Thursday, June 5, 2014

Hip Hop, ours.

I want to write about hip hop, and what it means  to me. I’m not ?uestlove, I’m not critiquing from within. But there’s a place, I think, for me, and for my voice.

Listen with me to Danny Brown’s  Fields. Read along with the lyrics. Hear the spaces in the chorus - “And where I lived...It was house, field field. Field, field house. Abandoned house, field field.” You’re driving with him down grey-blue streets in Detroit, each word is a lot you pass. He’s gesturing out the window. Live it with me, he asks. So if earlier on the album, he becomes his most repulsive self, a consummate misogynist, what do you do? Do you think of Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing: “The set of practices required for a young man to secure his safety on the streets of his troubled neighborhood are not the same as those required to place him on an honor roll, and these are not the same as the set of practices required to write the great American novel,” and feel pity for Danny? Or do you hold him to the same standard you’d want to be held to, and wish to tell him that this performance is evil? And if off-stage, he still seems like his demonic self - gosh, I don't even want to link to it; I'm so embarrassed for Danny, and A$AP to boot - what do you say then? Are we still listening? 

I think all of us - people who are into hip hop, people probably my age and probably not much older, anyone who wants their art to channel anger into skill - remember the first time we capital L Listened to a rap album. I certainly liked Black Star. I still hear the B A S S bass in Astronomy and am back to early college, when I still had hair and spent time in Katonah, when the quality of their lyrics astounded me. But no, it was on a train home to DC from Princeton in Winter 2011, sunny Northeast bleak day. Kanye’s MBDTF. Listen to the chords that open Can We Get Much Higher, the way they twist. And maybe you’ll forget everything you think you know about Kanye the human and do nothing for 80 minutes but listen to the stories that unfold over thirteen tracks. You’re not judging, and you’re not identifying, not if you’re with me. But we are listening carefully. And if you’re with me still, then we start looking backwards. The perfect synthesis between beats and story-telling on We Got it For Cheap- from crack to rap to back to selling it pure. The outlandish perfectionism of the early Wu-Tang, their knack for picking exactly the right words. The disquieting nihilism of Biggie. The power and grace of Nas at the top of his game, battle-scarred and victorious. 

There’s a place for people like you in the culture! Here’s Peter Rosenberg on the radio, Rick Rubin consulted by everyone, How about your first cousin going by Mr. Green, making beats for strivers, turning spontaneous art into polished blueprints. So you hear repulsive things by people who you think just don’t get it. Lil’ Wayne, Rick Ross, even people you like (Pusha), talking about women like they’re consumption goods, always speaking to a male audience. You recognize how pathetic the masculinist fantasy is that moves it, and sometimes you’re just singing along, hey, it’s got a catchy hook by Kelly Rowland! But wait, are you identifying? 

Of course. It’s your best available option, the genre that’s innovating and has something to say. What should we do about our ambivalence? The aspects of the performance that are horrifying and harmful? Nothing. I’ve already paid up, I’m going to governor’s ball to see Outkast, Run The Jewels, Earl, Tyler, maybe Childish Gambino if Dan insists. 

But first, here, have a taste. The beat is so butter. Be a discriminating audience, and consume carefully. But there’s no going back now. Hip hop, it’s ours, we’re its.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Grad School, and New York

Hanging out in the library
Quite a few times, I heard that I should expect graduate school to be miserable; a professor at Swarthmore’s short answer to whether anyone should go at all was “no” and a different professor said that his first year of his PhD was the worst of his life, and that was just how PhD programs were. I’m just writing to say that so far, this has been hands down the most gratifying and meaningful professional experience of my life. Nothing on the costs/disadvantages side of the ledger — we could be making more money; we could be feeling like we’re having more impact; we are sometimes very busy — seems significant. And the advantages are terrific. My “work” is often talking to really smart people about things I care about; past some not-very-high threshold, there’s pretty much no external pressure for the next five years; once you’re part of an institution/network, opportunities for really cool things just seem to pop up; and the entire structure seems designed to help me pursue pretty much anything I decide is interesting. I’m just really happy things worked out the way they did.

Having said that, I can see why not everyone would like it. A strong perfectionist streak would be a burden. I think people who come from jobs in which they’re used to frequent feedback might feel a little adrift with how rarely anyone evaluates or praises our work. The academic writing and publishing style might be kind of constraining if you're really creative. But probably because of who I am, none of that bothers me, and for a certain kind of person, I couldn’t recommend graduate school enough. Job? Whatever. I’ll deal with that in 5-6 years. For now the experience is just intrinsically pleasurable.

I can’t say Columbia is as high-functioning as it could be. If the university were a PC, the department I’m in is like a fancy video card with the capability to magically update itself every few years. The administration is more like Vista: opaque and not oriented around users’ needs. The campus itself is like a gorgeous enclosure with some truly baffling internal wiring decisions. And IT support/their services are exactly like every workplace IT department you’ve ever encountered. (Are there any large, bureaucratic institutions anywhere that work well?)

But none of that matters because a) outside of my department I need very few things from the school — books, a quiet place to read, and really just one printer that works — and b) New York. Living here is just the best. I feel like there are so many people with preferences extremely similar to mine that it is never a challenge to find something that is cheap and exactly what I want to do. And because those people and I are so similar, I tend to like them.  You're perfect, oh please don't change a thing.

Today I’m going to learn some stuff; tomorrow I’m going to see a free classical show and then Nancy Whang do a DJ set in Williamsburg. And as she says, “I never thought I’d see the day, so I thank you just for being so damn, excellent.”

Monday, January 13, 2014

Four things to make rap shows fuller performances

Waiting for Kanye at Governor's Ball

One way in which I try to fill the empty forever is by going to concerts. Most often I go to classical -- the free shows around New York are just amazing -- and a fair smattering of EDM. At home, however, I mostly listen to rap. I think it's a generational thing, but to me, hip-hop seems like the genre that is both innovating right now and really has something to say. Rap shows, however, are often not my jam, and I think they could be much better.  Here are some ideas for how:

1) A live band instead of a DJ. It would be really cool to see a group of instrumentalists try to reproduce the interesting textures of great albums, and, for what it's worth, there is absolutely no substitute for being at a show with a live drum set. They wouldn't even have to be entirely accurate to, say, the weird melody which cuts off the dialogue on GZA's 4th chamber; I'd really just like to see someone play that on guitar or marimba or whatever! It would be surprising, and something you couldn't get just by listening to an album really loudly at your house. On that note,

2) More improvisation and chance. A lot of shows I see take you through a rapper's greatest hits, sometimes greatly sped up or abridged (Nas actually did this really well at Governor's Ball). I like that, but I would like some freestyles, unreleased material, or a verse mix and match even more.  good remixes are often just that -- peep Biggie's Suicidal Thoughts verse over Kanye's  Runaway -- and it would be fun to see rappers do the same thing with their own material, i.e. hear Pusha-T put his When the Last Time 16 over Nosestalgia. I mean it might work, and it might not. But it would be interesting, something you just could not get at home.

3) Put in a dance routine. Either have dancers, or learn some moves. Kanye had some good moves during his Glow in the Dark routine! I know not everyone's gonna be able to do this. I certainly couldn't. But hip-hop and dance music are really interlinked, and so it would be nice to see that onstage.

4) Drop the vocal track and only rely minimally on the hpye man. Seeing rappers shout the ends of their rhymes over both a vocal track and a hype man is pretty disappointing, especially when, hypothetically, a large part of that rapper's appeal is his or her understated/seductive/contemplative/sinister flow, what have you. Great rap shows, in my opinion, do this beautifully; here I'm thinking of Run The Jewels and Kanye, both of whose performances in 2013 I loved.

This is not to say I'm going to stop going to rap shows. Me and you, your momma and your cousin too are going to be at Governor's Ball this summer to see Outkast. But I wish there were some way to either encourage rappers to do the above, or to tell from the outset who already does. As in many aspects of my life, Kanye is the ideal here; I'm also feeling optimistic that Kendrick, touring with him, will pick up on the things that make Kanye a performing global superstar.

But until then, I'll probably be in Brooklyn dancing to Jessy Lanza.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Intractability of Poverty: Responding to David Simon and Andrea Elliot

 Two articles today engage with dire American poverty: David Simon's essay in The Guardian about “Two Americas,” exemplified by the Baltimore in which he lives and the Baltimore he dramatized in “The Wire,” and Andrea Elliot’s NYT article “Invisible Child” about a homeless 11 year old and her family in Brooklyn. I recommend both; but I want to append that diagnosing the issue is far different from treating it.

Simon’s central thesis is that capitalism only works when a) there is a social compact that we are obligated to help those less well off and b) when “[l]abour doesn't get to win all its arguments, [and] capital doesn't get to. But it's in the tension, it's in the actual fight between the two, that capitalism actually becomes functional, that it becomes something that every stratum in society has a stake in, that they all share.” He cites Marx in a general way to support the thesis but mostly just looks around America and notes that we’ve failed the “maybe 10 or 15% of my country [that] is no longer necessary to the operation of the economy.” I agree completely -but then he pivots to the suggestion that we need nationalized insurance. Here we part ways.

SImon is responding most directly to a caricatured version of conservative thinking that we have no obligation to help “them,” the people outside of our immediate worlds, defined however. (Of course when Romney literally bemoans that some Americans “believe that they are food,” perhaps it’s not such a caricature. To food? Really!?). That’s nice. I too would like to convince the libertarian body politic that if we let 15% of America starve, it will have bad consequences for everyone...but this is totally orthogonal to the more sophisticated conservative version of the argument. They aren’t arguing that we shouldn’t help poor Americans, but that a huge, byzantine welfare state creates perverse incentives, income cliffs at which it makes little sense to work, and, as Charles Murray puts it, if payments are linked to having certain problems, you’re going to incentivize having or showing those problems. Similarly, with health insurance, conservatives like Ross Douthat argue “that comprehensive health insurance is, at its heart, a deeply wasteful use of resources,” given the weak links between having insurance and health outcome, and that Americans are “much more likely to overconsume health care than to underconsume it.”

The point here is that it’s utterly possible to look at the same evidence Simon looks at, acknowledge that it’s a huge problem, and not at all think that Marx is the light to look to, and to in fact think that leftist solutions have heretofore caused more harm than good.

Elliot’s piece -- which I cannot recommend enough -- is much less political, except for a brief reference to Reagan-era cuts to homelessness benefits and to how the “traditional anchors” of the poor and middle class, “affordable housing and jobs that pay a living wage — have weakened as the city reorders itself around the whims of the wealthy.” I strongly disagree with this. I live in New York now. Various aspects of the city’s gentrification trouble me, and my place in it is a source of discomfort. But I for one am highly skeptical that you can tell a compelling story starting with preferable zoning laws for luxury high-rises and ending with an 11 year old who is homeless with two unemployed, formerly drug-addicted parents. (Perhaps at the margin, this story could work -- taxation on projects of certain sizes could be diverted to making shelters safe and clean -- but that’s amelioration, not central cause and effect). If you can tell such a story, by all means, please do. But we cannot assume it.

The story that makes more sense to me is that this problem -- “Two Americas”, one of them adrift, or Coming Apart, or whatever you want to call it -- is completely not specific to place but happening everywhere. The Times provides a great illustration of this last year with its phenomenal series on “The Lady Jaguars,” a rural Tennessee basketball team of troubled high school-age girls. The takeaway is that none of us have any idea what to do about this “second America,” where George Zimmermans see Trayvon Martins and immediately peg them as criminals, where just half of all births are out of wedlock , where lifespans of certain segments of the population have actually declined in the past 20 years, where the prison population seems increasingly unable to escape disciplining institutions.

And neither conservatives nor liberals have any idea what actually works and can be scaled up to an entire country. All we have are speculation, faith in our ideologies, and potential small-scale fixes at the margin. The issue is not that we haven’t yet implemented the right solution. it’s that we have no idea what the right solution is.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Goodbye D.C.

August 06 2013

Two years ago, en route to my AmeriCorps job as a teacher’s aide in a prison-like, failing elementary school, I caught the tail end of a disagreement between a citizen and a police officer in a subway station. ‘Leave the station sir’ the officer commanded, which the man did, walking up the broken escalator with me. ‘Fucking faggot’ he said.

A few days prior, A teacher at my school had lost her patience with a particularly trouble-prone 6 year old; when he resisted a nominal punishment for fidgeting, she picked him up by the scruff of his collar and threw him into a corner by himself, looming after like a low-flung bear, as if daring him to fight back. He snapped: “Faggot. Don’t touch me, ho!” The class took in a collective breath -- scared, with an echo of something less savory, anticipation -- and held silent, waiting to see an unwritten script play out: or maybe the next step in a dance that only I didn't know.

I’ve lost touch with the child and the teacher. But I thought of him one night soon thereafter when having dinner with my book club. I envisioned the slim possibilities for his future, how bleak they were, and started to lose my composure in front of an ex.

The other day, I ran into a college friend on the subway, talking to her NIH friends about the crazy things she had learned on a trip to Easter Island. I got off two stops later to board a capital bike share, now completely seamless with any subway commute I’d make: 3.82 miles; 25 minutes, almost entirely downhill, to my grocery store to buy vegetables. On the way out, I saw two men, one young and white and one older and black, arguing on their respective porches. 'Go back in your house sir' the young man said tiredly. 'I will not go back in my house!’ the other man said. ‘You think you can come here, and live here, just cuz you’re white.’ I walked away and talked to a white neighbor whom I hadn’t met but who had seen the altercation. We shrugged. We’ve already come. The country hit the skids, and D.C. thrives; it offered us jobs, built us Churchkey and Whole Foods, and then nods goodbye: my successors’ U-Hauls are already in the alley behind the house that I share with 6 friends. In two weeks I’m starting a PhD in political science in New York.

I make people cry more than I would like to. Two times in which I felt completely comfortable with my choices stand out; both times, we were better off apart, and I was sure I had done no lasting harm. It hit me recently that being right and feeling level with hurting someone aren’t the same thing. I still feel shaken when those memories resurface. I should aspire, I think, to do better than leaving no trace; I should try to leave people and places better off than I found them.

I cannot say I’ve done so for D.C. I have definitely left some of the friends I made this year better off: introduced them to other friends, to significant others, to bike trails and restaurants they’ve liked. Almost none will be here in 5 years. In some ways I’ve left no mark; In others, I have driven gentrification in a way that I am at best ambivalent about. Two blocks east from my row-home, in what was a rough area, a restaurant called The Mothership has opened up. On weeknights, you see us eating pierogies under Christmas lights. A friend’s mom joined him for Jazz in the Park last year and commented “Are there any adults in this city?” Perhaps not. Perhaps the only people who will still live in the NW in 10 years will wear slacks to work, jeans on Friday and drink Sangria in the evenings, while the SE decamps to PG county.

I’m gone, D.C. I’m going home. I can’t be the one you need. But I’ll remember you well. I walked to happy hour last week and ran into an acquaintance I’m quite fond of, on his way to the bookstore to prepare for the Foreign Service Exam. I biked to the National Science Museum in June with friends to view the largest nature photographs I’d ever seen. I walk up Connecticut and say, Starbucks: why not? I walk down 14th and watch the buildings rise.

I don’t know whose city it was. But it’s ours now. I still have to leave.

Also I used to write a travel blog. It's here.