In praise of: Capital STEEZ

An avowed sneaker-head, he had an impeccable sense of style; his friends could never figure out how he was able to leave his shoes untied so they puffed out but never fell off. This flair was reflected in his first rapping name, Jay Steez: Jay for Jamal, Steez, old school hip-hop slang for style.

Seeking to merge his own obscure brand of mysticism with politics, Capital STEEZ was extremely young when he took his own life, at just 19, so his music is the work of an artist still in development in some ways; and yet he showed enormous promise, much of it realised in his 2012 record, Amerikkkan Korruption (Cinematic Music Group).   

Immediately striking is the emphasis on melody in his music - something that unites him with many other artists of the moment, a quality that might arguably be the defining aspect of hip-hop production today - alongside his extremely natural, conversational style. Sometimes I play with a binary when thinking about singers, or MCs, dividing them up between those who are self-aware/knowing/ironic - aware of the performance - and those who (appear) to be sincere, heartfelt, expressing something personal.

There is an abundance of witty lines in STEEZ's work, easily quotable and pithy couplets, but there is also urgency in his message and the way it's delivered making it seem as if he is talking to you direct, as if you are the only listener.   

Take ‘Dead Prez’, produced by fellow Pro Era alumnus Joey Bada$$ - on first listen, it sounds like a live band performance, listen to that swing (close your eyes, it’s easy to imagine STEEZ in performance somewhere in Scandinavia, circa 1979).

“I’m green and inexperienced, dreamin’ ‘bout that chariots
Stay sparked and trade cards, he know that they be cheering it
On, I’m feeling grown when I spray my cologne
Got a mind of my own, but time’s ticking too long
And I got a plan to restore the game
This shit was looking quite critical right before we came
Co and cane flow in that novacane for your open veins
All we need is something medicinal, torch the flame
Third rail skippin’ over missin’ track
Soundin’ like the kicks and claps that filled the gaps for missing tracks
The third kind been real, we just missin’ Jack
Food for thought, but I tossed the scraps in a doggy bag
Rehearsin’ verses in my head, no iPod
Gave my life to Ja and still can’t find a job
So what I’m grindin’ for, to put these new Nikes on
Or to hide the scars from the eyes of God”

Note the clever word-play, where the syllables echo in almost perfect rhymes (cologne/own/long); the fact that they are imperfect adds to the interest and makes us take notice. One of the goals of a talented MC is to encourage us to see language differently, via the link up between sounds that are, in this case, similar but not the same. 

The poetry, the rhymes are simple, but serve to convey a strong emotion that reflects a very young man’s feeling of hopelessness, of being trapped and this then coalesces with a kind of (conspiracy-driven) politics that is often hard to make out (for me at least). The refrain offers multiple echoes, while making reference to deceased MCs:

“Is there heaven for us hip-hop heathens/
Big Pop and Pac and Eazy had ‘em leanin’
We all children lookin’ for a reason
What do you believe in, betrayal, treason?”

There is some debate about the accuracy of these lines; I've checked what I could find on the Internet, though, and there aren't any other alternatives available. Eli Rosenberg in his excellent, sensitive extended feature on Capital STEEZ that was published Fader offers this assessment of the song’s meaning, suggesting that it might operate as a kind of suicide note, or final letter ...

“Dead Prez,” might be the closest he ever came to writing one (a goodbye letter). It is a beautiful rap song, a befuddling poem that alternates between his nostalgia for his younger days rapping with Jahkari Jack as kids and resignation about his entry into the adult world. The theme is summed up in its puzzling hook—either, I’m out for dead presidents, see or I’m out for dead presidency, depending on how you hear it—an aural illusion that conflates a plea for money with a plea for death. 

He seems to be saying that the two were the same to him. Referencing other prolific rappers who died young—2pac, Biggie and Eazy E—he ends by saying that he’d prefer to be killed than to sell out: Some people like to compromise for the dollar sign, but I had my mind aside/ I told Jack from the get that I’mma ride or die/ And I’d rather die by homicide/ Instead of goin’ out without a pride. He ends the track sounding weary of life, and wistful for his childhood with Jack. But I remember back in the days/ When we was goin’ through that Torch and Excalibur phase.”

Others have said how the song title might not only be a reference to the famous 90s hip-hop agitprop rappers, Dead Prez, but also be a take on the word 'depressed'. The music draws on a piece of music by Galt McDermott from 1966 called 'Coffee Cold' that sets the MC up with this mellow lounge vibe. In some respects the strong melody is a bit of an uncomfortable fit with the lyrics, though I'm sure that was the MC's intention.     

“But I’m afraid it’s not as simple as that
Cause the symphonies and melodies
Haven’t been havin’ the same chemistry
The distance fact is only addin’ on stress
And it’s hard for me to live up to what you expect from me
The yellow tape was a warnin’ sign
It’s hard to cut straight to the chase without a dotted line
And if I made that the bottom line
Then I guess the Khan hit rock bottom about a thousand times
Some people like to compromise for the dollar sign, but I had my mind aside
I told Jakk from the get that I’mma ride or die
And I’d rather die by homicide
Instead of goin’ out without a pride”

Based on this fantastic, hyper-elegant track from 2007 by underground an LA producer who goes by the name Free the Robots that, in turn, uses a sample from a Moody Blues song (and maybe a Geto Boys sample as well) as its skeleton, this is arguably Capital STEEZ's best-known work. It conveys his trademark style; a kind of unconstrained lyricism branching out in all directions, but forever returning to the central concern; his place in the world (his anger at the world).  

Combining concerns about, in one critic's view, 'the war on drugs criminalizing Black and Brown youth during the Reagan/crack era, which created a generation of apolitical, and zombie like peoples within a postmodern society' (to quote a strong analysis on the microamerican blog, recommend it) with a profound mood of paranoia, it ends on a note of defiance.

“So can I live? or is my brother tryin’ to gun me down
Scuffle a couple of rounds ‘til we hear the thunder sound
No lightning, clash of the titans
And after the violence a moment of silence
Cause I want mine the fast way
The ski mask way, lookin’ for a fast pay
And instead of stickin’ up for each other
We pickin’ up guns and stickin’ up our brothers
So fuck ‘em all, I’m comin’ through ragin’
And I won’t stop ‘til Reagan is caged in
Mom tell me I should let the Lord handle it
The arm of the law is tryin’ to man-handle us
A man’s world, but a white man’s planet
And the doors are slowly closing while we fallin’ through the cracks of it
It’s a shame that flippin’ crack will be
The best alternative if you don’t make it rappin’
These crack houses and trap houses are trappin’ us in
And in the end we’re gonna remain stagnant
I ain’t havin’ it”

There is a lot more I could write on Capital STEEZ, though in some ways this makes me feel uneasy, as there is a relative dearth of in-depth interviews, reviews etc and I'm cautious about overriding his perspective with my own. 

What impresses me about Capital STEEZ's work in the end is his pure linguistic creativity (I love the rhyme in '47 elements' that is played out against a swoon of the monotonous-repetitive beat) and his natural delivery held within a highly orchestrated, even lush, soundtrack, which runs counterpoint to his apparently nihilistic interpretation of the world.

I'm concerned about falling into the trap of biography turning into the tale being told, so I'll leave it there. (Rest in peace, Capital STEEZ). 

Merlin Coverley's new book 'South' (Oldcastle Books)

Thanks to London author, Merlin Coverley for sending me a copy of his new book, South that offers an expansive survey at all things southern, or to be more accurate describes how the South has been perceived over the centuries; as the notes state 'from the beaches of Tahiti to the streets of Buenos Aires, from Naples to New Orleans ...' (and also makes use of my essay on Borges).   

Coverley is an interesting writer, who has, among his previously published works (on London, the occult and utopias ...) written on the Situationists' notion of psychogeography. (Coverley's book on the subject was published in 2006). Guy Debord defined the idea in 1955 as 'the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.' 

While this book is literary in tone, slicing together secondary sources/texts and readings, a spirit of discovery - of wayward wandering - can be felt within it that reflects the author's key interests and may also be why my favourite part was the most personal, when Coverley maps out south London, his home of many years.

Once again, I'd like to thank Coverley for sharing his work with me. It was a nice lift to see my name in the index, beside 'Byron, Lord ...' (even if my resident 10 year-old cynic reminded me that 'not many people read the index, mum'; can't argue with that, I guess).  

Armistice Day, 2016

He was different from the other older journalists as he had down-shifted to a video journalist position after having been employed in a senior managerial role at the TV station. A lanky man, with a simple enthusiasm for his craft, he let me shadow him one afternoon when he interviewed a union official about a scandal involving the local Labor Party at Newcastle, a mid-sized town south of Sydney. 

White-hot sun hit the windscreen, the ocean was a striking blue, as he informally shared what he’d learnt over the years about being a journalist. One comment stayed with me and comes back to me now. Our role, he said, is to be alert to all forms of injustice, or oppression, no matter who it affects. There was no hierarchy of value in terms of stories we do, he said, and no hierarchy of victims.  

Back then, I was heavily involved in activism against Australia’s immigration detention system. Regular contact with asylum seekers locked up in Baxter gave me a knowledge that I often wished I didn’t have, of baton assaults by guards and police, military-style charges, the use of tear gas and water cannon and solitary confinement and various petty forms of humiliation metered out with glee by the low-paid guards, working 12-hour shifts with little job security. Indeed, I nearly lost my job at the national broadcaster after I offered to help with a campaign and foolishly mentioned the name of my employer in the online posting. 

Post-Trump’s election I recall this journalist’s comment as if we – those on the Left – are to learn anything from this upset, which follows Brexit and may pre-date Marine Le Pen’s presidential election next year in France, we need to think critically of our past political actions, as surely the success of these populist movements reflects, to a certain degree, our own negligence.

The motivation behind my activism against the immigration detention system reflected my belief, which remains unchanged, that it was the greatest injustice in Australia at that time (not the only one, but certainly the most extreme). Having said that, I also can see that in some ways it was easier to focus on this issue than other ones, in that the oppressor and the oppressed were clearly defined, and it was separate to me and my immediate experience (or sense of self as someone with a racial identity, or as someone who was part of a broader community).   

In my journalism I wrote about the staff working in the detention centres, who were without exception white, and had done previous activist work within largely white communities, but still I conceived my work as a fight against the State and an abstraction, structural racism and in so doing, I didn't spend much time trying to understand the frustration felt by 'poor whites' - and other whites across all social classes - who supported the country's hard-line approach to boat people.

Such frustration rapidly coalesces into feelings of victim-hood, as we are now seeing. This is something Trump and Marine Le Pen in France know all too well. Listen to Trump’s standard speeches: two themes dominate the idea of ‘winning’ (he is winning, everywhere all over the place, winning the polls, winning in his business, therefore you will too) and his expressions of affection for his audience. Whenever he says how miners in West Virginia are good guys it’s easy to dismiss it as ridiculous, coming from a man who embodies economic privilege, but his supporters clearly felt otherwise. 

All this is good politics – a clear simple message of belonging, of being one and the same people. Marine Le Pen’s National Front understands this as well, of course, with the party’s slogan ‘On est chez nous’ which can be translated as ‘we’re at home’ (but also has the suggestion of ‘this is our place’). Where are similar politicians on the Left who can express similar sentiments, or seem sincere while doing so?

Far too often, it seems to me, all the oxygen among commentators and Left politicians is spent on expressions of feeling – of shock and outrage and judgement  - and an obsession about what is said, rather than done. As one commentator said recently Trump’s supporters took him ‘seriously, but not literally’ while his opponents took him ‘literally not seriously’.  

Sometimes though I also wonder if the appeal of defending those who are different to us (perhaps this is most obvious in a racial sense, I saw a white English columnist after Trump’s win refer to his/our need to stand beside ‘our black brothers and sisters’ what does that even mean?) reflects a radical chic, or virtue signalling and we do it because it easier. Like a classic black and white photograph the two 'sides' of the image are so clearly defined. 

Might the US election outcome have been different if all that energy spent denouncing Trump’s racism/sexism/xenophobia had been directed towards humble development work in ordinary, low-income communities across the United States whose residents saw themselves represented in his message of reinvention and rejuvenation?  

It pains me to write this, but in the end, our words are just that: words. They do not equal social change brought about by court judgments or elections. We need to remember that, as otherwise it’s going to be a painful winter and new year.   

(About a week has passed since I wrote this post above and I think I might be wrong about the expression of victim-hood etcetera displayed in the Trump vote; am feeling a bit despondent seeing the happy-face expressions of white racism since the election. The worst was a 'joke' cough where students at a high school in Florida put up the Jim Crow era signs, 'Whites only' and 'Colored' over a water fountain. Hil-ar-i-ous). 

Poverty & politics

Often it works out this way for me, for a period of time all the references point in one direction and in this sense for a period of days I found myself thinking about poverty and politics in the broadest sense, or how the poor are represented and represent themselves.

First, the recent Palme d'Or winner at Cannes, the film by the British director, Ken Loach ... I, Daniel Blake.

Scenes in this film made me cry, those relating to the single mother (feeding herself desperately from a tin at the Food Bank, shoving the food in her mouth; or when her daughter crawled into her bed at night and spoke of her shame).

While certain plot developments in the film were far from subtle, and heroics in films like this never appeal to me there is no question that Loach has created a film of great heart and humanity. As always, it's difficult to know how such a film might affect the current UK politic, which seems obsessive in its desire to punish those considered to be unworthy, but the existence of such films is important to me.

Around the same time, I was reading Jon Ronson's funny and clever The Psychopath Test, subtitle A Journey through the Madness industry (2001) which included a very moving description of those left behind in the United States post-industrial South: Ronson is taken around the ruins of a town that no longer exists (all the factories were closed by Albert J Dunlap, when he was CEO of Sunbeam Corp, the man who was nicknamed 'Chainsaw Al' for his mass dismissal of employees that pleased the stock markets no end). 

Many of the same people are most probably now voting Trump in 2016, buoyed by a feeling of being heard after decades of economic and social neglect. Whatever we might think of Trump's political movement, we can't deny the fact that those who support him feel acknowledged within his political platform, and this represents a kind of revolution in politics, seen not only in the US but also in Europe with the ascent of far-right populist movements and Asian demagogues, such as Duterte in the Philippines.

Much has been written on this, too often after the event (where middle-class correspondents from big cities are sent to these disadvantaged areas as if they are astronauts visiting the moon), but I found this article interesting: 'How economic inequality found a political voice' by Michael Spence, published in MarketWatch that details the link between social media and these political movements. 

On a slightly different tangent, I recommend this documentary - Poverty, Inc - (2014) that explores how the dominant charity model in international development/aid exploits those in the Global South, leading, for example, to the dumping of unwanted goods that ends up destroying local industry, or more generally how the system serves the interests of the givers (global corporations and international aid agencies) rather than the receivers.

Poverty, Inc. challenged and educated me, and I hope will lead me to becoming more active in campaigns to disrupt this situation in the future, in particular with relation to certain countries in West Africa (Mali, Ivory Coast) - and might offer some sort of path.

Soulèvements exhbition, Jeu de Paume Paris

Uprisings (Soulèvements) is a trans-disciplinary exhibition on the theme of human gestures that raise up the world or rise up against it: collective or individual gestures, actions or passions, works or thoughts. They are gestures which say no to a state of history that is considered too “heavy” and that therefore needs to be “lifted” or even sent packing. They are also gestures that say yes to something else: to a desired better world, an imagined or adumbrated world, a world that could be inhabited and conceived differently.

I went to this exhibition about art and political protest yesterday at the wonderful Jeu de Paume, on the edge of Tuileries Gardens and Place de la Concorde in Paris; the square that was renamed Place de la Révolution and saw the execution by guillotine of King Louis XVI on the 21st January 1793 - and later his wife, Marie-Antoinette, among others - to cheering crowds of onlookers. Post-revolution, the square was renamed after the murdered King and then following the 1830 revolution it became known as the Place de la Concorde.

This exhibition, which ends on the 15th January cleverly combines photographic journalism, with conceptual art; historic artefacts (for example, the written notes by Victor Hugo from 1855 against the death penalty; or on the anniversary of the 1848 revolution, written in exile; or the first known photographic image of an uprising or political event, the Barricade at Saint-Maur Popincourt, published in 1848) and sketches by Miro, for instance.

Hiroji Kubota, 'Black Panthers in Chicago, Illinois' 1969

Hiroji Kubota, 'Black Panthers in Chicago, Illinois' 1969

Much of it impressed and touched me, while I also noted how intelligently the work was put together in spaces linked by captions (Les murs prennent le parole/The walls speak up) and at one point linked by colour, but the murky, green video by Argentine artist Hugo Aveta in his work called 'Ritmos Primarios, la subversion del Alma' (Basic rhythms: subversion of the soul) from 2014 really struck me.

Included below is an image from the series, which is based on photographs of 2001 protests in Buenos Aires, as Adriana Almada writes in her article on the work:

Hugo Aveta produces the ultimate artistic achievement: distance. We can even say he has found the right distance: between close and far, before and after; he has built this distance on the fringes of the legible and the indecipherable, thus exposing the subversive power of the image. An image in revolt against its own representative role, obsessed by the desire to show that in passing from one instant to another, it is possible to insert the unrepresentable.

Nothing is quite as it should be, everything can become what our intuition senses: the tension of friction and/or the encounter; the pleasure principal and the death impulse; the secret and the explicit, the public and private, the whole and the parts.
The images — fallout from a bigger story, fragments of a grand yet incomplete vision — resume the violence between those who hold power and those who confront it; between those who resist and those who defend it.

Once the event has faded out, only the shadow remains. These images are the shadow and, with only themselves as references, they enter the cellular memory of the entire social corpus. The video shown in this exhibition can be interpreted as an extended cry that ends in silence.

Silence that is as painful as a non-consensual disappearance. The rise of indignation, in Latin America as elsewhere around the world, is expressed in the form of society’s rebellion against its own creations: the individual against the State, minority communities against big corporations; individuals versus a universal power that governs from the shadows.

Promoting this website/Training

Over the past few days there has been a marked, dramatic spike in visits to this site, and while I'd like to thank you all for this, I'm also wondering if you could get in touch - see contact - and let me know how you've heard about my writing, as this will be useful when I start contacting agents towards the end of the year, or early 2017. 

Note too that I offer training to those who want to develop their skills when interacting with the media, or want to develop journalistic skills, across all media forms (print, radio, TV, online) in English. This training can be done in person in the UK/Europe, or online. Feel free to contact me about this. Thanks. 

In praise of: Chantal Akerman

Not so long ago as some plumbers hacked away at the the tiling around my shower, I watched a very powerful documentary about the (Belgian-born) film director Chantal Akerman; it was almost a hidden experience, trying to make out Akerman's words while the men worked, crashing and bashing at all available surfaces. You can watch the 2015 documentary, dir. by Marianne Lambert, I don't belong anywhere here, or check out the trailer:

Two parts from the documentary particularly affected me and remained with me afterwards. First, when Akerman talks about how in her work she wants us experience the film as if it were happening in 'real time' (or what the US director Gus Van Sant says Akerman calls 'her time'). 'Often when people come out of a good film they say that time flew without them noticing,' she says. 'What I want is to make people feel the passing of time, so I didn't take two hours of their lives, they experience them.' For her the notion of forgetting time, via escapism, is a kind of theft.   

Van Sant says that placing the camera in the same location as the actor gives the scene a kind of hyper-authenticity while also opening it up to chance occurrence, outside the director's control. To illustrate this the documentary includes an extraordinary scene from Akerman's 2011 film, La folie Almayer where you see an actor who sits still, in the centre of the shot (another figure is half-obscured in the darkness). You notice his skin, his bony chest, the half-shadow on his body and then over time and then quite suddenly, within a few seconds, there is a dramatic change in the light that transforms the image, by chance.

'I am cold/The sun is cold/The sea is black.' 

Here is the famous scene of a woman peeling potatoes from the film that launched Akerman's career when she was only 25 and is perhaps her best-known film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1976). With its natural sound, unmoving camera angle we watch the woman work and yet it's unavoidable for us not to feel something: her quiet desperation, or oppression, her boredom. 

The film is largely silent. The central character doesn't speak and yet this lack of commentary is extraordinarily powerful. In this respect it reminds me of an Australian film, Samson and Delilah (directed by First Nations film-maker Warwick Thornton, 2009) where the Aboriginal male character says only one word - his name - during the film; we observe him, we watch what happens to him and how he reacts, but he does not speak. (Even though the tone and location of the two films could not be any more different from one another).   

Here in this interview, Akerman speaks about how she wrote the film quickly, in two weeks. Interestingly Akerman refers to the way she wrote the 'gestures' of the film, not the words, or dialogue. These gestures, these chores that made up the central character's daily domestic routine are the essence of the film, giving her some peace, echoing absent Jewish rituals and providing the film with its unmistakable quality that is part menace, part voyeurism (and all about containment) that Akerman likens to a 'Greek tragedy'. 

The other scene from the documentary that so struck me was an extraordinary sequence were Akerman filmed a very long shot from the back of a moving car of a road with no commentary. This road was the location where a Black American man was murdered (tied to the back of a car and dragged to his death). Over time the very substance of the road, the bone-coloured dirt, its texture, becomes abstract and takes on a kind of presence outside of how we would normally perceive it. (It reminded me of moving water, even though the colour was wrong). It's unnerving, but meditative: unsettling and with a certain beauty even if it is difficult to explain why.

All One Night [Toute Une Nuit] (Chantal Akerman, 1982) - this excerpt from the Vincent Canby New York Times review captures something of the magic of her work.

In the course of a long hot night in Brussels, a succession of men and women meet and make love, or don’t meet and are bereft, as the Akerman camera observes them at a discreet distance...

[Toute Une Nuit] is probably as good a choice as any for getting to know this most seductive of avant-garde film makers.

Akerman’s work is mimimalist to the extent that instead of compressing time, she seems to stretch it to the point where one can hear the beginning, middle and end of a single footstep. She composes her films of facts presented without comment or emotion, as if they were inventories. Yet at their best, her films are loaded with the associations that she magically evokes from the cooperative viewer.

To read more about Akerman's art that changed the direction of cinema, see this feature article on Akerman in the New Yorker published after her death from suicide last year and this obituary from the New York Times, or this feature detailing the way other directors have been inspired by her work (also from the Times). 

Merch via Pressure Sounds (top UK dub-legendary reissue label)

Look what arrived today - it wasn't by chance there was some intelligent design behind it and a payment, of course for the greater good- a chocolate brown/yellow CHANNEL ONE T-SHIRT from the UK label, Pressure Sounds.

Check out their merchandise and fantastic collection of reissues of the great Jamaican masters (Yabby You, The Upsetters, Lee Perry and lots lots more to discover). An offshoot of On-U Sound, the label releases lots of very fine 7 " singles and more, on the obscure side, pure quality.