Session/Séance 1d: IASPM Panel 2. Thursday/jeudi 25 May 2017. 10:30AM-12:30PM, EJB 216.
Protest, Activism and the Fight for Civil Rights
Moderator: SIMON BLACK (Brock University)
1. Visions of Wondaland: On Janelle Monae’s Afrofuturism
Marquita R. Smith, William Paterson University
Over the past two years in the United States, the Movement for Black Lives has sought to bring an end to the menacingly frequent state-sanctioned killings of black people. This urgent work continues in the era of Trump, in which many already vulnerable populations (people of color, undocumented, Muslim, LGBTQIA, women, etc.) face increasing threats and acts of violence. In political climates such as the current one, finding one’s place in the world can be difficult yet necessary. As the novelist and critic Toni Morrison notes, “In times of dread, artists must never choose to be silent.” Indeed, in the realm of art, there is hopeful possibility for imagining a world that is different than our own. Janelle Monae is one artist who has been particularly vocal in her politically-astute commentary on our current moment while advocating for a hopeful “Wondaland” in which Black life thrives. The Wondaland Arts Society artist collective articulates this other-world in their statement:
￼We have created our own state, our own republic. There is grass here. Grass sprouts from toilet seats,￼bookshelves, ceilings and floors. Grass makes us feel good. In this state, there are no laws, there is only music. ￼Funk rules the spirit. And punk rules the courtrooms and marketplace. Period. (Wondaland Arts Society)
In this alternative republic, hope and good feeling, impelled by funk, rule. This paper will address Monae’s recent releases – The Electric Lady (2013) and Wondaland Presents: The Eephus (2015) – as works of Afrofuturism that offer referential performances calling on the past while imaginatively articulating a hopeful future. In particular, the paper will explore her Afrofuturistic choices alongside her activism associated with the Black Lives Matter movement by outlining how her performances of musician’s work, blackness, and style demonstrate what GerShun Avilez calls “aesthetic radicalism.” Taking into account her aesthetic choices, ranging from sonic elements of her music, lyrics, album artwork, and narratively-driven liner notes, I argue that her oeuvre, including collaborations with the Wondaland Arts Society, carries forward a black and feminist tradition that visually implores us to see the importance of overtly political music performance, in both sound and vision, as a fundamental step towards a more equitable future.
Keywords: Afrofuturism, Black Lives Matter, black feminism, politics, radicalism
2. Rhythm & Blues and a (Business) Union? Sam Moore, Curtis Mayfield et al.’s 1993-2002 Struggle for Pension Inclusion
Matt Stahl, Western University
In the 1980s and 90s, surviving rhythm & blues singers of the 1950s and 60s, many of whom had been in poverty and/or poor health for decades, began to agitate for reparations with respect to their non- or underpayment of royalties, targeting not only the companies who were still profiting from their recordings, but also other organizations that should have been protecting their interests. With the assistance of pro-bono attorneys and whistle- blowers, sympathetic journalists and lawmakers, and eminent activists and pop stars, these performers pursued a series of collective efforts toward various forms of reparations. This paper examines the 1993-2002 class-action suit led by soul singer Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave), Curtis Mayfield, and a dozen other black performers active since 1959 against their union’s pension fund. These singers charged that the pension fund – obligated to monitor singers’ royalty earnings and enforce their record companies’ corresponding pension contributions – had for decades failed to challenge the companies’ fraudulent royalty accounting practices, failing to ensure the proper funding of the singers’ pensions. Moore, Mayfield, and thousands of other singers found themselves at retirement age with underfunded pensions and zero healthcare eligibility, despite having sold hundreds of thousands or even millions of records. This paper first outlines the mechanics of R&B exploitation through royalty (mis)accounting and the career and resolution of Moore and Mayfield’s nine-year lawsuit. The class-action lawsuit poses an exception to the prevailing ethos of liberal individualism, a crucial tool in the recognition and remediation of injuries to vulnerable communities who have typically been subordinated on the basis of stigmatized social identities. This paper’s second goal is to analyze the racial politics and political economy of the lawsuit itself, focusing on two key moments: the performers’ struggle for class certification, and the high-stakes negotiations over the final settlement.
3. The Isley Brothers and African American Protest
Zack Harrison, Dalhousie University
The Isley Brothers song “Machine Gun/Ohio” shows the effect music can have on politics, specifically the politics surrounding the African American population in America and their involvement in the protest of the Vietnam War at the end of the civil rights era. My study of the single piece will shed light on the dramatic impact African American protestors had in bridging the gap from civil rights protests, leading into protests of America’s involvement in Vietnam. I investigate the lessons of “Machine Gun/Ohio” and our understanding of genre, generation, and race in the Vietnam protest movement. The Isley Brothers, an Ohio soul R&B group whose career began in the mid-1950s, were older than the generation typically associated with Vietnam protest music, and skilled in non-confrontational, crowd pleasing performance aesthetics. “Machine Gun/Ohio” combines a CSNY song, “Ohio,” written by Neil Young in response to the Kent State Massacre of 1970, with Jimi Hendrix’s 1968 “Machine Gun,” a protest of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The Isley Brothers thus offered a tribute to the students of the Kent State Shootings and to Black students killed in the lesser known protests at Jackson State, the Jackson State shootings, and South Carolina State, the Orangeburg Massacre. Combining CSNY’s “Ohio,” with its strong associations with the white youth movement, and Hendrix’s powerful statement “Machine Gun,” the Isley brothers broadened protest culture to address the polarization of the American culture between the home front and the battlefront, drawing attention to the many rifts created in American culture during the Vietnam War era.
4. Wavin' Whose Flag? One Song’s Transformation from the Personal to the National and Global
Anna Swaray Williams, York University
The original version of K’naan’s “Wavin' Flag” speaks of wars and rising up against oppression, poverty and violence. Re-worked for Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of the 2010 World Cup, the song speaks of celebration, joy and unity. Transformed once again to raise money for victims of the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010, the song morphs into a call for aid, with each Canadian artist bringing his/her own voice and interpretation to their assigned lines, including Drake’s rapped verse. This paper takes a closer look at the changes “Wavin' Flag” underwent, from a deeply personal, almost defiant work, to a peppy, upbeat call for soccer fans to wave their countries’ flags with pride, united under FIFA, to one of compassion, calling on Haiti to hold up their flag in the face of unspeakable tragedy. Each reworking of the song involved lyric, instrumental and other types of changes to suit its new intended audience and purpose. In following these chameleon-like adaptations we seek to understand the ‘place in this world’ of “Wavin' Flag” (and its Muslim-Somali-Canadian writer).