Yes We Can Can

The Boondocks

The recent "censure" of The Boondocks demonstrates the difficulty art faces in raising a critical converation in a corporate setting. Considering hip-hop's deep embedding into corporate culture, how can radical change happen?

Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes

Distributor: Media Education Foundation
Length: 60
MPAA rating: N/A
Network: PBS
First date: 2007-02-20
UK Release Date: Available as import
US Release Date: 2007-02-20
"Grandad, what do you when you can't do nothing, but there's nothing you can do?"

"You do what you can."

-- "The Hunger Strike", The Boondocks

In early 2006 the Sundance Film Festival premiered an innocuously titled documentary called Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes. The film was in fact a frank exploration of sexism and homophobia in hip-hop. Director Byron Hurt framed the film as Joe Q. Hip-Hop Fan's pursuit of the truth. However, with participation from major rappers, industry heavyweights, scholars, and even reality show contestant turned city councilman Kevin Powell, the film summarized may of the mainstream ills affecting hip-hop culture.

Considering the gravity of the shots being fired, Hurt was understandably modest in his expectations. He conceded to PopMatters' Stephen Stirling that the media would have to play a significant role in addressing these problems, though that institution was "less likely to change than anything else". However, he was also understandably hopeful: "What I really want is for somebody with a lot of money to fall in love with this film," he said at the film's premiere.

Critics widely praised the film for its candor in discussing what Stirling described as hip-hop's "unmentionable topics". Even media outlets criticized in the film acknowledged the film by either reporting on it, or sending a low-level executive to respond. I don't work in P.R., but a few of my friends do and I've learned enough from them to identify this as a "successful campaign".

Earlier this year, the film became available on DVD through Media Education Foundation. The progressive distributor, which includes Noam Chomsky, Michael Eric Dyson (who is interviewed in the film), bell hooks, Naomi Klein, and Cornel West on its Board of Advisors, describes its mission as "to answer the challenge posed by the radical and accelerating corporate threat to democracy". The film thereby found comfort in the company of like-minded educational tools, such as Dreamworlds, a series of documentaries on the gender politics explored in contemporary music videos, The Pathology of Privilege, a lecture by Tim Wise on white privilege, and an entire Edward Said box set. In the past such company has not led to big money outcomes, let alone the type of attention Hurt hoped for. So, what truly lies beyond for Beats & Rhymes?

Frankly, the future of the film is not as important as the potential for the film's impact. Rest assured: the film will have a robust second life working the prog-left chitlin' circuit where it will receive standing O's in university mess halls across the nation. All to say: there is a future -- it just won't be so grand or idyllic. However, Hurt's personal goal "to push consciousness and make people think critically" is rendered useless if the conversation cannot take place in the mainstream. Considering hip-hop's deep embedding into corporate culture -- an area not known for self-reflection, let alone democracy and agency -- how can such radical change even be considered?

The recent "censure" of The Boondocks demonstrates the difficulties art faces in raising a critical conversation in a corporate setting. In a two-episode arc, the Adult Swim/Cartoon Network series took its cousin BET (Viacom oversees both networks) to task for questionable programming choices and an adverse impact on black culture. Both episodes reportedly aired on the network’s affiliate station in Canada, but to date have not been scheduled to air in the U.S.

The Boondocks
(Art by Aaron McGruder)

Being a satiric cartoon, the episodes naturally took a comic stance. However, the extremity of parody in these episodes can easily be described as a case of biting the hand that writes your paycheck. Case in point: in the opening minutes of the episode "The Hunger Strike", the satiric personification of BET CEO Debra Lee (parodied here as the Austin Powers-like Debra Le-evil) bursts out at an executive meeting, "The destruction of black people is not happening fast enough! The other day I saw three ni**as reading books...and they were smiling!" as she impales a subordinate in the jugular with her (left) high heel. While the ferocity of the scene makes it one of the more outlandish moments in the series, it is also indicative of the level of emotion regarding the subject.

Such indirect censure is indicative of the absence of dialogue and intolerance towards process in corporate culture. Which may seem like a tangential topic to hip-hop. But for anyone who regards hip-hop as an art, such censure should be alarming. Hip-hop, like any art, identifies systems in society and responds to them. In fact, hip-hop's historic approach has been to invert those systems -- from graffiti in public spaces to breaking beats into fragments. If hip-hop is unable to respond to or question societal norms, then it becomes neutered. It becomes nothing more than a CD/mp3, or ringtone, or t-shirt -- in other words, a product. Or, better still, a lifestyle to move multiple products.

I suppose this is my long-winded way to endorse a new product without necessarily imploring you to cop it. Frankly, celebrating the continuation of Byron Hurt's journey by buying this DVD isn't enough. And certainly no one expects a mass uprising or boycott on behalf of the film. But perhaps keeping the film's messages in mind when you get that tax rebate would be a start.

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Mike Stern: Trip

Photo: Sandrine Lee (Concord Music Group)

Mike Stern has fallen. Trip shows that he can get back up just fine.

Mike Stern


Label: Heads Up
US Release Date: 2017-09-08
UK Release Date: 2017-09-08
Label website
Artist website

Guitarist Mike Stern suffered from a big owie last year. It seems that, while trying to cross a street in Manhattan, he tripped and fell, breaking both of his shoulders in the process. He underwent surgery and reports that "I still have to use glue so I can hold a guitar pick." While you're busy trying to figure out just how a jazz-fusion guitarist needs glue to hold a pick, keep in mind Stern is an embodiment of a working musician, and his chosen genre of expertise is famous for its pay-to-play, sink-or-swim business model. Such a setback can really eat into one's career. Gigs need to be canceled, which sometimes leads to venues blacklisting you in the future. And in a world where most people listen to their music via streaming services, gigging may be your only reliable source of income. Thankfully, Mike Stern, who was 63 at the time of his injury, has made a full recovery and is back to work with an impressive array of professional help. His new album is ironically named Trip. Apart from the title,

Trip makes it sound like nothing ever happened to Stern. At all. In the same way that John McLaughlin and his current Fourth Dimension band sound like a bunch of barnstormers who haven't hit 40 yet, the powerful performance of Stern and his colleagues coupled with the high quality of the material belie both age and medical condition. Now I'm aware that our very own Steven Spoerl did not care for the writing on Mike Stern's 2012 All Over the Place, but there's no way I can sling the same criticism at Trip. The opening title track alone is enough to nullify that. Stern plays the melody in unison with saxophonist Bob Franceschini, and it's all over the place. The song slinks into a B section where the chords shift from a minor vi to a major IV, and again, Stern and Franceschini drive an even meaner melody down the scale with plenty of sharply punctuated intervals. This guy fell, broke his shoulders, and now needs glue to hold a pick? Are we all sure he wasn't just replaced with Steve Austin?

Another number that, to me, offsets any concerns about the able-bodiness or strength of the material is a spunky one named "Watchacallit". This time, the B section brims with even more tension with Franceschini flying high and bassist Tom Kennedy doing little divebombs at the start of each bar. When it's all put together, it's truly a moment for you to crank your listening device of choice (in the past, we would say "stereo" right about here). But that's just two songs. There's a total of 11, spanning an hour and six minutes. Stern doesn't use every bar of every number to punch us in the gut. He still goes for the smooth bop ("Emelia"), the funky intersection of Miles Davis and Funkadelic ("Screws"), and the soothing ballad ("I Believe in You" and "Gone").

No review of Trip would be complete without mentioning the musical pedigree of Mike Stern's friends. When it comes to drummers, he managed to net Dennis Chambers, Lenny White, and Will Calhoun (yes, that Will Calhoun). Those names alone give you a money-back guarantee that the rhythm section will never, ever falter. But just to be sure, Stern summons Victor Wooten to play bass. Top shelf names like Randy Brecker and Bill Evans, in addition to Franceschini, provide Trip with soulful wind. Pianist Jim Beard pulls double duty as the session pianist. Normally, I'd wrap this up by saying that Mike Stern is under the process of pulling himself up by his bootstraps and dusting himself off after a major boo-boo. But after listening to

Trip over and over again, I'm convinced that he's beyond that. The straps are up, and the dust has cleared. He's back, playing and composing just as well as he ever did. Better than he did before the accident, perhaps? You can be the judge of that meaningless hairsplitting exercise because Trip is worth the journey no matter where your expectations may lie.

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