“the love we had (stays on my mind)” – the dells (1971)

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This week marks a whole decade since I have performed on air as a radio DJ.  A few months prior was the anniversary of my departure from college radio (because I graduated), and then eventually my involvement with a local NPR affiliate (because I moved).  Since then I have recorded vocals for various things with the community radio station I am involved with now, but I still have not returned to the board to settle back into the role of DJ.  I do want to pick that back up again, but not sure when.  Pre-COVID, I was busy with other things and I am unsure of what my priorities will be as COVID continues to play out.  However, in the meantime, I can still enjoy the music.

When I was a DJ, that is where I really developed a deep love for soul music.  On my college radio station, I hosted a weekly independent soul radio show every Sunday night from 10 pm through midnight, and I often made content and programming notes to the local NPR affiliate soul show.  It was a time of great musical exploration for me as I was able to dive deep into local and regional labels, learn about largely unknown aspects of American music, and see where more popular and notable bands of the era stole and re-appropriated aspect of Black America musical culture.

As with every self-proclaimed music aficionado, I have a large breadth of taste of interests in music.  So, depending on my mood or interests at the time, I am exploring phases.  And I thrilled to say I am back into a soul music phase.  I never gave up or lost interest in the genre, but I just needed to find the right thing to catch my interest and make me fall in love with it all over again.

A few weeks ago, Sound Opinions aired an episode featuring an interview with Aaron Cohen about his book Move on Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power about the social and stylistic diversity of Chicago soul music from the 1950s through the 1970s.  And this was exactly what I needed to get me out of the stagnation of the 2020 blues.  The conversation was engaging and I enjoyed the discussion involving the intersection of politics and social commentary within the music, as well as the brilliance of the musicality within the genre.  I heard songs from artists I had not listened to in a long time, and learned so much more about artists that were new to me.  And since then, I have been diving deep into a genre that had always brought me so much joy, validated my complex feelings love and loss, and challenged my notions about race and society.

The conversation stayed within the realms of Chicago soul which was always, admittedly, not one of areas of soul music I had been that familiar with.  Sure, I knew a few artists here and there that came out of Chicago, but nothing about their soul scene. I loved Stax and a had deep affinity for Motown girl groups, and I knew about something of the other regions that had their moments in the soul music sun such as Philadelphia.  However, I was not that very familiar with the soul scene in Chicago.  As it turns out, based on the Sound Opinions conversation, that the reason why soul music in Chicago was so diverse was because there was not any centralizing figure or label that defined the region’s sound like a Berry Gordy.

So, for the last few weeks, I have been in Chicago soul heaven.  And listening to it has been really helpful in dealing with all the trouble of this current time.  The social commentary still rings true today and even the non-political songs help me feel better by feeling and experiencing my emotions.  These feelings, which I had not experienced in a long time, are why soul music is so important; the music heals the soul.

As part of the resurgence of soul in my life, I have really been diving deep into a group I was largely unfamiliar with a decade ago when I was doing radio.  The Dells, formed in 1953 in Harvey, Illinois, actively recorded for 60 years with largely the same line-up through most of that time and were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.

On Sound Opinions, they played a clip from their 1971 single “”The Love We Had (Stays on My Mind)” from the studio album Freedom Means…  I heard this and I just had to stop because I was so transfixed by it.  And I must have listened to the song over 100 times during the following week.  It embodies so much about what I love about soul music.  The earnestness, the tight instrumentals, vocal harmonization, and vocals that just bleed one’s heart out courtesy of Mr. Chuck Barksdale.

I have heard that one of the cultural effects of COVID is that people have a hard time engaging with new things whether they be music, books, or movies.  Instead, they want things they have already experienced and know because there is no uncertainty. Perhaps that is another reason why I am rediscovering soul music.  I am pretty happy about that, but I am even more thrilled that I still discovering something so new within an old love.

“let’s go all the way” – insane clown posse (2000)

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This week was scheduled to be the 21st annual Gathering of the Juggalos before it was cancelled in April due to COVID-19. For those unfamiliar, it is an annual retreat where fans of Insane Clown Posse, known as Juggalos (or Juggalettes if you identify as female), can dress up in full regalia with their hatchet brothers and sisters and enjoy several days of music and fairground fun, whoop whooping and drinking Faygo to their heart’s delight. Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, the ringmasters of this dark carnival, have made the Gathering, for two decades, a place of inclusion for their fans and followers. A place where fans of ICP and their supported acts on Psychopathic Records can fly their clown freak flag fly and just be themselves.

For many who are familiar with or at least aware of ICP often find the Detroit-based hip-hop horrorcore duo and their legion of fans adorned in clown make-up to be a point of ridicule.  Juggalos are often stereotyped as being violent, undereducated, poor, and racist.  ICP are ridiculed for their attire and their lyrics, most notably the line in their song “Miracles” questioning how magnets work. The group has also been a target of the FBI who, in 2011, officially labeled Juggalos as a gang due to their dress code and alleged belief system based on perceived violence in ICP’s lyrics.

I know that I have personally made countless jokes about ICP over the years.  I am a music fan after all, which sometimes means I can be a bit of a music snob.  Especially, when it comes to groups that are such easy targets like ICP.  Cracking an ICP joke with other like-minded music aficionados is like shooting clownfish in a barrel of Faygo. It is just too easy and not very satisfying.

ICP were never my cup of tea.  It has nothing to do with them personally.  I just do not really care for their style of music. And as for the fans, I have no personal problems with them.  I am sure they are aware they look a bit odd, or even ridiculous, to some outsiders but I am sure they are used to that.  The fact the Gathering has lasted so long and keeps growing tells me that they are just as happy ignoring the haters and focusing on building their own community.  And I respect that.  Despite the barrages of cultural ridicule, they just keep on doing their own thing.  It even altered my outlook on ICP and their community.

When the FBI officially declared the Juggalos a gang, that was the first time I started thinking that all the hate and ridicule ICP get may have gone too far. I saw it as another iteration of the decades long argument that music can have detrimental effects on society.  In the past, it was subliminal satanic messages and pornographic lyrics that were corrupting young minds and eroding society.  Now, it was a group of people in clown make-up.  And because Juggalos were always easy targets in music, it did not seem no one gave a shit and did not see this declaration for what it really us; the completely unwarranted vilification of music. After that, I started going easy on ICP and Juggalos.

While I am not a fan of their music, ICP does have one song that I will absolutely stand behind.  Not only because I legitimately like this song, but it serves as a reflection of the Juggalo community that challenges misconceptions.  Released in 2000 as a single from their studio album Bizzar, “Let’s Go All the Way” is a proud declaration from ICP and a celebratory group anthem.

A reinterpretation of a 1985 single by the synth-pop group Sly Fox, ICP’s version of “Let’s Go All the Way” is a utopian anthem that champion inclusion and equality.  Opening the song, Violent J envisions a place where everyone has enough, and no one is jealous of each other. He continues detailing that both rich kids and poor kids are living in harmony, not restricted with where they can go, because everyone is on the same side and everyone has a hottie to chill with. And before you can suggest that the lyrics so far only indicate a place built for the male gaze, ICP touch up on issues that their Juggalo communities face everyday.  They sing about a place with no disease and where no one has to die.  A place where all life’s questions are answered.  They sing of a world with no hate. And if it all seems so overwhelming and impossible, ICP makes their message of hope and freedom even clearer by saying that this is the future they can have and making it a reality is incredibly easy.  All those who are listening must do is just follow Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, the clown-faced pied pipers.  Only this time, instead of their deaths, those following find inclusion and happiness.  There is always room for more.

For a band that is so easy to ridicule, I cannot but help but support a song that gives their community hope and promotes an inclusive atmosphere.  Certainly, that was something I had never associated with ICP before.  And I have gotten some pushback for that over the years for that.  However, it seems that in recent months that fellow music snobs are also becoming aware that ICP may not have the harbingers of ignorance and violence that they were believed to be.  I saw multiple memes and articles in humored disbelief that ICP were taking COVID more seriously than many Republicans in Congress.  And even ICP came out with merchandise that depicted a burning Confederate flag with text that read “Fuck Your Rebel Flag!” This really confused a lot of people who assumed ICP were pro-Confederate flags based on their belief that their fans were ignorant racists.  Not the case.  And after that story about the shirts, I read a lot about how ICP had been anti-racist their entire careers (while admittedly problematic in other areas despite cartoonish effects).

2020 has been a weird year if a couple of clown-faced rappers are more progressive and socially responsible that a huge swatch of our elected leaders.  But they have been doing this for a long time despite major resistance from outsiders.  While I’m a long way from putting on some make-up and chugging Faygo and whoop whooping at a dark carnival, I’ll give credit where it is due and suggest that ICP is worthy of merit and I stand behind this song.

“grim fandango” – peter mcconnell (2015)

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When the pandemic arrived and everything was closing in March and April, I was a little concerned what my time alone would be like.  Prior to everything shutting down, I have a fairly active life.  I volunteered at a couple of places, took music classes, visited friends, or went out and did things in the city. Now, like a lot of people, I would be left to my own devices.

The biggest closure that affected me the deepest was the Chicago Public Library.  I am an avid reader, but I rarely buy books as I get all my books, and even movies, from my nearest library branch. When that closed, I was concerned about not having proper distractions to keep my mind occupied.  Any unread books on my bookshelf that remained were far to dense or depressing to read during a pandemic. I picked up my copy of The Virgin Suicides, read one page, and decided this was not the best thing for me right. It even got to a point where people were mailing me books to read.

Several months later, the libraries are open.  Though, who can really say for how much longer?  When the next pandemic-induced closure happens, and it will, I will be more prepared with a bunch of light-hearted books to get me through until the libraries reopen. For an avid reader, getting caught without something to read that engages me is really tough.  So, while I was in this limbo, I reconnected with an old hobby.

Growing up, throughout my entire life all the way until graduating college, I was into video games.  I had a Super Nintendo in my early days, then a PlayStation 2 at the turn of the millennium, and then finally upgraded to the Xbox360 in college. I sometimes lived in places where there was not much to do outside, and I did not have many other hobbies or interests at those times. And towards the end of my collegiate experience when I had developed other hobbies, I was still into video games because online gaming was the way my friends and I would socialize.

Then, when I graduated and moved to Chicago after college, I was not really into video games anymore. For a couple of reasons really.  I was now in a big new city with a lot more to explore.  And I was now on my own and financially independent, just recently getting my first full-time job.  I did not have the time or money for video games and that interest just faded away.

I did play some over the years since then.  My little brothers love video games and one of their favorite things to do when I visit is play games with them.  Especially games like Super Smash Brothers, a game where you fight as Nintendo characters and so much is happening on screen and so fast that you kind of lose track what is happening.  Still, I manage to beat them more than they beat me.  These games me new, but I raised on Mario from the beginning.

Since I did not know when the next time I would see them, I decided to buy a Nintendo Switch so I could play Super Smash Brothers online.  However, it took me some time to convince my self to buy one.  This was my first new system in 14 years. I did not know how much I would play it and I did not want to spend a lot of money on a system and games.  Fortunately, my brothers mailed me some of their games so that made my decision easier.

After playing through the games they mailed me, and which saved me a lot of money, I decided to look at Nintendo’s online store and see what they had.  While there was no shortage of questionable looking games that feature anime characters that appealed to a very specific, lonely type of male gaze (thank all the deities that the pandemic had not reduced me to that), I was astonished that a lot of classic games from 20 to 30 years prior were digitally available and inexpensive.

While I had been unsure if this Nintendo Switch was a good purchase, rationalizing that I could always sell it, seeing what was available on this online store made me rethink that.  However, being a frugal person who does not spend money that freely, especially now under the conditions we are living in, I had to be absolutely sure I got something good for my buck that I wanted and would be worth the experience.  Then, I saw it. The game that was for me; “An Epic Tale of Crime & Corruption in The Land of The Dead.”

While I was a console kid all my life, I did have a soft spot for point-and-click adventure games.  Especially those developed by Lucasfilm Games before rebranding as LucasArts.  Titles like “The Secret of Monkey Island” and “The Day of the Tentacle” were absolute classic.  The artwork, the writing, the storyline, the gameplay.  All of it top tier.  However, one I had never had the opportunity to play was available for download on the Nintendo store.  One of the last great iconic adventure titles by LucasArts; “Grim Fandango.”

Released in 1998, “Grim Fandango” is a beautifully rendered 3D adventure game starring Manuel Calavera, a skeleton travel agent who works for the Department of Death in the Land of the Dead. His job is to help dearly departed souls find their way to the afterlife by issuing them tickets on whatever transport best reflects how they lived their life.  However, he only keeps getting the bad cases and is unable to meet his quotas.  When he manages to get a good case, Calavera is visited by a beautiful woman in his office who then disappears before she can be issued a ticket.  Calavera, driven by his desire to do well at his job and his desire for this woman, he sets out on an adventure that uncovers a devastating mystery surrounding the Department of Death.

Stylized as a film noir, and influenced by several prominent titles in the genre, “Grim Fandango” is an excellent, engaging, and immersive experience.   Everything about this game is astounding.  From the storyline to the voice acting and from the puzzles to the animation, it is a game that is truly a masterclass of the artistry of gaming.

The version I played was not the original title from 1998, but a remastered version from 2015.  While the static background seemingly looks untouched, animations and sound were improved and enhanced for the remastered edition.

One of the most interesting elements of the game is the music. Peter McConnell composed the music blending an orchestral score with elements of other genres such as South American folk music, jazz, bebop, swing, and big band with each genre contributing to the noir aesthetic while honoring the cultural elements within the game.  For the 2015 edition, McConnell found that the original game’s source samples sounded dated and had the score re-orchestrated fully by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

The entire soundtrack is a treat that seamlessly blends influences from various cultures including those of Russian, Celtic, Mexican, Spanish, and Indian strings culture.  And many parts of the score blend so well with their respective settings and points in the story.  There were a few pieces I was absolutely floored by and have relistened to since playing the game, but nothing beats the excitement and allure of the game’s main theme.  Simply entitled “Grim Fandango,” the main theme of the game sets the tone for an unforgettable adventure and entices the player to become a part of the mystery at hand.  A great listen on the 2015 remastered edition, the main theme did not appear on the game’s initial soundtrack. And while the original 1998 recording has its timely charm, the 2015 re-orchestration breathes new life into a game that was otherwise timeless but was just initially released when adventure games of its class were out of style.

“terraplane blues” – robert johnson (1937)

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When I moved to Chicago nine years ago, my first full-time job was working for a video oral history archive.  The goal of the organization was to capture living oral histories on video documenting the experience of historically significant African Americans from all walks of life.  It was a small organization, but there was a lot of work and responsibility.  I stayed very busy and was involved with all the steps of the oral history process at various points, from contacting potential interview subjects to planning travel and logistics for our crew and from processing the footage in our server to archiving paper documents. The experience gave me an appreciation for the process of capturing history from the well-known to the obscure.

I thought a lot about my time working there last week when I was reading Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson by Annye C. Anderson. Published from transcribed interviews conducted with Anderson in 2018 at the age of 92, Anderson is the last known living link to the legendary and mythical bluesman Robert Johnson. As a bit of a music nerd, I was familiar with the legend involving Johnson selling his soul to the Devil at the crossroads.  Obviously, that is not real and is the result of tall tales told by people who claimed they knew Johnson which would then get published in books and liner notes contributing to the mythos surrounding the King of the Delta Blues singers. And considering that he was a black man working as a musician in the South during the Great Depression, Johnson was not always in control of his own history. So, Anderson’s book becomes essential reading.

Anderson was a young girl growing up in Memphis during the 1930s with very distinct memories of Johnson.  Though not related by blood, they were still family with Anderson affectionately referred to as Baby Sis by Johnson with whom she called Brother Robert. Despite all the legends and mythology surrounding Robert Johnson, he was just Brother Robert to Anderson. A kind and generous lanky young man who brought smiles to the faces of his family and community with his music, he was not the drunken vagabond that history had painted him as from tales told by people who didn’t really know him. And if he was all that, Anderson says he never brought it home and she never saw those qualities because, in her words, Brother Robert “wasn’t in my pocket.”

The first half of the memoir features Anderson discussing her family history, life in Memphis during the 1930s, and her relationship with Brother Robert. In the second half, she tells how she learned that Brother Robert was famous and recounts the decades long battle she fought to secure royalties for Brother Robert’s family and those closest to him. Anderson says that the family experienced Brother Robert’s death twice with the second time being the endless legal battles with white men who wanted to profit off someone they did not even know. Anderson, to this day, continues to fight against the mythology of her beloved Brother Robert and denounces and disputes much of the stories attributed to him.

I really enjoyed the book.  It was rather informative, not just for providing nuance to Johnson’s history but also for providing a perspective of 1930’s Memphis that adds color and detail. However, I had a lot of thoughts stemming from my experience working in that oral history archive. Unverifiable primary sources are always difficult for me to take at face value. That being said, Anderson was very sharp and an afterword Preston Lauterbach, Anderson’s interviewer, wrote about the history of Beale Street really did help in making Anderson more credible than I think skeptics would assume. There was a comment in the book about how Johnson compartmentalized his life so while Anderson may be accurate regarding her experiences with Johnson, it is reasonable that some details from his touring life conflict with her perception. However, I do think she has more authority than most others who have discussed their experiences with him at length.

Johnson’s music was being released before anyone had even seen a photograph of him.  In 1961, during the midst of the American folk music revival, John Hammond curated the first collection of Johnson’s songs called King of the Delta Blues Singers which featured an illustration of a nameless and faceless black singer.  A follow-up called King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. II was released in 1970 with a very similar depiction.

While many musicians throughout the 1960s and 1970s were familiar with Johnson’s music, much of the general public remained unfamiliar with the mythical bluesman until the 1990 release of a two-CD set called The Complete Recordings which earned Johnson a posthumous Grammy win and would sell over a million copies.  The genesis for this CD set was during the mid-1970s when multiple white men, claiming to be authors or music historians, reached out to people who claimed they knew Johnson and followed the path until they found his blood relative Sister Carrie.  A few of these men were racing eachother to secure biographical information from Sister Carrie, including photographs, in order to be the first one to publish a biography.  Through manipulation by these men and their lawyers, Johnson’s family gave away valuable ephemera and signed away their rights to own Johnson’s music. As a result, Johnson’s family never received the royalties to Johnson’s music that was owed to them.

Anderson’s book is a remarkable and poignant living oral history published to set the story straight about Johnson, or at least add some nuance his history. Prior to publishing, the book made headlines for featuring only the third verified photo of Johnson. In the book, Anderson tells an anecdote about the first time she heard Brother Robert on an album. Johnson had already died, but Anderson was told that he a record out. So, she went and bought it and said the record sounded exactly like how Brother Robert would play when he was visiting.

Recorded in San Antonio, Texas on November 23rd, 1936, “Terraplane Blues” would be released by the Vocalion record label as a regional 78 record during March 1937. Johnson’s first single, “Terraplane Blues” used the Terraplane car model as a metaphor for sex with Johnson dismayed that the car will not start because he believes another man has been allowed by Johnson’s girlfriend to drive it.  The original Vocalion 78 record would only sell 5000 copies during its initial run, but next appear on John Hammond’s 1961 release King of the Delta Blues Singers while the existence and legend of Johnson was just considered a rumor in the folk and blues music circles.

The story Anderson tells about Brother Robert’s music being stolen and profited from by white men is not a new story. History has a funny way of affecting our perceptions of time.  We often still feel the reverberations of events and periods that many dismiss as being products of a bygone era, but still manage to influence thing in the here and now.  Johnson died in 1938, but even folk and blues musicians in the 1950s and 1960s still thought of him only as legend and a rumor. In 2020, Johnson feels like ancient history but there is still someone alive who has vivid memories of him. The struggles of black Americans are not ancient history. It is still happening today, and I find myself inspired by and grateful for people like Anderson who, no matter at what age, still feel compelled to share their voice.

 

“il buono, il cattivo, il brutto (titoli)” – ennio morricone (1966)

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Last week, Ennio Morricone died at the age of 91.  A prolific composer, Morricone composed the score for over 400 television programs and films. With a multifaceted approach to crafting his compositions, Morricone’s style was versatile without losing any of his signature qualities.  As both a music and film buff, a Morricone score was always a great treat for me when watching a film and there are many musicians, in various genres, that I adore who have been influenced by one of cinema’s greatest composers.  His passing is certainly impactful.

I have a lot of friends and colleagues who are heavily interested in film, both professionally and personally. It has been really nice to read their thoughts online about the impact Morricone has had on their lives.  Whether a discussion on his greatest scores or thoughtful analysis on the impact of his craft, I am so thrilled to see such excitement over a legendary figure who will be very much missed.

For this blog entry, I debated on how I wanted to discuss the life and legacy on Morricone and his impact on me.  Perhaps even thoughts on my favorite film score, on its own or in relation to a specific scene.  Though, I could not figure out what to say. However, I did think of something.

March 2019, I went on a solo hiking trip through several national parks in the American Southwest. In the early afternoon, I was barreling though the Mojave National Preserve on my way to Joshua Tree National Park.  My iPhone was connected to the rental car’s stereo dock and I was playing the soundtrack to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, or Il Buono, Il Cattivo, Il Brutto in director Sergio Leone’s native tongue.  The main title sequence is truly iconic, and it was the perfect score for the movie playing in my mind as I passed through a tranquil desert landscape onto my next adventure.

 

“walking in the snow” – run the jewels (2020)

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When it comes to new music, I tend to lag behind most of the time. It takes a while for new music to appear on my radar, or I will often wait out super popular things until the noise dwindles and I can engage objectively, There’s a few reasons for this.  For one, I am busy with a lot of different pulling my attention.  Also, I have my listening habits and life under quarantine really compels me to gravitate to things that are familiar and already enjoy. And when I do discovers new music, it is usually older music that is new to me for the simple reason that there is more of it.  There is more content being made now more than ever, and it is just impossible to keep up with all it.

Admittedly, there are some real gems being made in music today.  And while I hope that I will not miss them entirely, I know that great contemporary work will get my attention sooner or later.  However, there are times when I experience something truly great the moment it is released.

While the music industry has been disrupted because of COVID-19, and is learning to adapt and change, it has not stopped the flow of excellent, thought-provoking music.  Music that is so prescient that it feels like the songs were written the day you first listened.  I really enjoy music that is thoughtful and is recorded swiftly to address key social and civil issue, not wasting time but rather coming in during the heat of the moment to make a stand.  For these reasons, Run the Jewels’ latest album RTJ4 is my favorite album for the first half of 2020.

Prior to RTJ4, I had never listened to a single Run the Jewels album and could not name a single song.  I knew they were popular and made socially conscious music. Also, despite not knowing his music, I was aware of Killer Mike due to seeing him speak on multiple news programs and I admired his passion and activim.  However, due to all the reasons outlined earlier, I never sought out the music.

When RTJ4 was released on June 3rd, it made headlines for releasing two days early.  The realease was accompanied by this note:

Fuck it, why wait. The world is infested with bullshit so here’s something raw to listen to while you deal with it all. We hope it brings you some joy. Stay safe and hopeful out there and thank you for giving 2 friends the chance to be heard and do what they love. With sincere love and gratitude, Jaime + Mike.

The world was already on edge for nearly three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands, and knees, of four Minneapolis polie officers was too much.  People were furious and took to the streets to condemn America’s unresolved racial injustice issues. For all these reasons, I listened to the album the day it came out.  And not just once, multiple times and it has been in heavy rotation for me since.

I was shocked and move by the album’s lyrics condemin police violence and shining a light on American hypocrisy and the country’s widening divide.  There are landmark songs and albums in music history that address key events not long after they take place, but RTJ4 was different.  The album did not address a specific event and provide a response to it.  It addressed the the entirety of the systemic issues of racial injustice and police brutality that had happened, were still happening, and would continue to happen, and using language that was not flowey but rather conveyed all the rage people were feeling in the streets and on social media.

I was stunned when I was listening to “Walking in the Snow” because of the following lyrics:

And everyday on evening news they feed you fear for free

And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me

And ’til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe”

“Walking in the Snow” was written and recorded prior to the death of George Floyd, but it also sounded like a response as well.  And Killer Mike continues rapping:

And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV

The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy

But truly the travesty, you’ve been robbed of your empathy

Replaced it with apathy, I wish I could magically

Fast forward the future so then you can face it

And see how fucked up it’ll be

I promise I’m honest, they coming for you

The day after they comin’ for me

This respons struck me considering the protests that were happening in cities all over the country, and even the world, condemning systemic racism and abuse within law enforcement.  While many were taking to the streets and elevating Black stories on social media, there are those who just virtue signal online engaging or changing problematic behavior. And it was startling to hear Killer Mike call this out.  While I had marched and done what I could to be a better ally, hearing someone rap about inaction online really made me think.  Even if I was not even the type of person he was addressing, the words were moving and made me reevlaute myself and my actions, thinking how I can do better.

What makes this whole album powerful is just how direct it is about a larger systemic issue that needs a radical overhaul, pointing out that nothing has really changed.  Killer Mike’s use of “I can’t breathe” is like a reference to Eric Garner, but hearing George Flloyd say that a week prior you hear and you hear a whole new layer in the fury of Killer Mike’s delivery.

Having listened to the album a bunch, there are better songs on the album than “Walking in the Snow.”  However, it stands out to me as the first song where I really became tuned into what Run the Jewels was saying and incredible relevancy of their words.  A remarkable, fire-charged album all around and my pick for the best album of the year so far.

“(don’t worry) if there’s a hell below, we’re all going to go” – curtis mayfield (1970)

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Last month, when protestors took to the streets to march in solidarity for Black Lives Matter and demanding that local governments shrink police budgets, I was admittedly conflicted and dealing with personal guilt.  Not because of message of the protests.  I have stood firmly with that and will continue to do so.  Instead, I was nervous because of COVID-19.

On the evening of the first protests in Chicago, the night when the Emergency Alert System texts first went out enforcing a curfew, I was feeling conflicted. I scrolled through my social media feeds, looking at photos and watching videos of friends who had protested or who were sharing protest content from around the country. I wanted to be out there standing in solidarity elevating black voices and marching, but I was concerned about catching COVID-19 from being in a large group after spending months socially distancing.  Of course, I had seen posts online highlighting ways to show support for the message behind the protests from the safety of quarantine.  However, it did not feel the same.

Eventually, not long after, I did join my first protest.  Although, it was purely by chance.  I went for a walk after work through Uptown because I had heard businesses in the area were boarding up to discourage looting and vandalism.  Uptown is not far from me, but I had not walked through the area in a while. Instead I had been staying in my own neighborhood for afternoon walks.

I was making my way through Uptown in the direction of Boystown when I found myself facing the front of a protest that was making its way where I had just come from.  I later heard that a protest had been planned for this area, but it was such a surprise at the time.  I stood on the sidewalk, letting the people march through, and cheered from the sidelines.  Eventually, after working up the courage regarding my fears of catching COVID-19, I marched with them doing my best to socially distance.

During the whole time, I was anxious.  I could not hear the speakers well, so I moved towards the outskirts and observed.  I watched police silently observe the protests, various activists passionately and emotionally engaging with officers, people walking around handling supplies, and others who were their own part of this living, breathing community organism. It was fascinating to observe, and I found myself more at ease with thing. After the speeches, the protests moved to Lake Shore Drive where it ended peacefully and people dispersed.  I found myself walking a mile north on the southbound lanes of Lake Shore Drive feeling good about myself, and a bit thrilled that I was walking on Chicago’s signature coastal expressway with no cars in sight. While that was my first protest since the murder of George Floyd, it was not my last and I have joined others intentionally.  Albeit, with COVID-19 still a considerable concern.

Though, with all the new data tracking the rise in the number of COVID-19 cases, it has been determined by experts and various health organizations that the protests did not contribute to the overall rise in cases.  Specifically, because protestors were largely masked and were marching outdoors.  Instead, the data shows that the drivers for the rise in cases is due to groups gatherings indoors, not wearing masks, and not socially distancing.  All factors that have stemmed from prematurely reopening businesses with few to no restrictions. Looking at the data, we have just as many new cases in mid-June as we did in March and we have seen the record for new cases recorded in a single day broken for five consecutive days. We have seemingly made no progress and despite everything we have experienced as a society, a lot of people do not seem to care.

As a result of this, states that had essentially reopened are now closing again as new reports come in tracking the rise in cases. States currently going through this issue have been largely conservative states like Texas and Florida.  However, I wonder when Illinois will be the next to tighten restrictions again.  Living in Chicago, there are restaurants with patio seating everywhere and, as we enter the fourth phase of the state’s five-phase plan, more businesses like movie theaters are slowly reopening.  All this makes me extremely uncomfortable for I have no plans to dine in restaurants or go to the cinema until I am confident COVID-19 is on its way out. However, it appears many Americans are not willing to sacrifice convenience and entertainment for a few months to ensure we all collectively get out of this alive and together.

Though the news media coverage has been recently focused on the rise of COVID-19 cases, protestors are still marching for racial justice and defunding police.  And I know they will continue to do so because we are actively witnessing a contemporary reflection of America’s inherent dichotomy. While unarmed black people are getting murdered by police, white people are throwing tantrums because they must wear a mask in Trader Joe’s or cannot get shredded cheese for their restaurant fajitas. While the mainstream news media shifts airtime away from the protests, I am still confident in the movement’s drive and passion.

This imbalance, where on one side people are fighting for the right not to be murdered and the other is demanding a haircut, has me thinking a lot about classic Curtis Mayfield song “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go.”  Released in 1970 to support his debut album Curtis, Mayfield’s first single as a solo-credited musician is a powerful declaration about racial injustice in America and the growing furor over it in America cities. Looking at the news 50 years after the song’s release, there is still that civil and social unrest over racial injustice in American cities.  And it seems those who do not care, the ones demanding for their right to brunch, largely reside in rural or suburban areas.  Two separate Americas with two sperate visions.

In the song, Mayfield sings about inaction as people pray for things to improve but who lay down when it is time to act.  While the original context of the song specifically refers to racial matters, I cannot help but think about those who talk about COVID-19 as if it is something that cannot be stopped.  Those who do not think about how their own selfish behavior has contributed to ongoing COVID-19 crisis, but instead attempt to find a scapegoat in the protestors they vilify.  The ones who are actually actively doing something to make the world a better place while also not driving the worsening the pandemic.

The people who do not care about COVID-19 or racial injustice take their direction from Trump.  The president is actively hindering the COVID-19 response because of the impact it is having on his reelection campaign.  He is moving to cease federal funding for testing, eliminate the federal unemployment bonus, and encouraging governors to open their state to boost the economy.  In the song, Mayfield chastises then President Richard Nixon quoting him saying “don’t worry” as a response to concerns about polluted water and lack of essential education.  That was 1970.  Now, in 2020, instead of “don’t worry,” it is Trump saying, “slow the testing down.”  Everything old is new again and history repeats itself. And unless we change things, we are all going to burn together.

“enemy” – charli xcx (2020)

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Do not be fooled by all the happy faces enjoying cocktails and brunch on restaurant patios across the country.  COVID is still here and all the discussion about a second infection wave coming is moot because we have not even exited the first wave. While food and restaurant lobbyists have succeeded and excelled in convincing local and state politicians to allow dining facilities to open, many industries continue to stay closed.  And they remain closed because this pandemic is far from over.

I get it.  I understand. People have to go back to work and live their lives.  Summer is now in full swing in Chicago and one of the best ways to spend it is by hanging out with friends during patio season.  With the long winters, Chicago can be pretty miserable most of the year. So, with what few weeks of nice summer weather we do get, I can empathize with people not wanting to let go of patio soon. However, we just must temporarily let it go.

I am coming to terms with this summer being a lost one.  I am not doing anything, and I am not going anywhere. And this really hit me this past weekend when we had a mini heat wave roll through.  The sun was out and the temperature was high, both great things that signal that summer has arrived in Chicago.  However, there are no street and music festivals.  Dining on a patio seems way too risky. And do not even get me started about going to a bar and enjoying the simple pleasure of a pint. I work from home all day and the last thing I want to do is stay inside, but where can I really go? I walk around my neighborhood every day already. Without a destination, it all just kind of blends together. I really just want to go to bed and wake up in some time during September.

While the restaurant and bar industries are trying to adapt to new protocols as they open, other industries are struggling to assess challenges that come with not being able to open as soon. Especially music venues.  Some venues are exploring procedures and protocols to enforce social distancing while maintaining attendee caps.  Others, unable or unwilling to open before a vaccine is manufactured, are attempting to understand to scope and appeal of virtual events in order to stay afloat.  Not even four months into the pandemic and so much has changed.  And you have to roll with the changes the best you can.

Musicians who would otherwise fill these venues are experiencing their own challenges.  For one, much of an artist’s revenue comes from touring.  Without the opportunity to perform in a public space, many artists are turning towards virtual spaces. They create an opportunity for existing fans to engage with their music while also using the virtual space as a platform to discuss their thoughts and ideas to even work on and text new material.  As a result, we are about to experience a wave of music inspired and influenced by the pandemic.

When it comes to using music to deal with trauma, what happens for a while is that we engage with something familiar and apply new meaning to an existing piece of music already special us. We do this because we seek out something that has soothed us before and we call upon it to soothe us again in this new context.  However, that is fine up to a point and then we need something new.  And when dealing with trauma, a new piece of art that empathizes with our feelings that we can connect to is an important part of healing.  As musicians are figuring out how to traverse the COVID landscape, the journey influences their art.

Charli XCX released her third studio album Charli during September 2019. I am not sure when Charli XCX intended to release a follow-up album, but COVID sure sped up that process for her when she announced over a public Zoom call on April 6th, 2020 that she would be working on a new album in her home studio during self-isolation.  Within three days of the announcement, the first single entitled “Forever” was released followed by two additional singles over the next month. Roughly five weeks after the initial announcement, Charli XCX’s follow-up album How I’m Feeling Now was released a week after completion.

Though How I’m Feeling Now received critical acclaim, some critics noted that the album felt closer in style to her 2017 mixtapes.  Frankly, I do not see that as a bad thing.  Living with this pandemic, others and myself have noticed that the music we tend to listen to are the kinds we already have bonds with.  Music that is already familiar. So, it seems like it would make sense to me that recording an album under self-isolation would be an exercise at dealing with trauma by embracing the familiar.

How I’m Feeling Now is a fun album even if it may sound like earlier work.  But, that is ok.  Fun music is what I want right now.  “Enemy” is a signature track that I love and tells me that Charli has a lot more creativity to tap once the pandemic truly subsides.  And even if other artists are not making as innovative music as they would under normal circumstances, that is fine.  We are all trying to do our best and live our lives and I appreciate hearing new music from great contemporary artists.  Even if it is just to let their fans know how they’re feeling now.

“everybody needs somebody to love” – the blues brothers (1980)

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This week marks the 40th anniversary of the release of The Blues Brothers, the 1980 musical comedy classic directed by John Landis and starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. Based on and developed from a reoccurring sketch from Saturday Night Live, Aykroyd’s and Belushi’s soul revivalist blood brother duo would become two of the show’s most iconic characters before cementing their legacy on the big screen.  A star-studded affair featuring several legends from the world of R&B, soul, and blues, as well as an impressive roster of guest actors, The Blues Brothers was an anticipated failure before becoming a cult classic.  With still quotable hilarious one-liners, toe-tapping musical numbers, and zany stunts, The Blue Brothers has earned its place as one of the best comedies ever made.

The concept of the Blues Brothers had originated in 1976 with the duo’s first sketch on Saturday Night Live. After tapings of the show, cast and crew member would go to the Holland Tunnel Blues bard, a watering hole that Aykroyd had rented out soon after joining the show’s cast. There, Aykroyd would introduce Belushi to the blues, first starting with playing songs from the jukebox to eventually singing lead for local blues bands. Drawing from the model of one of Aykroyd’s earliest blues bands from Toronto, Aykroyd and Belushi, with the help of Paul Shaffer, started assembling their own band from a collection of studio and side musicians, focusing on incorporating jazz and rock elements to their blues and soul foundation.

The development of the band, with such a strong focus on building musicianship, is why the Blues Brothers worked so well as both an actual group and comedic concept.  This idea of approaching music with such sincerity and seriousness, then mastering the craft in such a way that their credibility as fully realized musicians would elevate the comedic narrative of the film’s narrative.  The respect for the music is what really makes this movie great and shines above other entries in the musical comedy genre. Without such a respectful and disciplined approach in crafting the band and its sound, so many qualities of The Blues Brothers would fall short or perhaps not even exist.  A blues group just cobbled together with Aykroyd and Belushi jumping into play the leads would likely have made key scenes, ones such as any of the cameos by artists like Ray Charles or Aretha Franklin or even the big musical finale, really would have missed the mark.  Without the passion and admiration for the music, the other qualities of the film such as the stunts or writing would have really fallen flat. It would not be a good movie and, without the dedication to the music, likely would not have been made.  Which would have been a huge disservice to comedy and popular culture because The Blues Brothers is brilliant.

It certainly left an impression on me.  Not only is it an incredibly funny movie with humor and music that strongly influenced me, but it may have had some hand at guiding my decision to move to Chicago a decade ago.  While The Blues Brothers is not subtle about its Chicago setting, it was one several notable comedies from the 80s that were set or shot in or around Chicago.  This was a decade that brought us comedy classics such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Adventures in Babysitting, Uncle Buck, Running Scared, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and Home Alone (though that last one was released in 1990). These were all films I had seen growing up and it seemed like every comedy from that era seemed to come out of Chicago, which I am sure had some sort of mental imprinting.

Prior to the film, Aykroyd and Belushi released their studio debut as the Blue Brothers in 1978 with Briefcase Full of Blues.  The album went double platinum in the United States, hitting number one on the Billboard 200 and spawning two top 40 singles.  Despite selling twice as well as The Blue Brothers: Original Soundtrack Recording, the 1980 soundtrack companion to the film, what we still love from the Blue Brothers and their most memorable moments come from the film.  Especially the musical numbers during the scene at the Palace Hotel Ballroom north of Chicago where the band is promoting their star-studded benefit concert.  While not the best musical moment from the film, the Blues Brothers’ rendition of “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” stands out as one of the most iconic performances with the duo performing the leads. A truly joyous and memorable scene from one of the greatest comedies to come out of the Windy City, Illinois Nazis be damned.

“bootlicker (burn baby burn)” – mr. muthafuckin’ exquire (2020)

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This past week, I attended two protests in Chicago to show my solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter.  Admittedly, I was a bit nervous each time. For two reasons. Firstly, given that we are still experiencing a pandemic with the threat of a second wave looming, I was concerned about being surrounded by people during a demonstration where thousands would attend. Since Chicago had entered quarantine procedures in March, I had very dutifully been following social distancing practices.  Going to a protest would have put me at risk and I was concerned about that.

The second reason was that I was unsure of what would happen.  A few days prior to the first protest I attended, I had seen reports, videos, and images of violence, not just in Chicago, but in cities all around the nation.  My news and social media feeds were flooded with GIFs and video clips of protesters being violently abused and brutalized by police.  Sometimes I would voluntarily watch a clip, but I also could not escape them even if I had tried because an atrocity would always come up on my phone every time I looked at it.  I did not want to be beaten for no reason.  However, both protests, at the time that I went, were peaceful.  (I am clarifying that I am not condemning protestors rioting and I fully support that expression of outrage as a response to systemic oppression. I am just expressing that I do not want to be treated violently for protesting, and I believe that is a valid concern given the onslaught of media depicting violence against protestors by police).

The public’s frustration with the murder of unarmed black people is nothing new. The murders of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, and so many others were not long ago.  And I remember the public outpouring of rage and grief when those atrocities happened.  However, with the murder of George Floyd, these protests and demonstration feel different.  They are picking up steam as more and more people are waking up to the very real problem of police brutality.  Seeing reports of city and state government leaders denounce the actions of their overfunded and underperforming police forces gives me hope that we will see real change.

Last year, I read Angela Davis’ book Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement which features a collection of essays and speeches by Davis condemning the militarization of police forces and advocating for the abolishment of prisons.  It was an eye opening read because these were such radical concepts.  I had been aware of the racial disparities that existed when it came to police and prisons.  However, prior to reading the book, I would have said that reform was the answer.  That book really changed my outlook and it is so wonderful to see those concepts grow, take shape, and drive the messaging of the current protests with calls to defund and demilitarize the police.

Since Floyd’s murder two weeks ago, things are moving so fast. The cops involved with his murder are going through the justice system (where they will hopefully be convicted), people are seeing their leaders advocate for real change, and artists are motivated to express themselves with tribute and protest songs that capture the essence and spirit of these turbulent times.  And the new song by Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire is one of the latest to stand out.

“Bootlicker (Burn Baby Burn)” was released on June 4th with eXquire being one of several artists to protest the murder of George Floyd by releasing new music with all proceeds fighting against police brutality and systemic racism.  For this song, eXquire is donating all proceeds to benefit The Bail Project, an organization that provides bail assistance for protesters who have been arrested and cannot afford bail.

“Bootlicker (Burn Baby Burn)” is a powerful condemnation against racist cops and the leaders that keep them empowered. And eXquire pulls no punches when saying that the Ku Klux Klan underwent a public relations makeover with the white robes exchanged for black judicial robes or a police badge.  Listening to the song, you hear references to all the unarmed black men, women, and children who were murdered by police and that our legal system is designed to pit black people against each other.

The video is also striking as well as it features violence against black people by police and other black people.  Compiling all this footage makes an incredible visual statement that adds power and significance to eXquire’s lyrics.  And if the video was not enough for you to understand eXquire’s message, just take a look at the absolutely powerful statement being made by the single’s artwork featuring a pig, dressed like a cop, also wearing a KKK hood stylized to resemble Trump’s infamous MAGA hat.

There is no gray area when addressing police brutality and systemic racism. All the violent clips on social media and artistic statements by musicians like eXquire are bold and direct, as they should be. It is difficult to look in the mirror and address areas where we have been problematic.  Especially collectively as a nation.  However, things look ugly because we have been ugly as a society and art becomes a reflection of that.  “Bootlicker (Burn Baby Burn)” is a stunning statement about a movement that is actively happening, and I am thankful for it and for all the people marching in the streets.  I am tired of the ugliness, but I am all for America continuing to look at its ugly self in the mirror until things change.