Riodemption Songs, by Tom Jennings. Review of Favela Rising, published in Freedom magazine, Vol. 68, No. 3, February 2007.Riodemption Songs by Tom Jennings
[film review published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 3, February 2007]
Favela Rising, dir. Jeff Zimbalist & Matt Mochary, 2006
Tom Jennings is disappointed at Favela Rising’s focus on its founder’s personality rather than Brazilian Afro-Reggae’s grass-roots potential
Screened on cable/digital More4 on January 24th, the Oscar-nominated Favela Rising documents the development of the Afro-Reggae cultural movement in Vigario Geral, one of 600-odd illegal shanty settlements (favelas) perched precariously among the hills behind Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach which together house over 20 million inhabitants in desperate poverty. They have experienced forty years of barbaric repression, with massacres repeatedly perpetrated by a brutally corrupt military police controlling and profiting from the drugs trade while battling the shadow criminal dictatorships within. The 1993 Afro-Reggae newspaper and videos chronicling police violence were followed by music workshops, weaving a powerful syncretism of African drumming, hip-hop, dance, martial arts, politics and spiritualism. Original member José Junior (JJ) explains: “Nothing could be left up to outside authorities … It was the beginning of a new consciousness … We are destroyed people infected by idealism. Shiva is the Goddess of destruction and transformation. We are a Shiva effect”.
Initially resourced by begging, borrowing and stealing, long-term funding from a US charitable foundation (1997) and an international record deal with Universal (2001) helped the group expand – all income being ploughed back (likewise any profits from Favela Rising itself). With thirteen programmes now in Vigario, the support of Rio city council is facilitating the spread into neighbouring favelas. However, “movement has to come from the community itself … we’d be applying our solution to their problems. If we become McDonalds, putting one everywhere, we’ve lost the essence” (founder Anderson Sà). Afro-Reggae’s integrity and inspiration in preaching unity among the favelas quickly led to immense local enthusiasm, with drug soldiers crossing over and their leaders showing respect and even tacit, if fitful, protection in the war zone: “Why [do we] take these risks? Because … our ideology won’t allow us to live passively, in comfort” (AS).
This fascinating film expertly blends edgy digital video techniques, sharp editing and pacing, and the saturated colour and energy of the Latin American new-wave – a winning formula for independent festival hype and MTV-friendly urban-style commodification, and a labour of love for US co-directors Jeff Zimbalist and Matt Mochary. Yet, despite their reservations, the narrative neglects wider grass-roots perspectives, centering on the messianic figure of Sà and his rhetoric of “respectable, hard-working” favelistas: “Now all the favelas must start to move for the first time. We must all begin to show that we are able. That we can lift our own arms. That we can raise our heads” (disclaimers notwithstanding; e.g. “What we create and destroy doesn’t end with me [JJ] or Anderson. It is passed through the generations. All life is a karmic process. Our actions will be infinite”). Sure, the film-makers couldn’t sidestep their hosts’ agendas, being completely dependent for safe passage – but the resulting deficiencies highlight the limitations of documentary activism, and positively invite recuperation by capitalism and its neoliberal state handmaidens.
In ‘Slumsploitation’ (Mute magazine, Vol. 2, No. 3, 2006 – also at www.metamute.com), Melanie Gilligan persuasively details the promotion of ‘favela chic’ in Brazil’s booming media – with populist President Lula’s culture minister Gilberto Gil (himself an internationally-renowned musician) courting foreign investment for electoral legitimacy and to shortcircuit resistance. While colonising the bootstrap entrepreneurialism of the ghettoes, the governing Workers’ Party policies also continue to starve them of infrastructure and plan intensified assaults on their security and autonomy in line with IMF/World Bank ‘structural adjustment’. Translated onscreen, the hackneyed Hollywood Manicheanism of evil drugs gangbangers versus heroic charisma celebrates talent transcending humble roots – erasing history, class, economics, oppression and collectivity. True, this may satisfy fashion-conscious better-off youth, reinforcing the desirous exoticisation which betrays their distanced complicity with the status quo. But whether assimilating or critiquing its mediated representation, Favela Rising and Gilligan both inadvertently downplay the lived significance of the street-level phenomenon to its immediate audience.
After all, Brazil’s 1960s/70s military dictatorships incarcerated thousands of leftists, whose militancy heavily inflected the rise of prison networks and drugs cartels originally as self-organised welfare and defence institutions. Similarly, even if Afro-Reggae proclaims itself “directly against the drug armies” (SA), the proliferation of gang member sympathisers suggests far more complex intercourse. The longer-run resonance of its bottom-up, practical, expressive formations simply can’t be judged from above and outside – which should already be crystal-clear from the contradictory persistence of US hip-hop despite its magpie aesthetics, get-rich-quick artists, corporate debasement, choruses of detractors, and generally dishonest co-optation into sundry elite discourses. Further, as the performances in the film demonstrate, this new genre itself draws strongly on other popular Brazilian musics (samba, capoeira, baile funk, etc) which themselves have little explicit political potential – the production of superstar egos being incidental.
As in other times and places, the shifting tectonics of culture provide incomparable food for thought and action, knitting together and/or dividing suffering populations according to specific circumstances, and circumscribing what can be achieved. Salutary examples of radical struggle often turn out to hinge on the room to manoeuvre furnished by the imaginative renewal and creative singularity of cultural patterns which are constitutionally opaque to conventional political analysis. In the present context this doubtless includes the magnificent Abahlali baseMjondolo shack dwellers’ movement in Durban, South Africa (see Richard Pithouse’s crucial ‘Thinking Resistance in the Shanty Towns’, also in Mute 2:3), or the recent insurrections in Oaxaca, Mexico, reported in Freedom. So, what will transpire in the favelas is (to understate) uncertain. But not for nothing did philosopher Slavoj Zizek suggest, in characteristically global terms (‘Knee-Deep’, London Review of Books, 26:17, 2004), that “The new forms of social awareness that emerge from slum collectives will be the germ of the future”.
Riodemption Songs, by Tom Jennings. Review of Favela Rising, published in Freedom magazine, Vol. 68, No. 3, February 2007.Riodemption Songs by Tom Jennings
Premature Ejaculations, by Tom Jennings. Music review of Hip Hop Is Dead, by Nas (2006) published in Freedom magazine, Vol. 68, No. 4, February 2007.Premature Ejaculations by Tom Jennings
[music review published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 5, March 2007]
Tom Jennings interprets Nas’ provocation that ‘Hip Hop Is Dead’ in terms of the limited liberal horizons of civil rights
Twelve years after Illmatic – his definitive new-school rap debut – the eighth Nas release declares the party over. Hip Hop Is Dead (Island Def Jam) finds the genre’s pre-eminent wordsmith continuing in the combative mood following a celebrity beef with Jay-Z (New York’s other street lyricist superstar) which energised Stillmatic (2001) through to the superb autobiographical Street’s Disciple (2004).* However, his consistent output of ghettocentric quality is persistently misperceived by subcultural elitists deaf to the effective musical marriage of hip-hop tradition and cutting-edge populism and blind to the vision’s integrity in mobilising observation and personal resonance to chronicle and critique the anguish and aspirations of the contemporary US inner-city Black poor. Now mature enough to question the evolutionary status of this profoundly influential cultural movement, Nas challenges its adherents to similarly transcend self-importance in response.
The album opens with no-nonsense potted summaries of rap’s ‘hoodrats clawing their way to fame and fortune, couched in the favoured gangsta condensation of capitalism-as-crime: “From crack-pushers to ‘lac pushers, and ambushers / And morticians to fortresses / Case-dismissers, laced in riches, caked ridiculous / From nickel-and-dimin’ to trickin’ them diamonds” (‘Money Over Bullsh*t’). The bravado segues into admitting its protagonists’ culpability for the artistic price paid: “Hip-hop been dead, we the reason it died / Wasn’t Sylvia’s fault or ‘cause MCs’ skills are lost / It’s ‘cause we can’t see ourselves as boss / Deep rooted through slavery, self hatred” (‘Carry On Tradition’); and “Heinous crimes help records sales more than creative lines / And I don’t want to keep bringing up the greater times / But I’m a dreamer, nostalgic with the state of mind” (‘Can’t Forget About You’). The title track nails it: “Everybody sound the same / Commercialized the game / Reminiscin’ when it wasn’t all business / They forgot where it started / So we all gather here for the dearly departed”.
The pivotal ‘Black Republican’ then juggles Jay-Z: “I feel like a black republican, money keep comin’ in” and Nas: “I feel like a black militant, takin’ over the government”, followed by “Can’t turn my back on the ‘hood, too much love for them / Can’t clean my act up for good, too much thug in ‘em / Probably end up back in the ‘hood; I’m, like, ‘fuck it then’.” Implicitly recognising that individual advancement neither resolves class contradictions nor fulfils hip-hop’s emancipatory potential leaves the set oscillating between honouring the Black traditions which nourish struggle and reasserting underclass self-confidence in developing agendas expressed in their terms. With intricate wordplay literate in urban provenance, Black Arts and contemporary reference, Nas echoes Rakim’s cool philosophical cadence and 2-Pac’s passionate arrogance grounded in Panther politics. Beyond their mystical paranoia, though, he senses that the project is constitutionally incapable of breaking on through – despite the muscular, sensuous beats and brooding intelligence here representing living disproof of the title. Still, Hip Hop Stalemate would hardly inspire as an alternative.
Alongside tiresomely predictable ‘I-told-you-so’ music press taste parades, insider critiques of Nas’ obituary similarly misfire in citing the rude health of southern states ‘Crunk’ – whose synthetic sonic minimalism re-energises grass-roots dance credentials yet rarely showcases lyrical craft or consciousness (ditto rave-friendly UK Grime). However, the Dirty South boasts Atlanta’s Ludacris – the genre’s greatest ever humorist – and Outkast’s sophisticated reverse-colonisation of pop, among many vital signs of hip-hop life. Major label rap poets elsewhere regroup independently under corporate radar – witness Talib Kweli’s triumphal return to fundamentals Right About Now (Koch, 2005) – while Dead Prez hope to preserve the audience gained for their outspoken radicalism (Sony’s sabotage notwithstanding) with more modest, regular and collectively-oriented niche production, promotion and distribution on the trail blazed by Paris, Public Enemy and The Coup. Whether underground or mediated, this is one hell of a hyperactive corpse.
In a Village Voice piece reproduced on the Anarchist People of Color website (www.illegalvoices.org/knowledge), Greg Tate contextualises the conundrum in assessing the political implications of hip-hop’s commercialisation over three decades. Its viral spread – first infiltrating American youth, then, crucially, via industrial dissemination abroad – decisively shifted the conditions of possibility for a global lower-class discourse on poverty and powerlessness, which can no longer simply be silenced by repression and fragmentation. On the downside, merged media’s cultural pincers commodify Black style for middle-class fashionistas while hypnotising local core communities with hyperreal fantasies of superhuman prowess to conceal the intensifying subhuman treatment meted out by the state – tactics requiring the active collusion of rap aristocrats in exchange for egos bloated with pieces of silver.
Nevertheless, such uneasy, conflicted recuperations are always inherently prone to rupture – however many times they tell us there’s no alternative. In this case the fault lines trace the troubled history of US race reform since the Second World War, with the classic liberal compromise of civil rights the palliative for a working-class generation of revolutionary Black militants framed and massacred by the government’s COINTELPRO. Before residual resistance was mopped-up in narcotic flood and economic drought, the meritocratic rhetoric of dual spiritual/worldly uplift doubtless seemed viable, but street dreams of respectability surely unravelled with Rodney King, O.J. Simpson, 9/11, New Orleans, and Iraq – voting Democrat being as inconsequential as Million Man Marches and millionaire MCs. As Tate specifies: “If enough folks from the ‘hood get rich, does that suffice for all the rest who will die tryin?” No, but a popular movement to dismantle structural dispossession and enslavement – which Nas’ poetry and hip-hop’s unifying language could significantly contribute to – has yet to re-emerge. Until then, politically speaking, it’s not dead … only sleeping.
* see my ‘Beautiful Struggles and Gangsta Blues’, Variant magazine, issue 22 (2005). Further extensive discussions of the grass-roots relevance of urban music can be found in Variant 17, 20 and 25 (also at www.variant.org.uk).
Once upon a Lynch there was a film maker who worked off energy released from an insight that beneath smooth suburban lawns there was a rich primal schizoid earth which produced strangely deformed psyches. But Lynch seems to have progressively forgotten his starting point, the lawn itself, and developed little interest in examining the necessary conditions for the development of lawn culture.Inland Empire – David Lynch – Fr – Pol –USA – 2006 Lorna Derne
Viewed Rotterdam Film Festival – 3rd Feb 2007
Like playing your collection of old records
When I told my friend Graeme Walker that I had just seen Lynch’s Inland Empire he looked at me and asked: was it like this? Graeme pumped out his cheeks and made some delicate squelching noises, produced some muted clicking sounds with his tongue and inblown squeekings with his mouth, before finally hardening his eyes turning to me and saying in a deliberate tone accentuating the second word by raising its pitch slightly: “ Who are you?” I replied Inland Empire had been something like that but much longer (three hours) and not as entertaining. In short Lynch has reached the point to which many film makers come: the cupboard is bare, they have nothing to express, just empty form to fill.
Once upon a Lynch there was a film maker who worked off energy released from an insight that beneath smooth suburban lawns there was a rich primal schizoid earth which produced strangely deformed psyches. But Lynch seems to have progressively forgotten his starting point, the lawn itself, and developed little interest in examining the necessary conditions for the development of lawn culture. His formal concerns have concentrated on simply providing visual fields for a set of psychically mutated characters to do their thing, to strut their stuff. It becomes the American Weird genre, in which everything in the film is subordinated to a demonstration of weirdness. The acting, the sets ( distorted perspective, labyrinthine channels) the cuts, the dialogue, the camera lens, the musical set pieces, each element of the film is designed to accentuate the weird. The amplification circuit of the film not working to increase tension or suspense or awareness but simply to escalate the magnitude of the weird.
In this sense Inland Empire is typical of Weird movies which usually rely on a single device or motif to drive a concatenation of events which are either weird in themselves or to which the characters have weird reactions. In Inland Empire the driver is the idea that the actors are involved in a replaying of actuality(one of the opening shots of Inland Empire is of an old 78 rpm record being played on an old turn-table). The structure of the film takes the form of an escalation of the weird events and responses leading to a final act of destruction followed by an unresolved penultimate sequence. The weakness of Inland Empire is that its only referential logic is the dynamic of escalation demanded by the form of the film. By three hours this has long run out of steam, with Lorna Derne bankrupt in the expressive department, the script dead and the camera work repetitious.
David Lynch has said that Inland Empire is a movie about time. I think that it’s a film about space, with the action cuts used to by-pass time, shifting the action from space to space, not from time to time. Inland Empire is an edited film not a film that is composed in shot or frame. And most of the edits are action cuts designed to move on the action. They don’t filmically suggest time – even if that is the director’s intent. Just because there are impossible cuts in Inland Empire, in the sense that through an edit two non adjacent spaces are linked, in themselves these suggest space not time, in particular when there is no character through whom we can experience time. We see Lorna Derne shift in space but we don’t get her take on the shift, we simply see an act of manipulation, the vacuity of a cut.
In a way Inward Empire is just a cop out. Located and invested in a world where there are no consequences and no meanings, just a world that comprises of unending unrelated sequences of weirdness. In a sense this is a tacit social comment on the satiated gorged material state of US culture, but this is a social comment about the genre – the Weird. There’s nothing in Inland Empire to suggest anything interesting such as broader social readings.
In the final sequence of the film, David Lynch plays one of his favourite records Nina Simone’s Sinnerman. As at the end of Kitano’s Zatoichi (I’m sure there are other examples but this is the most recent I could think of), Inland Empire ends with the caste and the director laying aside the outer pretence of the movie and partying. It might be that Lynch’s intention for this ending was to suggest yet another layering of time, the Russian Doll effect (which is space rather than time anyway) For me the effect of the dance party was simply to underline the emptiness of the Lynch’s filmic conceit. Nina Simone had more class and energy than anything glimpsed in Inland Empire, and her song way eclipses the film.