TV

Prince Among Slaves

Prince Among Slaves establishes its focus -- on the contrast between slavery, as barbaric idea and industry, and one individual's integrity and strength of will.

Prince Among Slaves

Airtime: Monday, 10pm ET
Cast: Marcus Mitchell, Mos Def, Dawn Ursula, Bruce Holmes, Terry Alford, K. Anthony Appiah, Bebe Moore Campbell, Artemus Gaye
Network: PBS
US release date: 2008-02-03
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Born a prince, Ibrahima Abdul Rahman was captured by African tribal rivals and sold into slavery at age 26. It was 1788, and the United States' expanding plantation system had made the market exceedingly lucrative. Even as Abdul Rahman had been raised to lead men -- he was commanding some 2,000 of them at the time he was ambushed -- he found himself shackled and loaded onto a ship, the Africa, en route from Timbuktu to a "new world."

Beginning with this harrowing experience, Prince Among Slaves establishes its focus -- on the contrast between slavery, as barbaric idea and industry, and one individual's integrity and strength of will. Directed by Bill Duke and billed as a documentary, the film includes sentimental scoring, melodramatic reenactments (Rahman is played by Ian Coblyn as a child and later, Marcus Mitchell), along with sober narration by Mos Def and a range of talking heads. These experts range from Rahman's biographer Terry Alford and the late novelist Bebe Moore Campbell to historian David S. Dreyer and Islamic scholar Hamza Yusuf Hanson. Each speaks too briefly (at times the film feels like a Cliff's Notes version of Rahman's life), but together they tell a story whose general parameters are more familiar than the specifics, the story of a black man ripped from his home, declared property, and forced to labor for his life.

As Rahman recalls (in narration culled from diaries and letters), he labored hard for Colonel Thomas Foster (Bruce Holmes) over 40 years. As historian Adam Hochschild notes, "More than one third of people on earth were in slavery or servitude of one kind or another," but that hardly made the experience "normal." Rather, as underscored by etchings of men in restraints and torturous machinery, the "system" was utterly cruel and chaotic (and, as Zaid Shakir asserts, the U.S. version was "exponentially more brutal than what was known in African society"). It's not a little ironic that Rahman, fluent in multiple languages, including Arabic, is purchased with another "Brute Negro" by Foster, an illiterate, first-time cotton farmer, for 930 pesos. As Michael Gomez explains, the process is both physically and psychologically odious: "What you are doing is removing the identity of an individual, the person is now chattel, someone who is owned." Rahman's new status is documented, he's renamed "Prince," and his long hair, "sign of his nobility," is cut off.

On the plantation in Natchez, Mississippi, Rahman laments the loss of his wife and young son, and eventually comes to realize that he will never return home. Though he runs away early in his tenure with Foster, he returns, unable to find a way to survive on his own. With experience raising cotton back in Africa, Rahman helps the farm make money in its first year, and "rewarded" by being made an overseer for other slaves Foster is now able to buy, with his profits.

Among these, Rahman meets Isabella (Dawn Ursula), whom Foster allows him to marry (this in a ceremony the film uses to point out that she was a Christian and he remained a committed Muslim throughout his life). "In Isabella," says Bebe Moore Campbell, "I see a woman, though, bereft of most things, retain the ability to chose who she loved and who she wanted to be with. I can't minimize the force of her personal will and dynamism in their attraction to one another." This may be so, but the film leaves Isabella's dynamism -- her desires and her struggles -- off screen, using her instead as a means to indicate her husband's virility (they have nine children) and admirable devotion to his family.

The film, unfortunately cut from 90 minutes to an hour for TV, focuses tightly on Rahman's experiences, abbreviating his relationship with Isabella and omitting contexts, like the shifting cotton industry, the rising resistance to slavery, especially outside the South. Rahman is remarkably and briefly reunited with Dr. John Coates Cox (Wilson White), a man whose life Rahman's father saved in Timbuktu, and impresses a local printer, Andrew Marschalk (Jon C. Bailey), with his multi-lingual literacy, both incidents leading to some publicity. This in turn leads to an intervention by the Secretary of State Henry Clay, who writes a letter I the name of President John Quincy Adams recommending that the "Moorish slave now in the possession of Mr. Thomas Foster" be restored to "his family and country, for the purpose of making favorable impressions on behalf of the United States." That this recommendation is premised on a mistake (assuming Rahman is Moroccan because he writes in Arabic) only underlines the ignorance that typifies the slave-owners and the "democratic" system that supports their business and beliefs.

Prince Among Slaves never loses sight of this nightmare of illogic and economics, though it doesn't exactly illuminate it either. While the point is made that slave-owners didn't like to free their property ("It undermined the whole system, it undermined the whole economy, it undermined their moral justification of slavery"), the movie doesn't detail how it worked or how it was challenged (in what the narration calls "the deepening split in the country"), even in 1828, Rahman left Foster's Field for good.

Repeatedly, the movie does show that Rahman manipulated those who made assumptions concerning his background and aspirations, letting one supporter believe he was Christian and even willing to "export Christianity" to Africa by translating the Bible into Arabic. Shakir notes, "This was a man who has a lot of faith and is committed to his principles, but he knows how to get what he wants from this system." With such revelations, the film achieves its most compelling ends, suggesting at least some of the many ways that slaves -- princes and not -- found to intervene in that system.

6

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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Music

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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