Saturday, March 28, 2020

How Hip Hop Differed From Rock and Roll In Its Formative Years

There were significant differences between Hip Hop's emergence as the most popular youth music in the nation, compared to rise of Rock and  Roll, though both began as musical forms in  Black communities. 

First of all, the take off period for hip hop, the time it took from its first commercial dissemination till its conquest of the youth market, was longer than that of Rock and Roll. For Hip Hop, the period was approximately ten years  (1979-1989); for Rock and Roll only three ( 1954-1956).  Both were maligned and resisted, but it took longer for Hip Hop to conquer youth markets, with the major vehicles for doing so being a single Music Show, MTV, along with music radio stations around the nation, rather than variety shows like Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan, and dance shows like American Bandstand, which helped promote Rock and Roll

Secondly, whereas Rock and Roll was a product of a wave of American Prosperity of unprecedented power and length, elevating the incomes of working class Americans, even those from  previously marginalized groups,  to the point where they could produce a teenage market for popular music and creating a wave of optimism that affected almost everyone in the nation, Hip Hop was a product of economic stagnation, urban decay, growing inequality, and the decline of post war optimism and Sixties idealism. The South Bronx of the 70's ("broken glass everywhere, people pissing on the stairs you know they just don't care') would have been- and actually was- unrecognizable to the people who sang doo wop on the corners and in school hallways in Bronx neighborhoods during the 1950's. During Rock and Roll's take off years, no one living in the Bronx in that time  could have ever imagined that housing holding for than 300,000 people could be abandoned and torched, or that the great music programs in Bronx schools would be shut down because of budget cuts. But those were the surrounding conditions  when first hip hop parties were held in community centers,  parks and school yards, creating a music featuring pounding percussion rather than beautiful harmonies of groups like the Chantels, the Chords, and Dion and the Belmonts

Third, the dismal economic and political conditions in which hip hop was created helped create another dynamic radically different from that of Rock and Roll---it was not appropriated, or rebranded by white artists the way Rock and Roll was. There is no equivalent to Elvis Presley in Hip Hop, a white artist so charismatic and successful appropriating a Black art form that he became known as "The King of Rock and Roll,"  For the first ten years of Hip Hop's history, there was not a single white artist who achieved prominence in Hip Hop to the level that Elvis, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, or later the Beach Boys, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones did in Rock and Roll.  The only artist EVER to achieve that status, was Emimen, and he did so 20 years after "Rappers Delight" hit the air waves. The Beastie Boys achieved great popularity fusing hip hop with punk, but they didn't ever pretend to convey a key portion of the hip hop ethos- which was coming from tough urban neighborhoods and triumphing over adversity. Hip Hop credibility in the marketplace become linked to "Blackness" and inner city hardship in a way that had no counterpart in Rock and Roll History. Although most of early hip hop was more party music than political music, its trademark was as the voice of disfranchised youth, left behind in decaying cities.  And since cities were not only decaying all over the nation, but all over the world, this trademark actually helped hip hop spread in a time when growing inequality was a global as well as national phenomenon

Gender Issues in Hip Hop

The one area in which Hip Hop resembled Rock and Roll was in the absence of women artists during its formative years.  From 1979 to 1987, when Salt and Pepa first produced songs which went platinum, there was not a single woman hip hop artist who left a mark on the growing national and international audience for the music, just as no woman artist achieved popularity in Rock and Roll during its take off period ( 1954-1956)  Hip Hop, like Rock and Roll, was aggressively and proudly masculinist in its early years

But unlike Rock and Roll, Hip Hop projected this masculinist ethos at a time when women's labor force participation was growing rapidly, when fewer and fewer women were dependent on male incomes, and when women artists were achieving great prominence in other musical forms, especially pop.   As the numbers below indicate, the change in the US from a  industrial economy to a service and information economy, which  led to a loss of high paying jobs for men, created opportunities for women in entry level jobs in the service sector 

"In 1950, the overall participation rate of women was 34 per- cent.  The rate rose to 38 percent in 1960, 43 percent in 1970, 52 percent in 1980, and 58 percent in 1990" 

 By 1990, when Hip Hop was firmly established as the most popular youth music in the nation, the majority of women were working outside the home, nearly doubling the numbers who were doing so in 1950.  No song illustrates that reality better than the Donna Summer Classic "She Works Hard for the Money"  but women's power and agency could be found  represented all over the radio in the 70's and 80's through the music of the Pointer Sisters, Chaka Khan, Cyndee Lauper, Gloria Gaynor, Madonna, and the still incandescent Aretha Franklin.

 in the midst of this, however, Hip Hop remained a male bastion, an arena where women had difficulty storming the barricades. Some would even argue that in communities where women were becoming the major breadwinners because high paying industrial jobs were disappearing and the expanding sections of the economy ( fast food, retail, insurance, finance, real estate, health care) hired women more than men in entry level positions, hip hop became an arena where men, especially men of color, could assert their power and pre-eminence even as they became economically redundant- at least in the legal economy

This difficult issue is one that all lovers of hip hop need to explore--  Why did it take so long for women to crack into hip hop as rappers, dj's and producers and how does the current era- when so many prominent women are making their mark in hip hop- differ from earlier periods?

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Lessons of the Churchill War Rooms

A little less than four years ago, my children, to celebrate my 70th Birthday, took me on a one week trip to London. Of all the many memorable things about the trip, the one thing that stood out the most, and has remained etched in my memory, was our 4 hour visit to the Churchill War Rooms.
For those who have never visited, or heard of this site, during the entire duration of WW 2. the British government had to function in an underground bunker because of the relentless bombing London was subject to by the Nazis. The British Prime Minister and key military officials basically lived underground for five years, while the rest of the citizens of London and other British cities had to survive constant aerial attacks that made normal life impossible
In this setting, heroism became a way of life. There was no escape from the danger. But people had to try to go to work and raise their families amidst the constant threat that an explosion could hit their homes, their schools, their factories, their stores, their houses of worship In these circumstances, if the vast majority of Britons were not willing to make incredible sacrifices, the society would have collapsed and the government would have been forced to surrender to the Nazis
We face a similar scenario with the Corona Virus. During the next 18 months to two years, we will be a society at war, not with a foreign enemy, but a deadly virus. No one will be exempt. Not our top government officials, not our business leaders, not our professional athletes. But it is ordinary people, along with medical personnel, who will bear the Bronx of this. They will have to face danger to go to work, keep our medical system and food chain going, and take care of their families. Many will get sick. Some will die. And everyone will have to live differently
This is not something most people in this country ever thought would happen. But the crisis is here, and it is not going away. How are we going to conduct ourselves. We we act in accordance of out best values, and take care of our most vulnerable people, or will surrender to selfishness?
The future of this nation is at stake. Great Briton survived the Blitz. We can survive the Pandemic, but only if we become our own heroes.

Monday, March 16, 2020

When You're Living The History You Are Studying: A Message I Just Sent To My Students

Hello Rock and Roll to Hip Hop Students
First of all, how are you? I hope those of you who left the country or your hometowns for Spring Break are able to fly back safely. Please contact me if you need help with anything. I am here if you need me.
Secondly, I have read all your midterms and they are excellent. I have sent each of you individual letters about your exams, something I have never done before because I usually put ample comments on the exams I return to you. But since it is not sure when, if ever I will see all of you again ( some of you are graduating in May, possibly remotely) I needed to use this method of letting you know what I thought of what you wrote.
But the major reason I am communicating with you is to address an irony in how I was teaching the course. At several points in the semester, I was describing how a sudden unexpected event could change how people lived, thought and even produced and consumed music. The examples I used were the beginnings of the Great Depression, US entry into World War 2 and most recently the sudden escalation of the Vietnam War in 1965 . I was trying to explain to you how before the War took over our lives, I like many people, was expecting my life to move in a predictable fashion. , even though I was a bit of a "rebel." But when the war hit, almost every young person's plans had to be put on hold, and in the process, gender attitudes, racial attitudes, and feelings towards authority changed over night. And this was reflected musically, where the Beatles went from "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" to "Lucy in Sky With Diamonds", the Temptations from "My Girl" to"War": and where female artists like Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin, whose power and eroticism had marginalized them most of their careers, suddenly became the biggest superstars in American popular music.
When I offered those comments, I felt I would have to work extra hard to explain what it felt like to have an unforeseen event turn everything in your life inside out and upside down and make you wonder not only what your future would be like, but if you had a future because this was all so abstract.
Well now, it isn't abstract any more.You are living in an historical moment that is utterly unprecedented and will change yours and everyone else's life forever. It is very confusing when this happens. You don't want it to be real. But when you discover it is all too real, that it won't go away, and that it is much worse than anything you ever dreamed of, you
can become very angry,or paralyzed and depressed
I can't tell you what to feel, or how to respond. But I will tell you this.The years of chaos and division and fear during the Vietnam War extracted numerous casualties,not all of which were in the War itself. But it also spawned a burst of musical creativity that inspired the world and helped give birth to movements that have changed our lives forever- the Black Power/Black Liberation, Women's Liberation, Gay Liberation and Environmentalism
In the weeks, months and years to come, I hope you find your own path through the chaos we are living through and conduct yourselves with courage, compassion and generosity. Please understand that I will be with you trying to do the same. even though I am three times your age
Take care. Be safe. We will meet again on ZOOM when our class convenes the a week from Tuesday
Dr Naison

The Challenges We Face As Teaching Goes Online- A Guest Post by Alec Shantzis

In addition to the COVID-19 virus and the health and economic consequences we are facing.  All over the country, teachers are going online today. 
This will shine a light on a reality teachers face every day.  It is difficult to get students to work.  Even in a classroom with a trained pro, students resist working. They care even less about the tests that teachers and districts have been mandated to treat as important to students learning.  The age we live in has created millions of disinterested students, overloaded parents, a lack of fascination with mastery and a social norm that sadly includes a growing amount of disrespect and lack of etiquette in general. 
Tasking parents with the full responsibility of getting kids to do schoolwork will have limited, if any, success in many schools .
Parents are about to find out why teachers should be paid well ! 
My predictions-
- a large percentage of students will see this as a vacation and unless parents immediately insist that their children treat each day like a scheduled, disciplined school day, spend time and effort keeping their children focused and completing schoolwork, we can expect maybe a 10% completion rate of assignments if we are lucky.
-mandated state testing will be disrupted and test scores for this year will be absolutely meaningless.  Superintendents and school boards have been bullied by states for a number of years regarding squeezing ever ascending test scores from our students.  Governors that cancel testing will take a huge emotional and administrative burden off of the backs of administrators at a time when stress relief will be much appreciated.
-Governors have signed contracts worth billions of dollars nationally ( mostly with Pearson but not completely) to prep, administer and grade tests.  Wise governors will use the declared national emergency to declare there will be no state testing this year.  -Colleges must begin creating alternative protocols for deciding which students will be accepted using means other than standardized test scores.  
This will be fought rigorously (some of you will get my little pun there....)  by Pearson and the other education companies. 
- Many Students will approach this like a summer vacation and approach schoolwork as if it only need be completed before they have to report back to school.  They will play a lot of video games
-  each September, teachers work to create routines that create an atmosphere conducive to learning.  It takes from a week to a month to get a whole class on board.  When students return, we will be not only starting from scratch but facing a student population that at best, has experienced the adults around them stressed and at worst, we will see students that at a young age have been traumatized by illness, possible deaths around them, dire economic family situations , and fear.  
The focus of education, if some thought is put into it, should be helping our students re integrate, but also on caring for a range of student issues from stress to trauma. 
This is my initial set of thoughts about it. I will probably write more at some point.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

An Old Dog Learning New Tricks- My Transition to On Line Teaching.

I am a 73 year old professor of African American studies and History at Fordham University who has been teaching for 49 years, and whose main lecture course, From Rock and Roll to Hip Hop was written up as one of the most popular college courses in New York City. The transition to on line learning has been difficult and exhausting. I think it was successful, but to do it in a way that captured the atmosphere in my classes, I have to work three times as hard as I normally do. The reason for the difficulty is that is difficult to replace my extremely "hands on" teaching methods. Not only do I play music videos in my classes, I dance with my students, have regular guest speakers, and periodically bring in pizza, wings and other tasty food items. Although my classes require students to do a lot of reading and write long take home exams and term papers, students perceive them as an adventure with an eccentric professor where you never know what is going to happen. How do you duplicate THAT on line?
Capturing the energy and spontaneity of my class experience, for me, was as important as making sure the content was there. In terms of content, I made sure they understood the material I was trying to get across by writing up formal lectures for each class session which I would send them by email a day before the class session, illustrated by four or five music videos. Then I would hold a formal class session on ZOOM, which it took me a few days to master, where students could comment, reflect and see one another's faces. But to lighten up the atmosphere in the class and create a sense of community, I also decided to send them short 12-30 second videos of me rapping and dancing in unlikely places, from the Fordham College Dean's Office, to a local beach, to a chair at my hair cutters! My students, many of whom were traumatized by the experience of suddenly leaving the residence halls and moving back in with their families, loved seeing me make a fool of myself that way. I encouraged them to make videos of their own as well as comment on my class lectures. I also created a contest for my students where they chose their favorite hip hop songs of all time and send the list of winners to my class via email.
The result of the combination of presenting course content through formal lectures, having a contest and sending them short videos is by the time we actually had the class meet on ZOOM, my students were excited and ready for an enjoyable experience. We had everyone come on line visually as well as orally which turned out to be hilarious because several students had pets on their laps- one dog, one cat, and one cockatoo. We had a great discussion both about the class material, and about the crisis we were all living through, and had more than a few laughs.
I actually felt great after the class session because there was so much positive energy in the group. But a lot of work went into this- writing lectures and posting videos, assigning them relevant course readings and films to view, staying in email contact with students individually, making short comic videos and learning ZOOM. This is MUCH harder to do than live classroom instruction if you want to capture the energy of the way I normally teach
Dr Mark "Notorious Phd" Naison

Friday, February 21, 2020

R.I.P Dr Joe Rella- An Education Hero for Our Time

I just found out that one of the most courageous and inspiring educators I have ever met, Dr Joe Rella, passed away. At a time when every powerful politician in New York State was pushing Common Core aligned state tests to rate teachers schools and entire school districts as well as students, and when they were forcing special needs and ELL students to to take tests that were developmentally inappropriate, Dr Rella mobilized his entire Long Island district to refuse to take the tests. In doing so, he inspired thousands of parents and teachers, first throughout Long Island and then throughout the state, to follow his example! In so doing he helped build the most important Opt Out Movement in the nation, one that brought people from all points of the political spectrum together in a way that the state, and perhaps the nation, had never seen before. As this movement grew, I had a chance to speak from the same podium as Dr Rella on several occasions. He was as kind and compassionate and caring as he was courageous. He genuinely loved his students and that love motivated him to stand up to powerful forces which were humiliating them and jeopardizing their futures. He also had a spiritual force that made everyone around him a better person. I will miss his smile, his sense of humor, his boundless courage and his ability to bring Conservatives and Liberals, Republicans and Democrats together to protect everyone’s children. I will miss him terribly Never more than now do we need inspirational, unifying figures like Dr Joe Rella.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

The Symbolism and Historic Significance of the Sanders Campaign

Put this in your pipe and smoke it: the people guiding the US economy for the last 30 years have been so greedy and selfish, no matter which party has controlled the Presidency, that a self-described “socialist” is a serious contender for a major party nomination for President. This is a truly historic phenomenon. There have been Socialists in the US since the late 19th century, but not even in the Great Depression did one of them amass close to the mass support that Bernie Sanders has gotten. While some would attribute this to Sanders charisma, I would argue that the unprecedented level of inequality and the insecurity of life in a “gig economy” have created a constituency for socialism, especially among young people, that was never here before. And while it is not clear that Sanders will win the nomination much less the Presidency, the very strength of his candidacy sends a message that something is very wrong with how income and opportunity are distributed in this country

Monday, February 17, 2020

Why Donald Trump Hates Our Educational System and Demonizes Teachers- A Personal Reflection

Why Donald Trump Hates Our Educational System and Demonizes Teachers- A Personal Reflection
As someone who is exactly the same age as DJT and went to school during the same years, I look at his rise to the top of our society with astonishment. As a young person from a family of modest means, going to public schools in Brooklyn, I did everything people told me to allow me to move into the middle class and become a respected professional. I got good grades. I scored well on standardized tests and on my SAT's. I became a successful athlete whose exploits were written up in school newspapers and occasionally the local press I applied for every scholarship in sight. And it worked. I got into Columbia where, after a slow start, the same pattern emerged.Starting in my sophomore year, I got excellent grades in my major. My sports exploits were written up in the school paper. With the support of my professors, I received numerous fellowships to go to graduate school. Every single thing I mentioned here is a matter of public record- the grades, the standardized tests scores, the articles in school newspapers the fellowships. Yet our President, who went to school during the same years, is a person who not only didn't register those accomplishments in academics or sports , but has threatened to sue every school he went to to prevent his grades and test scores from being released! Not only that, he sees the people responsible for recording such information, the teachers, the school administrators, the journalists, as his enemy! And he has taken half of the country with him in venting his rage at the professional class, those with the credentials he never achieved and who he could circumvent because he had a multi millionaire father with limitless political connections. To DJT, intellect is something to be mocked; and those who have played by the rules just "suckers" to be laughed at, bulldozed, and pushed aside. That half the country cheers him on when he does this- using the term "loser teachers" to refer to people who work in our public schools- scares the hell out of me. We have seen this before, in Nazi Germany among other places.... and the results have always been disastrous.

Friday, February 14, 2020

The Tragedy Facing the Garifuna People of Honduras- A Guest Post by Geraldo Sambola

As many Blacks in the U.S. face systemic violence and challenging policies threatening their livelihood, Blacks in Honduras, Central America also face distressing threats to their survival.  Last year 2019 Honduran Blacks also known as “Garifuna or Garinagu (plural),” faced unprecedented deaths from criminal acts.  Though many of their murders were associated with the cycle of violence in Honduras, some deaths were associated with Garifuna activist organizing and resisting seizure of their lands by outsiders.  

The largest Black population in Honduras are known as the Garinagu, a mixed Black and Amerindian group which established coastal towns along the Circum-Caribbean coast in Central America the late 1700s, there population concentration area.  Although Garinagu largest population is in Honduras they are also in Guatemala, Belize, Nicaragua, and hold population segment in the U.S. specifically in New York with their highest concentration in the Bronx.  Due to their many contributions, including as soldiers in Honduras this Black population was recognized by their government in the 1821 Constitution.   Since the early 1900s till the present the Honduran businessmen, and government have collaborated with foreign businesses utilizing the Caribbean coastal areas, Garinagu region, to reap their economic development goals.  At first 1900s development initiatives were large scale banana plantation and railroad by U.S. based agro-industries, and 1970s cattle-ranching projects. This was followed by increase tourism development initiatives the 1990s.  At the turn of the century mineral extraction, hydroelectric plant projects and African palm growth and large-scale tourism continue challenging Garinagu subsistence. 

In the northeast Garifuna community of “Masca,” 25 miles from San Pedro Sula, several Garifuna community leaders lives have been threatened and some murdered.  On September 8, 2019 an unidentified assailant arrived at the restaurant of Mirna Suazo Martinez shot and killed her driving away on his motorcycle.  Mirna was president of the community board in the region.  The community board historically rejected the construction of a hydroelectric power plants in the Masca river.  Mr. Oscar Francisco Guerrero, was also shot to death the following month on October 18, 2019.  He was assigned as part of Mirna security team due to death threats she constantly received.  On December 28, 2019 Karla Ignacia Piota Martinez, Mirna’s sister was also shot receiving seven gunshot wounds and two weeks later dying.  Ignacia was seventy years of age and president of the Masca community board of trustees.  These occurrences continued from the past as, four years ago October 14, 2017 Garifuna community leader/businessman Silvinio Zapata Martinez was killed, shot 5 times by unknown individuals while closing his restaurant business also in Masca.  Zapata contributed in leading the community successfully resisting the building of the hydroelectric dam in the Masca river, which was to be supported by the United Nations Carbon Fund.  Community protests and involvement of the Black Fraternal Organization (OFRANEH) resulted in pausing development efforts, nonetheless threats and assassinations continue.   

In another Garifuna residential coastal area, earlier last year January 24, 2019 Garifuna leader Celso Guillen was detained by authorities although he was freed from charges by a Canadian landowner in his community.  Mr. Guillen an activist from the Garifuna community “Guadalupe,” in the municipality of Trujillo, 140 miles from San Pedro Sula, was arrested and mistreated by police on October 2017.  A lawsuit and order of capture was filed by a Canadian businessman against Guillen for trespassing land he purchased originally belonging to the activist.  Canadian businessman Randy Jorgensen obtained about 1,500 acre of Garifuna land constructing tourism and real estate project in this Trujillo bay region of the Garinagu territory.  OFRANEH was successful in contacting the United Nations as well as the Honduran government Special Prosecutor of Ethnic group absolving and freeing Guillen of his arrest, nonetheless he continues facing threats. 

At a September 2019 meeting at “Casa Yurumein,” a Garifuna meeting place in the Bronx, Omar Suazo alongside other leaders explained challenges faced in their individual communities.  Suazo was imprisoned since May 2017 on false charges and eventually freed in 2018.  Mr. Suazo was the president of the village township association of Sambo Creek in La Ceiba, 85 miles from San Pedro Sula, and successfully for years resisted the building of a dam in the Sambo Creek river in which the Japanese International Cooperative Agency is involved.  At a public gathering in his hometown Suazo was attacked and sought to defend himself as he was thrown to the ground by several men and was knifed by one of them in his back injuring him.  Gun shots came from the outside injuring one individual and killing one of the Ladino individuals. The result was Suazo arrest and charges with murder and jailed with his injuries.  Suazo explained being accustomed to death threats and that he was set up because of his community activism.  He shared his thankfulness to all who rallied behind him resulting in his released imprisonment. Nonetheless, challenges continue as Honduran officials have re-opened the case again charging him with murder.

On August 2019 the Bronx based, Garifuna Coalition organization submitted a letter to the Honduran Minister of Human Rights expressing its solidarity with The Black Fraternal Organization OFRANEH demanding the government to comply with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, December 18, 2015 verdict.  OFRANEH filed the grievances 2006, focusing on two Garifuna communities, due to exhausting their possibilities of justice through the Honduran court system and the Special Prosecutor for ethnic groups.  Part of the verdict resolution declared that the Honduran government was to provide demarcation of land originally granted with collective ownership to the community of “Punta Piedra,” also to assign the demarcation of the land to the community of “Triunfo de la Cruz,” and ensure that the Garinagu have free access to their entire land undermined by mining regulations.  In addition, the resolution called for the government to investigate the past murders of Garifuna activists Óscar Brega, Jorge Castillo Jiménez, Julio Alberto Morales, and Jesus Alvarez.  The response deadline December 2017 passed, nonetheless the Garifuna community continues waiting for response to this and many others grievances filed regarding territorial challenge in their other coastal communities. 

An estimate of 47 Garifuna communities exist along the Honduran coast, and those mentioned here are just a few facing land challenges, violence and repression.  Meanwhile, with territorial and other difficulties, many Garifuna continue migrating to North America (some as part of the Central American migrant caravan) seeking safety from the cycle of violence, and better economic opportunities for their subsistence. 

By Geraldo Martinez

Dorchester resident fighting to protect Garifuna community, by Yawu Miller

A Letter to Honduras’s Minister of Human Rights by José Francisco Ávila López- Garifuna Coalition USA, Inc. info@garifunacoalition August 27, 2019

El Exterminio del Nuevo Amanecer by Juan Almendarez January 10, 2020

La Ofraneh denuncia que la expansión de la frontera de agrocombustibles y el impulso de ciudades modelo, compromete la sobrevivencia de los pueblos ancestrales.

HONDURAS, HUMAN RIGHTS, INDIGENOUS RIGHTS, OFRANEH, Racism in Honduras: New Attack on Garifuna Leader in Masca, Posted by INTERNATIONALIST 360° on JANUARY 3, 2020

Silvinio Zapata Martinez

#WHRDAlert HONDURAS / Assailants kill Mirna Teresa Suazo, community leader and Garifuna territorial defender

IACHR condemns the prevalence of murders and other forms of violence against Garifuna women in Honduras REPORTfrom Inter-American Commission on Human RightsPublished on 24 Sep 2019 

Honduras: Policía detiene ilegalmente a Miriam Miranda defensora de la tierra y territorio, tras horas ella y su compañera fueron liberadas Autor(a): Criterio (Honduras), Publicado en: 22 April 2019

Friday, February 7, 2020

The Bronx's Revival Shows Why Sanctuary for Immigrants is Sound Policy

   From the early 1970’s, when an arson and abandonment cycle destroyed almost a quarter of the Bronx’s housing stock, through the Crack Epidemic of the late 80’s and early 90’s, which caused the borough’s murder rates to soar, the Bronx  served as a cautionary tale for everyone seeking to explain what went wrong in the nations cities. While scores of other cities in the Northeast and Midwest from Buffalo and Baltimore  to Youngstown, Gary and East St Louis would experience the same cycle of abandonment and decay, the Bronx was the example etched in everyone’s minds.

  Today, however, the Bronx  immortalized as an landscape of urban decay in films like “Fort Apache” and novels like “ Bonfire of the Vanities” is nowhere to be found! Every stretch of abandoned land where apartments and factories once stood has been filled with town houses, shopping centers and apartment buildings, the murder rate has plummeted to a fifth of what is was during the crack years, and hundreds of new churches mosques and restaurants have opened up.

      What has happened to turn the Bronx from a symbol of Urban Decay into the nations Great Urban Success Story. Some of this is a result of enlightened urban policy by New York’s state and city governments, some as a result of New York’s dramatic revival as a center of global commerce, but much of it is a result of the Bronx becoming a destination of choice for hundreds of thousands of immigrants, many legal, many undocumented. As gentrification has raised rents in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, the Bronx has been the recipient of large immigrant streams from West Africa, the Dominican  Republic, Mexico, and South Asia.  The results can be observed by anyone walking through, driving through, or taking public transportation through the Bronx. New stores and restaurants reflecting diverse ethnic cultures popping up everywhere, people speaking Twi and Bengali as well as Spanish on streets and public conveyances; and women in hijabs walking and shipping in neighborhood as far apart as Highbridge and Parkchester. The immigrant presence has also revitalized Bronx schools- among 100 student visitors to Fordham from PS 140 in Morrisania- we counted families from 27 different countries.

       If you want to know why policy makers in NY City and NY State support sanctuary policies for undocumented immigrants, look no further than the Bronx and other once decayed and dangerous parts of the city that immigration has helped revive. Immigration may be the single most important engine spurring  economic revival of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, if you think I am wrong compare what has happened to the Bronx to what has happened to decayed neighborhoods in cities which have NOT received mass immigration- cities like Buffalo, Youngstown, Baltimore and Gary. The most decayed areas still look like they did 25 years ago.

   Intelligent policy makers and urban planners in New York know that any policy which destabilizes immigrant neighborhoods threatens the economic viability of the entire city. They will not only challenge the Trump Administrations narrative about immigration as a source of crime and danger, they will use every policy at their disposal to protect immigrants already here

Friday, January 24, 2020

Woodie Guthrie and Billie Holiday- Revolutionizing Music and Society in the Great Depression

The Great Depression was a moment in US history when two features of American life in the 1920's were decisively challenged- the unchecked leadership of the nation  by its business elite,  and the rigid segregation of Blacks in all areas of social and economic life  As the nation's economy collapsed, and a large percentage of its population experienced poverty and insecurity on an unprecedented scale, radical activists- some of them Socialists and Communists-  organized protests which challenged the idea that  the leadership by the rich, and the segregation and stigmatization of Black people was good for the nation as a whole. In fact, they argued the opposite- that if the nation was to be saved, its working people, not its wealthy elite had to take the lead, and that Black people had to be an integral part of every movement for progress and national renewal. Little by little, these ideas began to influence political discourse, labor organizing, journalism and literature. and by the end of the decade,  popular culture and popular music  Though racism remained virulent in all spheres of American life, the Depression marked a time when a critical mass of whites began to join with blacks in movements to protest lynching, employment discrimination, limitations on voting rights, and segregation in all its forms. These anti-racist  protests drew strength from, and were often connected to, an unprecedented upheaval of America's working people, resulting in the funding of  government aid to the jobless, the beginnings of a social safety net and the unionization of the nation's largest industries, efforts in which Black people played an important part

Popular music of the Depression reflected, and at times reinforced these changes in the way the nation saw itself and conducted its business.  For the first time in many years, artists began singing  about the hardships faced by the poor, the displaced and the homeless; others challenged racial barriers in their lyrics, their choice of accompanists and the audiences they sang for. Songs which would never  have seen the light of day in the 1920's turned into some of the most memorable cultural products of the Depression years- in part because of their eloquence, in part because they fit a new vision of American society promoted by intellectuals, academics, and political activists.   As the the nation's most respected businesses, its banks and largest corporations, either failed or approached collapse, and as white workers who were promised security if they drew the color line  fell into poverty and despair, artists who sang of rebels and commoners as the nation’s true heroes, or who broke the color line in the way they performed as well as in lyrics, began to attract and audience.

Two artists who best symbolized the reinvention of American identity during the Depression years were Woodie Guthrie and Billie Holiday. Guthrie, a white farmer and laborer who grew up in Oklahoma and Texas, was part of a generation of displaced people who were driven off the land by bankruptcy and dust storms during the early years of the Depression and who tried to make a life for themselves in California, where there was still a demand  for hourly workers in the factory like farms of that state which had once heavily depended on Mexican labor. .The humiliation of being transformed from proud independent farmers into hoboes riding the rails or migrant laborers  living in tents and shanties  ruled by over by gun toting straw bosses and foreman was the subject of Guthrie's songs, as they were of John Steinbeck's novel "Grapes of Wrath"  First sung around the camp fire to fellow "Okies", they were picked up by a Los Angeles radio station, and became an instant sensation for their vivid imagery describing the humiliation of the nation's poor along with their  angry condemnation of  bankers and employers who profited from others misery. Within months, Guthrie found himself invited to perform in union halls where a reinvigorated labor movement was seeing to organize the nation's working poor, and in concert venues where music of the common people was being presented  as the musical accompaniment of a popular upheaval that would save the nation.  Guthrie, angry and prolific, gave voice to the rage and pathos of the displaced in songs like "I Ain't Got No Home"  "Pretty Boy Floyd" and "Do Re Mi" and turned a song about the injustice of private property-"This Land in Your Land,” into a new patriotic anthem.  Almost a century later, these songs  continue to inspire those motivated to sing about injustice :

" As through this land I've traveled, I've seen some funny men, some will rob you with a six gun, some with a fountain pen As through this land I've traveled, as through this land i've roamed, you’ll never see an outlaw drive a family from their home"  ( Pretty Boy Floyd)

"Gambling man is rich and the working man is poor, I ain't got no home, in this world any more"
(I Ain't Got No Home.)

Billie Holiday, whose music had and still has an equal impact to Guthrie's, carved out a career through a voice possessing such emotional power, reinforced by an exquisite sense of timing, that the best jazz musicians of her era wanted her to front their bands even if it meant shattering racial barriers. Raped, sexually exploited, brutalized by police on numerous occasions,  starting before she even reached her teens, Holiday, a Harlem resident, had an ethereal, haunting voice that left musicians and audiences equally mesmerized, and she found herself asked, while still in her teens, to front the nation's greatest white swing band, the Bennie Goodman Orchestra.
The Harlem community in which this quiet musical revolution occurred, was one where racial barriers were being shattered on a daily basis-not only were interracial bands of Communists putting the furniture back of evicted families and marching on relief centers; there were “Don't buy where you can't work" campaigns to end discrimination in Harlem stores, led by Black nationalists. and weekly marches to "Free the Scottsboro Boys" ( 9 Alabama youth facing a death sentence on a trumped up rape charge), When Bennie Goodman put a black singer in front of his white band,  and later stared adding black musicians to his orchestra, he was responding to an emerging sense that racism was part of the reason why the nation had fallen on hard times.  But Holiday, arguably the greatest song stylist in American history, put a face and a sound on this emerging ethos.  Holiday began touring with all Black bands, all white bands, and racially mixed ones, leading to a life of turmoil, trouble and brilliant achievement.  She never escaped the wounds of racism- and found herself on the verge of addiction and imprisonment on numerous occasions. But she was also called upon to sing the most important song of her era
on any subject- "Strange Fruit"-an anti lynching anthem of such power that it still haunts us. Not only was this song written for Holiday by a Bronx school teacher named Abel Meerpool, but it was performed for the first time, in 1939, in the first openly interracial club  in the United States-“Cafe Society."  For the next 15 years, Holiday would perform this song before hushed audiences in clubs throughout the country, transforming  the nation's ugly legacy of racial violence into a sonic memory that no one could ever forget.

These two great artists- products of poverty and  hardship and in Holiday's case, the extremes of racist cruelty- are still with us,-their lives and lyrics a critique of how we live that continues to influence some of our best musicians, and our most impassioned fighters for a just nation and a just world