Your Tumblr Feed Burns Coal

Calling it the “cloud” invokes  a light, airy space where nothing really exists except as water vapor. In fact, as Ingrid Burrington explains in The Atlantic, the industrial and electronic infrastructure that houses the cloud, where individual Internet users as well as public and private institutions increasingly store their files, including photos, video, music, documents, and metadata, is a physical infrastructure of enormous servers and physical cable network that consumes vast quantities of mined precious hard metals, consumes and pollutes water, and runs on on and off-grid electricity produced by coal, natural gas, and green methods like solar and wind. Beyond the private servers that private and public institutions use to store their files, the proliferation of personal cloud-based computing and online research and reading is driving companies to invest in bigger, faster, and more environmentally damaging server farms.

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Servers | Ethan Pines for the New York Times

James Glanz wrote from Santa Clara in 2012 that “a yearlong examination by The New York Times has revealed that [servers as] this foundation of the information industry is sharply at odds with its image of sleek efficiency and environmental friendliness.” Burrington points out that every time you visit a webpage or read a feed that draws content from a stream, you receive signals from several different servers that could even be housed on separate continents.

Sometimes I think of this environmental toll when I scroll through my tumblr feed, which looks like this

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and this

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and sometimes like this

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all while the TV show I am streaming on my laptop plays commercials. When I’m done scrolling and watching, I go plug my laptop and my phone into their chargers, where they draw more electricity from the grid which, where I live, PG&E claims draws half of its power from green sources.

(I figured out how generators work while researching this post. Basically something has to make a copper coil spin really fast through a magnetized space, which generates electricity. The spinning can come from water or wind turning physical blades, or from an engine combusting coal or natural gas to boil water into steam which then turns a turbine which spins the coil.)

But beyond the environmental impacts of using electricity, I think what is most obscured to us as Western technology users is the reality that every piece of electronics we use is made out of rare earth minerals that are largely hacked out of the earth by hand. That these incredible technological products keep getting better and faster (thus enabling them to draw more electricity and receive data from more servers) even as they remain affordable to us global consumers is a result of exploitation at every level of the chain of production. For me to be able to afford a new tablet and for that tablet’s manufacturer’s stock to also rise by collecting profit on the sale, the miners need to not be paid enough; the factory workers need to not be paid enough; the transport workers who ship the pieces around need to not be paid enough; and the parts themselves need to not be priced highly enough. High enough for what? For all parties involved in producing the tablet to retain enough of its value to afford the damn thing, just like I can.

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the Gehry-designed Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, which is covered in titanium – via architecturaldigest.net

Incredible amounts of rare earth minerals are pulled from the earth in infinitesimal quantities on an unfathomable human scale every day. Tin is mined out of mudpits in Indonesia. Coltan, which is used in almost all smartphones, cell phones, and laptops for its unique ability to hold an electric charge, is mined by hand in the Congo and increasingly mined in Columbia and Venezuela; it is described as a “conflict mineral” and a “strategic mineral,” which means–it causes war? It is worth war? People not in the Congo and Columbia are so obsessed with it that they will accept eternal war as a condition of receiving their coltan?

Did you guys read this New Yorker piece about how Peruvian miners chip gold by the flake out of the Andes in Peru? (It was really good.) Appreciating the preciousness of precious metals really underscores the grossness of Frank Gehry’s ugly aluminum buildings.

And then, on top of everything else, when our insatiable desire for new things and investors’ insatiable desire for stock prices to go up demands that hardware manufacturers push out new products that replace the old ones, we throw them away, and create e-waste that fills landfills or, when incinerated, dirties our air.

electronics-waste-africa

E-waste in Lagos, Nigeria | Margaret Bates, via technology.org

Sometimes when I spend too long scrolling through Facebook or Tumblr I feel gross because I know I don’t need to know more about what outfit Rihanna wore when she left her New York apartment yesterday. But in fact, there is a deeper ethical reality behind the metallic taste in my mouth: these new media habits of ours, which have supplanted the more sustainable habit of picking up a dictionary with the electronic choice of asking MerriamWebster.com, actually waste electricity, waste water, waste air, and waste people’s lives. There is actual environmental value in playing the guitar, reading a book, going for a walk, or continuing to argue about something instead of Googling it. Because, to put it concisely, your Tumblr feed burns coal, and the teens who mined the minerals in your smartphone were paid even less than the twentysomethings who assembled it.

You can read an expanded version of this post on Medium.

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TV, Politics, Race: What I’ve Been Reading, and Planning to Write

As usual, I’ve had the same 15 tabs open for 3 weeks, waiting…for what? For this blog post. I have trouble closing the links I’ve already read that seem so important I want to share them. Of course, you all have plenty to read already, so I think I’m just a digital hoarder.

I also have a nice long list on my phone of all the blog posts I want to write. I want to write about Jane the Virgin and Fresh Off the Boat and how amazing it is to see TV shows featuring immigrant families who don’t speak monolingually in their homes or on the shows: both shows feature multilingual families from Venezuela and Taiwan, respectively, where a grandmother always speaks in the home country’s language (Spanish and Mandarin) while their children and grandchildren respond in English, and everyone can understand each other. On Fresh Off the Boat, the middle generation–children of grandma and parents of grandkids–also switch into Mandarin when they don’t want people around them to understand. (For my rhet/compers out there, Cue: Canagarajah.) Large swaths of the hiphop musical melodrama Empire is also written in AAVE; I would love to see one of their scripts. How are they formatting and editing their dialogue?

Meanwhile, Fresh Off the Boat and Broad City are also showcasing the appropriation of black language by Asian-American kids and white women, respectively; recent episodes of both featured leads in t-shirts of rappers. Acutally, FOTB has its lead, Eddie, wearing a t-shirt with a rapper’s face almost constantly. There is so much richness on television for language scholars to talk about right now. And FOTB is explicitly decentering whiteness in a way I’ve never seen before – usually the white characters on the show sound like delusional crazy people – and Jane the Virgin treated migrants’ undocumented status in a way that was humane and a part of a storyline just like it’s a part of people’s lives.

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I also wanted to write a post about how I wish Spotify would stop spending all its engineers’ energy trying to predict what music I like, and instead do a 1000% better job saving, categorizing, and making accessible to me all the music I’ve already been listening to, so I can find my favorite albums and artist as easily as if this was my music library.

I have also been thinking about how much time I spend as a teacher in the classroom doing managerial work vs. actual teaching –things like giving and reviewing assignments, talking about how things will be graded, coordinating who is giving a presentation on what day, giving students instructions for in-class activities, and so forth. This question was spurned by my reading of Donna Strickland’s The Managerial Unconscious in the History of Composition Studies, which had me thinking, how much of the managerialism of the contemporary writing program seeps into the classroom? How much of teaching is actually managing?

Anyway, here’s what I’ve been reading…

Jeff Chang’s “From Basquiat to Jay-Z: How the Art World Came to Fully Embrace Hip-Hop,” in The Guardian

francine j. harris’s “Civilly Unseen” in the Blue Shift Journal

Julianne Hing’s “Fresh Off the Boat’s Rocky Relationship with Hip-Hop” on Colorlines

Michael S. Schmidt’s “F.B.I. Director Speaks Out on Race and Police Bias” in the New York Times

Isabel Shepherd’s “Examining the Lasting Effects of Wilmington’s 1898 Coup D’etat” on HQR News

“Security Researcher Christopher Soghoian on How to Use a Cellphone Without Being Spied On” on Democracy Now!

Kirby Wilson’s “Lack of Diversity Leads to Burden on Professors of Color” in The Chronicle

Richard Florida’s “A Painstaking New Study Reveals the Persistence of U.S. Racial Segregation” on The Atlantic’s Citylab

Ben Sisario’s “Industry Issues Intrude in ‘Blurred Lines’ Case” in the New York Times

Nothing Was the Same – part I

“So, you ask, when does the Hip-Hop Generation begin? After DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaata. Whom does it include? Anyone who is down. When does it end? When the next generation tells us it’s over….It’s but one version, this dub history–a gift from those who have illuminated and inspired…”

– Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

I have been listening to Drake’s latest studio album, Nothing Was the Same, a LOT. I’ll be honest, right now NWTS is constituting a large majority of my weekly and even daily music consumption. After the first few listens, I started noticing the album’s samples of classic Golden Era hiphop songs and I began formulating my little hiphop-hypothesis (aka
hip-hop-eth-is) that Drake was tipping his hat towards the hiphop greats while simultaneously composing himself into their company, into the hiphop canon.

In fact, he doesn’t really do this. Or rather, he is largely saluting the Wu-Tang Clan. All three samples of rap songs from the mid-90s are from Wu-Tang’s first two albums, and two of the three are actually samples of the same song, Wu-Tang’s 1997 “It’s Yourz,” which appears in Drake’s “Wu-Tang Forever” and then again in the immediately following “Own It” as tracks 4 and 5. Turns out my hypothesis was based on a faulty aural ID of the sample–probably from both songs–as the sample of T la Rock and Jazzy J’s “It’s Yours” (1984) that turns up on Nas’s 1994 “The World Is Yours.” (Put simply, I thought Drake’s producers were sampling Nas, not Wu-Tang. Guess I wasn’t looking at the track listing.)

Here is where my research falters. I didn’t research deeply into these songs’ producers to see where they were or whether they worked together or what they were thinking. I use “Drake” as a synechdoche for all of the people who collectively create the music called Drake’s. But neither Wikipedia nor WhoSampled had any indication that Wu-Tang’s use of the shouted phrase “it’s yours!” which constitutes the chorus on “It’s Yourz,” released in 1997 in New York City, referenced or had any legal relationship to the shouted “it’s yours!” on Nas’s track from three years prior, which came out on his debut Illmatic in 1994, also in New York. I find this strange.

On NWST I also recognized the sample of Wu-Tang’s C.R.E.A.M. in “Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2,” and that makes 3 samples of Wu-Tang, among the album’s other assorted samples of pop, soul, and hiphop tracks. Not the broad Golden Era homage I had in mind.

And yet, it’s still noteworthy that Drake et al is sampling rap from the ’90s, including Nas or not. As Tricia Rose writes in Black Noise, “sampling in rap is a process of cultural literacy and intertextual reference” (89). Of course sampling “is about paying homage” (79), but it also “locates these ‘past’ sounds in the ‘present’” (89), allowing an artist like Drake to position himself in music history and highlight how earlier music circulates in the lives and musics of contemporary artists. In this way rap artists arrange for themselves their own portraits of musical history, the history of themselves. Drake arrays himself alongside contemporaries and predecessors, a group that has included Whitney Houston, Aaliyah, Kendrick Lamar, Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Wu-Tang Clan, Curtis Mayfield, 2-Chainz, and Timbaland.

Rappers sampling rappers is noteworthy because early rap couldn’t sample rap–there wasn’t any yet. Bambaata sampled Kraftwerk; “The Message” boasts a funk bass line under a disco beat. Sampling has always been one method by which hiphop artists intertextually situate themselves within living traditions of American, African-American, and world musics.

Three-and-a-half decades on, contemporary rappers have a rich repository of hiphop musics, including rap and R&B, to sample from, besides earlier and other contemporary forms. So Drake’s opener on NWTS, “Tuscan Leather,” can sample Whitney Houston alongside Curtis Mayfield–nodding both to the music that was on the radio when Drake and in fact I were kids, as well as the music our parents’ generation heard. Mayfield joins other soul and funk greats like James Brown and Otis Redding, along with so many other artists from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, in forming the backbone of hiphop beats.

In more recent rap, hiphop’s traditional sample base has expanded to include more contemporary references. Mayfield is sampled heavily on Kanye West’s debut The College Dropout, released in 2004, an album which also references Lauryn HIll, and that was already 10 years ago. Now, in 2014, we’re into the generation where J. Cole samples a track from West’s debut, West’s “The New Workout Plan,” on Cole’s “Work Out” from 2011. My 18-year-old students from a few years ago knew who Aaliyah from Drake’s 2010 “Unforgettable,” which samples Aaliyah off of her 1994 R. Kelly-produced Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number, whose title track is sampled in Outkast’s “May-December,” off of their 2004 Speakerboxxx/The Love Below–or maybe my students never noticed the sample but recognized Aaliyah’s name from Kendrick’s line on Drake’s “Buried Alive Interlude” that, “Only that nigga was missing was Aaliyah,”  or Drake’s quick eulogy–“Since I saw Aaliyah’s precious life go too soon”–on “We’ll Be Fine,” both off Drake’s 2011 Take Care.

The point is, time flies. 2004 was 10 years ago and 1994 was 20. In 1994, I was 8. So was Drake. Aaliyah was 16 (ergo the statutory-rape-ness of her relationship with producer R. Kelly). Kendrick Lamar was 7. Nas’s Illmatic, Biggie’s Ready to Die, Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, and Common’s Resurrection all came out that year–that’s why Nas and Outkast had twentieth reunion tours this year: nostalgia. Nostalgia sells. These cycles put us in rap’s third or fourth generation, if such distinctions aren’t the fictions Jeff Chang warns us they are. Christopher Wallace would’ve been 42 this year and Aaliyah would be 36. Nas is 41 and Andre 3000 is 39, even if he plays a 24-year old Jimi Hendrix in the new biopic All Is By My Side. History is more like a circle than a line, or a rhythm that you hear in the corner of your mind, still echoing from the tape deck long shut off in the dash of the quiet, waiting car. “[T]he thing (the ritual, the dance, the beat) is there for you to pick up when you come back to get it,” that is, when it “‘cuts’ back to the start” (Snead qtd. in Rose 69). Hiphop history lives in the cut.

Nothing_Was_the_Same_cover_1

via Wikipedia

References

Wikipedia: “Nothing Was The Same,” “Tuscan Leather,” “Wu-Tang Forever [Drake album],” “Own It,” “Connect,” “Poundcake/Paris Morton Music 2,” “Wu-Tang Forever [Wu-Tang Clan album],” and more.

WhoSampled.com: “Drake ft. PARTYNEXTDOOR Own It samples Wu-Tang Clan Its Yours,” “Nas The World Is Yours samples T La Rock and Jazzy Jay It’s Yours,” “Drake feat. Young Jeezy Unforgettable samples Aaliyah feat R. Kelly At Your Best (You Are Love),” “Wu Tang Clan Its Yourz,” and more.

WhoSampled.com Blog. “Drake–Nothing Was The Same: The Samples.”

Andrew Martin, “A History of Drake’s Obsession with Aaliyah.” Complex.com.

Print

Chang, Jeff. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. Picador (2005): New York.

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middletown (1994): Wesleyan University Press.

Put Tupac on the SAT Exam

Tupac's handwritten poem "The Rose that Grew From Concrete," via cleeclothing.com

Tupac’s handwritten poem “The Rose that Grew From Concrete,” via cleeclothing.com

Imagine what would happen if Tupac’s “Changes” appeared on the SAT Reading exam:

  • Every high school in the country would scramble to start teaching its students to close-read rap songs
  • Rappers would suddenly be acknowledged as writers of poetry, whose lyrics contain the same poetic, narrative, and rhetorical devices–metaphor, irony, anaphora, character, apostrophe, setting, motifs, anecdote, allusion–as other canonized literary texts
  • The SAT would have to acknowledge dialect diversity, preface its “Complete these sentences correctly” section with “Using Standard English…,” and critical language awareness would suddenly appear in high school English curricula
  • Curriculum planners and students would see contemporary writing as worthy of study 

Continue reading

YOU ARE HAIR: Pixie Cut Mania

I am SO excited to share this.

In March, I presented in the film podcast Bonnie and Maude‘s live show, YOU ARE HAIR. Yes, it was all about hair. Now you can watch the clip, interspersed with my visuals, below. (You *should* watch the whole thing. But to watch mine, select “Playlist” in the upper-left-hand corner and choose video #3.)

In my talk, I discuss the winter wave of celebrity pixie cuts, focusing specifically on Beyonce and Miley Cyrus–how they debuted their cuts, and how they were constructed in their music videos. Enjoy–and he sure to check out the rest of the night’s program here! Special thanks to Kseniya and Eleanor for hosting and producing these clips!!

SCHOOLED [the first three pages of my imaginary Comp/Rhet book]

[for the first meeting of CCR 611, history of composition, we were asked to write the first three pages of our future first book in the field– pure whimsy, of course, since we’re all first and second years. Here’s what I came up with.]

Rap is a referendum on America’s failed schools. In a moment too reminiscent of our own, urban youths stood outside the walls of schools with no budget for art class and made a whole culture out of the detritus of the society which had discarded them. From spoken language the rapper spat verse; the DJ scratched the break beat into vinyl; writers painted reclaimed language on subway cars; postmodern dancers fashioned studios out of cardboard; all of these children, artists and intellectuals, dropping the sweet science of hiphop. Continue reading

“That’s Retarded, Sir” : Miley Cyrus v. Rachel Jeantel

via popdirt.com

via popdirt.com

Jezebel had a nice piece on Miley’s twerking and cultural appropriation: On Miley Cyrus, Ratchet Culture and Accessorizing With Black People. The title is pretty self-explanatory, but the idea is that Cyrus’s new video and general new ‘tude are a disrespectful appropriation of black southern culture, a move rooted in Cyrus’s privilege to “accessorise” with minority accoutrements but still move in privileged spaces with money and clout. Continue reading

“She is Obi wan Kenobi teaching Luke the force” – my student’s awesome rap about our class

It only took one semester for my students to point out you oughtn’t teach a writing class on rap without at least some time teaching the writing of raps! So, near the end of every semester, we crank a beat, brainstorm rhyming words, and see if we can fill our 16 bars. And then perform! One of my freshman students dropped such hot and complimentary fire that I couldn’t resist reproducing it here…

photo

Oh when I fall, I all fall down

It’s usually because I tripped on my frown

Don’t clown around with Tessa Brown

She knows the difference between nouns and pronouns

She can teach you how to cite a source

She can teach you how to write a course

She is Obi won Kenobi teaching Luke the force

Actually fuck Star Wars, we want Style Wars!

Kanye, I’mma let you finish but let me say

That Matt M. is one of the best of today

What I Would Write My Final Paper on if I Were a Student in my English 225 class

…but instead am just presenting to them today as a set of texts, below.

 

1. We Wear the Mask, by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

WE wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

 

2. Fugees’ “The Mask”

 

3. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart 

 

 

3. Kanye v. Kanye

4. Lauryn Hill, “Mystery of Iniquity”

 

 

 

5. Minstrel Man, Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

 

Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter
And my throat
Is deep with song,
You do not think
I suffer after
I have held my pain
So long?

Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter,
You do not hear
My inner cry?
Because my feet
Are gay with dancing,
You do not know 

I die? 

 

6. Lauryn Hill, “Do Wop (That Thing)”

 

Rap is Bootstraps Music – with @OReillyFactor , @CeeLoGreen, @Spotify, @JayZ , @GovMikeHuckabee and other odd bedfellows

In the wake of Mitt Romney’s electoral loss to President Obama on Tuesday, conservative pundits, politicians and power players have been asking themselves and each other what went wrong. According to Dylan Byers’s recent feature on POLITICO, the right is playing a mega round of blame game, with a few possible scapegoats. Moderates put the far-right at fault for alienating voters with extreme rhetoric; the far right blame moderates and Romney himself for failing to persuasively represent conservative values.

Far-right conservatives like Bill O’Reilly suggest that conservatives don’t need to change their message but refine their voice in a way that awakens the electorate to its wrongheaded approach to government. On Tuesday, as Obama’s win became clear, O’Reilly presented this view on FOX news: “The voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff….You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama. Overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel that they are entitled to things and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things?” (qtd in Byers).

Efforts to characterize President Obama as the “food-stamp president” have been decried as an extension of the Southern Strategy, that is, a coded effort to stoke white racist fears about the black electorate by subtly demonizing black Americans as takers, not doers. However, O’Reilly’s comments on election night suggest that he’s fully internalized his party’s strategery: he believes that Latinos, African-Americans, and women are all takers: “they want stuff,” and President Obama is the candidate who “is going to give them things.”

If, like me, you are a person who listens to and thinks about rap music a lot, you may be able to anticipate the argument I want to make right now: that rap espouses a do-it-yourself, take nothing from no one, nose-to-the-grindstone attitude about work–that is, a conservative attitude about work–and in its discussions of hustling and getting by reveals that people of color keep ending up on the socioeconomic bottom not because they’re lazy but because of institutional and structural prejudices that keep them out of jobs, out of neighborhoods with better schools, in jail for longer for the same crime, and so on.

To be honest, I’m way too busy to write the post right now this argument deserves. But here are some texts I’m thinking about:

Jay-Z’s book Decoded, which says that “hustling is the ultimate metaphor for the basic human struggles : the struggle to survive and resist, the struggle to win and to make sense of it all” (18).

“Get By” by Talib Kweli

“We Don’t Care” by Kanye West – “Cause ain’t no tuition for having no ambition/ and ain’t no loans for sittin yo’ ass at home/So we forced to sell crack, rap, and get a job/ You gotta do somethin, man, yo ass is grown!”

“Git Up, Git Out, Git Something” by Outkast ft. Goodie Mob

Michal Denzal Smith’s How Jay-Z Inspired a Generation of Hustlers

Jeremiah Goulka’s “Confessions of a Former Republican”

So many rap songs belong in this argument–I started thinking about last week, after my advanced class listened to Outkast’s “Git Up,” which features four 24-line verses each by a different rapper and each with a very different picture of what it means to “git something.” As we worked through this song in class, it became clear that while the chorus embodies a distant voice (something like O’Reilly’s) telling these young black men to “git up, git out and git something/How will you make it if you never even try,” each verse is a defense from men trying to do just that, and the challenges and struggles they face. Cee-Lo argues at this voice trying to box him in: “I try to be the man I’m ‘posed to be/But negativity is all you seem to ever see.” In the universe Cee-Lo depicts, no options are open to him, yet he’s characterized as negative. He concisely depicts the lure of the drug trade in a universe with few options:

Cuz every job I get is cruel and demeanin’

Sick of takin’ trash out and toilet bowl cleanin’

But I’m also sick and tired of strugglin’

I never ever thought I’d have to resort to drug smugglin’ (Outkast)

For Cee-Lo, “drug smugglin'” is a resort; the first choice was a series of “cruel and demeanin'” menial jobs that still left him “strugglin. ”

It’s ironic that while thugged out rap images have allowed pundits to criminalize young men of color, the lyrics behind these pictures actually promote hard work that shifts into the underground economy when legal options become unavailable. In that same POLITICO piece, Mike Huckabee had this to say: “The real conservative policy is attractive to minorities. Our problem isn’t the product, it’s the box we put it in. Our message should not be ‘tailored’ to a specific demographic group, but presented to empower the individual American, whatever the color, gender or ethnicity.”  In fact, conservatives’ message of hard work still holds sway over most Americans–I know I believe in money paid for hard work put in. The problem is the right’s refusal to recognize that there are factors that actually prohibit their political norms from taking place: hard work isn’t paying off like your system says it’s supposed to. If this is interesting to you, (it might be if you’re still with me) definitely check out Goulka’s piece, above. He writes, “As a retired African-American general in the Marine Corps said to me after I told him my story, ‘No one has to explain institutional racism to a black man.’” But some folks still haven’t heard the message.

P.S. SPOTIFY POSTSCRIPT

started using spotify, like it a lot, have some things to say about it:

– how do I know what music I like if I don’t own any music? puts this new pressure on my brain to be aware of all the musics I might want to listen to, instead of knowing that I’m limited to (and pre-curated by) whatever I already own.

– am I ever going to buy an MP3 again? probably not. but i might buy more records.

– interesting how the ad experience is so clearly designed to irritate. Unlike tv and radio ads, which are like, “Hey! No interruption here! Just a short narrative to persuade you to buy something!” spotify ads are all “HEY DON’T I SUCK? DOESN’T THIS AD TOTALLY SUCK RIGHT NOW? YOU KNOW, IF YOU LAID DOWN SOME GODDAMNED DOLLARS YOU WOULDN’T HAVE TO LISTEN TO THIS ANNOYING SHIT RIGHT NOW, YOU PIRATING CHEAPSKATE! JUST SAYIN!” You know?

Rap, School, and Weed in varying degrees of awesomeness

This video and song are so bad I wasn’t sure whether to post them but I felt compelled given the whole “looking for school in rap” function of this blog.

Snoop Dogg & Wiz Khalifa – “Let’s Go Study” | Watch Hip Hop Music Videos & New Rap Videos | HipHop DX.

However, as retribution for that I’ll also give you the cover art for Rihanna’s new song “Diamonds” (also not the best song ever, but better than that weak joint above), about which all I have to say is that it’s fucking awesome.

As for the song itself, it has a little bit of Phil Collins going on in the instrumentation, a little Nicki Minaj in the hook, and a little American Idol in RiRi’s stretchy vowels. Still love her though, duh. But if you’re gonna listen to a Rihanna song it should probably be “Rude Boy.” Speaking of which, did you ever read that article about Ester Dean?

And if you’re actually going to care about a Rihanna video, it should obviously be “Man Down.”

9th Wonder Knows How to Talk to College Kids

9th Wonder at U of M

Two Thursdays ago I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by producer 9th Wonder here at the University of Michigan. While I knew him as the producer behind rap group Little Brother and a co-teacher of the “Sampling Soul” course with Mark Anthony Neal at Duke, the filled auditorium I arrived to attested to his fame as a producer who’d also worked with many of the biggest names in hiphop and R&B.

Two elements of 9th’s talk struck me immediately. Tunes were already playing when we arrived, with what turned out to be 9th Wonder’s Serato projected from his laptop to the screen behind the podium. So the first thing I noticed was how this talk not only incorporated music into its very fabric but also modeled producing as a function of technology and passion both. The other striking element here, evident from the moment 9th began his talk with a discourse on his own sports fan-dom–complete with the confessions that he had to take a spin around the Big House and that he bought a “Buck the Fuckeyes” t-shirt–was his calculated and charismatic approach toward college students. The man knew his audience.

These two pedagogical techniques–modeling and pathos, we might call them–continued through a wonderful talk in which 9th Wonder used the story of his own exposure to music as the narrative backbone for the history of hiphop itself. He compared Motown to Young Money with the qualification that Motown wasn’t “so top heavy,” with Wayne, Nicki and Drake “up here” and everyone else, let’s be honest, down below. He solicitated responses and laughs from the audience, and his remarks were tailored to our contemporary experience of pop culture, with the occasional admonition. In speaking about “Yo! MTV Raps,” the first hiphop-based show on TV, he explained, “If you missed it, that was it.” With the internet, you just go Google the thing. But he seemed nostalgic for those analog days: that scarcity of product “made hiphop live forever, it made music have a longer shelf life. It made us talk to each other. It made us make friends.”

His talk was peppered with music: “This was the first rap song I ever heard.”

Discovering sampling was like “a wormhole.”

The Native Tongues era was “the most progressive moment in hiphop ever,” and Q-tip’s great innovation was to say, “I’m not gonna sample James Brown, I’m gonna sample jazz.”

“This is what I ran into,” 9th explained. “This is what hiphop is.” On the screen behind him, we could see him search through his music collection, pulling out songs with labels like “Workshop Samples” and “Michigan lecture.” He told the story of a kid in the Bronx called Clive Davis throwing a party in 1973 and inventing hiphop by honing in on “the best part of the record, which is also known as the break.” On the screen above us, 9th clicked “Loop,” updating Kool Herc’s technique for the digital age. “And he would chase the break. That’s a loop. Cats would come out and dance–he called it break dancing.”

There was a note of tragedy, sometimes, in the lecture. Sometimes facetious, like when 9th played “Fallin in Love” by Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds and confessed, “That’s probably the one that just hursts the most,” or Debarge’s “Stay with Me”- “They just took the whole shit, man.”

But other times he seemed upset by the implicit purpose of his task, to rehabilitate hiphop’s image from our side of the screen. “Hiphop is bigger than just your radio and TV screen,” 9th said. “There was a time when we had our poets,” like Rakim, but those days have lapsed. “As Black folk,” he lamented, “we tend to give things away.”

In the Q&A session I asked what he teaches when he has a whole semester and as he ran through a syllabus that included “two weeks on just Wu-Tang Clan,” a new framing appeared: “1968-1997, from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the assassination of B.I.G.” That struck me as the greatest tragedy of all–not the corporatization or the musical generations forgotten to time but the easy framing of a movement by the deaths of two great poets, orators, lyricists.

When 9th played a song his head bobbed and the heads of the audience members moved along with him. A student sitting beside me got a flashback glimpse of eager young me with my hand raised, dying to be called on. At the end of his talk, 9th Wonder bolted to attend the rapper buddy back in NC. “He doesn’t know I’m coming,” he called, as he ran up the stairs. “Don’t tweet that.”

As We Proceed….to Give You What You Need… (Here, Have My Course Materials)

Wassup, fools! It’s Labor Day Weekend, the annual last weekend of summer when a lot of people are on vacation but I am at my desk, editing syllabi for a new calendar year.

When I started teaching “College Writing on The College Dropout” two years ago, I was an MFA student with a simple purpose in mind: to make sure the required freshman writing class I taught would be more enjoyable than the one I took when I was a freshman, which I hated. And from the moment I started teaching, it was clear to me that this was something I’d have to write about.

That first semester teaching was Fall 2010; the following summer, I did some research for the English Department on the subject of reflective writing. Among our research team, my subfocus was new media, and blogs were a large part of my research. In fact, blogs have tons of reflective writing applications. They archive student writings for future study. They foster a writer’s awareness of their audience. And that pithy-casual blog tone we all know so well  actually helps young academic writers break out of an academic register and let their own voices and experiences come into play. But one of the most important things I remember reading (in Will Richardson’s wonderful Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and other powerful Web tools for the Classroom) was that to teach effectively using blogs, you needed to know what it was like to have a blog. If we in the English Department were so sure reflecting on writing made students better writers, wouldn’t it behoove me as a teacher to reflect on teaching?

(Full disclosure: Around this time, I told a friend I wanted to write a book of essays on hiphop. She said, “Why wait for a book deal? Go start a blog.”)

Dali’s “Metamorphosis of Narcissus”

That December, about eight months ago, I started writing this thing, and it has been wonderful–a place to reflect on rap, on teaching, on pop culture. Indeed, I like this stuff so much I’m about ready to go back to school for it. So, in the interest of my future research and remembrance of times past, I’m going to try something new this semester: starting on Tuesday, I’m going to post all my lesson plans and course materials up here. If you’re a writing teacher, feel free to ape (with credit to me, please). This new initiative is inspired as much by the principles of transparency, crowdsourcing, and remix as by my own personal interest in recording and reflecting on my lesson plans. Heck, my course already makes use of free, online materials like song lyrics, music videos, and other blogs and periodicals. I’ve spent a lot of time honing this freshman writing course, but that only makes me want to share it with you. If you want to teach “College Writing on The College Dropout,” please be my welcome guest. (Heck, if you want to take this class along with us, please do! Though I won’t grade your papers–I have enough of those already.) If you have thoughts or comments on my lesson plans, I can’t wait to hear them. If you’re my former student, the time is ripe for your revenge: tell me (and the world!) if this stuff actually worked. In the process, I hope to learn more about my teaching style, to remember those little lessons we learn every day but too often forget, and to give a lil’ sumt’n back to this hiphop universe that has given me so much.

More soon, friends. Til then, happy Labor Day. -T.

Confessions of a White Girl Neither Stopped nor Frisked

I’ll make this brief, because the point is brief and I’m nervous putting this out there. This morning I read this NYTimes blog post “In Subway, Activist Records Stop-and-Frisk He Says Proves Its Dark Side” which refers to the video, above (which you should watch). Stop-and-Frisk has come into broad national attention lately, with the wonderful opposition march in New York on Father’s Day. Who knows why now is the time. Perhaps Trayvon Martin’s death–and Geraldo Rivera’s response?–reignited our attention to how black bodies in hoodies are stamped with a criminal suspicion the moment they leave the house.

I don’t have that body. Police don’t stop me on the street to harass me. A few times, walking home at night in my parents’ bar-heavy neighborhood in Chicago, police have stopped to make sure I’m okay.

But more importantly, police have stopped me smoking marijuana in public in Chicago, and I was not frisked, not harassed, and never, ever arrested. The Chicago Reader reports that “marijuana is believed to be used at similar rates across racial groups, yet African-Americans account for 78 percent of those arrested, 89 percent of those convicted, and 92 percent of those jailed for low-level possession in Chicago” (Dumke and Joravsky, “How Chicago Said Yes to Pot”). I tell you my side of the story because white kids who get away with possessing pot are the invisible flip side of the injustice of criminalized marijuana. Put in other words–and in the light of the Reader’s statistics–young people of all races are getting high, but nearly only African-Americans–78% of arrests! 92% jail time!–are effectively criminalized by this criminal activity.

Marching on Fathers’ Day to end Stop-And-Frisk, NYC, 2012

I remember smoking a joint in a park in what must have been the summer of 2005, when the police approached my friend and I. Caught red-handed. We put it out but the two cops saw the dead roach on the ground and picked it up. “Do you have any more?” one of them asked. “Don’t lie.”

“No,” I said.

“Let me search your bag,” he told me. I handed him my purse and, lo and behold, I’d been lying. He dumped what was left of my pathetic stash on the ground and crushed it under his shoe. “I told you not to lie,” he said. “Now I have to give you a ticket.” And he wrote me a $35 ticket for being in a city park after closing time.

If we had been black males, I have no doubt my friend and I would have been taken to jail that night. Lots of white kids smoke pot, and lots of their criminalized behavior gets noticed by the police. The difference is, we don’t get arrested for it, we don’t get put in jail, it never goes on our records. And, because Stop-and-Frisk is a racialized agenda, white kids carrying drugs (but smart enough to keep them behind closed doors) never get randomly policed and caught for possession–only people of color do.

The Reader reports that Chicago’s new marijuana law allows ticketing but doesn’t prohibit arrests.

[Roosevelt professor Kane-Willis] says she thinks the fines are too high for the poor young men most likely to be ticketed, and she worries that police won’t have any reason to stop making arrests. “My concern is that there’s no incentive to ticket,” she says. “The worst case, we end up with the tickets and the arrests. Best case: we end up moving to tickets and do something about the racial gap.”

One convoluted silver lining I see in this? Maybe, faced with budget crises, the police will take the opportunity to really ticket everyone who gets caught riding high in the Chi. And who knows what political forces will be awakened when white teens come home with $250 tickets for smoking doobies in the city’s public parks?

Must Read: The Warmth of Other Suns

A few weeks ago I finished Isabel Wilkerson’s magisterial The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration, in which four million African-Americans moved north and west from the Jim Crow south over six decades after World War I. I cannot recommend this book highly enough for anyone interested in African-American or really American history of the 20th century. The book uses copious interviews with migrants and members of the communities they left and joined, combined with coverage of older and a new body of reevaluative research on the migrants, to argue compellingly that southern migrant blacks were a resilient and hardworking group whose individual decisions culminated to change America’s cultural, economic, and geographical landscape, and in so doing pushed American history forward.

While I read I found myself noting the words that Wilkerson uses to describe the African American experience under Jim Crow that because of their over-affiliation with other events or our successful efforts to smooth out our own national history, we rarely read in popular accounts of American history. Words like apartheid, terrorism, human rights, and most notably, caste. Perhaps other folks are used to seeing caste used, but it surprised me. That’s not to say it’s inaccurate, but caste makes me think of India. How have we so successfully purged our language of correct usage of words? Because despite the fact that Jim Crow used violence to maintain caste distinctions that had become technically illegal, still we use words like “segregation” which connote “separate but equal.” There’s no equal in caste.

And, since this is a hiphop blog, I should note that this book does a great job of mentioning–throughout, but especially at the end–the way the Great Migration influenced the landscape of American music and culture.

Over time, the Migration would transform American music as we know it. The three most influential figures in jazz were all children of the Great Migration. Miles Davis was born in Alton, Illinois, after his family migrated from Arkansas. Thelonious Monk migrated with his family from North Carolina when he was five. John Coltrane left High Point, North Carolina for Philadelphia in 1943, when he was sixteen. Coltrane had never owned a saxophone before his mother bought him a used one once he got north. (529)

Many black parents who left the South got th eone thing they wanted just by leaving. Their children would have a chance to grow up free of Jim Crow and to be their fuller selves. It cannot be known what course the lives of people like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Michelle Obama, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Serena and Venus Williams, Bill Cosby, Condoleezza Rice, Nat King Cole, Oprah Winfrey, Berry Gordy (who founded Motown and signed children of the Migrantion to sing for it), the astronaut Mae Jemison, the artist Romare Bearden, the performers Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jacksn, Prince, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, Queen Latifa, the director Spike Lee, the playwright August Wilson, and countless others might have taken had their parents or grandparents not participated in the Great Migration and raised them in the North or West. All of them grew up to become among the best in their fields, changed them, really, and were among the first generation of blacks in their country to grow up free and unfettered because of the actions of their forebears. Millions of other children of the Migration grew up to lead productive, though anonymous, lives in quiet, everyday ways that few people will ever hear about. (535)

Green Street, later renamed Red Row, the Rocky Mount, North Carolina road on which Thelonious Monk's family lived, from his birth in 1917 until 1922. Photo by Jonathan Williams, 1970, Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Audio Project: Digging up Thelonious Monk’s Southern Roots

As a Chicagoan myself, this book filled in a huge part of my understanding of my city. One of the book’s three main characters, Ida Mae Gladney, moves to Chicago from Georgia and the changing Black Belt she sees out of her South Side window is as fascinating as how she got up there in the first place. I also loved how in Wilkerson’s language and especially her epigraphs, the book was shot through with influences from literature and music. A lot of Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, letters, newspapers, spirituals. It’s history, y’all. Anyway, read this book! I’ll end with another segment from the conclusion that sounded like it came out of a Nas song. Mind blown!

It is one of those circular facts of history that, in the three great receiving cities to which southern blacks fled–the cities that drew Ida Mae, George, and Robert–blacks had been among the first nonnatives to set foot on the soil and to establish settlements centuries before. Black mestizos were among the forty-four Mexican settlers arriving in 1781 at the pueblo that would become Los Angeles. Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, a fur trader born of an African slave woman in Haiti, built, in 1779, the first permanent settlement in what is now known as Chicago. Jan Rodrigues, a sailor of African descent working for and later abandoned by Dutch merchants on an untamed island in the New World, created the first trading post on what is now known as Manhattan, in 1613. (537)

Start Over…Again

As Outkast rapped, “Incarceration without rehabilitation really don’t mean shit.”

Less than two years ago, Torey Baker was an 18-year-old high-school dropout facing prison time for robbery. When a judge in the Bronx sentenced him instead to six months in an alternative program, plus probation, he considered himself lucky. But he didn’t know the half of it.

On his first day, the counselor who administered his drug test asked Mr. Baker if he had any interest in hip-hop. Because if he did, there was a recording studio right down the hall. (Miet)

Where a Career in Hip-Hop Starts With a Court Sentence – NYTimes.com.

UPDATE: And on the other side of the spectrum, Charles Blow writes of Louisiana’s local prisoners, most of them nonviolent,

These ex-convicts, with almost no rehabilitation and little prospect for supporting themselves, return to the already-struggling communities that were rendered that way in part because so many men are being extracted on such a massive scale. There the cycle of crime often begins again, with innocent people caught in the middle and impressionable young eyes looking on.

Plantations, Prisons and Profits – NYTimes.com

Congratulations, Monsieur Hollande: What Obama Could Never Do

On Sunday, fiscal conservatives the world over freaked out when France elected its Socialist candidate for president, Francois Hollande, and ousted the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. While I am interested in the shifts this upset will cause in world affairs, I am more interested in the following campaign advertisement for Hollande, discovered by Pitchfork and brought to my attention by a friend.

 If you were wondering what I thought “Obama could never do,” it’s release a campaign video like this one. I mean, Obama invited Jay-Z to his 50th birthday bash and Fox News headlined its coverage, “Obama’s Hip-Hop BBQ Didn’t Create Jobs.” But because Hollande, a white man, does not have to worry about his electorate remembering that he is a Black man, he can explicitly reach out to French voters of color by featuring them in a campaign ad backed by the Jay-Z and Kanye West track “Niggas in Paris.” Umcensored.

Slate calls the ad “unlikely”; Pitchfork calls it “confusing” and “strange.” Neither seem to analyze it beyond the pun “That shit Creil,” where Creil is the name if a city shown a few times in the ad that is pronounced like Kanye’s “cray.” But this ad is amazing to me for so many reasons that neither publication seems willing to explore.

Fox News’ Obama birthday banner image

First, the title of the song. Hollande’s commercial literally depicts “Niggas in Paris,” even as it totally recontextualizes the subjects of the song. In the original, Ye and Jay are high-rolling American Black men partying in an idealized Paris. Jay raps, “If you escaped what I escaped, you’d be in Paris getting fucked up, too.” But in Hollande’s ad, these niggas in Paris aren’t high-rollers and they’re in their own country. In fact, the video is explicitly concerned with portraying people of color as French citizens, with constructing the French voting citizenry as a racially and culturally diverse body. Much of the ad consists of a multiracial cohort of people holding out their voter cards and smiling wildly. One of the first shots is of a woman in hijab, a symbol of Muslim religious practice that has become controversial  in much of right-leaning Europe. (In fact, full face veils are actually illegal in France.) There are also a lot of shots of Hollande speaking enthusiastically to folks who do or don’t look like him. Indeed, Hollande’s advertisement suggests that the people it depicts are more than “niggas in Paris,” that is, outsiders to be labelled in a place that does not belong to them: instead, they are French citizens with the power to shape their country’s future through voting.

A comment on Slate claims this ad was created by supporters, not by Hollande’s campaign itself. I don’t know. I wish Melissa Harris-Perry was here to talk about the construction of citizenship. But it’s all good. This video still rocks my political socks. What do you guys think?

If I’m Not a Hustler, What You Call That?

When I was in high school, I took the SAT, did well–and my mom made me get a private tutor to raise my score a few hundred points. Not only did I not want to go–because my time was precious, because the desired score was only incrementally higher than the one I’d already received–but also because my burgeoning social consciousness told me (and told Mom) that This Is Not Fair. That is, using my family’s economic standing to artificially raise my SAT score was unjust viz. all the people who did not have the social and economic resources to do so. Her response?

“Tessa, it’s a game. Play the game.”

Yep, that’s my Machiavellian Mama.

But it turns out, hustlin’ is a generational skill. Sure, Nielson has decided we 18-to-34-year-olds are Generation C (that is, Generation Connected), but it’s been clear to me for a while now that we’re the HipHop Generation. We share hiphop’s values: connectivity, yes, but also community, intertextuality, multiculturalism, diversity, revolution, empathy, storytelling, political engagement, art, self-expression, global awareness and local impact.

In his book Decoded (2011), Jay-Z (and dream hampton) declare that “hustling is the ultimate metaphor for human struggles: the struggle to survive and resist, the struggle to win and to make sense of it all” (18). To Jay-Z, “the story of the hustler” is rap’s central tale, the hustler its archetypal hero (10). But when my students and I discussed an excerpt from the beginning of Decoded, I realized how central the hustle is to our generational experience writ large. We hustle to get into a good college, to get good grades, to get into that organization we have our eyes on, to maintain social position, to get a job, pay rent, secure health insurance, please our parents, make something of ourselves. As Jay would say, “If I’m not a hustler what you call that?” (10).

Two recent articles in GOOD bring a similar message home. Mychal Denzel Smith writes about “How Jay-Z Inspired a Generation of Hustlers.” This article is too specific for my taste, not least because I’m excluded from its demographics. Smith argues that Jay-Z has become the wise uncle figure for “millenial black males,” articulating a radical new politics where “wealth is revolutionary.” Jay-Z is “representing for the seat where Rosa Parks sat by standing next to Warren Buffet on the cover of Forbes.” I’d argue that the revolutionary power of wealth here isn’t limited to young black men, but to all millenials out there hustling. This is a world where autonomy is dependent on self-sufficiency.

More compelling, though, is Smith’s “What Generation Overshare Can Learn from Biggie.” In this piece, Smith takes Biggie’s “Ten Crack Commandments” seriously, zoning in on the first two which both tout the value of silence. Though this article’s central drive is about the strategy of not sharing–not “livetweeting the interview process,” for example–Smith makes claims about “Generation Overshare” in the process of developing his argument.

I’m part of that generation known as Millennials, and even if we don’t know whether social security will be around when we retire, or if we’ll be able to retire, or if we’ll even have jobs to consider retiring, we know this: We are hustlers. We’re gangsta. We pimp. We grind.

Most of us don’t do any of these things in the literal sense, but my generation has come of age listening to the sounds of hip hop, and we’ve borrowed the language of illegal hustlers to describe our legal hustles. It feels only natural we should also adopt aspects of their code of conduct and apply them to our quest for survival and world domination.

Back to Biggie and the “Ten Crack Commandments”: It’s no accident that the first two commandments have to do with learning to keep quiet. “Rule nombre uno, never let no one know, how much dough you hold” and “Number two: never let ‘em know your next move, don’t you know Bad Boys move in silence and violence.” Any hustler worth his weight knows that he should draw as little attention to himself as possible….

And imagine negotiating a deal that would expand your territory or triple your income, bragging about it to everyone you know before it goes through, and finding yourself filing fingerprints and a mugshot because word got around and reached the wrong snitch. Silence is a valuable asset. (Smith, “What Generation Overshare Can Learn From Biggie”)

I like this article because it takes the implications of Jay-Z’s metaphor seriously: if we’re all hustlers, we can learn from the hustlers, like Biggie, who have gone before. And sure, this is another answer to the perennial question of why White kids love hiphop: ’cause if I’m not a hustler, what you call that?