as modern subjects. Indigenous hip hop takes on many flavors throughout the Indigenous world. Some artists may sound like what listeners hear on commercial radio, while other may include elements of Native sounds including powwow music. Indigenous hip hop provides an anthem, a voice, a literary and decolonial movement—it is not merely Native people mimicking hip hop culture. For some Indigenous hip hop musicians in Detroit, Michigan, the connections between settler colonial logics in Detroit and Palestine allow for hip hop in these spaces to serve as a decolonial art form.

Contemporary Detroit, nicknamed the “Motor City”, has gone through many changes since the 20th century. In the 1950s, its streets were lined with vehicles produced by nearby Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors factories and driven by nearly 2 million people who called the city home. After the 1967 Detroit riots, parts of the city resembled ghost towns and the city’s population dwindled to around 670,000 as many residents fled to surrounding suburbs. Detroit has experienced a rebirth over the past two decades drawing local investment and new residents to the downtown area. What remains remarkably consistent, however, is the invisibility of the Motor City’s Indigenous population. Indigenous erasure, in this context, combined with rhetoric and policies that continue to marginalize African Americans in Detroit, create a place rooted in multiple colonialisms.

Detroit rapper Sacramento Knoxx

In 2014, an Anishinaabeg (Walpole Island) and Chicanx rapper from Detroit named Sacramento Knoxx collaborated with Palestinian rapper Sharif Zakot on a music video entitled From stolen land to stolen land. Sharif is a youth organizer and coordinator in the San Francisco Bay Area’s Arab Youth Organizing (AYO!) program. Similar to Indigenous youth, many Palestinian youth also have turned to hip hop culture to express their anguish and marginalization. The images in Sacramento Knoxx and Sharif’s video travel from New York City to Detroit to Palestine. Sharif scribbles “Free Palestine” with a black marker on a metal object while the video cuts to a scene of Knoxx standing on the Brooklyn Bridge and to the words “Free Rasmea Odeh”, a long-time Palestinian activist who was arrested and indicted on federal charges in October 2013. As the words appear on the screen, a blurred view of the Statue of Liberty appears in the background, a symbol of a loss of freedom for many of North America’s Indigenous people. The song’s lyrics connect white supremacy with the occupation and displacement of Indigenous land while the two rappers lyrically interweave the ongoing processes of settler colonialism in both settings. Although they acknowledge that the colonization of the Americas and Palestine happened at different times and in different contexts, the similarities of occupation join the two disparate lands.

Celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day by reading Kyle T. Mays’ article “Decolonial hip hop: Indigenous hip hop and the disruption of settler colonialism” in Cultural studies (33.3, 2019).

Below is the video for Sacramento Knoxx and Sharif Zakot’s From stolen land to stolen land. Check out more from Sacramento Knoxx at https://sknoxx.bandcamp.com/music

Related Bibliolore articles:

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Filed under Asia, North America, Politics, Popular music

Detroit, Techno City

Detroit is known internationally as Techno City, named after the dance music genre pioneered by DJ/producers like Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson.

In the 1980s local DJs melded Detroit funk, European synth-pop, and avant-garde composition into a unique futuristic sound. Techno, however, went largely unappreciated in the American marketplace. Mirroring the career trajectory of American jazz musicians in the 1960s, the creators of techno made their living by touring Europe extensively, and became superstars on that continent.

This according to “A tale of two cities” by Mike Rubin (Spin XIV/10 [October 1998] pp. 104–109). Below, Atkins’s Techno city from 1984.

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