Flash Points: Racial Profiling, Riot Porn and the Zombie Apocolypse

This week we look at racial profiling through the lens of controversial writer John Derbyshire. We also talk about racism within hip-hop and find ourselves stimulated by the riot porn of the new Jay-Z and Kanye West video. Flash Points ends on a more positive note: the rise of the walking dead.

Racial Profiling

The Trayvon Martin shooting has become a touchstone for a nebulous and unresolvable 'conversation around race'. Part of the reason, of course, is that Martin's death raises uncomfortable questions about racial profiling within democratic societies. The stalking and fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager has established one thing beyond a reasonable doubt: Martin's real crime was being black.

The circumstances of his death -- and the police department's initial failure to investigate and prosecute -- drew attention to a conversation that many black parents have with their children. It's called The Talk, and this survival guide essentially alerts black children to the threat police pose to them everyday. As John Derbyshire reminded us, however, there is a conversation that many white parents have with their children too, and he calls it The Talk: Non Black Version.

These two conversations brought to light a very troubling fact: many black and white people similarly perceive each other as a threat. Derbyshire's version of the talk, however, resulted in controversy and subsequent martyrdom for daring to tell the truth. Derbyshire may have been banished to the margins of the lunatic fringe, but racial profiling is here to stay. While Derbyshire's more recent defense of white supremacy is difficult to take seriously, his version of 'the talk' continues to resonate.

Derbyshire reminds us that racism is more than skin deep: it's much more insidious and pervasive than many of us would care to admit. As the Implicit Association Test (IAT) indicates, the divide is not just between the races. The disturbing truth is that there is a separation between our unconscious attitudes and stated values. Consequently, any attempt to identify a racist threatens to talk in circles.

Whatever the failings of Derbyshire's version of 'the talk' -- insensitive timing, inflammatory statements, fallacious reasoning, etc. -- it nonetheless remains a valuable insight into the logic of racial profiling. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about it is the way it attempts to bridge the other divide. Specifically, Derbyshire attempts to bring unconscious fears into alignment with stated values. Derbyshire simultaneously presents a profile of a racist and the picture that emerges is disquieting.

'The Talk: Non Black Version' offers living proof that an intelligent and loving parent can also be an incredibly ignorant and hateful person. Anyone who wants to understand and combat racism should therefore consider it morally instructive -- and mandatory reading. Derbyshire has provided a community service by laying bare the tacit reasoning underlying racism. The step-by-step guide lays down the building blocks for racially motivated thinking and grounds it in statistical common sense. Derbyshire manages to talk his way around the fact that a statistical truth is only relatively true, and that the statistics are colored by their own relationship to institutionalized racism.

Derbyshire's statistical common sense also happens to conveniently whitewash a bigger truth. Statistically speaking, it's much more commonplace for black people to commit violence against one another . Black people don't so much pose a threat to white society as to each other. The tragedy is that 'black on black' crime remains symptomatic of structural inequalities: this is what happens when a predominantly white society displaces and marginalizes members of its own population. Derbyshire, however, is not interested in having that conversation -- such idle 'talk' threatens to humanize people of color. Given his roundabout approach, the color of a person's skin may therefore be seen as a sign of something else -- it's a general indication of the content of their character.

Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. Derbyshire's logic effectively justifies the vicious circle of racial prejudice -- that we should marginalize and stigmatize black people based on what we already 'know' about them. According to Derbyshire, the only thing you really need to know is your own fear and ignorance.

Fear of a Black Planet

Hip-hop has become another way to talk about race relations. While the CNN of the ghetto speaks to the despair of a community often without a voice , hip-hop also confirms that actions speak louder than words . The rising popularity of World Star offers ample proof that there is truth in (and a market for) harmful stereotypes. The content aggregating video blog shows that hip-hop provides a continuing soundtrack to antisocial behavior and reinforces the stereotype that a thuggish and adversarial stance is a proper response to a presumptively racist society (John McWhorter, 'Hip-Hop Holds Black People Back', 2003).

As Tupac and Niggers with Attitude independently urged more succinctly, "it's a thugs life" and "fuck the police". Indeed, the 'gangsta' and 'hustler' have become cultural icons and standard bearers: racial profiling even spoke to Trayvon Martin through his own twitter account NO_LIMIT_NIGGA .

The problem is that the commercialization of hip-hop has ensured that the complex question of racial relations has been manipulated by an increasingly corporate ownership . The music industry essentially sells racial profiling to millions of consumers in the form of 'entertainment'. A supposedly egalitarian society actively encourages racism through misrepresentations and caricatured images of black people. Particularly unfortunate is the subsequent rise of the wigger, or the wholesale 'theft' of hip culture by young white people trying to 'keep it real' while doing their homework. The real tragedy is that many black people can only break the cycle of poverty and violence by becoming complicit in their own racial 'profiling'.

Speaking of which: Jay-Z's and Kanye West's latest music video is likely to give John Derbyshire nightmares. Indeed, he could even cite it as empirical proof that black people pose an imminent threat to society. Particularly threatening is the way No Church in the Wild reaffirms the two rappers street cred as they sit upon their thrones. Unfortunately, the video makes few concessions to the conspiracy theorists but will satisfy people looking for "riot porn" (to quote Salon).

Given the music video's immediate popularity online, its riot imagery has apparently stimulated and excited millions of viewers. And when some of these people talk about the new video, they say something like it starts by depicting a black man in sunglasses and a keffiyeh throwing a Molotov cocktail at a crowd of police sheltered behind their riot shields. If we look closer, however, that is simply not true. It begins with Jay-Z's and Kane West's names 'branding' the dissent that is about to erupt onto the screen -- but not before director Romian Gavras wants to leave his mark on the crowd, too.

During the next five minutes, viewers will need to provide their own context and interpretations. There's no storyline or reason given for the rioting. It supposedly speaks for itself, as we watch a predominantly black crowd angrily take to the streets and turn it into an urban battleground. The riot police naturally respond with a beat down while some of the rioters give as good as they get. Nonetheless, the two rappers provide the real beats to this display of antisocial behavior. While it's been observed that capitalism might be tempting fate with these inflammatory images, such an observation fails to see the bigger picture.

As last year's consumer society riots indicated, our identities remain wrapped up in the values of consumerism and can be utilized to enfranchise our characters. Indeed, the source of the rioter's perceived power appeared to be located in their freedom to make informed consumer choices: which items were worth stealing or could help brand their individuality? These latest images are therefore not an incitement to violence but part of the pacification process -- it simply capitalizes on anger by aestheticizing it within a controlled social space. No Church in the Wild effectively controls this anger by diffusing and/or displacing it into the safety valve of a cool music video.

Indeed, the video can appeal to white supremacists and oppressed black people equally: it simultaneously fuels some people's worst nightmares while providing others wish fulfillment. If either of these people want to see something genuinely subversive or confronting, they could do a lot worse than watch the Hi Five Collective's unofficial video for No Church in the Wild (released online eight months earlier). It provides a historical context for racial relations, and shows that the best way to challenge stereotypes is by inverting them.


Slave to the Rhythm

If there is one thing white people fear more than a black uprising, it's a zombie apocalypse. Perhaps that's because black men have typically provided the moral compass during these terrifying times. As George Romero observed, zombies are really about revolution (and) one generation consuming the next. If you've seen any of Romero's zombie films, you already know that black people figure centrally in his critique of consumer societies and social inequality. To some extent, this is a legacy of Jacques Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie -- a film set on a sugar plantation and explicitly about slavery and superstition as a contagion.

Zombies don't literally exist, of course: they're intended as metaphors for (say) mindless conformity or our increasing inhumanity to one another. This seemed to be of little relevance to the hordes of people who turned 'zombie apocalypse' into Google and Twitter trending topics in response to horrific events. Reports began to circulate about 'outbreaks' of unspeakable acts -- and the vultures seemed to circle around ground zero in particular: the story of a black homeless man eating the face off a homeless white person.

The question, of course, is why have internet users similarly exhibited a pack like mentality: we've fed off these stories as if we were eating one another's 'brains'. The explanation for this unfortunate feedback loop is pretty straight forward. There appears to be something in the air: the 'virus' invariably mutated and replicated itself within our own thoughtless behavior. To quote Romero about the blogging, uploading, navel-gazing infotainment age from four years ago. "It’s scary out there. There’s just so much information, and it’s absolutely uncontrolled. Half of it isn’t even information. It’s entertainment or opinion."

The horrific acts would have ideally left us mortified and speechless. Our general lack of understanding, however, ensured that we would go on to speak about 'the horror' in entertaining ways. We encouraged each other to laugh and entertained wild speculation. The appropriately named Daily Beast went so far as to provide a Google map tracking news of instances that may be the precursor to a zombie apocalypse. Blue pins represent suspicious incidences or infections, while red pins represent acts of strange violence . And in case the road map is hard to follow, the Beast also showed us 11 Signs of the Zombie Apocalypse by way of an annotated picture gallery.

It's no wonder the Centers for Disease Control felt compelled to issue a statement saying CDC does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead, or one that would present zombie-like symptoms. The irony is that a year ago the Centers for Disease Control had itself capitalized on the popularity of the zombie craze and issued zombie preparedness advice (in a) lighthearted way of getting people to think about (real) disaster preparedness.

Perhaps what's most unfortunate about all this talk is that many consumers appear to have missed the moral conveyed by the consumption metaphor. Zombies primarily speak to the dehumanizing effect they have on human survivors -- the metaphor is even made literal in The Walking Dead (the title refers to the human characters struggling to hold onto their humanity in a post apocalyptic world).

While these real life events have obviously horrified us, we haven't exactly been barricading ourselves in our own homes or running for the hills. Consumers have instead turned other people's pain and suffering into mere entertainment value. As the tasteless and racist 'Miami Zombie Attack Prank!' indicates, we like nothing more than cheap thrills at someone else's expense (seven million views and counting in less than a week).

We've conveniently ignored the fact that our own desire for violence as entertainment might be feeding the news cycle (in the form of copycat crimes and a mass media catering to consumer taste). And the way we've been talking about these unspeakable acts seems to have inoculated us from 'the horror' -- there appears to have been safety in numbers or a closing of our ranks.

We have invariably revealed ourselves to be the 'real' zombies in this new wasteland. Instead of talking about the plight of homeless people or the horrors of mental illness, we've opted to lower the level of discourse in the pursuit of ourselves. Mindlessly following one another’s lead to a dead end has become the default standard. Perhaps what's most telling about 'The Talk: Zombie Version' is that we chose to understand real life horror within the comfort zone of movie references and tropes. We've effectively tried to make the horror 'unreal' in order to keep the horrifying reality at arm's length. If zombies are supposed to be a metaphor for revolution -- to stand for or represent real world transformations -- what should we make of this complete turnaround?

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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