“why? (am i treated so bad)” – the staples singers (1965)

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Last week, members of the Trump administration and various lawmakers met to strike a deal concerning the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy.  DACA allows those who had entered the United States as minors to apply for a two-year deferred action period exempt from deportation and be permitted to get a work permit.  DACA had been put into effect in 2012 during his administration, but was rescinded by the Trump administration in September 2017.  However, a grace period of six months was granted in order to figure out how to deal with the 800,000 individuals affected by the policy change.  The meetings last week align with that grace period

Social media and major media news outlets went into a firestorm when it was reported that Trump referred to immigrants from Haiti and Africa as being from “shithole countries.”  A spokesman for the Trump administration did not deny Trump’s comments, but were later confirmed by the U.S. Senator from Illinois Dick Durbin.  Trump has since denied this comment was made has claimed he is both not a racist person or the least racist person anyone can know.

Paying attention to the news reports and social media feedback on Trump’s latest blunder in a long line of national embarrassments leaves me astounded and wondering if things could any worse.  In short, they can, and I don’t know why I even asked the question.  This new low in presidential decorum has steered this country into a strange and peculiar direction.  I never thought I would ever see national news reports using the word “shithole” so forwardly.

Causal swearing made common on television is not the worst aspect of this latest Trump scandal.  It is the fact that it has now become so apparent that American policy is being driven by a racist agenda.  Prior to this, it was no secret that Trump was a racist.  Even before stepping into the public and political arenas, the specter of racism has followed him throughout his career.  When renting or selling properties through Trump, people of color received a special code on their application that indicated their non-white status which impacted their ability to acquire property or reside in a Trump owned property.  That detail has stood the test of time in illustrating that Trump’s racial prejudices has been long-term.  I could keep going and elaborate on dozens of racist quips or anecdotes Trump has made over topics like the Central Park Five, David Duke, or Colin Kaepernick, but I just don’t have the time.   Plus, the fallout from the “shithole countries” controversy potentially has the biggest impact.

The news media, when reporting on Trump over the years, has always skirted the issue on his racism.  Historically, they suggest that Trump “made racist remarks” or “bigoted statements.”  The issue isn’t that those claims are not true, but they miss the bigger picture.  They are passive statements that don’t say directly that Trump is a racist person.  On the campaign trail when he called Mexicans rapists, those comments were racist as opposed to the candidate being racist.  Whether it was some professional courtesy or ethics issues I am not fully aware of or understand, the journalists driving the national dialogue in our media wouldn’t just call the situation out for what it was.

Since the “shithole comments” were made, journalists and reporters are now making the distinction.  Instead of suggesting that Trump made “racist comments,” they are now truthfully asserting that Trump is racist.  That’s great we’re now crossing that line in honest report, but it also seems a bit too little and a lot too late.  Trump is almost done with his first year as president and he has, on several occasions, shown his true colors as a racist.  He has had one full year to use racism to influence his global and international policies.  If we got to “shithole countries” before the first anniversary, imagine what is going to happen in years two, three, and four (hopefully not more beyond that).

All this happened the weekend before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day where we celebrate the life and legacy of one of the greatest civil rights leaders.  Dr. King was shot 50 years ago this April.  He preached a form of non-violent protest.  He was the voice of a generation and a movement that sought equality for a marginalized people.  So much can be said about this man that I know I couldn’t do him justice.  However, he is a hero and a symbol for hope.

Over the weekend prior to the national holiday celebrating Dr. King, Trump made statements that he wasn’t a racist and attacked Durbin how confirming his racist remarks in the DACA meeting.  Trump suggests he isn’t racist and that he is the least racist person you’ll ever interview or meet.  Funny thing, Don.  Racist people don’t have to go out of their way to prove they are not racist.

It was troubling to see all this just days away from Dr. King’s holiday and then see his message and image coopted by those who actively oppress people of color, women, and LGBT with their policies.  Vice President held a ceremony at the Dr. King monument in Washington, D.C.  Speaker Ryan posted a photo of him staring in awe of a bust of Dr. King.  I don’t know what Trump did, if anything, and I don’t care.  They are all racist men who take active measures to apply their racism in official policy.  The audacity of Pence to praise Dr. King’s message at the foot of his monument when he left a football game just months before when players took a knew during the national anthem is unfathomable.  Hypocrisy at its most blatant.

In the media yesterday, I kept seeing articles and editorials where white supremacists and nationalists were coopting Dr. King’s image and message to prove their racist points against activists like Colin Kaepernick.  Admittedly, I didn’t read any of them.  I just couldn’t bring myself to delve into that bullshit.  The country is still scrambling to resolve the “shithole countries” issue.  I didn’t have the energy to read some bullshit point from bullshit people for bullshit reasons.

Over the summer, I visited Washington, D.C.  While I was there, I made sure to visit Dr. King’s memorial.  I was in awe of the size and power of the display.  King’s sturdy and resilient image coming out of the rock sent shivers down my spine.  I know that I am a white man who has benefitted from our racist society, but I am still moved and emboldened by Dr. King’s message.  Especially during a time with such a racist administration.  I know that I am not the one affected by their racist policies, but I can stand up against them.  Motivated by Dr. King, I can choose to not remain silent.

Roebuck “Pops” Staples wrote “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)” in response to the Little Rock Nine protests.  In 1957, nine black students attempted attend the segregated Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas.  Three years prior, the United States Supreme Court declared that school segregation was unconstitutional.  Angry protestors and armed members of the Arkansas National Guard stood in the way of their students trying to enter the school.  President Eisenhower sent federal troops to escort the students into the high school three weeks later.

The Staples Singers recorded “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)” in 1965.  According to Greg Kot’s book “I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the Music That Shaped the Civil Rights Era,” the song became a personal favorite of Dr. King’s.  Dr. King would always request Pops to have the song performed when the Staples Singers were singing at any of the civil rights rallies organized by Dr. King.  The song asks why the singer is treated so bad despite having done nothing wrong.  The message is clear, concise, and simple and it served as an effective anthem for the civil rights movements.

I read Kot’s book on the Staples Singers a few months ago.  In December, I got to see Kot interview Mavis Staples, one of Pops’ daughters, about her life and career.  She talked about Dr. King and providing a soundtrack for the civil rights moment which was a big part of Kot’s book.  However, Mavis drew the experience and lessons from the 60s to the contemporary issues we are facing today with the recent rise in white supremacy.  She said she may not be the one to provide a musical outlet to express rage, frustration, and determination in these times, but she championed the artists of today like Chance the Rapper who continue the legacy of fighting for civil rights.

As the blowback from Trump’s “shithole countries” comment continues, it is hard to see where his racism will go from here.  His supporters have been emboldened by his statements and determined to push a white supremacist agenda.  Not only that, but the behavior continues to be normalized.  This wasn’t just one mistake.  It’s another racist comment in a long line of racist comments, but it won’t be the last.  Trump is changing the game on what the nation can claim is presidential.  And his supporters love it.  It makes them energized and they thrive on the chaos and madness.  Saying that people from Africa come from “shithole countries” may be shocking now, but it might become the norm when Trump has the potential to say and do even worse things using the platform the presidency provides.

I am glad that people are angry.  However, I am trying not believe that the anger expressed will only exist in the short-term and be forgotten when something even worse comes along thus normalizing the previous offense.  This weekend will mark one year of Trump.  We’ve got three more.  And until that man is removed from the office, we must fight for this country and for those treated so bad.

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“der fuehrer’s face” – spike jones and his city slickers (1942)

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Donald Trump has always had a tenuous relationship with the media.  For over 30 years, he has played it to his advantage while also lambasting it for any criticisms declared against him.  The media has fueled his persona, image, and fortune.  He uses it as a tool to make himself seem larger than life and that’s why this country could never seem to get rid of Trump.

Trump’s assault on the media has only escalated.  After announcing his candidacy in June 2015, he would make broad statements criticizing the media and press for false reporting and conspiring to sabotage his campaigns.  None of this is true.  However, facts mean nothing to his support base who see journalists and reporters as enemies of the state.

Since becoming President, Trump has only exacerbated his relationship with the media.  However, now serving as the Commander in Chief, he toes the line of being a despot when he openly condemns the press on Twitter or in speeches.  There are dozens of leaders in history who have had difficult and antagonistic relationships with the press.  Some were even American presidents.  However, things tended to work out and the freedom of the press remained intact as one of this country’s most sacred principles.

However, the freedom of the press seems be at risk now more than ever.  Trump has successfully vilified the media being the harbingers of destruction to the values his supporters hold dear.  He actively makes statements that are unconstitutional in that they encourage the freedom of the press be dismantled or ignored so they he can pursue his own motives unchecked and unreported.  Censorship is his main directive to further fool his supporters and blind the rest of the country to his treasonous and dangerous activities in the Oval Office.

Michael Wolff’s new book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House generated an unprecedented amount of buzz in the news last week.  Wolff, a columnist and contributor to USA Today and The Hollywood Reporter¸ published this book with comments and insight from White House insiders such as Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon.  Comments Bannon and others made in the book were leaked in early reports prior to the book’s publishing date.

Trump became furious with the comments and discredited them along with calling Bannon names and claiming his position in the administration was less significant than it actually was.  He also threatened to sue Wolff if he published the book.  Using Twitter, Trump was able to condemn Wolff and do so in a way that directly connected to his supporters.  The major news outlets carried the story and made the book’s release such a national sensation that it was published four days early and sold out during special midnight releases at various retailers.

Needless to say, within one week, this book became huge and will likely make Wolff a millionaire.  There are dozens of books on Trump’s administration and Wolff’s contribution would’ve been an interesting footnote if it hadn’t been for Trump’s reaction.  He certainly made the situation worse for himself and elevated Wolff’s cultural capital.  Trump, as usual, claimed the book was filled with lies and attacked Wolff’s credibility directly over social media.  By even threatening to sue Wolff, it clearly demonstrates that Trump has no respect for the First Amendment and its protections for free speech and the press.

I currently have a copy of Wolff’s book on hold through the library and I have friends who bought a copy and a currently reading it.  I’ll have it read within the next few weeks, but I have been following the sensationalist news reports and social media posts that have followed the book’s release.  Prior to the buzz, I probably would’ve ignored the book because I didn’t know much about Wolff or even deemed him as a credible source.  Now, with the buzz, I’m curious.

How much this book blew up was indeed unprecedented and I think the reason why is fairly simple.  Keep in mind I haven’t read it so I’m trying to reserve judgment or skepticism, but it does seem that book offers a fair share of confirmation bias for those who believe Trump is unfit to be president.  Wolff, as of when this blog was published, hasn’t been transparent as journalists should be.  He also confirmed that the comments told to him have been unconfirmed, so those statements would be conjecture at this point.  I struggle to refer to anyone who doesn’t verify their sources as a journalist.  However, people are so desperate that they’ll cling on to any semblance of hope that their fears about Trump will be confirmed and that Washington will see the light and remove him from office.

Hope is a good thing to have.  However, you also should be realistic.  For most of this country, we already know Trump is a lunatic and unfit to hold office.  In that regard, Wolff’s book just confirms what we already know.  However, the appeal and lure that a Trump administration insider has some juicy gossip is what really sells this book.  I haven’t read it yet, so I don’t know.  However, I still can question Wolff for his decision to release an unverified book as journalism.  We’re all desperate to oust Trump as soon as possible, but the sanctity of journalism must be maintained and upheld.

Personally, I do not absolutely compromise on the First Amendment.  All speech, for me, is free speech and I treat the freedom of the press as something that is holy and Trump’s condemnation of the institution is blasphemy.  Many other world-leading countries don’t have absolute freedom of the press and, as an American, its an institution I uphold as being American and necessity for this country to operate.

That being said, the press can be scrutinized or questioned when it does come to issues of credibility.  Wolff’s unsubstantiated and unverified reports certainly do merit some investigation and discussion.  However, outright banning books or news reports because they may critical of this country’s leader and their administration is absolutely wrong and un-American.

The First Amendment is under attack and not just from Trump.  On the day of the book’s advanced release, a popular twitter account published a parody excerpt of the book.   In the excerpt, an unnamed administration insider claimed his team edited gorilla footage to create a 24-hour closed circuit channel for Trump to watch and even suggested that he watches it 17 hours a day, four inches away from the screen, and talks to the gorillas on TV.  Though the author stated it was a parody, the content is so ridiculous that it should be blatantly obvious that the excerpt is satire.  However, this country is so desperate to believe any reason to remove Trump that many people didn’t realize the excerpt was a work of political satire.

That parody excerpt was shared all over social media.  I read through reactions and comments.  Many appreciated the humor while others were wondering if what they were reading was really true.  However, I read one reaction that made me angry.  Farhad Manjoo, a current contributor to The New York Times, said in a Tweet “don’t tweet screenshots of fake text (of book excerpts, court transcripts, etc.) even as a joke.  You’re making things worse.  The jokes just don’t work in a partisan-echo-chamber-feed world where everything is divorced from context and authorship.”

This is the end of satire, I thought.  I felt Manjoo’s comment was so dangerous and irresponsible especially coming from a member of the press who embodies the principles inherent in the First Amendment.  Not only do we have a political administration attempting to discredit and destroy this country’s freedom of the press, we have an actual member of the press telling us there are times where we’re not allowed to have satire.

I love satire and I hold it close to my heart as sacred. Not only as a firm believer in the First Amendment, but also as a tool.  Laughing in the devil’s face is what takes away his power.  Fear is what makes him unstoppable.  When we fear our leaders and our oppressors, we give them power over ourselves that furthers their tyranny.  However, when chip away at their power and ego with laughter and comical ridicule, they become weaker and we can overthrow them.  That is what makes satire such an important tool.

Fake news and Russian influencing social media during the 2016 presidential election are still major problems this country has to sort out.  I fully understand how misinformation, distributed across all the platforms, can influence people who do not know better.  When Trump claims the nuclear button on his desk is bigger than Kim Jong-un’s, I realize there are some people so uneducated and out of the loop that they believe there is in actual button on Trump’s desk that the cleaning lady can accidentally brush up against and initiate nuclear Armageddon.  I get that, but let’s not use that as an excuse.

By claiming that we can’t have satire because a small percentage of Trump voters cannot, or probably will not, distinguish between satire and reality thus fueling their own echo chamber is no reason why we should stop laughing in the devil’s face.  Our First Amendment freedoms will not go away overnight.  They cannot go away overnight.  However, it can be slowly chipped away.  Trump has been lambasting the media for years.  Silencing your biggest critics is a game of inches and Trump knows that game.  Repeat a lie enough and, eventually, people will believe it.  Start making excuses why satire should be forgone temporarily and we’ll lose all eventually along with other Frist Amendment freedoms.

Manjoo’s comments were well-intentioned, but dangerous.  I went back and thought about all the great pieces of satire in the in the modern age.  I grew up with Jon Stewart and The Daily Show.  I loved that Stephen Colbert was asked to speak during the White House Correspondent’s Dinner in 2006.  Even before my time, there are moments of satire that stand the test of time.  Charlie Chaplin’s gripping condemnation and ridicule of Hitler in The Great Dictator is timeless.  Even the speech in that film resonates today, and that movie came out DURING World War II.  I know a fake excerpt about a gorilla television network is no Chaplin piece, but it still represents the value and impact of satire.

I went back and listened to some of my favorite protest and political satire songs over the weekend.  Doing so, I rediscovered my love for Spike Jones.  In 1942, Spike Jones and His City Slickers recorded a version of “Der Fuehrer’s Face.”  The song was a reworking of “The Nazi Song” written by Oliver Wallace.  Parodying the German tune “Horst Wessel Song,” Jones’ rendition contains hilarious cartoon sound effects and tongue-in-cheek “Heil” salutes aimed at ridiculing and offending Nazis.

The song is sung from the voice of a satirical Nazi soldier.  When he declares “der Fuehrer says we is de master race” and “not to love der Fuehrer is a great disgrace,” the backing band offers a “Heil” followed by a rubber razzer “pfft” kiss-off and a birdaphone (an instrument with a name coined by Jones) sound effect that deflates any sense of Nazi superiority and reduces them to buffoons.  Even a soloist uses a feminine affectation of their voice declaring that the Nazis are “super-duper Supermen.”  The song is incredibly funny in its lyrics and delivery.  And though sung from the perspective of a cartoon Nazi, I doubt anyone was confused about its intent when released.

A version of the song would be later used in a Walt Disney cartoon by the same name in 1943.  Though Disney was a notorious anti-Semite and had some Nazi leanings, the cartoon was a harsh condemnation against the evil superpower while World War II was raging.  The cartoon features Donald Duck experiencing a nightmare where he is working in a Nazi factory producing artillery shells and propaganda.  When he wakes up from this nightmare, he is grateful that he is a citizen of the United States where he doesn’t have to live in a dictatorship dystopia.  The cartoon ends with a caricature of Hitler’s face a tomato being thrown at it.

While World War II is a huge milestone and the current administration’s autocratic leanings are nowhere near Hitler-like levels (yet), my point remains the same.  While Manjoo claims that fake news and the current state of our echo chamber are reasons why we must be careful with the creation and distribution of satire, there were times when this country’s livelihood was more at risk but we still stuck it to the forces of evil with some well-utilized satire (and perhaps a little pro-American propaganda disguised as satire).  Trump is no devil, but he sure is an evil man.  Therefore, we need satire to deflate this blowhard as much as we can until he leaves office in disgrace.

“feels like home” – bonnie raitt (1996)

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New Year’s Eve for me was spent asleep.  I was in Kentucky while my friends all over the country and world were celebrating the end of a monstrously shitty year.  I cannot remember that last time I didn’t stay up for New Years.  I must’ve been a kid.  In recent years, I’m either celebrating with friends or family or travelling.  Either way, I’ve always been up to see that clocks change.

I slept through New Year’s Eve because I had to drive a rental car over an hour to get the Cincinnati airport and I had to leave the house at 3:30 AM to catch my flight.  Most people I know would’ve just stayed up to party, drink a gallon of coffee, and not give a damn before making that trip.  Not me.  Since moving to Chicago, I don’t drive anymore.  So, its very rare when I get behind the wheel.  I wanted to be somewhat rested before speeding down the interstate avoiding potential drunk drivers and an increased state police presence.

I was celebrating New Years in Kentucky because my former stepmother was getting remarried.  She had divorced my father earlier in the year and was marrying a close friend she had known for 15 years.  Even though she is legally not my stepmother anymore, I still think of her as one.  She has been a part of my life for 16 years.  That’s not a relationship you can easily change.

She told me the news about the wedding when I was visiting for Thanksgiving.  The wedding was going to be a quiet affair with family and close friends.  The ceremony was going to be conducted in the house in the front room by the fireplace.  I had already booked my flight for the Christmas holiday just prior to my Thanksgiving trip.  It was only a few days extra in Kentucky, so I was going to make the effort to attend.  After some discussion (and some raised voices) with my airline over my ticketing, I was able to get my flight changed for a price that wasn’t gouging.

The only downside to this trip was that I was leaving really early on New Year’s Day.  So, naturally, no one would be willing or able to take me to and from the airport (especially the day after a wedding).  My celebrations would have to be limited and revolve around my travel schedule. However, at least I could attend.

Prior to the trip, I had some worries.  There was some family drama and hurt feelings expressed about me attending my stepmother’s wedding that was taking place the same year as her divorce to my father.  Walking this fine line requires a delicate balance that takes everyone’s feelings into account while also asserting myself as a grown adult who could make their own decisions.  Still, I experienced some anxiety regarding the matter.

Despite worries about the trip, I had an excellent time and none of the uncomfortable discussions I envisioned would occur actually took place.  The days leading up the wedding were a weird blend of relaxing and eagerness to get back to Chicago and focus on my own needs.  For a while, I’ve been looking for a new job.  I’m currently employed, but I want a change.  For a while, despite my best efforts, I’ve been getting a lot of rejections.  While they sting, I am ultimately looking forward and staying motivated to make that change.  However, the holiday season is notoriously slow with people taking leave and offices shutting down.  It is a period of time where one who is demanding action must force themselves to have some patience and let things work out in their own time naturally.

Between the anxiety I felt before the trip and the anxiety I was feeling about what happens after the trip, I was in a weird flux.  The relaxation and downtime was good, but I’m not used to how much downtime I had.  I was in Kentucky for eight days excluding travel days.  That’s a long time for me.  Most people would’ve made the most of it and forgot about all their cares and worries.  And, for the most part, I did.  However, I still had one active goal that I needed to complete after the New Year.

I met with friends and family I haven’t seen in a while.  And all of them would ask me about my life in Chicago.  They were happy to hear I have a pretty good and independent life and that I have a lot of things going for me such as my friends and volunteering.  They would also discuss with me about what was next and I would tell them about my job ambitions and about a few opportunities I was equally excited and anxious about securing.  So, I couldn’t get all of this out of my head even if I tried because it was a frequent topic of discussion.

The evening before I leave was the New Year’s Eve wedding.  I was texting a friend earlier in the day strategizing on a follow-up plan reaching out to some people about some of the exciting opportunities I was pursuing.  A long time had passed for many of these, but I was still dwelling and thinking about them.  He told me that I shouldn’t waste so much mental energy on the topic and that the positions were likely filled anyway.  I hadn’t thought about it and I was shocked to have that thought in my mind.  I had spent so much time talking about these things and my plans and I didn’t stop to think about what would happen if they didn’t pan out.  Talking about it got me hopeful and a bit obsessed with it.  So, hearing that truth from my friend brought me back down to Earth. Hard.

As I was driving to my stepmother’s house wearing a really nice black pinstripe suit, I was thinking about rejection.  I’m 30.  I’ve been around the block a few times.  I can handle rejection for the most part.  However, sometimes it can still sting.  The funny thing is that I haven’t been rejected for anything.  The issue is that I applied for a job months ago, haven’t heard anything despite my best efforts, and I dwelled on it during a period of time where I didn’t have much going on because of the holidays.  Normally, I can shake these things off.  But this one stuck.

When I got to her house, it was obvious that my head was in a different space.  I was thinking about returning to Chicago and what my next steps were.  And that’s not a good mindset when you’re at a wedding and you should be enjoying yourself.  I was getting frustrated with myself because I only had so many hours to be here before I had to leave to get some shuteye before hitting the road.  I was supposed to be having fun, but I just wasn’t able to do so.

The man my stepmom was going to marry shortly noticed and asked me what was wrong.  I couldn’t believe it.  This was his wedding and I felt like such an asshole that I couldn’t have fun and that it was so obvious on my face that the groom, during his wedding, was wanting to find out why I was being a grump.  I shook it off and said that I was fine.  I just couldn’t bring myself to vent to this guy on his wedding day.  I left the room to get away from people and be on my own for a bit.

I sat in the den alone in the lower part of the house with my glass of wine.  Then, without warning, I just got really emotional and cried.  It is very rare for me to cry because that is not a typical way I express myself, so this was unexpected.  I’m someone who usually just holds things in and destresses at a later time. But, I couldn’t control myself.  These bottled emotions just poured out.  The trip I was somewhat dreading due to family drama turned out really well, dealing with health stuff on my mother’s side, and my own dissatisfaction with finding a new job were all just things I carried with me.  Not having fun at this wedding and the groom wanting to talk about how I was feeling was the last straw.  Too many emotions and they had to come out.

The ceremony was happening soon, so I got myself cleaned up.  I felt pathetic walking back upstairs and assembling with everyone else.  My head hurt and I had a pit in my stomach.  I just didn’t feel well and I wanted to sleep.

Fortunately, all those feelings just suddenly disappeared when the ceremony started.  My stepmother walked through the room with her dark blue wedding dress and her hair done and she had the biggest smile on her face.  I hadn’t seen her smile like that in a long time.  Her husband had a huge smile too.  My little brothers were standing at the sides as ring bearers trying to fight back childish giggles.  The energy was happy, loving, and positive and it elevated my mood.

From when that ceremony started to when I had to leave, I had a great time.  It was great to see the couple exchange vows.  I took pictures of the ceremony and of the couples dancing afterward (I was the only single person there other than my little brothers).  The food was delicious and I ate a ton while also sneaking samples to the family dog.  I was feeling how I should’ve felt.  How I wanted to feel.  This was a feeling I could have if I just forgot about all the bullshit and live in the moment.

The song my stepmother walked out to was “Feels Like Home” by Bonnie Raitt.  Originally written by Randy Newman, the song has been covered dozens of times.  Raitt’s version was released in 1996 and included on the motion picture soundtrack for the John Travolta film Michael.  I remember over the summer ordering a copy of that CD from Discogs.  My stepmother was looking for a copy and the soundtrack wasn’t available to stream online, so I found a good used copy for her.  It is kind of funny how things come back to you like that.

The song is very much a wedding song.  It is a song about falling in love and finding comfort in your partner.  The world around them may be dark with breaking windows and sirens wailing in the night, but there’s warmth and light in the space they made for each other in their arms.  That’s a great image of living in the moment and appreciating what you have.  Things come and go.  We go through good and bad times.  However, the important thing to is take notice of what is valuable and important in your life.  And those are the things that make you appreciate what you have and not let darkness or negativity affect your enjoyment and appreciation.  I can honestly say I am working on these things and that things will get better.  The trick is to not be so hard on myself when things don’t work out and find solace in what I do have that does work out and continues to do so.

“this will be our year” – the zombies (1968)

This year, my office closed down for the last two weeks of the year. The purpose of this, as communicated to employees, was that we should take the time to refresh and come back after the New Years holiday reenergized and well-rested. However you spent these two weeks, whether it was resting home alone on a staycation watching the snow fall with a warm cup or tea or running around with family, this was meant to be your time to recharge your batteries and for personal reflection.

I spent my first week in Chicago just relaxing and currently, in the second week, am in Kentucky visiting family and friends. It has been fun with a little bit of holiday craziness mixed in, but I did take a lot of time for personal reflection.

When I do take time to reflect on my life and the people around me, I consider a few things. I take into account what I need and want in my life and work on steps I can accomplish to achieve those things. I have very clear goals for 2018 and I know exactly what I need to do to achieve them. It is just a matter of time and patience before that happens.

While working on my own goals that are only relevant to me is great for self-care, personal growth, and emotional development, it is a very insular and singular goal. Taking the time to improve your own life and health is an extremely valuable and underappreciated thing. However, despite that, it is still important to think about others.

The other thing I think about during these times of reflection are the bigger things that seem out of my control that affect the lives of millions of people. Specifically, how the decisions of powerful men in government affect the lives of everyone in the country with the brunt of those decision having negative consequences on women, LGBT, and people of color. 2017 was a difficult year for all of us, but more so for them. So, what will 2018 bring?

2016 saw the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States after a long and brutal campaign against one of the qualified candidates in history who just happened to be a woman. The remainder of the year seemed bleak to the millions of people who voted to keep a racist and fascist out of the White House. While Trump wouldn’t be inaugurated until January, the transition was still problematic and we were all left wondering.

The whole world wondered what would come from this turning page of history. I had no idea. Last year’s New Years song blog post asked that question with Donna Fargo’s “What Will the New Gear Bring?” As it turned out, it brought a lot of bad. Between racist airport bans, a Russian collusion investigation, neglect of American territory ravaged by hurricanes, a tax bill that only benefits corporations, and so much more, we’re left wondering what is next.

There’s no way around it. 2017 was a hard year. If you weren’t a rich white man, it was even harder. Everyone wanted to get through this year so fast. With the constant news alerts of how terrible our leaders are, the news cycle seemed to simultaneously slow and speed time. It was a tedious trial.

However, 2017 had a few good moments. We’re watching Trump prove that he is an awful leader which has finally shown some of his followers that he was nothing more than a con man. There were also amazing victories in local elections where women, people of color, and transgender people defeated the status quo of bad white men. Even in Alabama, in the most contested election of the year, a democrat defeated a racist pedophile in a special election for the senate.

For the latter, we can thank women of color for that one. They came out to the polls despite all efforts to suppress their vote. That’s one of several inspiring stories of people rising up that did come out of 2017. From the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration to now, people are getting civically energized and engaging with government in ways that we desperately need; with leaders who are younger, economically diverse, and from all racial and gender backgrounds.

2018 will be another trial year. However, we have midterm elections in November. And that is giving a lot of people hope. The 2018 midterms will be this country’s first opportunity to see just how well this surge of political uprising has worked. Protesting in the streets is one thing, but turning that anger and passion and actionable government change is a whole other challenge. Will November be a turning point fueled by women and people of color who have had enough? I certainly hope so.

And it is hope that is important here. New Years is a significant event that can motivate people to start fresh and new. To focus on things you want to change for yourself or other around you. And here’s your opportunity to work towards those changes.

Even though 2017 was a garbage fire of a year, I can’t help but still be hopeful that 2018 is when we can really turn things around. To make 2018 one for the history books. To make 2018 where women and people of color lead the way that save this country from the brink of destruction. November is a long time from now, so keeping that momentum going is more important now than ever before. And I’m hopeful that we can do it.

That’s why I wanted this week’s song celebrating New Years to be hopeful instead of bleak. I wanted to set a tone for 2018 as opposed to finding a depressing song that reflected a difficult year. And I found that in “This Will Be Our Year” from the the Zombies’ 1968 classic Odyssey and Oracle.

“This Will Be Our Year” is a short and sweet tune about love bringing two people out of the darkness. For them, it took a long time to come so they could get back into the light. And in that light from the sun’s warmth, they know that this will be their year.

I couldn’t think of a better song for this New Years. 2017 was harder and darker than anyone could’ve imagined. However, 2018 offers a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel. With enough hope and hard work, we can get to that light together, illuminate our lives, and make 2018 our year.

“santa claus is a black man” – akim & the teddy vann production company (1973)

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I love Christmas.  The snow is magical and I love spending time with family and eating Christmas treats.  However, a lot of people can be cynical about Christmas.  Whether it is the fictional “War on Christmas” or that one friend who puts it down as a being nothing more than a holiday celebrating capitalism, it can be a very polarizing holiday.  And, perhaps, the most polarizing aspect of the holiday season is Christmas music.

Christmas music manages to be something that both delights and annoys people every winter.  For some people, it seems that Christmas music comes on the radio earlier and earlier each year.  They even proclaim that Christmas music has no place until Thanksgiving is over.  Others might complain that the same old songs they play every year are annoying and that Baby Boomers who control a nostalgia-driven media market don’t allow for the inclusion of fresher Christmas songs.  They wonder aloud why “Wonderful Christmastime” or “Last Christmas” get played repeatedly and the soundtrack never changes.  Or, if you’re like one of my ex-girlfriends, you hate all the Christmas pop staples and only prefer the holiday standards from the likes of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.

Needless to say, everyone has an opinion on Christmas music.  It is just so pervasive this time of year that you cannot ignore it.  Even people who don’t celebrate Christmas or don’t normally listen to the radio have strong opinions about being inundated with Christmas music.  It is just so big a presence that you cannot possibly escape it and, therefore, have strong opinions on it.

For me, I love Christmas music.  I enjoy all Christmas.  From the American songbook standards to the religious choir pieces and to, especially, the novelty songs, I like a mixed bag of Christmas songs.  I want my Christmas playlist long and broad.  I want everything.  Even though I don’t want any gifts on a holiday where gift-giving is standard, I want all the Christmas song.

And for those naysayers…

“What about them playing Christmas music before Thanksgiving?”

“What else are they gonna play?  Thanksgiving songs?”

“There’s a lot of great Christmas song out there that don’t make it to the radio.  What about the new Christmas songs?”

“Throw your radio away and look on the Internet.”

“I hate certain types of Christmas songs.  Why should I have to hear them at the grocery store?”

“Stay inside, never leave, and be comforted by your limited tastes.”

And so, like Elton John, step into Christmas with me!  Just leave your Christmas music complaints at the door.

While I love all kinds of Christmas music, I do have my favorites.  For one, I love songs that shake the status quo and make certain types of stuffy, conservative white people uncomfortable.  And of all the radio-friendly songs (radio-friendly because as much as I love “Home Christmas” by Pansy Division, you won’t find it on the airwaves in your Grandma’s Buick) that are guaranteed to ruffle some conservative feathers, the 1973 soul classic “Santa Claus Is a Black Man” by Akim & The Teddy Vann Production Company is one my favorites.

Teddy Vann wrote and produced this song as a black response to the Christmas staple “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”  While that song can be fun depending on the performer, “Santa Claus Is a Black Man” makes a profound statement by attaching an identity to the narrative.  And that is incredibly important.  While tons of Christmas songs make mention of Santa’s iconic suit, beard, and weight, the classic image of Santa Claus is always interpreted as white.  I can’t think of any songs that specifically say the fictional gift-giver is Caucasian, but it ends up being the case.

Today, when Santa Claus is depicted as being a race other than white, it causes an uproar from people who see themselves as Christmas traditionalists of purists.  And this is because that the image of Santa has been implied as white in our media.  Even though he is a fictional character, changing his race causes problems for some people.

Given that Trump has emboldened racists and white supremacists in this country, we need songs like “Santa Claus Is a Black Man.”  We need more anthems that create an identity for marginalized people.  We need to popularize and elevate those anthems beyond being considered camp or novelty records.  We need to make it ok for the children of marginalized people to craft a symbol of joy and giving in an image that appeals to them.  While letting people win the argument that Santa must be white doesn’t cause bloodshed or direct violence, the impact it has on our society is detrimental to the visibility of people of color.

Beyond the statement “Santa Claus Is a Black Man” makes by connecting a cultural identity, the song is also just really adorable.  Vann’s five-year-old daughter, Akim, sings the vocals. And while “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” focuses on infidelity, “Santa Claus Is a Black Man” is a song of pride.  Akim sees Santa, unaware that it is her dad, and is proud of how Santa Claus is handsome and strong and black like her father.  There is pride there that builds respect in an identity as opposed to being a song about a stupid tattletale.

So, this Christmas, blast “Santa Claus Is a Black Man” as loud as you can.  Make a statement this holiday season and let square friends and family know that you don’t give a shit about a white Santa or lame traditions.  You’re making your Christmas represent what you believe.  And if spreading joy and cheer means changing Santa’s skin color, make him bigger and blacker than any Santa before him!

“new york groove” – hello (1975)

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This past weekend, I flew out to New York City.  I was to spend five days exploring as much as I could and I flew out on my 30th birthday.  The idea was to treat myself and take some time to reflect and enjoy my life.  And I did just that.  I had an excellent time.  Though I was fighting a bit of a cold, I was out and about everyday walking upwards of 13 miles a day exploring the city and what it means to be young and alive.  The weather was sunny and warm for December and everything fell into place perfectly.

It didn’t dawn on me until I was flying back to Chicago just how much the specter of Death directed the course of my trip.  This was amusing to me.  I booked this trip to celebrate life, take time to personally reflect on what has happened to bring me to this point, and focus on my path ahead and what comes out of the unknown.  The irony of this was just too rich.

Let’s break down just how much I was walking along with ghosts:

Thursday

I land at LaGuardia airport and only have a few hours in the evening to kill. I wanted to see the World Trade Center memorial at night and this was the best time to do it during my trip.  The last time I was in New York City, the memorial and One World Trade Center (Freedom Tower) were under construction.  Now, the area is a gorgeous plaza with the two reflecting pools, the 9/11 Museum & Memorial, and Freedom Tower.

That evening, I slowly walked around both reflecting pools casually looking at the names of the people murdered in the 9/11 attacks.  Some of the names had a white rose sticking out of the etching.  I saw on a nearby note sign that the roses were placed there to signify it was that person’s birthday.  It was my birthday as well and I was looking at the names of the people who shared the same date of birth.

While walking along the pools, I came across Betty Ann Ong’s name.  I knew that name.  I didn’t know her personally, but I had listened to her recordings from Flight 11 a few dozen times.  She was a flight attendant.  She is only one of a few people I can name who had perished in the attacks.  I didn’t personally know anyone, but some stories just stuck with me.  Hers most of all.  I didn’t seek her name, but something guided me to turn my head and see her name.  The light shining beneath the etchings and glowing.  It was too much for me and I left soon after.

Friday

This was my first full day in the city.  My first stop was Battery Park to see the Statue of Liberty over the horizon.  When I booked my trip a month prior, all the tours of the statue’s pedestal and crown were booked.  So, I didn’t have a need to go there.  Along the way, I saw a heart-wrenching statue memorial to the millions of immigrants that passed through Ellis Island.  Their emaciated faces showed joy, pain, grief, and jubilation as they reached the promised land.

I sat on a bench looking at Lady Liberty and thought about the duality of America.  The reality is that there are two Americas; one that is promised and the reality.  Many people have risk or continue to risk their lives to come to this country.  Historically, America has been a shining beacon welcoming the tired, poor huddled masses.  Freedom’s light shows them the path to pursue the limits of their own happiness and self-determination.  This is a lie.

The idea of America should be what it needs to be for those who need it most.  However, what many immigrants find are nationalists who turn them away, often with violence.  They are forced back or face adversity in the form of discrimination and abject poverty.  They continue to struggle and perish.  Sure, a lot of immigrants have found success and great lives in this country.  However, this nation is more polarized than ever with a government that is banning certain types of people from coming.  That very action betrays what it means to be an American.  I couldn’t help but think of all the lives America’s lies have damaged or destroyed.  We’ve disappointed those who founded this country and those who seek refuge in it.  I saw this in the faces of the people in that statue.

Later in the day, I returned to the 9/11 memorial and visited the museum on the grounds.  The museum is underground and you walk the space where the Twin Towers’ foundations were and the excavation around them.  This was one of the first places I had included in my itinerary to visit.  The attacks on September 11, 2001 is arguably the most significant event of my lifetime based on the fallout and course of world and social politics that followed thereafter.  It defines my world so much that I cannot even imagine where I would be if they didn’t happen.

Visiting the museum, you see the remnants of the destruction.  The original foundation is visible, in the main area sits a burnt and melted fire truck, and a staircase that was integral to the survival of some people escaping from the towers.   Walking through the museum, on display were a couple of steel beams.  I read the plaque and it said these beams were the exact impact point of the first plane.  They were twisted and bent.  The beams looked more like a modern art masterpiece.

Standing by the beams was a docent.  An older man, maybe in his 60s, with a large gut.  He had an air of authority and sadness surrounding him.  I asked him if he knew anyone who was lost in the attacks.  He chuckled slighted and aid yeah.  He then told me he was the sole survivor from his firefighting regiment.  All his comrades passed.  He also had friends in other regiments who died too.  Plus, he lost an uncle on Flight 93.  In total, he knew 85 people who died in the attacks.  I couldn’t imagine what it must feel like with that resting on your shoulders standing next to the exact point of impact.

Later that day, I was venturing back to Times Square and Rockefeller Center.  I was there the previous night to see the sites at night, but I wanted to see them during the day.  Then, I remembered that it was December 8th.  The day that marked the anniversary John Lennon was shot to death at the hands of deranged ex-fan Mark David Chapman.  Lennon has a portion of Central Park dedicated to him called Strawberry Fields.  Of all days, I had to be there.

I took the train to Strawberry Fields.  A large gather was there surrounding the iconic “Imagine” mosaic.  Some people had instruments and everyone joined together singing various Beatles and Lennon solo tunes.  When I got there, they were performing the Beatles classic “In My Life.”  I people watched for a bit and before the sun fully set, I walked across the street to the Dakota.  Lennon resided there with his family and he was shot to death right in front of the building.  Some people were there taking photos and lighting candles.  I was looking for the spot where he lay.  I don’t know what I expected to find, but I scanned the area.  I don’t think I found it, but it doesn’t matter.  I couldn’t believe I almost forgot about the date.  I would be remised if I didn’t go to Strawberry Fields on that day.

Saturday

Snow finally hit New York City.  The city was expecting three to six inches of snowfall.  It came down the whole day and the city was draped in a comforting gray fog that consumed everything.  You couldn’t see where the ground ended and sky began.  It was comforting.

The first stop that day was to see President Grant’s tomb in Riverside Park.  I had never seen where a president was buried before and I knew it would be a quick visit before I ventured into the seemingly endless Central Park.

Snow was falling fat and heavy as I approached the mausoleum.  It was bigger than I expected.  Inside the rotunda was a viewing area into the crypt where President Grant and his wife lay in giant black marble coffins.  Busts of the man surrounded the coffins.  I was only there for about 10 minutes, but it was a thrilling site.  The opulence of it was breathtaking.

Grant’s tomb wasn’t the only memorial I sought out that day. I was going to spend the days and explore the entire length of Central Park as best I could.  My last stop, near the southwest corner of the park, was the Balto memorial.  Having spent a lot of years in Alaska, I have an affinity for the place.  I love Alaskan things.  And hardly anything is more Alaskan than a hero sled dog.  Anchorage is the only other place that has a statute celebrating Balto, but it isn’t that exciting.  It doesn’t really depict him but rather just a general sled dog.  The one in Central Park was THE Balto.  It took me a few hours to get to the memorial, but it was worth it to see a tribute to a true Alaskan legend.

Though I was covered with windblown snow, I wasn’t done with my outdoor adventures.  Next stop was Roosevelt Island to see an abandoned smallpox hospital.  The weather was rough and the landscape of Roosevelt Island reflected that.  The further I walked away from the train station, the more isolated things became.  I didn’t see many people.  The landscape was pure white and match the gray-white sky.  Th hospital was fascinating to observe.  It is a crumbling structure that is incredibly dangerous, so it is fenced off.  However, it sits adjacent to a park commemorating President Franklin Roosevelt and will later see some additional development.  It is amazing that is hasn’t been town down.  I hope it stay because it is truly an amazing thing to see quietly snug in a city that is always changing and developing.

On my way to the smallpox hospital, I looked across the way to Manhattan as I passed the Queensboro Bridge.  Something looked eerily familiar. Then, I remember the iconic shot of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton sitting on a bench for Allen’s film Manhattan.  I googled the location of the bench and I was on the wrong side.  Oh well.  I’ll find it when I make it back.

Getting back to Manhattan, finding this spot was an impromptu addition to my trip.  I had to go out of my way to find it but, luckily, I had time before the next item on my schedule.  With the help of my map app, I was able to find Sutton Place Park North which contained some benches overlooking the water.  Googling some articles about finding the bench location, I learned that the area had been redeveloped frequently since 1979 which makes sense.  This meant that the original location of the bench shot is long gone.  However, an article I found told me that this park was the best option to recreate the shot.  It was still windy and snow and the park didn’t see a lot of traffic.  Fortunately, there were two women there who helped take a photo of me sitting on the bench gazing out at the Queensboro Bridge. The area had changed, but enough of its legacy was there for me to make a kickass photo.  Social media can certainly make one vain.

Sunday

This day was a music history tour.  I was going to spend the day finding important locations of New York City musical landmarks.  This included famous venues, album cover locations, and other neat places.

My morning was spent finding the locations of five famous album covers.  They were An Innocent Man by Billy Joel, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan by Bob Dylan, After the Gold Rush by Neil Young, Physical Graffiti by Led Zeppelin, and Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys.  In the spirit of walking with ghosts during this trip, I faithfully recreated the covers of the first three albums.  For Zeppelin’s record, the building looked the same.  However, the business featured on the classic Beastie Boys album is long gone.  It is currently a restaurant, but there is a mural paying tribute to the legendary hip-hop tribute.  I liked that the current owners recognized the history.

During this album cover hunt, I made two pit stops.  First was the former site of CBGB.  I knew that the venue had been closed for several years, but I wanted to see the site.  Fans have etched the sidewalk with the name of the legendary rock club and the year it was founded.  Even though things change, it is always great to see some respect to history.  However, that would be the end of seeing touching tributes and homages to great musical history.

Shortly after Joe Strummer died, a mural of him went up on 7th Avenue.  I had found the location and included a visit in my itinerary.  However, I was unaware that the mural was repainted in 2013.  It was there for roughly a decade.  The Clash were one of my favorite bands growing up and this was the equivalent of visiting a holy site for me.  You can imagine the devastation I felt to see a sickly orange color where the mural should’ve been.  The Latin restaurant that owns the building painted over it.  I was crushed.  However, life moves on and so I should I.

I then ventured to Greenwich Village.  I had printed out information on a self-guided walking tour of over a dozen spots that were integral to the development of a blossoming young folk singer named Bob Dylan.  The tour started in Washington Square Park where Dylan would sometimes watch performers.  The tour then took me to places like the Bitter End, Café Wha?, and his former Townhouse.  While the Bitter End and café Wha? are still open, many of the sites were not.

I knew going into this that these sites would be closed.  A lot happens over 60 years and coffee houses and clubs can’t stay open forever.  However, what killed me was that there was nothing at any of these spots to signify the important of the location. I was gazing at a cheap Mexican restaurant and wrapping my head around that Bob Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” in there when it once was a coffee house.  Now it was a place that advertised it had one of New York’s six best margaritas with no plaque or sign or any indication that history was made there.  I was so disappointed.  I accept change.  But when people ignore or forget history, it is a hard thing to accept that everything is temporary and will fade.

The last remnant of Death on this day involved me seeing Walter De Maria’s New York Earth Room.  It is a 3,600-sq. ft. room that houses 280,000 pounds of dirt.  I had a lot of questions.  I asked if there is any vegetation. The docent told me that stuff used to grow years ago, but they were all picked out.  The nutrients in the dirt have vanished a long time ago.  I went to New York to see dead dirt and I’m glad I didn’t pay for it.

Monday

On the last day of my trip, I had a few hours to enjoy the city before flying out.  I spent the morning on a guided tour of Bushwick’s thriving graffiti and street art scene.  After that was done, I had two important stops before I left for the airport.

Also in Bushwick is the legendary Daptone Records.  I first discovered Daptone when I got a copy of 100 Days, 100 Nights by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings.  That album changed my life and provided the soundtrack of my college years.  I’ve been a fan of Daptone for a decade now and I couldn’t miss an opportunity to see the building.

Both Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley, the leading figures of Daptone, passed away in the last year.  Seeing where they made their art also meant paying respect to their work and the success they found much too late in life.

I saw the building in all its decaying beauty.  The façade is tagged with graffiti and crumbling.  Shingles and paint falling off the sign.  The building had all the character of a dusty box of records you find in an attic.  It was perfect and I was in awe.

With me running out of time, I had one more stop.  Beastie Boys were one of the bands my dad forbid me to listen to while growing up.  I have found this was the case of many people in my generation.  Though the Beastie Boys matured as artists, our parents’ generation couldn’t get past the raucous frat boy persona that embodied when they first started.

Adam Yauch, also known as MCA, passed away in 2012.  I was crushed.  Since graduating high school and free from the shackles of parental supervision, Beastie Boys have become one of my favorite bands.  I loved their attitude and way they blended genres seamlessly to create something raw and authentic.

Last year, a city park in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood was renamed for Adam Yauch.  I have a friend who went there on the first day and beet Ad-Rock and Ben Stiller who were friends of Yauch.  I visited the park and listened to some choice Beastie Boys cuts for about an hour before having to leave for the airport.  It was quiet and peaceful with few visitors since most people were at work.  Considerably less celebrities than when my friend visited.

I texted my dad teasing him that I was visiting a park named after one of the members of a band he said I couldn’t listen to growing up.  He replied with a thumbs up emoji.  Sitting peacefully looking around the park listening to music was the best way to pay tribute to Yauch and end my trip.  I may have been walking with ghosts during my trip, but to end it peacefully enjoying life and its riches provided a rich balance and appreciation for being in that spot in that moment.  We may be surrounded by ghosts and specters of the past, but it only means we motivate ourselves to live life the best way we can.

“New York Groove” is a cheesy, but fun glam rock song written by Russ Ballard and first performed by Hello.  Hello recorded the single in 1975 for their debut album Keeps Us Off the Streets with a chugging clapping rhythm and a train whistle like harmonica.

The subject in the song is returning to New York after a year and falling back into is familiar groove to enjoy what he’s missed. He’s come back with a lady and fistful of cash to dance the night away.  The song is about return and the jubilation that comes with that.

After eight years, this was my return to New York City.  And I was doing it solo.  Doing it my way.  I set out to celebrate my life and create an experience that represented who I am and where I am going.  I learned a lot about myself by creating my own path inspired by those who walked their own before me.  I couldn’t have hoped for a better time to find my groove.  I feel so good and my best days are ahead of me.

“you’re my rose” – kitra williams (2003)

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December is a big month for film.  Studios and directors typically reserve December as a prime time to release films that they believe will be strong contenders for the biggest industry awards.  Much of this is due to the fact that they have eligibility requirements to meet, but also to keep films fresh in the minds of audiences and award committee representatives since many of these ceremonies are conducted in the first quarter of the year.  While culturally significant and critically-acclaimed films are released throughout the entire calendar year, the heavyweights usually follow this pattern.

Oftentimes, the big contenders released at the end of year are predominantly backed by major studios, have big name directors attached to them, or are serious dramas.  However, award shows always sneak in at least one dark horse release that has a strong chance of subverting the expected favorites and possibly winning the most coveted prizes.  That dark horse this year could be The Disaster Artist.

The latest directorial effort by James Franco, The Disaster Artist is a passion project of Franco’s, and fellow producers Seth Rogen’s and Evan Goldberg’s, that pays homage to one of their favorite films The RoomThe Room, directed by Tommy Wiseau and released in 2003, is often regarded as “the Citizen Kane of bad movies.”  Originally released in one theater and whose distribution was completely funded by its director, The Room initially only grossed $1,800 despite having a budget that exceeded $6 million.

However, since its release, the film has become a cult classic and generated a profit.  Midnight screenings around the world are held with Wiseau attending some throughout the year.  Much in the spirit of Rocky Horror Picture Show, seeing The Room in a theatre is an interactive experience as audiences will yell and throw objects (like spoons) at the screen.  What has been considered to be one of the worst films ever made has since become a global and cultural phenomenon that continues to amaze and bewilder audiences.  And the film’s inspiration could land Franco and company a Golden Globe or Academy Award.

For those unfamiliar with The Room, here is the breakdown.  Wiseau stars, produces, writes, and acts in his masterpiece where he plays Johnny, an all-American guy, who is soon to be wed to his beautiful fiancé Lisa.  Lisa, however, has been cheating on Johnny with Johnny’s best friend Mark.  Johnny ignores warnings from friends and signs of Lisa’s infidelity believing that he has an idyllic American life to be shared with Lisa.  The love triangle comes to a dramatic conclusion when Johnny, crushed by Lisa’s betrayal, chooses to end his own life.

The plot to Wiseau’s film is basic, but it is his tribute to great American cinema and the emotional performances from the likes of James Dean and Marlon Brando.  While there is a limitless number of melodramatic bombs that have circulated around Hollywood, The Room has surpassed them all.  Personally, this can be attributed to the man that is Tommy Wiseau.

Tommy Wiseau is a mysterious figure who had befriended Greg Sestero, the actor who played Mark, in an acting workshop. Sestero documents this in his book on the making of The Room entitled The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside the Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made.  In this book, Sestero recounts his strange interactions with Wiseau both on and off set.  To anyone who met Wiseau, it was clear that he was not the all-American hero he projected himself as.  Wiseau was older and from a country of indeterminate origin, but still tried to convince people he was young and from New Orleans.  To this day, it hasn’t been confirmed how old Wiseau is or where he is from though it is speculated he is in his 50s and from Poland.

While making The Room, it became clear to the cast and crew that they were working on an ego-trip of a movie that would never be seen.  Wiseau clearly didn’t know how to make a movie and ignored basic filmmaking principles.  The performances are wooden, plot holes are rampant throughout, characters are never seen again, and the writing is stilted.  This was objectively a bad film that was not meant to be a success.

However, it has become a huge success due to Tommy Wiseau’s drive, creepy image, and bizarre performance.  His odd non-sequiturs, random emotional outbursts, and bewildering dialogue are unintentionally funny.  Wiseau’s intended drama became an accidental commentary that can be interpreted as being so meta that one could argue a brilliant film was made born from Dadaist tradition.

The Room and what transpired has become legend with top-tier actors and directors claiming that they would’ve loved to have been on the set to witness the performance art that was the making of The Room.  Sestero capitalized on this with his book which became the basis for Franco’s film adaptation.

I saw the Disaster Artist last night at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago.  Upon seeing the initial trailer over the summer, I knew I had to see this movie.  Unfortunately, I hadn’t seen or read the source material yet.  I knew The Room existed, but I avoided it.  While I really love bad cinema, this movie didn’t appeal to me because of the cult following.  I knew I could’ve gone to any of the midnight screenings that are held every other month in Chicago, but it didn’t appeal to me.  If a bad movie has a reputation in its own right without fanfare, I’ll see it.  But with costumes and interactive participation, it becomes less about the film.  It is almost as if the film is background noise which is not how I want to experience a movie.

I knew I would have to buckle down and experience everything about The Room to mentally prepare myself for The Disaster Artist.  Within a few weeks, I had seen the original film, participated in a midnight screening, and read Sestero’s book.  The movie was bad, it wasn’t the worst movie ever made as suggested.  It isn’t even the best worst movie ever made.  I’m glad I watched it and I found it laughable and entertaining, but I was skeptical about the hyperbolic assessments I had hear about the film.  The midnight screening was fun.  I’ve participated in interactive screenings for Rocky Horror Picture Show many times.  I’m glad this wasn’t the first time I had seen the film because I couldn’t hear anything over the laughter and screaming that made Rocky Horror seem tame by audience standards.

Finally, I read the book which I loved.  It conveyed the tension, anger, and frustration felt on the set rather well.  Like others, it made me wish I was on set just for the experience.  Alas, hindsight is 20/20.  But, the book stands out rather well on its own even if you’ve never seen the film.

With all that prep work finished, I was ready for The Disaster Artist.  And I really enjoyed it.  I don’t consider it the best film of the year, but it deserves the same company as the other films that deserve that moniker.  Some scenes stood out as unnecessary while pertinent details from the book were left ignored.  However, the way the narrative was crafted and the inclusion of various reference and in-jokes really show that this was a labor of love by true fans of Wiseau’s masterpiece.

The most uncomfortable scenes in the movie are the soft-core sex scenes.  And it was clear both in Sestero’s book and Franco’s film that these scenes were among the arduous to film because of Wiseau’s ability alienate and disturb cast, crew, and audiences.  There are four full-on sex scenes (and one oral sex scene) in the film.  They are at a length that would be more appropriate for a skin flick on HBO or Cinemax.  Wiseau would also be nude, show his ass multiple times on camera, and perform simulated intercourse that in no way resembled the actual method of love-making.

Again, it cannot be stressed enough that these scenes feel like soft-core pornography.  If the length, nudity, and soft focus didn’t convince you, then the music will.  R&B slow jams play during these scenes and sound like fair-use music that radio stations receive on sampler compilations (my college radio station received many CDs like this with all sorts of genres with each one sounding hacky and more appropriate for low-budget films or corporate training videos).  The tracks are performed by Clint Gamboa, Jarah Gibson, and Bell Johnson.  However, it is Kitra Williams’ “You’re My Rose” that stands out.

“You’re My Rose” is the best of the slow jams that appears in The Room.  It is remarkably cheesy with its repetitive, saccharine lyrics, it appears twice in the film with the reprise playing of the ending credits, and Williams is credited as being the co-producer for The Room’s official soundtrack.  Though Mladen Milićević’s, Loyola Marymount University music professor, original score is wonderfully tacky in its own right, it is Williams’ contribution that truly elevates the comedic factor of the music within the context of the film.  Other than contributing vocals to a René Moore’s 1988 LP Destination Love, Williams’ only musical project is this song.  Her contribution to Wiseau’s masterpiece is her legacy.

The film adaptation’s hype is driven primarily by “look how weird Wiseau is and how bad his movie is.”  I guess as it should be.  I’ve seen other films or documentaries about the making of classic films, but hardly of them focus on one particular individual.  The Disaster Artist stands out on its own.  However, despite the forced references and call backs, the film is worthy of buzz.  I anticipate the film will be nominated for awards for best adapted screenplay and best actor for James Franco.  I’m still processing the film.  And while it hasn’t secured a spot as my pick for best film of the year, it’s among the top.  There is considerable irony that Wiseau, once ridiculed and mocked, is getting the attention of Hollywood’s elite.  Only in America!

“this must be the place (naive melody)” – talking heads (1983)

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I turn 30 next week and I’m flying to New York City on my birthday to spend a few days in the Big Apple.  I booked this trip randomly as a spur of the moment type of thing.  A friend had posted that flights to NYC were only $80 on United and the timing felt right.

Making a random purchase like that is big for me.  I don’t usually spend money on things like flights without putting a ton of thought into it.  Really thinking about it for weeks or even months.  The reason is that money really stresses me out.  I don’t like spending it.  I make enough at my job to enjoy myself and I’m really good at saving money, so I’m not hurting financially.  However, I still hate spending money.

A few years ago, after a nasty break-up, I was flat broke.  I lost my job the same week as that break-up and worked low-paying temp jobs for the last half of the year.  I was scared.  I didn’t know what my future looked like.  I craved stability.

I got the idea in my head that the military was the answer (it was my dad who made one off-handed comment as something to consider).  I spent late summer of 2014 through late winter of 2015 preparing to become an officer in the Air Force.  The only thing driving me was that I wanted financial security and not have a job that I could just lose again.  I was also nursing a broke heart, so I wasn’t feeling great or thinking straight at all.  It was pure survival mode.

I spent my free time reading and studying the AFOQT (Air Force Officer Qualifying Test).  The Chicago Public Library had one copy of a testing guide for the AFOQT and I spent every night with it.  I would read through the concepts, test expectations, and run through practice tests.  Imagine it like studying for the SATs or ACTs, but you have additional sections that test navigation and other skills important to the United States Air Force.

I took the test January 2015 at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) in Rosemont sitting with 18 and 19-year-old kids.  I got the results a few weeks later and I did fairly well.  The next step, while working through my recruiter, involved getting physicals and working on job placement.  This is where things fell apart.

My career background is in media production and development.  So, upon reviewing all the potential career options in the Air Force, I decided the only thing I wanted to do was work as a Public Affairs officer.  Public Affairs deal with the media and broadcasting arm of the military.  They produce programs for the armed forces radio and television networks as well as work on public relations.

The one issue with this role is that there isn’t a lot of demand for it.  Openings are rare.  So, recruiters don’t usually like working with candidates with such a limited scope.  They have information on quotas and what is needed immediately.  So, they will do what they can to fill those quotas.  My recruiter wanted me to become a radar technician.  I fought that and said I wasn’t going to do anything other than Public Affairs.  Our relationship fizzled soon after.

That outcome was for the best.  By the time that happened, I was permanently hired at the company I am currently employed at. I have the freedom to pursue hobbies, volunteer opportunities, and social engagements with friends.  I also have the freedom to do what I want when I want.  Last year, I went to Europe on a two-week vacation.  I don’t think that could have been done that easily if I was in the military.

That whole Air Force pursuit was an odd experience that came out of fear.  Fear of being alone and destitute.  I’m in a much different place now.

A lot of people do big extravagant things for their milestone birthdays.  I always thought that was a silly thing to do.  My thinking was why wait for a milestone to do something big?  Why not do it whenever?  Before booking the flight, I used vacation time for my birthday and the day after.  So, I was already free.  And then, I saw that Facebook post about flights to NYC.  A good friend of mine named Jean always tells me to live in the moment and listen to the signs the universe is giving you.  I took her advice.

I don’t know exactly what I’m doing and the trip is next week.  And I’m doing my best to not worry about money.  I know I can afford this trip and I tell myself that.  I’ve gotten better at this.  I work very hard at trying not to let the past dictate my future.  I was broke a few years ago.  I’m not anymore.  I could be broke again someday.  Who knows?  But, I can’t let myself be afraid of hypothetical scenarios and my good friend Carolyn says I can’t live my life as a miser.  So, I’m doing this and it will be fun.

While I figure out what I’ll be doing, I’ve been in a New York mood regarding my reading material.  I have already decided that I’m taking Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids with me.  In the meantime, I’ve been reading Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever by Will Hermes.  Hermes was a teenager in New York during the 70s.  In the book, he chronicles all the major players and musical movements that originated or occurred from 1973 through 1977 including the rise of punk, the formation of disco, the salsa explosion, and heady origins of minimalist music.

Reading through this book, you get a strong feeling like you missed out on something.  These legendary artists like Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Grandmaster Flash, Willie Colon, and Steve Reich were doing big things and often with each other.  The book makes it seem like you couldn’t walk down the street without seeing a rising star.  New York City, despite the crippling economy and rising crime, was the hip place to be if you were young and loved music.  Sigh.

This book has really put me in the mood to explore the city as much as I can over the five days that I’m there.  I am someone who gets out there and walks all over the place seeing and doing and living as much as I can.  Reading this book prior to my trip has really taken my mind off the things the typically stress me out.  This book puts me in the mindset that I will go and have a great time.  And, you know what?  I know deep down that is true.  Sometimes I just need some help remembering that.

I love and adore many of the artists profiled in the book.  I own a few dozen Dylan album and almost all of Patti Smith’s studio releases.  Bruce Springsteen is someone I really appreciate having read his memoir.  I spent my high school days wearing Clash shirts declaring them “The Only Band That Matters.”  Television and the Stooges furthered my musical exploration during my college years.  And Grace Jones and Steve Reich have entered my life fairly recently, but have made significant impacts.

However, it is Talking Heads that stand out to me in this book.  I own one record of theirs (Fear of Music) and I don’t listen to them as much as the other artists I previously mentioned.  However, I feel a connection with them that I don’t quite understand.  They affect me on a different level that is primal and emotional.

When I listen to Fear of Music or Remain in Light, I’m enamored by their rhythms and New Wave world beat styles.  I want to dance.  I want to shed all the technological shackles of modern man and regress to being driven by a primitive musical desire.  When I listen to Talking Heads, I don’t think a lot.  I just feel.

There’s one song in their catalogue that just absolutely wrecks me.  “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” was released as a single for their 1983 studio album Speaking in Tongues.  According to David Byrne, the lyrics contain non-sequiturs that “may have a strong emotional resonance but don’t have any narrative qualities.”  Listening to these lyrics, I certainly experience that strong emotional resonance.  The lines are simple to understand and very relatable.  It evokes in me strong feelings of need, fear, lust, and confusion.  The song sounds both hopeful and devastating.  It represents a past self and future desire.  It appeals to a human side of me that has existed for thousands of years and free of our modern burdens.

When I listen to this song, a lot of images come to mind. I see my past and future selves.  I see moments that I lived, experience I could have had, imaginary settings with me in another time and another place, where I see my current self going, where I realistically expect my future self to be, and what my future self could have experienced if variations of my past self if they were allowed to blossom and continue.  Basically, a lot of what ifs that I shouldn’t be concerned with that come out when this song plays.  This song is very bad for someone who actively works to live more in the moment.

A few months ago, a friend and colleague at the community radio station I volunteer with, published his own account of this song.  His name is Tony Breed and he’s a well-known local comics illustrator who lost his partner Eric a few years ago after being together for 20 years.  He has published a few different web comics described as a “queer slice of life.”  However, this recently published work is his first autobiographical comic.

The comic, titled That Night: This Must Be the Place (Link), is a work that serves as an important part of his healing process.  In the comic, Breed goes out to a bar to have a few drinks and then quietly walks home. On his way home, he is listening to a cover of “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” by Kishi Bashi.  While listening to the song, Breed remembers the time they attended a wedding together and, a decade later, when he lost Eric.  Breed walks down the streets with the song’s lyrics appearing in the panel and Breed shedding a silent tear.  I haven’t experienced that particular pain Breed has gone through, but I have expressed my listening the same way.

I’m going on this trip next week.  I’m going to have a great time.  I will spend my time walking all over the place and seeing interesting things.  I will do so while living in the moment.  I will plan an itinerary, but allow myself some freedom to allow at least a little spontaneity.  I will think about my life and the good things that have happened along the way.  I will feel grateful to be alive.  I will appreciate this.  I will live in the moment the best way that I can.  I deserve this.  I deserve love and happiness.

“gratitude” – earth, wind & fire (1975)

Living in a big city like Chicago, it can be hard to be festive in the fall. A lot of the typical fall event staples like apple picking, corn mazes, and pumpkin patches are really only available outside of the city. Being someone with no car, that makes getting there difficult. Needless to say, I don’t get to those things every year but I’m excited that they are happening and that some people do get to enjoy those things. However, I find other ways to enjoy the season.

I am currently in Kentucky taking some much needed time off work. Today, I went to a local Methodist church to help my stepmom prepare a Thanksgiving meal. Even though the actual Thanksgiving holiday isn’t for another two days, she was in charge of a really special event.

For over 15 years, my stepmother has been teaching high school students with learning and behavioral issues. When I went to high school, these students were known among the general student population as the bad kids and went to a separate facility a few miles away. Admittedly, thinking that way was due to being younger and ignorant. Now that I’m older and have a better understanding of people and our education system, I no longer think of these students as “bad.”

When my high school got remodeled the year after I graduated, the separate facility was closed down and the students were moved into the main building. In the years since then, I’ve visited the classroom a few times and met the students my stepmother taught. I have even participated in some of their class discussions and exercises.

Prior to my stepmom being involved, I can’t say with any certainty how these classes were conducted or how students were taught. I have the feeling that maybe this environment could’ve been better. Since my stepmom became involved, I do know that there has been many improvements to the program which has ultimately impacted the lives of these students.

As mentioned, these students have behavioral and learning issues. And that is me just generalizing which isn’t exactly fair. Every individual student learns and grows differently, so referring to a group of students that learn independently of the general population as having “issues” doesn’t take into account the work they do and the progress they achieve. I’ll never stop being a student. I learn everyday and I’m learning on how to better describe these students. I’ll get there.

These are students that require a little more attention and help. Some, over the years, had developmental problems stemming from their parents’ drug and alcohol use. Many come from poorer environments which has impacted their education. And others lack the resources outside of school to enhance the education they are receiving in school. However, all of these students have the desire to make improvements in their lives. That’s why they are in that program.

A big part of what these students learn is how to recognize and handle their emotions. That when they face a challenge or obstacle, they can keep a clear head, solve the problem, and not make a mistake that could have severe consequences. This involves talking and being open about feelings as well as listening to people and being respectful of their experiences. These are key principles everyone must know to be successful in their lives. And it amazes me how many people in less marginalized or ridiculed settings don’t know that or choose to ignore it. So, when I see my stepmom’s students, I’m amazed at how hard they work to make the best of their situation and not fall into something more serious.

Today was a great example of that. The Thanksgiving meal my stepmom was coordinating was one that involved her students. For the last dozen of the 15 years she has taught this program, she has coordinated a Thanksgiving meal for the staff and students of this program. It first started in a small building on the high school’s grounds, but has now moved into the larger space of this church.

Every student has a job during this event. Some help my stepmother prepare food in the kitchen, a few prepare drinks and set tables, others handle greeting duty, and two were tasked with setting up a Christmas tree. Every student was dressed very well with the girls wearing nice outfits and the boys wearing shirts and ties. Everyone kept busy and did their job well.

This event is a big deal to them. For one, it showcases what they’ve been learning regarding handling emotions and being more successful members of society. This is a meal they plan and work together to organize. Even though they are the ones putting everything together, the event is about them and celebrating their efforts and accomplishments. This is their moment to show they can contribute to their community.

Secondly, this is a nice meal they can share with friends and family. One perk is that each student can invite their friends and family. As mentioned, many of these students come from poorer environments and likely don’t get to participate in large traditional Thanksgiving meals. So, this is one time where they can and be around people who love and support them and only want for them to succeed. The kids prepare the meal, serve the meal, and then get the opportunity to spend quality time with each other.

There was one touch to the whole event I found pretty remarkable. On each table, there were index cards with handwritten notes. Some of these included well-known quotes. However, most were notes about what the students were thankful for. I took some time to read the notes and talked to some of the kids preparing the event. It was great to hear them actually articulate their thoughts instead of getting “I don’t know” or “whatever” responses.

Prior to the actual dinner, the director of the program spoke for a few minutes about the history of the program and the success he has seen over the years. Then, he encouraged people to stand up and share what they were thankful for. It was mostly the students and a few teachers who shared their thoughts. And they were rather endearing. One student actually became really emotional and cried because she was so thankful for the opportunities she received in the program to turn her education, and her life, around. I took some time and observed the other students who didn’t speak up. No one was snickering or mocking anyone who shared their feelings. I was once a high school kid. I know how they act. I was very pleased to not see any childish behavior. Perhaps I would’ve seen that out of the students from the general population. But, they don’t have to work as hard as they kids do. They want this for themselves.

Thanksgiving is one of the rare holidays that I’ll do a themed post for this blog. So, the song of the week is “Gratitude” by Earth, Wind & Fire. Released in 1975 on a live album of the same name, this is a funky track that is about being thankful and giving love. There really isn’t a melody or standard verses and choruses. Just a funky jam with some real meaning; a meaning that is pure and simple.

Thanksgiving is all about being thankful for what you have and showing gratitude to the people around you who love and support you. I know that overall feeling can sound hokey and sentimental, but it is still important. Take into account the good things in your life and how they got to be there because things can change. Just have the strength to know that when changes come, you can be ready for them, and then be thankful you weathered it.

“out of the wilderness” – the como mamas (2014)

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Daptone Records came into my life a decade ago when I was in college.  I obtained my undergrad at a state school in southwestern Kentucky just an hour north of Nashville in a city called Bowling Green.  Bowling Green is a sizable city as far as Midwestern cities go.  It is the third largest city in Kentucky and coincidentally home to the third largest state university.  For its size, it still has a small town feel because of the university’s presence.  Bowling Green is a nice, quiet place to attend school or raise a family.

Bowling Green, however, is not a cultural hotbed.  The city is tucked between Nashville and Louisville which get more events and programs.  Though, there are elements that promote that value.  The university there strives to bring in more international students and increase its scope broadly through exchange and study abroad programs.  Cage the Elephant, which as seen a considerable amount of success recently, originated there.  And Corvettes, the classic American sports car, is manufactured there and maintaining its image as a homegrown icon.  Despite having a lot to offer, Bowling Green can leave a lot to be desired for someone looking for things below everyone’s radar.

That’s how I felt when I picked up my first Daptone Records release in 2007 from a small record store in Bowling Green.  It was 100 Days, 100 Nights, the third studio release from Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. It instantly became one of my favorite albums and I could not stop singing the praises of Sharon Jones or Daptone to my friends.

That album dropped at the beginning of my sophomore year of college and really defined the sound of my college years.  At that time, I was entering the second semester of my radio show Soul Food that aired on my college’s student radio station.  I love soul music and Soul Food was an outlet for me to express that.  The first semester went alright, but it had trouble finding its footing in terms of sound.  I ended up playing a lot of classics and threw in some songs that sounded awkward on a progressive college station.  But when I got into Daptone, I got the sound I was looking for and the connections to find similar record labels and artists.

Though I did expand to other independent soul labels like Numero Group, Daptone was my musical epicenter in those days.  I had all the early releases from Sharon Jones, the Sugarman 3, the Budos Band, and Antibalas.  No one else had these albums.  This was exciting stuff and I had to make sure everyone knew about.

I was an early adopter for Daptone and there were challenges associated with that.  I had fans of the show and some colleagues at my college radio station became really into what I was playing.  However, I did get a lot of resistance whenever I tried to speak the gospel of Daptone.

The strangest criticism I had about playing Daptone’s music, or any soul music, was that I could not be taken seriously because I was white.  I got this a lot from colleagues at the radio station a lot in the form of jokes and snide comments.  Just the fact I was white made my show somehow subpar or worthy of ridicule because the idea of me playing music by predominantly black artists was ridiculous to them.  Despite having a solid fan base and high performance evaluations from our quality assurance department, this was something I never managed to evade.

While producing this show, I was also on the stations Board of Directors.  We planned two charity concerts events during the year and strategized on artists, ways to promote, and the overall design and theme of the event.  I would also push really hard that we book Sharon Jones.  The response to this was typically lukewarm.  This issue, to them, was that they felt soul music was no longer relevant and that an act like Sharon Jones wouldn’t draw much of a crowd.  I would protest this.  Not only because we never had soul acts on the bill, but that Sharon Jones would become too big to book within a next year or two.  I had seen her perform live and her records were amazing.  The only way to go was up.  This suggestion would always get dismissed and the station would instead book acts like Freezepop (became the band appeared on the video game Rock Band which was popular at the time) or one-hit wonder Stacey Q to talk for a little bit on a Halloween-themed radio show.  Such a waste of money.

As I was nearing completing my undergrad, I just grew further away from that station.  I was more focused on my video production capstone, internship at Country Music Television in Nashville, and listening to music that I would make an impact.  It was also during the last year of my undergrad that my radio show Soul Food was no longer renewed.  The reasoning was that people didn’t care about soul music.  I didn’t care anymore.  I had dismissed the people around me at the station as idiots who couldn’t see that there was a larger world out there.  I was emotionally checking out.  I wanted to graduate, move, get a job, and surround myself with people I knew who got it.

As I was checking out and doing my own thing until graduation, Sharon Jones did indeed blow up the way I knew she would.  With the 2010 release of her album I Learned the Hard Way, her career was skyrocketing.  She was making appearances on shows like The Colbert Report and performing at massive festivals like Bonnaroo.  When the college station got the album, it was like pulling teeth to get the music director to put a track in rotation.  Eventually, they would just so I would get off their back.

Over the years, Daptone and its repertoire of artists only continued to grow in popularity.  Sharon Jones was the crown jewel of the label, but they also supported some of the hardest working and most entertaining artists on an independent label.  Charles Bradley, the Screaming Eagle of Soul, earned his way and ultimately finding happiness and success after a hard life.  The Budos Band and Antibalas brought their own aggressive form of funk to larger venues and festivals.  Daptone music started appearing in commercials, film, and television shows (Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings even performed in a Martin Scorsese movie).  Daptone was unstoppable.

Last week, I attended the opening night screening of the 9th annual Chicago International Movies and Music Festival (CIMMFest).  The featured documentary kicking off CIMMFest was the Chicago premiere of Living on Soul.  In the spirit of great music revue concert films like The Last Waltz and Monterey Pop, Living on Soul was a Daptone showcase piece.

The film featured performance recorded during a three-night revue at the Apollo Theater that was held in December 2014 to celebrate Daptone’s 20th anniversary.  This was an incredibly big deal.  No one had played a multi-night residency at the Apollo since James Brown in the 1970s.  Coming from their humbling beginnings in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Daptone had worked for two decades to get to this point.  And they deserved it.

The residency featured over 40 different musicians including performances from Daptone stalwarts such as Charles Bradley, the Budos Band, Antibalas, the Menahan Street Band, Saun & Starr, and Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens.  The film featured a performance form each band as well as behind-the-scene footage and interviews with them preparing at the Apollo or working at the Daptone studio.

Sharon Jones, the leading lady of Daptone, had two performances in the documentary kicking off the festivities as well as brining everything to a satisfying close.  At the time of the filming, she had just beaten cancer.  At the closing, she performed “Get Up and Get Out” from her latest album at the time Give the People What They Want.  She announced that the arrangement was changed from the studio release to give it some Tina Turner flair.  She performed the song spectacularly with the lively stage presence she was known for.  During the performance, she was shouting not unlike a southern preacher about her journey beating cancer and the joy she felt performing that evening at the Apollo.  It was an emotionally driven performance that filled me with absolute joy and brought tears to my eyes.

The film was emotional on a lot of levels.  First, it was great to see these incredibly talented musicians talk about their lives and their struggle to get to this point.  Secondly, both Charles Bradley and Sharon Jones passed away in the last year.  Both had found success very late in their lives after having difficult experiences.  Bradley spent a lot of his time on screen talking about never giving up on your dreams no matter how hard it gets.

Lastly, it was emotional for me personally because I had been a fan of Daptone for a decade.  Admittedly, I have strayed away a bit since my initial discovery.  Over the years, you discover new interests or get busy with jobs, relationships, or anything else life throws at your way.  Still, Daptone had been a big part of my life during formative years and still are one of the best record labels around.  Daptone consists of a group of people that struggled to get the success they absolutely deserved.  And I feel some pride in being an early fan of theirs (though they had technically been around for 13 years, they were still quite small in 2007).  I loved Daptone and I was passionate about them because I wanted to support and elevate these talented artists.  I’m not bitter about the resistance or ridicule I received early on about this.  It is merely just a part of my history with Daptone.  Besides, I ended up being right.  Daptone and artists like Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley became huge.  I’m not bitter, but I do feel validated.

While Sharon Jones’ closing performance was the highlight of the documentary, one performance continues to stick with me.  One of the first few performances in Living on Soul featured the Como Mamas.  The Como Mamas are a trio of a Capella gospel singers from the small town of Como, Mississippi.  Ester Mae Smith is powerful and raspy, Angela Taylor provides a deep soothing voice, and Della Daniels is the energetic voice of the group.  Together, they bring their story and experiences to gospel music and breathe new life into it.

The song they performed was “Out of the Wilderness,” a traditional gospel tune.  Their performance on Living on Soul was a Capella, but the recorded versions have a backing track.  It was initially released as a 45 single in 2014, but would appear on their second studio album Move Upstairs in 2017 with a whole new arrangement.  Before going into the song, the group projected pure energy and joy about their excitement performing at the historical and acclaimed Apollo Theatre.  They absolutely loved coming all the way from Mississippi to bring the people of Harlem to church.

Before their performance, there was footage of them backstage hanging with Sharon Jones.  They sung spirituals and offered their praises to Jesus for the opportunity to be a part of something truly special.  Much like the Sharon Jones’ and Charles Bradley’s history I can’t imagine that the women of the Como Mamas had an easy life.  However, they take every opportunity they can to feel joy and I find that so remarkable.

The provided an introduction in the film to “Out of Wilderness.”  Whether you were going through a divorce, illness, or other calamity, you must get through those trials because there is joy and relief when you overcome adversity.  When you emerge out of the wilderness, there is satisfaction and a love for life because you survived.  I really gravitated towards that message because it is something I forget sometimes.  I am here because I have survived and I didn’t quit.  And that means I need to take stock of the good things around me and appreciate them.  That’s the best thing anyone can do for themselves.