Tag Archives: Politics

Paul Robeson’s activism

Throughout his performing career Paul Robeson was fashioning an activist cultural theory to help to liberate his people and, increasingly, to support the cause of persecuted people everywhere.

His decision to sing the traditional songs of cultures in addition to his own—including songs in Chinese, Hebrew, and Russian—reflected his deepening and expanding identification with oppressed humanity irrespective of color.

This according to “‘I want to be African’: Paul Robeson and the ends of nationalist theory and practice, 1914–1945” by Sterling Stuckey (Massachusetts review XVII/1 [spring 1976] pp. 81–138; reprinted in Going through the storm: The influence of African American art in history (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 187–227).

Today is Robeson’s 120th birthday! Above, the singer, actor, and activist in 1942; below, singing Go down Moses, a classic African American spiritual—a genre that Robeson considered one of the finest examples of black artistic expression.

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Rohingya music, identity, and resistance

The music of Rohingya refugees plays an important role in communicating their coherent identity and expressing their resistance to the discrimination and oppression experienced in their country of origin as well as in their exile.

This informal resistance keeps their memory alive, transmitting that history through verbal and visual expressions to the new generations, and communicating information about themselves to outsiders.

These forms of expression, while suggestive of their identity and everyday resistance, occur mostly in an informal and indirect form, rather than in direct confrontation and protest. The informal means also reflect the Rohingyas’ pragmatism and coping strategies for living in the borderlands.

This according to “Music and artistic artefacts: Symbols of Rohingya identity and everyday resistance in borderlands” by Farzana Kazi Fahmida (Austrian Journal of South-East Asian Studies / Österreichische Zeitschrift für Südostasienwissen-schaften (ASEAS) IV/2 [2011] pp. 215–36; reprinted in Farzana’s Memories of Burmese Rohingya refugees: Contested identity and belonging (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

Below, a Rohingya song with English subtitles.

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Ša‘bī and politics

Commonly associated with Cairo’s working class, ša‘bī (شعبى ) is a politically charged musical genre with a long history of bawdy humor and trenchant social critique. While the cultural elite may see the term as an index of the backwardness of the uneducated masses, for many Egyptians ša‘bī evokes a sense of identity, tradition, and heritage.

One of contemporary ša‘bī’s foremost practitioners of social commentary and political dissent, Ša‘bān ‘Abd al-Raḥīm (شعبان عبد الرحيم, above), stormed into popular culture in the early 21st century by mobilizing the genre’s potential to tap into the pulse of the Egyptian-Arab street. By 2002 ‘Abd al-Raīm’s brazen sociopolitical commentary had turned him into the unlikely hero of millions of Egyptians and Arabs.

This according to “‘I’ll tell you why we hate you!’ Ša‘bān ‘Abd al-Raīm and Middle Eastern reactions to 9/11” by James R. Grippo, an essay included in Music in the post-9/11 world (New York: Routledge, 2007, pp. 255–75).

Below,   ‘Abd al-Raīm’s Obama, which excoriates George W. Bush while poking fun at the notion that the newly elected Barack Obama will save the Arab world like Saladin.

 

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Dizzy Gillespie, cultural ambassador

In early 1956 Dizzy Gillespie was playing with a small group in Washington, DC, when he received a call from Adam Clayton Powell, who asked him to stop by his office the next day.

Gillespie arrived to find a group of reporters waiting, and Powell made a statement to the press: “I’m going to propose to President Eisenhower that he send this man, who’s a great contributor to our music, on a State Department sponsored cultural mission to Africa, the Near East, the Middle East, and Asia.”

Although Gillespie had a stellar international reputation, the proposal was daring: the U.S. South was in wide disarray over segregation, and the suggestion that a black man should represent the nation abroad was bound to be highly controversial.

Nevertheless, in February of that year the State Department announced a ten-week tour of South Asia, the Near East, and the Balkans by Gillespie and a group of some 20 people—in Gillespie’s words, “an American assortment of blacks, whites, males, females, Jews, and Gentiles.” The U.S. government wanted to send a signal that bigotry was waning at home, and, again in Gillespie’s words,

“They [foreign audiences] could see it wasn’t as intense because we had white boys and I was the leader of the band. That was strange to them because they’d heard about blacks being lynched and burned, and here I come with half whites and blacks and a girl playing in the band. And everybody seemed to be getting along fine. So I didn’t try to hide anything. I said ‘Yeah…we have our problems but we’re still working on it. I’m the leader of this band, and those white guys are working for me.’ That’s a helluva thing.”

This according to “Jazz strategy: Dizzy, foreign policy, and government in 1956” by Scott Gac (Americana IV/1 [Spring 2005]).

Today is Gillespie’s 100th birthday! Above, playing for snakes on the tour in Karachi, Pakistan; below, World statesman, an album recorded with the historic touring group.

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Square dance and cultural politics

In 1988 the U.S. Congress convened four panels of witnesses for and against proposed legislation that would designate square dance as the National American Folk Dance.

Leaders of the nationwide network of recreational clubs that perform what is generally referred to as modem Western square dance campaigned for the bill’s passage, presenting numerous petitions with thousands of signatures gathered from their membership; opponents included recognized African American, Hispanic American, and Native American dance performers, as well as professional folklorists and one square dance caller not affiliated with the sponsoring organizations.

Proponents of the legislation cited the historical depth of square dance in the U.S.—“This form of dance alone can claim a development from the earliest days of our nation, through expansion of our population across the land”—and cited the genre’s association with “old-fashioned values” rooted in the “melting-pot of the dances which our ancestors brought with them when they settled in this nation.”

Witnesses for the opposition noted the absence of people of color from this picture, and generally argued against the whole idea of designating a national dance—“I can’t see how any one dance could be singled out as our National Folk Dance when we are a pluralistic society, a land of geographic, racial, cultural, and religious differences,” testified a representative of the Makah people. “I believe choosing one, any one, would give birth to feelings of resentment and animosity.”

Although the bill was defeated, similar debates continue to this day.

This according to “Reflections on the hearing to designate the square dance as the American folk dance of the United States: Cultural politics and an American vernacular dance form” by Colin Quigley (Yearbook for traditional music XXXIII [2001] pp. 145–57). Below, Bob Dalsemer, the one square dance caller who testified for the opposition.

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Harry Belafonte and social activism

belafonte-king

In a 2001 interview, Harry Belafonte discussed the relationships between his career choices and social activism.

“I wanted to use some cunning and find a way to introduce an art form into an environment that was extremely limited—to be able to make a social and political statement to listeners without them suspecting it.”

“There was a conscious awareness of how hostile the environment was, and how clever you’d have to be to outsmart the predator. So there was selection and choice. But there was never compromise in the content. The fact is that I didn’t sing a lot of protest songs back then because most of that material had been written or covered by others, and because I saw another way to move my image and my cause through the ranks of the human family.”

“I think that black culture commands a global audience because of the sheer power of it, the beauty of it—it is hard to dismiss. And because it brings so much delight, it can easily be embraced. The physical presence of black people, however, is something else: it reflects a history of oppression that white people don’t want to deal with, not because they wouldn’t like to see the oppression go away, but they don’t want to pay the price for it to be gone.”

“Black people are going to have to understand that the issue here is more than race. We are the souls, we are the people that must save the soul of this nation.”

Quoted in “Remains of the day-o: A conversation with Harry Belafonte” by Michael Eldridge (Transition XII/92 [2002] pp. 110–137; reprinted in Da Capo best music writing 2004 [Cambridge: Da Capo, 2004] pp. 68–92).

Today is Belafonte’s 90th birthday! Above, with Martin Luther King, Jr.; below, performing in 1997.

Related article: Mr. Belafonte and Dr. King

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The February Revolution and the Mariinskij Teatr

mariinskij-teatr

The 1917 February Revolution had an immediate impact on the Mariinskij Teatr Opery i Baleta. The fall of the monarchy plunged the dancers into a state of confusion, and there was an atmosphere of uncertainty about the future of ballet.

Against this background, the well-organized opera artists demanded unconditional power at the theater. Representatives of the ballet company, faced with this attitude from their colleagues, complained to the director of the Imperial theaters and the government commissioner of the former Ministry of Court.

After the details of the conflict leaked into the newspapers, the representatives of the opera troupe officially declared their deep respect for the art of ballet—but the opera artists continued to treat their colleagues as a secondary presence in the theater. One reason for the conflict between the opera and ballet troupes was the group egoism typical for the revolutionary era, when the overly exploited role of the team eventually led to a confrontation with other teams.

This according to “Из истории музыкального театра революционной эпохи: Борьба оперы с балетом” (From the history of musical theater of the revolutionary era: The struggle of opera with ballet) by Petr Nikolaevič Gordeev (Музыковедение 3 [2015] pp. 11–15).

Today is the centennial of the beginning of the February Revolution! Above, the Mariinskij Teatr around the time of the Revolution; below, the Mariinskij stalwart Mariâ Nikolaevna Kuznecova.

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Haiti’s celebrity president

michael-martelly

With his country descending into its worst political crisis since the 2004 coup d’etat, and thousands of people demanding his resignation in the streets, in early 2016 Haiti’s outgoing president, Michel Martelly, went back to basics: He released a new song insulting and taunting in crude and sexualized terms a female journalist known to be critical of him.

Before becoming head of state in 2011, Martelly was a pop star known as Sweet Micky who performed Haitian compas (kompa direk). Micky was famous for saying or doing anything to get a reaction, and his genius was combining the image of the rock rebel with the anything-goes, upside-down spirit of kanaval, the Haitian equivalent of Mardi Gras—for example, one can find video footage of Haiti’s president performing in a halter top and miniskirt.

Bringing a similar strategy to his presidential run, he was the anti-politician who openly insulted competitors, critics, and the media. Before his election Martelly’s supporters argued that, because he was already so rich and famous, their candidate couldn’t be bribed or bought. The competition dismissed Martelly’s candidacy as a joke, at first, and the press did too, all the while giving him blanket coverage.

With support by foreign investors and the backing of the U.S., Martelly won a surprise victory. But after five years of stalled and canceled elections, rising insecurity and poverty, political violence, and accusations of corruption, Sweet Micky’s novelty wore off—and in his last weeks in power any vestiges of presidential restraint also wore off, as evidenced by the song referenced above. It may turn out that Haiti was, as it has been so many times, ahead of the historical curve, anticipating the rise of other populist celebrity political figures worldwide.

This according to “What happens when a celebrity becomes president” by Jonathan Katz (The Atlantic monthly 9 February 2016).

Above, Martelly dancing at a presentation ceremony; below, the song in question.

BONUS: Sweet Mickey performs in drag.

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Soundscape of a coup d’état

f16-jet-istanbul-7-15-2016

The attempted Turkish coup d’état on 15 July 2016 brought some unfamiliar sounds to Istanbul–including low-flying F-16 jets and sonic booms–in addition to mosques broadcasting the sala, which serves to notify the community of an all-concerning event in an Islamic context; recordings and performances of Ottoman military music; and the sounds of chanting demonstrators.

Conversations, which incessantly continued in both public and private spheres, constituted another auditory aspect of the attempted coup and its aftermath.

This according to “Soundscape of a coup d’état” by Evrim Hikmet Öğüt (Sound matters 6 September 2016).

Today is the two-month anniversary of this historic event! Above, an F-16 jet flying low over Istanbul; below, the sala that night, with the sounds of bombs.

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Rumba and racial politics

rumba

The Afro-Cuban music and dance genre rumba has historically been considered una cosa de negros (a black thing) and reviled due to racialized stereotypes that link the practice with el bajo mundo (the low life), excessive alcohol use, and violence. Nevertheless, the socialist government has sought to elevate rumba’s status during the past half century as part of a larger goal of foregrounding and valorizing the African contributions to Cuban identity and culture.

Rumba is the most significant and popular black-identified tradition in Cuba; in addition to its association with blackness, it is often portrayed as a particularly potent symbol of the masses and working-class identity, another reason why the government has aimed to harness rumba to its cultural nationalist discourse.

Despite the discursive valorization of the practice found in much Cuban scholarship and political rhetoric, rumba continues to be identified with a particular and marginalized sector of the population. In many ways, the complex situation of rumba performance conforms to the more general trend of contemporary racial politics on the island.

This according to “National symbol or ‘a black thing’? Rumba and racial politics in Cuba in the era of cultural tourism” by Rebecca Bodenheimer (Black music research journal XXXIII/2 [fall 2013] pp. 177–205). This issue of Black music research journal, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.

Above and below, street performances of rumba.

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